Europe's protests offer lesson to Minnesota, U.S.

  • Article by: FRED ZIMMERMAN
  • Updated: October 10, 2010 - 4:52 PM

We must find a way to fix our deteriorating finances.

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Pensioners in Birmingham, England, stripped their protest to the bare essentials last week as they demonstrated their displeasure outside the Conservative Party’s annual conference.

Photo: David Jones, Associated Press

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The protests and rioting going on in Europe regarding budget cuts and pension revisions are relevant to our situation in Minnesota and the United States.

Europe does have many benefit programs that are, indeed, unaffordable, and many developed countries are rapidly approaching the arithmetic certainty there will not be enough money to pay all bills -- independent of any social concerns.

Yet the argument made by the protesters is that tens of billions were spent bailing out reckless banks with the result that our pensions and salaries are being cut.

These situations provide background material for how we might solve, or not solve, budget problems in this country and in Minnesota.

Very predictably, one foolish deed deserves another. Regardless of where we reside in the political spectrum, I am sure we would all have to agree that our country would be far better off if we could purge the system of its most harmful behaviors.

Early retirements are indeed a festering unsolvable financial quandary, but so are foolish banks, unreasonable executive compensation, exorbitant medical fees and one of the shortest school years in the industrialized world. Too much time off on the part of those of us in education is inappropriate, but so are some pernicious legal activities.

Can we come together?

Clearly, there are enough infractions to go around. What might it be like if we could band together and collectively get rid of most of our expensive counterproductive activities -- if not all?

While some of us might suggest that some other group is worse than our own, the fact remains that our country has serious fiscal problems that must be dealt with while there is still time to avert chaos. That time will not last forever. Cooperation in the short term will be important -- even essential.

The Minnesota of my childhood was different. Business was basically honest. Our schools were rigorous. Elected officials of different persuasions talked to one another. Manufacturing employed more people than it does now, but government was about one-quarter of its present size. The state was solvent and could tout its growing economy and near-full employment.

As the November election approaches, perhaps we can utilize the collective experiences of Europe and our own past to elect some true leaders capable of enlisting the broadly based cooperation that will be entirely necessary for any solution to Minnesota's budget and economic problems.

Since 2001, Minnesota has lost 85,000 manufacturing jobs -- the equivalent of about 45 plants. We have lost 37,000 construction jobs, 16,000 information jobs and 2,000 mining jobs.

Northwest Airlines and several other major employers are either gone or have greatly downsized. None of these trends makes balancing the state's budget easier. They also limit the practical effectiveness of simplistic tax and fiscal policies.

I am hopeful the 2010 election will provide us with an opportunity to seek candidates who are more cooperative and less blameful.

There will not be any one big knob to turn to improve Minnesota's rapidly deteriorating financial situation. Simplistic partisan solutions are unlikely to either be enacted or be successful.

But there are probably thousands of ways we could make our situation better by coming together and jointly ending those public and private practices that cost lots of money and produce mediocre or poor results.

If we do not pull together, we are likely to wind up like so many countries in Europe -- hopelessly rioting in the streets with no place to go.

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  • Fred Zimmerman

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Fred Zimmerman is professor emeritus of engineering and management at the University of St. Thomas. His e-mail is zimco@visi.com.

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