As one of his first acts as our new governor, Andrew Cuomo has announced he’ll be cutting his own $179,000 annual salary, by 5 percent. Good for him! (His girlfriend, with whom he lives in Chappaqua, plays a chef on TV and is divorced from a billionaire, so he will probably survive.) He’s doing this to “lead by example,” since he’s about to ask the unions representing public-sector workers for a one-year wage freeze, and likely for reductions in pension and healthcare benefits.
Meanwhile, new, mostly Republican administrations nationwide are gearing up for battles with unions, “seeking more far-reaching, structural changes that would weaken the bargaining power and political influence of unions, including private sector ones.” (Scott Walker, the new governor of Wisconsin, wants to prohibit public employees from unionizing. He is not the Scott Walker who sang “30 Century Man.”) Over the break, a Times dispatch from New Jersey looked at the Chris Christie-marshaled resentment against the teachers union, which basically boils down to, How dare unions ensure that public employees are well taken care of when the rest of us are getting the shaft from a fickle private sector? (We ourselves dodged a bullet, though I guess not much of one, by not electing Harry Wilson comptroller.)
The idea, I guess, with Andrew Cuomo’s pay freeze and breaking the public-employee unions is that times are tough, and we should all “chip in a little,” “do our part,” “spread the pain around like margarine,” et cetera. Which is appealing, in a victory garden sort of way, but also just such a total joke.
Until the bossing-around-public-employees meme starts to succeed on the state level, you have the incoming House majority proposing $100 billion in cuts to (nonmilitary, do I even need to say it?) spending. Which is enough to cripple, say, the Pell Grants program, but not remotely enough to balance the federal budget. That’d work out to something like 20 percent off the current funding levels—enough to cripple things like education (which eats into state budget) and transportation (which keeps people at work during a recession and fixes our broken infrastructure), but hardly a dent in a budget deficit that’s well over a trillion dollars.
Since these budget cuts are mostly symbolic (and since, indeed, so few of those cuts will survive negotiation with the White House, the advocacy of individual House members and outside lobbying), conversation will soon turn to entitlements: healthcare and retirement funds. The $100 billion targeted by the new, Tea Party-backed majority doesn’t include any of the real socialist stuff, at least not yet: a conservative think-tank member tells the Times that “Medicare and Social Security… are the main source of our budget problems,” which is what Budget Committee chairman and designated GOP idea man Paul Ryan thought, too, before he had the responsibilities of the majority to contend with.)
So, entitlement reform is the ultimate goal here, and the entitlements due to state employees—who are in-house and easier to control than the public at large—are the test case. This is inevitable: the problem with the budget deficit (aside of course from our vast and open-ended military commitments) is entitlement programs, and the conversation seems to be moving to a place where we recognize that our financial commitment to the welfare state far outstrips whatever revenue we can reasonably, sustainably hope to collect (unless kicking the can down the road via a series of economic bubbles was in fact the goal all along, which come to think of it I wouldn’t put past the ruling class, who conveniently also profit from such a state of affairs in the meantime, but I digress).
This state of affairs is problematic, of course, though given the colossal regressiveness of the tax code and the success the civilized world seems to be having with the welfare state, it might be argued that it is a problem for the reasons exactly opposite those on which we seem to have settled.