THE FIRST SHOT FIRED

Those of you who caught the news over this past week have noticed that the events occurring in Wisconsin have topped the headlines. Governor Scott Walker is attempting to restructure the state economy, where a budget shortfall of $3.6 billion had placed the state’s financial solvency in crisis. At the center of the debate is a provision to remove the state workers’ right to collective bargaining for benefits. Apparently this proviso does not affect bargaining over salaries, although some reports neglect to mention this. In addition, public safety employees, such as police and firefighters, are exempt. The new rules would also make public workers responsible for half the costs of their pensions and at least 12.6 percent of their health care coverage, changes that Walker says will put them more in line with the private sector.

The reaction has been, predictably, one of vigorous protests. The argument on the workers’ side, if I understand reports correctly, is that they don’t object so much to the idea that their reimbursement has to come down, but that the pain needs to be shared equitably and that the right to collective bargaining is sacrosanct, and attempts to undermine this are really attempts to destroy the power of the union. In other words, the governor’s moves are motivated equally or more by politics than economic concerns.

While I’m not insensitive to the abuses that occurred in the pre-union era, I view unions in the same light as affirmative action (an issue beyond the scope of this narrative). There was a time when both did more good than harm. As the balance has shifted to more and more union power with its attendant overspending, at this time they have become more of a detriment to our economic health. The unions, not surprisingly, have flourished more in the public than the private sector, since the former is protected from market forces by legislation and the treasury’s ability to print money. Unfortunately, as this era of profligate spending and burgeoning debt grinds to an unceremonious halt, the unions will inevitably bear the brunt of the ensuing pain. It will always be the way with those receiving more than they produce when the time of reckoning comes. That time is now.

There are many that will counter that many in the top tiers of the private sector have earned well beyond what they’ve produced for years. I don’t argue this point. These individuals, by dint of their economic power, have been able to corrupt the government so that legislation necessary to preserve the purity of the marketplace and prevent gaming of the system has never been authored. This continues to the present day. So those at the top of the food chain won’t be immune to what is coming, but will likely have enough wealth squirreled away to prevent personal disaster.

What of the rest of us? You can expect the scenes in Wisconsin to play out over and over again across the country. California, where I reside, will be at the top of the list. Governor Jerry Brown, not known for his conservative views, sees clearly the dismal straits the Golden State is in and is trying to prepare citizens for the worst. We’ll see how far he’ll get; Schwarzenegger tried, failed miserably, and surrendered.

Human nature will dictate results. They say a drug addict can’t recover until he or she reaches bottom. In like fashion, each group will acknowledge the problem and try to preserve its share of the pie, until, like the spending junkies we’ve become, we reach bottom. There will be a lot of pain before and after.

For most people, drug addiction is a terminal disease. I hope and pray that, in our case, we find the strength for a cure.

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