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‘Best and Brightest’ Wisconsin Style

February 19, 2011

In the early 1960s, during the John F. Kennedy administration, there was much-to-do over the fact that so many bright people were joining the administration to work for the young President.

They came to Washington from all over the country but many arrived from Ivy League institutions and professed they were joining the ranks of the government working class to serve their country in a notable profession: “public service”.

There was also a 1972 book written about this phenomenon, titled, The Best and the Brightest, by David Halberstam, which chronicled the foreign policy crafted by these intellectuals, and the consequences of their policies in the Vietnam War.

In the 1960s, government employees were not paid very well. Few thought of a government job as a long-term goal, especially not the Kennedy enlistees, most of whom thought they belonged on Wall Street, or aspired to be President of the United States themselves.

No one could foresee that this original migration of academics from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton would be the first wave of an immigration flood that would balloon the size of government to the unsustainable levels we see today.

As government programs expanded far beyond the ability of taxpayers to pay for them, these individuals also wittingly enhanced their own compensation and job security in the process. Government benefits and pay now far outpace private sector compensation for the same work.

The dirty secret is that the vast majority of public sector employees could not match the pay and benefits they now enjoy should they be forced to look for work in the private sector.

Nowhere is this being played out more visibly than in the state of Wisconsin where Republican Governor Scott Walker is proposing that state workers increase their health insurance and pension contributions to help with the state’s $4 billion deficit.

There’s chaos in Madison where upwards of 40,000 people have stormed the Capitol in protest of his proposal.  Liberal college students, union workers from all industries, and the state employees affected by the Governor’s proposal are the ones protesting.

Democrat Senators have skipped town, literally to another state, to prevent a necessary quorum, needed to bring the Governor’s proposal to a vote on the Senate floor

Wisconsin is symptomatic to what is occurring throughout the country due to years of unchecked spending. As a member of the House of Representatives in Pennsylvania during the late 70s and early 1980s, I recall the entire state budget being $5 billion. That is now equal to the budget deficit in Pennsylvania and similar states, including Wisconsin.

We know that social security is in dire financial straits and is unsustainable in its current form unless the full retirement age is increased for younger workers, and their future benefits are reduced.

State and federal government employees are exempt from paying into social security. Those workers pay into their own retirement systems, one that is also substantially assisted by all taxpayers.

These government pension plans are now also unsustainable, and the answer lies in reducing their benefits, increasing the retirement age, or collecting more money from the beneficiaries themselves.

Government workers want none of this, believing they’ve been promised something and the politicians now want to renege on previous commitments. There is reason for their concern because unlike social security, government pension plans will be the primary source of retirement income for most government workers.

Unfortunately, working for the government as a way to serve the public good went out of style with President Kennedy’s “best and brightest.”

It’s now down to the most basic of human instincts, the one being played out in Madison, Wisconsin.

That being protecting one’s self interest.