Judge rules pensions can be cut in Detroit bankruptcy (Detroit Free Press)
One of the most infuriating aspects of the federal bailout of our nation’s biggest banks following the 2008 economic collapse was that so many of the executives, whose actions both within their banks and through the elected officials they basically had in their back pockets, were allowed to keep so much of the severance pay in their contracts. At a time when our economy was shedding jobs left and right, at a time when so many working-class and middle-class Americans affected by the collapse couldn’t even declare bankruptcy because of the pro-bank, anti-citizen legislation passed by Republicans just a few years earlier, the thought that these executives would keep millions upon millions of dollars — money that could have been used to keep families in their homes, or even just put food on their plates — made many Americans retch.
After President Obama took office, there was a loud call for him to stop this from happening, to snatch these executives’ golden parachutes away and use that money to help the Americans who, unlike these bankers, didn’t have millions of dollars of assets to live off of after they lost their jobs. Even in the middle of the “honeymoon period” after he first took office, though, Obama didn’t take forceful action. Even in the wake of a mass revolt, across the political spectrum, against these banks and their executives, Obama reminded us all that these severance packages were written into these executives’ employment contracts, and as distasteful as it was to him to give these executives all this money, especially when so many ordinary Americans were suffering, that fundamental idea that we were all taught as children, that it is important to keep the promises we make to others, still applied in this case.
At the time, I remember feeling that this was something I could live with — I’d never be happy about it, but I could live with it — as long as the precedent was kept, that when the possibility of cutting the retirement packages of the less fortunate came up, it would be shouted down as anathema to the same principle President Obama made clear at the start of his presidency: When you make a promise to pay someone, then you keep that promise.
What we have seen in Detroit today is the breaking of that promise. Retired government workers, whose pension benefits were so sacrosanct that they were enshrined in Michigan’s state constitution, are now fair game, as the unelected stooges Governor Snyder has given so much power to will now be able to make these people — most of them too old to go back into the workforce, many of them just barely surviving on what they were already making — pay for mistakes that they had nothing to do with.
At least with bank executives, there would have been an understandable reason to withhold their severance packages, to use that money to undo at least a little of the damage they wrought on the rest of us through their malfeasance. Even if they still had enough money to live a comfortable retirement, taking their severance packages away would have been at least a nominal punishment. What Governor Snyder and his cronies are doing to Michiganders is a real punishment, a punishment for what so many conservatives consider to be one of the greatest sins any American can commit: Voting for Democrats.
I wish I could say this was hyperbole, but when you look at today’s political landscape, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that the Republican party, since the heady days of their 1994 “revolution,” are acting in ways that are nothing short of vengeful. The post-09.11 false dichotomy of “you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists” still holds true for much of modern conservative America, and if anything, it’s tightened up even more with the Tea Party purges of moderate Republicans from office. Nowhere was this kind of blind vengeance more evident than at this time last year, when so many southern conservative Republicans, who’d begged for federal money to help their constituents recover from national disasters both before and after, did everything in their power to stop New Englanders devastated by Hurricane Sandy from getting the same kind of relief. Those northerners vote for Democrats, after all, including that “secret Muslim” President (remember, you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists), so they don’t deserve our help. Heck, maybe it’s God’s punishment on them for having so many gays up there, right?
Even if I was born and raised in Ohio, I still consider Michigan my home in a lot of ways, because both sides of my family are originally from the Jackson/Lansing area and much of my extended family still lives in various parts of the state. This isn’t just about Michigan, though, because there’s this thing called Social Security that so many of us have paid so much money into for a huge chunk of our lives, under the same principle that when we are too old or too injured to work, we will be taken care of, at least to some degree, by the money we’ve paid into the system. That money is the only reason why my mother, who is 68 years old and damn near blind, isn’t homeless right now, because of the payments she’s getting after she and my father paid into the system for nearly all their lives. Earlier this semester I asked some of my students, many of whom just entered the workforce, if they thought Social Security just wouldn’t be there for them when they retired, and so many students raised their hands that I couldn’t help but be depressed.
It is bad enough that so many politicians, both Republicans and Democrats (including President Obama), have spoken for so long about making cuts to so-called “entitlement programmes.” That this is being done in an age of soaring corporate profits, when so much of the tax money we give the government is funneled back to subsidies for corporations that are already incredibly popular, when so much of our social assistance goes to workers making poverty wages because their corporate bosses would rather “increase shareholder value” than help their workers actually be independent (let’s not forget Walmart holding a food drive for their own employees this past Thanksgiving), is nothing short of an outrage. Yes, some brave Democrats like Elizabeth Warren have finally mounted a counter-offencive to actually increase Social Security payments, but Republicans will fight that with every ounce of their being, because to accept increases in any social assistance programmes basically means admitting that the best way to grow an economy is from the bottom up, which would mean the trickle-down policies of Reagaonomics they’ve been been pushing for three decades now are just a colossal load of lies. (Hint: They are.) It used to be that Republicans would at least allow some temporary increases in these programmes during tough times, but even that is no longer allowed under the new Tea Party dogmas controlling so much of conservative America these days.
What happened in Detroit today is not just about breaking promises to some retired government workers. It is about the precedent it sets that would allow any government, whether at the local, state or national level, to take away the money they paid into a system that was promised to be returned to them in their later years, for any reason at all, and at any time. That is a precedent that cannot be allowed to stand, or it puts all but the most fortunate of Americans in grave peril.