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

Friday, September 17, 2010

Doblin's Soft, Squishy Center

I obviously have a problem with the Pitchfork Bob Ingle-types of the media who cheerlead Chris Christie while demonizing public workers.

But, in many ways, I have an even bigger problem with so-called "centrists" like Al Doblin. Too often, they try to split it down the middle, affecting a posture that they are being "fair" to both sides. They equate that "fairness" with "wisdom": if we can find fault with both sides, we can then say that the truth lies in the middle ground between them.

The obvious problem with this attitude is that, in many (if not most) cases, both sides don't have equally valid arguments. Rather than calling out mendacity, the Doblins instead attempt to balance a scale that's already fixed.

A “Patterson,” named after state Supreme Court nominee Anne Patterson, whose nomination has been held up by Sweeney, is when a legislator refuses to do his or her job all in the name of politics. Sweeney may claim that it is all in the name of good government, and if two wrongs do indeed make a right, then I guess it is. 
In the case of the first “Patterson,” Christie should have renominated Justice John Wallace to the high court, but he didn’t. 
Sweeney remains miffed and intends to block hearings for any and all Christie high court picks until he gets satisfaction. Unlikely. Christie is a fan of Bruce Springsteen, not the Rolling Stones. Obstructionism isn’t attractive when worn by congressional Republicans. It doesn’t look any better on a South Jersey Democrat.
So here we have a Doblin equivalence: unnamed obstructionism by national Republicans is the same as Sweeney holding up Patterson's nomination.

Except it's kind of hard to judge the merits of Doblin's case when he won't tell us exactly what Republican obstruction he's talking about. Could it be holding up unemployment insurance? Is Doblin prepared to say that Sweeney's reaction to Christie's blatant disregard for precedence and shameless attempt to politicize the court is equivalent to withholding much-needed help to millions of Americans who can't find a job?

Here's another bizarre comparison from Doblin:
The state’s pension fund is underfunded for two reasons: One, the state had stopped making payments until former Gov. Jon Corzine took action. Two, the Legislature during Donald DiFrancesco’s short tenure as governor lowered the retirement age and changed the formula for calculating pension benefits. The latter was the proverbial iceberg.
But is each action the same? How much can we attribute to the increase in benefits, and how much to the  lack of funding by the state? Isn't this necessary information for us to make an informed decision? Why isn't Doblin looking for the answer?

And more false equivalence:
The fundamental problem with the state’s pension system is that promises were made that could never be kept. State workers believed union representatives and public officials when they were told that new contracts that increased pension and retirement benefits would be there when expected.
Since when are union officials responsible for the failure of Trenton to make its pension payments? Granted, I would certainly have liked it if the union had leaned a lot harder on the state to make the payments, but is Doblin seriously suggesting the unions should have backed off from getting their members what they deserved? Especially since public workers make considerably less than private workers of the same experience and education?

But here's the one that really kills me:
Christie is correct: Pumping money into a fundamentally flawed system is not sound public policy. Sweeney is correct that public workers no longer trust state government and need to see the state putting some cash back into the fund. 
But Sweeney is wrong in blocking needed reforms – reforms many Democrats would support – until Christie blinks. This is not the time for ultimatums.
The "fundamental flaw" in the system is that no one has been pumping ANY money into it!

To paraphrase Paul Krugman: if you go on a diet, cheat, and then don't lose weight, don't blame the diet. And don't use that as an excuse to keep cheating! You didn't lose weight because you didn't follow the diet; the pensions are in a mess because the state didn't put the money it was supposed to into them.

As to blocking these "reforms" - let's call them what they really are: benefit cuts that were promised to public workers in lieu of appropriate salaries. The fact that "centrists" like Doblin won't even entertain the possibility of raising taxes on the corporations and wealthy who have enjoyed a huge, wet, regressive tax kiss for the last 30 years speaks volumes about where our discourse is right now.
But bankruptcy is unlikely and a two-tier system dividing current and future employees will not save the sinking ship. It is going to take bold action. The state’s pension fund liabilities are the result of weak-willed public officials’ inability to say no to unions in 2001.
"Bold" my ass. These actions are craven, cowardly, and immoral. The "bold" action would be to stand up and say the state needs to fulfill its obligations, and the people who should pay are the ones who got a free ride during the pension holiday: the wealthy who benefit from our insane addiction to regressive property taxes.

Again: The taxpayer earning the average salary ($54K) in NJ pays around 8.6% in total state and local taxes. The top 1% - who average an income of $2.2 million - pay 7.4% (2007 numbers). Confronting this statistic would truly be "bold."

One other simple question: if NJ had made all of its payments, how big would the liability be today? Anyone at the Record working on that? Or are we content to just keep finding that gooey, squishy middle?

Al Doblin (staff photo)

1 comment:

thinker said...

This stuff makes me so angry. First of all, bankruptcy is not only "unlikely" since the guv already tried it and was shot down-but not too many people know that since fools like this guy didn't bother to know it although he has no problem talking about this stuff like he is the expert.

I am to the point where I firmly believe that this is going to have to play out. Some (at least) of these reforms are going to be enacted and then, when there is a massive glut of public servants, the public will cry and elect some politician who runs on upping the salaries/benefits/something to get people in the door; this is the best case scenario anyway. In this state, anything is possible. Hopefully, by then, I'll be teaching in DE or PA or, well, anywhere but here.

My biggest fear is that the teacher bashing seems to be spreading to a nationwide pastime. Maybe we can organize leagues and schedule a championship. I mean, professional sports has plenty of cash, maybe we're just looking at this the wrong way.