Are You Listening, Mr. Prager?

 

One of the fascinating aspects of blogging to me is the way discussion threads can pick up and continue months (or more than a year, in this case) after the original post and thread were generated.  Such is the case with my post from March, 2009, taking AM talk jock Dennis Prager to task for stating that racism played no role in the incarceration of Americans of Japanese descent during  WWII.  I’ve had two recent comments to the post (which already has received more comments than most posts to my humble blog typically do) in as many months.  The latest  comment came in last week:  I’ve included it below.

As it turns out, Mr. P was on the radio again today as it happens, stating that anti-Hispanic racism in America, in his experience, simply doesn’t exist.  My only conclusion is that his experience with American Hispanics is limited, at best.  True story:  years ago when we moved into our new house my wife called the Chula Vista Penny’s to see about having a salesperson come out to the house to give us a bid on draperies we needed installed.  The clerk asked her what her  name was:  Jeanne Luna.  The clerk was silent for a moment, then proceeded to tell my wife how expensive window treatments could be and asked several times did she think she could actually afford them.  The clerk refused to make an appointment to send someone out to our house at that point, telling my wife to call back when she had thought about it more.   My wife was puzzled by the treatment until she connected the dots.  Last name “Luna.”  Calling from the Southbay.  Lightbulb goes on.  The clerk thought my wife must have been a Latina. (What else could a person in San Diego named “Luna” be?  Oh, that’s right.  Italian, in this case.)  Therefore she must be poor.  (What else would a Latina be?  Oh, that’s right, maybe middle class.)  My wife got really steamed, not at being confused with being Latina but with the treatment she got—or any person would have gotten–for being presumed to be a Latina.  She called the Penny’s manager, described the situation and got a vigorous apology and an offer of compensation for her treatment—discount coupons.  She thanked him but declined.  Penny’s lost our business that day.  That, Mr. Prager, was anti-Hispanic racism in practice.  Perhaps if Dennis’ last name was Martinez he would have a broader depth of experience on this matter.  But I digress.)

My point in my post was not that Prager was wrong in his macro-assertion that the US is one of the least racist countries in human history.  Indeed, given the amount of racial diversity in America, the  ability of this country to surmount its racial divisions is perhaps unmatched by any other society in the modern age.  My beef was (and is) that, in denying the role of racism in the treatment of Japanese Americans,  Prager basically was saying (and keeps saying) that there is no real racism in America at all.  That  argument does a gross injustice to those who have experienced real racism in American history, who continue to experience the consequences of racism today, and who have struggled and sacrificed  past and present to eliminate racism from American society.  JB, who posted her comment below, apparently agrees:

To accurately participate in this dialogue, I must tell you a story — a true story:
My father, a very young white male, marched out of Indiana and into Europe in August of 1944 — in October of 1944, he was surrounded in the Vosges Mountains of Eastern France. Trapped for almost a week, they had run out of ALL supplies and their situation was desperate. Several prior unsuccessful attempts at rescue had failed when the men of the 442nd “Go For Broke” Regiment were sent in to rescue them. These men refused to give up until they had successfully rescued my father and 210 other men — it took almost a week of vicious fighting, some of it hand-to-hand, in bitter winter weather —- their casualties (KIA and wounded) would surpass the number of men they rescued. They accomplished what two other units of “white” soldiers had not been able to achieve —– why —- because they refused to give-up until their mission was completed —- because as one veteran told me: “They were fellow American soldiers and we were their last hope” Another 442nd Veteran told me that as they walked up into the mountains to rescue my Dad, they passed other soldiers walking down from the mountain who told them: “Don’t go up there — you will get killed” But, they marched on and because of their stoic dedication and bravery, my sister and I were able to know and love our Dad —- we still carry memories of him in our hearts —- memories that would not have been but for the bravery of the 442nd. The enormity of the gift that these men gave to our family still resonates some 65 years later. The moral of this story is this: Many of the men of the 442nd that rescued my Dad came from the concentration camps that you are discussing — yes — concentration camps — let’s call them what they were — it is important to do that — let’s not sanitize the word — they walked out of those camps to serve the very country that had turned it’s back on them. Shame. Shame. Shame on us and thank God for them. Today, these same men speak very little of their experiences — (they are dedicated to remembering those friends they left behind laying under the marble crosses in the Military Cemeteries in Europe) — these men came home, reclaimed their families from the afore-mentioned concentration camps, surveyed what little property and businesses they had left, and set about rebuilding their lives — over the past 65 years, their contributions to this country have continued as they have served all of us as lawyers, doctors, businessmen, farmers, teachers, artists, and, politicians and, above all esle, loyal American citizens —- the latter the title is the one that they covet above all else — they raised families without a hint or moment of bitterness — their stories left untold until just recently — stories that are difficult to tell and even more difficult to absorb —- such gallant men — so gentle — so honorable —- could we have done the same — would we have served so well? Let’s not devalue their contributions to this nation by sanitizing the words we use to discuss their situation — they were racially discriminated against — Period —— but, as a community they can teach us all a lesson in humility and loyalty — that is, for those of us willing to listen ——- Are you listening, Mr. Nolan —– Mr. Prager ???

I thank JB for her personal story.  And I must ask, are you listening, Mr. Prager?  Or the Pragerites who commented on this post?

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Vatican III

wws

The surprise announcement last week by the Vatican of plans to woo disaffected conservative Anglicans back to the Papal folds has the potential to grow into the biggest religious turf war since the Jets and the Sharks tangoed down the hoods of New York.    With a swoosh of the Ecclesiastical pen the Church of Rome (that would be my homies, me being a Catholic and all) is attempting to undo at least part of what Henry VIII wrought almost five hundred years ago.

The reaction by Anglican leaders has been swift and condemning.    Former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey of Clifton called Rome’s intentions “inexcusable” and appalling, a form of proselytizing Pearl Harbor carried out without forewarning or consultation.  The Telegraph promises “The Queen will stand up to Pope Benedict” when he comes a calling next year.   And The Guardian dismisses those who’s limited loyalty might lead them too bolt the faith as “a small rump” whose presence in the Anglican congregation will be scarcely missed.

Yet many Anglicans, including hundreds of its most conservative priests, are seriously considering the option despite huge potential social and, particularly, legal ramifications decamping en masse to Catholic camps would produce. Most of the discussion on the impact of the Anglican Gambit on the Catholic Church, meanwhile, has focused on the tangential impact of welcoming hundreds of married Anglican priests into the community of celibate Catholic clergy.  

Both these plot lines—the poaching of Anglican pews and the introduction of desperate Catholic housewives into rectories—may be missing the real dramatic underpinnings of the moment.   First, the move by the Catholic Church to poach renegade Anglicans may have the unintentional result of stimulating a pro-Anglican fervor amongst members whose devotion to faith has waned in recent years (decades.)  I would not be at all surprised to find out that Anglican Church attendance soared this weekend and continues to grow.  Nothing solidifies the ranks like feelings of assault.  The overture by the Vatican may end up being one of the biggest calls back to faith for Anglicans in modern times.

Second, by putting conservative Anglicans into play the Catholic Church might be risking putting liberal Catholics into play as well.  For many people religion is in many ways as much a cultural, personal identity as a theological one.  Many American Catholics whose attitudes on a whole range of issues differ substantially from official Church positions continue to consider themselves Catholics if for no other reason that they were born Catholic and being Catholic is who they are.  These Catholics are often referred to by their more conservative brethren as “cafeteria Catholics” in the same way conservative Republicans call moderate Republicans—like their former standard bearer, John McCain RINOs, as in Republican In Name Only.  Despite these differences with their faith, moderate and liberal Catholics remain Catholic because the thought of leaving, en masse, has never been really formulate or put on the table. 

That may change now.  If conservative Anglicans can leave their faith and join the more conservative Catholic Church, liberal Catholics may figure out they can leave their faith and join a more progressive Anglican (or American Episcopal) Church.  From a purely Machiavellian perspective, one would think the first official response from the Church of England would be precisely that: a formal invitation to liberal Catholics who want to see women ordained priests, who disagree with Church policy on abortion, contraception, gay rights and other issues, to come join their Episcopal flock.  What could now be looming on the holy horizon may well become a wholesale American religious realignment, akin to the great political realignment of the last generation where the Democratic stronghold of the South turned Republican and Republican strongholds in the Northeast turned Democrat.  Once Wallace showed Southern Democrats they could break with their party and start anew, the idea moved from heresy to orthodoxy.  The same could well happen for American Anglicans and Catholics alike.

The Telegraph argues that Pope Benedict launched his Anglican gambit to secure his legacy in the Church.  One must wonder if, a generation down the line, the gamble will have been seen as a winning play.  Turf wars are messy affairs laden with drama, unintended consequences—and even the occasional grand song.

China Syndrome

Healthmap

A new Washington Post-ABC poll shows that the number of people supporting a “public option” for universal health care has rebounded to 57% (up from 52% in August amidst the tow- hall hoopla). While this is still down 5% (from 62% pre-death-panel hysteria), it is the strongest indication to date that, Senate political wishy-washiness not withstanding, the majority  of the public is—and has consistently been—on the side of joining the overwhelming majority of the world’s industrial societies in developing some form of universal, publicly guaranteed healthcare.

I gave a presentation to a local seniors group last week evaluating Obama’s tenure in office to date. If I had to give him a letter grade, I’d  give him a B- to date—better than Clinton (C-) and both Bush I (C) or Bush  II (D, pre 9-11), but lower than Reagan (B/B+). One of the topics, of course, was healthcare reform. I used the map above to look at just which nations do/don’t have the kind of universal healthcare being debated in America. Imagine my surprise to discover that Iraq and Afghanistan both have universal healthcare systems—paid for by us! Now, American domestic and foreign policies have often been schizophrenic.  At the same time the Republican Congress was arguing to open up ANWAR to private companies for drilling, the Republican Bush administration was setting up a state-run (read: socialist) oil industry in Iraq. In Afghanistan, the Bush (and now Obama) administration tried to win the hearts and minds of 16th-century rural tribesmen by funding an Afghani welfare state more ambitious, in context, than the New Deal or Great Society. So the U.S. providing a national healthcare system to two countries we occupied and liberated while dithering and dallying on providing the same guarantees to its own people is par the public-policy course.

But when you look at the company of other nations America’s absence of  a national health system puts us in, its more than just a statement of national political dysfunction: It’s just downright embarrassing.  The most impoverished nations of Central and Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and Central Asia?  Please. The most advanced industrializing society to lack universal healthcare is Turkey. The largest economy to lack it is China. Hey, team USA! Congrats—you’re playing Turkish- and Chinese-level ball!

Except even the Chinese are moving toward a universal healthcare system by 2011.

Oh well, at least we are still as good as the Turks.

Absence of universal healthcare in a world where all other advanced nations have it? Check.

Failure to celebrate our national achievements in science as much as we do former stars dancing, even as the rest of the world treats their scientists like rock stars? Check.

If the sun doesn’t set on the American Dream this century, it will be for no lack of trying on the part of an American political class—and public—so myopically self-absorbed in their own ideologies and peccadilloes as to note notice it’s getting dark out.

National Science Day, Anyone?

medal_nobel_after_topbox

Well, Nobel season has come to an end with the U.S. receiving its usual slew of Nobel laureates. Eight American scientists (Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Carol W. Greider, Jack W. Szostak, Charles K. Kao, Willard S. Boyle, George E. Smith, Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas Steitz were honored with Nobels in four areas of science. Throw in the dismal science of economics and you’ve got two more members of Team Nobel USA (Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson). And, well, memory is foggy on this, but I think another prominent American got a Nobel for something or other besides science or literature. Altogether, of the 11 Nobels awarded for science and economics, 10 went to Americans.

So where have all the balloons and national whoo-hoos been?

Oh, that’s right. This is only the Nobel prizes we’re talking about here—certainly nothing as important as winning gold medals at an international athletic competition. I mean, somebody shot-puts a foot farther or luges .0003 seconds faster, that has a big impact on our lives. Meanwhile, three obscure U.S. scientists pick up a Nobel in physiology/medicine “for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase”? I mean, who cares about telomeres and enzyme telomerase? Except, of course, maybe for the fact the seminal work these scientists conducted over the last several decades is telling science why cells, after so many cell divisions, start screwing up their self-replication, leading to little minor maladies like cancer. And aging. And because of the work of these three scientists, Science (with a big capital S) is getting really, really close to curing the big C. And taking a whack at prolonging the even bigger and even more inevitable “A”—adding, in the process, perhaps decades to the human life span.

Like I say, big whoop!

And who can blame the media and talking heads for focusing instead for the last two weeks on that other American who won a Nobel for working toward Peace?  Or on not winning an Olympic bid? Now those are big, human-species-shaping events. Those Nobel science geeks? Let them be happy with a presidential pat on the back and a 10-second blurb on CNN.

If you want to know why I’m banking on India to be the big, global power by the end of this century, just consider: India celebrates National Science Day every Feb. 28, in memory of an Indian physicist who won a Nobel Prize 79 YEARS AGO!!! India—INDIA!—which has won eight Nobels total, has a National Science Day, recognizing that the future of India as a great power rests upon its rising mastery of science and technology. The U.S., with more than 300 hundred Nobel winners—more than three times the total of any other nation (and more than the total of most other nations combined)—does not. Yes, we we used to have a rinky-dink National Science Week that garnered about as much attention outside of high school and college science departments as National Peach Melba Day (Jan. 13) does outside of Georgia. But a day honoring the hundreds of American Nobel prize winners who have transformed this nation and the world? Please. I mean, where could we fit one in anyway, with our national calendar already chock-a-block full of must-celebrate days like National Buffet Day (Jan. 2) and National Bicarbonate of Soda Day (Dec. 30).

If you want to understand why America is rapidly becoming a post-scientific/scientifically illiterate culture in which PM infomercial flim-flam artists and AM talk show flakes compete with Nobel prize winning scientists for the public’s attention and trust (and, alas, increasingly win), reflect on this: If you don’t celebrate, elevate and commemorate science—if you don’t even bother to meaningfully nationally praise those American scientists who have earned the respect of the world—don’t be surprised when the public disparages and disputes them instead.

Maybe that’s why fewer Americans (less than 40 percent) accept the scientific theory of evolution than in any other industrial country in the world. Yeah, evolution’s just another scientific theory, so what? I mean, just because evolution theory is the very foundation of pretty much all the earth-shattering—and life-altering—work in biology and physiology for the last century, like the research in cell development that three Americans just got a Nobel prize for, someone should believe in it? Please—that is so empirically rational. Maybe our public diminishing of science is why only 53 percent of Americans know how many days it takes for Earth to go around the sun? Or that only 59 percent of Americans know that The Flintstones is fantasy and that man and dinosaur never cohabitated.

If President Obama wants to do something for making up to the world for getting a Nobel prize many argue he didn’t deserve (but everyone should recognize he didn’t ask for), maybe he should work with Congress and proclaim a National American Nobel Prize Winner’s Day. And follow it up with a National Science Appreciation Day. Make the latter a real, day-off holiday. Maybe that would get Americans to pay attention to the endeavor that has set them apart from and above all the other nations of the world since the days scientists like Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson dominated American culture and politics. Maybe a National Nobel and National Science Day would help Americans remember and reclaim their heritage as a scientific culture born of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason.

Oh, and restoring public funding of applied scientific research to its 1980s level might be a good idea, too. You know, in lieu of sending flowers or e-cards on that new National Science Day.

Something’s got to be done. If we become any more post-scientific in our culture and scientifically illiterate in our national debate we’ll soon start to stop winning those Nobel prizes. And then the sun will really set on the American dream.


Doing the Half-Latella

emily

I was delighted that no less a figure than Lani “Tax This!” Lutar herself took the time to respond to my humble (and, as in this case, bumbled) blog. The Dean of San Diego Tax Dissers (that’s right, Dick Ryder’s only a deputy dean) wrote a comment on my blog about the SDCTA municipal pension plan report–401k(illed)–in her usual elegant, intelligent and reasoned prose. (And I am very sincere in this. The LL C(ool)EO of San Diego fiscal frugality is always elegant, intelligent and reasoned. Which really just annoys the heck out of me! I mean, who wants to argue with someone who is always so darn elegant, intelligent and reasoned! Now kitschy Bob Kittle—arguing with him was absolutely guilt-free enjoyment! Miss you, big guy. Arguing with LL is just uncool—especially when she’s right and I’m plain wrong. Or, at least, partially wrong.) I copy her response in its entirety below to save you time, dear reader:

Dear Professor Luna:

Thank you for highlighting our report in your blog. We welcome dialogue and debate on public pensions at any time, especially with those that disagree with our viewpoint.

Please allow me to clarify a few inaccurate statements in your post.

“The only thing the report lacks is empirical proof of its basic thesis: that pension costs are driving tax increases in specific instances.”

If you read my quote in Calpensions (www.calpensions.com) I clearly communicate that pensions are not the only factor contributing to sales tax increase proposals. In both our press release and the pension report, we “link” pension costs and efforts to increase taxes. This is an observation—and nowhere in either document does it state that pension costs alone cause tax increases.

I will concede that we were comfortable highlighting the link between pension costs and tax increases because of fact-based knowledge from time series analysis we conducted in recent years for the cities with the highest pensions costs including El Cajon, La Mesa, National City and Chula Vista (all available on our website). We should’ve communicated this historical background more clearly within our report.

You also note our report is long on recommendations.

Actually, we have only two simple recommendations:
1. Cities should stop picking up the employees’ share of pension contributions.
2. Retirement benefit formulas should be reduced for new hires.

We never state anywhere in the report that defined benefit plans should be replaced with defined contribution plans (401k). And please stop putting words in our mouth: We do not claim that vested retirement benefits should be taken away from municipal workers.

You can argue that asking employees to contribute to their defined benefit plan is a backdoor way of asking for a pay cut. That is true. However, let me point you to page 26 and 28 of our report which debunks your notion that the only way public employees can contribute to their pension plans is via a 401k.

The purpose of our report is to shed light on the generous benefits and significant costs of public pensions provided to municipal employees. When pension costs alone consume 10% or more of a city’s general fund, everyone – city workers included – should be concerned about sustainability and solvency. An insolvent city or city on the brink of bankruptcy hurts communities and public workers.

Another important point you miss is that the majority of public workers contribute little to nothing toward their pensions and their retirement pay is boosted as a result of this practice. Rather than earning a $67,500 annual pension from a 3% @ age 60 formula in the example of a city administrator with 30 years of service, the employee would get an 8% increase in annual pension payments – or $72,900 – because they’re contributing nothing toward their retirement. Yes, you’re reading this correctly. In a bizarre twist, the less an employee pays into their CalPERS plan, the greater the benefit they receive upon retirement. Now that is lunacy.

Sincerely,

Lani Lutar
, President & CEO
, San Diego County Taxpayers Association

Good points, all. As to the point about empirical evidence in the report (or my allegation of lack thereof) I concede a split opinion. Lani concedes the report was not as explicit as it might have been in providing more detailed empirical support of the linkage between pension funds and taxes. I, in return, concede I should have written that the SDCTA was asserting that “pension costs are a causal factor” rather than “pension costs are the causal factor.” But demonstrating how causal a factor pension costs are in increasing taxes is not a minor matter. The SDCTA report calls on municipal employees to pay a price in increased pension costs. Not delineating how big an impact current pension plans have on municipal fiscal policy makes it more difficult to assess whether the pain thereby inflicted on the households of these employees is offset by likely gains to taxpayers, said gains being, I took and take it, the purpose of the SDCTA recommendations.

Lani also calls me to task for saying the report was “long on recommendations” when, if fact, it only had two. True dat. Mine is the guilt of fumbled rhetorical flourish. What I meant was that he report’s recommendations have significant—some might say profound—implications for municipal employees and the hiring of future, talented municipal workers. There might only be two of them but they have potential major significance.

More importantly, though, the LL points out I blew a big one in stating the goal of the report was to move municipal employees away from defined-benefit to defined-contribution plans. I confess I misread the report. I went back to it and read and reread it and cannot find the paragraph I was so certain the report contained stating that future municipal employees should be moved from their current defined benefits plan into 401k style plans. I got that wrong, plain and simple. The report calls for changing benefit calculation formulas and requiring employee contributions, but not for an abolition of the current defined benefit system. Lani is right. (As were getreal and CJ) . I was wrong. Mea and Culpa.

Or, in the immortal words of Emily Latella,  “Never mind.”

I still, however, stick by my principal, philosophical objection to the SDCTA report. I agree with Lani that there may well be inequities within the current pension plan, such as some workers paying less into the system getting more.  (I’m still trying to untie that now and figure out just how it works). I would argue, though, that is an unfairness between current employees within the same system and not, expo facto, an unfairness in comparison with employees outside of the system. A fundamental assumption underlying the SDCTA report is that the current pension plans for municipal employees are unfair or inequitable compared to workers in the private sector because most municipal employees contribute less than most private-sector employees to their retirement and get more in return. I must differ.

The claim that municipal employees do not currently contribute to their pensions is wrong. They are contributing to their retirement plans, no matter how much is or isn’t taken out of their base or take-home pay to fund their retirement plans. They are contributing simply by the fact that they are working for the city. Their labor is their contribution. Their retirement plan is part of their compensation package for said labor, just like their take-home pay and health benefits.

As I wrote in the original post, it is true most private-sector workers don’t have the advantage of such a benefit package. To call the municipal employee’s pensions “generous,” however, is a subjective, not objective, comparison.  One might instead argue that most private-sector employees have ungenerous pensions compared wih the fair and reasonable pensions municipal workers have. The fact that far more private-sector employees used to have similar defined-benefit pensions and the fact that an increasing number of private-sector employees are finding their current defined-contribution plans wholly inadequate to provide for the retirement security they worked for and expected to receive argues, in my opinion, toward this latter observation.

So, I retract my statement that the SDCTA report called for the replacement of current defined-benefit municipal pension plans with 401k-style plans. I stand, however, by the basic point of my piece: the fundamental philosophy underlying the SDCTA report rests on the assumption that it is unfair to taxpayers for municipal workers to have pension plans better than most private workers. And this assumption is incorrect.

“You get what you pay for”—pay municipal workers less and you’ll attract less talented workers, as our local police and fire departments have reported. Saving taxpayers money by cutting back municipal workers pension compensation may save short-term monies but could also cost more in long-term performance and efficiency. Or is it only Wall Street CEOs making gazillions of dollars who respond to the incentive of better pay?

Moreover, I stand by my argument that calling the pensions of municipal workers unfair or too generous compared with private-sector workers is a reversal of the real problem. I contend it is unfair that private-sector workers have seen the value of their pensions (not to mention paychecks) decline for the past generation and that eventually giving everyone in America a retirement the likes of municipal workers would be a national good. Which would be better for San Diego taxpayers—reducing other people’s pensions or increasing their own, after all?

I remain, however, flattered that Lani took the time to comment on my blog at all. Hope to hear from you again, LL C(ool)EO.

401k(illed)

broken-nest-egg

The San Diego County Taxpayers Association has released a new report showing that the increased city pension costs across the county are resulting in increased taxes.

The report provides a good summary of the various pension plans and obligations distributed amongst the county’s 17 municipalities. The report is also thick with suggestions to cut pension costs. The only thing the report lacks is empirical proof of its basic thesis: that pension costs are driving tax increases in specific instances. In other words, the report is long on supposition but short on validation.

But man, is it long on recommendations.

The SDCTA’s argument is essentially reducible to the claim that, because pension costs impact cities’ finances and some cities have raised sales taxes, pension costs are the causal factor. Now, I do not doubt that the SDCTA is right in its basic conclusion that pension costs are a contributing factor in a number of cities increasing sales taxes in recent years. But pension costs are just that: a contributing factor. Declining property tax revenues, Sacramento revenue clawbacks, increased operational costs—like health-care benefits—and increased spending mandates are also contributing factors. The report does not state just how big an impact pension pressures have had on tax hike decisions. Indeed, the report provides no empirical statistical evidence in support of the initial hypothesis except a simple association: Since cities have high pension costs and cities have raised taxes, the tax increases are caused by the pension costs. This may be true (again, I think, to a degree, it is). But it may be a fallacy of false causes. There isn’t a Chi Square or a Pearson’s R—let alone a Yule’s Q—worth of real numbers in the report to validate what is left as ultimately a subjective analysis, let alone justify the sweeping changes to municipal pension plans the SDCTA offers as remedy.

The SDCTA  initially argues in the report that pension plans need be reformed because they are leading to higher taxes (again, a claim unsubstantiated). However, the bulk of the report’s recommendations focus not on a fiscal-efficacy argument but, instead, on a fairness argument which the purported analysis did not address. Stripped of its fiscal-impact component, SDCTA’s argument for pension reform  is reducible to this:

It’s unfair that municipal-worker pensions are better than those of most private-sector workers, therefore the defined-benefit plans most municipal workers have should be replaced with the defined-contribution plans (401k) that most private workers have.

Oh, really? One could just as easily reverse the argument saying it’s unfair that municipal-worker pensions are better than those of most private-sector workers, therefore the defined contribution plans (401k) that most private workers have should be replaced with the defined-benefit plans most municipal workers have.

Why punish municipal workers by taking away the pension plans they were promised—and worked faithfully in exchange for?  Why not improve the retirement plans most private employees have, instead?

Oh, right. We used to do that, back in the days when labor-union membership was stronger, government regulations were tighter and American workers of all stripes—blue collar or white, labor or management—fresh from ending a depression and winning a world war demanded of their employers and government that they be treated with a little (cue Aretha Franklin)  R*E*S*P*E*C*T.  The American post-war social compact was clear: If American workers work hard, they will, in cooperation with the companies they labor for  and the government they vote for, achieve the security of retirement. As a result, more and more workers were protected not only by the safety net of Social Security, but by the guarantee of defined-benefit private retirement plans.

Geez, they were such Mad Men back then.

Over the last generation, corporations (and I’m not bashing them—corporate owners and managers simply did what society and government allowed them to do, so we are all in this together, Mr. Moore), freed of government regulation and the post-war sense of public obligation, shed their defined-benefit plans even faster than they shed American workers. Now the only real vestige of the past golden age of guaranteed retirement is, for the most part, government workers.  No wonder business and capital groups across America would like to see such municipal plans go away: Once defined-benefit plans are banished everywhere in the realm even the concept of them will Orwellianly disappear from the public discourse.

And by the way, one of my beefs about the SDCTA is that it is, ultimately, much more of a business/capital group than a worker/labor group, even though workers—including labor union members—pay a fair hunk of taxes.  Of course, wealthy people pay far more in terms of most taxes than poorer workers do. Hmmm, now just what set of taxpayers does the SDCTA gravitate towards?  The proof of the pudding is in the analyzing, as my pop the chemist used to say. The SDCTA report states:

As one typical example, the report shows that a city administrator with 30 years of service earning $75,000 at the peak of her career would receive an annual pension of $72,900 plus yearly cost of living increases. An equivalent benefit for an employee in the private sector retiring at age 60 would require an individual to have an IRA, 401k or other pension account worth more than $1.8 million.

True dat. But what should really grab attention is not that the city employee with the defined-benefit plan will get 97 percent of their base pay in retirement.  The real shocker is that to get anything near that, an average worker would need squirrel away at least $15k-$30k or more a year for their entire working life to get a good pension—and then pray that they aren’t hit with a Dot.com or Wall Street Meltdown that reduces their 401k to financial road-kill just as they plan to check out.

Now, are some of the negotiated benefits city workers get too generous? Perhaps.  Retirement ages, most certainly, need be looked at. (And not just for municipal workers. If life expectancy is growing, the expectation that people need work longer before retiring needs be considered for all retirement systems, including social security.) But the SDCTA report is a less a real analysis of tax policy and pension plans than a wish-list for those dedicated to the proposition that the only good defined-benefit retirement plan is a dead defined-benefit retirement plan.

Crossed

San Diegans should pay attention to oral argument before the US Supreme Court today as it indirectly has bearing on a matter of considerable local controversy.  The case, Salazar v. Buono,  concerns a cross erected on public lands decades ago as a war memorial that has been challenged in recent years over the issue of  separation of church and state.  The ownership of the land was subsequently transferred by an act of government (Congress, in this case) to a private entity (a veterans group) with the proviso they maintain the cross.  Sound familiar?

The court has heard a number of freedom of religion cases recently.  In can be anticipated that the decision in the Salazar case will generate lots of public debate nationally—and may have significant impact locally.  Stay tuned.