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Civil Service Pensions – A Marker for What We’ve Lost

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

In New Jersey, as in many other states with conservative Republican Governors, the state civil service pension systems are under attack. A friend of mine, who has followed Governor Chris Christie’s rhetoric in the newspapers, commented about how reasonable this sounded since the system seems to be going broke. But the story of the pension system in New Jersey is more complicated that the current political sound bites. Let me tell you a true story about how civil service pensions came to be a target for public ridicule.

When I first went into civil service it was a calling to serve, not a career choice for the prospect of making lots of money. I was following the inspired words of John F. Kennedy and asking what I could do for my country. I was, and am still, an idealist. Money didn’t matter as much to me. I wanted to help people. I still feel that way now, which is why I blog.Back when I started with the state, everyone in the private sector had better health care and benefits, better defined pension benefits and they made a lot more money per hour or had higher salaries. Even the state cars we drove back then had no radios or air conditioning as that was considered too extravagant for state employees. That is the way it was, so working for the State came with low earnings expectations.

But things were changing in 1979 when I began my civil service career, even though I didn’t know it at the time. Big business had begun organizing politically and started spending big bucks on lobbying government for laws and regulations more favorable to business. Industry organizations were created to raise money and coordinate anti-union marketing campaigns. Ronald Reagan came into power in 1980 and set the tone for union bashing by crushing the air traffic controllers union. Private sector wages, which up to that time always rose in to proportion to increases in hourly GDP, were frozen and have remained frozen ever since. A fear campaign and actual business tactics based on globalization made jobs less secure. Private company pension systems were intentionally dismantled by big corporations to quarterly boost profits. Profit sharing arrangements took their place initially so workers had to invest in their company for their hope of retirement income. Then Wall Street saw all this money and wanted some action. They got congress to pass the IRA laws and all that pension money went to them.

Instead of real raises, businesses only offered cost of living adjustments, which keeps up with inflation but doesn’t share the extra wealth that the growing hourly GDP created for their employers. That extra wealth went to CEO’s and wealthy stockholders, beginning the cycle of great income disparity we have today. At the same time, Reagan cut the top marginal tax rate from 70% to 28%, a windfall for the rich and a huge loss of tax revenue that the rest of us had to bear.

So while the raises, salaries and benefits I received were always sub-par compared with the private sector during the first half of my career, declining private sector wages and benefits, rather than civil service raises or improved benefits, is the reason civil service looks so good today. In fact, civil service benefits have been steadily eroding for the last 15 years but this decline is slower than the collapse of private sector benefits. Civil service salaries also have barely budged in years and actually declined when you factor in inflation. But the assault on private sector salaries and benefits makes civil service look great by comparison only.

Know this, if corporate business interests had not conspired to suppress wages in America over the last 40 years the median income for a family of four today would be over $100,000/year. Instead it is shrinking and down to $51,000/year.

My point is that people in this country who work in the private sector have to fight back to regain a fair bite of the wealth they create for their employers. Workers need to re-organize and demand their fair share of our GDP. Rather than tearing away at civil servant pensions, people should be working to recreate what has been taken from them and use civil service as the framework and model to rebuild private sector retirement security.

There are particulars about why the pension system in New Jersey is in so much financial trouble.  It isn’t because it is too generous. It is in trouble because when New Jersey was flush with money during Governor Christie Whitman’s (R) term she stopped making payments. She said she did this because the stock market was booming at that time. She said the pension system was way over-funded and didn’t need more cash. By the time she finished bankrupting the state with massive tax cuts and increased credit spending, Governor James Florio (D) didn’t have the revenue to pay into the state pension system during his entire term in office. This default model became a habit with subsequent Governors. Nothing, or only fractional amounts, were paid into the retirement system for the last 20 years. Governor Chris Christie (R) refused to put money into the system a few year back, when he had the money to pay, saying he didn’t want to put money into a broken system. This is crazy talk since it was the Executive branch that broke the system in the first place by doing exactly what he was doing.

The New Jersey State Pension system is, to a lesser extent, also in trouble because it has been abused for years by politicians bumping up the salaries of their political cronies just before retirement so they get huge pensions that they didn’t deserve or contribute towards. Politician’s take advantage of the way pensions are calculated to reward their buddies.

In New Jersey, civil service pensions are based on the average salary for the last three years. Recently the Star Ledger newspaper criticized the Governor for bumping up the salary of a political friend such that his retirement income was around $120,000 per year when his base salary had been closer to $30,000 for most of his career. Politician’s have treated the state’s pension system like it was there private cookie jar.

So when the state’s pension system, or any states fixed pension system becomes a target for political destruction, let it be a reminder instead of just how much ground private sector workers have lost. Let state pension systems be the model on which the rest of the work force rebuilds what they once had.
Photo Credit: http://ivn.us/2012/07/11/california-ignores-growing-public-pension-crisis/
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Graphic Truths about Debt and Deficits

NATIONAL DEBT?

Republican’s increase our public debt by lowering taxes on the wealthy, raising corporate welfare and starting wars. If you are surprised by this bar graph then you then you need to shop around for a more reliable news source.

Republican's increase our public debt by lowering taxes on the wealthy, raising corporate welfare and starting wars. If you are surprised by this bar graph then you then you need to shop around for a more reliable news source.

WAR SPENDING?

chart 1

CORPORATE WELFARE?

Corporate Welfare Grows to $154 Billion even in Midst of Major Government Cuts

 

The Embodiment of Corporate Welfare Himself - Mr. Moneybags

Editor’s Note: Even as the federal government executes major cutbacks, it’s giving huge subsidies in the form of tax breaks to industry, a fact legislators rarely acknowledge. The Boston Globe recently published a thorough and eye-popping report detailing the nature and extent of these breaks. We think it’s a must-read. 

By Pete Marovich

First published in the Boston Globe

WASHINGTON — Lobbying for special tax treatment produced a spectacular return for Whirlpool Corp., courtesy of Congress and those who pay the bills, the American taxpayers.

By investing just $1.8 million over two years in payments for Washington lobbyists, Whirlpool secured the renewal of lucrative energy tax credits for making high-efficiency appliances that it estimates will be worth a combined $120 million for 2012 and 2013. Such breaks have helped the company keep its total tax expenses below zero in recent years.

The return on that lobbying investment: about 6,700 percent.

These are the sort of returns that have attracted growing swarms of corporate tax lobbyists to the Capitol over the last decade — the sorts of payoffs typically reserved for gamblers and gold miners. Even as Congress says it is digging for every penny of savings, lobbyists are anything but sequestered; they are ratcheting up their efforts to protect and even increase their clients’ tax breaks. [snip] http://reclaimdemocracy.org/corporate-welfare-tax-breaks-subsidies/

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Here is how the rise of corporate welfare looks in my state of New Jersey, and note in particular how it has grown under Gov. Chris Christie:

Time for Workers to Re-Organize!

ORGANIZED LABOR? 

Regardless of what you have been lead to believe about the evils of unions, there is no question that organized labor is responsible for creatiing the middle class and the good life as we know it today. But all that is in decline as anti-union sentiment grew in response to organized business interests in the 1070’s. I say this because I don’t see anyone else point out these facts. Here is another graphic view of how middle class income has declined in lock step with union membership over the years. Also, you will see that the savings in employee wages have gone directlty to the top 1% creating the huge income and wealth disparity we have today. Check it out:

It is clear to me, at least, that the heart of our economic woes is due to 40 years of wage suppression. This results in a declining middle class, a growing number of people falling into poverty, a decline in federal income tax revenue and an added burden on government to support a growing number of poor, working poor and unemployed Americans. You can’t separate chronically lower wages from our declining consumer spending. Regardless of what the economists say, if people don’t have money to spend the economy slows down and jobs disappear. Stocks are doing so well because so much of our financial sector is based on even more depressed foreign labor, yes, but also on depressed wages here at home.

If corporations what to stimulate consumer spending here, and make America attractive to foreign investors, they need to raise wages. They won’t do that because they personally benefit, financially, by keeping labor costs down. Their corporations benefit from the artificially cheap US labor pool created by government aid to the working poor for housing assistance, WIC, food stamps, daycare, etc. And then these bastards making all the money have the nerve to pit us against each other by promoting the lie that the working poor are somehow less worthy, or that they are stealing from us. If corporate leaders don’t see the light then the only alternative is for the work force to re-organize itself and demand higher wages.

 

Austerity for Dummies, Like Us

Imagine owning a small manufacturing business with 25 happy employees.  After paying overhead , suppliers, employees, benefits and your Potter’s Bank business loan you have just enough to get by.

One day your suppliers find they can’t get raw materials because of artifical shortages and price spikes caused by futures speculators that work at bank. The suppliers they need to borrow money to pay for higher priced raw materials, at least until they can adjust with worker layoff and cutbacks. Potter’s Bank charges them higher interest rates because now they’re “risky” borrowers.

Your suppliers must pass along their higher costs to you, so now its your turn to cut wages, benefits and hours. Your employees grumble and can’t keep up with the workload. Production stalls, but also sales start to drop because all the affected workers are also your customers.

One day you discover you can’t pay the bank loan, so you go to Potter’s Bank to renegotiate terms.  Potter tells you what he has been telling everyone:

“You’re a credit risk! Your workers make too much and the cost of their benefits is rising. Cut benefits, cut wages, layoff some of those lazy workers and you will be more efficient. Only then will I loan you the money you need.  Do as I ask or Ill  raise your interest rates further or foreclose on your business.”

This is the austerity trap. Bankers use their leverage to play both ends against the middle forcing both businesses and governments to be more labor efficient. It squeezes more production out of fewer workers for lower wages and benefits. It also suppresses consumption because fewer consumers are employed and those who work have less income or job security. It doesn’t matter if austerity is imposed on businesses or the public sector, the effects are the same.

Imposing austerity is like digging a hole in the economy, the more you dig the deeper the hole. It is good for bankers but bad for workers. It increases corporate profits but reduces personal incomes (except for the very rich). It shrinks the size of government but reduces support to the poor and unemployed people it creates.  What ever hurts workers hurts consumers which suppresses consumption and depresses the economy, which then hurts more workers in a literally vicious cycle.

Making debt reduction a priority during a recession, rather than creating jobs and putting money back into the hands of consumers, is austerity. As the article below points out with a graph, shutting down the government and causing the government sequester to lower government spending at this time has hurt recovery. It is the wrong prescription.

In a World Without Austerity…

By Adam Hersh | October 4, 2013

http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/economy/news/2013/10/04/76305/in-a-world-without-austerity/

Thanks to the federal government shutdown, there is an absence of new U.S. job market data for September 2013. Let’s take a moment to imagine the kind of economy we might see in the United States today had we not just lived through three years of fiercely divisive politicking for fiscal austerity—sharp cuts to public services and investments, as well as cuts to taxes on America’s wealthiest people.

If federal and state governments had not adopted policies of fiscal austerity, today’s jobs report from the Department of Labor would likely be telling us, as shown in Figure 1:

  • U.S. employers added more than 260,000 jobs in September.
  • The unemployment rate for September fell below 6 percent.
  • Since December 2010, the U.S. economy has added more than 8.2 million new jobs—or 2.4 million more than have actually been added.

employment without fiscal austerity

Higher Wages – Good for Families, Good for Economy & Good for Business

Below is another graphic that speaks for itself. Not only does paying higher wages improve the US economy and the lives of every citizen, it also makes good business sense.

I have written extensively on wage history and the case for a living wagewealth distribution in America, our global business competitivenessthe dangers of our growing wealth inequality, and many other issues effecting middle and working class Americans, including and post on class warfare.


In a Labor Day message from former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, he, ” breaks down what it’ll take for workers to get a fair share in this economy — including big, profitable corporations like McDonald’s and Walmart to pony up and finally pay fair wages. 

 

http://front.moveon.org/how-workers-can-get-a-fair-shake-a-labor-day-message-from-robert-reich/#.UiTEGDbVCup

There is a petition that you can sign if you click on the above link.  Please consider it your Labor Day obligation to those who struggled and even died to give you the benefits we still have today.

Labor Day – A Day for Reflection

Labor Day. For much of the world this is a day of reflection to honor the martyrs who stood up to wealthy capitalists in the fight for dignified employment, the eight-hour workday and the five-day work week. It is a day to honor those who sacrificed their lives so that we might be home in time to eat dinner with our families and to have Saturday’s off to watch our children play baseball or soccer. It is a reminder that many of the blessings we take for granted today came at a terrible price.  If we forget how we got these benefits they will slowly erode over time and history will reap itself.

Much of the world celebrates Labor Day not in August, but in May. Have you ever wondered why? Would you be surprised to learn that labor celebrations around the world commemorate events that took place in Chicago in 1816?  Students of history will recognize this as the Haymarket, or May Day Massacre.  Below is one account from the Encyclopedia of Chicago History via Wikipedia.  http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/571.html

Haymarket and May DayLABOR UNREST, 1886 (MAP)

On May 1, 1886, Chicago unionists, reformers, socialists,anarchists, and ordinary workers combined to make the city the center of the national movement for an eight-hour day. Between April 25 and May 4, workers attended scores of meetings and paraded through the streets at least 19 times. On Saturday, May 1, 35,000 workers walked off their jobs. Tens of thousands more, both skilled and unskilled, joined them on May 3 and 4. Crowds traveled from workplace to workplace urging fellow workers to strike. Many now adopted the radical demand of eight hours’ work for ten hours’ pay. Police clashed with strikers at least a dozen times, three with shootings.

At the McCormick reaper plant, a long-simmering strike erupted in violence on May 3, and police fired at strikers, killing at least two. Anarchists called a protest meeting at the West Randolph Street Haymarket, advertising it in inflammatory leaflets, one of which called for “Revenge!”

The crowd gathered on the evening of May 4 on Des Plaines Street, just north of Randolph, was peaceful, and Mayor Carter H. Harrison, who attended, instructedpolice not to disturb the meeting. But when one speaker urged the dwindling crowd to “throttle” the law, 176 officers under Inspector John Bonfield marched to the meeting and ordered it to disperse.

Then someone hurled a bomb at the police, killing one officer instantly. Police drew guns, firing wildly. Sixty officers were injured, and eight died; an undetermined number of the crowd were killed or wounded.

The Haymarket bomb seemed to confirm the worst fears of business leaders and others anxious about the growing labor movement and radical influence in it. Mayor Harrison quickly banned meetings and processions. Police made picketing impossible and suppressed the radical press. Chicago newspapers publicized unsubstantiated police theories of anarchist conspiracies, and they published attacks on the foreign-born and calls for revenge, matching the anarchists in inflammatory language. The violence demoralized strikers, and only a few well-organized strikes continued.
HAYMARKET POSTER, 2002

Police arrested hundreds of people, but never determined the identity of the bomb thrower. Amidst public clamor for revenge, however, eight anarchists, including prominent speakers and writers, were tried for murder. The partisan Judge Joseph E. Gary conducted the trial, and all 12 jurors acknowledged prejudice against the defendants. Lacking credible evidence that the defendants threw the bomb or organized the bomb throwing, prosecutors focused on their writings and speeches. The jury, instructed to adopt a conspiracy theory without legal precedent, convicted all eight. Seven were sentenced to death. The trial is now considered one of the worst miscarriages of justice in American history.

Many Americans were outraged at the verdicts, but legal appeals failed. Two death sentences were commuted, but on November 11, 1887, four defendants were hanged in the Cook County jail; one committed suicide. Hundreds of thousands turned out for the funeral procession of the five dead men. In 1893, Governor John Peter Altgeld granted the three imprisoned defendants absolute pardon, citing the lack of evidence against them and the unfairness of the trial.

Inspired by the American movement for a shorter workday, socialists and unionists around the world began celebrating May 1, or “May Day,” as an international workers’ holiday. In the twentieth century, the Soviet Union and other Communist countries officially adopted it. The Haymarket tragedy is remembered throughout the world in speeches, murals, and monuments. American observance was strongest in the decade before World War I. During the Cold War, many Americans saw May Day as a Communist holiday, and President Eisenhower proclaimed May 1 as “Loyalty Day” in 1955. Interest in Haymarket revived somewhat in the 1980s.

A monument commemorating the “Haymarket martyrs” was erected in Waldheim Cemetery in 1893. In 1889 a statue honoring the dead police was erected in the Haymarket. Toppled by student radicals in 1969 and 1970, it was moved to the Chicago Police Academy.

CLASS WARFARE – OVERVIEW OF WAGES, TAXES and WEALTH IN AMERICA

Since Reagan in 1980’s Tax Rates for the wealth were cut in half and capital gains tax (where most make their money) was cut in half again. http://j.mp/ZFFQHB

Wages and GDP rose together until wages were suppressed in the 70’s, otherwise median income today would be greater than $100K instead of $51K http://j.mp/14MoT67

The combination of wage suppression and the collapse of the upper income tax brackets is the cause of our wealth and income inequality today. http://j.mp/102YbAk and http://j.mp/10DVrLn

A majority of American’s don’t make enough money to support a robust economy because a handful of us have more money than they can spend. http://j.mp/16E3zOT

Current US policy is creating permanent income inequality.  Income mobility is shrinking as income caste system forms. http://t.co/nK5uFGyCaG

We know what victory looks like in Class Warfare. It’s the formation of an income caste system where birth determines your level of success. http://j.mp/Y1HwQP

Obama’s proposed raise in min. wage from $7.20 to $9/hr would mean a person working 40hr/week at min. wage would still be below poverty line. http://j.mp/10DwY7V

If the minimum wage was raised to $18/hour the Federal Government could eliminate almost all aid to the working poor, saving tons of money.  http://j.mp/10DVrLn

Every tax dollar paid to assist the working poor is a tax subsidy providing their employer a federally funded labor discount. http://j.mp/16Bml7r

God! When are we going to wake up?