Friday, April 26, 2013

Ain't No Pension Crisis...

It's not a “Pension Crisis.” It’s a “Debt Crisis”

While the concept of the “big lie” is most often attributed to an incarcerated Adolph Hitler during his recitation of Mein Kampf, the origins of the phrase most certainly reach further back into time, and they provide an additional element: Repetition.  In fact, as far back as 1888, a schoolboy axiom was to provide not only a “big” lie, but the cheek to repeat it endlessly in order to secure its evolution from possibility to plausible certainty

Senator Bertino-Tarrant
In a recent response to a constituent, Freshman Senator Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant (49th District) began her reasons for cutting pension benefits for current retirees (and possibly active workers in the public sector given House amendments) with the usual Springfield opening: “Thank you for contacting me regarding our state’s pension crisis.”  

Excuse me, Senator?  Don’t you mean “debt crisis?”

It would appear that the Senator has been duly indoctrinated by those who would create the ad hominem logical fallacy that the workers with pensions are to blame for the current shortfalls in the Illinois budget, which makes it difficult to pay for services to other areas of the state. And, I might add, Senator Bertino-Tarrant is quite familiar with the public educational system – as a principal as well as Will County Superintendent of Education.  What happened, Senator?  Was it subversion or immersion – or both?  It would appear on the surface that she has been transformed after a very short experience in the General Assembly.

Pension Crisis unfairly evokes culpability for a historically shared retirement program which is no longer acceptable to cost cutting, bottom line business corporations.  Indeed, the phrase arouses envy in many recent recession-damaged employees and non-union workers, toiling in an economy without concern or care for their lives beyond exploitation.  The words “Pension Crisis” deliberately divert the problem to a fallacious target: the current workers and retirees who still have some promises of traditional pensions.

The Chicago Tribune has been the very model of a one-note-Johnny in its use of the damaging expression “Pension Crisis.”  Even when the General Assembly stops momentarily to consider court ordered conceal-and-carry, or marriage equality, or even medical marijuana; the Chicago Tribune can be counted upon to apply the broad brush, which makes pensions themselves the issue – NOT the Debt Crisis owed for not having made payments for many decades.    

This kind of phrasal finger pointing plays well in a business and economic climate where, according to a recent Frontline program, nearly 35% of Baby Boomers have no retirement savings whatsoever.  Those who do (nearly 60 million) have watched their 401k programs eviscerated by Wall Street managed market disasters – if they were lucky enough to have one (The Retirement Gamble).  The emergence of 401k programs in the mid 1980’s put all the risks in the hands of the workers, not the employers, and the waiting financial industry made money despite the good times or bad times. 

Senator Daniel Biss employs the “pension crisis” refrain constantly at town hall meetings and in newsletters to constituents: “The pension crisis is perhaps the most prominent fiscal challenge facing our state today; it puts an incredible amount of pressure on our budget, while simultaneously putting at risk the retirement security of teachers and other public employees”( ).  

He goes on, “If we avoid taking the difficult steps necessary to fix our pension system, the growing cost would consume so much of the state budget that we would be unable to fund any other sector of government, including human services, health care, infrastructure, public safety, education -- and eventually -- the salaries of the public employees in the pension systems.”  Those currently trekking along in the public sector path, I’m afraid, will end up taking those difficult additional steps.  Senator
SB2404 is not nearly enough for these three.
Biss would promote an instrument that asks – like 401k’s did in the 80’s – for the worker to assume economic risks for end-of-life retirement, while the state would avoid such risks in these new actuarial promises.  Cash Balance Plans, one of the Senator’s favorite saws, will provide increases in portfolios but to a calibrated level, beyond which the state reaps your extra earnings.  Losses, well, those losses are yours to suffer.  It’s your risk now.  These new non-pension footfalls are indeed difficult - as well as very different.

Back to Senator Bertino-Tarrant: to be fair, she has co-sponsored SB2404, a proposal supported by many public sector unions as a small, first step toward finding a constitutional resolution to the “Debt Crisis.” Senator Bertino-Tarrant continues, “This change would create an immediate savings of $4.7 billion and will save the state $18 billion or more over the next thirty years.” 

The Tribune, Civic Committee, Illinois Policy Institute, Rep. Nekritz, Senator Biss, and others would say this is not nearly enough.  They would shout, “Pension Crisis.” They would speciously connect the Debt Crisis to the annual costs of pension for the state retirement systems.  They would call out the need to share the sacrifice as a justification to fiscally injure those who were originally cheated, even as the annual costs for pensions has fallen or remained static these last two years. 

In fact, payments for pensions for public sector workers this year will be less than last year.  This is not to diminish nor disparage those needs – education, human, and medical services.  And other methods to meet those fiscal shortfalls exist – even if purposely overlooked.

But let’s not be swept along with the verbiage that so characterizes those who would eliminate pensions altogether, had they the chance.  Let’s stop addressing the need to take money from those owed even more with a truth: “We in Illinois face a debt crisis of nearly $100 billion, and in order to claw our way out of the fiscal hole, we in the General Assembly want to take even more away from those we shortchanged to begin with.” 

That’s the truth. 

If a Senator or a Representative or even a one-term Governor wants to explain “Pension Crisis,” just add that sentence, and I for one will applaud you for your honesty at least.   

For Senator Biss, that sentence would be amended with this: “and then you will be able to have a pension or what’s left of it, despite the constitutional promises I want to ignore.” 

That’s the truth too.

Alternatives to pension cutting? See Glen Brown's blog:
teacher/poet/musician glen brown: Illinois Politicians: Uphold the constitution and address the state’s debt crisis

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