The tectonic political plates on budget matters in Wisconsin and elsewhere continue to shift and I think that’s a good thing. Maybe you’ll be surprised by my position on these matters. But hear me out, and most importantly let me know what you think.
Many of my friends have come up to me and assumed to know my position on what has been transpiring in Wisconsin: that I am pro-labor no matter what. But my own views are more complicated than that. It’s not a political position I have in mind here, but what I think we need to grapple with as a society.
- First, I believe Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s non-negotiating, hard-line position against public sector employees was wrong. Unlike other governors across the country, he was unwilling to come to the table and refused to engage in any real dialogue with either union representatives or Democrats. Based on his comments, he seems to believe the only way to break gridlock was to break the backs of his “opponents.” He demonstrated a basic lack of respect for others that is required if public life is to work at all.
- Moreover, the debate in Wisconsin and elsewhere turned public sector employees into scapegoats for much larger budget issues. My dad worked for state government for 30 years or so, and he and his colleagues were deeply committed to the common good. Turning good people into scapegoats is just plain wrong. It serves to breed cynicism and mistrust in public life – right when we need to be building bridges.
- Still, public budgets and spending have gotten out of whack. For too long, government programs have expanded based, it seems, on the assumption that revenues would increase indefinitely. This isn’t a problem solely of public sector unions, but of all of us thinking we can expand benefits without any real costs.
- As we come to recognize that we can’t have everything, choices will be required about what we believe are the most valuable programs, services and opportunities to provide through government – and which ones should go. Let’s be honest, once we get past the posturing and low-hanging fruit, making such cuts (and possibly raising some revenues) won’t easy.
- This is where I believe the battles in many state capitals, municipalities, and increasingly in Washington, D.C. have been productive for public life and society as a whole. There is a need to find ways to engage people in this discussion and debate. Indeed, the sooner we can see that there is not an bottomless pot of money to draw upon, the sooner we can come to terms with the reality that we must make choices about what we want to support and invest in. There’s hard work to do.
Of course, what I am suggesting not only requires people on the right to stop using public sector unions as their scapegoat, but also people on the left to stop simply taking a hard line against those on the right. These budget travails are an opportunity for the country to reset what we value most and the choices and trade-offs we must make.
This will require real, tough debates. Each of us will have to give some. But to have a debate, we must all be turned toward each other so we can actually engage, hear one another, have our heated disagreements, and yet ultimately figure out how the hell to move ahead.
This is the option I’m advocating.