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The NYT's Fierce Defense of Wishful Thinking

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that most political disputes come down to a clash between the party of hope and the party of memory. Yesterday's New York Times brought that to mind, as I read their take on New York's fiscal crisis.

The NYT editorial page bellowed, "At a time when public school students are being forced into ever more crowded classrooms, and poor families will lose state medical benefits, New York State is paying 10 times more for state employees' pensions than it did just a decade ago." The NYT explained, "The huge increase is largely because of Albany's outsized generosity to the state's powerful employees' unions... Unless those costs are reined in, New York will find itself unable to provide even essential services."

I was pleasantly astonished to see the paper, which has pilloried various Republicans for saying pretty much this, declare, "To point out these alarming facts is not to be anti-union, or anti-worker." Well, all right. This struck me as a moment of unusual lucidity on the part of the Times.

Yet, in the very next sentence, the NYT was insisting, "In recent weeks, Republican politicians in the Midwest have distorted what should be a serious discussion about state employees' benefits, cynically using it as a pretext to crush unions." (Not sure that I believe that curtailing the right of unions to negotiate over benefits is tantamount to "crushing" them, but whatevs.)

So, let me make sure I have this. Serious people recognize that our institutions and policymakers have brought us to an untenable pass. Serious people see a need for union concessions and more responsible stewardship from public officials. But--and here's where I get confused--only unserious people advocate structural changes that curb the temptation for policymakers to lavish goodies on public employee unions? The NYT can't even envision the possibility that serious people might think that alarming facts require painful, wrenching measures to alter the status quo?

The NYT's position is touching, but strikes me as the triumph of gossamer hopes over hard-won experience. It brings to mind the unsatisfying response our earnest Secretary of Education offered last Thursday, when I asked whether he didn't worry that--once we were safely past the fiscal consequences of the Great Recession--all the destructive budgetary dynamics would come rushing back in places like Wisconsin. He expressed a guileless optimism that things would work out fine, offering a take that pretty much amounted to, "This time, it's different." Color me unsold.

Meanwhile, the NYT daintily offered a long list of concessions it'd like to see from New York's public employees. Given its disdain for Walker's mean-spirited effort "break the unions," what's the NYT's preferred course for more genteel reform in New York? The NYT wagged its finger and declared, "The unions need to negotiate seriously." Oh, okay. Oh, yeah, and the paper wants New York's Governor Cuomo to reverse his pledge and raise taxes by four billion dollars a year, so that the unions won't have to sacrifice as much. And if the union doesn't "negotiate seriously," even after the NYT's finger wagging, then what?

Call me callous, but I don't see the NYT's approach as equal to the serious challenge it has flagged, much less how it keeps the problem from recurring. What to do about the fiscal straits facing state and local government is a weighty question and is one upon which people of goodwill can reasonably disagree. I just wish to hell that those whose preferred solutions amount to happy thoughts and admonishments to do the right thing were less quick to question the motives or decency of those officials whose vision is colored less by hope and more by unsentimental memories of what brought us to this pass.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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