Government pensions, an obesity epidemic

Demonstrators at the Capitol building in Madison are protesting Republican Gov. Scott Walker's legislation to cut public employees' benefits and eliminate most of their collective bargaining rights.
Monday, February 21, 2011; 8:00 PM

In New York City, the No. 2 guy in the fire department retired on a pension worth $242,000 a year. In New York State, a single official holding two jobs and one pension took in $641,000. A lieutenant with the Port Authority police retired with an annual pension of $196,767, and 738 of the city's teachers, principals and such have pensions worth more than $100,000 a year. Their former employer, it goes almost without saying, is steamed. Their former employer is me.

These examples of pension obesity were culled from the local newspapers, which never fail to shock with revelations of how good life is for those who once worked for the city, the state or any one of several public agencies. In some cases, retirement came a mere 20 or so years after first reporting to HR and, if you were lucky enough to fake a disability - oh, my aching back! - the sky is virtually the limit. Fully one-third of all New York City cops who retired during a recent 17-month period did so on disability. They have dangerous jobs, we all know - but not nearly as dangerous as Long Island Rail Road workers. Almost all of them retired on disability. All aboard!

I pause now to assert my bona fides. I got my first union card while still in college and remained a member of the Newspaper Guild throughout my career, paying dues even when I no longer had to. I can whistle union ditties, and I swell with pride at the ancient picture of my grandfather, posed with his good friend, the union organizer. I know, too, what happens when unions are weak or nonexistent. Capitalism is cruel. Do not look for charity.

But, really, enough is enough. The Wisconsin state employees who are demonstrating in Madison have my sympathy but not my total support. I recognize that they have offered givebacks, and I recognize, too, that Gov. Scott Walker has gone too far - if not trying to bust the unions, as it is alleged, then surely trying to cripple them. In the manner of Ronald Reagan taking on student demonstrators at Berkeley in 1966, Walker will become the champion of the common man, the Middle American and all of that. This works. Reagan, you might recall, went on to become president.

Reagan personified the disgust many Americans felt toward unruly (and ungrateful) college students. Walker is personifying the feeling of resentment and anger toward government workers who have so gamed the system that some of them retire on larger stipends than the average American makes in salary - and with health care, too. Like Reagan, Walker has tapped into a feeling of disgust - the always-dangerous sense that you and I have played by the rules and saved for our modest retirements, while government workers, on our dime, have run off with pensions they do not deserve. We feel we have been played for a fool.

To their credit, some union leaders have recognized that they have gone too far. They have - or will - agree to givebacks, and the teachers unions are acknowledging that they have to do something about incompetents. (Still, if there are cutbacks, it will be done by seniority - meaning some very good but young teachers will be let go.)

But to a large degree, the damage has been done. Last year, David Brooks of the New York Times - with appropriate credit to Jonathan Rauch of the National Journal - pointed out that state and local governments are so indebted to their workers in pension and other obligations that they have little money for anything else. He gave some examples: California state police often retire at age 50 with 90 percent of their salary. Corrections officers in that state earn $70,000 in base salary. New York City, the home office of featherbedding, supports 10,000 cops who retired before the age of 50.

These figures account for why the Obama White House has exhibited its usual robust indecisiveness toward the Wisconsin demonstrators. It needs labor's political muscle, but it must also recognize that it cannot appear on the wrong side of greed. It was one thing when unions went after giant corporations run by guys who played golf at restricted clubs. But when it comes to government workers, we are the boss and we pay the bill. To quote what Sam Spade told the woman he loved in the "The Maltese Falcon," "I won't play the sap for you." When it comes to public-sector unions, my sentiments exactly.

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