“Greece” is the word in Madison
By: Robert E. Meyer
In mid-February, political turmoil crashed up on the shores of Lake Monona in Madison, Wisconsin and surged all the way to the capitol grounds. Last year, when protesters raised havoc in Greece over budgetary austerity measures, some pundits said the aftershock would soon be coming to America. But who would have thought it would have struck first in the middle of the heartland, and in the cradle of the progressive citadel?
The newly elected governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, has not only called on public employees to contribute to their pension and health insurance, but then proposed a bill to at least partially eliminate their privilege to collective bargaining.
Even as a conservative, I’ve never opposed unions or considered the need for opposition to collective bargaining.
When I first heard about this bold stroke, I presumed Walker had gone a political bridge too far. But, as I looked into the issue, I discovered some iconic labor advocates surprisingly opposed collective bargaining for public employees. As recently as the 1950′s, George Meany, a former president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O proffered his misgivings. F.D.R. himself struggled with the idea. Roosevelt was concerned that labor conflicts spawned by collective bargaining would lead to citizens hating their government. The point being made was that in the private sector, unions were bargaining against a private corporate entity, but in the government it was in opposition to the citizens as taxpayers themselves.
Well, as of this writing, Walker has gotten his bill passed.
It should also be observed that if losing collective bargaining privileges is perceived as extreme, Wisconsin has a civil service statute that still provides substantial rights and protections to state employees. This statute existed for more than a half-century before the legislature granted bargaining privileges.
Interestingly enough, the crisis began with Obama wanting to weigh in on the issue, but much of the talk stopped after certain news commentators pointed out that most federal workers don’t have collective bargaining rights. The suspension of collective bargaining was enacted by President Carter. In addition, Obama ordered a two year wage freeze on federal employees.
My immediate family is almost exclusively represented by vocations within state government. No doubt that will lead to interesting exchanges at family get-togethers. All my life I have been in blue collar occupations, so there is an emotional aversion to seeing any group of workers take a hit. But, it my own life I have not gone unscathed, as the economic realities of our times have resulted in a loss of income from my job that exceeds what most state employees will lose by being forced to pay more toward their benefits.
I sincerely doubt that most of us can hold a principled political position apparently in opposition to our vocations, and consequently, our perceived economic well-being. As a conservative voter I have always attempted not to allow job considerations to inordinately color my political perspectives, but such assertions of objectivity have their limitations and their costs. One person who I think best epitomizes that principled ideal is my good friend Dr. P. Jake Jacobs, a high school history teacher and adjunct professor at Lakeland College here in Wisconsin. Below is a link to his interview on the Fox and Friends T.V. news program in February.
It might be useful to ask questions and make observations that will allow for a less emotionally charged consideration of the conflict.
How would Tea Party protesters have been depicted if they had acted as uncivil as the protesters in Madison? Property damage, death threats, civil disobedience and despicable placards seem to go without critique. If the legislature in Wisconsin “suspended democracy” with their actions, what do we say about the 14 liberal senators who left the state to obfuscate the same democratic process? If the passage of this bill was a shady undertaking, what do we say about the process used to pass last year’s national health care reform? Too many people complain about apparent injustice only when their agenda suffers a setback.
I also note the difference between the President of the United States and the Governor of Wisconsin. Obama blamed his predecessor for the fiscal crisis, and tried to remedy the economic downturn by spending more money. Walker has said little about those who caused the fiscal mess he inherited, and he is combating debt by decreasing government spending, and avoiding additional tax increases, while minimizing job loses.
Most people have become so accustom to living within a paradigm of government debt, I doubt they really believe it has any adverse consequences. Many of those who do recognize the debt problem have their pat solutions that do nothing to minimize government spending. Not only that, but states can’t just print money the way the federal government can. Sure, we could raise taxes on corporations and rich citizens, but in a free society, why do we want to make the income tax system so progressive that it would make Karl Marx blush? I believe the “corporate tax” to be a cruel fiction. Corporations simply pass additional taxes along to consumers, hidden in the retail costs of merchandise. In situations where they have no pricing power, or where labor costs become too expensive, they will simply relocate to a friendly economic environment and take the jobs with them. I would love to see how much of the price we pay for necessities is merely concealed taxation being passed through.
It is also quite rhetorical to complain about high C.E.O. salaries, and disparities in the ratios between them and rank and file workers here in the U.S., compared to the same ratios abroad. And perhaps it is noble to decry perceived greed. In college, I wrote a number of essays condemning this trend, to the nodding approval of my instructors. But far too often we use that outrage to conceal our own propensity to covet and envy the social positions of others. This tendency is part of the sentiment that could mute sympathy for state employees–the rich guy is the one who has just a little more than you or I. In addition, we fail to ask what gross injustice might be fostered if we empowered the government to correct this by coercing egalitarian outcomes.
We might also just have a general increase in property taxes which would effect every property owned on a proportional basis. But, again, how would this remedy put a halt to runaway government spending? The government that governs worst is the one that taxes most, and exceeds its constitutional mandate.
Scott Walker is a guy that is either loved or hated–few are lukewarm. Hate him or love him though, you must concede that he is a rare politician who is willing to do what he thinks fiscally necessary, without regard to his popular viability.