The financial meltdown of so many states and cities is forcing American liberalism to come to grips with a tough truth: The demands of public-sector unions and the legal obligations to pay their pensions are collapsing the ability to perform what's left of the traditional liberal agenda.What to do with such tough choices? What to do?
Nowhere is this more evident than in California.
On July 8, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, an admirer of New Jersey's blunt new Gov. Chris Christie, held a roundtable in Sacramento on the public pension crisis. Listen to Jeff Adachi, a San Francisco Democrat and the city's elected Public Defender:
"San Francisco is the most progressive, pro-union, you know, lefty, and I'm probably the poster boy for that in many ways. But the reality is, if we don't do something, all of the important programs, not only public defense but we're talking about children's programs, after-school programs, education, senior programs, everything that we care about as progressives is going to be lost because it's being sucked up by the cost of pensions."
Actually, it might be too late for a solution. The unions have locked in their pensions. The choices have already been made.
Nor is this tension merely the result of recession. In a more systematic, 2008 study of spending in Massachusetts for the Institute for a New Commonwealth, Cameron Huff notes that from 1986 to 2006, spending on social services and public safety (the collectively bargained functions) rose more than 130%. Spending on the environment, higher education and housing all fell.This all goes back to the original sin of allowing public employees to unionize and then negotiate with elected officials who had no qualms of using public money to buy off public employees who then would use their electoral power to keep those officials in office. It was a corrupt bargain from the beginning and now all of us, conservatives and liberals are now facing the costs.
This downward spiral won't stop when the economy returns. The unions will get theirs; the vulnerable categories will get the shaft. For this to change, the modern Democratic Party would have to change. It's got to decide if it wants to do more for real people and less for gerrymandered politicians and union protectorates. Lifetime pol Joe Biden says the stimulus "is working." It is, for the boys in the clubhouse. Honest liberals and progressives distraught over the harsh math of 2010 have more in common with the tea partiers than they imagine.