mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Blue Civil War
The Battle of San Jose

Nestled in the heart of ultra-wealthy Silicon Valley, California’s third-largest city is burning. What a Washington Post report calls “gold-plated pensions” for public workers are devastating San Jose, creating public eyesores like shuttered libraries, deserted recreational centers, and streets desperately in need of repair. Mayor Chuck Reed (D), quoted by the WaPo below, identifies a problem we’ve warned about for a long time here at TAI: As the cost of the blue model puts pressure on state and municipal finances, Democrats can no longer honestly claim to represent both the public employee producers of government services and the people, especially low-income families, who rely on such services:

“This is one of the dichotomies of California: I am cutting services to my low- and moderate-income people . . . to pay really generous benefits for public employees who make a good living and have an even better retirement,” he said in an interview in his office overlooking downtown.

In San Jose and across the nation, state and local officials are increasingly confronting a vision of startling injustice: Poor and middle-class taxpayers — who often have no retirement savings — are paying higher taxes so public employees can retire in relative comfort.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see where the blue model is heading in the long run. The poor and middle-class are paying more in taxes even as services are being cut. And a growing portion of those tax dollars is going to fund pensions that pay out 90 percent of a public employee’s final salary level in retirement. According to the report, pension costs account for a full quarter of San Jose’s fiscal pie, quadruple what it did only ten years ago.

And we still can’t even call public employees the clear victors in this ugly contest. In San Jose, the number of current public employees has been cut by almost thirty percent. In other words, public employee union members are paying dues to secure benefits that could eventually force cities to fire them.

For this reason and others, the blue civil war is seeing many more Spotsylvanias than Gettysburgs: battles in which the bodies pile up quickly without any clear winner to show for it. Both public employees and poor residents are long-run losers in this system that union leaders and their allied legislators have imprudently designed. This is the case in Detroit and Chicago as much as it is in San Jose.

Make no mistake: the blue civil war is raging amongst the leadership ranks of the political class, every bit as much as it is at the level of individual citizens. Mayor Reed is fighting an uphill battle to ease constitutional restrictions on pension reform, measures which unions and some fellow Democrats vehemently oppose. A similar battle is being fought in Illinois, Rhode Island, and Chicago.

Is retirement security for public workers more important than social services for the poor? Are pensions and job security for teachers more important than a poor child’s access to a good education? These are the kinds of questions that will continue to pit Democratic legislators and voters against each other.

Features Icon
show comments
  • JohnOfEnfield

    We have the same issue in the UK. National debt us fast approaching 90% of GDP & forecast to go to 110-20%. There are virtually no final salary pensions in the private sector available to new hires but public sector staff get better salaries, final salary pensions completely inflation proofed. It doesn’t need very sophisticated computer models to work out where it will all end…..

  • Anthony

    “…union leaders and their allied legislators have imprudently designed.” Please, don’t excuse culpable municipal and state executives. Further and corollary to your posed questions is, why were shortsighted, opportunistic, and irresponsible policies condoned by a voting public (electorate electing and reelecting legislators, mayors, governors, union leadership, et al)?

  • Pete

    The mayors should run an aggressive public relations campaign on TV, etc. showing the damage public sector unions are doing.

    Am I say that the public sector unions should be demonized? Damn right.

    • qet

      This is just what Scott Walker did in Wisconsin, isn’t it? And even though he appears to have won, a lot of political blood was spilled. I don’t think any Democrat could survive such a battle. I think when such battles are waged, unions are generally successful at portraying the fight as one about the idea of unions rather than the economic realities of union-driven fiscal policy. That, and the fact that union thugs aren’t afraid to crack open a few skulls.

  • igoklany

    “…this system that union leaders and their allied legislators have imprudently designed.” [Emphasis added.]

    Not “imprudently designed” rather “cynically designed” — public employees vote in politicians supported by their unions, the politicians then vote all these lifetime benefits to the “public” employees even after they run out of other people’s money; meanwhile the general public wallows in “rational ignorance.” Crony capitalism smells sweet next to this scheme. Is this the inevitable result of democracy?

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service