When I think back
On all the crap I learned in high school
It’s a wonder
I can think at all
And though my lack of education
Hasn’t hurt me none
I can read the writing on the wall
Kodachrome, by Paul Simon
It’s time to fish, or cut bait.
The events in Wisconsin this week are emblematic of a serious turning point that many states now find themselves in. For quite sometime, public sector unions have managed to negotiate good pay and outstanding benefit packages for their members at the expense of the taxpayer. In happier times, when the nation’s economy was either still humming along, or people still believed that things would “turn around”, this wasn’t really an issue. Private sector workers, some of them also represented by unions, were doing ok themselves, and many of them had decent benefits packages, so it wasn’t really an issue. But as the economies of various states continued downward trends, with the flight or closure of more and more businesses, and the loss of taxpayers with them, sometimes to the tune of hundreds of thousands of people, pressures on state budgets went up. Factor in the downward pressure on salaries for those who are still employed in the private sector, rising healthcare costs, and inflation, and suddenly, it is the public sector worker that is setting pretty, and contributing less per capita to guaranteed benefit pension plans (a true rarity for private sector workers) and a minimal contribution to generous health insurance plans, which often include dental and vision, and a rising bill that is imposed on fewer and fewer taxpayers, and you have a formula for economic insolvency. Just ask California.
It isn’t all gloom and doom. New Jersey was able to install a governor who took a similar situation seriously, and who wasn’t afraid to go toe-to-toe with the teachers’ unions, among others, and start to get spending under control.
However, when Wisconsin’s governor moved to remove the right of the unions to collectively bargain for benefits, members of a profession that averages around fifty thousand dollars a year with generous time off, health/vision/dental at little cost to them, and pensions decided that it was an outrage, and they abandoned their classrooms for protest signs and marches in Madison, in order to combat the injustice of what Governor Scott Walker proposed, which included the end to the right to extort costly benefits packages from the taxpayers, and for the beneficiaries to contribute more toward having them in the first place…just like the people they work for.
This wasn’t enough, however, as many of these teachers took their young charges to the marches and rallies with them. This is a gross betrayal of their duties, as rather than educating the next generation, they instead opt to use them to maintain a level of remuneration that can no longer be sustained, and will require borrowing, at a cost to these very same children, so that their comfort is not sacrificed. At a time when we have to start getting our arms around the problem and dealing with it, these public servants who are being asked to pay a little bit more of the cost of what they receive, just like everyone else fortunate enough to have a job, decided that the proper response was to stop doing their job.
And the President exercised his usual restraint and respect for the elected leader of a co-sovereign entity:
“Some of what I’ve heard coming out of Wisconsin, where you’re just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally seems like more of an assault on unions,” President Obama said Wednesday to WTMJ TV “And I think it’s very important for us to understand that public employees, they’re our neighbors, they’re our friends.”
Which may be true, but I don’t expect my neighbors and friends, who have been hired to do a job, and who don’t do it very well*, to demand that their neighbors pay them better than they themselves are paid. I know teaching is difficult, and that parents who don’t give a damn, and a system that requires you to take all comers, rather than those who actually want to get something from the experience do not make it any easier. I do know that continuing to throw more and more money at a profession that as a whole fails in its primary purpose is a stupid thing to do. And when taxpayers and governments cannot afford it, it is insanity.
I don’t expect leadership from the President. He’s called in “present” too many times for any reasonable person to have that expectation. But I desperately wish that if he cannot be part of the solution, that he would at least shut his damn mouth, and let those who are trying to lead actually lead.
*In the interest of disclosure, my father was a teacher, as were many of my relatives, and my mother still collects a pension check from his pension every month, so yes, I really do have an inkling of what I am supporting here, because I don’t believe that my children should have to pay tomorrow for the cost plus interest of the spending we cannot afford today.