Matters of motive seem to be driving much of the debate swirling around state capitols these days.

Those who defend public-employee unions have made much of the high-mindedness of those who choose careers in public service.

Those who criticize these same unions tend to focus on what they presume is driving the protests.

In the first instance, the motive is idealism; in the second, it's greed.

Idealism or greed. There's a fairly wide gulf here. But is either one remotely accurate?

The temptation is to say "no" on both counts. After all, do genuine idealists squabble over this or that relatively small percentage of a union employee's contributions to health and pension funds?

And can real greed be attributed to that same employee whose annual income may well be decent, even comfortable, but nowhere close to obscene?

Andrew Carnegie may have qualified as a robber baron, but surely not your local third-grade teacher.

On second thought, both characterizations may well have a place in this debate. This is especially the case if we widen its terms a bit.

Let's take the idealism standard first.

There seems to be some fear that government service won't be attractive to idealistic difference-makers if we elect governors in the mold of Scott Walker, John Kasich and Chris Christie.

Really? Since when do true idealists worry as much about the bottom line of a paycheck as they do about the impact of their difference-making?

Further, why presume that difference-makers can be found only among those engaged in public service? Certainly Woodrow Wilson didn't think that was the case.

To be sure, Wilson called himself an idealist. But he went on to say that's why he knew he was an American, because Americans are by definition idealistic.

Of course, some among us are more idealistic than others. Just as some among us make a greater difference than others. But if there is a hard and fast line between public- and private-sector idealists, I can't find it.

A little truth in advertising here. I am a public employee/servant/teacher, and have been for almost the entirety of my working life. As such, I hope I have made a difference now and again along the way.

I also hope that I have ideals that I at least occasionally live up to. But my dirty little secret is that I went into teaching because I liked it and liked to think I might be good at it.

In that sense, I count myself among those lucky enough to have had a career doing something that they have enjoyed doing.

Of course, I haven't quite made money on the scale of an Andrew Carnegie. For that matter, I'm sure I can't match bank accounts with a whole lot of entrepreneurial types all over my city and state.

But would I presume that these folks aren't idealists and difference-makers? Not for minute.

Hey, I'm quite willing to concede that Andrew Carnegie himself was both an idealist and a difference-maker.

Was Mr. Carnegie a greedy robber baron as well? Maybe so. Then again, maybe not.

What is indisputable is that he created real wealth for himself, his workers and his adopted country. Those of us in public service can't claim to have done the same -- at least not in any direct way.

Of course, I've escaped the robber baron label, and for that I am grateful.

But perhaps I've been lucky on this score as well. Applied individually, the tag would surely be unfair.

But applied collectively, our unions have at least been robber-baronish in our demands of taxpayers. And we have been that without the saving grace of being wealth creators at the same time.

In any case, the problem many of our states face is huge, and the sacrifice each of us has been asked to make is small.

All of this is not to say that we public employees have not made solid contributions to our communities and beyond. But there is a reason we are being targeted these days.

As Pogo once put it, "We have met the enemy and it is us."

In state after state, promises were made that likely could not have been kept under the rosiest of economic scenarios. Well, these are not the rosiest of times.

As a result, governors and legislatures have little choice but to do what governors, legislatures and, yes, presidents did a century ago -- namely, reign in the robber barons of their day.

Then the enemy was the expansive power of what might be labeled corporate conservatism. Today a battle is being waged against the entrenched forces of what might be labeled reactionary liberalism.

Today we almost universally applaud the progressive efforts of Gov. (and later President) Theodore Roosevelt and Gov. (and later President) Woodrow Wilson.

If we are to have a bright, productive and progressive 21st century, perhaps sometime early in the 22nd century the consensus will be to applaud the equally progressive efforts of their idealistic, difference-making counterparts in states like Wisconsin, Ohio and New Jersey today.

Chuck Chalberg teaches American history at Normandale Community College.