Rubicon: A river in Wisconsin

By Charles Krauthammer, WaPo

The magnificent turmoil now gripping statehouses in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and soon others marks an epic political moment. The nation faces a fiscal crisis of historic proportions and, remarkably, our muddled, gridlocked, allegedly broken politics have yielded singular clarity.

At the federal level, President Obama’s budget makes clear that Democrats are determined to do nothing about the debt crisis, while House Republicans have announced that beyond their proposed cuts in discretionary spending, their April budget will actually propose real entitlement reform. Simultaneously, in Wisconsin and other states, Republican governors are taking on unsustainable, fiscally ruinous pension and health-care obligations, while Democrats are full-throated in support of the public-employee unions crying, “Hell, no.”

A choice, not an echo: Democrats desperately defending the status quo; Republicans charging the barricades.

Wisconsin is the epicenter. It began with economic issues. When Gov. Scott Walker proposed that state workers contribute more to their pension and health-care benefits, he started a revolution. Teachers called in sick. Schools closed. Demonstrators massed at the capitol. Democratic senators fled the state to paralyze the Legislature.

Unfortunately for them, that telegenic faux-Cairo scene drew national attention to the dispute – and to the sweetheart deals the public-sector unions had negotiated for themselves for years. They were contributing a fifth of a penny on a dollar of wages to their pensions and one-fourth what private-sector workers pay for health insurance.

The unions quickly understood that the more than 85 percent of Wisconsin not part of this privileged special-interest group would not take kindly to “public servants” resisting adjustments that still leave them paying less for benefits than private-sector workers. They immediately capitulated and claimed they were only protesting the other part of the bill, the part about collective-bargaining rights.

Indeed. Walker understands that a one-time giveback means little. The state’s financial straits – a $3.6 billion budget shortfall over the next two years – did not come out of nowhere. They came largely from a half-century-long power imbalance between the unions and the politicians with whom they collectively bargain.

In the private sector, the capitalist knows that when he negotiates with the union, if he gives away the store, he loses his shirt. In the public sector, the politicians who approve any deal have none of their own money at stake. On the contrary, the more favorably they dispose of union demands, the more likely they are to be the beneficiary of union largess in the next election. It’s the perfect cozy setup.

To redress these perverse incentives that benefit both negotiating parties at the expense of the taxpayer, Walker’s bill would restrict future government-union negotiations to wages only. Excluded from negotiations would be benefits, the more easily hidden sweeteners that come due long after the politicians who negotiated them are gone. The bill would also require that unions be recertified every year and that dues be voluntary.

Recognizing this threat to union power, the Democratic Party is pouring money and fury into the fight. Fewer than 7 percent of private-sector workers are unionized. The Democrats’ strength lies in government workers, who now constitute a majority of union members and provide massive support to the party. For them, Wisconsin represents a dangerous contagion.

Hence the import of the current moment – its blinding clarity. Here stand the Democrats, avatars of reactionary liberalism, desperately trying to hang on to the gains of their glory years – from unsustainable federal entitlements for the elderly enacted when life expectancy was 62 to the massive promissory notes issued to government unions when state coffers were full and no one was looking.

Obama’s Democrats have become the party of no. Real cuts to the federal budget? No. Entitlement reform? No. Tax reform? No. Breaking the corrupt and fiscally unsustainable symbiosis between public-sector unions and state governments? Hell, no.

We have heard everyone – from Obama’s own debt commission to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – call the looming debt a mortal threat to the nation. We have watched Greece self-immolate. We can see the future. The only question has been: When will the country finally rouse itself?

Amazingly, the answer is: now. Led by famously progressive Wisconsin – Scott Walker at the state level and Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan at the congressional level – a new generation of Republicans has looked at the debt and is crossing the Rubicon. Recklessly principled, they are putting the question to the nation: Are we a serious people?

February 25, 2011 | 10 Comments »

Subscribe to Israpundit Daily Digest

Leave a Reply

10 Comments / 10 Comments

  1. Arnold Harris, you said,

    “The “wealthy and their corporations”, on the other hand, represent the only pool of capital ready for investment in the re-industrialization of America, without which, this country will collapse of its own weight and die.”

    That is the real problem.. It is a crime, that so much wealth has been concentrated into so few hands. We are being held hostage by the rich. Believe me, though, this country will not collapse of its own weight and die if we stop throwing our workers to their crocidiles: Our country will collapse under its own weight and THEY will die. Then, maybe we can return to a country of small stakeholders and entrepreneurs. The rich make me sick, and they are killing America. You will not slay this beast by continually feeding it.

    As I said before, the conflict in Madison is not rich vs. poor: It is a privileged Government culture vs. the people who put them in power and pay for them.

  2. At Ohio State University we use to call the “College of Education” the intellectual sewer. If you could not get into any other college on campus you could always get into the college of education – they had the lowest standards, and the easiest courses. Not all teachers are stupid but all the stupid people ended up in the “College of Education”. Alas, I ended up having to teach (at the college level) some of the graduates of public education. Within a week or two I could always tell them apart from those from private, church school, or home school backgrounds. The public school graduates could not write or spell, nor did they seem capable of thinking. The other students were always way ahead of them. So much for “free education”.

    By the way I have a friend in Kentucky who teachers 5th grade – 180 days a year and whines about how little teachers get paid. – Yeah, right.

    Let’s close down the “Department of Education”, the “Colleges of Education”, and the NEA – that should improve education in the country and save buckets of money. Then maybe, just maybe some of these teachers, “teacher educators”, and administrators can do something productive instead of wasting taxpayers money.

  3. I am sick and tired of reading rants like that pored by Danial Stepner. We here in North America live and work u deer a capitalistic system, a system while having it’s faults has enabled millions of people to enjoy lives of Abu dance, opportunity and personal and intellectual freedom. Mr. stepner lives a life of constant envy and I feel sorry for him — up to a point. Would he rather live under a collective system wherein supposedly there would be no “rich” people? Well I am sure that he could find su h societies, or he could have if many of them had not folded into disarray and oblivion. Would he like to have lived in Soviet Russia or any of the other Soviet block countries where no one was “rich”. Where all he would have had to worry about was being sent to so e gulag if he had asked for a ten cent an hour raise; where the stores carried oranges perhaps one day a year; where he would have been lucky to see his children finish high school let alone ever attend university; where he could assuage the sheer boredom and meaningless of his life in alcohol be use his future was locked into the path that an impersonal state had de reed fir him
    Mr. stepson is a fool who feeds on his resent net of the success of those around him. Wealth is merely a symbol of what money can buy and what it buys is power. In collectivist societies there are just as many rich people as in capitalist societies but that “wealth” is hidden. It lies in the power if the state to decree that certain favored groups may shop in soe jal stokers, go to elite hospitals, vacation in select resorts, etc. Etc. I am sure that Mr. stepson would see about him a lot to be envious about but I would caution him to not get too loud in his complaints be use before he will have had the opportunity to compulsion a second time he will likely find himself in a place where the walls about him will be a foot thick and quite deaf to his cries.

  4. DS,

    As Charles Krauthammer so well pin-pointed the issues ignited by the Wisconsin state capitol political struggle, union labor now represents only an approximate 15% of the American work force. The rest of us — the overwhelming 85% — have no community of interest with the 15%, other than the fact that most of these people are public employees living off our money taken from us in the form of taxation on our income, our purchases, our property, and even the family inheritances of our children. The Democratic Party in the United States is little more than the captive stooges of the bosses of those unions.

    The “wealthy and their corporations”, on the other hand, represent the only pool of capital ready for investment in the re-industrialization of America, without which, this country will collapse of its own weight and die. Socialism never has accomplished anything other than dictatorships ranging from mild to terrible, where, as the Russians used to say: “They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work”.

    Political equality before the law is built into the United States Constitution. But there never has been economic equality and there never will be. Every society in human history has recognized and has been built around a clear differentiation of an upper class, a middle class and a lower class. Sometimes this has been worked out in the form of aristocracies of birth, such collapsed beginning with the American and French revolutions and continued through the end of World War I some 150 years later. The USA since the American Civil War has been organized around the concept of an aristocracy of wealth, which is the core of the capitalist system that produced the greatest standard of living in human history.

    The unions of the private work place largely have disappeared, because with computerized automation, there no longer is any place for armies of workers to be assembled for hand labor. The same process will overtake and destroy the unions of government-employed. As for the public school systems, they have outlived their usefulness and therefore their expensive necessity. Anyone who tracks these trends — and my wife and I are two such people — comprehend that the classroom of the future will be a computer screen in which prepared “electronic blackboard” lectures will be available on all topics of study from the most simple to the most complex and advanced.

    One such example of these, a growing set of such electronic lectures initiated by Salman Khan recently was brought to my attention by one of our sons, a scholar who expects to graduate with honors from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in about 12 more weeks with a bachelor of science degree in biochemistry with a major in molecular biology. Max Harris, whom I am describing here, is a straight-“A” student who is working to get into a top-rank medical school which combines an MD degree with a PhD suitable for medical research. His wife Melissa later this year will complete her dissertation for a similar PhD in immunology. These are students of the most serious level, who have little or no use for ordinary education as practiced in most public school systems. People such as these are coming to represent an entirely new aristocracy — or meritocracy — of the type achieved by the scientifically advanced. In recent years, these two literally have lived for their studies and their laboratory work, for which there is no place whatsoever for labor unions and the sloganeering of the left.

    Arnold Harris
    Mount Horeb WI

  5. Hi, Daniel

    Lots of luck, in trying to extract a nickel from a rich person. In the 1960s, the top tax bracket was 60%; but few of America’s wealthiest people paid any taxes. Meanwhile, inflation kept driving the poor and middle class into higher and higher tax brackets. The system in place then was, on paper, vastly more “egalitarian” than any tax proposal put forth by the Democrats, but it was devilishly unfair. Under Reagan, taxes were eased on the rich and on the corporations, to encourage investment in industry and create wealth that would “trickle down” to the lower classes. The investment didn’t happen, the gap between rich and poor has continued to this day to grow to unprecedented dimensions, and the country’s economy is going down the tubes.

    As I said, lots of luck in trying to solve that dilemna. Meanwhile, the public servants in Wisconsin and elsewhere are about to get kicked off their gravy train. Ordinary labor unions are legitimate, as a means for the workers to compete fairly with the owners for a fair share of the company’s profit. Government employees, on the other hand, do not work for a “for profit” corporation. Both they and their employers have been chosen by the public to serve their interests. They don’t “profit” anyone; they are servants, working to fulfill the desires of their masters, the citizens. If their bosses get wealthier than them, it has nothing to do with how much they can bargain or what they get paid: Both are paid by the taxpayers, and their wages are (or ought to be) set by the legislature.

  6. Wisconsin public workers (and public workers elsewhere) may well have ameliorated their lives over many years by unionizing and bargaining — more than some private sector workers – but they are still “little people” when compared to the wealthy — a tiny percentage of the population that controls a huge percentage of the nation’s wealth. All charts (and many conservatives) acknowledge this obscene and growing disparity. The nation’s deficit will be addressed substantially if the wealthy and their corporations are taxed in relation to their wealth; THEY WILL STILL BE RICH. The public unions in Wisconsin have already agreed to pay cuts. Depriving them of the right to bargain collectively with a machine bought and paid for by the rich will have the effect of cutting out the heart of the public-spirited citizen.

  7. In the private sector, the capitalist knows that when he negotiates with the union, if he gives away the store, he loses his shirt. In the public sector, the politicians who approve any deal have none of their own money at stake. On the contrary, the more favorably they dispose of union demands, the more likely they are to be the beneficiary of union largess in the next election. It’s the perfect cozy setup.

    That is a cogent explanation of the conflict. I am generally sympathetic to unions, because I have seen so many friends (along with myself) go from union jobs that pay the bills, to non-union jobs with insufficient pay, no benefits and no job security — all the while that CEOs continue to enjoy a bonanza in historically high compensation. Those unions I am sympathetic to, however, are industrial unions — not unions that negotiate with public officials who, ultimately, are in their own pocket because of campaign contributions. This is not about protecting bona fide unions, but about protecting a criminal scam. I hope Gov. Brown and the others continue to stand up to them.

  8. Where I live in rural Dane County, Wisconsin is about a 45-minute drive from the state capitol, but for people such as me and my wife, we could just as easily be living on another planet. For 11 straight days now, the capitol building has been occupied more or less day and night by a rag-tag army of radical Madison leftists reinforced by outside agitators shipped in here by the teachers’ unions and other supporting labor organizations. At night, many of the Madison homeless stink up the place using that otherwise beautiful building as a vast, marble-faced flophouse.

    There is indication that sometime over the weekend, the small army of capitol and state policemen, along with selected additional armed security personnel, will evict them all from the building at 6pm Saturday, then keep everybody out who has no official business in the building. I don’t know if Governor Scott Walker has the balls to enforce that measure, but I hope he does.

    Meantime, the local “progressives” are sending chain e-mail messages to recruit more of their kind to resist the police; which, of course, is felonious incitement of civil disorder. And it will please me greatly if some of these bastards are jailed and others among then get their skulls cracked by the metal-weighted billyclubs used by police for serious riot work.

    I feel more than a little sorry for the state employees caught up in this imbroglio; but not at all for the teachers’ unions. The entirety of the Democratic Party machinery is in the hands of WEAC, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, which is the centerpiece of the labor mafia in this state.

    Wisconsin state employees, many of whom I have known and worked with through the years, are paid for regular 2080-hour work schedules, and most of them work harder than any teachers I ever have met.

    The unionized teachers, on the other hand, work 180 days per year, and are responsible for only 5 hours per day class time. When you add the real amount of time they spend grading papers, conferring with students and all the rest, they still work only about 1250-1280 hours per year. Around Madison, the base salary for all except rookie teachers is $71,289 per year, plus benefit packages for retirement and group health plans that range $24,000 – $40,000 per year. All of this at taxpayers’ expense. Meantime, the result of their “work” is that large segments of the school population get through elementary schools and are sent to middle schools with reading and writing skills far below acceptable class averages. Small wonder that people all around this state are turning to home or private schooling and are running away from the public school systems as fast as their cars and pocketbooks will carry them.

    I am not now and never have been interested in labor unions for taxpayer-paid employment; especially the type that comes with mandatory arbitration, which is like a bull fiddle that the union bosses know how to play expertly for purposes of blackmailing the public with threats of strikes that would interrupt at least semi-vital public services.

    As a matter of fact, I did not vote for Walker in the November 2010 election that swept him into power. But I certainly would vote for him now that I have seen the tactics of the local would-be commissars in action. They are looking for trouble, and I hope to hell that’s just what they find.

    Arnold Harris
    Mount Horeb WI