Imagine for a moment that you are a public school teacher in Wisconsin. While your job is undoubtedly tough (and important), and you're by no means rich, you do make decent money (more than $52,000 per year), and you do have some nice extra perks that most of us don't enjoy.
You work about nine months per year, you have ample additional time off for holidays, and you basically can't be fired. Sure, you can get fired for extreme misbehavior—after months and perhaps years of due process—but do you face the specter of the axe falling based on quarterly results or the loss of a client? Certainly not.
And you have your pension and health plan. Ahh, let us sing the sweet glories of your pension and health plan! Saps like me just have a 401k, and if I don't contribute to it, I don't have retirement benefits. But you? Your plan is extremely generous (how generous? Go and do a calculation), and you can even retire, with benefits, at age 55. As for your health plan, check it out. Add those benefits to your salary, and you're looking at an average total salary of more than $77,000 per year, making your individual compensation roughly 50 percent greater than the median household income in the state.
The problem of course is that all this costs money—lots of money—with the taxpayers shouldering that burden in a struggling economy. Moreover, the pension plan is short on money. To be precise: $10.9 billion dollars short, according to reports last year. Even worse, the taxpayers who pay for these magnificent plans have struggled with soaring unemployment and stagnant wages and tend to make less money than the public employees they support.
So the governor has proposed some modest reforms. He's proposing that state employees make retirement contributions at the national average and health insurance contributions at one-half the national average (up from roughly 25 percent). He's also proposing reforms that would give teachers a real choice as to whether they want to join the union.
It's understandable that teachers wouldn't like these changes. After all, they'll lose money. But does that justify the reaction? Does that justify near-riots in Madison, with protestors comparing the governor to Hitler, threats of violence, and intimidating protests at lawmakers' private residences? Does that justify fourteen Democratic lawmakers fleeing the state to prevent a vote on the governor's proposals?
While watching this public employee temper tantrum (complete with school closings so that teachers can attend the protests), I'm reminded of last October's French riots. For days, chaos gripped France as protestors surged into the streets by the hundreds of thousands. The fury was palpable as protestors blocked roads, battled with police, and waved their red union flags. The reason for their rage? The government's proposal to raise the retirement age from 60 (one of the world's lowest) to 62.
Welcome to the world of Entitlement Derangement Syndrome. In this world, the battle isn't about overthrowing tyranny or confronting the threat of hunger, poverty, or invasion. Instead, the battle is about comfort. It's about leisure. We will even stop doing our jobs—stop educating children—until our health insurance premiums are safe. We will follow politicians to their homes and pound our drums until we secure our generous pensions.
We want our pensions, dammit, and we want them now. We want what is ours, even if that means forcing others to pay for it.
There is a fundamental and negative cultural shift when individuals move from thinking they should keep the fruits of their own labor to believing they're entitled to the fruits of others' labor. Shutting down government for the sake of benefits you didn't pay for, and health insurance you didn't purchase, represents an entitlement mentality run amok.
Here's a sobering thought: Entitlement Derangement Syndrome is in its infancy. Wisconsin is paralyzed because of one reform impacting a small minority of its citizens. What happens when the axe falls — as, sooner or later, it must — on Social Security? On Medicare? If the unions can mobilize tens of thousands in Madison, can the entitlement culture muster millions in Washington?
I have a novel suggestion for Wisconsin's teachers: If the governor's reforms are so bad, if they burden you so much, quit your job and go find different employment. That's the kind of decision we face in the private sector. If enough of you quit, so that Wisconsin can't recruit enough teachers, you know what would happen? Wisconsin would raise teacher pay and benefits to compete. That's called the market, and it's a force the rest of us live with every day.