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The Dennis Ferguson example

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Dennis R. Ferguson is an overnight media celebrity because he did something that almost no one else would consider: He paid the government back for services it had provided him.

Ferguson, 74, doesn’t live in California anymore, yet he sent the Golden State a check for $10,000 to repay it, with interest, for the four months of unemployment benefits he received after losing his job at L.A.'s Douglas Aircraft in 1964. He used that time to learn computer programming and get another job.

Two things about Ferguson’s story spring to mind as Congress extends federal unemployment benefits and California lawmakers prepare for the painful process of trying to balance the state’s budget.

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First: Way to go, Dennis — retraining for a new career and finding a job in just four months is an impressive feat. But that was easier to accomplish in 1964 than in 2010. Today, job openings are so scarce that such a quick turnaround is vanishingly rare, which is why extending the federal benefits (which kick in after state contributions end, usually after 26 weeks) was so important.

Second: Wouldn’t it be great if more people were so willing to give back? Incoming Gov. Jerry Brown, who promised not to raise taxes without a public vote, will probably call for a revenue-raising initiative, because the budget hole is so deep that it can’t be filled with cuts alone without devastating consequences for schools, public safety and other services. Voters consistently say they want these services, but they’re equally consistent about not wanting to pay for them. Next year, when confronted with the choice, we hope they’ll keep Ferguson in mind.


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