The Reason Behind Pension Credulity
In his Sunday Providence Journal column, Ed Fitzpatrick reviews the passage of pension reform, and I have to say that he contributes to my surreal feeling of different realities based on different narratives:
Keep in mind that this isn’t Texas: This happened in Rhode Island, a deep-blue state where unions are considered a legendary force at the State House
Keep in mind that this happened under Governor Chafee, the Republican-turned-independent who ran with union backing and is seen by some as being just to the left of Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator who describes himself as a democratic socialist.
Keep in mind that this happened thanks to Gina M. Raimondo, a Democrat who had a top Laborers’ union official on her transition team. It happened thanks to a General Assembly dominated by Democrats; thanks to Gordon D. Fox, D-Providence, who became House speaker amid concerns that he’d be too liberal; and thanks to Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport, who has union officials on her leadership team.
Yet, in the end, it wasn’t even close.
Wouldn’t it be reasonable — no, obvious, obligatory — at least to wonder out loud whether there might be something more going on here than the advertisements and political speeches proclaim? I mean, not only does Paiva Weed have union officials on her leadership team, but they voted for the bill. Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio (D, North Providence, Providence), who exchanges nepotism jobs with his fellow high-paid union leaders, voted for this pension reform bill. Why does it feel like Anchor Rising is the only outlet in Rhode Island concerned that maybe, just maybe, there are some major catches built into this reform — perhaps so dramatic that the actual “reforms” were boards on a Trojan horse?
I think Fitzpatrick gives a piece of the answer when he subsequently writes:
In short, it was not like Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker engaged in a bitter battle with public employees, [Raimondo] said.
Others in the media have talked about how reform never would have happened with a Republican executive slate. I can’t help but wonder — as big government chokes on its weight and proves unable to repair itself nationwide, as the collapse of entitlement programs approaches inexorably, as treasured Democrat-left solutions to economic downturns prove ineffectual and (surprise!) prone to corruption, and as the great beacon of hope, President Obama, disappoints on a historic scale — if pension reform didn’t tap a deep need to believe that sitting down and negotiating in order to reach a result that benefits everybody is actually possible, provided a few technocratic figures show the resolve and leadership of demigods.
The Wisconsin comparison is telling for two reasons: First, Rhode Island’s pension reform is simply not sufficient to solve the problem, and apparently, it was soft enough to gain support even within the ranks of union leaders, leading one to believe that the payoff, for entrenched powers, will ultimately be greater than the surface sacrifices. Walker’s reform efforts were much more substantial and struck much more clearly at the heart of Wisconsin’s problems.
Second, a large part of Governor Walker’s difficulties can be explained by the act of several Democrats in fleeing the state and short-circuiting the legislative process. I don’t believe that Rhode Island Democrats are any less friendly to labor than Wisconsin Democrats, nor do I believe that they are any less capable of dramatic tactics to thwart reforms that they do not like. Rather, I’d suggest that the absence of anything but a few public performances and aggressive letters (leaked or otherwise) is evidence that the reform fell well short of where it should be.
Yes, the unions will sue, in part to prevent legislators in other states from getting the wrong idea about what happened in Rhode Island. Yes, they’ll make lots of noise about voting legislators out, mostly as a negotiation tactic to push their agenda through the next session of the General Assembly. But the snarl doesn’t reach their eyes. What we’ve seen in Rhode Island wasn’t the objective process of lawmaking as it should work; it was the variation of political theater performed when the powerful backers are ultimately getting what they want. Look to Wisconsin for the variation that one can expect when they aren’t.
But for the time being, it appears that the performance has been enough to reinforce belief that a blue vision for government can work. Sadly, even some who ought to know better have fallen for it, too.