What a great country we have: a few people at Goldman Sachs are going to divvy up $16 billion, while the people that make it possible for the bankers and dealmakers to make off like bandits won’t have a decent pension to retire on.
I’m talking about public employees—you know, the people who pick up the garbage, plow the streets and generally make cities like New York work for the masters of the universe. In today’s New York Times, Mary Williams Walsh tells us that public pensions are in trouble because of rising health care costs.
Relieving the strain on government budgets from rising health care costs will probably mean taking one or more unwelcome steps: tax increases, union givebacks, sales of bonds or public assets, mass-transit fare increases, or increases in the cost of other local services. These measures are so unappealing that few who understand the problem are pushing them very hard.
No one can dispute the fact that public pensions are under-funded—which simply means that not enough money has been set aside to meet future obligations. But, rather than take the obvious steps to deal with the under-funding issue—single payer health care and the reintroduction of a progressive taxation system—there has been a building, mass ideological attack on public pensions and the people who deserve decent pensions when they retire after making sure our public institutions function. Indeed, in Walsh’s article, she says the total cost for retirees’ future health care cost is “$53.5 billion in today’s dollars.” But, she never says over what period of time that money is obligated: twenty, forty, fifty years? It’s a large number but completely manageable if our political leaders were willing to go, as Willie Sutton would counsel, where the money is.
The fact is that there is enough money to fund public pensions IF we returned to a more progressive taxation system. I like to point out this fact: if my home state of New York went back to the tax system it had in the 1970s, 95 percent of the people would see their taxes lowered and five percent—the richest people in the state—would have their taxes go modestly up—and New York would have an additional $9 billion in revenues. We would have plenty of money to make sure public employees get their due when they retire.
And if it’s health care that’s causing financial stress on cities, we could solve that in a heartbeat with a single-payer system that would significantly curb health care costs. Of course, that would require taking on the health care and insurance industries—but it’s a whole lot easier and comfortable to take it out of the hide of regular workers in the form of givebacks, transit fare increases or hikes in other services.
The real issue is not the under-funding. It’s who should pay in our society for making sure that people can live in dignity when they are no longer working. The answer is simple: if the rich pay a fair share for the right to live in our society—which includes having your roads paved, parks cleaned and licenses renewed, just to mention a few things public workers do—then, public workers, though they may not end up living in the same gated communities or belonging to the same yacht clubs as the rich, will at least live out their lives with dignity, respect and a few dollars left over to buy the next generation a gift or two.
The Times’ piece also says that our mayor has put aside $2 billion from the city’s surplus to pay for retiree health care costs. Here’s another idea: do you think Goldman Sachs’ masters of the universe might volunteer, or be asked, to match that figure, be left with a piddling $14 billion to divide up but feel good that they made a token gesture to the thousands of people who oil the way so they can reap their monstrous profits? Silly me.