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

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Paul @Mulshine Owes a Correction

Regular readers know how I feel about the low, low, low standards the Star-Ledger's op-ed page sets for its writers - particularly on the subjects of education policy and public employee pensions. This past week, however, the page sunk to new depths, courtesy of Paul Mulshine.

Mulshine is a self-styled libertarian curmudgeon who sees himself as a wonk, which means he likes to think he's arrived at his conclusions through careful and well-informed analysis, rather than cherry-picking facts and sophistry. In his latest column, he convinces himself he has such a fine grasp of the state's fiscal situation that those who insist on New Jersey making its pension payments are living in a fantasy world:
I didn't get a chance to ask [Assembly Speaker Vince] Prieto where he'd find room in the budget to make those payments because he's not returning calls from the press. So I did the next best thing. I called the NJEA. 
The New Jersey Education Association put out a press release the other day in which  president  Wendell Steinhauer said the state's largest teachers union is rejecting Christie's response to the Prieto plan. Christie called for the unions to negotiate pension and health benefit reductions to save the pensions. 
"We will continue to work with Speaker Prieto, Senate President Sweeney and any other responsible legislator to find an achievable, sustainable pension solution that ensures the state will meet its full pension obligations to our members and to all public employees," the statement read. 
That leaves unanswered the question of how  the state could  come up with the cash to make those payments. I put that question to NJEA communications director Steve Wollmer. 
"It's a daunting task, I think everyone admits that," said Wollmer.  "Bad decisions have been made for 20 years by everyone in the system." 
I asked Wollmer what level of new taxes or spending cuts could make this pig fly, or at least put lipstick on it.  
"Everyone talks about the millionaires'  tax," he said. "That's $700 million a year." 
Sounds good, but that's just a fraction of the $4.3  billion annual payment recommended by actuaries. 
Other than that, Wollmer couldn't come up with  any suggestions for big-ticket revenue-raisers. Instead he reiterated the line the union's been pushing to avoid that question. 
"The teachers didn't create this problem and have been paying into  the fund," he said. [emphasis mine]
When I read that, I was surprised. Because I know Steve Wollmer; we see each other several times a year, at the NJEA convention and other union events. He reads this blog regularly, and he knows that I and many others have suggested many other streams of revenue and cost-cutting measures that could significantly help in pulling together the money needed for the state to make its payments. Why didn't he mention them?

It turns out he did. As Ani McHugh points out, Mulshine, according to Wollmer, completely misrepresented Wollmer's answer:
So how could it be possible that the Director of Communications of the New Jersey Education Association was unable to come up with any solutions–other than the millionaire’s tax–to the pension crisis? How could he have so little to offer in response to Mulshine’s question?
The answer, not surprisingly, is that NJEA Director of Communications Steve Wollmer had plenty to say to Paul Mulshine: but Paul Mulshine chose to ignore what likely amounts to 99% of what Wollmer described on the NJEA Facebook group thread as a 45-minute phone conversation the two had on Friday.
During that conversation, when Mulshine asked how NJ could come up with the money to fund the pension system, Wollmer says he suggested a corporate excise tax, a gasoline tax, an end to Christie’s muti-billion dollar tax credit giveaways for zero job creation, and a millionaire’s tax–but it seems that Mulshine ignored all but Wollmer’s final suggestion.
And then Mulshine accused Wollmer of reiterating the “line the union’s been pushing” (about teachers not creating the pension crisis) to “avoid” answering the question about funding.
Put simply, Mulshine’s claim that Wollmer “couldn’t come up with any suggestions for big-ticket revenue raisers” was a blatant lie. 
Union haters will, of course, present Mulshine’s column as concrete “I-told-you-so” evidence that unions have no solutions to the pension crisis. No surprise there. Also unfortunate is that people who don’t necessarily harbor ill-will towards public employees or their unions will infer, from Mulshine’s column, that the state does not have the money–and cannot find it–to fulfill its pension obligations.
But most unfortunate is that a columnist at the state’s largest newspaper would pose a very specific question to NJEA’s Director of Communications and then deliberately misrepresent and omit most of the answer he very specific answer received.
What kind of reporting is that?
It's crap reporting. The kind of crap reporting the Star-Ledger op-ed page engages in regularly.

To be clear, I've been quoted several times by the S-L newsroom staff, and they have always been fair and accurate: former reporters Peggy McGlone and Jessica Calefati, and current reporter Adam Clark, are all professional journalists who write good stories about education. No, my problem has always been with the op-ed page, where crap like Mulshine's appears to be the standard.

Now, we could argue that this was a case of he-said/he-said. Except when readers started linking to Ani's blog under Mulshine's original post and began questioning his reporting, Mulshine all but admitted he had skipped over much of Wollmer's answer:

Paul Mulshine | The Star Ledger

Paul Mulshine | The Star Ledger
@billbrennan You guys have to be kidding. The NJEA wants to fund pensions with a gas tax? The gas tax is dedicated to transportation. But never mind. Raise those NJ Transit fares even higher so teachers can drink margaritas by the pool in Florida while they're still in their 50s. The rest of his suggestions are equally silly and add up to a fraction of the amount needed. 

I'd like to point out I'm in my 50s, but I don't have a pool in Florida (and I'd rather have a single malt on the rocks). This stupidity about greedy teachers leeching off the system is, of course, completely contradicted by the actual facts: teachers are not overpaid, even when taking into account benefits.

But Mulshine is entitled to his opinions, idiotic as they may be. He is also free to argue against Wollmer's suggestions for raising revenue.* What Paul Mulshine is not free to do is misrepresent an answer to his question and then, when caught, say the answer was "silly" anyway.

This one is really simple: Paul Mulshine owes his readers a correction. And the Star-Ledger needs to take a hard look at how the low standards of its op-ed page are unworthy of the largest newspaper in New Jersey.

Low standards? Where?

ADDING: John Reitmeyer, a real journalist, points out the obvious:
At stake in the ongoing debate are the retirements of an estimated 770,000 current and retired public workers who are relying on the $80 billion pension system to be there when their careers end. And for taxpayers, there are also enormous consequences because the court ruling reaffirmed that employees still have a right to receive their pensions, meaning the annual payouts will have to come out of the state budget if the pension system ultimately goes broke. [emphasis mine]
The folks like Mulshine, who continually tell us the state can't make its payments because it has no money, never seem to want to follow things through to their conclusion. Do they really think an entire state can go into default? That the state's own courts, let alone the federal courts, will allow that to happen? That the courts won't force the state to find the revenues later? That there won't be hell to pay even if the state constitution is rewritten to allow default?

This state must raise taxes. It must stop the corporate tax giveaways. It must get its pension costs under control. Wollmer and the NJEA understand this; Mulshine is the one who is "silly."

For myself: I'm all for getting health care costs under control and using the savings to help fund pension payments -- after the state reinstates the millionaire's tax, cuts corporate giveaways, reforms tax expenditures, and renegotiates its pension costs, which are outrageous.

Do that, and then we'll talk about health care. But not before.

*If we raise the gas tax, that may well free up other revenues going to fund transportation, like the general sales tax. Granted, changing this might take a constitutional amendment, but that doesn't mean it can't be done. Seems to me that these are the sort of discussions self-styled wonks like Mulshine should be having in their columns, rather than misrepresenting the people they interview.


Giuseppe said...

I cannot even begin to articulate the loathing and disgust I have for libertarians and Ayn Randians in the kind of language I would like to use.....being that this is a classy web site.
The libertarian mentality and the GOP have stood in the way of actual universal health care or single payer or Medicare for all. Truman tried to institute a national health care system in the late 1940s but was blocked by the GOP, the AMA and conservatives of all stripes. Mulshine and that whole libertarian mafia are ideologues and useful idiots for the billionaires who hate unions, public workers and public pensions. The billionaires stoke up the libertarian jerks to believe that they would be better off without Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the ACA and any social programs that help ordinary working class Americans and the poor. So we have the spectacle of Tea Party boobs demanding that government keep its hands off of their Medicare. Many of the GOP candidates have made it clear that they intend to take the axe to Social Security, Medicare and the ACA. There really is a difference in the parties when it comes to those social programs. Very sadly, there is no difference between the parties when it comes to education.
I guess every newspaper in the country has their own libertarian parrot vomiting up all the libertarian clap trap; Mulshine is the Star-Ledger version. Libertarianism, great for the corporatists and the billionaires but toxic waste sludge for ordinary working class Americans and the poor. It's a fake, phony fraud, ideology and cult that would be ignored if we lived in saner times.

Duke said...

"...being that this is a classy web site."

Giuseppe, did you mean to post this HERE?


As always, thanks for your many great comments, like this one. Spot on.

StateAidGuy said...

Question: is there a point when economic conditions would ever make you want to reconsider your support for 100% payment of NJ's pension contracts?

Let's say that the state implements everything that Steve Wollmer recommends, eg a corporate excise tax, a gasoline tax, an end to Christie’s muti-billion dollar tax credit giveaways and it "works" for a year and NJ can make its actuarial payment on the pension fund.

But let's say that there is a recession that is completely outside of NJ's control. Let's say that a sinking of the Chinese stockmarket, a major corporate implosion, or a oil price spike and that triggers a downturn in NJ (and elsewhere) with a decline of revenues. Is there any point where you would think that the public sector employees should yield a bit?

Duke said...

Jeff, if we get hit by an economic crisis, the WORST thing we could do is take the money out of the pockets of people who will actually spend it. History is not with the supply-siders.

Of course, if an asteroid hit the planet, all bets are off.

That said: is there any situation that isn't completely catastrophic where I think we should change the pensions of current retirees? No. I am, however, all for making health care much more efficient than it is now and using that savings to help fund the pension.

This country has a huge inequity problem. Return us to pre-Reagan tax rates, then we can talk about cutting current pensions.