Public employees ruined Rome. In the 2nd century BC, the general Marius wanted to turn Rome’s citizen army, then a troop of part-timers, into a professional fighting force. To entice men to sign up for lengthy stints far from home, Marius promised his soldiers cash bonuses and — more importantly — land on which they could settle after their terms expired. It was one of the world’s first government pension plans.
Unfortunately, Marius’ reform turned out to be a recipe for civil conflict and, eventually, economic collapse. Roman soldiers began to look to individual generals, rather than the state, as their benefactors, and began to serve for financial reward rather than patriotic duty. Roman military leaders were forced to promise more and more public resources to maintain the loyalty of their troops, until one day there was no more money — by the 3rd century AD, the army cost more than tax receipts collected, an unmistakable sign that the end was near.
Public employees are now ruining the American republic, though our malefactors come not from the army but from the legions of unionized workers laboring in government service. For decades, public-sector unions have used their influence to help elect their own bosses and demand lavish pension and health care benefits. The result is 44 states facing an estimated budgetary shortfall of $125 billion.
Wisconsin is just one state finding that the cost of its employees exceeds its tax revenues. If something isn’t done to put the state’s finances on sound footing, a $3.6 billion budget shortfall looms. Gov. Scott Walker is attempting to do just that. Among other things, he’s asking his state’s unionized employees to contribute more to their health and pension plans. Those workers, especially teachers, responded with massive protests against Gov. Walker and his plan.
The average salary of a Milwaukee public school teacher is $56,500. But factor in the enormous benefits packages, including health care and pensions, and the annual average compensation is $100,005! In spite of such well-compensated instructors, and per-pupil spending higher any other Midwestern state, two thirds of Wisconsin 8th graders cannot read at a proficient level, according to 2009 data from the U.S. Department of Education. Twenty-two percent, or nearly one in four students, cannot even read at a “basic” level. True, that is slightly higher than the national average — but what a pathetically weak average it is! An atrocious 30 percent of 8th graders nationwide are “proficient” readers.
In spite of this dismaying record, Wisconsin’s teachers had the temerity to walk off the job en masse in protest of Walker’s proposals, flock by the thousands to the capitol in Madison, and force the closure of schools throughout the state. Of course, though they declined to teach while protesting their right to bankrupt the state, they were still collecting their salary. As reported by the MacIver Institute:
In Madison, the school district was closed for three days after hundreds of teachers engaged in a mass sick-out so they could attend protest rallies at the State Capitol. That could cost the district $2.7 million […]. If all the teachers in Milwaukee and Madison are paid for the days missed, the protest related salaries for just the state’s two largest districts would exceed $6.6 million dollars.
American public-sector workers have become more loyal to their unions than to the state, just as Roman soldiers became loyal to generals instead of the Senate. It’s the corruption that comes, and always will come, when one class of citizens is given privileged access to the public purse.