Much of the nation has watched with a mixture of disbelief and irritation as public employee union protests have boiled over from Wisconsin into Indiana, Ohio and potentially Tennessee.

Teachers and their unions may be angry that they are being asked to sacrifice in order to balance state budgets that are out of whack by multiple billions of dollars, but their anger has very little to do with the reality of the situation that state governments all across the nation are facing in dealing with unfunded liabilities and revenue shortfalls.

Public employees are only now being brought face to face with the realities that the private sector has had to confront for several years: When income is insufficient to pay the bills, economies have to be found, and that includes reducing or eliminating raises, cutting the size of the work force and requiring workers to bear more of the burden of their benefits.

Officials in Wisconsin and the other states dealing with this issue are being responsible managers, and it would not be fair to their employers — hard-pressed taxpayers — if they did not act responsibly in what can only be called a crisis.

State workers cannot conclude that they are immune from the same remedies that private employers have had to impose on their businesses, and politicians who abandon their obligations to the people who elected them to participate in the process also are being delinquent in their duty.

So far in Maine, leaders on every side of the budgetary debate can be grateful that in this state, at least, the conversation about the state’s fiscal future continues according to long-established practices and not political confrontations.

But the system breaks down when those on the losing side of the last election say that rejection by voters allows them to reject participation in the process.

In Wisconsin, the teachers who accepted phony excuses from doctors saying they were “sick” have instead abandoned their duty to their communities and their students.

And the Democratic lawmakers who fled the state have brought the system to a standstill with no justification beyond the desire to satisfy a relatively small group of supporters at the expense of the larger electorate.

That’s not democracy, it’s selfishness.