I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Culture of Teacher Bashing

Jonathan Cohn weighs in on the new wave of public employee bashing.
But ask yourself the same question you should have been asking then: To what extent is the problem that the retirement benefits for unionized public sector workers have become too generous? And to what extent is the problem that retirement benefits for everybody else have become too stingy?
I would suggest it's more the latter than the former. The promise of stable retirement--one not overly dependent on the ups and downs of the stock market--used to be part of the social contract. If you got an education and worked a steady job, then you got to live out the rest of your life comfortably. You might not be rich, but you wouldn't be poor, either.
Unions, whatever their flaws, have delivered on that for their members. (In theory, retirement was supposed to rest on a "three-legged stool" of Social Security, pensions, and private benefits.) But unions have not been able to secure similar benefits for everybody else. That's why the gap exists, although perhaps not for long.
Bingo - this is all about defining "fair compensation" down. We are normalizing a penurious retirement for the middle class so the rich can hang on to more of their wealth.

Paul Krugman adds his thoughts.
And here’s a point I haven’t seen made: even if you believe that the age-and-education-adjusted calculations are wrong, and public employees do get paid somewhat more than they “should”, how big a deal is that? I went to the Census state and local finance data, and got this picture of the composition of non-federal government spending:
A few percent either way in workers’ compensation would not make a big difference to state and local spending. This is a phony issue.
It's never been about fiscal responsibility; if it were, we wouldn't be cutting taxes for the rich. It's all about squeezing more out of the public worker so the regressive taxes that fund states and local governments don't get reformed.

One thing I'll add: the reason states and localities love pensions as part of their compensation packages is that it kicks the can down the road. If you have to compete in the same labor pool for workers, but you don't want to pay as much up front as the private sector, you can offer retirement benefits that pay out later; that way, you don't have to justify tax raises to the voters now.

But when you take those benefits away, you take away the incentive to enter public service careers. I keep telling young people who really want to teach: give it five years, tops. The rest of your cohort sees the news; they hear the governor bashing teachers. The labor market for good teachers is going to evaporate faster than a spoonful of water ice on a hot sidewalk - then what are we going to do?

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