Then They Came for the Pensions

Then They Came for the Pensions

Alter-reviews of French movies and some new tunes, Reed explains the secret war on pensions, and the mail.


I’ve got a new Think Again called “Where’s the Real Newt?” here.

And I did a piece on the new, fun, spate of celebrity anti-Semitism for the Daily Beast here.


This week is the beginning of the annual “Rendezvous With French Cinema” at the Film Society at Lincoln Center. It’s a great schedule, from what I’ve seen so far. The schedule is here. My favorite film so far, is (by far) Hands Up, directed by Romain Goupil, about a group of young French school children who protect their Chechen friend from deportation. It moved me to tears. Antony Cordier’s Happy Few is amazingly erotic and also intelligent, and I liked Claude LeLouche’s touching look back at his career, What Love May Bring.

A few years ago, the society writer and critic Rex Reed was arrested in Tower Records on the Upper West Side (now defunct) with a few cds in his pocket. Of the two possibilities, that Reed was a petty thief, or as he said, he planned to pay for them and forgot, most people, including myself, believed Reed’s story. He forgot. Like most of us, Reed, born in 1938, does not have the memory he once had.

I thought about Reed’s memory loss when I read his foolish, snobbish review of Maude Maggart’s new show at the Oak Room at the Algonguin.

I wasn’t going to go to the show this year, owing to time constraints, but Reed’s review pissed me off. I wondered if maybe something had gone wrong this time, though, fortunately, the far more perspicacious Stephen Holden could have taught the fading Mr. Reed a few things with his much more sensitive and intelligent review in the Times. Maude had her hair up and she was a little less scholarly than usual—though the songs required a lot of research; they cover literally a hundred years of composition. Anyway, she sounded as wonderful as ever; the word “ethereal” was invented for this woman, for her voice, for her looks and for her intelligence and charm. Read all about her here and go see her sometime at the Algonguin if you can afford it. She’ll be there through next weekend.

Raul Malo appears to be on a never-ending tour on behalf of his self-produced, home-studio-ed Tex-o-centric new album Sinners & Saints on Fantasy Records. He did three sold-out shows at City Winery. The Texafied sound came from Malo’s decision to bring the songs he recorded to Ray Benson’s Bismeaux Studios and finished the record with Augie Meyers on the Vox Continental organ and guitarist Shawn Sahm, (son of Sir Douglas) and background vocals by The Trishas (Savannah Welch, Kelley Mickwee, Liz Foster and Jamie Wilson). Thing is, Malo’s voice is pretty much unsurpassed in contemporary music. There’s not a richer, more beautiful instrument anywhere when he’s focused. Sometimes he just likes to have fun. This was one of those nights and Malo sang a bunch of songs which I knew the lyrics to better than he did. (Hey Raul: The second verse goes: “I smoke old stogies I have found. Short, but not too big around….”) And nobody was complaining, except the guy at the bar from “the west Texas town of El Paso” whose feelings got a little hurt. I’ve been lucky enough to see Raul three times this year, but this time, the revelation of the shows at City Winery was hotshot accordionist Michael Guerra, who was frequently showcased throughout the show and gave it a spirit of virtuosity that was new to Malo’s post-Mavericks’ career. Anyway, he did a more spirited version of “Gunatanamera” the night I saw him with his mom there, at the beach this summer, but you really can’t have a bad time at a Raul Malo show and I sure didn’t.

Sony Legacy has done a nice new re-release of a Legacy Edition of Elvis’s first album of all-new material following his release from the Army, Elvis Is Back! It might be his best single album, though of course without the historical significance of his mid-fifties stuff. He sounds great, his voice is mature and the arrangements are solid without being schmaltzy. It is released in this edition combined with his next (secular) album Something For Everybody which is not quite as good, but still pretty damn good. The guy had a few good years left in him and this is the best of them. Nice packaging too.

I have also been listening to the Nonesuch re-release of Nixon in China. John Adams, who wrote the music, called it "part epic, part satire, part parody of political posturing, and part serious examination of historical, philosophical, and even gender issues." I am a philistine as regards opera, but this one is both serious and fun, and I love what he does with Henry Kissinger. Anyway, I’m no one to judge but the Boston Globe called the Grammy-winning 1987 work "a milestone in American operatic history." This first recording, featuring the original cast, says Los Angeles Times music critic Mark Swed, "has an eloquence not since matched, with terrific packaging" and some really useful liner notes.

Also on Nonesuch is Brad Mehldau’s second collection of live solo recordings, following Live In Toyko, called Live in Marciac, a two CD/one DVD set. There’s no doubt of Mehldau’s talent both as a composer and a pianist, but two CDs is a lot of solo piano by pretty much anyone but Art Tatum. I want to hear these songs with a band, but maybe you’re better than I am, and will be able to appreciate this, over my head as it may be. It’s a great set list though.

And speaking of great setlists, the superman, Jack White has done a fine job in his effort to give the world another look at the rock pioneer, Wanda Jackson, who recently turned 73. The songs include "Rip It Up,” "Nervous Breakdown,” "Shakin’ All Over" and Jimmie Rodgers’ "Yodel #6." It’s a really good album and a nice thing to have after all these years.

Now here’s Reed:
Then They Came for the Pensions…

First off, it being March and the season of Spring Training, indulge me while I list reason #4,873 of why it’s so easy to hate the New York Yankees—Hank Steinbrenner opining on the tragic burden befalling major market teams:

“‘At some point, if you don’t want to worry about teams in minor markets, don’t put teams in minor markets, or don’t leave teams in minor markets if they’re truly minor,’ Steinbrenner said. ‘Socialism, communism, whatever you want to call it, is never the answer.’”

Right. Billionaires in New York sharing revenue with multi-millionaires in Kansas City is “socialism, communism.” In the interest of fairness, I will acknowledge that John Henry, owner of my beloved Red Sox, also comes across in that ESPN article as a whiny, spoiled ass when it comes to sharing his team’s enormous wealth.

But then again, the management of any major corporation can be counted on to basically consider the sharing of any of its revenue as tantamount to highway robbery, so why should the owners of a major sports franchise be any different? Heck, just last week, with the imminent NFL lockout looming, Mark Murphy, the head of the publicly-owned Green Bay Packers trotted out an argument to the New York Times that was little more than a repackaged version of longstanding conservative talking points about the evils of welfare and unemployment insurance:

“You know, right now our current players if they’re vested, and you vest if you play three or more seasons, you get health insurance coverage for five years, which is great. But I look at it, too, and the transition for players from playing in the NFL to finding another career and establishing themselves is very difficult, and I really wonder, sometimes, if we do too much for the players. They’ve got severance pay and a 401(k) plan…And so I’m a little worried that if we do too much for players in terms of compensation after their career’s end, and health insurance—it’s not all bad to have an incentive to get a job.”

The paternalistic tone here is striking and all too familiar. “Severance, a retirement plan, and five whole years of health insurance, hmmm, maybe that’s too good for you, son." Something tells me, though, that a lot of former players might wholeheartedly disagree that their retirement package and the guarantee of health insurance coverage only until their early 30s constitutes anything close to “great." Especially when they see numerous examples of legendary veterans dying penniless and wracked with health problems for decades. But the NFL’s more subtle approach to undermining its union members’ benefits is just a more PR-savvy tactic in a larger, conservative strategy that seeks to erode the power of labor.

First step: Demagogue union employees—whether it’s teachers or tight ends—as overpaid good-for-nothings. Next, work to dismantle the union’s future efficacy by gutting its organizing and bargaining power. And then go after the pensions and healthcare packages, again using the cover of budget shortfalls as an excuse to renege on benefits contracts and funding obligations.

For a near perfect distillation of this multi-pronged approach, consider former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who increasingly appears to believe that his path to the GOP presidential nomination requires that he be willing to do or say anything to appease the Tea Party crowd. (And not for nothing, Tim, but if you’re going to heap encomiums on the rump minority of this country that despises any and everything related to President Obama, perhaps it’s best not to use as the title of that video said president’s Inauguration theme.)

Last week, I noted that the all-but-declared Republican presidential candidate, in a fit of histrionics on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, had recently labeled the rise of public unions a “silent coup.” But in that same essay, Pawlenty went further with his austere prescription for America, which essentially amounts to more “freedom” and less of everything else—less government, less taxes for rich people, less pay for workers, fewer regulations, fewer rights for unions and, whaddya know, fewer pensions for retirees:

“We need to end defined-benefit retirement plans for government employees. Defined-benefit systems have created a financial albatross for taxpayers. The private sector dropped them years ago in favor of the clarity and predictability of defined-contribution models such as 401(k) plans. This change alone can save taxpayers trillions of dollars.”

Clarity and predictability for whom? Well, that this paragraph appeared on the Journal’s op-ed page should make the answer obvious. Ask any private sector employee—especially those nearing retirement age—how they felt watching their 401(k)s evaporate before their very eyes during the recent Wall Street-created financial crisis and I’m guessing the words ‘clarity’ and predictability’ won’t readily come to their mind.

Of course, that 401(k)s would be increasingly attractive to conservative politicians (and the retirement plan of choice for NFL management) shouldn’t come as a surprise, I guess, since these plans, as their defining feature, shift all the financial risk onto the individual retiree. But as Notre Dame economics professor Teresa Ghilarducci noted in an insightful American Prospect article on Monday, 401(k)s have basically failed as a viable retirement option because they’re woefully underfunded:

"In 2009, the account balance for the average-income household with a 401(k) plan was only about $67,000. Even the oldest workers in the highest-earning households, of $100,000 annual income and over, have on average only about $173,000, which yields a lifetime monthly income of just $500.”

Simply put, a retirement income of $500 a month means living in abject poverty. Even if you add in the average monthly payout of Social Security, which was $1,076 as of this past January, the combined total would still mean that most senior citizens in this country will struggle to survive. And right here it’s important to remember that if George Bush had gotten his way back in 2005, the retirement prospects for millions of Americans would be even bleaker, as all those partially privatized Social Security accounts he was so keen to let the market handle would have cratered during the past few years’ economic recession, leaving many with almost no social safety net whatsoever.

But that is precisely the point. The current conservative campaign to turn the American middle class upon itself won’t stop with just smiting public employee unions, taking away their bargaining power and depriving them of their promised retirement benefits and pensions. There is a larger prize in their sights, one that, if you strip away the first sentence in Pawlenty’s aforementioned quote becomes evident. It’s the prospect of dismantling the one entitlement that not just union employees but all Americans enjoy, Social Security.

The good people of Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere are now paying the price for their states’ rightward turn at the ballot box last November. And though many are now suffering from a serious case of buyer’s remorse, unfortunately it may be too late to forestall the anti-union legislation underway in many of those states. But their inspiring and invigorating defense is nonetheless well worth the fight and should serve as a powerful reminder of what’s at stake for the next election, in 2012. We can’t say we haven’t been warned.

The Mail:
Mike Dickenson
Bluff City, TN

The people who said that the election of 2004 was the most important of our lifetime were right. It wasn’t because of Iraq and Afghanistan, it was because that president decided the make up of the Supreme Court for at least a decade. The SC allowed the Koch brothers to buy the last election by changing the election laws. If people don’t wake up and start voting, they’re going to get the government they deserve. I wonder if the local movie house or department store will feel the affects more when the teachers take a 15% pay cut instead of the the super rich getting taxed more. When Obama was talking about letting the Bush tax cuts expire, all of the news reports said it was class warfare. Well everyone had better wake up because the class warfare has been going on for a long time and too many people don’t recognize it.

Dear Eric,

Today I read "Bush spokesman David Sherzer said Friday that Bush doesn’t want to share a forum with someone who has ‘willfully and repeatedly done great harm to the interests of the United States,’" as to the former president’s decision to cancel his Denver visit. Mr. Bush did not wish to share a forum with Julian Assange. It appears, in my view, with the amount Mr. Bush and his cronies did to harm the interests of the United States he joins the great Groucho Marx in refusing "to join any club that would have me as a member." Just sayin’.

Joe Coen
Houston, TX
Dr. A,

Hello from the second largest crab-pot of this great nation otherwise known as Texas. See any protests under Austin’s pink granite dome, lately? No? Not a one? Reed is spot on. If you want to see the future, take a close look at us. What’s wrong in Wisconsin is the same thing wrong in Kansas and here. Things are going to get a whole lot worse before they start to get even a little bit better. In Texas, sales taxes and property taxes are the main sources of revenue as there is no state income tax. State workers cannot collectively bargain here either. Yet, the state is still facing a $27 billion dollar shortfall. This shortfall can be primarily attributed to the no-tax increase under no circumstance whatsoever Republicans placing a cap on property taxes two years ago. As a result, under Rick Perry and the Republicans, Texas is now 4th in the nation in the hunger rate for people over 50, has the 8th highest poverty rate in the country at 15.8%. (US Census Bureau), and ranks 35th in the country in ACT scores. To make matters worse, check out the remarks Perry gave at a Chamber of Commerce meeting in Houston last month about the impact of the state’s deficit on public schooling. Perry thinks the best bet for parents is to pull their kids from public school and enroll them in conservative Christian schools. He’s concerned that magnet school programs like the one in Houston are becoming “hotbeds for liberalism” because they celebrate Black History Month, Hispanic Heritage month, Asian-Pacific Heritage Month and have enrichment programs like music, art and math Olympiad. He doesn’t think that high schools should teach courses like economics, physics, chemistry, biology and calculus because not everyone goes to college and oil field workers don’t need to know calculus to do their jobs. He has no problem replacing language arts and literature courses with bible study and flat out says that his goal is to establish fundamentalist Christian schools that are an affordable alternative to public schools. It’s not just collective bargaining the right wingers want to eliminate, it’s public schooling, period. And worse, massive cuts are coming to state health services, too. Perry has yet to weigh in on whether doctors need to know economics, physics, chemistry, biology or calculus to treat all of our oil field workers. Texas gave the nation the worst president in US history in the simian-like form of Bush the Younger. You ain’t seen nuthin’, yet. Even though he did a nationwide book tour after his latest electoral triumph, Perry has said that he has no presidential ambitions. Don’t believe a word of it. Perry spouts the same kind of rhetorical nonsense as Sarah Palin and the rest of the No-Brainy Bunch wanting to loot the country, but he has better hair, more staying power, wealthier cronies and Karl Rove. Dr. A, if you ever need a jolt to stay awake at night writing your latest and coffee isn’t doing the trick, think about a Palin/Perry ticket.

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