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March 7, 2011

The Death of Common Sense

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

It starts with a few silly reactions and stupid statements. Left unchallenged, the makers of those remarks are emboldened to expand the reach of the inane and inappropriate. The rest of us start off laughing, but end up regretting having allowed it to become the new normal.


Case in point: The American experience tells the story of organized labor in its earliest days as a crusading bunch of workers fighting to protect themselves from dangerous working conditions and low pay. Their employers, wealthy corporate executives who didn’t give a damn about their employees, had no motivation to change the paradigm.


From the coal fields of the central states, to the factories of the larger cities, to the textile mills of the Deep South, workers were routinely exploited by those who benefited from their sacrifice.


It was the unions that came to the rescue. A strong voice when speaking on behalf of the collective, unions proved the adage that strength comes in numbers. Hours were reduced, pay was increased, and worker safety became a priority, even when it bumped up against corporate profits.


Unions seized on their new-found ability to alter the power balance. What worked in a coal mine could work in an auto plant, so collective representation of worker’s rights started out of desperation, but quickly became the new normal.


From the 1920s and ’30s well into the ’50s, unions focused on blue collar jobs as the source of their membership and representation. The late ’50s found organized labor crippled by equally organized crime, as the highest seats of power in national and regional union headquarters were “owned” by the rackets.


Seeking a new direction following the supposed purges of criminals from labor leadership, the new white collar union bosses recognized that there were tens of thousands of worker categories that not previously been cultivated for potential membership.


Today, traditional blue collar labor makes up a small percentage of the total number of workers covered by collective bargaining. Public sectors employees make up the clear majority of those workers now, and common sense suggests that the majority of those workers do not need or cannot justify union representation when taxpayers are the ones footing the bill.


Another example of the slow death of common sense is the focus of the environmental advocacy community on increasing the regulatory burden on the American farmer. A farmer is now, and always has been, the most careful and conscientious conservationist of our precious natural resources.


Unlike some Washington lobbyist, a farmer has both their hands and their wallets in the soil. A Madison Avenue advertising firm might be able to crank out a slick brochure bemoaning nutrient pollution, but farmers’ livelihood and economic future depends on their ability to cultivate, plant and harvest their crops.


Maybe they lack the eloquence of a Hollywood actor, or the ability to command attention like a rock star, but their message is simple. “We grow the food you eat. If you make it difficult and costly enough, we’ll stop growing your food.”


Common sense packed up its bags in Madison, Wisconsin, and moved to neighboring Illinois along with the 14 state senators who chose to cut and run instead of staying and fighting for their principles. No matter the issue, even when the outcome is obvious, our system of government depends on engagement, not avoidance.


Imagine what would happen if every time a legislative body was faced with an objectionable policy outcome, they fled the jurisdiction to prevent a vote? Even if you set aside the incredibly ineffective nature of legislative branch deliberation when “conscientious objectors” shirk their duty, whatever happened to the concept of elections having consequences?


Wisconsin voters, faced with a huge deficit, voted for a Republican governor and Assembly/Senate majority in order to deal with the problem. The past administrations and legislatures had been content to kick the can down the road. Sure, the GOP politicians are going for gold when silver would probably suffice.


As long as the Democratic legislators are hiding out of state, the people of Wisconsin are denied the constitutional governance they are guaranteed, and the legislators themselves are violating their oath of office by lounging in hotels instead of battling their opponents on the Senate floor.


Speaking of oath violations, President Barack Obama is doing a little bit of that himself these days. The president, whose shift to the center-right on spending and war-fighting is fairly obvious, has discovered a progressive policy position that allows him to rekindle the enthusiasm of his political base.


The federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), signed into law by President Bill Clinton, defines the institution of marriage as being between a man and a woman, and further clarifies that no state need recognize a same-sex marriage ceremony that originates in another state.


President Obama ran for office on the promise that DOMA was the law of the land, and made it clear that he would defend that law, at least until it were changed through the legislative process. In July 2010, a federal district court judge ruled that Section 3 of the law was unconstitutional, that being the section with marriage definition language.


Without regard to my own feelings on same-sex marriage (you’d probably be surprised), my problem with this action gets us to the common sense aspect of the debate.


If President Obama feels compelled to ignore a law, duly passed by the Congress and signed by a former president that is his prerogative. We can accept him at his word that since a lower federal court has ruled a section of the law unconstitutional, he would prefer the Justice Department suspend their defense of that law.


Assuming all of this is true, and President Obama is something other than rabid partisan who willfully and knowingly picks and chooses which laws to obey and enforce, how does it make any common sense that he is adamant about defending the recently passed Healthcare Expansion Act, knowing that several federal district and circuit court judges have ruled that sections of THAT law are unconstitutional?


The logic fails to meet the common sense stink test.


Conclusion: common sense is dying, and our elected leaders and advocacy groups are at least partially, if not fully, responsible.


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