Sunday, March 24, 2013

Fair Is Foul (or Sen. Don Harmon)

“Fair is Foul, and Foul is Fair” (or…Senator Don Harmon?)
Arguably, the best primer about politics In Illinois could be William Shakespeare’s Macbeth.  Even in the primal days of Scottish Thanes and royal assassinations, branding made or broke an erstwhile politician; in other words, even then appearances can become reality - at least temporarily.  And that brings us to Senator Don Harmon (Oak Park); whose latest vote cast on SB35 leaves a glaring slash in what was once the very appealing flag of consideration and sensibility.
To listen to an earlier version of Senator Harmon (speaking before the IRTA) or to read Senator Harmon’s pensive forecast of possible pension reform this spring presented a careful and considerate thinker about pension issues and Constitutional contractual promises  (  And then, on March 20th, Senator Harmon voted “Aye” on SB 35.
In a communiqué to his constituents and supporters (before his vote) in the Oak Park.Com Journal, the Senator clearly stated, “We need a balanced, common sense approach to pension reform.  This will include both reforming benefits and establishing adequate funding of the pension system over the long term.”
In his newsletter, Senator Harmon wrote of the difficulties of finding some middle position between “the drumbeat from hedge fund captains dabbling in politics and certain editorial boards – who see the only path to reform as slashing ‘overly generous’ pension benefits to ‘lazy’ public employees.” 
Contrapuntally, Harmon also emphasizes the impossible demands of those “fierce advocates of defined benefit pension plans (who) refuse to touch benefits and believe the only solution is to raise taxes yet again and plow the money into underfunded pensions.”
SB35, according to the advocating Civic Federation, is a mirror image to the earlier House bill HB3411, co-sponsored by Rep. Nekritz and Senator Biss (when he was a Representative).  The industry bosses admire the bill, and now – surprisingly – so does Senator Harmon.  Even though the earlier and more cautious version of Harmon suggested, “Looming overhead is the Illinois Constitution, which says membership in any public pension system is an enforceable contractual relationship whose benefits ‘shall not be diminished or impaired.’"  Suddenly, Senator Harmon appears unmindful of that likely possibility. 
Perhaps he has joined Nekritz and Fahner and the other “captains” who have concluded: “At the press conference on January 27, Representative Elaine Nekritz said that HB3411 is constitutional because it provides for the pension systems’ survival in exchange for reduced benefits. In March 2012, the Board of Trustees of TRS concluded that the fund was imperiled because it could no longer rely on the State to make its required contributions”  ( ).   Using TRS to argue for excessively severe benefit slashing, well, it’s hard to argue with logic like that, Mr. Ingram.  Of course, in Macbeth, remember, it was difficult to tell who was trustworthy or honorable.                                 
In voting “Aye,” the Senator has agreed and supported these draconian conditions:
Cap COLA’s to the first $25,000 in benefits, cutting the value of a retiree’s pension between 28% and 31% after twenty years.  The bill is more punitive to those who have worked enough outside of the public sector to have social security.
Freeze any cost of living adjustment until age 67 or five years after retirement.
Create a new Tier Three for new hires in TRS and SURS, who would suffer a combined hybrid defined-benefit and defined-contribution – putting half of their retirement into the markets. 
Increase retirement ages and increase employee contributions. 
Offer a pension-funding guarantee that is only “permissive,” not giving employees any right to civil action.
Create a cash balance plans for new hires for SURS and TRS and certain Tier Two participants.
Cap pensionable salaries for Tier I active teachers.
 Senator Harmon had staked out the extremes. 
Yet, by supporting Senate Bill 35, Senator Harmon has pretty clearly shown where he falls in the chasm between these two extremes, decisions he admits will surely affect those  “stuck in the middle… public employees, retirees and, mostly, schoolteachers who contributed to their pensions in every paycheck.  Many are not eligible for the social security…and are scared to death we will shatter their already fragile notion of ‘retirement security.’”  He chooses to stand with that former group: the Civic Federation and other “captains….”
By the way, the Senator also rightly warned in his newsletter that the 1995 ramp was a ridiculously large part of the underfunding problem in Illinois: “That's a fine goal, but about as realistic as a family setting aside in one lump sum all the money it needs to pay off the mortgage, provide college tuition for each child and finance retirement and long-term care in one payment.”  Noting in SB35 did anything to ameliorate that issue.  No ramp, no real promise to fund, and just loss of benefits…
But that’s the earlier version of Senator Harmon.
It’s all right Senator.  “A little water clears us of this deed.” 


  1. "How easy is it, then!... [Until] Out, damned spot, out, I say!"

  2. They are all suffering groupthink. They discount any alternatives that might conflict with their desires to follow the rich and powerful. They discount any contrary evidence as they pretend there are no alternatives.

    And it is easier if they all push that switch together because what they are doing is immoral. And if they do it together, they believe they are not responsible because (like the reasoning of an adolescent) everybody's doing it. They are just following orders and feel less evil if they all do it together. They easily break a contract the legislature has made with ordinary people as they wouldn't dream of breaking a contract they hold with bondholders. And they are not bothered by the inconsistency, holding conflicting opinions, no cognitive dissonance, because that would threaten groupthink.

  3. Your comment reminds me of Stanley Milgram’s classic study in ‘63 at Yale and his essay, “The Perils of Obedience.” In our case, many legislators come to view themselves as instruments for carrying out another person’s commands (Madigan/Cullerton) and; therefore, they no longer regard themselves as responsible for their actions. They feel responsible to an authority and not to the victims (public employees). Erich Fromm stated that there is a psychological comfort in obeying authority and in identifying with something believed to be greater than one self. One must have courage to disobey and to do the right thing. Most Illinois legislators are cowards.