Pam Zubeck's cover story headlined "Pension tensions" in the Jan. 20 edition of the Independent alleges that public employees have a "sweet deal" that "may spoil a few things for the rest of us."
Her use of inflammatory rhetoric — such as describing contractual obligations as "demands" or "eating the district alive" or "how PERA's appetite has grown" — is intended to create an "us versus them" lens through which to view the problem. And the theft and fraud of Wall Street banksters that caused the whole train wreck? Zubeck describes that as a "volatile stock market."
The "perfect storm" that hit us in 2008 has been studied by economists and congressional committees. The consensus seems to be that we were rolled by what can only be described as the criminal enterprise of our financial sector and their craven enablers in Washington.
They manipulated the market, sold fraudulent products, then held the country hostage by threatening to pull the plug on the whole operation. What punishment has been meted out to these miscreants? They were bailed out by the taxpayers and the Federal Reserve to the tune of billions; some have even estimated trillions. They have given themselves obscene bonuses, and have basically gotten a sanction from Congress to repeat the whole debacle.
As we continue to suffer the consequences of their depredations, surely we can find someone to punish. I know — let's punish those pesky teachers, librarians, hospital workers and police officers! Of course they had nothing to do with this catastrophe, but hey, they have a pension! No fair!
It's like a kid on the playground who gets bullied. He can't do anything to the bully, so he finds someone smaller to rough up. This continues to be the preferred strategy of the moneyed class: Sow envy, suspicion and anger among the people you're fleecing so they will blame each other for your misdeeds.
As Eric Alterman notes in The Nation, there is an effort in the new Congress to destroy the last vestiges of the defined-benefit pension: the public employees pension (though members of Congress have thoughtfully exempted their own pensions). One of their first acts has been to refuse to fund the Build America Bonds program. Alterman notes, "These bonds make up about 20 percent of all new debt sold to state and local governments. This will force local governments to slash their budgets for services such as snow removal and public schooling ... it will eventually force localities to default on their pension obligations."
It is difficult to see how state employees who have spent their lives serving the public in various capacities (for modest pay, in the majority of cases) are greedy or demanding when they accept the equally modest benefits that were promised them. Bear in mind that these are benefits that will percolate throughout the whole community. These are folks who will get haircuts and buy food and clothing right here. It is a true stimulus package, and the funds it distributes are partly comprised of the contributions made by its recipients over their working lives.
With the current crisis in Wisconsin, the template has been adhered to with an eerie precision: Pass tax cuts for the corporations, declare a fiscal emergency, demonize public servants, and attempt to undercut their rights by fiat.
Zubeck's article depends a great deal on the opinions of two people she calls "experts," Barry Poulson and Arthur Hall. Their work — although Zubeck implies that it represents their professorships at the University of Colorado and Kansas University, respectively — is in fact funded by the Heritage Foundation, the Independence Institute and The American Legislative Exchange Council.
Hall came to KU from Koch Industries, primary supporters of climate-change denial and of the Tea Party. The Heritage Foundation (among its past and present board members and officers are Richard Mellon Scaife, Holland Coors and Edwin Meese) and the Independence Institute are hugely funded think tanks devoted to producing bogus "research" in support of the dismantling of public services, among many other conservative causes.
Your story presents their "findings" without reference to their sources of funding, essentially presenting the propaganda of reactionary plutocrats as if were the product of scientific research.
We expect these moneyed interests and their minions in Congress to tirelessly attempt to shift wealth upward; what we don't expect is to see the Independent carrying water for them. I frankly would have expected a more balanced presentation of a difficult situation from the Independent.
Steve Milligan is a retired Pikes Peak Community College librarian and Spanish teacher.
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