Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is one of those people.
In the wake of the state’s recent budget shortfall, Walker could have done the humble, fiscally-sound thing: admit that the tax breaks and conservative health care experiment he championed had worsened the state’s budget situation, and asked lawmakers to correct the problem. He could also have done the tough but responsible thing: negotiate fairly with public sector workers, who have expressed their willingness to pay a greater share of their pension and benefits to ease that burden on the state’s budget.
But no. Like the glutton who eats until his buttons give way, Walker and his allies have decided to keep their pet policies intact and try to grab even more power for themselves by trying to eliminate some public employees’ rights to collective bargaining. (I’m not sure how they plan to continue spinning the mere having of rights as too expensive for the state to afford, but I’m sure their wealthy friends, think tank pals, and buddies in Murdoch’s Media Misinformation Machine will continue funding and broadcasting their efforts.) While completely ignoring the self-serving actions that have caused much of the state’s financial distress, they are trying to:
- Adopt a proposal that clearly punishes members of certain unions (teachers, nurses, social workers, etc.) and not others (police, firefighters). We’ve a number of choices regarding how to interpret this disparate treatment, but one is particularly clear: it’s a naked attempt to limit the power of unions that didn’t support Walker & Co during election season, and protect those that did.
- Obscure the true origins of the budget shortfall, appealing to a troubling nationwide narrative that blames public sector workers for budget problems, instead of the toxic economic mess created by greedy and under-regulated Wall Street financiers
- Pretend there is no choice but to make cuts and restrict rights that overwhelmingly affect middle and low-income people—instead of correcting the tax structures and other policies that enrich the wealthy at everyone else’s expense
- Cultivate and capitalize on the current fiscal situation and whatever resentment exists between privately-employed taxpayers and unionized public employees to break their unions permanently.
Threatened with the outrageous theft of hard-won workers’ rights—many won right there in Wisconsin—fourteen state senators left the state to avoid having to vote on the bill, and tens of thousands of citizens are demonstrating in the streets and the capitol building, including thousands of teachers and students.
As a result, some in the “news” media and elsewhere have whined about “self-serving” teachers staging a sick-out to protest these attacks on their rights. They’ve accused teachers of being liars for calling in they’re sick when they’re not (I guess being sick of injustice doesn’t qualify!), while completely ignoring the self-serving, multi-million dollar lies on which this entire bill is based. Others are “concerned” about kids who are missing school. These people are completely missing the point.
One: Our public school system exists in large part to prepare students for their future roles as citizens. Students who watch and participate in peaceful demonstrations are getting an important lesson on how to exercise their First Amendment rights, and why we have such rights in the first place. And if there are any adults in Wisconsin, or anywhere in the US, who aren’t using these current events as teachable moments for the children in their care, then our democratic republic faces much larger threats than a budget crisis!
Two: Like this post, most of what’s happening in Wisconsin isn’t just, or even primarily, about teachers and schools. But it does further expose an ugly truth about national conversations over austerity measures and public policy reform: some people aren’t in these discussions to “repair budgets,” or improve schools, or shore up Social Security, or any of that. Some people try to exploit our hysteria and ignorance to coerce us into making policy decisions that benefit themselves (or their ideologies) at our expense. These are decisions we wouldn’t otherwise make if we felt we had other options, or enough time to stop and deliberate.
Fortunately for proponents of responsible public policy, the brazen nature of Walker’s bill has awakened many to the need to think critically when political and economic elites use the words “crisis” and “reform” in close succession. However this all turns out in Wisconsin, there’s no turning back that awareness. Here’s hoping more of us greet this moment with courage: the courage to stand up for ourselves and our fellow men and women who’ve been unfairly attacked, and the courage to take an honest, fair-minded approach to solving our social and economic problems.