News came out this week that, on top of getting a mansion to live in and a $150,000 salary, Governor Rick Perry also gets a $92,000 a year government pension.
The amazing thing about this is that it’s really not very unusual to see this sort of thing for people who work in and around government. For conservatives, this fact about Perry reaffirms two fundamental tenets: 1. Government is inherently wasteful and that’s why most of it should be eliminated. 2. Hypocrisy rules don’t apply to conservatives, so this is a non-issue for Perry.
But what are liberals and progressives to make of this massive pension going to a government official who is already getting a very nice full-time salary?
As much as I love what Occupy Wall Street has done to shift the debate toward inequality and away from deficits, there is a fundamental problem with looking at all public policy through the lens of 99% versus top 1%. And that problem is that, in many communities around the country, nobody in the top one percent lives there. Additionally, it is possible to be creating forms of inequality where, say the bottom 50% see their tax dollars going disproportionately to the top 20%.
If you ask anyone who works closely around state and local government these days, they will concede that ever increasing percentages of government budgets are going toward pensions and benefits to government workers. It’s considered indelicate for a liberal to bring this up lest it seem as though you are siding with Gov Scott Walker (no relation to me). The dirty little secret is that many government entities have largely become little more than government employee pension/benefit collection/distribution systems. Actual government services for citizens are becoming a secondary function for many governments.
And I’m not making this as a conservative argument for conservative measures. I’m saying that, as a liberal progressive who believes in the power of government to help communities and societies, we have to change the current government spending trend line. And the question is not on whether to spend less money. The question is are we going to spend money in a way that seems fair to citizens and actually makes communities and states more equal.
Here’s the big problem with government pensions theses days: no one else in the real world has them. Ya, I know the CEOS of big banks and publicly-traded companies have them, but how many real people do you personally know who have pensions? If they do, how many got them at large government regulated industries like insurance and the companies giving the pension phased them out for all new employees starting 10 years ago?
According to Mother Jones Magazine, if you exclude the top ten percent of income earners in America, the average income of an American is $31,000. So when someone struggling to lead a middle class existence (and has no pension) is asked to deal with public library closings and unclean city or state parks in order to pay for six figure pensions for former city managers (who have likely just moved to another city so they can get two paychecks), a clear-cut case can be made that this is government creating inequality. True, it’s not as egregious as taxing Federal tax dollars to bail out Goldman Sachs so that they can pay out $10 million bonuses to top 01 percenters. But taxing people who make $30,000 a year and redistributing the tax money in the form of pensions to former government administrators making $75k, 90k or even six figure pensions is creating relative inequality.
For those of us who are liberals, believe in equality and believe in government, this is a huge, huge problem. Increasing the percentage of government revenues that goes to pensions and benefits of government workers creates several negative ripple effects:
1. It leaves less money and fewer resources to actually serve citizens.
2. It creates more resentment toward government, and not just from conservatives.
3. It creates tangible income inequality (I know, not as much as what happens on Wall street or the NBA, but why should we be in favor of government actually creating any income inequality)
4. Political support for all things related to government evaporates and you wake up one morning to see that Scott Walker and Newt Gingrich have been elected to run things.
For too long, we liberals have heard conservatives say the words “deficits” or “government waste” and we reflexively dismiss this and then counterattack and then defend all government spending as sacrosanct. Short term, this can work. Short term, we can throw Scott Walker out and keep Ron Paul or New Gingrich from entering the White House. But what about the long term? Voters trust in all government institutions continues to go down—and we can’t blame that all on conservatives trying to destroy government.
A part of what is destroying confidence in government is the fact that the people making the average income of $31,000 a year are increasingly resentful because they see their tax dollars going to government employees who have a “better deal” than they do. For the last 30 years, average citizens’ take home pay has been declining and their pensions have all but disappeared. At the same time, government employee unions have negotiated better and better deals for their members. And if we continue to pretend this is just an issue for right-wing zealots, we are going to sow the seeds of newer and stronger waves of conservative anti-government politicians sweeping into public office in the coming decades.