Monday, April 14, 2008

Us vs. Them Attitudes

Every single city and town in this state is working on a shoe-string budget. For some reason I'll never quite understand, most people tend to view things through an us-vs.-them lens: 'Marblehead receives more Chapter 70 funding per capita than Swampscott, so let's raise some hell!' tends to be the general view in my town. Of course, the fact that Marblehead receives more funding than Swampscott isn't Swampscott's problem - it's the slap in the face that makes the problem worse. Unfortunately, as countless books discuss (such as What's the Matter with Kansas), it's easy to distract people from the real problems by alerting them to the fact that not everyone shares those problems. Many people may not be riled up if everyone's just as screwed over as they are, but that kind of attitude certainly doesn't make for smart governmental policy.

Of course, the problem extends way beyond school funding: I'm damn-near ready to trademark the sentence - "Pension reform is the new third rail of Massachusetts politics." Anyone else sick and tired about reading how teachers have it so well? Let me be the first to say, as the son of a teacher, their wonderful salaries (/sarcasm off) and benefits aren't all that they're cracked up to be.

Nor is eliminating public employee benefits and salaries the solution to our society's problems. First off, public employee pensions are fair. Massachusetts employees pay 11% of their salaries into pension funds and usually don't earn anywhere near as much as the private sector. Many public employees - the same ones who aren't anywhere near over payed - are also required to have more advanced degrees than private sector counterparts. Even the so-called worst offenders, the people who's pensions end up on the front page of the Boston Globe, have had to put in more than 20 years of service in the state to get them. If a few people are getting a sweet deal, that doesn't mean the pension system needs to be totally overhauled.

That's not to say the pension system is perfect and there isn't some room for reform, but the vitriol directed towards public employees is unsettling, and certainly the aims of many directing such vitriol goes way beyond what's fair and decent. I've yet to read a reasonable pension-reform post on BMG or article in the Boston Globe that proposes specific ideas on how to reform pensions so that there aren't the outliers that get more than they deserve, while also protecting the core middle and working class employees who have put 20+ years and 11%+ of their salaries into the system in return for those benefits. It's all about how some guy got such a sweet deal and it's so unfair and needs to stop, or it's about how public employees are hacks and don't deserve to be decently compensated. People clearly forget that public sector employees perform services that we all benefit from and thus deserve compensation on par with everyone else in society (lest we truly get what we pay for).

The bottom line is that lashing out against public sector employees may feel good, but it certainly isn't a solution to the problem: the erosion of the middle and working classes, or even our budget difficulties (pension reform would represent a fraction of a fraction of our budget deficit). Social Security alone isn't enough to cover the costs of living in today's society and most people aren't expert enough in planning for their future, or they simply don't have the funds necessary to make those plans. So, the problem is the lack of post-retirement security in the private sector, not Billy Bulger's cousins. The solution to the problem isn't tearing the middle and working class apart, it's actually addressing social security and the problems average citizens face when planning for their future. The solution, in essence, is in tackling the bigger issues.


Anonymous said...

Maybe it's things like, who gets a pension in the private sector after 20 yrs? Who gets lifetime health care coverage after 10 yrs.
I'll retire (private sector) at 55 with a pension after 35 years service and pay 35% of my health care costs. This is the earliest I can get out. The toll takers make the same pay I do.

Chris from Andover said...

I'm wondering, couldn't unions be guilty of that Us vs. Them attitude as well? Not to beat on the teacher's union, (My father is a retired music teacher and former director of Lawrence High School Marching band way back) but in my town of Andover a contentious (shocking I know) negotiation just concluded with Andover teachers recieving an 8.6% raise over three years. The only problem is the town can't really afford to pay it. That is not the only exampl. When a town employee retires, the Town of Andover buys back all of that employees unused sick time that they have accrued over the years, which in some instances can total upwards of tens of thousands of dollars per employee. What frustrates private sector employees like me sometimes is that when the company that I work for experiences a rough year, we don't get any salary increases, not even a cost of living increase. Yet the teachers union in my town raises hell, cancels a parent-teacher night because they aren't getting a raise. I agree with you that to a large extent there is an us vs. them attitude, but if flows both ways. Everybody wants theirs, and no one really seems to think about the consequences that might follow if everyone gets theirs.

Anonymous said...

Also in the private sector we are always working under an implied threat that if we aren't competetive the whole business will be moved to our other plants. It used to be the plants down south, now it's the plants overseas. The streets and schools in town aren't going to get moved. You may have some layoffs once in while, but that's routine in the private sector also.

Anonymous said...

There should be a mandatory high school level class that teaches about credit cards, mortgages, IRA's, leases etc. If people are stupid and get in over their head with houses they could never afford, or if they fail to plan for their own retirement etc. the government shouldn't be bailing them out.

Peter Porcupine said...

Ryan - First - many, no, MOST people do not realize that public sector employees do not also get Social Security credit for their years worked. Their pension is IT for them, not something stacked on top of a SS benefit like a private sector pension. In fact, if they retire early, or also have private sector earnings and qualify for SS, the amount of their monthly check is LOWERED by whatever their Mass. pension check is, making it impossible to stack, because Mass. is a non-contributory state.

Quickest fix - begin to collect social security on public service salaries.

Ryan Adams said...


Most towns have written the unused sick time right out of the system. It was stupid negotiating from the towns, that's for sure, but the towns did agree to that. It was a way of saving money short term that has burned towns now.

That said, are unions guilty of it? Of course they do: blindly supporting casinos, to me, is one example. But what makes the examples I brought up so nefarious is that it actually works against the common good. People pick and choose problems that are actually either minor or complete outliers and use them (and are often used by others goating them on) to attack the entire system, systems that often work well and, on the whole, are fair.


I completely agree with you.

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