Perhaps despite himself, David Brooks raises some good points about public sector sustainability in an otherwise-wretched column.
David Brooks thinks so:
New Jersey canâ€™t afford to build its tunnel, but benefits packages for the stateâ€™s employees are 41 percent more expensive than those offered by the average Fortune 500 company. These benefits costs are rising by 16 percent a year.
New York City has to strain to finance its schools but must support 10,000 former cops who have retired before age 50.
California canâ€™t afford new water projects, but state cops often receive 90 percent of their salaries when they retire at 50. The average corrections officer there makes $70,000 a year in base salary and $100,000 with overtime (California spends more on its prison system than on its schools).
One of the easiest ways to be a west coast blogger is to wait until 9 pm Pacific time, look at the dumb thing that Brooks has said today, and blog it.Â But here, it’s a little more complicated.
On one level, Brooks’ piece is simply moronic.Â Â For instance:Â
1)Â He simply claimsÂ that California “can’t afford” various projects, conveniently ignoring the fact that the famously dysfunctional California Legislature reached an agreement on building several of these projects.Â He never really costs out any of his numbers: if New Jersey workers had pitifully low pensions like private companies, would that mean that the state suddenly would have been flush with cash?Â You know the answer to that one.
2) Â Nowhere in his argument will you find any discussion of the anti-tax hysteria that has infected the Republican Party: Saint Ronald Reagan’s first proposal upon being elected Governor in 1966 was to raise taxes to close a deficit.Â
3)Â He notes that California pays more for prisons than schools, but never mentions that a crucial reason for this is the conservative obsession with three-strikes laws.Â
4)Â Somehow, as a taxpayer I wouldn’t feel comforted to know either that 60-year-old cops are chasing criminals on the streets, or that we can’t recruit younger cops because the work is dangerous and they don’t get a pension.Â
5)Â And if you are really looking to see where state costs have skyrocketed, the answer is found in the Medicaid program; yet somehow, after hemming and hawing, Brooks could not bring himself to support the Affordable Care Act, the most ambitious attempt to control health care costs in US history, and a law in which states receive a 90% match for new Medicaid expenditures.
Yet I couldn’t bring myself to hate this column, because progressivism does have a problem with public employee unions.Â Most famously, of course, are some teachers’ unions, such as the reactionary United Teachers Los Angeles, which has devoted most its energy to resisting the advance of public school accountability.
And that’s not all.Â A friend of mine worked on the transition team for then-incoming Mayor Richard Riordan in 1993.Â He’s a progressive Democrat.Â His brief was the city’s Department of Water and Power.Â And he learned that fully 25% of the Department’s budget was devoted to pension expenses.Â It is all-too-common for public employees to retire at age 50, get a full pension, and then go into consulting on the same issues in which they previously worked (obviously, this applies to people such as engineers and the like, who work at DWP), essentially drawing two salaries.
At another state agency where I worked, I learned that we could not use hybrid vehicles for the agency’s cars, because the state mechnics’ union members didn’t know how to fix them, and didn’t want to learn.Â So we were stuck with cars getting far less mileage, wasting at hundreds of thousands of dollars over the long term.
As the Yiddish proverb goes, “for instance isn’t proof.”Â Or to put it another way: the plural of anecdote isn’t data.Â But the aging of the population means that governments stand to have huge pension debts, which means less money for programs.Â These aren’t idle fears (and of course they aren’t limited to the public sector, either, as Roger Lowenstein’s excellent book shows in both public and private contexts).Â As much as I’d like to say that Brooks has once again wasted some of the most precious real estate in American journalism, I can’t.Â At least not yet.Â It will be interesting to see how observers who actually do know the numbers respond.