It is difficult to read, watch or listen to the news without hearing that public employees are paid too much and get “lucrative” pensions and this is “bankrupting” your state, county or city. Public officials are “in bed” with “union bosses” and state and local government; taxpayer dollars are wasted to pay for people who don’t do much work but live the good life. “Reports” and “studies” confirm this.
People hear the same story over and over and over and over, seemingly coming from everywhere: public employees have it good, with extravagant pay and “lavish” or “plush” pensions, while taxpayers are taking it in the shorts. Public-employee pensions are “bankrupting” the state/county/city. “Unfunded liabilities” are “out of control” and it is time to do something about it before it is too late.
This is part of a broad, nationwide attack on public employees and their unions, and through them, on government and democracy itself.
A few weeks ago I wrote about the nature of this constant attack in a post, Conservatives Claim Unions Caused NY Snow Jam.
After the record-breaking snowstorm in New York in late-December, the media ran with a story claiming that the reason the snow was not cleared was because of a slowdown by unions. My post showed the progression of the story from one conservative outlet to another, until it reached the mass media. I wrote,
The right’s propaganda machine begins with a simple narrative, repeats it endlessly, and then ties current events to the narrative to drive the point home. The corporate/conservative right are currently working a narrative that public employees and their unions are the reason for state and local budget problems. This is repeated endlessly, and every current event that hits the news is then used to support the claim. This is how an untruth becomes “conventional wisdom.”
. . . The story claims the unions did this to protest budget cuts. Of course the obvious cause of the snow mess was that budget cuts caused the problem because there were not enough people employed to clear the snow.
The way the right’s “noise machine” works is that a story gets started somewhere and is amplified by the right-wing media machine that includes FOX, Limbaugh and scores more talk-radio hosts, blogs, newspapers and magazines. And in this case, of course the story is being spread by … FOX, Limbaugh and scores more talk-radio hosts, blogs, newspapers and magazines. The idea is to create enough “noise” that the mainstream press picks up the story.
It Was A Hoax
In fact, the recent “union snow slowdown” turned out to be a hoax. But it fit an ongoing narrative, so it was used to help drive the anti-public-employee-union point. And it was repeated endlessly, everywhere. Laura Flanders, writing at The Nation, Setting the Story Straight on Snow ‘Slowdown’.
The freshman councilman, who has Tea Party support, now says that workers “were subtly informed there was no need to rush” while clearing snow, rather than explicitly told to slow it down.
A Distraction From The Real Problems
These state pension reform campaigns across the country come at a time when so many states are in a terrible budget squeeze and are looking for solutions. This storyline diverts public attention from the real culprits. Of course, the obvious solution is to ask the wealthy to pay their fair share, and to cut back on tax breaks, subsidies and “incentive programs” for corporations. The campaign attempts to distract voters from the obvious and lead them to different conclusions, including:
1) Don’t raise state taxes, cut public employee pensions instead.
2) Public employee unions are strangling us and keeping the budget high.
The story also diverts the public from asking where all that pension money went. Right when people should be blaming the financial industry and the financial crisis they caused for state pension shortfalls, up come these studies and PR tactics blaming public employee pensions and unions.
The fact that this is happening in several states, from organizations linked in many ways, with similar language, similar tactics, quoting the same “studies”, from organizations with similar boards, etc. suggests this is a coordinated strategy, designed to have the appearance of popular uprising.
This is a brief look at one small part of a state “pension reform” campaign that is occurring in California.
Here is the smallest of examples of the daily barrage of the anti-public-employee campaign: two letters to editor on one day in a recent San Jose Mercury News.
Pension overhaul must be part of any tax deal
Labor groups such as Service Employees International Union and the California Labor Federation are threatening lawmakers who refuse to support a ballot initiative to raise or extend certain taxes with a negative ad campaign. They further warn that if new and higher taxes are not approved, K-12 education programs will face further cuts. I find it interesting how they move the focus of the debate from the real problem, public sector pension programs. These pension programs, not our present tax structure, are robbing our children of educational funds. All Californians, whether Democrat, Republican or independent, would be foolish to vote for any increase or new tax until public sector pensions are replaced with contributory 401(k) plans for new employees.
Big pensions help California? Really?
[A person’s] claim that “California public retirees put back $2 into the economy for every $1 they receive in pensions” should come as welcome news to taxpayers fuming over the state’s hundreds of billions of dollars of unfunded pension liabilities (Letters, Feb. 3). Beyond showing immense gratitude for this bountiful effect on our economy, taxpayers need to go further, and mandate that all public retirees be given a minimum pension of, say, $1 million annually. All this extra money sloshing around our economy will solve our woes in short order, and will have the added benefit of eliminating the need for public employees to “pension spike” their final year of employment.
Most newspapers around the country likely have similar letters on almost any given day.
A bigger example of the campaign, closer to its source, came in a January 18, 2011 LA times op-ed, Pension Reform or Else, that talks of “retirement scandals” in which a fire chief gets a $200,000 pension, and tuition increases that will go to cover “pension debt.” It also scares readers about huge pension obligations, attempting to make people think that public employees enjoy lucrative pensions while the rest of us receive very little.
A tip-off that helps us understand the agenda underlying this op-ed comes when the author declares: “Although the public employee union bosses will fight to retain them, financially unsustainable pension benefits must end.” Whenever you hear someone refer to “union bosses” you know something is going on under the surface. From the op-ed,
Taxpayers are often shocked to learn that they are paying 100% of the cost of pension and retiree healthcare benefits for many public employees. When employees must contribute their own money toward their retirement, they generally opt for benefits they can afford, and if workers are given the opportunity to opt out of retiree healthcare benefits, many will continue to work until they are covered by Medicare. Delaying retirement just five years would, on average, cut pension costs in half.
The author is identified as “Marcia Fritz … a certified public accountant and president of the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing pension reform in the state.” While Fritz’s organization is named “California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility” (CFFR) their website is actually named California Pension Reform.
CFFR’s Board of Directors, includes Jack Dean, Vice President.
Jack Dean’s name is on this page as a link. If you click the link it takes you to the website of an organization named Pension Tsunami, “a project of the California Public Policy Center.” From the website,
The oncoming wave of pension debt is even bigger than it seems. The purpose of this website is to provide an overview of the multiple pension crises that are about to drown America’s taxpayers. Our primary focus is on California, but we also track other states, corporate pensions, social security and international trends. PensionTsunami.com is a project of the California Public Policy Center.
Who Is CPPC?
So just what is this California Public Policy Center? From their website:
The mission of the California Public Policy Center is to promote the gathering of reliable and accurate information about the impact unions have on the local, state, and national level, to inform the public about such impact, and to carry on other charitable and educational activities associated with this goal, as allowed by law.
Ah, it’s about unions, not pensions. Aside from Pension Tsunami, CPPC also administers: UNIONWATCH
UnionWatch was established in 2010 as a project of the California Public Policy Center to conduct research and provide information resources to voters, members of the press, educators and policymakers on the impact of unions on government budgets, government accountability, the economy and the democratic process. While UnionWatch endeavors to report and analyze national and international impacts of unions, the emphasis is on the impact of public sector unions, especially in California.
Interestingly, the site declares that “UnionWatch is a Nonpartisan Effort.” We’ll see.
The CPPC Board of Directors includes Mark W. Bucher, Esq., who also founded the Education Alliance,
a group dedicated to assisting school board candidates who are independent of education unions, as well as authoring, qualifying, and chairing the 1998 Proposition 226, which would have required unions to receive permission to use their members’ dues for political purposes.
Bucher also oversaw the qualification of the 2000 Proposition 38, a school choice initiative, and currently serves as the treasurer of the Orange County Republican Party and the Orange County Lincoln Club.
A bit of time on The Google also finds that Bucher is on the Board of Family Action Pac which launched an anti-union ballot initiative: Here is the summary, which provides a pretty good description of what this initiative will accomplish, if passed:
Makes Illegal the Use of Public Employee Wage Deductions for Political Activities.
Amends the California Constitution to make it illegal to deduct from wages or earnings of a public employee any amount that will be used for political activities as defined. Prohibits any membership organization that receives public employee wage deductions from using those funds for any political activities …
Also on the Board is Robert W. Loewen, President of the Republican Lincoln Club of Orange County author/editor of “The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader”.
Anti-union, vouchers, Republican Party and neo-confederates. And just three guys. Where does pension reform fit in this mix? Pension Tsunami and UnionWatch — according to the website this is all the California Public Policy Center does. Not a lot of “public policy” going on at this “public policy center.” Interesting.
Exploring further, one group of links at the Pension Tsunami website is a list of “think tanks” they want readers to visit:
PensionTsumani: THINK TANKS
Exploring The Links
It is worth exploring some of these related “Public Policy Institutes.” Let’s pull some threads and see what we find.
The Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, in Kentucky, describes itself as a “free-market think tank.”
The Bluegrass Institute runs Freedom Kentucky which has a section on Public Pensions where you can find into “related to pension reform, Pension Reform Legislation, the teachers retirement system, and much more…”
The Calvert Institute (for Public Policy) is in Maryland, describing itself as a, “public policy research institution committed to generating new ideas based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government and personal responsibility.”
Just a few things from their website:
G. Liebmann, “Pensions Dig Us Deeper into Debt”, Baltimore Examiner, 2008-09-28
Editorial, Pair of Think Tanks Issue Warning on Pensions, Baltimore Sun, 2008-10-30
J. Malarkey, Market Worsens Public Pension Crunch, Baltimore Examiner, 2008-10-31
Hit and Run Politics: Baltimore City and Maryland State Pensions: A Short History, George W. Liebmann 2010-09-30
The Cato Institute, “dedicated to the principles of individual liberty, limited government, free markets and peace,” warns regularly about The Increasing Burden of Government Employees on Taxpayers and Public Sector Unions and the Rising Costs of Employee Compensation.
The Claremont Institute says public employees are Neither Civil Nor Servants:
Will a deep recession, mounting fiscal crises, and new revelations of gross abuse finally lead citizens to say “Enough!” to unionized public employees who have amassed power and benefits at the expense of the common good?
The Commonwealth Foundation, in Pennsylvania. Their website says they work to, “demonstrate the societal benefits of individual liberty, free enterprise, and limited, accountable government so that key decision makers in Pennsylvania embrace them.”
The Commonwealth Foundation discusses Union Pension Bailout&Generational Theft and warns that “Pennsylvania’s largest public pension plans … are severely underfunded.”
Commonwealth Foundation Directors:
Board Chair Michael W. Gleba.
Treasurer of The Carthage Foundation (Scaife)
Executive Vice President of The Sarah Scaife Foundation
Board Member, Allegheny Institute for Public Policy
Mr. Matthew J. Brouillette (President & CEO):
On an advisory committee for the New York City-based Atlantic Legal Foundation.
T. William Boxx is the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the Phillip M. McKenna Foundation.
Frederick W. Anton III, Pma Capital Corp
Glen Meakem | Conservative Talk Show Host
Charles F. Mitchell is Vice President and COO of the Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives. … Previously, he was a program officer at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and an intern at the Heritage Foundation. Charles is a graduate of the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation’s Associate Program, the Mackinac Center’s Leadership Conference, and the Claremont Institute’s Publius Fellows Program.
The Empire Center for New York State Policy is a project of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. The Empire Center warns that “New York’s Exploding Pension Costs” are “threatening to divert scarce resources from other essential public services in the midst of a fiscal crisis.”
Empire’s parent, the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research is “shaping American political culture and developing ideas that foster economic choice and individual responsibility.” If you visit Manhattan Institute you will learn How Public Unions Took Taxpayers Hostage, that Public Workers Feel No Pain In Recession, N.Y. Public Workers Thrived Amid Misery, Obama Puts Public Sector Employees Ahead of Private Sector, A Cautionary Tale About California’s Budget-Busting Public-Sector Unions and much, much more!
Chairman of the Board Paul E. Singer, founder and CEO of hedge fund Elliott Management Corporation.
Vice Chairman Michael J. Fedak. On National Council of The American Enterprise Institute (which asks Public-Pension Deficits: How Big? Can They Ever Be Paid?)
Roger Hertog, chairman of the board of Alliance Captial Management Corporation (valued at about $100 billion)
Charles H. Brunie, also a Trustee of the Hudson Institute, an “organization dedicated to innovative research and analysis that promotes global security, prosperity, and freedom.” (Note: The Hudson Institute warns about Union Pensions at Risk as well as Decrying the Union Pension Bailout Bill.)
Charles H. Brunie started Oppenheimer Capital in 1969
The rest of the board is largely hedge fund, capital management, securities, etc…
The Heartland Institute, “free-market solutions to social and economic problems,” offers a handy guide to The State Public Pension Crisis: A 50-State Report Card.
The Illinois Policy Institute is “dedicated to supporting free market principles and liberty-based public policy initiatives for a better Illinois.” The IPI warns us that “Illinois faces a staggering $83 billion in unfunded public pension liabilities” and their blog wants to know “Will You Bail Out Pensions?”
Bill Becker co-founded The Maine Heritage Policy Center, an “organization whose mission is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise; limited, constitutional government; individual freedom; and traditional American values-all for the purpose of providing public policy solutions that benefit the people of Maine.” (Note: the Maine Heritage Policy Center warns us about “The Cost of Doing Nothing: Maine’s Pension Payments are Crowding Out Other Spending.”
Steve Brown of Code Hennessy & Simmons (“CHS”), a Chicago-based private equity firm.
Terry T. Campo served as National Chairman of the Young Republicans from 1989 to 1991.
John Tillman, CEO serves on the boards of the Sam Adams Alliance and Sam Adams Foundation. Prior to his time with Sam Adams, he served as president and director of Americans for Limited Government. (ALG Urges Congress to Reject $100 Billion Handout to Public Employee Unions.)
Dick Weiss is a Core Equity senior portfolio manager at Wells Capital Management.
The Free Enterprise Nation too a Pension road trip: From Montana to Prichard, Alabama
The Yankee Institute is a “free market think tank” in Connecticut with a financial-services-industry-heavy board that warns that the $100K Pensions Club Includes 299 State Retirees. (FYI it is largely university chancellors, deans, professors, med school instructors.)
“Government workers receive compensation and benefit packages that are much more generous than those available to private sector workers,” said Fergus Cullen, Executive Director of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy.
The Pacific Research Institute has a mission to “champion freedom, opportunity, and personal responsibility for all individuals by advancing free-market policy solutions.”
The Director of PRI’s Journalism Center wrote a book called, “Plunder: How Public Employee Unions are Raiding Treasuries, Controlling our Lives and Bankrupting the Nation.”
RetirementReform.org Clicks through to National Center for Pollicy Analysis page on Common Sense Retirement Policy which advocates “reform” for Social Security. But never fear, NCPA elsewhere warns about “Unfunded Liabilities of State and Local Government Employee Retirement Benefit Plans” and says PUBLIC EMPLOYEE PENSIONS ARE A TICKING TIME BOMB
NCPA’s Board includes a number of people from the financial industry, private equity, holding companies, etc.
The Rio Grande Foundation “is a research institute dedicated to increasing liberty and prosperity for all of New Mexico’s citizens. We do this by informing New Mexicans of the importance of individual freedom, limited government, and economic opportunity.” They warn, New Mexico’s Government Pension Problem: 3rd Worst in the Nation.
Cookie-Cutter Think Tanks
This is all from pulling the threads just a little bit that come from just one op-ed on pension reform. I didn’t go into the funding of these organizations or look at what else they are doing, other associations, etc. These are just a few of the network of conservative “institutes,” etc. around the country. Just a very few. (Here is a list of 185 organizations purporting to be conservative state think tanks, a list of 40 conservative national organizations with state networks and a list of 306 organizations purporting to be conservative national think tanks and 65 conservative “family policy” organizations. There are other lists with other criteria.)
As you follow these threads you discover layer upon layer of corporate/conservative front groups, masking their activities and funders with more layers of front groups. They all have similar mission statements, have similar people on their Boards with similar backgrounds, cover the same issues the same way, and even use remarkably similar language. They seem to be not just connected but interconnected. The sheer number of these similar “think tanks” make it appear that there must be a machine somewhere that stamps these things from a template. That machine is named “Scaife/Coors/Koch…” (Please read also and spend some time here.)
These corporate/conservative organizations are very good at manipulating the media and public opinion — it is their purpose. Their “experts” are well paid and always available to talk to reporters, appear on TV and radio shows and write articles and opinion pieces for newspapers, blogs and for their network of similar organizations. Their “reports’ and “studies” reach the conclusions that fit the strategy, and are crafted to sound just right. And there are so many of them!
The result is development of “conventional wisdom” about what is going on in our society. This is why that conventional wisdom more and more reflects the corporate/conservative line. And right now the corporate conservative line is that we should think that public employees and their unions are responsible for state and local budget shortfalls.
Part II looks at some of the “studies” and “reports” and pulls more threads.