Monday, November 19, 2012

Cinema Verite? (Hardly)

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Cinema Verité?  (Hardly)

Some of the most frightening and nightmarish themes or concepts can be found in, of all things, children’s literature and film.  Hansel and Gretel face likely cannibalism trudging through the deep woods, a Little Red Riding Hood looks under the blanket for a loving grandmother but finds a ravenous wolf, three little pigs build homes hoping for a safe future and find anything but, etc.  It seems life can digest pretty much all our hoped-for dreams.

Now, in a new film created under Governor Pat Quinn’s signature direction, Grimm’s redundant themes of a safe future cut untimely short for the innocent is once again manifested (on the little screen). 

The Pension Squeeze 
( ) appears just in time for the late year rush toward both cinema awards and the Veto Session in Springfield.  What makes the film so very unsettling is not necessarily all the menacing props placed haphazardly within the video: a huge carrot-colored cartoon python squeezing our Capitol Building, a business-type narrator who looks like a thinner version of Ty Fahner, a pathetically incompetent teacher on a background slide who is about to be eaten by  little Hansels and Gretels. 

That last image is a lesser theme (or leitmotif for you English teachers) of educator incompetence, which gallops more than runs through all state and Tribune media documentation of pensions.  But I digress.  Back to the film.

The well-dressed, unctuous narrator sprints the audience through over two thousand years of pension history and describes the simplicity of pensions and how they work in less than two minutes; on the other hand, he exhorts an authenticity that will give many unprepared viewers a false sense of veracity.  Don’t be fooled.

For example,  “If you the worker contribute to a pension fund, we the employer will contribute to that fund AND we’ll invest it with the interest going back into the fund and when the employee is ready to retire, he or she will receive regular payments or annuities from the fund.”  

Fact Check:  TRS, SERS, SURS, and other pension funds are depositories for the contributions of active workers, and they maintain an investment service with the annual funds coming from its members.   The State of Illinois does not maintain a commensurate fund nor did it ever.

Once again: Sometimes the government employers made smaller payments into the fund than they had promised.  And the investments we made with that pension fund?  The Great Recession hit those investments hard (sound of explosion – narrator cringes).”

Fact Check: Sometimes? In fact, since 1953, the state of Illinois had made full payment to the pension fund on just two consecutive annual occasions.  Governor Quinn has been enthusiastic to declare that these two full pension payments were made during his administration.  On the other hand, public employees paid in fully for every year, 1953 and on.  By the way, there was NO investment fund for public employees kept by the State of Illinois that was affected by the Great Recession.    

The Pension Squeeze narrator wrings his hands and laments over the longer lives, earlier retirements, and increased healthcare costs for public worker retirees.   What’s a state to do?  According to our storyteller these costs are making it impossible to provide for education (shot of a hopeless student), public safety (image of pained policeman), and public safety (medical center being buried under orange cartoon snake). Making a specious if not tenuous connection, the narrator adds In Illinois the slice of the budget pie devoted to pensions has tripled in just five years.” 

Fact Check:  In actuality, the required cost for pensions for next year will drop from 2012 costs several hundreds of thousands.  It is the unfunded liability that the storyteller conveniently forgets to tell the viewer about that makes for increased costs: it is not increasing ages, etc.  The unfunded liability is the debt service and interest owed for all those years the State of Illinois “sometimes” did not pay in what was required.

Several, like Rep. Franks of Marengo, are criticizing the Office of the Governor for creating something so “juvenile,” while others like Rep. Tom Cross of Oswego are happy Quinn has produced something at all (Garcia, Monique & Pearson, Rick.   Pension marketing called juvenile.  Chicago Tribune.  19 November 2012).  Governor Quinn hopes that this video will become the subject of table talk among families during Thanksgiving and fuel a new grass-roots movement to…?

Most agree that the video is short on solutions, but few in the media or in politics have been bold enough to call it glaringly short on accuracy.
Maybe the best family table discussions would entertain questions of governmental responsibility, promises not kept, the consistent undercutting of the middle class, or even an avoidance of true political statesmanship.  To do that would be to look for real long-term fixes in the chronic, systemic revenue shortages Illinois faces annually.  Some politicians may suggest we need to first stop the bleeding, but should we do so by bleeding those who did their part?
Happy Thanksgiving and please pass the Twinkies.

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