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I Have Come to Praise Squeezy the Pension Python, Not to Bury Him

Pat Quinn’s adorable serpentine representation of the state’s most critical fiscal issue has been lamented as half-assed and juvenile… but Squeezy’s a lot catchier than actuarial analysis, and more relevant to the problem than the recent constitutional amendment.

Squeezy the Pension Python

 

This weekend one of my friends was installed as a pastor. Getting installed is a big deal: you’re hired not just by a church, but by God. So a regional bishop was there, both to welcome the new pastor and to deliver a guest-star sermon. The reading was the Book of Mark, chapter 13: “And as he went out of the temple, one of his disciples saith unto him, Master, see what manner of stones and what buildings are here! And Jesus answering said unto him, Seest thou these great buildings? There shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.”

When he began talking about the temple, he pulled out a set of blocks, and stacked them up. When he got to the part about “there shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down,” he pulled out the bottom block, and they scattered across the table.

As it happens, my friend’s wife is also an M.Div, and was a pastor up until recently, and the sermon got on her nerves; she related how the bishop used props in every sermon she’d ever seen him deliver. Well-educated pastors have spent years poring over abstruse illuminations of ancient texts, so such prop pastoring has a reputation like Gallagher and Carrot Top have in standup comedy: easy, hokey, impure. Jonathan Edwards isn’t in the historical record as releasing a jar full of spiders on the altar.

But my friend made a good point: he remembered every sermon he’d heard the bishop give, because his props, at the very least, functioned as mnemonic devices; he had them filed in his brain as the “blocks sermon” or the “bracelet sermon.” It might be easier than writing a vivid, memorable mnemonic device (everyone who went to my wedding remembers my friend’s sermon, based around the “monkey-rope” chapter of Moby-Dick), but it works, and it works in the cheap seats. Heck, Jesus played to the cheap seats, what with the fishes and loaves, and the pigs running straightaway into the water, and whatnot.

Which brings me to Squeezy the Pension Python, the centerpiece of Pat Quinn’s effort for doing something (TBD) about the state’s pension crisis. Squeezy has not been well received:

After months of promising a major grass-roots effort to win public support for reforming the state’s government worker pension system, Gov. Pat Quinn on Sunday unveiled a plan that featured an incomplete online strategy, children wearing red plastic megaphones and an animated “Squeezy the Pension Python” mascot.

[snip]

The approach left some lawmakers questioning whether the governor demeaned the severity of one of the most pressing unresolved problems facing state government in Illinois. State Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, called Quinn’s strategy “juvenile.”

Well, sure. But Squeezy’s not only cute—ok, that might be a problem, I would have gone with Suffocatey the Pension-Underfunding Coral Snake—but he’s not actually a bad metaphor for a subject people don’t really understand and have no idea how to talk about. It would be swell if we could talk about discount rates and actuarial analysis and state employee headcount, but that hasn’t happened yet, and it’s abstruse and boring.

So: Squeezy. He’s what we get for our pension sins.

For example, here’s Rich Miller, responding to a Tribune editorial that lays the blame on Michael Madigan and Illinois Democrats for the pension disaster. From the Trib:

The Capitol he entered in 1971, like the state it governed, was muscular and robust. […]

Madigan’s reaction is to lament, as would a victim, the crises he helped cause — and has the influence to solve. At the federal level, the senatorial Gang of Eight works to avoid a fiscal cliff, and presidential candidates clash over debt. In Illinois, Madigan and his fellow leaders haven’t had significant talks about their pension debacle in months.

But as Miller points out, it’s a gross simplification of history. When Madigan came to Springfield, the state pensions were a disaster; in 1972, they were funded at 35 percent, the lowest level since 1968. From there, they actually climbed, in fits and starts, to 75 percent in 2000 (on the tailwind of a booming stock market). Then they collapsed, but they’re still better funded than in 1972. Unfortunately, they’re also way bigger now.

Pension funding has gone up and gone down, and we’ve paid them. The big problem isn’t bankruptcy or a doomsday scenario (another metaphor, worse than Squeezy, even if it sounds serious); it’s how the pensions crowd out the other functions of the state—education, infrastructure, and the vendors that don’t get paid when the state is deep in a hole. (Miller makes this point regularly, and it’s salient: when we don’t pay vendors, we’re essentially borrowing from them on a non-voluntary basis, which is cheaper than actually borrowing, but wrong.)

As pension costs increase, payment for past work allows less and less future work to be done. That’s Squeezy’s mission. Fixes to future pensions are all well and good, but they don’t address the current problem. Cracking down on pension double-dippers—the focus of much media attention—is a good idea on an ethical level and saves some money on the margins, but when the average state pension is around $25,000, it’s not a solution for the main problem.

Squeezy is juvenile. Jack Franks is right about that. But he also told the Trib that Quinn doesn’t have a pension reform plan. But that ain’t so, or at least he had one seven months ago:

Governor Pat Quinn today announced a bold plan that secures public workers’ retirement while fixing the state’s pension problem that has been created over decades of fiscal mismanagement. The proposal is expected to save taxpayers $65 to $85 billion based on current actuarial assumptions. The changes will lead to greater certainty in Illinois’ business climate, respond to concerns from ratings’ agencies regarding the state’s unfunded pension liability and support the continuation of the state’s capital plan that is putting hundreds of thousands of Illinois residents back to work. The Governor’s proposal follows weeks of discussion by the Governor’s pension working group.

That was April 20 of this year. The Trib even praised it. Franks, I guess, doesn’t remember it. But he’ll remember Squeezy.

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