The goings-on in Wisconsin between its Governor and the state’s public unions is marked by vitriol, hyperbole, and genuine philosophical divisions. While I have my own opinions about the situation, and similar ones facing many other states, the topic of this post is not about Wisconsin labor relations. Rather, it’s about the unintended lessons that are present within this dilemma, and how these lessons can inform our behavior now and in the future.
Twenty, thirty, and forty years ago in scenes repeated in countless states, municipalities, and school districts, two groups sat across the table from one another and negotiated terms and conditions of employment, including retirement benefits. For many reasons, states are now struggling to meet the financial obligations of these agreements. It is irrelevant at this point in time to try to fix blame on one party or the other. Unions are charged by their members to negotiate the most beneficial terms they can. State negotiators are likewise responsible for the stewardship of taxpayer funds while also having a responsibility to provide fair working conditions for their employees. The adversarial relationship that marks union-management relationships is both simple and complex.
One wonders if the focus of either party was fixed much further into the future than the term of the contract under consideration, the annual budget, or the next local or state elections. It has become abundantly clear that our nation’s financial system is out of whack, and that in the absence of fundamental changes, there is simply not enough money in the right places to sustain all the promise made decades earlier.
And so we come to the nub of a lesson in sustainability: decisions we make today resonate far into the future. Our past decisions about finances provide harsh lessons about decisions we are currently making about the environment. Blind faith in an ever-expanding economy based on assumptions about capitalism and consumerism made it relatively easy to ask for, and to be granted, pensions and retirement plans that we can’t afford. So, too, in the coming decades we will be faced with obligations to the Earth that we will be hard pressed to meet.
Common wisdom, contained in everyday aphorisms such as
- delay is the deadliest form of denial,
- procrastination is suicide on the installment plan,
- what goes around, comes around, and
- the chickens have come home to roost,
demonstrate that in our social DNA we know about such dangers. At some level, humans know that there will be a time of reckoning, but it’s easier to deny it today, and let tomorrow take care of itself.
I hope that partisans from all parts of the political spectrum will see the lessons to be had from such short-term thinking. Pay now, or pay later. Which do you think will cost the planet – and your pocketbooks – more?