Wednesday, January 16, 2013

A letter to Andy Shaw about pension reform by Jane Artabasy

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 decision-making.

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, depending on
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, Andy.

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.

Jane Artabasy

1 comment:

  1. Jane,

    Thank you for your tenacity and efforts in telling our story and confronting the media in not providing sound journalistic practice in their reporting of the issues plaguing the State of Illinois. The media is the third leg and only leg of the tripod (Politicians & Big Business) that is supposed to be vanguards of the truth and yet they behave as if they have the same agenda as the other members of the triumvirate. I tried telling our story and reaching out to the Governor in June of 2012 as I was gearing up for my 1st year of retirement using Howard Beal then as you have done now ... My open letter to Governor Quinn email was posted on my blog It is important to note that I did not received any comment back from the Governor or his Office.

    Keep up the Great Work!