For decades everyone seemed okay with the job security and pensions for public workers. After all, they were paid less than similar workers in the private sector, and most large private companies had pensions as well. Over the past decade, that has changed. Public sector wages, on average, are now higher than in the private sector. And, most large private companies no longer offer pensions. They have replaced pensions with 401k matches, but the safe, secure pension for life has all but disappeared. Suddenly, the equation of private/public sector jobs changed. It didn’t happen overnight, but the recent struggles with unions in Wisconsin have brought the shift out of the dark and into the light.
But there is something else at work here. It’s clear that pension reform in the public sector absolutely must be reformed. Not all public pensions have gone overboard, but the ones that have are getting all of the attention. Cutbacks are necessary, not optional. Here is the strange development. The Wisconsin fiasco has resulted in what seems to be an anti-teacher sentiment. Taxpayers, at least the vocal ones, have expressed outrage at the pensioners. Various groups, led by Tea Party types, have developed and us vs. them attitude toward teachers. The facts are that the majority of pensioners are not living in the lap of luxury provided by fat pensions. Most pensions in the public sector are modest. There are certainly well-publicized abuses, but that’s the minority.
But news outlets and ultra-conservative groups have seized on this to rile up constituents. I’ve heard more than one commentator on a certain network speak derisively of teachers and their “part time” jobs. Personally, I have never known a single teacher who walks away at 2:30 with no further obligations. But certain parties have successfully managed to direct anger toward teachers in particular. The primary argument is that this is “our” tax money, and that is why we have a right to be so outraged.
Fine. It is coming from tax money, but that’s the deal with public jobs. But consider the real villains here. Big banks, big lenders, and big securities firms are the ones that were primarily responsible for the economies woes over the past few years. Yet, you hear absolutely no expressions of outrage over what they did. The companies are printing money again, courtesy of the Federal Reserve’s largesse, and bonuses are flowing in the land of milk and honey called Wall Street. A lot of taxpayers, outraged at those fat cat teachers living off our tax dollars, seem to believe that letting banks off of the hook for the financial disaster is just fine. Regulations or retribution for their actions? Forget it. They are making money again and costing the tax payer nothing, so it seems. Just stop and think. The costs to taxpayers by the actions of bankers dwarf the costs of pensions for teachers. How about the hundreds of billions of tax dollars for Fannie and Freddie? How about the hundreds of billions of tax dollars for the increases in necessary unemployment and welfare payments? How about the huge amount of wages they cost the 8 million unemployed people as the result of their actions? How about the still unknown costs of bailing out the likes of AIG, GM, etc?
Tax payers are absolutely right to be angry over where our tax dollars are going. But we should stop and think about where the big tax dollars have gone and are still going and why. It’s not teachers in Wisconsin.
I am not a conspiracy theorist. I won’t say this is all part of a plan by rich conservatives and conservative groups to divide the country even further. I think it’s more of a case that most people in the U.S. are still searching for an outlet at which to vent anger about a world that has simply changed. The housing debacle and the losses in the stock market have completely altered the views of what Americans thought their futures would look like. Most Americans cannot grasp the concepts in the investment banking industry that wrought what we have, and therefore cannot focus their anger on something they can’t understand. But everyone can understand pensions, and, abetted by certain groups and news outlets, they have found an outlet for their anger. I don’t have a solution for this. I just hope that someday we can all figure out where our anger should really be directed. Unfortunately, that might take another financial debacle.
Pushing for pension reform is the right thing to do. We’re actually facing several years of needed but painful reforms. The tax system will someday be reformed, which will likely include goring some sacred cows like mortgage interest deductibility. Medicare and social security changes are simply inevitable. But let’s not direct anger at those on the receiving in of various benefits. The world changed because Wall Street changed.