When Public 'Servants' Are Our Masters

I routinely hear from readers who, upon agreeing with my lamentations about America’s frightening and ongoing loss of freedoms, want to know what exactly they can do to help stem the tide. That’s where I get into my biggest arguments with the many readers who somehow believe that there’s a quick and magical solution to our problems. Many get mad at me for simply pointing to problems without offering some easy blueprint to lead us back to the Promised Land.

The solutions these readers offer range from the insane to the hilarious. I’ve got one who constantly implores me to take up the cause of dividing California into two separate states. What a great idea. Then instead of sending two left-wing wackos to the U.S. Senate, we can send four. Granted, the Bay Area leftists are nutty even by Southern California standards, but as this area turns increasingly into a northern province of Mexico, what would a break-up solve?

Others argue for regional secession. This is fantasy. No region is noticeably better than any other one these days (although some are noticeably worse). The same national trends ruining the national culture have become the norm everywhere. How exactly would the media and the national parties portray an effort by, say, the South to secede from the rest of the country? This is infantilism masquerading as serious thought, yet I am routinely peppered with emails by intelligent-sounding people who seriously buy into such a "solution."

The Third Party true believers are the funniest because they really do believe that if we all pool our resources, we can reject the Socialist Kerry and the National Socialist Bush and elect that Libertarian Party guy who advocated blowing up the United Nations building and who refuses to drive lest the government get his Social Security number. Most of the Libertarian Party candidates for local office I run into are the type that hasn’t even learned the importance of showering and wearing decent clothes, yet can’t understand why they are failures in the world of retail politics. Even if they didn’t have flies swirling around their heads, and could actually win an office, what good what that do anyway? Yet they are sure they are accomplishing something.

In California, activists have unending faith in initiatives, and they can be quite effective at times. Prop. 13 was perhaps the most groundbreaking, authentic and effective measure to pass, yet since 1978 governments have simply found new ways to make up for the revenue that Prop. 13 promised to deprive them of. Governments are bigger and flusher with cash than ever, so Prop. 13’s limits on property taxes didn’t really work. It’s important to support it against assaults by government officials who would love to tax us out of our homes, but believers in limited government ought not to believe that any political gimmick can roll back Leviathan.

Remember term limits? California passed a term limits law and yet the Legislature has become more left-wing and corrupt than ever. It never occurred to advocates that the good (or, at least, the not-so-bad) would be cast aside along with the bottom-feeders, or that it would hand over the Legislature to a younger and younger crowd, made up mainly of former staffers with no experience whatsoever outside the strange world of the state Capitol in Sacramento.

Even the recall, a wonderful populist revolt against a corrupt governor backed by corrupt interest groups (Indian casinos, trial lawyers and public-sector unions) has come up wanting. The new governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, is little more than a really cool Gray Davis. He is cutting the same kind of shameless deals as Davis, and is employing the same fiscal tricks — i.e., floating debt and postponing the day of reckoning — as his pathetic predecessor.

There is no easy solution.

California is facing a new, looming crisis. You should be scared, even if you live in another place in the country, because what happens here eventually happens there also. My newspaper, The Orange County Register, refers to it as the Pension Tsunami. A tidal wave of excessive public benefits granted to politically powerful public-sector unions is pushing one California city after another to the brink of bankruptcy. Union officials, especially the police and fire unions, have exploited post-9/11 sentiment to exact CEO-style retirement packages for their members. Cops and firefighters can retire in Orange County with 100 percent of their final salary after 30 years. Their salaries can easily hit the $140,000 range.

In Orange County, the Board of Supervisors is about to approve a package of similarly generous benefits for all county employees, granting an instant 50-percent pension spike to these "public servants." There might be one, or at the most two votes, against this horrendous gift of public funds — on a board that has a 5-0 Republican majority. So you know what’s happening in more liberal counties. They are granting these benefits even as the walls cave in on cities all around them. But politicians refuse to fight against unions that promise to take them out in the next election. They rely on union estimates that the retirement spikes won’t cost taxpayers anything. But those estimates are based on bald-faced lies, on the idea that the stock market will perform at record levels for the next three decades.

In Orange County, average firefighters earn between $90,000 and $130,000 a year, and one firefighter earns $227,000 a year. Cops aren’t far behind in salary, and these guys retire with 100 percent of final pay or more, after they spike their last year’s salary. Yet, as Tom DiLorenzo pointed out in the LRC blog on Tuesday, public safety officials will not even perform their basic duties. They allow hurricane-ravaged Florida neighborhoods to be looted without doing anything, but then shoot a guy with a taser gun in front of his two kids as he tries to go back and protect his home. Don’t expect any accountability for the cops or any sympathy for the homeowner.

Years ago, when I lived in Des Moines and the city was covered in flood waters, I helped organize private post-flood relief efforts on behalf of my church. Other churches did similar things. As soon as the flood waters receded, we organized teams of volunteers to go door-to-door to see what was needed. We pumped out basements, removed soggy furniture, and brought foodstuffs to the elderly. Meanwhile, within hours it seemed, insurance adjusters were showing up to make repair estimates and to get the neighborhood up and running again. But then the National Guard and the federal relief workers showed up, and we were ordered out of the neighborhood. The whole process shut down completely for about three weeks, while the bureaucrats bullied people around and took charge of the situation. I remember Lew Rockwell describing a similar event after the earthquake in the Bay Area.

Yet Americans are constantly told to dig more deeply into their pockets to give these bureaucrats and bullies more of our money and more of our freedoms. They are heroes, we are constantly told. And too many of my friends and neighbors believe it, refusing to recognize the public looting and abuses perpetrated by these authorities. They close their eyes when, say, the "heroes" who run local fire departments use their political power to drive private emergency technicians out of business. They refuse to pay attention to the dishonest tactics used to drive up public pensions.

Americans refuse to recognize, as one local taxpayers’ group explains, that those of us working in the private sector are working into our 70s and longer to pay the higher taxes demanded so that our so-called public servants can retire earlier and earlier at higher and higher amounts. We’re their servants and they are our masters. Yet, like good slaves, we obey and worship those who mock and abuse us.

This brings me back to the purpose of the article. What can we do about it? I don’t think any grand scheme or gimmick will roll back the problem. I doubt that we can compete in the political world with those who finance their campaigns on public dollars, and money coerced by union members.

But we can object whenever thuggish and greedy public servants are depicted as heroes. We can tell people we know about the abuses and the plundering and the lack of respect public safety officials have for the public. We can actively work to take the halo off these overpaid government workers by pointing out the truth. It’s not as fun as fantasizing about secession, but it will achieve more in the long run.

Steven Greenhut (send him mail) is a senior editorial writer and columnist for the Orange County Register. He is the author of the new book, Abuse of Power.