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Donald Kettl
Academic Dean

Painting yourself into a corner

Question: Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin continues to demand an end to collective bargaining rights for state employees even after winning their agreement on the benefit reductions he sought. These are the same state employees he must rely on to operate state government and implement his policies. How should he strike the balance between the urgent need to restore the state's fiscal health and his longer-term challenge of leading a large governmental enterprise?

Good painters know a lesson they can teach to all leaders: When armed with a brush and a bucket, never paint yourself into a corner. With Governor Scott Walker's stand on ending the power of unions to bargain, and with the Democrats facing a fundamental electoral collapse if they give in, there's no room for compromise. A strategy of total annihilation rarely works on the first round and even more rarely allows for any kind of working relationship in the long haul. Leaders who paint themselves into corners have to be satisfied with the view, because the paint can sometimes take a long time to dry.

Compare the Wisconsin battle with the strategy of the protest leaders in Cairo. The demonstrators there were determined to replace Mubarak with democracy. They created a growing and irresistible movement, but they were always careful to leave Mubarak a way out. When he concluded he had no alternative, he took it. If they had tried to paint him into a corner, he might have had no alternative but to lash out with tanks, planes and guns. People would have been killed, and it's anyone's guess whether the movement would have produced the same result. By giving their opponent a way out, even though a narrow opening, they allowed Mubarak to lay down his office. They produced a world-shattering transformation in a remarkably short time.

Walker has already pressed Wisconsin's unions into accepting all the budget cuts he's asking for. Pushing further won't produce bigger budget savings. He's focused on breaking the backs of unions that have battled Republicans for a long time. He obviously senses he's in the ideal position to paint the unions into a corner from which they can't escape--but he might well be doing the same to himself. The unions might beat back his effort to weaken their power. Even if Walker wins, he won't get any extra budget savings, and he's surely going to make it harder to do business with the Democrats on the next issue. He's also given his opponents a standard under which to make their charge in the next election campaign.

Boa constrictors can swallow their prey whole, but few leaders can. Leaders who try to bite off too much run a huge risk that rarely pays off. Leaders that last act more like painters than boas.

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By Donald Kettl

 |  March 1, 2011; 8:51 AM ET
Category:  Economic crisis , Government leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Wisconsin has two fiscal problems | Next: Managing with unions


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It is certainly disheartening to see individuals, such as Tea Party conservatives and Mr. Walker, attacking such a vital element of our society, namely teachers. Teachers have a salary in the vicinity of $50,000/yr and this is considered exorbitant? (My father was a teacher.) Suffice it to say we can select any public or private sector not in our personal space and claim that element is lazy, a drain on society and overpaid. This is such ignorance and pettiness. I don't think teachers are a such a problem. I admire teachers. If teachers want a union, then so be it. Let them. Can improvements be made in education? Absolutely, and changes must be made. But not by cutting teacher salaries to the bone. Paying teachers is paying for an investment in the future of our economy.

It is okay for the NFL to have collective bargaining for billions and billions of revenue, but not for public employees? I mean, NFL players contribute so much to society they deserve it, right? To those Americans to who accuse public teachers of laziness I ask you this? Because you feel public ed is such a rip off do you send your kids to private school? Obviously, the answer is no. You'd rather complain than fix. To those who complain about the low quality of public ed I say this to you: all righty then, let's abolish public ed completely and privatize education. Pay $40,000 per year per kid for your child's K-12 education. Fine by me. My kids are adults now.

It's frustrating to watch my fellow Americans bellyache about services they themselves demand but don't want to pay for, and who expect others to sacrifice at their expense.

Mr. Walker prefers to be a bully than negotiate in good faith.

Posted by: gfoster56 | March 6, 2011 7:57 AM
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Wisconsin teachers are ranked 24 nation wide for pay. The students that these teachers teach have a combined SAT/ACT ranking of 2nd in the nation. How is this overpaid Votingrevolution?

Posted by: Milesthedog | March 1, 2011 5:04 PM
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Should of NEVER let 'public'workers unionize.This isn't about fairness,it's about these over paid and over benefited Union workers that don't want the taxpayers golden eggs to stop rolling to them.Problem is, these incredibly greedy Unions(along with the cradle to the grave Democrats} are killing the goose that lays them. And they have a NERVE to say Tea party protest are bad and ugly."for the times they ARE a changing"

Posted by: votingrevolution1 | March 1, 2011 1:05 PM
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Gov Walker can be recalled after serving one year, good luck

I see no value in declaring war on your own employees, exempting some and trying to ruin the remaining ones. Only personal political gain can be the factor behind such moves, none of which will be spendable inside your own state. His tax cutting policies created the current shortfall, and yes there are issues with the future, and he will get nothing for the effort if he winds up having to increase revenues, so he is the one who has painted himself into a corner.

Only in America

Posted by: johnm12 | March 1, 2011 11:16 AM
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His reasoning is very amateurish and I think the position has gotten to him

Posted by: Bzpepple | March 1, 2011 10:17 AM
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