We are witnessing today — for the first time — a roll-back of government at the state level and, perhaps, even at the federal level.
This concept — limited government — has been the basic precept of American conservatism for decades. But it has never been enacted, even under conservatives. Ronald Reagan, our greatest conservative politician, as governor in California and as president, did not shrink government; he only decreased the rate of increase.
Other so-called conservatives like the two President George Bushes, grew government, increased the deficits and national debt, and made a mockery of the once-clear distinction between Republicans and Democrats.
But the 2008 subprime mortgage meltdown and subsequent recession/depression have now rippled all the way through our economy.
First it was the still-ongoing housing crash followed by massive private sector layoffs. That has lead to a precipitous drop in government tax revenues and an equal increase in new government payouts for unemployment benefits.
The result of this is near or virtual bankruptcy in many states, New York, New Jersey, California, Illinois, and the other upper Midwest states. But because of state constitutional mandates requiring an annual balanced budget, governors from both political parties are faced with the same problem: how to either cut government costs or raise revenues.
Only Illinois has implemented a massive personal income tax increase; all the other states are instead trying to cut costs, realizing that tax increases during a recession will drive businesses out of their states.
That leads us to Wisconsin. There the Republican governor and state legislature have identified the long-term culprit as spiraling public labor costs, including not just salaries but especially healthcare contributions and retirement, as the area that must be brought back into balance with private sector workers.
The questions are simple: Why should public employees not pay more for their share of health costs and retirement? If private sector workers have to pay their fare share, shouldn’t government workers, too?
This is not an assault on labor – although big labor and the Obama White House are trying to make it such. No, this is the pendulum swinging back to the economic and political center. Government workers are not being fired or laid off; that is the last option governors are taking. Instead, the idea is to reduce costs and try to save these jobs.
But there has developed a new mentality in our nation over the past 50 years: Government workers have grown to expect special privileges and extra benefits as part of the job. Thus, in many ways, these jobs are cushier and more secure than their private sector counterparts. These jobs have become a special, protected, superior class of workers.
This is a far cry from 50 or more years ago when a “government job” was a lesser job than a private sector job. There used to be a stigma — “you are second rate if you have to work for the government” — attached to these jobs. But, in the 1960s, that began to change.
Public workers grew in number as government grew under LBJ’s Great Society. Unionization then came for these people.
Public teachers, especially, became the single most active on-the-ground field workers for the Democratic Party. In fact, at every Democratic National Convention, public teachers are the largest group of delegates, thus demonstrating their crucial role in the Democrat Party.
When Democrats won state houses, they rewarded their friends by giving them the very benefits that are now about to be taken away in Wisconsin and soon other states, as well.
Plain and simply put: we are broke. We have to cut some benefits from everyone. No one is excluded — not even government workers.
One more related thought: it has taken about 30 years to go from a national debt of under $1 trillion (1981) to over $14.2 trillion today.
Why not this plan: Congress adopts a 30-year plan — just like any of us would agree with a lender to pay off a debt over time. We steadily pay down the debt, year after year, through cuts in spending and entitlement reforms, until we are debt-free. Maybe $500 billion per year no matter what.
That times 30 years and the national debt is gone, and so, too, the $1 trillon per year interest payment we are paying each year before we pay a soldier or issue a Social Security check.
The markets would rejoice over this plan. The dollar would strengthen. America would be seen as finally addressing its most serious long-term problem.
The rise of the tea party movement, based on citizen outrage like that seen at the Boston Tea Party, is driven by the realization that our debt will soon bankrupt us.
When all is said and done, the long-held conservative dream of a smaller, less-intrusive government will be realized.
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