New Orleans, a city not famous for good governance, has one of the most generous — and worst funded — pension systems of any city in the country. According to an article in the Times-Picayune reporting on a study by the Bureau of Government Research, those enrolled in the particularly over-the-top fireman’s pension fund will receive benefits three times as generous as the national median.
Yes, the impoverished city guarantees its firefighters pensions that are 300 percent of the national median.
The cost to a city with atrocious schools, minimal public services, and staggering needs is outrageous: $1 out of every $9 in the city’s general operations spending goes to pay into the firefighters’ pension alone. The cost of the pension system as a whole works out to $861 per household, according to the study. Because New Orleans pension funds, like so many public sector pensions around the country which operate under rules that would put private pension executives in jail for fraud, habitually overstate their expected returns, contributions from the city have been rising sharply in recent years. This, of course, stretches the city’s budget and reduces funds for programs of benefit to, for example, poor and minority youth.
This is blue governance at work: a Ponzi system which ruthlessly rips off the unorganized and the unaware for the sake of stoking the incomes of powerful, plugged in constituencies. All too often the result is that the cities most urgently in need of funds to provide essential services to marginal and at-risk residents have nothing left in the kitty after the political bosses and the union leaders have collected their pounds of flesh.
Until the custodians of America’s moral outrage understand the role of blue politics in the conversion of so many of our cities into poverty traps and engage in the fight to clean up these political sewers, millions of children and other at-risk people will suffer blighted lives and stunted hopes.
The first Progressive movement got its start when people of goodwill were outraged at the way the elected representatives of the poor (Tammany Hall and its spiritual cousins across the land) were ripping the poor off. Those early Progressives understood that this wasn’t just a crime against the poor, despicable and outrageous as that is. It was treason against the country. America, then and now, needs strong and healthy cities. It needs for the children of immigrants and the children of the poor to have access to good schools. It needs economic development in the cities that provides honest jobs with decent incomes for young people who may otherwise turn to a life of crime.
The corrupt urban machines of the 19th century who enriched themselves and their cronies by stealing from the poor (and who fooled them with demagogic appeals based on ethnicity and identity) need to be attacked.
What America needs today is a neo-Progressive movement that seeks to modernize government, revive democracy, and fit the American people for life in a challenging new economy. That movement won’t adopt the same measures as the old Progressives (who had their share of problems and blind spots, to be sure), but it will have many of the same enemies, and its goals will be the same: a renewal of American democracy and opportunity under changing conditions.