Imagine for a moment that two premises are beyond serious debate: (1) That there will be another financial crisis within the next five years that will equal or exceed the severity of the one experienced in 2009, and (2) That the political power of public safety unions will prevent local governments from enacting pension reforms sufficient to avert a financial disaster when and if the next financial crisis hits.
What will these public safety unions do?
It’s distressingly easy for politicians to dismiss both of these premises, but since for the moment we’re not, imagine the following: Major European banks have declared insolvency because their debtors have all defaulted on payments, the Chinese stock market has collapsed because their export markets are shrinking instead of growing, and the deflationary contagion reaches American shores. Across the nation, speculative buying is replaced by panic selling. Housing prices fall, defaults accumulate, and the pension funds lose half their value overnight. In a cascading cycle reminiscent of 1929, deflation sweeps the global economy.
Meanwhile, pension reform has been limited to incremental adjustments to the pension benefits for new employees. Millions of retirees and active public safety workers still expect pensions that are roughly equivalent to the amount they made at the peak of their careers. But the money won’t be there.
How will public safety unions use their political power to address this challenge?
If the present is any indication, the solutions won’t be pretty. In San Jose and San Diego, public safety unions lead the charge to roll back local pension reforms enacted by voters. In counties across California, public safety unions lead the charge to undermine in court the reforms enacted by the State Legislature in the Public Employee Retirement Act of 2014. That’s all fine while the economic bubble continues to inflate. But what do we do when it pops? What do we do when there’s no money?
When challenging public safety unions to exercise their political power to advocate on issues other than law and order or their own compensation and benefits, a reasonable response is that public safety unions, like any government union, shouldn’t be involved in politics. The problem with that response is that they already are. Government unions, and their partners in the financial community, are a major cause of the economic bubble we’re experiencing. Their insatiable appetite for high returns, 7% or more, compels the financial engineering that creates unsustainable economic growth. When the crash comes, government unions will blame “Wall Street.” But in reality, they will share the blame, because they didn’t want to admit that their pension benefits relied on unsustainable rates of economic growth.
If there is another economic crash, public safety unions will face a choice. They can use their political power to strip away every remaining service that local government performs that isn’t related to public safety, raise taxes, and support “fees” on everything from green lawns to vehicle miles driven. They can support the creation of an authoritarian, oppressive state, raising revenue through rationing and regulating our water, energy, land use, home improvement, etc., at levels that make today’s annoying excesses seem trivial. They can hide behind environmentalism and egalitarianism to tax the last bits of vitality and freedom out of ordinary productive citizens. They can even hide behind faux libertarian ethics to charge exorbitant fees for rescue services, or profit from draconian applications of asset forfeiture laws. If they do this, it may be enough for them. But the price on society will be hideous.
There is an alternative.
Public safety unions can recognize that sustainable economic growth occurs when people have fewer impediments to running their private businesses. They can recognize that large corporations use regulations to eliminate their smaller competitors, and that excessive regulations of land, energy and water are the reasons that California has such a high cost of living. They can recognize that competitive resource development and cost-effective infrastructure development can only be achieved when the environmentalist lobby and their allies – the corporate and financial elites – are confronted and forced to accept less crippling restrictions.
Better yet, public safety unions can begin to recognize these political precepts NOW, before the financial apocalypse. Along with hopefully accepting more pension reforms instead of always fighting them, these unions can also protect their members’ futures by fighting for economic reform and more rational environmentalist restrictions. The sooner these reforms are adopted at the state and local level, the more resilient our economy will be when the economic implosion occurs. If pension benefit cuts are inevitable, because the money isn’t there anymore, with economic and environmentalist reforms the cost-of-living will also be cut.
America’s excessive public employee pension benefits have created a four trillion dollar monster, pension funds ravaging the world in search of high returns during the late stages of a credit expansion that has granted present growth at the expense of future growth. The day of reckoning is coming. Public safety unions can help prepare, for their own sake as well as for the sake of the citizens they are sworn to protect.
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Ed Ring is the president of the California Policy Center.