Last, for now, to Galt’s Gulch. A Libertarian Commenter Proves Mah Point…
Jim K., in this comment thread takes issue with my claim that anti-tax glibertarianism is (a) one of the root causes of Colorado Springs’ current predicament and (b) is powering a potentially deep decline in American wealth and power.
The issue, he says, is not the shortfall in taxes, but the “abomination” — his word — that city employees are overpaid, excessively well-benefitted, and inflexibly secure in their jobs. This labor greed and rigidity, and not the collapse of tax revenues in the context of anti-tax politics is to blame for the loss of police and fire jobs, the darkening of city streets and so on.
In Mr. K.’s words:
The argument that folks like me (who are apparently wrecking the American way of life) have is not with government provision of services per se but the fact that a great proportion of the dollars we are paying into the government these days is going to support unsustainably high compensation schemes for government employees.
To demonstrate how iniquitous is this burden, he offers some numbers: a presumed final salary after 40 years of work of $75,000 that would, he claims, linking to the Colorado public pension system’s benefit calculator page, yield a 100% pension — the equivalent, he asserts of an annuity that would cost one million dollars and change to buy on the open market.
And wait! it gets worse:
Additionally, most state employees do not fund any contributions to their pensions from that 75K.
Sounds bad, I guess — except for two problems that are to me illustrative of the absolute intellectual poverty for what passes for libertarian argument in this country. First, such arguments are usually deeply empirically challenged, as they are here.
That is: Mr. K.’s key numbers are wrong, apparently simply made-up. It may be true that if you, as Mr. K. says he did, “plug some numbers” into the the benefits calculator you get a retirement payment equal to your salary at retirement. But no actual Colorado public employee does.
Instead, as Mr. K. would have discovered had he employed his mad intertube skillz just a little more rigorously, the retirement benefit ranges runs by yearly steps from 10% after five years of employment to a maximum of 87.5% at thirty five years of service and above. Significantly that percentage is not calculated on the final, and commonly the highest paid year of service, but on a formula that provides for a lower figure and that, in essence, prevents any sweetheart raises from skewing the retirement payout. (All this can be found by clicking on this link and then downloading the relevant benefit explanations.)
There’s more, of course. Mr. K. asserts that most state employees don’t contribute to their pension plans. Maybe in his universe, but not in this one. The Colorado plan, PERA reports that in 2008, employees contributed $717 million to the plan, while employers provided $863.5 million. You can, I suppose, argue about the appropriate ratio — but the key message is that, of course, Mr. K. said something flat out wrong that, conveniently, supports his myth of the leech-like viciousness of public servants. In the real world, the employees of Colorado Springs have been paying significant amounts to their own future compensation.
At the same page, you’d find that the average monthly retirement benefit for 2008 was $2772, which annualizes to all of $33,264 — not nothing, truly, but hardly the caviar and Cadillac compensation of Mr. K.’s fever dreams.
Enough: you get the point. Mr.K., like many of the anti-government crowd I’ve argued with in the past, feels free to assert what he is convinced must be true. That’s behavior I recognize as I raise my small son — but it is something that, thankfully, at age nine, he has begun to outgrow. It seems a developmental disorder afflicting much of the body politic that a similar progression has not taken place amongst too many alleged adults.
The problem with such invention is that it has real consequences. In this case, Mr. K. wants to see Colorado Springs employees taking one for the taxpayer:
What else am I forgetting? Health care benefits, much better job security, and hours and holidays most of us would envy….What is really destroying the American way of life, the unwillingness of some of us to pay ever more to support this abomination or the fact that we have created a class of citizens who demand ever more of our money in return for keeping the streetlights on?
Hey! I thought class war was for my side!
This is the second problem with glibertarian discussions of the evils of government. They really do believe in magic ponies. Streetlights good. People who go up on lifts to change them? “This abomination.”
I don’t doubt that there is waste and sloth and indifference in government service. Hell, I’ve seen it in every business or institution I’ve owned or worked for, so I don’t see why the public sector should be any different from the private and non profit ones.
I also know some folks high up in big-city government so I know (a) problems exist and (b) very smart and dedicated people work like hell to deal with them. And I know and or receive services from a lot of not-so-high up folks. And what gets me is the way that folks like Mr. K. seem to think two things:
First, that contracts may be binding for thee and me, but not if your contract happens to be collectively bargained and between an individual and the state. The cop who started work ten years ago signed on to a challenging, difficult and sometimes dangerous job in exchange for a defined compensation package. Now we should throw this away? I don’t think so.
Second, that whatever we pay our civil servants is always too much, and hence ill-gotten, which is why it is OK to cut people’s pay while expecting them to provide the same labor.
Here’s the horrible truth: we don’t pay civil servants very much, really. A Colorado Springs police sargeant makes, broadly, between $55,000 and $70,000 — or roughly $27.50 to $35 an hour. That’s for an experienced person in a supervisory role, working a job that requires considerable expertise and specialized skills, not to mention acceptance of the risk inherent in police work.
Why do skilled and smart people do the work — be they cops, teachers, whatever? Because they like it, one hopes, but also because they accept a bargain — they’ll take a constrained wage in exchange for security and good benefits. Take some part of that bargain away, and you’ll lose folks. Usually the best ones, if you accept free market notions of rational self-interest, which I do.
So you have to ask yourselves: Do you feel lucky today? How much do you cut before these kind of people say f*ck it, and move on?
Seriously: you can always cut something. But you lose something when you do. And if you have so committed yourself and your community to the idea that government is an abomination, it should come as no surprise that the cuts start to hurt. But it does, which is why folks like Mr. K. have to make stuff up to get the horrible facts of real life out of their heads.
To which I say — move to Colorado Springs! Show us what paradise can be. I double dog dare ya.
Image: Vincent Van Gogh, “The Potato Eaters,” 1885.