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That Throbbing Pension Headache

The latest economic news is “sobering” according to experts who seem to have confused the word with its opposite meaning, a reason to start drinking heavily. And what’s to blame for the lingering economic malaise that continues to drag us down like a slumping clean-up hitter? Is it the growing gap between rich and poor, crushing consumer debt, upside-down mortgages, bloated government, earmarks, skid marks, our Marxist president?

No, it’s Pensioners!

That’s right, the drag on local economies that’s threatening the national recovery appears to be the fault of municipal workers like teachers, cops, firefighters — you know, those pricks who line their pockets at the expense of the little guy. Like subsidized “millionaire farmers” who were trotted out as culprits two years ago for earning, as Dr. Evil might say, one million dollars…! by indignant politicians worth many times more; and before that, greedy labor unions who brought ruin to the otherwise impeccably-managed automotive and airline industries who only wanted to take you for a ride; and the perennial fall guy, illegal immigrants, who enjoy phantom perks like “free” emergency room health care, and take those swell jobs you’d give your left arm for, like cleaning Porta-Toilets with their faces.

But this year’s model diversionary target is the municipal worker, who may have, in a moment of youthful indiscretion, actually chosen a career as a government worker in part for the security of its pension system — forgoing more glamorous and lucrative employment now in exchange for financial security later, like, say, a Russian ballerina who moves in with Mel Gibson.

Instead, these government employees find themselves the target of selective media hand-wringing: in a smug exposť of 4,000 Illinois pensioners who receive more than $100,000 per year, the Chicago Sun-Times failed to mention that the average state pension is under $20,000 a year. This and other breathless tales of retired thousandaires have an outraged citizenry rallying for change under pitchforks and brickbats, despite a shortage of both brought about by the Tea Party movement.

But those same purple-faced protesters were pretty quiet when Dick Cheney effectively awarded himself a $20 million pension from Halliburton, and General Motors CEO Richard Wagoner retired in disgrace with a $20.2 million pension that his contract guaranteed even if G.M. went bankrupt. Meanwhile, the looming threat of lowly city workers on the verge of retirement has been called everything from a “time bomb” to a “tsunami,” the implied threat being that we will explode or drown unless we take action, either by reforming our pension system or killing all aging municipal workers just prior to retirement.

That’s not to say that our under-funded public pensions aren’t a problem or that the current situation is remotely sustainable. Future pensioners will wind up paying more into the system, and the riverboat gamblers who mismanaged the funds in the first place will have to learn not to invest too aggressively when markets are booming, in the unlikely event markets ever “boom” again.

But if we're really looking for red-handed culprits, as long as we have a loan-sharking banking industry that continues to earn record profits by charging exorbitant rates for money it got from the government for free… a Frankensteinian financial system that genetically engineers deliberately toxic assets to sell to its best customers… and a pair of wars that feed like fat, conjoined twins at a pie-eating contest, consuming a quarter of a million dollars every minute… our under-funded public pension system is just the latest shiny distraction, like the flourish of a magician’s hand right before he pulls a shiny quarter out of a millionaire farmer’s ear.

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A Modest Proposal for a film by Kurt Engfehr and Ken Pisani.
© 2006 Ken Pisani and Kurt Engfehr.  All rights reserved.
All "Blogging Poorly" posts © Ken Pisani.