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.


The Pension Crisis in Cities

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 Occupy Movement – Visualizing Change

Occupy Wall Street is, on one important level, a movement of signs. I mean this quite literally. Handmade signs with witty epigrams, pithy epithets, and heartfelt emotions took root in Zuccotti Park and blossomed on the web. The signs are not simply the old-fashioned placards of protests past. Rather, the signs proliferated in large measure specifically so they could be photographed, uploaded, and disseminated on the World Wide Web. In many ways, Occupy Wall Street communicated its message through photographs of signs.

Pictures of signs, like the one below, tell human stories of average, hard-working Americans who have been upended by the Great Recession.

In the war of signs, pictures of military veterans occupy a privileged role. The military protester shows, in an image, that the anger, despair, and hope that the Occupy Movement represents is not limited to entitled young hipsters. The signs were, quite often, expressions of the average American, the soldier and the homeowner, who had been devastated by economic hardship. The implication is that these individuals lived honorably, played by the rules, and are suddenly in dire straits as a result of a financial crisis.

I first encountered one such iconic picture on Facebook. It shows an older man telling a sad story. This cheerful, gray-haired, bespectacled Navy Veteran and schoolteacher clad in his oxford shirt neatly pressed under a burgundy sweater is undoubtedly one of the poster-children of Occupy Wall Street. His story is common and sad. He has served his country and taught our children. And now his pension doesn’t allow him the means to live with dignity.

Older individuals, like soldiers and children, hold a special place in the iconography of the Occupy Movement. They bespeak a kind of innocence and vulnerability. They are hard working and have paid their dues. All they want is what is fair and right. As a Navy veteran and a teacher, this man’s simple sign expresses American ideals, and their betrayal. He did the right thing and hoped for a comfortable retirement in his own home, with annual vacations and visits to the grandchildren. Is this too much to hope for? The claim here is, he followed the rules and he got steamrolled.

Not long after this sign and thousands of others like it zipped around the web on Tumblr and Facebook, another sign appeared, as if to answer this veteran’s lament and other sad stories of foreclosed homeowners and indebted students. This sign claims to be from a student (not pictured and thus questionable), but one who played by the rules in another sense.

I wrote more about these signs here and here. Both signs appeal to a basic ideal of fairness. But fairness means different things to each. The first sign sees fairness as a kind of social contract. If I work hard and play by the rules, I should be guaranteed a certain standard of living and insured against catastrophe.  Especially when the well off in society, those whose freedoms I fought for and whose children I taught, were bailed out by my tax dollars.

The second announces a different view of fairness as individual responsibility. Life is not fair and no one should expect a handout. Playing by the rules means living within your means, not taking out mortgages you can’t afford or student loans that will saddle you with debt. Working hard is not enough, but you must also be thrifty and responsible. If you do decide to take risks or live beyond your means, that is your choice, but don’t expect me to feel sorry for you if you fail.

The argument between two notions of responsibility that these competing signs take up is an important one. It goes to the heart of our ideas of personal responsibility, individualism, community, entitlement, and empathy. I have written at length about Occupy Wall Street here and here. But what does it mean that this conversation about who we are and what our country should be is happening through pictures of signs on the Internet?

Occupy Wall Street began with an image, created and disseminated by Adbusters, a Canadian media and anti-advertising group. A charging bull, iconic to the world of finance, gracefully ridden by a female dancer, in front of a surging crowd wearing gas masks and brandishing batons. Smoke fills the air. It is  an image of revolution; but what does the revolution call for? Dance? The power of grace and beauty over brawn? Escape from unrestrained capitalism and a return to more spiritual values?

Undoubtedly the victory of the gracefulness of spirit over the aggression of calculation is one metaphorical text of the image. So too is the power of the people; the mob, which rages behind both the ballerina and the bull. Unresolved is whether the mob stands with the ballerina or the bull, or whether its fury threatens both.

The image of the ballerina and the bull is a political call, but one issued through images and metaphors. Our economy and our politics are like the bull—uncontrolled, wild, and in need of a spiritual master. Such metaphorical thinking is at the very root of both political and metaphysical thinking for it carries over the thinking of everyday reality into a higher and more truthful state. A metaphor—literally a carrying over as its Greek etymology suggests—elevates thinking from the mundane to the speculative, and thus energizes everyday thinking through the power of ideas.

Immanuel Kant once described a despotic state as a “mere machine”—a hand grinder—because both are governed by an absolute individual will that can make mince meat of the individuals under their grip. Kant offered the hand grinder as an example of a successful metaphor—an image that shows a “perfect resemblance of two relations between two totally dissimilar things.”

Hannah Arendt discusses Kant’s use of the metaphor in her book The Life of the Mind. She quotes there as well from Ernest Fenollosa, in an essay originally published by Ezra Pound:

Metaphor is  … the very substance of poetry”; without it, “there would have been no bridge whereby to cross from the minor truth of the seen to the major truth of the unseen.”

For Arendt thought images are unavoidable in thinking and speaking, for we cannot approach any concept or idea without in some way employing an analogy or metaphor from our lived and daily experience. We have no entry into the temple of truth except through the passageways of metaphor and symbolic thought. We cannot even recognize a dog as a dog or God as God without an idea or concept of “dog” or of “God” that themselves are metaphorical or analogical ideas taken from our experience of the world. Friendship, too, Arendt writes, must originally be thought in images and metaphors, as the Chinese do for whom the character for friendship shows an image of two united hands.

As Arendt writes:

[The Chinese] think in images and not in words. And this thinking in images always remains “concrete” and cannot be discursive, traveling through an ordered train of thought, nor can it give account of itself (logon didonai); the answer to the typically Socratic question ‘What is friendship?’ is visibly present and evident in the emblem of two united hands, and “the emblem liberates a whole stream of pictorial representations” through plausible associations by which images are joined together.

Arendt’s point is that Chinese and other pictorial languages offer direct version of the kinds of metaphorical thinking that must attend to all languages, even purely alphabetical languages like those in the West. Even our language depends upon the images and analogies of metaphors to carry our thought beyond the everyday to the deeper level of significance and meaning, on which both philosophy and politics might build a publicly accessible and shared common world.

That thinking happens in images is, Arendt writes, “fascinating and disquieting.” It is disquieting because it puts into question the priority of language and reason that so defines the tradition of Western thought—the demand for rational justification in philosophy and politics that is so central to the rationalist foundations of modern society in a scientific age. For rational justification can happen only in words whereas higher truths are accessible only through metaphors and images.

The priority of images over words is the reason that Arendt remains one of the most poetic thinkers in the modern canon.  She is uniquely aware throughout all her writing that

“poetry,” when read aloud, “will affect the hearer optically; he will not stick to the word he hears but to the sign he remembers and with it to the sights to which the sign clearly points.”

I spoke about this coincidence of thinking, seeing, and acting with the great dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones in 2010. For Bill T., the effort in his dance “Floating the Tongue” is to enact the process of taking something invisible and internal and bringing it to appear on the stage and in the world.  In Arendt’s words, the effort of poetic language must be to bridge “the gulf between the realm of the invisible and the world of appearances.”

Political thinking, too, has much to learn from poetry and metaphor. “Politics,” writes Hannah Arendt, “deals with the coexistence and association of different men.” As we live with others, we human beings aim at freedom—the freedom to be an individual and also the freedom to build a common world together. For Arendt, politics is the activity through which a plurality of human beings constitute themselves as a people, a unity of differences. The political actor is he or she who acts and speaks in such a way as to show the different people around him the common truths that bind them together as a people. It is because politics must employ metaphors and images that build a foundation for a new and public space for freedom to flourish that politics also demands a public space where citizens can meet, speak, and act in public.

A great virtue of the Occupy Wall Street and also the Tea Party movements have been the return of signs, images, and symbols to political discourse. Even the written text on the signs that now carom around the web can only be read within the images that  provide their poetry; images of the rich and poor, elderly and young, military and civilian. Politics, it seems, is leaving behind the rationalist fantasy that if we just all talk about the issues, we will come to some kind of sensible agreement.

For this reason, the Hannah Arendt Center has partnered with Visualize Conversation in an experiment; to ask how and in what ways political images can spur a public discussion.  We have created a new kind of website, Visualize Conversation , dedicated to the visual images that are defining the political world. The site is being launched around the images that have come to characterize the Occupy Movement. Soon, we will begin to focus on imagery that relates to the 2012 Presidential election as well as other national issues.

On this website you are invited to respond to these images with both words and other images, to share the images, and to debate about them with others. It may be fun, but it is also, in part, an opportunity to think about and create the images and metaphors that very well might engage and re-enliven our politics.

-Roger Berkowitz