The Corner

Don’t Kick the Bureaucrat

I don’t think I agree with Walter Russell Mead’s equivalency between Democratic reformers and Republican revolutionaries in their approaches to budget crises, but his caution that we not blame the problem on the teacher down the street is something conservatives should keep in mind:

But if the Mama Bear New Democrats serve their porridge too cool, the Papa Bear Republicans like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and Ohio’s John Kasich risk serving it too hot.

Polarizing politics and demonizing state and local government workers is not a good idea.  It is unfair for one thing; it is bad politics for another.  Toxic blue model legacy costs are the problem: rigidly bureaucratic government structures, unrealistic costs, years of underfunded pension plans, regulations that choke growth and initiative, outdated progressive ideas about how change works — these are the roots of our problems, not the middle school teacher down the street or the retired post office worker living modestly on a pension that may be underfunded but is hardly a bonanza.

The fifty year old teacher, fireman or police officer may have been naive to believe his or her union leaders, the politicians and the journalists who all said there was nothing to worry about — but most of those workers cannot be called “greedy” or “selfish”.  They are victims of a complex, multi-player Ponzi scheme and have been lied to by a lot of people for a long time.  They also face some serious financial costs.  Not only are their pensions likely to be less generous and solid than they were led to expect; they may well face layoffs and wage freezes as states struggle to cope with legacy costs.

Reform cannot and should not be understood simply as an assault on state and local government workers — although these workers cannot be insulated from the general consequences of a major failure of our political system.  The problem is not that teachers and firefighters earn “too much” money; the problem is that we have developed a dysfunctional social system which cannot pay its bills.  The public economy needs to be rationalized and restructured, but the most important job is to revitalize and energize the private sector.

That said, the only way we are going to rationalize and restructure the public economy (which is essential to revitalizing and energizing the private sector) is to break the power of the public-employee unions. Demonizing the members would indeed be a mistake (maybe I’m not following Wisconsin closely enough, but I didn’t get the sense that’s what Governor Walker was doing), but demonizing the unions, or at least their collective-bargaining power, would seem to be unavoidable, since they’re one of the chief obstacles to reform.

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