Last week, after his criminal trial ended with a hung jury, John Edwards proclaimed hopefully, "I don't think God is through with me," as he planted the seeds for his comeback. Projecting the false modesty and manufactured authenticity that vaulted the one-term senator toward the presidency, Edwards personifies Groucho Marx's maxim that "The secret to life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you've got it made."
In response to Edwards, I imagined a collective uproar: "Think Again, John - the jig is up!" As Edwards exits stage left, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker takes center stage. He - along with brave governors in New Jersey, Indiana, South Carolina, Louisiana and possibly even New York - represents a new breed of leader emboldened to end public-sector unions' stranglehold on our governments and the economy.
Putting aside Edwards' despicable personal conduct, he is emblematic of the corrupt patronage system that Walker ended in Wisconsin - the one that allows government unions to cement relationships with self-serving politicians, leaving taxpayers unrepresented and rendering many states insolvent. By voting decisively to retain Walker (the only U.S. governor to survive a recall), Cheeseheads declared the jig is finally up for this brand of special-interest cronyism and the politicians who perpetuate it - at least in Wisconsin.
The truth is that public-sector unions don't serve a compelling social need, because governments don't exploit labor for profits. Furthermore, as Franklin Roosevelt cautioned, "The process of collective bargaining ... cannot be transplanted into the public service ... (without risking) paralysis of government by those who have sworn to support it." Realizing this, President Carter reduced collective-bargaining rights for federal employees by signing the Civil Service Reform Act.
It's ironic that public-sector unions met their match in Wisconsin, the birthplace of American progressivism and public-sector unionism, where roughly two-thirds of voters either are or are related to union members. Now, progressive Wisconsin is proof that the crisis of the modern entitlement state being played out worldwide - from the eurozone to California - doesn't have to be a Greek tragedy.
In Wisconsin, even union sympathizers realize everyone is ill-served when the government can't meet its obligations. They know the promises politicians make far exceed our ability to pay and, watching Europe implode from the same disorder, realize there is only one choice: reduced yet sustainable government or bankruptcy. Wisconsin voted for balance knowing the essential first step on the path to prosperity and opportunity is for governments to recover fiscal soundness.
That was Walker's pledge in 2010. Facing the fourth-highest tax burden in the country and determined to reverse Wisconsin's $3.6 billion deficit without raising taxes or firing workers, Walker's reforms disallowed collective bargaining for public-employee unions (except police and firefighters). No longer can unions negotiate their taxpayer-funded benefits with politicians they helped elect using mandatory dues. Additionally, Walker asked government employees to contribute modestly more to their health and retirement benefits. Even after these reforms, Wisconsin workers enjoy "a combined salary-benefits compensation premium of around 22 percent over private-sector workers," according to a study in May by the American Enterprise Institute.
Though these reforms were modest, the unions and their allies reacted ferociously, like a mama bear defending her cub. They captured national attention with protests, runaway state senators, legal challenges and state senator recall elections. Despite their efforts, they couldn't overcome the will of the people - to keep the reforms.
That's because Walker's reforms are succeeding: The budget has a $150 million surplus, property taxes are lower, the unemployment rate is 6.8 percent (the lowest since 2008 and well below the national average), the private sector created 26,000 jobs in 2011, and savings realized by school districts have preserved jobs and educational programming. Most encouraging, according to a Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce survey in May, 73 percent of employers predicted moderate to good business growth and more than half plan to expand operations within two years - the highest rate in a decade.
No wonder one-third of union members voted for Walker, according to exit polls. Seeing union policies drain government finances, endanger vital government services and undermine their own jobs and benefits, why would union members want to pay their dues? Now that they have the option not to, tens of thousands have opted out. Perhaps this is the best outcome of all, for civil society is healthier when government employees believe they're on the same side as taxpayers.
As C.S. Lewis said, "We all want progress, but if you're on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive."
Though it's too late for Edwards, other self-proclaimed "progressives" must Think Again - good policy makes great politics.