Most current public pension and health care benefits were negotiated at a time when private sector pay and benefits were growing. In recent years many private sector employees have seen their pension and health benefits decline as companies went out of business or changed benefit arrangements. As a result, public employee retirement benefits now seem high in comparison to what is happening in the private sector.
If you feel that public employee retirement benefits should be cut, how should that happen? Should we change benefits for current employees retroactively (is this even legal except through negotiation?) or for new employees? If you favor reducing public employee retirement benefits, do you favor cutting Medicare and Social Security benefits for people who have paid into the system and planned for these promised benefits?
Or we could raise taxes to cover these promised benefits or adopt some combination of benefit cuts and tax increases.
These budget challenges are really social contract challenges. The social contract under which these promises were made no longer works in terms of budget arithmetic.
We need a new social contract about public employee retirement benefits and how they are paid for. We need a new social contract about Medicare and Medicaid benefits if health care cost savings do not solve the problem. Social Security choices are simpler but also reflect the need for a new social contract that reflects the new arithmetic of these programs.
My own opinion is that we can devise better solutions if this discussion proceeds with respect and in acknowledgement that existing arrangements reflect valid promises and social and legal contracts and treat this as a serious arithmetic challenge without blame or heated rhetoric.
Well, that's certainly a nice fantasy, that "without blame or heated rhetoric" part, at least. (The rest, not so much.) But historically, the blame and heated rhetoric are a big part of how we got here. Indeed, blame and heated rhetoric lie at the very core of the culture wars used to accomplish the transition from the economy of 1945-1973 to the economy of 1973-2007, and while it might be nice to fantasize about putting an end to them, it should be noted that Barack Obama has not put an end to the culture wars. Indeed, with figures like Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Joe "You Lie!" Wilson and the Teabaggers, the culture wars are pretty much the only thing the GOP and right wing generally has left. Obama himself appears to have no inkling what the culture wars are all about. He appears to believe they are an array of "social issues" that get in the way of solving our "real problems."
But to a very large extent, the culture wars are a war of constructed tribal identity, fronting for elite corporate interests, and their primary historical achievement has been to transform an economy of broadly-shared growth into one of stagnation and diminished prospects for the many. The various issues that are involved are far less significant in the long run than this overarching effect in terms of the upward redistribution of wealth, power, opportunity and possibility.
The anger that the rightwing culture warriors are feeding on is not going away--particularly not with combined under- and un-employment figures of between one in five and one in six. What's needed now is not for folks to just calm down. What's needed is for that anger to be turned against the prime beneficiaries of the culture wars, the elite 1% whose stranglehold on the economy leaves the rest of us scrambling for crumbs year after year, decade after decade.
Levy's call for a rational discussion is both more humane and more progressive than Obama's repeated hinted openness to the bipartisan catfood commission route, where all pain apportionment is done behind locked doors, by those who will feel none of it themselves. But the end result is likely to be much the same. Which is why civility is not the answer. Civility would be just fine, if accountability were for the wealthy and powerful and not just exclusively for the rest of us, along with more than our fair share of blame.
Rather than civilly adjusting our public expenditures to the private penury of the post-1973 world, we should be quite rudely fighting to restore--and even improve upon--the broad prosperity of the pre-1973 era. Nothing less than that deserves to be called "progressive." Nothing less than that deserves to be "justice." Nothing less than that deserves to be "humane." Nothing less than that should be our bottom line.