Ground Zero

Though it is no longer regular viewing, I stumbled upon 60 Minutes several weeks ago on the flat screen. What I saw took my breath away.

Steve Kroft, of 60 Minutes “liberal media” fame, was detailing an emerging American crisis. He called it, in an ominous tone, “The Day of Reckoning.” If this disaster hits as predicted, then Madison, along with a select few other American cities, will find itself at Ground Zero.
The crisis? The financially dissolute condition of municipal and state governments throughout the United States. To bolster his case for concern, Kroft (hardly a Fox News reporter) referenced Meredith Whitney, the Wall Street super analyst who predicted the real estate market implosion before most others.

Whitney sees the financial collapse of state and local governments as the next shoe to drop in what is now being called The Great Recession. The pattern is similar to the real estate crash: reckless spending, long-term delusional math, accumulated debt, a transparency vacuum, followed by sudden collapse.

Whitney predicts default on multiple municipal bonds that could threaten that entire bond market, an investment long viewed as a safe, sure thing. You know … like real estate.

This crisis has already hit just south of us. In the 60 Minutes piece, Illinois was described as a “deadbeat state.” State legislators have been evicted from their offices for failure to pay rent. Some Illinois gas stations will not take credit cards from Illinois State Highway Patrol officers. The Highway Patrol bouncing checks? Are you KIDDING me?

Economic talk is usually unbearable. And hardly the thing anyone wants to hear just as we are nosing our way out of the worst economy in our lifetimes. But try on this shocking fact. The controversial Republican governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, has cut that state’s budget by twenty-six percent. And they are still looking at long-term pension and health care obligations in the tens of billions.

Gov. Christie was hardly painted by 60 Minutes as a madman-nutball-Tea Party extremist. He was colored more as a realist, sadly telling people what they must hear instead of what they want to hear. And that news? In this economy, no one is entitled. Christie’s bloodless take is that things have moved past politics to irrefutable math.

All of this is cause to consider Madison’s vulnerability. We have long been an economic oasis, our swaying palm trees watered by government checks, insulated from the tawdry economic fluctuations that affected Detroit or Gary.

A huge percentage of our friends and neighbors work for government in some form. Now reduce that count by ten, fifteen or twenty percent. Move them from their Madison homes. Out of your restaurant or shop. And throw them into an already crowded job market. This is truly serious stuff. If you want perspective on what this kind of seismic economic event is like, ask your friends who once worked for the Madison newspapers.

The quid pro quo for government workers has always been less pay for job security and killer benefits. Now that deal is shaky because this economy is in a once-in-a-lifetime storm. As much as each of us thinks we are immune, we are not. No one is. The private sector and small businesses were the barrier islands, the first to bear the brunt of the winds. Now the storm has moved inland, buffeting the more fixed structures of the economy. With the gross reduction of tax revenues and the accumulated debt over years, even the safe jobs and benefits are at risk.

The upcoming battle will be bloody. Passions are already boiling; witness Russ Decker’s vote. The desire of stressed citizens for lower taxes and a more efficient government model is understandable. Especially when private sector workers have been through multiple reorgs in their careers, making them all the more envious of the job security, pensions and health benefits afforded government hires.
But here is the bit. In the midst of the storm, we can’t let resentment of the system, and its condition, color our opinion of the workers. The play is smart change, while not demonizing civil servants and the work they do. Why should we? I, for one, have become accustomed to potable water, non-rancid meat and the ability to read.

As a private sector survivor, I feel compassion for my government friends and their sleepless nights. This is a scenario many of them never envisioned for themselves and their families. Indeed, they took their skills into government to avoid such risk. Here’s hoping that in the midst of the partisan rhetoric, those who have served us are shown the respect and compassion they deserve. And that Republicans remember that they made their own contributions to government bloat, as any road crew or defense contractor can testify.

One final hope.

This impending crisis is forcing new Gov. Walker to swing an aggressive scalpel. Madison, of all Wisconsin cities, will surely feel the greatest pain.

Let’s pray that Walker is a skilled and compassionate surgeon.

Not a clumsy butcher.

Madison-based television producer John Roach writes this column monthly. Reach him at johneroach@mac.com.

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