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The Cost of a Balanced Budget

2011 March 17

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker

Much of the political debate in this country adheres to a predictable pattern of rhetoric. While the content of many of these discussions is unsurprising, they are well worth having, as the rights of many people are dependent upon them. Frustrating though these conversations may be, their persistence is of course vitally important to the preservation of free democracy and the maintenance of civil political dialogue. The ability to engage in this essential discourse with such frequency and diligence is indeed a true sign of a healthy republic. Consequently, with partisan banter so robustly routine, it takes quite a bit to surprise me. Regrettably, I must say, the discussions that have erupted recently over the country’s budget deficit have been wholly, discouragingly surprising.

The need for a country to maintain its accounts is clear. The need for our particular country to take immediate steps toward reducing and eliminating its various debts is also clear. On this point there can be no argument. However, the methods of debt eradication which have been proposed (and in some cases enacted) in the previous weeks have been astonishing not only in their mindlessness, but in their heartlessness.

On Unions and Collective Bargaining

It has long been my understanding that the ability of public workers to organize and negotiate in this country is a source of national pride. That unions have been under attack recently comes as quite a shock, seeing how long it took for workers to win the right to organize in the first place. Undoing this magnificent effort is nothing short of destructive, as it does unmistakable violence to the rights of middle- and working-class individuals. While I hesitate to identify the victims of this aggression by class, it seems, in this case, difficult to avoid.

Of course, the person behind the most successful attack on union workers is Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Walker, a Republican (a distinction I would also hesitate to make, if it weren’t for a strikingly dependable correlation), signed into law on Friday a bill that fatally limits the rights of public employees to bargain collectively. At the outset, Walker had claimed that this drastic measure would be taken to relieve much of his state’s debt. Even then, the proposal was so deplorable that Wisconsin Democrats fled the state, vowing to maintain their absence until Walker agreed to reconsider his bill. With the vote hinging upon the presence of the Democrats, Walker went through the back door, manipulating a legislative loophole that allowed him to pass the bill absent Democratic representation. In order to do this, the bill had to be altered to remove all “fiscal” elements. This was promptly done, thereby negating the Governor’s alleged interest in this bill as a deficit relief measure and consequently confusing his initial intention.

Ronald Reagan once rightly said: “Where free unions and collective bargaining are forbidden, freedom is lost.” It appears the Wisconsin Governor has lost sight of this unimpeachable truth. Incredibly, he is not alone in his negligence. His bill has found a miraculous amount of conservative support. The reason one can so easily find a conservative hero like Reagan speaking out on behalf of unions is because we have so long outgrown this infantile debate that it has become an utter non-issue; that is, until it was resurrected by Walker and his allies.

It is truly difficult to understand how a public servant of presumably typical compassion would perform such a vicious act, especially when his own “debt relief” defense was so readily squandered. I hesitate to call any person wicked, but doing so in this case elegantly explains an otherwise paralyzingly troubling conundrum.

On Education

Another shocking target in the new budget debate has been public education. That I have never before heard teachers decried as overpaid and underworked is, I suspect, not because I have hitherto lived a life sheltered from conservative opinion, but because the common understanding has always seemed to be that educators do some of the most tiresome, difficult, and essential work on this planet. A guest on Fox Business Alert (whose name I absolutely cannot track down) last month deemed education a “part-time job,” citing the alleged fact that a teacher’s day ends at “2:30.” Pardon me, sir, but it does no such thing. I must assume this man was comparing teaching to a typical full-time job beginning at 9am and ending at 5pm. While in many cases (though absolutely not all, as many close friends and colleagues would attest) teachers do leave the workplace before 5pm, they surely arrive earlier than 9am to account for the simple fact that the school day begins well before that time. While we’re being fair, let it also be said that a teacher’s day does not end at home. There are hours of grading, reviewing and planning that accompany every hour of paid work.

In a puzzling attempt to remedy budgetary issues, last month Providence, Rhode Island, issued termination notices to literally all of their 1,926 teachers. Scott Walker’s bill, in addition to crippling the collective bargaining rights of public school teachers, strips 800 million dollars from their state funding; a truly colossal sum.

Fox Business anchor Eric Bolling, in support of Governor Walker, reported last month that Wisconsin public school teachers earn a salary of $51,000 with benefits valued at $38,000, making a total of $89,000 each year. This figure was compared to the average salary of private sector workers in the rest of the country, reportedly $39,000 with an additional $10,000 in benefits. Bolling deemed this discrepancy “anti-free market”. The problem with Bolling’s figures is that they’re decidedly incorrect. While it is true that Wisconsin teacher salaries average around $51,000, their benefits value closer to $25,000 (ranking them 23rd in the nation).  This number is lower than the average “fringe benefits” earned in Wisconsin by almost $1,000. In any event, the average total compensation for Wisconsin public school teachers is near $76,000, $13,000 dollars short of Bolling’s projections. Bolling’s nationwide private sector numbers were, conversely, far too low. It turns out that the average salary for private sector workers in this country is more like $41,000, with benefits valued at $17,000, making a total of $58,000. Bolling went on the air the following night to say, “Our math was off a bit.”

What Bolling failed to mention on either occasion was that Wisconsin public school teachers are required to have a four-year university degree in order to be eligible for certification and that 52% of Wisconsin teachers have obtained a Master’s degree. As no such requirement is held for private sector workers, the average level of education is much lower. When comparing the total compensation (salary and benefits) for public employees to that for private employees with the same level of education, public employees earn 6.8% less than their counterparts in the private sector.

I honestly cannot readily identify a more important cause, more worthy of our time, money, and attention than education. I suppose one might name the military and national defense in contention, but surely if we devoted more effort to education we would need to devote far less effort to fighting each other. Healthcare would be another worthy candidate, but in any case, I don’t believe educational budgets are being reduced to accommodate a national healthcare system that might ensure that the entire population of the country would be dutifully looked after. No, it seems to me that education might just be this country’s most valuable investment, as it helps, at its best, to reinforce the tenets of democracy and freedom and labors to provide each citizen not only with a working knowledge of the world that he or she inhabits, but with the creative, intellectual, and imaginative faculties to ensure that the future of this planet is at least a bit better than its past. Education, in this way, cannot be overvalued. It can, however, be dramatically undervalued, as has been demonstrated in recent weeks. Teachers need nothing less than our unwavering support, and this recent display of disregard is absolutely disgraceful.

The Importance of Free Unions, Education, and a Balanced Budget

Are collective bargaining rights more important than a balanced budget? Yes, they are. Is education likewise more important than a balanced budget? Yes, it is. The rights and education of citizens must never be compromised to accommodate the financial missteps of their representatives. Perhaps we should remember the gravity of these questions when we consider engaging in our next military occupation, or when we consider returning the money lost by criminally negligent corporations to the very corporations that lost the money in the first place.

These questions are misleading, however. There is a myth in this debate that the money to cover our debts does not presently exist, and that it must consequently come from teachers and union workers or from nowhere at all. It is this lie that allows agenda-driven politicians to manipulate legislation in order to rid public workers of their rights and strip precious public services of their funding. This money exists, and it is being spent.

The Bush tax cuts, recently extended for the next two years by our president, will cost the country nearly 860 billion dollars. Additionally, current laws allow corporations to make it look as if their profits are being earned overseas, thereby exempting them from taxation in their own country. When major corporations (Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Citigroup, General Electric, Hewlett-Packard, Cisco, Exxon-Mobil, Fed-Ex, etc.) neglect to pay their taxes, it costs this country an estimated 100 billion dollars each year.

It is a rather confounding fact that religious organizations are also exempt from paying taxes in this country. Presumably, this is because churches are assumed to be charitable institutions, a notion that many churches are keen to exploit but hesitant to demonstrate. In practice, this exemption permits non-profit churches to operate much more like businesses. Perhaps it would be more charitable for these churches to donate some of their revenue to their government in tax dollars.

That the budget deficit must be reduced at the detriment of teachers and unions is an illusion. It must be challenged as such, otherwise we are implicated in this destructive, shameful, and wicked fallacy. Let no one get away with the perpetuation of this falsehood, lest our indolence assist the expulsion of wonderful organizations like NPR and Planned Parenthood from our society; lest it permit the decay of civil and human rights in our own country; and lest it allow the deterioration of state and federal support for our most valuable enterprise: the education of our citizenry.

One Response
  1. Kristine permalink
    March 18, 2011

    On the federal level Social Security and Medicare amount to about 40% of the budget. Defense makes up another 40%. Everything else combines to about 20% of the budget. We cannot balance the federal budget without significant cuts in Defense and rethinking Social Security and Medicare as we know it. Cutting NPR, Planned Parenthood, The National Weather Service and the like are subturfuge plain and simple. Republicans are not serious about fiscal responsibility. They are serious about pushing a Tea Party agenda that has gone mainstream. It is mainstream in the States and it is showing itself on the Federal level as well. The Koch PACs and others like them pushing this Tea Party agenda, I believe, are cloaking this movement in Federalism and the distortion that Democrats have destroyed the constitution. They cover their policies in the fear that the federal government unconstitutionally interferes with state, local and individual rights. They have convinced plenty of radical thinkers to arm themselves against a federal government that wants to rule them as a police state. They have held funerals for the constitution. So now, the elected leaders in the States who are being funded by these PACs are turning away as much Federal money as they can and defunding State programs to local communities. All under the idea that people are best taxed and governed locally, which sounds good in theory. But I believe their hope is to bring the states to a standoff with the federal government. The way things are going legally right now, we may very well find ourselves in another Brown v. Board of Education scenario within my lifetime. These PACs have also convinced people that private companies are more efficient and responsible than governments and that the Democratic party wants to socialize private business. This of course will lead to more privatization of essential government functions. Such as the prison system which the Ohio Governor has already pledged to sell and Wisconsin will be close behind. We know this leads to less transparency and accountability and higher expense and the outlandish enrichment of executives at these contracting companies. Why do these organizations and the Tea Party PACs want to do this? Because they know it leaves them personally with more power and wealth. What our State and Federal budgets lack is revenue. It is incomprehensible, irresponsible and worse for Republicans to ignore this fact and to refuse to roll back tax breaks for the richest 2% of our society. I have read accounts that say if the Federal Congress could accomplish that one thing, the deficit would be reduced by 60% by 2019. Or, who knows, perhaps the Koch PACs and others like them just enjoy seeing their ability to influence and control public opinion. They do say that a people gets the government that it deserves. What does that say about us?

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