Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollectionsOpinion

Op-Ed

Government in the cross hairs

Who are these evil workers who throw away our tax dollars so thoughtlessly? They're our neighbors, relatives and friends -- they are police officers, firefighters and teachers.

March 06, 2011|By Barry Goldman

Who are these evil workers who throw away our tax dollars so thoughtlessly? They're our neighbors, relatives and friends — they are police officers, firefighters and teachers.

Oliver Sacks, in his wonderful early book, "A Leg to Stand On," discusses a neurological condition called somatoparaphrenia. Patients with this disorder experience "a denial of ownership" of their body parts. Sacks remembers being called to deal with a patient who had fallen out of bed. He came in to find the man lying on the floor with an odd look on his face. The patient reported that he had found a strange leg in bed with him. He thought it was a cadaver's leg that a nurse had put in his bed as a joke. But when he attempted to throw the horrible thing out of the bed, he somehow came after it — and now it was attached to him.

I've been thinking about somatoparaphrenia lately in relation to our nation's ongoing war against the public sector. Somehow we have come to think of our government the way somatoparaphrenia patients think about their arms or legs. It is not us. It just takes our money and wastes it on foolishness. It is as if the government has nothing to do with the people, and its expenditures are no more beneficial to its citizens than when a boatload of Somali pirates spend their bloody ransom on drugs and whores.

"Starve the beast," we say. "Government is not the solution, government is the problem." Cut pay and benefits for government workers, take away their right to bargain collectively, remove their right to arbitration and shrink the size of government until, in Grover Norquist's memorable phrase, we can "drown it in the bathtub."

So who is this evil occupier who extorts our hard-earned money and throws it away so thoughtlessly? The cop? The firefighter? The guy who keeps the streetlights on? The nurses in the public hospitals? The teachers in the public schools? The people who maintain the parks, inspect the food and run the sewage treatment plants? These people are the problem? These people are the beast?

In calmer moments, we know that isn't true. These people are our neighbors, our relatives and our friends. The guy down the street is a doctor in a public hospital. Your brother is married to a teacher. Your friend from college is dating a cop. If they lose their homes, our neighborhoods suffer. If they lose their benefits, our businesses suffer. If they lose their jobs, we suffer. They are us. You can't just drill holes in their end of the boat and expect to stay afloat.

Look, I've been arbitrating labor cases for 20 years. I know something about incompetence. I also know something about waste, fraud, nepotism, featherbedding, laziness, corruption and stupidity. And what I know is you don't have to go to the public sector to find them. They are evident in malignant abundance in private enterprise as well. For every Department of Motor Vehicles, there is an equally infuriating private phone company. For every bloated public bureaucracy, there is an equally sclerotic corporate structure.

It is not government that is the problem; it is people in groups. And there's not much we can do about that. Bureaucracies seek to perpetuate themselves and to expand their influence. Individuals seek to improve their circumstances. This is as true of the PTA as it is of the FBI. And that's why we have competing interests and a system of checks and balances.

The danger comes when one side becomes powerful enough to completely overwhelm the other. At present, in Wisconsin and elsewhere, radical conservative activists who believe that government is the enemy and who have always opposed the power of unions are attempting to use the cover of the financial crisis to dismantle public sector collective bargaining. Fair enough. Never let a good crisis go to waste and all that. But if they succeed in kicking organized labor out of bed, our nation will find itself suddenly and painfully thrown to the floor.

Barry Goldman is an arbitrator and mediator and the author of "The Science of Settlement: Ideas for Negotiators."

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|