Opinion: Daily Journal

Searching For The Black Hat

This week’s “Daily Journal” guest columnist is Mitch Kokai, director of communications for the John Locke Foundation.

RALEIGH — Every good conflict needs a villain.

Redcoats. Nazis. Commies. Identify the guy in the black hat, and it’s easier to rally the white hats around a course of action that leads to victory.

So who are the villains in the skirmish over North Carolina’s $19.7 billion state budget? The rascals and rogues cackling in darkened corridors as they subject the state to their nefarious schemes?

Of course, the state’s Democratic and Republican political operations nominate some candidates. Republicans who want to siphon another measly percentage point of spending from Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue’s spending plan are engaging in “draconian” cuts that would “erase decades of progress.”

Meanwhile, Perdue’s vetoes are “obstructing” the plan of action North Carolina voters endorsed in 2010 when they elected GOP majorities in the General Assembly. She risks making herself “irrelevant” in the budget debate by threatening a veto that’s unlikely to survive an override vote.

If you’re shocked that Democrats and Republicans are complaining about each other, please contact me for information about investment opportunities. Once-in-a-lifetime deals are available for a small fee.

While partisan debates are as old as political parties, there’s at least one new element in the search for state budget villains. This year, public-sector workers in North Carolina — and nationwide — have attracted negative attention as major contributors to state budget woes. After this state shed several hundred thousand private-sector jobs in the latest economic downturn, observers started scrutinizing the pay, benefits, and job security tied to government jobs.

As the governor and state lawmakers haggle over the best way to close a multibillion-dollar state budget hole, we’ve also been reminded that taxpayers are on the hook for many more billions of dollars in unfunded health and retirement benefits for public-sector workers.

Are government employees good candidates for the black-hat treatment? Have they scammed the rest of us out of our hard-earned money to enable their lives of luxury in safe sinecures?

Some surely belong among the ranks of the bad guys. I’m thinking of unqualified timeservers with connections to powerful politicos, or workers who devote more energy to lobbying, picketing, and politicking than they do to the jobs taxpayers are paying them to perform.

But before you grab your pitchfork and pals and head to the nearest government office, let’s be realistic. This is a small subset of the overall government work force. These bad apples don’t spoil the bunch of hard-working employees who want to do their jobs well.

So if North Carolina has more people on the public payroll than taxpayers can afford, if public-sector benefit packages are unsustainable, and if some functions that government workers perform in good faith are unproductive or counterproductive, who deserves the blame?

Here’s where the “name that villain” game gets a little tricky.

Gastonia native and Hoover Institution economist Thomas Sowell has written that “Economists may say there is no such thing as a free lunch, but politicians get elected by promising free lunches.”

Promise enough free lunches — over a long period of time — and the bill starts to add up. Among those promises: Work for the government, and your position will be more secure than a private-sector job. Work for the government, and you’ll get generous health benefits without picking up any of the tab. Work long enough in a government job, and you’ll have guaranteed retirement benefits for life.

State workers deserve no blame for accepting those promises. For the most part, they deserve no blame for advocating as forcefully as possible for government leaders to keep those promises.

Meanwhile, no one politician deserves the blame for creating a government too big for North Carolina to afford. None deserves the blame for making promises to public employees years ago that the state no longer can keep. None deserves the blame today for decades-old decisions that placed North Carolina on an unsustainable path.

Though it’s impossible to assign blame for today’s predicament to the workers themselves, or to one crop of today’s politicians, there’s an important lesson to be learned: Be wary of politicians who make promises today that place excessive demands on taxpayers in the future.

As the state budget debate is put to rest, we should support the plan that North Carolinians can afford — without additional tax burdens that stunt the state’s growth, without spending for programs and projects that will be at least as unsustainable two years from now as they are today. In other words, we should support the plan that’s least likely to send us searching for villains in the future.