by Martin Kich
Certainly since Lyndon Johnson pushed through the social safety-net programs known collectively as the Great Society, but even since FDR began to create the first of those safety-net programs as part of his New Deal, the Far Right has been arguing vehemently that such programs are tantamount to communism, that they represent an unethical and un-American confiscation and redistribution of personal wealth.
Because of the persistence and the vehemence with which the Far Right has made these talking points and because of the continuing resonance of the so-called “protestant work ethic” in the national mythos, many Americans with more moderate political views have come to regard such programs as giveaways to the undeserving, rather than as demonstrations of compassionate government or social justice.
I think that the current efforts by both corporations and GOP lawmakers to get out from under the pension obligations to ordinary Americans should be framed in the Far Right’s own terms.
Despite the allegations that corporate and public-employee pension obligations are now underfunded because the unions have simply received “too much” in negotiations somehow skewed in their favor, and despite the contentions that Social Security and Medicare are nothing more than Ponzi schemes, those pensions and government programs represent very real investments by the ordinary workers who paid directly into them. And the employer contributions were, in effect, also part of those employees’ contributions because they affected the pay raises and other benefits for which the employees were able to negotiate. (So, if legislators now want to convert defined benefit plans into defined contribution plans, they should compelled either to factor in those employer contributions or to factor in the raises that the employees might have received in lieu of those employer contributions.)
There are shortfalls in corporate pension funds because executives have allocated the revenues that should have been allocated to pensions to other things, such as their own compensation and bonuses, stock dividends to shareholders, or buyouts of other companies that increased both their own compensation and shareholders’ dividends. Likewise, there are shortfalls in public-employee pensions because governments at all levels have underfunded those pension obligations in prosperous periods when tax revenues were robust and then watched those funding deficits balloon during economic recessions when tax revenues have plummeted. And much the same thing has happened with Social Security and Medicare. For the last thirty years, when Baby Boomers were in their peek earning years, the fund should have been running annual surpluses in the tens and hundreds of billions, and those monies should have compounded over those decades so that we would now have a tremendous surplus. But, starting in the Reagan presidency, those surpluses began to be applied to the burgeoning federal deficits in order to make them look not quite so large. (And, not coincidentally, as those deficits ballooned, social safety-net programs were cut dramatically; so that greatly increased spending went almost entirely to corporate interests and, at most, “trickled down” to ordinary Americans.)
So a lot of people ought to be blamed for the problems with underfunded pensions and federal programs, but the last people who ought to be blamed are the people who are owed those pensions and benefits.
And, by the way, given the number of unionized private-sector workers and the number of corporate defaults on pensions, anyone who can do very basic math should realize that “excessive union demands” are, at most, an almost miniscule factor in this issue. The sad truth is that the only pension defaults that get any media attention are those involving unions because it is much harder for non-unionized workers to organize noticeable protests against such corporate abuse.
What has been lost in all of the Far Right rhetoric about “entitlement” programs—and, by extension, unfair senses of entitlement–is that pensions are as much a part of the personal wealth of “ordinary” Americans as stock portfolios are for the wealthy. Imagine if a corporation announced that in order to improve its bottom line, it would be simply canceling current stocks and issuing new stocks that investors could purchase as if they were part of an IPO. Imagine if the federal government announced that, for even a single year, stock dividends would be taxed at 100% or, in effect, simply confiscated. The Far Right would go into convulsions.
Yet, especially given the ever-increasing concentration of wealth in this country, neither of these circumstances would have, proportionately, anything close to the impact that the elimination of pensions has had and the elimination of Social Security, and Medicare will have on the assets, the personal wealth, of “ordinary” Americans.
Failure to meet pension obligations and to maintain Social Security and Medicare is nothing but an unethical and un-American confiscation and redistribution of personal wealth—from ordinary Americans to the wealthiest Americans.
It is an oligarchy’s version of communism.
In fact, such failures represent so obvious a breach of a fundamental contractual obligation that one wonders how in America–where the sanctity of personal wealth is honored as much as, if not more than, freedom of speech and religious freedom–such schemes to escape financial obligations are not illegal.
One wonders why the people who are effecting and advocating such fundamental breaches of contract are not going to prison for what amounts to grand larceny.
For the simple truth is that the ordinary Americans who are expecting and relying on pensions, Social Security, and Medicare are truly entitled to—have earned and are owed—those dividends on their personal investments. And anyone who believes that those financial obligations can be abrogated simply by repeating political and cultural talking points is nothing more than a fast-talking thief.
Martin Kich is the president of the Wright State University chapter of AAUP, which includes two bargaining units representing a total of about 600 faculty. He is also the vice-president of the Ohio Conference of AAUP, a member of the executive committee of AAUP’s national Collective Bargaining Congress (AAUP-CBC) and chair of the Ohio Conference’s Communication Committee. Posted initially to the Academe Blog [http://academeblog.org/]
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