Dear Andy Shaw:
Many thanks for your years of careful reporting re Chicago
issues and for your more recent BGA efforts. But on this pension issue, I
believe your analysis falls just this side of Lemmingville.
I'm a retired teacher so, of course, I have a vested interest
in all forthcoming state pension policy and legislation. But that doesn't mean
it's impossible for me to see the larger pictures of public policy and
The Titanic hit the iceberg (metaphor courtesy of your January 13th
Sun Times piece) because of the hubristic dereliction of duty throughout the
decision-making chain of command. The passengers, the deck hands, the Astor's,
the poor immigrants in steerage--none of them was responsible for the eventual
tragedy. They were simply along for the ride, trusting in the competence of
those at the helm. It's true that if our state were a giant ocean liner, we
citizens would be drowning, even now. But Illinois is no big boat--not even a
floating casino. Unlike the doomed ship, a state has taxing power. Consequently,
we have many more lifeboats than did the poor Titanic. We simply need to find
them and use them. It's a question of will, not fate or bad weather.
While it's true that neither our middle-class nor the poor should be burdened
with higher taxes, large businesses and corporations can and should pay more
for sharing the services of state government. Have you checked the profits of
Caterpillar recently? What about the large financial groups in Chicago, plus
the big, multi-national banking interests here? The last several years have
seen an epidemic of companies extorting states for tax breaks, in a cruel and
cynical race to the bottom in terms of the welfare of working Americans. The
template is disturbing: If governments balk at granting ever-more generous tax
holidays, the petulant plutocrats at the "helm" of industry quickly
abandon their workers and communities, relocating in "right to work"
states, where nobody gets a living wage; nobody gets taxed, and nobody gets
good public schools.
It's a fact: taxes support our communal needs and cement our social contracts.
They are promises to all of us. Honest, thoughtful adults understand the
imperative of honoring such commitments. But Illinois? Our politicians have
been too self-serving; too cowardly to take on the bullies; too timid to do the
heavy lifting of crafting intelligent, balanced tax policy. Instead of doing what
Willie Sutton did--hit banks (because "that's where the money is")--our
legislators can be counted on to take the weasel’s way out. In recent months,
they have joined hands with conservative media and wealthy power brokers in
order to push the fantasy that public sector workers and their unions are
somehow responsible for the state's fiscal debacle. We constantly hear,
"There is no money." Wrong. There is plenty of money in this state
and in the country. But it's hard to find and even harder to access, as
millions of dollars have been concentrated among an ever-more-exclusive coterie
of privileged oligarchs, a caste blessed with an access to legislators that the
rest of us can only dream of.
I remember back in the '90's when Newt Gingrich was asked why the House was
impeaching Bill Clinton for a decidedly unimpeachable, private transgression.
His response was, "...because we can." In this new, 21st century
version of the Gilded Age, that's what the rich and powerful do. They undermine
the security of the poor and the middle class simply because they can.
During my blessed 34-year teaching career, every two weeks I contributed to TRS
an amount close to the equivalent of tithe, about 8 to 9% of each paycheck,
the year. That was fine because we had a contract: a fair and honest agreement.
And I wanted to focus on teaching, not on investment accounts. NOW, when I'm
65, the legislature finally has a "come to Jesus" moment and decides
that it's in the public interest to change the rules. No, I don't think so,
This pension question has been manipulated. It has been subtly, falsely framed
in terms of competing stakeholders: retirees, school children, poor families,
and the disabled fighting over the same pile of revenue. What a cynically
contrived narrative! The real issue is the question of governmentally-sanctioned
criminality. The "bad guys" are not pensioners. They are the prophets
of cronyism in state government, the seamy politicians pretending to protect
the public trust, all the while perpetrating decades of fraud and criminal
mismanagement. Cynical, but effective. The old shell game. In failing to honor
their commitment to us, failing to contribute properly to our pension fund,
they could then use that money to provide Illinois citizens with cut-rate
services. Their reward? Re-election, of course. Constituents got a good deal,
getting decades of government services at less than cost, while we teachers
were told, "We'll pay you back later."
Well, Andy, it's later. I'm not a primitive or vindictive person, but after
watching the confederacy of dunces and ship of fools in Springfield, I finally
"get" the concept of angry mobs with torches and pitchforks. (Don't
worry. It's just another metaphor.) What did Howard Beal scream, in
"Network?" "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it
anymore!" I would hope that you would use your bully BGA pulpit to see
past the ersatz civic-mindedness of the Rauner's, Fahner's, and Pritzker's. Ask
Springfield to restructure pension debt in a realistic re-amortization; push
for a 21st century tax policy including a more progressive income tax and
suggest to our Attorney General that perhaps someone (or ones) under the
Capitol dome should be joining our notorious former governors in jail.
Granted, those premises are a harder sell than promoting straw men and red
herrings as the heart of the pension argument, but that kind of argument would be
so much more honest, more real, than blaming a ship or an iceberg for the
failings of a bad crew.