Monday, May 24, 2010


If we could ever get past the idea that the only difference between today's Republicans and Democrats is demographic, and not simply ideological, we could go a long way toward attacking the real enemies of the people.

And they would be those unelected hacks and hangers-on who, over time, establish their sinecures and fiefdoms, who are impossible to remove, and stand in the way of any significant progress.

First, let's address the difference between Republicans and Democrats, or, perhaps better, conservatives and liberals. Each sells a package. Each caters to a base. Each has money to distribute. The only difference is who gets it.

See, the real issue here isn't ideology. It's power. More specifically, over whom do you do you hold sway? And do you hold sway over enough people to get yourself elected?

Right now, it would appear as if the Republicans -- in certainly areas at least -- have identified a feeling of unrest over the direction in which the country is headed. Never mind that, for eight years prior to Barack Obama's election, they took the country in that direction. But they're out of power now, and desperate to get back in. So, they've exploited this unrest -- even though they're responsible for a good deal of it -- and the tactic just might work.

And before anyone starts yelling at me, the Democrats did the same damn thing once George W. Bush got elected. If our system is broken, it's broken in that manner. And there really isn't any difference between the two factions except that what they sell benefits different people. The government still spends money. It just comes down to how much it spends, on whom it is spent, and whether enough of it is spent, and in the right places, to ensure election, or re-election.

Anyone who thinks differently is hopelessly naive.

Now that we have all that out of the way, let's address the real issue: Hack-a-rama and, along with that, shadow governments whose power and sway, in many cases, exceeds that of elected officials. I say that because of the pressure they put on elected officials -- often to work against the public good.

In keeping with former House Speaker Tip O'Neill's axiom that "all politics is local," let's say that the most egregious examples of hack-a-rama and its twin cousin, shadow government, will not be found at the federal level (though lord knows they exist); and may not even be found at the state level. But the local level? Whoooooo-eeeeeeee. It's a hornet's nest of conflicted interests, unelected power brokers and silent (and sometimes not-so-silent) pressure.

Right now, in Boston, there's a real donnybrook going on between the firefighters and the city over an arbitrator's ruling on their contract.

I should say, right here, that I absolutely recognize the need for unions, even today. I was the president of my local way back in another lifetime, and I still, to this day, have deep fears about what would happen if some people got their wish and abolished them.

Nothing irritates me more than hearing someone say "these (whoever they are) are good enough to give them job." No they're not. They're not "good enough" to give anybody anything. It's all a business proposition. If I'm a skilled worker, and my skills are needed, then I work. If they're not needed, I don't. That often comes down to the ebb and flow of the marketplace.

Similarly, if I'm an entrepreneur starting a business, and it takes off, and I need help to push my products into the market, then I hire skilled workers ... and pay them to do what I can't do ... or what I can't keep up with myself.

Under this ethic, I'm not "good enough" to give these people jobs. I need their help. We may not be 50-50 equal partners. But there is a partnership there. And that partnership certainly needs to be respected. And to me, unions -- at least at their best -- help foster that partnership.

But that doesn't mean everything unions do is right and holy. Not by a long shot. We all have to be realistic, and understand that if you have the type of business-employee partnership so vital to keeping a firm functioning, there are always going to be tug-of-wars over who has the upper hand. It's the nature of the beast.

But right now, we're in a serious recession ... and while there may be some signs of improvement, we're nowhere close to being out of the woods. This isn't the time to demand exorbitant contracts and pressure public officials into getting our way.

And that's what's happening in Boston right now. The arbitrator, by all reasonable accounts, ruled heavily in favor of the firefighters, and could very well strap the city as a result. The mayor, under the rules of binding arbitration, is powerless to intervene, but the City Council is not. It holds the final say.

So, what we have here is pressure, by the union, on the City Council, to go along with the arbitrator.

Hey, I'd like a 19 percent pay raise too. But I have a better chance of seeing God, and I know that. I wouldn't even ask for that at my place of employment.

However, public employee unions do have power, and they know how to use it. What they don't have, by law, is the right to strike (even though teachers routinely stage work stoppages if they don't get what they want).

You know, sometimes, in my heart, I side with the unions because -- at least I think -- you can often tell when the issues are legitimate and when there's an attempt on the part of a business to stifle union involvement and scrimp on wages and benefits. But I'll also say this: Any municipality that trifles with a public employee union does so at its own peril. There are just too many ways -- even absent job actions -- that the unions can just throw a monkey wrench into the proceedings. In Lynn, MA, where I live, I've seen two mayors in my lifetime absolutely done in by their dealings with city workers.

So, to me, if a mayor, or a town manager, says that there's no money there and it's time to tighten the belts, I'd be inclined to believe them. These people just have too much to lose confronting unions unnecessarily

So while I don't think necessarily that all unions are enemies of the people, I do think they are if they go out of their way to ask for too much, and when they put overt pressure on municipal officials.

I also think, by the way, that companies who spread their own propaganda about how badly they're doing, when the opposite is patently obvious, are just as guilty. Some unions, even though they're organized, have little power by the nature of what they do. Hotel and food service workers, or people who work for Shaws, for example, do not always require specialized skills. They work, for the most part, for near minimum wages and are totally, totally at the mercy of the chains that employ them. That doesn't make it right to bully them into accepting sub-standard working conditions, wages and benefits. I'm right with these unions almost always in their disputes with management.

Public employee unions are just one form of shadow government ... which I define as people who have assumed more power over affairs than the people we elect to run our affairs for us.

Lobbyists are right up there in the "enemies of the people" parade too. And please do not hand me this pablum that lobbyists affect positive change. Bullshit. The only concern lobbyists have is their agenda. And they don't really care if their agendas conflict with what might be -- in the long run -- right for the largest group of people ... which is how I'd define true representative democracy.

Understand that we do not have a homogeneous population in the United States. We are a nation of blocs ... and that's more evident today, I think, than it ever was. Every bloc now considers itself a "group" whose interests are to be represented to the exclusion (or at least a disproportionate amount) of all others.

All these groups have lobbyists. All large corporations have lobbyists. Just about everybody has a lobbyist. This is the genus of the whole Tea Party movement. By banding together and branding themselves, they've become another bloc ... a group of disaffected voters who claim they're "taking the government back."

No they're not. They're asserting themselves, the same way every other bloc asserts itself, and making demands on the government to see things their way, and not someone else's way.

Being an elected official today is like walking through a minefield in the middle of World War II. Over here are the Tea Partiers. Over there are the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Across the way, up against the barbed wire fence, is AFSCME. And right next to them are all the teachers' unions.

They're all the same. They all have an agenda, and they don't really care about anything else except their agendas.

(In case you haven't figured it out by now, I don't trust zealots).

So far, we've targeted municipal unions and lobbyists. We haven't even touched hacks. They may be the worst offenders of them all.

How does one define a hack? Some people think that anyone who works for the government is a hack. I wouldn't go that far. But I do think the terms is legitimate, and that hacks exist.

I think if you're going to determine whether someone's a hack, you have to ask two questions. First, is the job in question really necessary? Could the city/town/state/judicial system/probation department function if the job wasn't filled? And second, does the person who has the job have at least minimal qualifications?

If the answer to either question is "no," then the person filling the job is a hack.

I suppose that hack-dom is built into the political system. It's an imperfect world, and, well, I guess we have to be big people here, and understand that there's a certain amount of patronage that just goes hand-in-hand with political office.

You just have to hope that those charged with filling these jobs have a certain sense of responsibility, and that those who get them have a similar sense of responsibility.

Sadly, neither seems to be the case a lot of the time. We've all heard about no-show jobs, or positions filled by political lifers whose connections mean more than their qualification. What's galling is how often people laugh about it, chalk it up to the system, shrug, and conclude that "what are you gonna do?"

What's also galling is that when the axe starts swinging, it generally misses these people.

It is my opinion that there is no area of local and state government heavier with hacks than education. And I'm not talking about teachers either. I'm talking about administrators. Go on line and look at your average school system, and look at how many mid-level administrators there are. Get a hold of the salary list for these people (it's a matter of public record) and then die of fright at how much these people make.

Oh, some of these jobs are undoubtedly legitimate. But I'm betting some of them could -- especially in tough times -- be eliminated without the school, or department, being too adversely affected.

Yet, when times get tight, we hear about how programs have to go ... sports has to go ... drama has to go ... no more music department ... 450 teachers in Brockton, MA, are pink-slipped.

And yet ... many of these people aren't touched.

And why just pick on education? It's like this almost everywhere. And when someone like Howie Carr of the Boston Herald (who I generally don't like, except when he does his hack exposes) points out how blatantly some of these hacks thumb their noses in our faces and flaunt their hack-dom, you want to just scream. And when the city or town then turns around and begs for an override, or raises the property tax values, it's easy to see why voters are ready to mutiny.

But as I said, it's a minefield and it's difficult for elected officials to go from one end to the other without losing a limb or worse. You serve long enough, you're going to have your battle scars. You can only hope, if you're a mayor or any other type of town official, that you can stay ahead of it.

But that's easier said than done. Soon enough in this world, your enemies unite and defeat you. They may not have anything else in common other than their dissatisfaction with you.

Sadly (for you), that's often enough.

I guess this is as close as I ever get to a full-fledged rant. But this, to me, is more of a reason why things seem to be going to hell in a handbasket. The whole liberal-conservative thing ... to me, that's just cannon fodder that the people who have the real power in this country throw out there to distract us.

Get a handle on the nefarious elements that comprise municipal shadow governments, and get a handle on controlling the hacks who continuously rape and pillage municipal budgets, and you have a fighting chance of cleaning up government.

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