02/11/2011 06:00 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Balancing the American Social Contract

Fiorello LaGuardia famously said, "There's no Democratic or Republican way of cleaning the streets." In his day that might have been true, but over the decades much has changed and today there is a stark difference that goes to the heart of the principles espoused by each party. The Democratic way of providing public services has been to support civil service jobs that pay a living wage and ensure reasonable benefits, such as sick days and paid holidays. For the most part, the Republican way is to award sole source contracts to well connected friends who then hire workers at minimum wage with no benefits.

While there is a cost to society for ensuring that public services are provided by a workforce that is properly compensated, there are numerous benefits as well. First, there is a consistent group of trained workers to perform essential tasks and develop proficiency in these critical services. This group of workers can be held accountable to maintain, or improve, the level of service. Private contractors are rarely known to the people they are serving and as a result, the public's ability to raise a complaint is greatly diminished. Second, an element in the development of the American middle class and its spectacular growth after World War I was the existence of civil service jobs, which countered the discriminatory hiring practices that confronted arriving immigrants.

The diversity fostered by the civil service helped to open up other opportunities in the workplace and this has proved a long-term benefit to society. Having a financially stable middle class is crucial to the economic health of the city and state. Aside from establishing a significant tax base, it also provides a pathway for succeeding generations to do better than their parents and for decades that has been the driving force in our economy.

Today economic strains have made people susceptible to the notion that the working and middle class public employees are at the center of our fiscal problems. Inexplicably the cost of two foreign wars and the cost of significant tax cuts for the wealthy are less obvious targets. Frustrated by stagnant income growth, the anger of private sector workers has been effectively diverted. In the past, the average manager's or executive's salary and compensation was several times that of the average employee. While the private sector has consistently squeezed down on salaries and benefits, there has been an explosion in executive compensation, and now that gap is hundreds of times greater.

In order to shift attention from the real problem, it has become fashionable to point to the public sector salaries and benefits as an unaffordable expense. The real question is how this gap came to exist and continues to accelerate. Furthermore, the deficit debate hasn't focused on the basic fact that taxes have never been cut during wartime in any other decade. Indeed, the extension of the Bush tax cuts for wealthy Americans will require further borrowing exacerbating the deficit. Recent history makes it clear that the private sector has little claim to efficiency and careful stewardship of the funds under their control.

Our deficits, nationally and state by state cannot be solved by throwing middle class workers -- teachers, firefighters, police officers -- out of work. This is all the more true as private contractors and consultants charge the government excessive fees with little or no accountability. If we are going to do more with less, than everyone should be expected to be a part of the solution. For too long acts of financial sacrifice have fallen only on those in the middle class, and the struggling working poor, while it was the bankers and financial wizards who created the crisis enjoyed taxpayer bailouts and stock market payouts.