Why is pension reform so often framed as a left-right issue?

A disheartening element of many policy debates is that they so often turn needlessly ideological. Such is the case with the issue of reforming public sector pensions.

We like to start from the premise that there is nothing inherently ideological about the need to ensure that governments keep their promises to their employees: that the money workers and taxpayers pour into pension funds will provide those workers with a secure retirement. On top of that is an implied promise to taxpayers: the money you invest in public workers’ pensions will not be sucked into a black hole of insolvency.

It shouldn’t devolve into a liberal vs. conservative political argument about privatization and profiteering on one side, or bloated government run amok on the other.

And yet that’s what happens, time after time. We begin to hear it from the extremes of both parties here in Colorado as legislation is being drafted to address Colorado PERA’s huge unfunded liability. And the ideological choruses are singing loudly on the national stage as well.

Take this recent article from In These Times, a left-wing Chicago-based newspaper that describes itself as “independent journalism based on progressive values.” The newspaper, while pretty far out there on the left edge of debates, has produced some first-rate journalism over the years, interspersed with screeds that are less than helpful.

The latter, unfortunately, is the case with this recent article. Rather than beginning from the premise that most policymakers and researchers involved in the pension debates come from a place of good intentions, the article falls back on the lazy shibboleth about greedy corporations and conservatives wanting to strip workers of their fundamental rights:

The Right doesn’t like (defined benefit) pensions for several reasons. The simplest is that they want to drive down wages and benefits of all types. Another is that these plans have been the fruits of hard-fought union organizing and bargaining, so attacking them is another way to attack unionization. And finally, they are bastions of public employee compensation. Attacking the plans is another way to attack the public sector.

This is just silly, as well as irresponsible. Author Max W. Sawicky provides not a scintilla of evidence to back the patently absurd claim that “the Right” (as if it’s some monolithic force) wants to drive down wages and benefits of all types. He’s just trying to rile up his readers, not enlighten them, or prompt them to think.

Equally absurd is the claim that questioning the sustainability of defined benefit pension plans is just a backdoor way of attacking unionization. Surely there are less complex ways to achieve that aim, if that’s, in fact, what “the Right” is doing.

And to top it all off, perhaps the most absurd assertion of the three: that pension reform is a anti-public-sector wolf in the reform costume of a sheep. Again, where is the evidence?

There’s plenty of more to take issue with in Sawicky’s article, as well as some more well-reasoned arguments. What’s discouraging though, is that in preaching to his choir, Sawicky is attempting to harden positions by appealing to emotion rather than reason, in these times (pun intended) when everyone seems to be doing the same.

It’s no way to resolve disagreements, or tackle thorny problems.

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