Paul Greenberg

Leave it to a prof at the University of Arkansas -- specifically, an economist in its Department of Education Reform -- to go to the heart (and guts) of what all the fuss is about in Wisconsin.

His name is Bob Costrell, and he's put his finger and calculator on the essence of that state's problem. In an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal last week, the professor detailed the sweet deals that Wisconsin's public-employee unions have negotiated for themselves over the free-spending years.

The results haven't been as sweet for the taxpayers, or for state and local governments. Wisconsin faces a projected budget deficit for the next two-year budget estimated at $3.6 billion. No wonder that state's taxpayers rose up in last year's midterm elections and elected a Republican governor -- Scott Walker -- who promised to put Wisconsin's fiscal house in order.

The governor is trying to do just that despite a walkout by Democratic state senators that has paralyzed that state's upper house. Not to mention the occupation of the state Capitol by union protesters, who seem to have confused it with Tahrir Square in Cairo. The battle has been joined and the nation is watching.

There is talk of a European-style general strike across the country as more state governments find themselves facing massive deficits and try to balance their budgets by cutting back. Protests ensue, and they in turn may set off an American-style reaction from the general (and taxpaying) public. A few more wirefoto pictures of demonstrators in tank tops taking over Wisconsin's state Capitol and waving clenched fists in the air should do the trick.

The country as a whole may not share the demonstrators' nostalgia for the 1960s. One Woodstock was enough for most of us, not to mention the turmoil at the Democrats' national convention in Chicago (Mayor Richard J. Daley, Boss) back in 1968. Those riotous scenes may have cost Hubert H. Humphrey the presidential election that year. Americans are just not attracted by disorder. At some point, like Howard Beale in the movie "Network," they just might decide that "I'm as mad as Hell, and I'm not going to take this any more!"

There's a lot of sound and fury emanating from Madison, Wis., these days. It might help clarify things to keep an eye on the nub of the issue separating Wisconsin's governor and its public-employee unions. It's not the salaries that teachers get in the Badger State that are busting its budget, as Professor Costrell's article makes clear. It's the Cadillac fringe benefits -- make that the Rolls-Royce fringe benefits -- the taxpayers provide.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.