Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Joe Klein's Idiocy: Public Sector Edition

Oh for Christ's sake...
It is time to revise the public pension system. There aren't so many high-paying manufacturing jobs anymore; the relative security of government work doesn't need to be augmented by ridiculously obstruse procedures for firing incompetents or by 20-year pension packages. A nice 401k, with healthy matching funds, should be sufficient.

Where to start?

How about with the ridiculous implication that America should be in a race to the bottom in terms of job security and benefits? Apparently the fact that jobs in the private sector are inherently unstable and fail to provide an adequate pension is somehow, in Joe Klein's world, an argument against job security and pensions everywhere. In Joe Klein's world we shouldn't be finding ways to boost the American middle-class, we should be tearing down the last vestiges of the vibrant middle-class because... well, because we've lost the fight everywhere else.

Without even getting into the destructive reality of what Klein is advocating (further collapse of the middle class) one has to stand in awe at how truly fucked up this world view is. It truly is the world view of someone who has lost all touch with any semblance of middle-class and working class America. It's an attitude straight out of Versailles.

Beyond the disturbing philosophy driving Klein's argument and the practical ramifications of his anti-worker stance we have the massive Constitutional issues that Klein obliviously raises. You see, the reason why we have "ridiculously obtuse procedures" for firing public employees is something we like to call Due Process. In the United States the Constitution guarantees that the government cannot deprive you of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. In the case of public employees the Supreme Court has ruled that they have a property interest in their job and so they can't be fired without due process of law. And these "ridiculously obtuse procedures" that Klein alludes to are really nothing more than simple pre-termination notice with an opportunity to respond and a post-termination appeal process. It's hardly an arduous process. In fact it's so basic that almost any worker in America would think it a matter of simple fairness and equity. But not Joe Klein! Telling an employer why you think he should be fired and giving him a chance to explain himself is simply to byzantine.

Not surprisingly Klein's snide comment about public pensions is also scattered with Constitutional pot holes. Pensions are contracts. When you go to work for the government and they agree to pay you a salary now plus a pension later in exchange for your work you've entered a legally binding contract. Again, we have a document in this country known as the Constitution and the 50 states have similar documents modeled after it. And guess what? The Constitution bars states from retroactively interfering with contracts. (If you're really interested in the inner workings of public pension law I recommend this excellent article by Minnesota Law Professor Amy Monahan)

In 3 sentences Joe Klein has proclaimed what should be "sufficient" for public employees in their jobs and their pensions based on nothing more than his own ignorance and idiocy. To hell with the Constitution, to hell with the middle-class, to hell with working America.

And all this in the context of a blog post advocating for neo-Hoover economic policies!


Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

A pension contract does not include a promise to continue to keep it in place indefinitely, and there are legitimate reasons to favor defined contribution retirement plans over defined benefit retirement plans.

1. Defined benefit plans have strong incentives to make employees stay until reaching full benefits, and then to retire after obtaining them. Defined contributions don't bias this timing financially. The status quo locks people into careers they may want to leave with golden handcuffs and pushes people who would be happy to stay out. For example, defined benefit plans are the most powerful factors keeping judges on and sending them off the federal and state court benches.

2. Defined benefit plans inject a great deal of uncertainty into the budget process. Rather than committing to a certain compensation payment, PERA has become a major contingent liability. Since financial markets generally do worse in recessions, defined benefit plans impose the most stress on state government precisely when the demand for its services is greatest and its tax revenues are weakest.

3. Defined benefit plans financially align the state with the stock market at the same time it is charged with regulating business, and force it to participate in that market as an investor in a big way.

4. Defined benefit plans aren't a good fit to a society where holding one job (or having employment only in one pension system at least) for your entire career is an increasing uncommon situation. They strongly favor one job employees over many job employees.

5. Removing public employees from Social Security, as PERA does, weakens the Social Security system.

I agree that there should be some form of civil service protection for ordinary bureaucrats from political appointees. But, your description of how easy it is to fire a civil servant understates greatly how difficult it is in practice to do so. (See, for example, how hard it has been to fire employees at the Department of Public Safety in Denver).

Civil service protections, along with government contracting rules, are two of the big reasons that there is so much political pressure to privatize in the U.S. compared to other countries.

Colorado is particularly inflexible in this regard, because it has so very few political appointees as a share of the whole.

In principle, I think a middle ground could be reached that would make rank and file employees employees at will (with some "no fault" severance benefits), and would give civil service protection only to the highest level of civil servant supervisors of civil servants who report to political appointees.

The civil service employment system does much more good by eliminating political patronage on the hiring side than it does by preventing firing for improper reasons of low level employees. The insulation from political pressure needs to be somewhere in the system, but managers also need to be able to more easily fire bad or merely mediocre employees.

T.R. Donoghue said...

The promise can't be modified without an equal exchange. The case law on this is very clear, particularly in Colorado.

As to difficulty in firing, I have every day first hand experience with this - this is what I do. It ain't that hard to fire most public employees. Firings happen regularly and routinely every single day.

And really my point isn't so much about the difficulty or lack thereof in terminations it is that what hurdles do exist are Constitutional issues, not union issues.