One would think, if one were to judge by the howls of outrage emanating from public sector employees in the state of Wisconsin, that Gov. Scott Walker was proposing to round them all up and ship them off to slave labor camps somewhere north of the Arctic Circle. In recent days, mobs of them have descended on the state capitol in Madison, carrying signs, chanting slogans, and calling Gov. Walker every vile name their fevered imaginations can dream up. And posting sputtering diatribes on Facebook, giving vent to their righteous outrage in the most florid of terms. And encouraging their children to do the same — even though most of said children lack even the most rudimentary understanding of economics and government, and probably could not define “collective bargaining” even if their lives depended on it. They just know that Gov. Walker is a mean, rotten, stingy, hateful, evil son-of-a-bachelor, because their parents and their teachers have told them so, and most kids nowadays have not been taught to think for themselves.
What, you might wonder, has Gov. Walker done to deserve all this venom? Well, first off, he was recently elected governor of a state that is in the midst of a budget crisis — due partly to the wretched economy and partly to the profligate spending of his predecessors. And he was man enough to say that Wisconsin needs to deal with this mess before we become just another California or New York, drowning in red ink, headed for bankruptcy. He could have done what other politicians have done — just ignored the problem and continued to spend recklessly, and let some future governor and legislature deal with the fallout. If he had, the public sector employees would not now be calling for him to be drawn and quartered. But instead, he decided to do something about it.
Part of his plan to balance the budget and avoid a California-style meltdown is to bring the wages and benefits of government employees into line with what comparable workers in the private sector receive. For some reason this is extremely controversial, although I fail to see why — probably because the sole breadwinner in our family has always been employed in the private sector. For about the last twenty years, he has been self-employed. That means, among other things, that we have an income only when he has work (and only when his clients actually get around to paying him, which some are not necessarily in a hurry to do). It means that we receive no benefits other than the ones we choose to pay for ourselves; we have to buy our own health insurance, and we have to save for our own retirement. It means we have to keep a sizable chunk of cash in savings, to have something to fall back on during the times when work is scarce or nonexistent. It means no paid vacations, ever. It means not qualifying for unemployment benefits when we’re out of work. And since taxes are not withheld from our pay, it means that in order to avoid ending up in prison, four times a year we have to sit down and write out depressingly large checks to the United States Treasury and the Wisconsin Department of Revenue. If there isn’t enough money in the checking account to cover the taxes, we are forced to raid the savings. (This is a fun experience that those of you who are not self-employed miss out on.) But most of all, it means absolutely NO job security. None. Zero.
This is why I can’t muster any sympathy for the public sector employees who are raising holy hell over the possibility of maybe not getting automatic pay increases this year, or not being permitted to collectively bargain for more paid vacation days, more lavish health care coverage, larger contributions to their pension funds, and other perks not available to us ordinary working stiffs. We in the private sector are already paying for their wages and benefits, in many cases at great personal sacrifice. We have had to tighten our belts, and so far, no one has explained to us why government employees should not have to do the same.
Actually, I understand their rage, even if I don’t sympathize with it. They have been shielded for too long from the types of uncertainty and insecurity that are the lot in life of folks who are not employed by government. Up until now, opportunistic politicians of both parties have pandered to them, giving them whatever they demanded, in exchange for their votes and campaign contributions. Now that the bill for all that pandering has come due, they are squealing like stuck pigs at the prospect of having to give up some of the benefits to which they have grown accustomed. They would like to continue to be exempt from any belt-tightening that may be necessary to solve the state’s fiscal mess. Wouldn’t we all? If there were any way to balance the budget without causing any pain to anyone, I would be all in favor of it.
But while the public sector workers are threatening to tar and feather Gov. Walker, they have so far failed to present any alternative to his plan that would a) solve the budget crisis, b) be fair to everyone, and c) not damage private sector workers and businesses any more than they have already been damaged by the miserable economy and by confiscatory tax rates at both the federal and state levels. Instead, they are saying, “You folks in the private sector should be forced to sacrifice even more, so that we won’t have to sacrifice at all.” They are like spoiled children demanding larger allowances from Mom and Dad, even though Mom and Dad may be out of work and unable to pay the bills. This is where the entitlement mentality, so central to the whole notion of the welfare state, has landed us.
I genuinely hope that Gov. Walker and the state legislature will do what is necessary to prevent Wisconsin from being sucked into the downward spiral that is rapidly destroying other states that have been reckless in their fiscal policy. I, along with millions of others, will be watching.