The Worst Generation's war in Wisconsin

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We baby boomers have been called, with good reason, "The Worst Generation."

Our parents survived the Great Depression, then donned uniforms to fight the Good War and save Western Civilization. We call them "The Greatest Generation." We use capital letters to honor their achievements and spirit of uncomplaining self-sacrifice.

But they gave birth to us, the cohort born between 1945 and 1964, and they gave us everything they never had. Since fate has demanded little of us, we spoiled "baby boomers" are, as former Clinton adviser Paul Begala (born 1961) has written, "the most self-centered, self-seeking, self-interested, self-absorbed, self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing generation" in U.S. history.

That epic selfishness is on full display in Wisconsin's budget battle.

Like the rest of the country, Wisconsin's government, unions and schools, led mostly by boomers, are trying to stem a tide of red ink. Unlike the federal government, Wisconsin can't just print more money or borrow from the Chinese.

So the rest of America is closely watching Wisconsin: Will the boomers finally step up, as their parents did, and do what's best for the next generation?

In "The Worst Generation," Mr. Begala's ridiculously partisan but still insightful 2000 essay, he quotes a Georgetown University professor's explanation of America's greatness. It derives from "Future Preference": the belief that the future can be better than the past "and that each of us has a personal, moral obligation to make it so."

But are we fulfilling that obligation when we demand things for ourselves without regard for the cost to our children or our less-privileged peers? That's the question at the heart of the Wisconsin budget battle.

Part of the problem in reaching an answer is that "the Worst Generation" is also in charge of news coverage. They've focused on the style of the protests rather than the content of the conflict.

To help close a $3.6 billion budget deficit, newly elected Republican Gov. Scott Walker would require public employees to pay 5.8 percent of their salaries toward pensions and 12.6 percent of their health insurance premiums. It's more than they've been paying yet far, far less than private sector workers pay.

But the governor (born 1967 -- a non-boomer!) has asked for more. He would curtail public employees' ability to negotiate benefits such as pensions and health care and would tie their salary negotiations to the Consumer Price Index. The only public employees exempted would be police, firefighters and the State Patrol.

The bill sparked massive protests. Last week local teachers called in sick and jammed the capitol building in Madison; by the weekend, the crowd had swelled to 70,000. As unions across the country bused in protesters, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka showed up to rally the masses, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson arrived to lead them in "We Shall Overcome."

But -- overcome what? Democracy in action? Overcome who? The voters and taxpayers of Wisconsin?

The (baby boomer) presidents of the teachers and public employees unions told Wisconsin State Journal reporters that workers would do "their fair share" to narrow the budget gap. If that were true, though, they'd actually have to contribute far more than the governor has requested:

In the past 10 years, says the Wisconsin Department of Employee Trust Funds, taxpayers paid more than $8 billion for state workers' health care coverage, while the workers put in only $398 million. And from 2000 to 2009, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, taxpayers spent about $12.6 billion on public employee pensions while the employees contributed only $8 million.

That's why the governor is right to press for an end to the status quo. The problem isn't unionizing, per se; I am a former, proud member of The Newspaper Guild and the wife of a grateful musicians union member. Unions exist to get the best possible contracts for their members, but private sector unions -- unlike the public variety -- have to respond to market forces. To reality.

Instead, those who sit across from public sector unions, negotiating on taxpayers' behalf, are politicians -- of both parties -- who are only too happy to accept endorsements and donations today while sticking future generations with the bill.

If the legislation doesn't pass, the likely result will be huge layoffs that rob the newest public employees of their jobs. Any way you slice it, baby boom leaders are saying to the young, "We want ours, and we can make you pay for it."

Our Boomer in Chief, President Barack Obama, stepping into a state's affairs, called Gov. Walker's approach "an assault on unions." On the contrary, the unions' failure to acknowledge their selfish wrongheadedness is an assault on the future. Once again, the Worst Generation is earning its nasty nickname.

Ruth Ann Dailey: .


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