Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life

"Outstanding…Moore Triumphs! Publishers Weekly

Mike & Friends Blog

Dean Baker

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research

January 31st, 2011 5:07 PM

Debts Should be Honored, Except When the Money Is Owed to Working People

This seems to be the lesson that our nation's leaders are trying to pound home to us. According to the New York Times, members of Congress are secretly running around in closets and back alleys working up a law allowing states to declare bankruptcy.

According to the article, a main goal of state bankruptcy is to allow states to default on their pension obligations. This means that states will be able to tell workers, including those already retired, that they are out of luck. Teachers, highway patrol officers and other government employees, some of whom worked decades for the government, will be told that their contracts no longer mean anything. They will not get the pensions that they were expecting.

Depending on the specific circumstances, they may find their pensions cut back 20 percent, 30 percent, perhaps even 50 percent. There would be no guarantees if a state goes into bankruptcy.

There has been a concerted effort to bash public sector employees by either highlighting the few instances where pensions actually are exorbitant or just making things up. Untruths about Goldman Sachs, General Electric or any other major company rarely appear in the media, and are usually quickly corrected when they do. However, exaggerations or outright fabrication are a standard practice for those who report on state and local budgets when it comes to public employees.

The public has been bombarded with stories of public employees retiring with six-figure pensions while still in their early 50s. There may be some instances of such inflated pensions, but that is far from the typical story. If we look to New York State, the hotbed of bloated public budgets, we find that the state's main retirement system pays an average pension of $18,300 a year. For many workers this is their whole retirement income since they were not covered by Social Security.

This is the general story of public pensions. Public sector workers are often better situated than their private sector counterparts, in that they even have pensions. But study after study shows that these workers paid for their pensions with lower wages than their private sector counterparts. It is tragic that so many private sector workers cannot count on a secure retirement, but it won't help them to make workers in the public sector equally insecure.

And, there is the matter of paying debts. State governments are legally obligated to pay retirees the pensions they worked for just like any other debt. It is fascinating to see the interest by many pro-business conservative types in defaulting on this debt.

Many of these same people have been determined to argue that homeowners who are underwater in their mortgages should pay their debts. They certainly have not been offering them any assistance in staying in their homes.

In fact, back in 2005, some of the same crew were busy rewriting the bankruptcy law. They wanted to make it harder for individuals to get out of their debt through bankruptcy. They felt it was so important the people paid their debts to credit card companies and other lenders that they actually applied the law retroactively. People who took out debt under one set of bankruptcy rules suddenly found that Congress had changed the rules after the fact and they would now be subjected to a much harsher set of bankruptcy rules.

Let's see if we can find a pattern here. When families take out a mortgage in the middle of a housing bubble, which may have been misrepresented at the time of sale, the homeowner has an obligation to repay the money to the bank. When people take on credit card debt, they absolutely have an obligation to repay the bank -- even if it means changing the rules after the fact.

However, when the government signs a contract with workers, it doesn't have to pay the workers' pensions if it proves to be inconvenient. Of course, we may also throw in the fact that when the flood of bad mortgage loans issued by the banks threatened to push them into bankruptcy, the Treasury and the Fed give them trillions of dollars of loans at below market interest rates.

There certainly seems to be a pattern here. The story has nothing to do with preferences for the market or government intervention. The picture here is very simple: The rules get changed whenever it is necessary to make sure that money flows upward from ordinary workers to the rich. In 21st century America, upward redistribution seems to be the guiding principle.

You must log in to comment.

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Log in | Register

Time to put the cuffs on Chris Christie -- not for the bridge scandal, but for this: Chris Christie's $300m pension proposal broke state anti-corruption...

Apr 18th
7:31 PM
Read More

George W. Bush Debuts New Paintings Of Dogs, Friends, Ghost Of Iraqi Child That Follows Him... www.theonion.com President Bush has a new hobby -- painting! --...

Apr 17th
7:28 PM
Read More

Big new story from David Sirota and Pando on top Christie adviser and appearance of corruption at New Jersey's pension fund: REVEALED: Gov....

Apr 17th
12:41 PM
Read More

FBI Uncovers Al-Qaeda Plot To Just Sit Back And Enjoy Collapse Of United States www.theonion.com WASHINGTON—The FBI announced today that it has uncovered a...

Apr 15th
3:28 PM
Read More

Revealed: Rahm Emanuel's top donor bought stock in Marriott just before it was awarded huge contract pando.com As schools are closed and pensions cut,...

Apr 9th
2:00 PM
Read More

I'll be at First Time Fest today in New York City at the screening of my first film, Roger & Me. Loews Village 7 at 12:30 pm. Come see it on the big...

Apr 5th
9:48 AM
Read More

Revealed: Rahm Emanuel cuts public pensions, diverts money to benefit campaign donors pando.com If you've read the financial news out of Chicago the last...

Apr 4th
2:19 PM
Read More

Please take a moment today to think of Casey Austin Sheehan, son of Cindy and Patrick, who was murdered by U.S. foreign policy in Sadr City, Baghdad ten years...

Apr 4th
2:00 PM
Read More

ICYMI - I've joined this "thunderclap" to support the Connecticut legislators who voted yes on last year's Act Concerning Gun Violence...

Apr 3rd
7:38 PM
Read More

I've joined this "thunderclap" to support the Connecticut legislators who voted yes on last year's Act Concerning Gun Violence Prevention...

Apr 2nd
8:27 PM
Read More

I am opposed to the death penalty, but to every rule there is usually an exception, and in this case I hope the criminals at General Motors will be arrested...

Apr 1st
3:55 PM
Read More

How Long Some in the US Will Survive Under New Health Law ...by Donna Smith www.michaelmoore.com Those who must access care to live and can afford it are not...

Mar 31st
10:13 PM
Read More

Last night, The Good Wife on the East Coast started 40 minutes late due to the overrun of the NCAA basketball game. If you had your DVR set for the show, you...

Mar 24th
5:41 PM
Read More

Watching films today, looking for the ones I'm going to pick for my film festival this summer. I (and a whole bunch of others!) have this thing we put on...

Mar 23rd
4:48 PM
Read More

When the U.S. Health Care System Keeps Killing, Who Cares Enough to Fight? ...by Donna Smith www.michaelmoore.com We have largely forgotten that people are at...

Mar 21st
5:56 PM
Read More

Tell the White House not to give up on Dr. Vivek Murthy's nomination as Surgeon General despite the ferocious opposition from the NRA: Don't give...

Mar 21st
5:38 PM
Read More

This criminal would never see a jail cell, nor would his cronies. In fact, they'd later be rewarded with re-election: Presidential Address on War with...

Mar 19th
9:40 PM
Read More

The crime of the century -- our invasion & slaughter in Iraq -- started 11 years ago tonite in this 7pm (ET) hour, March 19th, 2003: CNN Coverage of...

Mar 19th
9:08 PM
Read More

Washington’s Back-to-the-Future Military Policies in Africa ...by Nick Turse www.michaelmoore.com Nick Turse is an award-winning journalist, historian,...

Mar 17th
4:59 PM
Read More

"I think democracy is the most revolutionary thing in the world." -- Tony Benn, 1925-2014 Tony Benn in 'Sicko'

Mar 14th
10:07 AM
Read More

RIP Tony Benn, one of the UK's greatest leaders: Tony Benn, veteran Labour politician, dies aged 88 www.theguardian.com Former cabinet minister died at...

Mar 14th
9:53 AM
Read More

Please read this important story from K. Ford K.: Am I the Face of the New American Middle Class? www.huffingtonpost.com I began to feel I had slipped so low...

Mar 13th
2:24 PM
Read More

Yesterday Dianne Feinstein revealed that the CIA has been spying on the Senate Intelligence Committee. This is all about the report the committee has produced...

Mar 12th
6:48 PM
Read More

Health Care for All Colorado has brought Mercy Killers, a show written and performed by Michael Milligan about our murderous for-profit healthcare system, to...

Mar 10th
1:08 PM
Read More

Health Care Dramas that Sting and Why We Have to Watch ...by Donna Smith www.michaelmoore.com The realities Milligan has written into the show cut deep into...

Mar 10th
1:02 PM
Read More

Did you know the Lehrer Newshour on PBS has been produced for 20 years by a company owned by conservative cable billionaire John Malone? Me neither. After...

Mar 7th
8:39 PM
Read More

Mr. Obama, if int’l law is so damn crucial . . . | RootsAction.org act.rootsaction.org The Russian intervention deserves criticism. But let’s be clear. The...

Mar 6th
1:21 PM
Read More

Enron billionaire John Arnold thinks everyone should believe him when he says we've got to cut pensions because he's so incredibly rich: John...

Mar 5th
4:20 PM
Read More

More in David Sirota's continuing series on the billionaire takeover of PBS: More PBS conflict woes as activists move to eject David Koch from board of...

Mar 3rd
12:35 PM
Read More

Subscribe to Mike's Blog RSS

Click here to suggest an article

Mike's Blog

See More Blogs

Vew the archives

View older articles