John Baer: Best solutions to unions, budget cuts - 'no affiliation'

Posted: February 28, 2011

I'M REGISTERED independent or, as it's called in Pennsylvania, "no affiliation."

I used to be registered Republican. Before that I was a registered Democrat. But for decades now I've got "no affiliation."

These days I'm especially proud of that.

I'm proud because neither major political party is offering much real leadership and the "debate" couldn't be more discouraging.

Save the unions! Kill the government! As American philosopher and LAPD punching bag Rodney King once asked, "Can we all get along?"

In Wisconsin, the fight to control costs devolves into a fight to control unions, and opponents of Republican Gov. Scott Walker portray him as Hitler.

This is like opponents of President Obama, at the height of the health-care battle, portraying him as Hitler.

Do any of these yahoos actually know what Hitler did?

Just as bad as inane labeling is an all-or-nothing approach to governing.

Public-employee unions go to the mattresses at the prospect of losing power to negotiate working conditions. Lost in the argument is the fact that the vast majority of Americans can't negotiate any aspect of employment.

Unionized workers represent just 11.9 percent of the workforce nationally (15.9 percent in Pennsylvania), according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Should such a minority dictate public policy?

Most union workers are in government. Bureau data say that 36.2 percent of government workers are unionized. In the private sector it's just 6.9 percent.

And the number of public-sector union members (7.6 million) exceeds private-sector members (7.1 million).

Since government workers are paid with tax dollars, and unions overwhelmingly support Democrats, one could argue that our taxes are used to put and keep Democrats in office to protect union jobs, pay and benefits.

During last month's State of the Union address, when Obama urged young people to "become a teacher . . . your country needs you," my first thought was, ah, fundraising for 2012.

(Last year, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers gave Democratic candidates $11.9 million, topping all union givers.)

Union jobs, according to federal data, bring in median weekly earnings $200 higher than nonunion jobs.

All this suggests that it's good to be in a union - unless elected leaders not reliant on union contributions, a/k/a Republicans, are looking to save money and cut into Democratic funding sources.

What we see in Wisconsin and Ohio, what could be coming here, isn't "class warfare." It's elemental political math.

On the other (equally transparent) side of cost-cutting efforts, resurgent Republicans risk tea-partying right into the drink by overpandering on anti-government.

Remember GOP promises to cut $100 billion from the federal budget? It's down to $60 billion (blowhards!). And it includes sweeping cuts in early education programs and food subsidies for children of poor mothers.

(This might be a good place to note that U.S. spending on foreign economic and military aid to 69 governing authorities, from Colombia to Kosovo to Tanzania, went from $16.8 billion in 2001 to $49 billion in 2008. I won't even mention the $1 trillion-plus spent so far on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.)

Cuts are coming, federal and state. But they have more to do with political agendas than leadership or long-term solutions.

I'm still waiting for Congress, the White House, the Legislature, the governor to enact substantial personal and institutional cuts in pay, perks, benefits, travel, ceremony, etc. If we all have to sacrifice, shouldn't elected leaders lead the way?

Is it right, for example, that state lawmakers pay only 1 percent of salary (4 percent of costs) for their health insurance, while private-sector workers pay 14 percent of salary (30 percent of costs) for theirs?

Should "leaders" who cling to perks for themselves slash programs serving others?

The Pew Center on the States' recent issue brief, "Paying Later," compares costs of cuts to domestic and social programs to long-term costs.

One example says that every $1,000 cut from the federal WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program for nutrition during pregnancy can cost $10,000 later to cover medical bills for low-birth-weight babies.

The GOP federal budget plan cuts WIC 10 percent, or $758 million. The comparison applied to cuts in early education suggests that every $10,000 cut from preschool programs can cost $250,000 later to pay for public assistance.

Clearly, there's danger in the politics of the moment, in rhetoric and response from the left and the right. Whether dealing with unions or dealing with cuts, the best decisions aren't likely to come from one side or the other, but from an ideology that emerges with "no affiliation."

Send e-mail to baerj@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to

www.philly.com/JohnBaer. Read Baer's blog at www.philly.com/BaerGrowls.

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