Friday, June 8, 2012

On Wisconsin

This American thinks it is time to stand up for public sector employees as the bravest, most selfless, and possibly the least-appreciated people in the country.

I recently read an article in The Wall Street Journal which began with a firefighter going grocery shopping with some of his colleagues. As he loaded his cart up with steaks and other things, he was accosted by another shopper, who said roughly: "Who do you think you are, getting a meal like that on the taxpayers' dime?"

I don't know who that particular firefighter thinks he is, and I don't know how he replied. But here's how I would have replied, had it been me: "I'm the guy who rushes into your burning house and saves your cats, your kids, and you!" Come on! We're really going to begrudge a guy who chose a career that means being willing to put his life at risk on a moment's notice a good meal every now and again? Really?

My mother was a public school teacher for much of her career, and frequently encouraged me not to follow in her footsteps. That confused me -- why would I not want to pursue a career that meant helping people, shaping young minds, and training the next generation of American workers? Sure, the pay wasn't stellar, but money wasn't my priority -- I wanted to do something that mattered. What better way to make a difference -- a real, tangible, appreciable difference -- than to be a teacher? I didn't understand.

Well, now I do. Despite mounting evidence that charter schools (whose teachers aren't unionized) produce no better results than regular public schools (and, in fact, often produce worse results), the idea that teachers unions are the root of all evil and that "accountability" is the answer to all of our educational problems remains a popular one in the public debate. In case anyone thinks I mean this as a partisan screed, it isn't only Republicans who've embraced this slipshod premise -- President Obama endorses it as well.

Knowing this, here's what confuses me now: Why would anyone want to enter a profession where they're paid like crap and treated accordingly? Why would anyone want to spend their lives working every waking moment (as teachers often do, if my mother is any example) only to be vilified every time they turn on the news as the source of the very problem they're working so hard to solve? I don't know whether I'll ever have kids, but if I do, I certainly won't encourage them to become teachers. Why should they?

Remember the Zadroga bill? That was the one to provide health benefits to 9/11 first responders. Remember how it only passed the Senate by the grace of Jon Stewart? (To their credit, after Jon Stewart spoke up on the issue, others, such as Shep Smith at FOX News and Rachel Maddow at MSNBC, followed.) And that's for the first responders at the scene of the greatest American national tragedy since Pearl Harbor.

Why is it that cutting the pensions or freezing the pay of these heroes and others like them is "fiscal responsibility" while raising taxes on people who make vastly more money than they do is "class warfare?" In what world is the second more "divisive" than the first? You're taking money out of someone's pocket either way.

I realize this is supposed to be a blog about books, writing, and pop culture, and I normally give politics a wide berth on this site. I don't think telling (or appreciating) good stories has anything to do with whether you're a Democrat, a Republican, a Libertarian, or a Socialist. Art is for everyone. But on this issue, I can stay silent no longer. This is ridiculous.

Nobody likes bureaucracy. It is cumbersome, irritating, and prone to making mistakes. The abundance of bureaucracy in government makes the public sector an easy target for those who are tired of being put on hold. I understand that. But the idea that "government jobs" -- which include teachers, firefighters, cops, prosecutors, and, oh yes, the military -- are somehow "less real" than their private sector counterparts is a self-defeating delusion that should offend Americans of every political stripe.

Let's put it to rest.


  1. I'm going to be a high school english teacher, and while I'm not excited about dealing with angry parents and making next to nothing, I am looking forward to changing teenage lives. My high school english teacher changed the way I think about literature and inspired me to not only read more, but to write more and to follow my dreams. Because of him, I've found my calling, and if I can inspire just one person, my job will have been worth it.

  2. Good on you for doing that -- I'm very pro-teacher. My point is that we as a society should stop crapping on them, since they're the ones who train the next generation of our work force.

  3. Amen, brother. More bitter fruit from the Republicans, who'll just demonize anyone they think can't fight back.