At a New Jersey town meeting, Gov. Chris Christie, the newest YouTube star for the limited government set, was reproached by an unhappy teacher. The governor, facing a budget shortfall of $11 billion, has proposed, among other economies, a one-year salary freeze for New Jersey teachers. Her voice raised in anger (that's a normal speaking voice in my home state), Rita Wilson protested that she should be paid $83,000, the only reasonable compensation in light of her "education and experience." Christie's reply got an ovation: "Well, you know what? Then you don't have to do it."
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That exchange with the teacher, along with other greatest hits available on YouTube of the blunt yet friendly governor's first five months, highlight a political opportunity for Republicans.
First, the problem: How can smaller-government Republicans win elections when more and more Americans are receiving government benefits while fewer and fewer are paying taxes? In 2010, 47 percent of Americans paid no income taxes at all. Among those who do pay taxes, most pay comparatively little. Both parties have agreed to make the tax code more steeply progressive in the past two decades, to the point where the top 20 percent of earners, those with incomes above $100,000, pay 70 percent of all taxes. Accordingly, the tax issue has lost some of its political purchase.
But as Christie is demonstrating, voters are open to a new fairness argument. Whereas Barack Obama and his party invoke "fairness" as a license to take property from productive people and transfer it to the unproductive, Christie is inviting voters to consider the unfairness of our current arrangement in which government employees enjoy better salaries and benefits than private-sector employees. Economic historian John Steele Gordon points out that, "Federal workers now earn, in wages and benefits, about twice what their private-sector equivalents get paid. State workers often have Cadillac health plans and retirement benefits far above the private sector average: 80 percent of public-sector workers have pension benefits, only 50 percent in the private sector. Many can retire at age 50."
Christie spelled it out:
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