The Pew Center on the States issued a study this week that sheds further light on our municipal pension problems, a political crisis with strong Arendtian overones. Where most studies have focused on the enormous problems faced by states, this one focuses on cities:
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 growing funding gulf, which the study estimated at more than $217 billion for the 61 cities in the study, raises worries about local finances at a time when states are also struggling to recover from the recession. Property-tax revenue dipped during the housing crisis, straining city finances amid a weak national economy.
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).
Also this week the NY Times ran a story about San Bernadino, one of three California cities to file for bankruptcy as a result of their pension obligations. It is a stark reminder of why we should care about public pensions:
Five months after San Bernardino filed for bankruptcy — the third California city to seek Chapter 9 protections in 2012 — residents here are confronting a transformed and more perilous city. After violent crime had dropped steadily for years, the homicide rate shot up more than 50 percent in 2012 as a shrinking police force struggled to keep order in a city long troubled by street gangs that have migrated from Los Angeles, 60 miles to the west. … “The parks department is shredded, the libraries similarly,” [the mayor] said. “My office is down to nobody. I’ve got literally no one left.”
A similar fate is befalling other California cities that are in bankruptcy:
Stockton, Calif., which filed for bankruptcy in June, has followed a similarly grim path into insolvency, logging more homicides last year than ever before. In Vallejo, Calif., which filed for bankruptcy in 2008, cuts left the police force a third smaller, and the city became a hub for prostitution.
As I have argued, the pension crisis is not arcane policy or economics. It is a crisis of politics and government. It came about because municipal and state governments offered irresponsible contracts to public employees. There is no way these contractually guaranteed pensions can be paid. By refusing to face up to this fact now, we are making the problem worse. The result will be the hollowing out of local government services across the country. Police forces will be decimated. Public libraries and fire stations will close. Parks will fall into disrepair. All in order to pay full pensions to retirees. This of course won’t happen. Cities will refuse to do it, as they have in California and elsewhere. The result will then be bankruptcy, which comes with its own tragedies.
For anyone who cares about government and wants government to succeed, the pension problem must be addressed, for it threatens not only economic disaster, but political cynicism beyond even today's wildest dreams. Across the country, teachers, policemen and firemen, not to mention civil service employees and others, will see their promised pensions shrink precipitously. Not only will this devastate retirement nest eggs for millions of people, it will fray the social contract—pitting young against old and taxpayers against public employees. This is already happening.
What is more, the pension crisis will likely further erode local control over our lives. As municipalities go bankrupt they turn to states. As states go bankrupt, they turn to the federal government. Bailouts come with strings and ever-increasing levels of bureaucracy. For those who understand that our federal system was designed to thwart the establishment of sovereignty by dispersing power through competing levels of governance, the pension crisis has the potential to radically disempower local governments and further the amassing of federal power already long underway.
There may not be pretty or easy solutions, but ignoring or denying the problem is no longer an option. It is time for those who care about government and freedom to engage the pension issue and insist to our legislators that we act to treat pensioners with respect but also preserve the power of local governments to support rich and vibrant political institutions.
The Wall Street Journal, The New York times, and Guernica—it seems everyone is excoriating John Roberts' opinion upholding the health insurance mandate in the Affordable Care Act. The WSJ calls the precedent Roberts set "grim." The Journal, in another editorial, writes that Roberts' decision is "is far more dangerous, and far more political, even than it first appeared last week." Roberts has, the WSJ argues, substituted "one unconstitutional expansion of government power [the commerce clause] for another [the taxing power]," and, in doing so, rearranged "the constitutional architecture of the U.S. political system."
In Guernica, Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, argues that "Closer inspection of the actual written opinion shows Roberts gave those who want to hem in Congress’s power everything they wanted." Torres-Spelliscy agrees with the WSJ that, in her words, Roberts "provided the blueprint for a radical rebalancing of powers among the three branches." But while the WSJ thinks Roberts is expanding governmental power, Torres-Spelliscy argues he is radically constricting it.
What both sides in this debate get right is that Roberts' opinion is deeply important and that it will likely change the way that the U.S. Federal Government interacts with citizens. That said, for those concerned with freedom within a constitutional government, as was Hannah Arendt, Roberts' opinion offers much to be excited about. It deserves greater and more serious consideration than it has so far been given.
Roberts' opinion begins with an eminently sensible manifesto for judicial restraint. Like his hero Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Roberts believes the Court should defer to Congress except in those cases where the legislation cannot be squared with the Constitution. The devil is always in the details of such a squaring, but at a time of ideological posturing, Roberts' opinion is a welcome read:
Our permissive reading of [Congress' enumerated powers] is explained in part by a general reticence to invalidate the acts of the Nation's elected leaders. "Proper respect for a co-ordinate branch of the government" requires that we strike down an Act of Congress only if "the lack of constitutional authority to pass [the] act in question is clearly demonstrated." Members of this Court are vested with the authority to interpret the law; we possess neither the expertise nor the prerogative to make policy judgment. those decision are entrusted to our Nation's elected leaders, who can be thrown out of office if the people disagree with them. It is not our job to protect the people from the consequences of their political choices.
Whatever one thinks of Roberts' actual legal opinion, the statesmanship he evinces is welcome. In the most politically sensitive case since Bush v. Gore, Roberts defused a potential explosion threatening to undermine the Supreme Court's legitimacy. As the Arendt Center's Bard colleague Walter Russell Mead writes, "in form and execution this was a decision that will reinforce the Court’s position in the country while, so far as I can see, avoiding the possibility of harm based on the faulty constitutional theories that the health care law’s backers put forward." The introductory pages of the Roberts opinion offer a balanced and at times inspired primer in Constitutional interpretation and U.S. Constitutional history.
Beyond the near pitch-perfect tone, Roberts' opinion offers much to be thankful for. It is one of the most legally important opinion the Court has handed down in decades. It seems worth making a few points.
1. Many have derided Roberts for considering the mandate payment a tax when the legislation called it penalty. Let's give him credit for speaking frankly. It really was a tax. The Congress simply didn't want to call it a tax for political reasons. The mandate is a payment required to be made to the Treasury, collected by the IRS, with no Criminal or Social Stigma of wrongdoing attached to it. Roberts did not have to call it a tax, but he did so on the principle of judicial restraint, interpreting the statute in a way most likely to maintain its constitutionality. That is the role of a Supreme Court in a constitutional republic.
The distinction Roberts employs to call the mandate a tax makes total sense. He says that a payment is a penalty when non-payment is considered a wrong. If you speed and pay a ticket, you have committed a misdemeanor. That is a penalty, not a tax. But when the payment is simply made without any claim that the action generating the payment is wrong, that is a tax. So, if you purchase cigarettes or a speed boat, you pay a special tax. It is your choice.
In the case of the mandate, the Affordable Care Act says that if you don't purchase insurance, you pay a certain amount to the treasury. That amount is less than you would normally pay for insurance in many circumstances. Thus the legislation expects and imagines people for whom the payment is lower than purchasing insurance to actually pay the payment rather than purchase insurance. This is evidence for Roberts that there is no stigma associated with the payment and that it really is functioning as a tax rather than as a penalty. There is no sense of a wrong. Despite what Congress said for political purposes, Roberts is on good grounds to call the mandate payment a tax.
2. Roberts blazes a new path on which the federal government can continue to regulate the actions of citizens. The Congress must now increasingly justify its regulatory initiatives by appeal to the power to tax rather than the power to regulate commerce. While this may seem merely a semantic distinction, it is not a meaningless difference. And this is the heart of the real importance of Roberts' opinion.
If the mandate payment had been upheld under the commerce clause (as Justice Ginsburg's dissent advocated), then the government would have been permitted to do anything it wanted or needed to do in order to achieve its ends of creating a health care system. For example, Congress could have simply required people to purchase health care. You may think that is what Congress did. But according to Roberts, such a requirement is no longer constitutional. Instead, what the Congress did was say: "You have a choice. You can buy health insurance or you can forego buying health insurance and pay a tax to support the health insurance market."
What is the difference? Under the commerce clause, the government can tell you what to do (buy insurance) and it can punish you if you do not do so. Under the taxing power, all the government can do is require people to pay money into the treasury. This is not a meaningless difference.
While the power to tax can be terrible and the power to tax is also in certain cases the power to destroy, this is not usually the case. When taxes are reasonable and not destructive, an individual charged with buying insurance or paying a tax can always choose to pay the tax and not buy insurance.
This is the emancipatory thrust of Roberts' opinion. By shifting the Congressional authorization from Commerce to Taxation, he has struck a surprising balance between freedom and the government's power to influence behavior. On the one hand, it is now significantly harder to justify congressional authority over individuals that will compel them to act in a certain way. On the other hand, Congress can pursue its ends by taxation rather than by regulation.
3. To make it clear just what it is that Roberts allowed, he offers an example that I think is helpful.
Suppose Congress enacted a statute providing that every taxpayer who owns a house without energy efficient windows must pay $50 to the IRS. The amount due is adjusted based on factors such as taxable income and joint filing status, and is paid along with the taxpayer’s income tax return. Those whose income is below the filing threshold need not pay. The required payment is not called a “tax,” a “penalty,” or anything else. No one would doubt that this law imposed a tax, and was within Congress’s power to tax. That conclusion should not change simply because Congress used the word “penalty” to describe the payment. Interpreting such a law to be a tax would hardly “[i]mpos[e] a tax through judicial legislation.”
Roberts is right here. The real reason to like his opinion is that by shifting the authorization from commerce to taxation, Roberts affirms the federal government's right to influence behavior but weakens the federal government's authority to compel citizen behavior. His argument is that it is more consistent with federal limits and the protection of freedom to allow the government to tax us then to regulate us.
There are still many unanswered questions here. It is unclear how impactful Roberts opinion will be in the future. But he has offered an alternative to the ever-expanding use of the commerce power to justify intrusive federal regulations, while still asserting that the federal government does have the power to motivate and behavior through its power to tax.
It is rare to read a Supreme Court opinion that is as surprising as it is thoughtful. It is also worth doing so. Robert's opinion is your weekend read.