Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
15Feb/130

Borrowing from Peter to Pay Paul

Stephanie A. Miner, the Mayor of Syracuse NY, has an important op-ed essay in The NY Times Thursday. Syracuse is one of hundreds of cities around the state and tens of thousands around the country that are struggling with the potentially disastrous effects of out-of-control pension costs. Where this crisis is heading can be seen in California, where San Bernadino has become the third California city to declare bankruptcy. These cities are dying. They are caught in a bind. Either they decide not to pay their promised debts to pensioners; or, in honoring those debts, they so fully raise taxes and cut services as to ruin the lives of their citizens.

In Syracuse, Mayor Miner understands well the depth of the problem. First, public employee labor costs are too high not because salaries are high, but because pension costs and medical benefits are rising without limit. Second, revenues are being slashed, both from the recession and from cutbacks from the state and federal governments. Finally, the middle and upper class flight from cities to suburbs have left the tax base in cities low at the moment when poorer city dwellers are disproportionately in need of public services.

The result is that cities are faced with a stark choice: Do they pay older citizens what has been promised to them? Or do they cut those promised pensions in order to provide services for the young? This is a generational conflict that is playing out across the country.

Miner is worried that the response by NY State is making the problem worse. In short, Governor Cuomo and the legislature have decided to let cities that cannot afford to fund their burgeoning pension obligations borrow money to pay those pensions. The kicker is, that the cities are being told to borrow money from the very same pension plan to which they owe money.

If this sounds suspicious, it is. As Danny Hakim—one of the best financial reporters around—wrote almost exactly one year ago in the NY Times, this is a desperate and dangerous move:

When New York State officials agreed to allow local governments to use an unusual borrowing plan to put off a portion of their pension obligations, fiscal watchdogs scoffed at the arrangement, calling it irresponsible and unwise.

And now, their fears are being realized: cities throughout the state, wealthy towns such as Southampton and East Hampton, counties like Nassau and Suffolk, and other public employers like the Westchester Medical Center and the New York Public Library are all managing their rising pension bills by borrowing from the very same $140 billion pension fund to which they owe money.

The state’s borrowing plan allows public employers to reduce their pension contributions in the short term in exchange for higher payments over the long term. Public pension funds around the country assume a certain rate of return every year and, despite the market gains over the last few years, are still straining to make up for steep investment losses incurred in the 2008 financial crisis, requiring governments to contribute more to keep pension systems afloat.

Supporters argue that the borrowing plan makes it possible for governments in New York to “smooth” their annual pension contributions to get through this prolonged period of market volatility.

Critics say it is a budgetary sleight-of-hand that simply kicks pension costs down the road.

Borrowing from the state pension plan to pay municipal pension costs is simply failing to pay the pensions this year and thus having to pay more next year.

Hakim, as good as he is, allows Thomas P. DiNapoli—the state’s comptroller—to get away with calling the scheme “amortization.”

The state’s comptroller, Thomas P. DiNapoli, said in a statement, “While the state’s pension fund is one of the strongest performers in the country, costs have increased due to the Wall Street meltdown.” He added that “amortizing pension costs is an option for some local governments to manage cash flow and to budget for long-term pension costs in good and bad times.”

But how is this amortization? The assumption or hope is that the market will rise, the pension fund will go up, and then the municipalities will owe less.  That is hardly amortization. No, it is desperate speculation with public monies.

The crisis in our cities afflicts the whole country, according to a study by the Pew Center on the States.

Cities employing nearly half of U.S. municipal workers saw their pension and retiree health-care funding levels fall from 79% in fiscal year 2007 to 74% in fiscal year 2009, using the latest available data, according to the Pew Center on the States. Pension systems are considered healthy if they are 80% funded.

The reason to pay attention to the problems in cities is that cities have even less ability to solve their pension shortfalls than states. The smaller the population, the more a city would have to tax each citizen in order to help pay for the pensions of its retired public workers. The result is that either cities get bailed out by states and lose their independence (as is happening in Michigan) or the cities file for bankruptcy (as is happening in California).

Mayor Miner, a Democrat, takes a huge risk in standing up to the Governor and the legislature. She is rightly insisting that they stop hiding from our national addiction to the crack-cocaine of unaffordable guaranteed lifetime pensions. Piling unpayable debts upon our cities will, in the end, bankrupt these cities. And it will continue the flight to the suburbs and the hollowing out of the urban core of America. Above all, it will sacrifice our future in order to allow the baby boomers to retire in luxury. Let’s hope Miner’s call doesn’t go unheeded.

-RB

22Jun/1213

Roberto Unger: A Wartime Economy Without a War

"Ouch."

With that simple yet evocative Facebook status update, I was led this week on a journey into my intellectual past.

The link attached to the painful interjection led to a video by Roberto Mangabeira Unger. It is a provocative video titled "Beyond Obama." It calls for progressives to work for the defeat of Presidential Barack Obama in the 2012 election. Some will welcome this and others will decry it. Today, I want to understand where Unger's call comes from.

Unger is one of those renaissance men who continually pop up in the most unexpected and extraordinary places. He has been, for many years, a professor of law at Harvard Law School. While there he taught anHarvard wrote widely on law, politics, and philosophy. His book Knowledge and Politics called to me and inspired me to dream of the possibility of a better world. Unger was also the intellectual godfather of the school of critical legal studies. When I was studying law and philosophy with Austin Sarat in the 1980s, Unger was one of my intellectual heroes.

The premise of critical legal studies is that law and legal concepts like rights or constitutions are neither natural nor scientific, but expressly political. Unger sought a political-legal approach that permits the "loosening of the fixed order of society." If legal rights were once seen as objective and neutral, Unger sought to employ law as a tool to transform society. What is needed, he writes, is a "deviationist doctrine" that employs law to "disrupt established institutions and forms of social practice that have achieved the insulation and have encouraged the retrenchment of social hierarchy and division that the entire constitution wants to avoid."

In other words, rights and laws must be mobilized to upset outmoded institutions; what makes Unger different is that he is not an anarchist or opposed to law and government. On the contrary, he imagines his program a "superliberalism."

Tied to his legal work, Unger's general philosophy speaks the language of the imagination. Life, Unger affirms, is always fleeting, and yet is "always something higher than it was before." His work sought to "establish a new system of thought that sweeps away the difficulties" of the present. Against theoretical critiques that muster partial assaults on liberal ideas, Unger demands that we comprehend and replace the entirety of liberalism as a psychological, economic, and political system.  He thinks big and paints in broad strokes.

As ambitious as Unger is, he never loses himself in abstract theory. Thus it was not a surprise when he took leave from Harvard and became a minister of strategic affairs in Brazil. Serving under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Unger was styled a "minister of ideas." He described his role as transforming  “imagination into the possible.”

Unger is now back at Harvard Law School, but he is still engaged with politics. His mystique and renown are so great on the left in the U.S. that the fact that he had taught Barack Obama when the future was a Harvard Law student, lent imaginative left-wing credibility to the pragmatic Illinois Senator.

It thus came as a shock—to some—when a video by Unger flashed around the Internet last week, in which Unger calmly and yet mercilessly criticized President Obama. For the future of the United States, Unger argues, President Obama must be defeated. He says this starkly:

President Obama must be defeated in the coming election. He has failed to advance the progressive cause in the United States.

And he continues raising the stakes:

Unless [President Obama] is defeated, there cannot be a context for the reorientation of the Democratic party as the vehicle of a progressive alternative in the country.

Most on the left will ignore Unger's warning. That would be a mistake.

Unger argues that President Obama and the left (and also the right) have fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the current financial and political crisis. The left and the president see the crisis as a typical recession; their doctrinaire answer is Keynsianism, stimulus to get us over the hump and return the economy to health. But the truth is very different. Here is Unger's analysis:

The country stopped producing at competitive prices enough goods and services that the rest of the world wants.  It then tried to escape the consequences of this failure by living as if the failure had not occurred. It put a fake credit democracy in place of the property owning democracy that it turned into an ever more distant ideal. The government bribed, placated, and finally abandoned the people, instead of equipping them.

Governments at all levels in the United States and also in Europe and Japan have basically told their citizens that everything will be alright. They kept borrowing and spending to support an unsustainable standard of living without ever insisting that the money be used to make goods and services that other people actually would buy. The result is that we have an economic system that simply cannot continue without government stimulus in the form of debt.  And that cannot continue indefinitely.

In three lectures on Keynsianism, Unger argues that both right and left economists have adopted a vulgar Keynsianism, which holds that,

A crisis brought on by too much confidence, too much credit, and too much spending requires for a fix more confidence, more credit, and more spending.

In his critique of Keynsianism, Unger sounds a bit like Hunter Lewis who gave the keynote lecture to the Arendt Center's 2009 Conference on The Intellectual Origins of the Financial Crisis. In his talk, which will soon be published in September in the forthcoming volume of the same name, Lewis argued:

The policies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama have come directly out of Keynes’s playbook. Consequently they have that paradoxical, stand common sense on its head, flavor. For example, we are told that: The Crash of '08 was caused by too much debt. We will therefore solve it by adding more debt.

But where Lewis argues for a certain austerity, Unger's critique of Keynsianism leads in a different direction. What is needed is not mere stimulus, he argues, but massive institutional experiments in the widening of educational and economic opportunity.

The basic insight is simple. It is a mistake to think that Keynsian stimulus got us out of the Great Depression. Stimulus failed throughout the 1930s. What got us out of the Great Depression in the 1940s was a bold, broad-based, and massive deployment of resources in the association of governments with private producers to fight WWII.

The question Unger forces us to ask today is: How can we have a wartime economy without a war?

President Obama has not asked such a question. Instead, he has simplified his economic program into a vulgar Keynsian support for stimulus. In Unger's words, President Obama has done the following:

He has spent trillions of dollars to rescue the moneyed interests and left workers and homeowners to their own devices.

He has subordinated the broadening of economic and educational opportunity to the important but secondary issue of health care.

He has disguised his surrender with an empty appeal to tax justice.

He has delivered the politics of democracy to the rule of money.

He has reduced justice to charity.

His policy is financial confidence and food stamps.

He has evoked politics of handholding, but no one changes the world without a struggle.

Unless he is defeated, there cannot be a context for the reorientation of the Democratic party as the vehicle of a progressive alternative in the country.

This is a damning critique. While Unger admits that there will be costs and consequences for progressive from a Republican presidency, he calculates that those costs are worth the risk if they might lead to a truly innovative and bold rethinking of politics.

Outside the progressive and conservative calculus, what is important in Unger's message is his analysis of the cowardly approaches of both parties today as well as his call for a bold and new way forward. What Unger wants is to "broaden the gateways of access to the vanguards of innovative knowledge-based production." He argues that we must "disseminate advanced experimental productive practices among the small and medium sized business that form the backbone of the real economy." Above all, we must seek not just stimulus, but renewal.

In other words, what Unger is calling for is a President with vision and character to lead us to a new place. The way out of our crisis is neither stimulus nor austerity, but a war economy without a war, an economy driven by the collective pursuit of commonly agreed upon ideas and actions. Against the false debate between austerity and stimulus, what is needed is courage and risk, the willingness to aim high, and most importantly the preparedness to suffer and struggle in the collective effort to bring a new economy and a new nation into being.

Artist: Jacek Yerka

Such an effort to re-imagine and rebuild the nation requires a leader or leaders. It will not happen on its own through the consensus politics of Occupy Wall Street. Nor will it come from the cowardly austerity of the Tea Party or from the stand-pat conventionalism of liberal Keynsianism.

One wonders where real, unifying leaders might come from — leaders, in the words of David Foster Wallace, who “help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.” Such leaders seem unlikely to develop under the current system where candidates utter consultant-tested platitudes designed to offend no one. The question is: How can our overly cautious and hyper-critical age encourage the kind of bold action that Arendt saw was necessary in politics?

The Arendt Center's Fall 2012 Conference is titled "Does the  President Matter?" The title does not ask the conventional question: does it matter if a Republican or a Democrat is elected? Of course it matters, in some ways, and not in others.

Rather, the conference title is meant to provoke the Arendtian question: What would a human politics look like in the 21st century?

Hannah Arendt believed that freedom requires courage. Political leaders, she argued, are those who act in unexpected ways and whose actions are so surprising and yet meaningful as to inspire citizens to re-imagine a common purpose. Active leadership is unpredictable; since a leader inserts a new idea into the world, no one can predict or control how that idea will change the world. Leadership is therefore as risky as it is rare. For Arendt, freedom demands such leadership if life is to remain surprising, new, and human.

Leadership can of course be dangerous, but politics is, for Arendt, always a risky and uncertain endeavor. The great virtue of Robert Unger's recent call to turn away from President Obama's conventional politics is that he asks and challenges us to conceive and actualize a politics that is bold rather than cowardly. Given our current predicaments, that may be our only hope.

As the heat oppresses our bodies on this summer weekend, free your soul and spend 8 minutes watching Robert Mangabeira Unger's essay: Beyond Obama.  His video is your weekend "read."

-RB