The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Anti-Buddha

Wisconsin Governor Walker Is Not a Wise Grasshopper

Some conservatives have taken to dubbing President Obama the “anti-Reagan” of late, as opposed to those branding him the Antichrist for some time now. They mean to mock suggestions by some that Obama is moving toward the center as he enters the second half of his Presidential term. I tend to agree with their evaluation. Obama strikes me as consistent in his politics and leadership style, albeit a consistency sometimes difficult to label.

However, if we are trotting out “antis” for consideration, I believe there is a new one emerging on the conservative side. I nominate Republican Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin as the “anti-Buddha” because of his intentions to limit severely the collective bargaining rights of public sector unions. It is not so much what Walker wants to achieve that earns him this sobriquet from me as the manner that he has gone about doing it.
Republican Governor Scott
Walker of Wisconsin

Walker says Wisconsin needs to do this – and I take him at his word – because of the state’s looming budget deficit. It is but part of $1.0 billion in cuts he will likely propose for next year’s budget. Walker warns fifteen hundred state workers could lose their jobs by July if the Wisconsin legislature fails to adopt his proposal.

Walker wants affected workers to accept an eight percent pay cut on average as well as significant increases to the portion of their pensions funded by themselves. Union leaders have agreed to these concessions, acknowledging the state’s dire financial straits. However, this is not good enough for Walker. He demands Wisconsin’s need to invalidate the collective bargaining agreements already in place with its public sector unions and limit their bargaining rights in the future to modest salary increases.

Walker rejected union concessions repeatedly, as well as one Wisconsin Republican Senator’s alternate plan to suspend collective bargaining rights temporarily for only two years. He maintains the bargaining process is too complicated and slow for the rapid, flexible responses necessary to solve Wisconsin’s problems. He insists this is not a political power play and his only desire is to return his state to economic sanity.

However, critics quickly find numerous ways in which his actions fail to match his words. Even as he calls on unions to share sacrifice for budget deficits, he ignores the primary reasons for their sudden burgeoning size are his recent tax cuts. In addition to limiting bargaining rights, Walker’s bill requires unions to face a vote of membership every year to remain formed and allows workers to opt out of paying dues. Most notably, he has focused his cuts on unions traditionally friendly to Democrats, such as teachers, while exempting those friendly to Republicans, such as firefighters and police.

In fairness, many conservative pundits argue convincingly that public sector unions need to concede more than pay cuts and require basic infrastructure changes. David Brooks of the New York Times, Richard Cohen and Michael Gerson of the Washington Post, and Jonathan Rauch of the National Journal have all argued recently or in the past that state and local governments are so indebted to union workers, particularly over generous pensions, it has become impossible for them to pay for critical services.

However, rather than bargain in earnest with state unions over this new reality, using legislation to outlaw collective bargaining as leverage, Walker pursued its forced reduction/elimination from the onset. This was his primary mistake, in my opinion. But why does this make him the anti-Buddha?

It is because of an underlying principle in Buddhist teachings that runs, “Learn the ways to preserve rather than destroy. Avoid rather than check, check rather than hurt, hurt rather than maim, maim rather than kill.” In the old Kung Fu television program, the main character’s Shaolin master was fond of this adage. It may sound like non-violent transcendental silliness but it is rooted in practicality, readily conceding that extreme actions are sometimes necessary.

It is also rooted in science; namely Newton’s Third Law of Motion, which states that for every action there is an equal but opposite reaction. Buddhism wisely concludes that when under attack by an opponent, it is usually less painful – certainly to oneself and often to one’s opponent as well – to avoid, misdirect, or deflect their force rather than attempting to meet it head on. This is the nature of Walker’s error. He needed to bring a carrot and stick to his dealings with unions. Instead, he brought a sword and came out swinging.

Whether this was a mistake on Walker’s part or he sincerely believed cost reductions are only possible by limiting the political power of unions, he was disingenuous when insisting his bill is strictly a cost-cutting measure. He and possibly Republicans in general are also likely to suffer negative political blowback from his overreach, even if they successfully pass the measure, which still seems likely to me, and even if ultimately motivated by good intentions.

In this, they may potentially share the same fate as Obama and Congressional Democrats over the passage of healthcare reform. Like Obama in that instance, Walker appears to remain serene in the wake of a “shellacking” by organized labor and other protestors. This cannot be easy. Walker and Republican Wisconsin lawmakers must feel as though descended upon by a plague of locusts. However, this is what happens when you are not a wise grasshopper.

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