Sunday, September 18, 2011

Dispatching a Stalwart Teacher

From the journal of a Civic Committee member in the not-too-distant future
(…with humble apologies to George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant”)

I was living in Springfield, Illinois during the mid 2020’s. The Teachers’ Retirement System of Illinois was already defunct for a few years, and the Civic Committee had sent me to squelch any potential uprisings.

Thinking about it now, I realize how much teachers had detested the Committee’s presence at the legislative sessions several years ago. The helplessness of teachers in the defense of their defined-benefit plan was quite obvious to all stakeholders, especially the Committee. After the pension reform bill was passed, CEO vultures from the Committee and the Civic Federation moved quickly in to carve up the teachers’ retirement melon by establishing spheres of influence over the profits they would reap from enrollment in the Tier Three “defined-contribution” option, the beginning of the final demise of the defined-benefit plan in Illinois.

In 2011, many teachers had created a semblance of solidarity by forming a group called the Illinois Stalwart Pension Advocates (ISPA), which vehemently opposed exploitation by the plutocrats that attacked their pensions. The ISPA was essentially a small faction that emerged out of the now defunct Illinois Education Association (IEA). The ISPA was largely made up of retired activists, two “Roamin’ Dudes” (so named by an X-legislator), and some young teachers who lived in the Chicago land area.

These dissident teachers employed the revolutionary method of meeting, calling, and emailing legislators (or sending postcards to them) associated with the “We Are One” coalition of 2011, which included the IEA, IFT, AFSCME, AFL-CIO, Police and Firemen. Although the Committee and its media organizations continued to successfully manipulate the populace into hysterical, pension envy – the other destructive force against the public pensions’ system of Illinois – no one thought to address them since “[They Were] One.”

Even though contacting legislators had little effect on the Committee’s vast wealth and resources to intimidate the General Assembly (GA), the ISPA did not make my job easy, for I had to tally their form letters and telephone calls to legislators for the Committee and our “insiders” in the GA. (It might have been a lot worse for me if the IEA had united with those apostates and rallied in Springfield before the fall veto session of 2012).

It was about that time that I began to believe that the Committee’s compelling grip on legislators in Illinois was a form of historical imperialism, and I considered resigning my position. As for my job, allow me to explain: I was ordered to prevent any possible subversive activity in Springfield, Illinois after the passage of pension “reform,” even though it was already too late for teachers to halt the formidable Committee’s perpetration of media-controlled fabrications and falsified data that the vastly-inflamed and largely semi-literate populace and most of the GA accepted without question. As the rather gushing Jonah Edelman once said quite arrogantly about another bill that was meant to destroy the teachers’ unions and collective bargaining rights, we “did our homework” and were able to “jam this proposal down their throats!”

To my credit, I busted up a few renegades back then, though most teachers were astonishingly passive and indifferent about defending their rights and thought that political activism was a subversive activity, except when they were told to respond as a call to action with their barrage of emailed form letters that were sent straight to the legislators’ junk-mail folder (of course, repetitive subject headings identified them as spam).

It is true that most retired teachers at that time were not politically engaged, but they were whizzes in vacationing, gardening and golfing; of course, current teachers were hijacked by test-based obsession, value-added assessment, punitive accountability, performance-based agreements, merit-pay plans, diminishing autonomy, dictatorial administrators, bureaucratic and legislative malfeasance, government vouchers and financial improprieties, officious mega-rich foundations, impositions of market-based data-gathering approaches, incompetent and meddlesome school-boards, and the privatization and deregulation of public education. To put it simply: they had no time to engage.

Thus, I curiously developed an intolerable sense of remorse after the Committee and the 97th Illinois GA robbed Illinois teachers of their defined-benefit pension plan. After all, teachers only wanted what they had paid for throughout their long careers and what was promised them: their right to an rightfully-earned, deferred income that was constitutionally guaranteed in 1970 until the Committee’s substantial and wealthy influence on the courts ruled otherwise.

And although I was a wealthy entrepreneur, an actuary, and a registered investment advisor for Fidelity Investments at that time, with not two but three guaranteed pensions and a compounded COLA waiting for me upon retirement and a proud member of the Committee with the unshakeable belief in “free market” principles, sometimes, rather unexpectedly, I was stuck between the hypocrisy of my profiteering from the many naive teachers who opted out of their guaranteed pension plan (that undoubtedly hastened its destruction) and my insufferable Christian conscience.

Indeed, some days I hated teachers’ self-righteousness and their moral indignation. I thought that their pension was an entitlement that none of them deserved, and I wanted it expunged; other days, I wanted to renounce my oligarchic privileges, yearly bonuses, stock options, six-figure salary and partisanship to the exclusive club known as “C-pentagon” or the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago. I guess my ambivalence might have been the product of an unsettling greed for money, and to not only control my future but the future of mankind, while simultaneously becoming someone of exceptional holiness…

One day, while I was unwinding in my office and watching Fox News, a very old man came sprinting through the opened door. He was bellowing about how a member of the ISPA had gone quite mad in a local high school gymnasium while showing a power-point presentation to a few interested teachers who could never retire since the passage of the “long-ago and far away” 2012 pension reform. I was told how he had thrown his laser pointer at a Committee member, who he discovered had infiltrated the not quite clandestine meeting, and then he absconded.

After inquiring further about the incident, I asked the very old man to guide me to this renegade. I grabbed some paper clips and a rubber band on my desk and left my office. A few frightened teachers stopped me on my way and told me about his irrational behavior.

On Fahner Boulevard, we saw signs of his trail. We passed several busted “Illinois Is Broke” pavilions, overturned tables, squashed attaché cases, scattered Illinois Policy Institute pennants, colorful leaflets about police and firemen entitlements from the Chicago Tribune, and many onlookers motionless with fear.

I clutched the rubber band in one hand and a paperclip in the other. On our quest to find him, we saw the president of the newly-formed Illinois Teachers’ Poverty Alliance (ITPA) and the House Minority Leader cowering at the corner of Laurence Msall and Miles White Avenue. The very old man wanted to stop and pick up some archaic manuscript from his car – I believe he referred to it as NBI #16 – and show it to them, but I told him that we had no time to waste.

I remember it was a vibrant day in early May. It was also the annual lobbying jamboree for the ITPA. As we walked slowly together, we began questioning bystanders about the whereabouts of this elusive rebel but failed to gather any useful information. I began to have second and third thoughts when the very old man suddenly saw him in the distance. There was a small commotion, and some Committee members and several politicians were running in the opposite direction. Apparently, the extremely-old Illinois Speaker of the House had been kicked in the testicles and was writhing on the sidewalk.

Then I saw him. I looked into the eyes of the man who did the deeds; “I looked into his soul” (as George W. Bush had once said about Vladimir Putin), and he looked at me. He was standing on the bottom steps of the State Capitol, waving a red, white and blue sketchbook and yelling at a queue of yellow school buses. He was about five-foot nine with lots of windswept white-and-gray hair and a surprisingly-trimmed goatee. He was bellowing about someone named Gregor and the transfiguration of a cockroach. Whatever he was mumbling, it was unintelligible.

I had already sent for a backup and for some provisions when an ITPA lobbyist handed me a box of 100 Universal Jumbo paperclips from his trembling hands. By now, quite a few people had gathered behind me to watch my every move. They began to shout: “Burn the illusion out of him!” “Freedom is slavery!” “Ignorance is strength!” (I must say, their taunts sounded strangely familiar).

Though he didn’t appear to be dangerous, I knew I couldn’t take any chances. As I started to walk towards him, the crowd followed closely behind. I was beginning to feel woeful about what I had to do. I had no intention of dispatching the poor fellow. I had merely sent for my cache to sensationalize the moment and to provide a little drama for the gathering crowd.

When I got within 10 yards of him, I noticed he was sitting on a rather large valise. He didn’t seem to notice us at first. He was tearing the covers off his sketchbook and scratching his ears with the blunt ends. He was murmuring something about being “a sick man, a spiteful man,” and something about his “liver hurting.” I stopped and watch him for a moment, listening for clues. However, there were none.

I glanced around me and noticed that the mob had become quite big. It was an enormous mob of at least 177 legislators. I gazed at the sea of curious faces, all certain about this “simple twist of fate.” One hundred and seventy-seven wills urged me on. I felt like a pawn, an absurd marionette in some surreal spectacle, but I had to play this out. I could not lose face. The principles of a free market, the spirit of the University of Chicago’s School of Economics, and the preservation of the American plutocracy were at stake. I could not falter.

Then he stood up and began slamming the trunk against the Capitol steps, not once but several times. With no time to lose, I loaded one paperclip onto the slender, brown rubber band between my left thumb and index finger and fired. The paperclip struck his right kneecap, but he refused to go down. He stood upright and glared at me for a second. Then his eyes softened; they seemed to implore me to save him. Instead, I fired another fastener, hitting him in the left elbow. He turned sluggishly around, and I fired again, this time striking him in the buttocks. He appeared suddenly stricken, shrunken, as though the impact had finally sunk into him.

At last, perhaps eleven minutes later – not a minute less – he fell to the pavement. I walked over to him. He was still breathing, though his body quivered in undignified dejection. I pointed another clasp where I thought his heart might be and discharged three more rounds. He gasped and groaned, begging me to finish him off, but my rubber band had broken. I then turned and walked towards the jeering legislators. I thought about how they had tied his destiny to mine. I became furious and threw the box of paperclips into the dispersing rabble. Within minutes, the Committee’s private security firm had arrived. I thought that legally I had done the right thing, for a mad retiree must be dispatched; besides he had thrown his laser pointer at a Committee member and kicked the extremely-old leader of the majority party caucus and presiding officer of the legislative chamber. Nonetheless, I felt guilty.

Afterwards, there were countless discussions about the incident. Opinions were divided. Several days later, the Committee banished me to their Clark Street command center in Chicago where I offered advice on acquisitions, capital projects, mergers, pension schemes, and off-shore banks accounts, until I defected nine months later. In the years that followed, I often wondered about the day I almost exterminated a hapless, stalwart retiree simply to avoid looking like a fool.

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