Not mumbling any maybes, a new book is a full-throated denunciation of public employee pensions said to be overly generous and threatening to help push governments into bankruptcy.
“Plunder!” by Steven Greenhut, a columnist for the Orange County Register for 11 years, is subtitled: “How public employee unions are raiding treasuries, controlling our lives and bankrupting the nation.”
Pensions are a big part of the book.
But it’s a broader argument citing, among other things, excessive pay, unparalleled job security, incompetent teachers that can’t be fired, brutal police that go unpunished and child protection services that tear apart families.
“Simply put, the public’s servants have become the public’s masters,” the book contends.
Greenhut writes with force and clarity, but also from an unambiguous libertarian-conservative point of view that fears the growth of government is eroding freedom. It’s a “call to action,” like the work of an impassioned pamphleteer.
The guiding spirit here is definitely not the old reportorial tradition that, for better or worse, goes something like: “On the one hand this, on the other hand that, and let the readers do the mediation for themselves.”
The book is based on Greenhut’s own work in Orange County, where public pensions have been an issue, and the extensive use of excerpts from newspaper stories, a compilation of much of the critical coverage of pensions in recent years.
Greenhut got an hour on C-SPAN on Jan. 3 to discuss “Plunder!” his second book. His first book was on the misuse of the government power of “eminent domain,” the taking of private property for public use.
The new book in abbreviated form is the cover story in the February issue of the libertarian-oriented Reason magazine, “Class War, how public servants became our masters.“ The cover illustration shows a big boot crushing little human figures.
Greenhut’s book was not mentioned in an article in the Dec. 10 issue of the Economist magazine. But the article makes similar points, like Greenhut describes public employees as “coddled,” and mentions charter-school competition as a school solution.
Now Greenhut, relocating to Sacramento, has launched a website, Calwatchdog.com, sponsored by the Pacific Research Institute, a conservative think tank. A three-person staff began covering politics and state government last week.
“The whole idea is to keep an eye on government and to keep an eye on the unions that control Sacramento,” Greenhut said on C-SPAN.
He will get to see first hand, for example, how unions have expanded into in-home health services and struggled with limited success to roll back pro-business workers’ compensation cuts imposed under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger six years ago.
The book, “Plunder!” has created little stir among some unions so far. A spokesman for the largest state worker union, Jim Zamora of SEIU Local 1000, said no one there has read the book. He said the average pension of retired state workers represented by the local is $27,000 a year.
Greenhut said in his book the average pension cited by unions includes persons who worked short periods for government, not full careers, and those who retired before a big increase in benefits a decade ago.
His book points to a list of CalPERS retirees receiving pensions of $100,000 a year or more, posted on the website of a group that hopes to put a pension reform initiative on the November ballot.
The 6,133 retirees in the group’s “$100,000 club” are about 1 percent of the total 492,513 retirees, the California Public Employees Retirement System has said in previous responses.
A spokesman for an association that represents firefighters, who are said by Greenhut to “reflect the public-employee problem at its extreme,” is aware of the book and how it is being publicized.
“It‘s an echo chamber play,” said Carroll Wills of the California Professional Firefighters. “Steve Greenhut wrote the book. The venues through which the conservative media views are amplified are hard at work.”
Greenhut wrote that when he said on the “Glen Beck Show” on Fox News that the average pay and benefit package for Orange County firefighters is $175,000, the reaction from a Midwestern caller was disbelief.
Many firefighters and police have a generous pension formula that gives them 3 percent of their final pay for each year served if they retire at age 50. Greenhut disputes the rationale that they have particularly dangerous jobs and a shorter life expectancy.
His book cites Bureau of Labor Statistics on the “most dangerous professions” showing law enforcement at No. 12, with fishing and logging at the top, and firefighters far down on the list not far from architects.
He wrote that CalPERS life expectancy data is the same for “miscellaneous” members and the “public safety” group that includes firefighters and police: “If the current age is 55, the retiree is expected to live to be 81.4 if male, and 85 if female.”
Wills said firefighter unions have pushed for breathing apparatus and physical condition programs that make the job safer. He said firefighters still face physical stress, emotional burnout and a wide range of cancer-causing substances.
“They are the ones going in when everyone else is going out,” Wills said of firefighters. “It sort of defies logic to say that is just as safe as sitting in the offices of the Orange County Register writing a political column.”
The president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California, Ron Cottingham, said he has not read the book but did see Greenhut’s presentation on C-SPAN.
“He had no discernible facts,” said Cottingham. In recent rounds of contract negotiations, he said, many law enforcement unions are responding to tough times by foregoing raises and agreeing to pay a larger share of pension costs.
Greenhut wrote that a person present last year when PORAC interviewed three potential Democratic candidates for state attorney general said they were asked if they would slant the title and summary of a pension reform initiative to undermine support.
“We asked what their stance was on pension proposals that were being talked about,” said Cottingham. “We did not ask them specifically what they would do if a pension crossed their desk. Mr. Greenhut definitely got some skewed information.”
Last week, the office of the current attorney general, Jerry Brown, issued the title and summary for an initiative that would cut pensions for new state and local government hires and extend retirement ages.
“It’s very fair,” Marcia Fritz, president of the reform group said via e-mail. “And whether the attorney general intended it or not, it highlights the group who has abused the pension systems the most — police and fire. They now make up half the retirees joining our $100,000 pension club (and less than 10 percent of all workers).”
Reporter Ed Mendel covered the Capitol in Sacramento for nearly three decades, most recently for the San Diego Union-Tribune. More stories are at https://calpensions.com/ Posted 22 Jan 10