Us versus Them

Many Oregonians have forgotten our state was once a stronghold for the Ku Klux Klan, which focused most of its hatred, not on blacks, but on Catholics in the 1920s.  Some may enjoy the irony of Klan gatherings in Ashland and Lane County pictured on the Oregon Encyclopedia website at the following link:  Ku Klux Klan | Oregon Encyclopedia – Oregon History and Culture.

Oregon probably has no more reason to be ashamed of its past and present prejudices than any other place, just as Oregonians have no right to feel superior about our progressive roots.  The sad truth is that people everywhere have had a disturbing tendency to blame and persecute other groups of people for problems real and imagined.

A vocal minority, led by people who make money by saying outrageous things, has recently decided to single out public employees as greedy, incompetent bureaucrats.  The idea has been blended with some long-standing resentment of unions to produce a toxic mix of bad feelings and bad legislation aimed at people we rely on to deliver essential services every day.  Demonizing teachers, fire fighters, police, or even city managers makes just about as much sense as the efforts of the Ku Klux Klan.  Public employees, like Catholics or any other group, represent the full range of human virtues and failings.  We are not more or less responsible for the national recession or state budget problems than other comparably sized groups.

The vast majority of American workers do not work for government.  Bureau of Labor Statistics report that about 20-22 million, or 16 percent, of the 130 million U.S. workers are employed in the public sector; and this ratio has not changed substantially in the last 35 years.  Any group of this size obviously has some influence over public policy; but it is certainly not a controlling influence, even if it were safe to assume that public employees consistently vote as a group.

I believe it is a completely legitimate public policy question to discuss and debate appropriate levels of compensation for public employees and do not want to leave the impression that concerns about pay or benefits should be equated to the name-calling and other nonsense directed against those who work in the public sector.  The price of ridicule, contempt, and limiting opportunities for public employees, however, will ultimately be a decline in quality of those willing to serve.  A poorly performing public sector carries most of the same negative consequences as a dysfunctional private sector.  Poor customer service, declining prosperity, and corruption are just a sample of the problems bad private or public employees create.

Oregon’s Ku Klux Klan was not notorious for violence or lynching.  Klan members were simply ordinary folks who believed they could make their world better by persecuting and harassing various minority groups.  It was a dumb idea in the 1920s, and it’s a dumb idea now.