“This country has socialism for the rich, rugged individualism for the poor.”
Teachers, police officers, firefighters — and journalists — have always had the deck stacked against them.
Those are professions that people do because they love the work. They know that what they do is important. That it is key to building or protecting a good and decent society and is often rewarding in ways that can’t be expressed in terms of dollars and cents.
And the greater society, consciously or not, has generally looked back at the practitioners of those arts and seen people who are, or should be, happy with with all the warm fuzzies they get from enlightening a child, saving a life or exposing wrongdoing. As people who will be so existentially fulfilled that they would never think of bringing up any awkward questions about how they are going to pay the mortgage or send their children to college.
But some of those public-spirited servants are getting a little sick of having to moonlight at one or two extra jobs and — as was explained on the cover of the most recent edition of Time magazine — donate plasma just to make ends meet. Teachers in Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky and West Virginia not that long ago staged major demonstrations to seek relief, and got some.
Here in Utah, where people are nicer and don’t generally take to the streets, teachers are just silently stealing away. Kind of like the way all those people quietly disintegrated at the end of the last Avengers movie.
But, like Nick Fury at the end of that story, more Utah people are noticing and trying to call for help before its too late.
The other day Gov. Gary Herbert, who has always been a leader in trying to bolster the quality of education in these parts, was heard to say that we are losing too many teachers, that he would dearly lover for some of those who have left the profession to come back, and, most notable of all, that the state is going to have to cough up some more money if it expects that wish to come true.
The growing realization that even the most devoted teachers sometimes have to make the books balance should be much more obvious to the business-minded Republicans — such as Herbert — who run this state. They are always very open about their belief that if you want to attract for-profit business to the state, or to any community in the state, you have to pay up.
Tax breaks, mostly. Really big tax breaks. That’s just the way it works when you are trying to lure rich people into doing something that’s good for society. You have to wave large bundles of public money in front of them. Because, our politicians and those businessmen basically admit, rich people simply cannot be expected to act in the public interest unless you make it worth their while.
Unless you bribe them.
Meanwhile, teachers and other public servants — as well as folks who collect our trash, tend to our children, carry away our bedpans and handle our food from farm to table — are expected to act in the public interest for very little financial reward. For them to expect a decent financial return for their service is considered ungrateful, uppity, disrespectful or, in the newly popular term, socialistic.
The astounding irony of the situation comes when the public sector workers form unions to protect their collective interests, bargain, demonstrate and, in some places, even go on strike.
Striking is risky for these folks — just ask the air traffic controllers union of the 1980s — because the job they do is seen as crucial to the functioning of society. Too crucial to allow the workers to even think of walking off the job. But, somehow, not crucial enough to command a decent living or working conditions that don’t cause ulcers and heart attacks.
This is one of the most glaring failures of capitalism. It is a system that quite clearly does not reward many professions anywhere near commensurately to their value to society. Rather it takes advantage of those workers' sense of duty, worth ethic and political powerlessness to pull from them maximum value for minimal reward.
The core of this, particularly for teachers, is that there was a time, not so long ago, when women who wanted to work outside the home were limited to teaching or nursing. Now that more and more women wish to, and can, be bankers, lawyers, doctors, business tycoons and economic development specialists, we have a smaller pool of potential teachers. So the price of hiring one should be going up.
And it is. But not nearly fast enough.
When we want someone to build a factory or an apartment complex, we are expected to pay for it. Rich people aren’t chumps. If we want education — and public safety and clean streets and water and sewer systems — we expect those to be provided for a relative pittance. Because our real public servants, apparently, are easy marks.
It’s time for that to end.
George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Tribune, makes more money than most teachers. Which is another data point suggesting that all is lost. firstname.lastname@example.org