By Ruth Conniff on July 23, 2013

The rightwing argument that public employees bankrupted Detroit is incredible on its face. But it is part of an ominous national push to raid pensions, give away tax dollars to corporations, and impose austerity on regular working people.

Never mind that Detroit has been hollowed out by job-exporting trade policies, deindustrialization, and American auto manufacturers' poor business decisions. Never mind that the city has stopped plowing local roads, that you have to run to a main thoroughfare in the wintertime to pick up your mail, that the average response to a 911 call takes 58 minutes ...

As economist Laura Dresser, associate director of the Center on Wisconsin Strategy points out, Detroit was the big loser among the inevitable-winners-and-losers we heard so much about when free trade was being foisted on the rust belt.

"The trade argument is: Yes there are people who will lose, but society as a whole gains from these deals because prices go down," Dresser points out. "And with those gains, we could compensate the losers."

Guess what? Detroit did not see that compensation.

"If any city has experienced the pain of U.S. trade policy, it's Detroit," says Dresser.

But you have to look hard to find that big-picture background in the current national discussion about Detroit's bankruptcy.

Kevyn Orr, the emergency manager imposed on Detroit was on All Things Considered on NPR last night, explaining that, for Detroit to grow again and realize it's great potential, people are going to have to make "painful sacrifices."

And who are those people? Elderly pensioners living on $19,000 a year on average. The size of their sacrifice has yet to be determined, but Orr would not rule out pension cuts of 50 percent. Keep in mind that these elderly people, who were guaranteed their retirement income, will not likely see the future benefits of a resurrected Detroit.

A handful of very smart people have talked about how wrong-headed the rightwing analysis of the economic crisis in Detroit is.

David Sirota points out in Salon that the city is still planning on spending $283 million on a taxpayer-financed hockey stadium, even as it tells its retired public service workers to stock up on cat food.

Paul Krugman points out that the now-mainstream rightwing corporate analysis that endorsed austerity for Greece is being misapplied in Detroit as well.

But that's not all.

Working people everywhere should be very leery of a rightwing propaganda push that paints teachers, union members, local officials, and other public servants as greedy dependents who are sucking up taxpayer money and putting economic stress on cities and states across the land.

We saw what this narrative did in Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker busted public employee unions and survived a recall effort in large part by stirring up resentment against middle-class public employees among strapped, non-union private sector workers who envy their kids' teachers' health-care benefits and secure retirement.

This race-to-the-bottom mentality could turn us into a nation of Detroits.

Take this ominous recent article from the Wisconsin Reporter, part of a network of rightwing state government news outfits funded by the conservative Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.

The article, headlined "Public Workers Haul in Millions." appeared about a week before Detroit went belly-up.

In it, we learn that an Illinois-based group called Taxpayers United of America has released a study of Milwaukee public employee pensions.

The report seeks to shame public employees, including Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, for allegedly raking in outrageous compensation including hefty pension guarantees.

You have to read to the bottom of the article to discover that both Milwaukee and Wisconsin have been ranked top in the nation by the Pew Charitable Trusts for maintaining fully funded pension systems.

That's because these pension systems are funded by employees, who pay into the funds throughout their working years.

Rae Ann McNeilly, executive director of Taxpayers United grudgingly acknowledges in the Wisconsin Reporter piece that "the Wisconsin Retirement System, the Badger State's public pension program, is one of the healthiest in the nation, nearly fully funded by existing accounting standards," Kittle writes.

"The reason Wisconsin's retirement system works is because what people take out is what they put in," Dresser explains.

Not only are Wisconsin's public workers owed a pension, legally, because they were promised it -- just like workers in Detroit -- there is no argument about whether the money is all there (and the state has not raided the fund, as happened in New Jersey).

But never mind the facts. "That's like saying instead of having the bubonic plague they only have E. coli," says Rae of Taxpayers United.

Instead of the pay-as-you-go model that has kept Milwaukee and Wisconsin's public employee pensions solvent, Rae and other "pension reform advocates" argue that state and municipal workers should be thrown on the mercy of the private market.

This is the same argument we used to hear about Social Security. It sounded a lot better when the stock market was booming during the Clinton years.

"All you have to do is look at what happened to 401(k)s between 2006 and 2009 to see why that's a bad idea," says Dresser.

Today, it's harder to get a lot of political traction with a plan to throw AARP members on the tender mercies of Wall Street.

But retirees as a group have a lot more political clout than do public employees, as union-busting governors Scott Walker and Rick Snyder have demonstrated in Wisconsin and Michigan.

Watch out for the insidious argument that public employee pensions -- even those that employees have contributed to for years and kept solvent -- are a form of theft from taxpayers.

Like the rest of the anti-worker, anti-public-sector argument, this divide-and-conquer argument will only lead to pain and destruction.

If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story The Poison in Scott Walker's "Awesomesauce".

Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter.

Section: 

Topics: 

Add new comment

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

More

Wisconsin election officials and advocates are being forced to make an "extraordinary effort" to adjust to voter ID...

Occupy changed how we felt. We were the motor of history, not just its victims. The mic check gave us a...

The Center for Media and Democracy/Progressive Inc. (CMD) has joined more than 50 watchdog, advocacy, and labor...

By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

Public School Shakedown

Progressive Media Project

Newsletter

Get Breaking News and Alerts!