Monday, February 21, 2011

Rewarding Honesty

For us, this is about balancing the budget. We've got a $3.6 billion budget deficit. We are broke. Just like nearly every other state across the country, we're broke. It's about time somebody stood up and told the truth.” - Governor Scott Walker (Wisconsin)
In case you haven't been following the news, Wisconsin is the first of many states facing a major battle with unions of government workers over budgetary concern, including Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania. Commentary has a solid piece criticizing The New York Times' coverage, particularly as it compares to their coverage of Tea Party demonstrations the past year or so, but it is important to note a different quality lacking in almost every bit of coverage that seems to be out there about these demonstrations.

First, a few points about unions, and in particular, government unions. As noted yesterday, even FDR was against the idea of collective bargaining with if not actual government unions. By definition, working for government means you are supposed to be working on behalf of the people whom you representing, not against them. This virtue extends to every government employee, and is not limited to the directly elected representatives; if anything, one could argue that non-elected employees have an even greater responsibility in this regard. One of the most troubling aspects of the Wisconsin debate is not the legitimate protests by union members and those who oppose them, but the actual fleeing by every Democrat in the State Legislature from the State of Wisconsin to stop there from being a vote, as they would lose the vote. (The state requires 20 members present to vote, and Republicans have 19 seats to the Democrats' 14.)

Aside from being completely unethical and an assault on democracy and on the voters of Wisconsin, it is worth noting that these lawmakers, like the unions protesting, are paid members of society who are being paid salaries from the people's taxes to not work. The union members have doctors handing out doctors' notes attesting to their being sick, allowing them to falsely call in sick for the day. These doctors have justified this practice by calling the predicament alternatively "stressful" on the members or that "sick and tired" of Gov. Walker is as good as being physically ill. These doctors seem to have faded a bit as media and blog coverage questioned whether this could cost someone their license and the Univ. of Wisconsin Medical School began investigating.

Beyond that, however, is the content being shared with the people. It took a deep search to find a mainstream article that even mentioned the issues that are being protested with any level of explanation or context - and even then, it was very short and non-detailed. The two primary issues at stake are what percentage of government workers' pay should be contributed toward pensions and health insurance. Currently, for every dollar being chipped in by a government worker, the taxpayers chip in another $53+. Imagine if your company ponied up that amount: You'd be living it up. Governor Walker has proposed raising the percentage of pay being chipped in from about 1-2% to 5.8%, much more similar to what people do in private companies. In addition, he wants to raise the percentage of premiums being kicked in toward health insurance policies from 6% to 12.6%, which is still just half as compared to people in most private companies. (Most private companies have employees kick in anywhere from 20-50% of their premiums.) It is for these reasons that the Wisconsin voters elected Gov. Walker to do exactly as he's doing, and why he has major support within Wisconsin.

Yet we're not hearing these details, and nobody is putting them into context: We hear soundbites as always, detailing on the one side how the governor is trying to "destroy" the middle class or unions, versus a weak defense on the other of using this tactic to help trim deficit shortfalls. There have been statements about Wisconsin having a "below average" unemployment rate or how its budget shortfall "is not as bad" as other places, implying that perhaps they don't need to address this in quite this way at this time. But this is shortsighted and harmful. Governor Christie (a Democrat) in New Jersey put this best recently, as told over in a great piece entitled Where the Leaders Are:
He introduced pension and benefit reforms on a Tuesday in September, and that Friday he went to the state firefighters convention in Wildwood. It was 2 p.m., and "I think you know what they had for lunch." As Mr. Chrisie recounted it: "You can imagine how that was received by 7,500 firefighters. As I walked into the room and was introduced. I was booed lustily. I made my way up to the stage, they booed some more. . . . So I said, 'Come on, you can do better than that,' and they did!"

He crumpled up his prepared remarks and threw them on the floor. He told them, "Here's the deal: I understand you're angry, and I understand you're frustrated, and I understand you feel deceived and betrayed." And, he said, they were right: "For 20 years, governors have come into this room and lied to you, promised you benefits that they had no way of paying for, making promises they knew they couldn't keep, and just hoping that they wouldn't be the man or women left holding the bag. I understand why you feel angry and betrayed and deceived by those people. Here's what I don't understand. Why are you booing the first guy who came in here and told you the truth?"

He told them there was no political advantage in being truthful: "The way we used to think about politics and, unfortunately, the way I fear they're thinking about politics still in Washington" involves "the old playbook [which] says, "lie, deceive, obfuscate and make it to the next election." He'd seen a study that said New Jersey's pensions may go bankrupt by 2020. A friend told him not to worry, he won't be governor then. "That's the way politics has been practiced in our country for too long. . . . "
It is time for this to change, and it would help us all if the media were to finally begin reporting responsibly: Explaining the issues and their impact, not just on the next media cycle and the upcoming election, but on the financial futures of this country and the states which are a part of it. Reward those who make decisions made to last the next 50 years and not the next 6 months, not those with the more outrageous soundbite. The best aspect of the various campaigns by Governors such as Walker, Christie, Kasich (Ohio), and Daniels (Indiana) is that they're completely open and honest about what the issues are and what needs to get done - and yet that's not what people get to read or watch on the news. It's time media began to reward honesty.

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