The story to date: Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker announced a budget-repair measure to address looming budget deficits (in a state with a balanced budget mandate in its constitution) by requiring state employees to contribute a larger proportion of their pensions and health care plans, and restricting their long-standing collective bargaining rights. Wisconsin’s deficit is projected at $30 million for the remainder of the 2011, with a shortfall of $1.5 billion projected for next year. In response to Walker’s announcement and the near certainty of his plan being passed by the Republican dominated state legislature, 14 Democratic legislators fled the state to prevent a quorum and block a vote, teachers left their classes to protest in Madison, where they were joined by thousands of pro-union protesters, many of whom were organized and bused in by Organizing for America, a White House operated political group.
Let’s try to separate the ethics wheat from the chaff—amazingly, there is actually some wheat–and get an early line on the heroes, dunces, villains, and the rest as the Wisconsin budget battle threatens to become a full-fledged Ethics Train Wreck.
Gov. Scott Walker: His plan may be wise, radical, right or wrong, and where you stand on that depends on your political orientation. It is certainly not per se unethical. Nor is the criticism of public unions trumped up lies, though it may be exaggerated. Public unions did not cause the economic problems of the states or the nation, as some Republican talking points would have you think. But the public unions-Democratic Party relationship does create a conflict of interest in which the unions give large amounts of money to elect Democratic legislators, who them reciprocate by enacting generous salary and benefit terms for union members. It is also true that collective bargaining with the public unions does make bringing state and local budgets into austerity in difficult times more difficult. Walker’s plans for the unions may be excessive, but they are not unreasonable or outrageous.
He has, however, as politician are wont to do, uttered some misleading statements in support of his plan. He intentionally muddled the difference between civil service rights and union bargaining privileges, representing a proposed major change as a minor one. He also played the scare game, falsely claiming that the alternative to making public union members pay more would be taking 200,000 Wisconsin children off Medicaid, which is simply not true: the law prohibits this. His plan also plays favorites, something that is especially unfair with a proposal this tough: it exempts the police and fire-fighter unions. Why? Well, they are popular with the public, but the main reason is that they supported his campaign.
Ethics Grade: C Walker is acting like a leader and taking political risks to solve a real problem. He wins ethics points for courage, but loses some for not being entirely forthright with the public. In taking on the public unions now, he is engaging in Rahm Emmanuel’s favorite ploy of not letting a good crisis go to waste: he, like many Republicans and conservatives, believes that public unions need to have less power. That’s neither ethical or unethical. It’s politics. I think his grade is the toughest call; I originally had him a bit higher. Walker is showing responsibility, diligence, accountability, courage, integrity and trustworthiness (in that he is doing exactly what his supporters want and expected when they voted for him), but loses ethics points for some deficits in fairness, honesty, candor and empathy.
The Runaway Democratic State Senators: As President Obama kept telling the Republicans, elections have consequences. Democrats lost the legislature, and that means that the public made a choice. The conduct of the fugitive legislators isn’t democratic, it isn’t fair politics, it isn’t anything more than an abdication of duty and disrespect for the democratic political process. Breaking the rules to avoid losing is known as cheating.
Ethics Grade: F
The Madison Demonstrators. Many commentators have pointed out, accurately, that some of the Madison anti-Walker demonstrators are waving exactly the kind of hateful, uncivil signs (“Death to Tyrants,” “Hosni Walker,” “Hitler Outlawed Unions, Too,” “Walker puts the dic in dictator,” and others) that critics of the Tea Party pointed to as proof that its rallies were proof of bad motives and bad character. As with the Tea Party signs, however, it is unfair to attribute the worst qualities of elements of a group to the group as a whole—not that Democrats and the media were very faithful to the principle. The chief problem with the demonstrations is that its fervor and size is the sort that ought to be in support of something less self-serving and more noble than objecting to a reduction of benefits at a time when so many other Americans just want to find a job. They have been described by journalists on the Right and the Left as a tantrum, in its uncomfortable similarity to last year’s protests by Greeks over their bankrupt government cutting benefits like government-paid holiday bonuses, or the French riots over that nation’s financially-strapped government raising the retirement age from 60 to 62. Still, Wisconsin isn’t as bad off as Greece, and the public unions’ benefits are far from being as cushy as France’s retirement age.
Ethics Grade: C It’s not Greece, but it’s not the March on Washington, either. The public unions have been excessively demonized and used in conservative rhetoric as a scapegoat for financial problems not of their making. Protests are a democratic staple, but the indignation is out of proportion to the perceived offense.
President Obama. I have already posted on his ill-considered remarks on what is a state matter. He also bears responsibility for the activities of Organizing for America, which is actively stoking the demonstrations in Wisconsin. I am searching history to find another example—besides Richard Nixon, hardly a role model—of a U.S. President who mobilized efforts to influence legislative disputes that did not involve the U.S. Congress.
Ethics Grade: C-
The Teachers.“On Thursday and Friday, we are asking Wisconsinites to come to Madison,” the president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council announced on Wednesday. Then she claimed—cynically,disingenuously—that she wasn’t calling for the union’s 98,000 teachers to walk off their jobs. Coincidentally, Wisconsin teachers did walk out of their classes after that statement, abandoning their students and their duties. They are forbidden by law from striking, so the action was a “sick-out,’ with thousands of teachers claiming to be ill when they were not. In addition to this dishonesty (we will see what the response is the next time a student is disciplined for emulating Ferris Bueller), many of the teachers used young students in their protests, having them hold up signs and otherwise using them as props.
Ethics Grade: D The teachers appeal to their dedication to the students, but their dedication appears to be dispensable when money is on the line. They are supposed to be role models, but they blatantly lied to avoid taking responsibility for an illegal job action. Using children as cheap and involuntary political props is dehumanizing and unethical.
Doctors: Proving that dishonest professional conduct is contagious, some supportive doctors were moving among the public workers Friday, handing out sick notes to support the lie that teachers and others were employing to avoid accountability for walking off the job.
“I asked this doctor what he was doing and he told me they were handing out excuses to people who were feeling sick due to emotional, mental or financial distress,” one demonstrator told reporters. “They never performed an exam–he asked me how I was feeling today and I said I’m from California and I’m not used to the cold, so he handed me a note.”
Copies of the fake notes were obtained by the press. They read:
Feb 19, 2011
Date of birth ____/_____/_____
To Whom it May Concern:
This is confirm I have seen and evaluated the above named patient. Please excuse from work/school due to a medical condition from
Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if additional information is needed. Thank you.
Ethics Grade: F
NBC Anchor Brian Williams. Williams began his Friday newscast with this:
“Good evening. From the Mideast to the American Midwest tonight, people are rising up. Citizens uprisings are changing the world. As we’ve witnessed from Tunisia to Egypt and now tonight from Libya to Bahrain, where today there was a violent crackdown and our reporters and cameras were there when shots were fired. But tonight we’re going to begin in Wisconsin. The state capitol has been taken over by the people.”
Williams’ attempt to draw an equivalency between a popular uprising against a 30 year dictator in Egypt and a union protest against the budget proposals of a duly elected state governor is either biased, dishonest, or incompetent.
Ethics Grade: D+ The plus is giving him the benefit of the doubt, assuming sloppiness rather than dishonesty.
MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz. Never again should a claim by anyone connected with MSNBC that Fox News is a blatant conservative propaganda machine be greeted with anything but derision, as this episode has exposed that network’s talking heads as shameless progressive shills willing to feed its audience outright falsehoods, either out of a refusal to check sources that provided comforting spin on the facts, or desire to deceive.
Maddow began her show Thursday by announcing, “Despite what you may have heard about Wisconsin’s finances, Wisconsin is on track to have a budget surplus this year.” This was false. The reliably liberal-tilting fact-checking site, PolitiFact stated,
“There is fierce debate over the approach Walker took to address the short-term budget deficit. But there should be no debate on whether or not there is a shortfall. While not historically large, the shortfall in the current budget needed to be addressed in some fashion. Walker’s tax cuts will boost the size of the projected deficit in the next budget, but they’re not part of this problem and did not create it. We rate Maddow’s take False.”
Maddow, so far, has not retracted her statement, corrected it, or apologized for it, as her misinformation continued to emulate Mark Twain’s description of a lie, running wild through the blogosphere while the truth tries to catch up to it.
Schultz, as he usually is, was more outrageous than Maddow. His false claim:
“People who earn $30,000, $40,000, $50,000 a year might have a 20 percent of their income just disappear overnight. Ten thousand bucks isn’t really going to hurt anybody on Wall Street, but it will absolutely devastate middle class families in the state of Wisconsin.”
- Carla Vigue, spokeswoman for the state Department of Administration: The higher contributions would amount to, on average, a 9.4 percent cut in take-home pay.
- Joe Wineke, former administrator of the state Division of Compensation and Labor Relations and former chairman of the state Democratic Party: The impact on most workers would be 6.8 percent to 11 percent of their salary.
- Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie: Detailed estimates are being prepared, but the cost to the average worker would be about 8 percent of their wages.
- University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Chancellor Brian Levin-Stankevich: In a memo, he said a UW-Eau Claire employee who earns $40,000 per year would pay an annual pension contribution of $2,320, up from $80; and an annual health insurance premium for family coverage of $2,820, up from $1,068. That’s a total of $3,992 per year, or 10 percent of that employee’s salary.”
“And, of course, thousands of teachers have abandoned their classrooms to join a boisterous crowd intimidating and obstructing the elected state legislature in Madison — in scenes reminiscent of the Tea Party’s mobbing of Democrats on Capitol Hill during the health-care debate. This is hypocrisy on an epic scale. I can’t think of a more overwhelming refutation of the claim that incivility is the unique province of the American right — as opposed to what it really is and always has been: a two-way street with both right and left lanes. No wonder so many Americans in the broad center of the political spectrum are turned off by both parties and their sanctimonious “bases”…
…Perhaps most disappointing of all is that the president himself, rather than living up to the words he spoke so eloquently in Tuscon, has chosen to fuel the fury on the Great Lakes. He labeled Walker’s legislation “an assault on unions,” while the White House political operation bused in more demonstrators to join those waving Walker = Hitler placards. These are the words and deeds of a partisan politician, not a national leader.”