Greece-ing The Skids Against Public Pensions
By Roger Tauss
March 26, 2010 - 10:30am ET
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Say what you will about leaders in the American Right, you have to admire their focus. They sit around with loaded shotguns waiting for a target of opportunity to appear. And, unlike Dick Cheney, they rarely miss.
The latest clay pigeon to cross their field of vision is the financial crisis in Greece. The target, however, is not Greece but public sector pensions in the U.S.
At first blush it passes their superficial makes-sense-at-first-glance test: Union demonstrations in Greece have called attention to its lucrative pension system (though the crux of Greece’s problem is private sector debt). From there it’s an easy pivot to “underfunded public-sector pensions” that “threaten the financial future of many cities and states.”
It’s all over the right-wing blogosphere, the subject of editorials in the Wall Street Journal and a constant topic of the ideologues/shills on CNBC. It was also the cover story of the March 15 Barron’s, under the title “The $2 Trillion Hole.”
Typical of these attacks, the article was mostly spin (“the lush pensions”), unsubstantiated claims (“most public employees…can count on pensions equal to 75% to 90% of their pay”) and a handful of anecdotes (the $100,000 a year California pensioner replacing the Welfare Mom driving a Cadillac).
Of course, it’s a lot easier to hit your target when it doesn’t shoot back. Of the 66 comments to the Barron’s article posted online, not one rebuttal tore into the obvious contradiction in the argument: The threat doesn’t come from the pensions themselves but from the extent to which they haven’t been funded in a timely manner.
In fact, according to Barron’s own numbers, 75 percent of all states meet the federal standard applied to corporate pensions (at least 80 percent funded). And the others are an indictment not of the benefit, but of the extent to which these 13 states used money promised to the pension funds for other purposes.
Barron’s cites New Jersey’s woefully underfunded pension as an example. They mention the contribution shortfalls under former Gov. Jon Corzine, but neglect to mention the main culprit—a raid on the pension fund by ex-Gov. Christine Todd Whitman in the 1990s to fund cuts in the property tax.
There are many good arguments why public sector employees deserve these pensions—they don’t receive Social Security, they paid for them with below-standard wages, etc. But remember the lesson the right learned long ago: When you’re explaining, you’re losing.
In the arena of political debate, the best answer to an attack is always to turn it back on the attacker. And the best language is always the language of the attacker:
- Does the word responsibility mean anything to you?
- Whatever happened to paying your bills? Honoring your obligations?
- Oh! It’s immoral to deny contractual bonuses to AIG officers who nearly destroyed the economy, but perfectly all right to break your agreement with government workers (or General Motors employees, for that matter)???
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