Monthly Archives: October 2010

The Death of Wolfe

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The Death of General Wolfe by Benjamin West is a painting which has always fascinated me.  Wolfe’s victory at the Plains of Abraham in 1759 sealed the doom of New France and also the doom ultimately of British rule in the 13 colonies.  Freed from the menace of their ancestral enemy, the colonists were also free to rethink the ties that bound them to the British crown.  West’s painting captures a pivotal moment in American history.  Not only is Wolfe dying, but an old order in America, not only for France but also for Great Britain, is mortally stricken.  American independence would have appalled James Wolfe, who had little love for Americans, but it is given to none of us to know the impact of our lives after our deaths.  Wolfe of course had a death of legend during the battle, as the great historian of the struggle between New France and the British, Francis Parkman details: →']);" class="more-link">Continue reading

Are Public Employees Overpaid?

If you believe what you read on blogs or hear from certain politicians and pundits, a new kind of haves-vs.-have-nots class war is brewing across the land. Not between the rich and the poor, but between private and public sector workers, as related here.

Scandalous stories of public officials enjoying lavish or disproportionate pay and benefits at taxpayer expense, such as in Bell, Calif., and elsewhere , frequently make headlines and prompt calls for reductions in such compensation.

As with many other economic and taxation issues, the answer to the question posed in the title of this post usually depends on which side of the political spectrum you are on. Conservatives tend to answer “yes,” while liberals tend to answer “no” .

But which side is correct?

Before I delve into that question, I will first make some disclosures.  I am a full-time employee of the state of Illinois, making $35,000 per year. I do not belong to a union, and due to the nature of my job and agency, probably never will. I have only received one raise the entire time I have been so employed (nearly 4 years) due to a promotion to a slightly higher job level. I do not expect to receive any raises for the foreseeable future; in fact a pay cut is a distinct possibility. Prior to that I worked 20 years in private sector employment in the newspaper field. In some instances the pay and benefits were comparable to, and even better than, my current job. In other instances they were not as good.

Now to the question: are public employees overpaid? That depends on who you ask and how one defines “overpaid”. The average pay of state and federal employees in general is higher than that of private sector workers in general. When broken down by education, profession, etc. the picture is not as cut and dried. For lower-skilled jobs requiring only a high school or vocational education — e.g. custodians, receptionists, guards — the public sector pays better, whereas for professional jobs requiring a college degree or higher (attorneys, doctors, CPAs, etc.), the private sector pays more — often a lot more. These articles from Kiplinger and from Governing.com explain the differences in greater detail.

Two of the biggest reasons for these disparities are that 1) public employment tends to have a greater percentage of jobs requiring a college education or beyond and 2) public sector jobs are more likely to be unionized.

Public employee unions are a favorite bete noire of fiscal conservative politicians and candidates at the moment, and much of the public seems to agree with them. The fact that public employees continue in many (though not all) states and localities to enjoy benefits most private employees no longer have, such as regular salary increases, defined benefit pension plans, and caps on health insurance premiums and co-pays, arouses resentment among ordinary citizens who are forced to pay for such benefits via taxation.

Although many officeholders and candidates talk a good game when it comes to reining in public employee benefits, in practice the most frequent targets of budget cutting measures such as layoffs, furlough days and pay cuts, are lower or mid-level non-union employees. They often end up being punished for the sins (real or perceived) of their higher placed or unionized colleagues, simply because they are the easiest targets — not protected by either union contracts or political/personal connections.

The biggest problems on a state and local level are pension deficits — the growing gaps between the amount of money in public pension funds and the amount of benefits those funds are expected to pay in the future. According to this report by the Pew Center on the States, pension shortfalls are fiscal time bombs that threaten to devour entire state and city budgets if nothing is done to defuse them before it is too late.

How did the situation get that bad? In most cases it was due to a variety of factors — yes, generous union contracts played a part, but so did repeated failure on the part of lawmakers to invest properly in public pension funds, demographic changes (aging of the Baby Boomers, people living longer), and investments tanking due to the recession. No one factor can be singled out, and the entire blame for the pension crisis cannot be laid at the feet of one person or group of people. But regardless of who is or was to blame, the problem has to be dealt with, not swept under the rug.

Private sector employees are quick to point out that while they have to support public employee benefits with their taxes, public employees are not forced to do the same for private employees — they can choose whether or not to do business with a private company.

I agree, and this is in my opinion an argument that should be taken most seriously. For that reason, public employees are by necessity accountable to the public and will always be subject to various restrictions and considerations that do not apply to private employees (e.g., their salaries being public information).  This is not “unfair” or unequal, but simply part of the deal one signs up for when working for a government body.

Another claim often made by private employees is that government workers, by virtue of the pay, job security and benefits they enjoy, are artificially insulated from the realities their privately employed neighbors face — the constant threat of being fired or laid off, lack of retirement security, worry about medical bills, etc.

That might, perhaps, be true of top officials/administrators with strong political connections who make six-figure salaries, whose spouses have equally high-paying positions, and whose children or other family members are completely healthy. Otherwise, I am not so sure.

Many public employees, particularly non-union ones, are regularly threatened with layoffs or missed paychecks (most often at the end of a fiscal year). Given the poor financial standing of many public employee pension funds, combined with the fact that some public employees don’t get Social Security, I’d say many of them (including myself) who are 10 years or more away from retirement are just as worried about their retirement as you are.

Also, most public employees do not live in a bubble or a vacuum. Most used to work in the private sector at some time in their lives, and many are married to spouses who work in the “real world” or are currently unemployed or disabled. Their grown children, their parents, their siblings, and their friends and neighbors  include private employees or unemployed persons looking for work. The only exceptions I can think of might be political “dynasty” families like the Kennedys or Daleys. Plus, public employees pay all the same taxes everyone else does — federal, state, sales, property, the whole works. If taxes go up, it cuts into their budgets too.

Just because someone has a government job doesn’t mean they have, or should have, no interest in whether private business succeeds. If factories close and move overseas, if private companies go bankrupt and abolish or raid pension funds, if high taxes drive up the cost of living, if college education becomes unaffordable without taking on ruinous levels of debt — it affects them and their families too. It is in everyone’s interest, no matter what kind of job they have, to have a fiscally sound and honest government, competent public employees, and a sustainable tax structure.

Also, do not forget that for every instance in which a public official received undeserved pay, pensions or perks at taxpayer expense one could probably cite an equally egregious case of a private business executive enjoying lavish pay and benefits at the expense of fired workers, closed factories/offices, or raided pension funds. Greed is greed no matter where it occurs, and no sector of the economy is exempt from the effects of original sin.

Finally, since this is a Catholic blog, we should approach this issue from a religious perspective as well. Christ Himself chose a public employee, Matthew the tax collector, to be one of His Apostles. He also told His followers to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” So, apparently, He did not believe that working for the government was inherently evil, unproductive or exploitive.

Some more pointed advice was given by Christ’s precursor, John the Baptist, to the public servants of his day who came to see him (Luke 3:12-14):

“Even tax collectors came to be baptized and they said to him, “Teacher, what should we do?”
He answered them, “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.”
Soldiers also asked him, “And what is it that we should do?” He told them, “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages.”

John was referring to practices for which the public employees of the day were notorious — tax collectors often overcharged citizens and pocketed the “profit” they made, while Roman soldiers were known for shaking down citizens of the provinces they occupied for money, food, or other goods. Here John is telling them simply to do their duty, not demand any more of the public than the law requires, and be content with what they are paid. If today’s public officials and employees did the same, there would be a lot fewer problems.

As with most problems in a fallen world, there is no perfectly just way to balance the need for a professional, competent government workforce with that of a private sector free of unnecessary taxes and regulation. This does not mean, however, that we should not attempt to find as just a resolution as possible. However this will require people who are not to blame for the situation to help clean it up, and at considerable personal cost.

For public employees, this means more work for less pay, more out of pocket expenses, and for some, no job at all. For the rest of us it could mean higher taxes, reduced services or some combination of the two. All these things will impact thousands, even millions, of good, hardworking people who are simply doing the best they can and had no part in creating the situation. It may not be perfectly fair, but life ain’t fair.

The Last Refuge of Scoundrels

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With an economy that stinks, and after two years of a Congress ramming unpopular policies down the throats of an unwilling public, Democrats around the nation are in electoral trouble.  What can possibly save them?  They know!  Roll out the abortion ads!

Republicans have won points with many voters by promising a conservative overhaul of taxes and spending, but Democrats are working hard in the closing weeks of the campaign to convince voters that a conservative social agenda is waiting in the wings, too, should Republicans be elected in large numbers.

Abortion rights is the flash point, being wielded by the left in hard-fought races from New York’s contest for governor, to Senate races in Florida and California, as Democratic candidates or groups try to rally their base and attract moderate Republican or independent women — a slice of the electorate that is even more coveted than in years past. ']);" class="more-link">Continue reading

The Next Great Depression

I was provoked by Tito’s recent post with a great cartoon on the economy. Like him I am greatly concerned about where the U.S. Dollar, our economy and country are headed. This post is related to an earlier post that Christopher Blosser and I co-posted on the Austrian School of Economics. Let me state from the beginning that I am neither an economist nor a certified financial planner. My opinions are worth the value of the cyber ink you are now viewing. It seems clear to me though that our economy is heading into a double-dip recession and possible depression, which is actually calling it what it is. I don’t see how the current policies and actions of the Treasury Department and Federal Reserve are helping the common man. The rate of interest for savings is so minimal now and for the foreseeable future that it can be compared to the sand under the ocean, not the raft-boat on top of the waves. Therefore what can we do to not lose and potentially grow our savings?

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Hope and Despair

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The above video by Ben Howe neatly encapsulates why the Democrats are going to take a historic beating next month.  If a politician runs on a platform of Hope and Change he better deliver plenty of both.  Obama has delivered despair and a magnification of the trends that got us into the economic and fiscal morass we are in.  No one likes to be the mark of a con, and I think that a majority of voters now are firmly convinced that a massive con was played on the nation in 2008.

Josh Kraushaar at Hotline gives us a peek of the electoral storm that is in the process of being unleashed:

But when you look at the national polling metrics and the race-by-race picture in the House, there’s little evidence of any Democratic comeback. If anything, Republicans are in as strong a position to win back control of the House as they have been this entire election cycle.

Much of the newfound glimmer of hope comes from a misinterpretation of polling data released by Democratic campaigns and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Many of the polls aren’t all that encouraging for Dems, but have been spun to present a misleadingly optimistic picture. ']);" class="more-link">Continue reading

Lepanto

 

White founts falling in the Courts of the sun,
And the Soldan of Byzantium is smiling as they run;
There is laughter like the fountains in that face of all men feared,
It stirs the forest darkness, the darkness of his beard;
It curls the blood-red crescent, the crescent of his lips;
For the inmost sea of all the earth is shaken with his ships.
They have dared the white republics up the capes of Italy,
They have dashed the Adriatic round the Lion of the Sea,
And the Pope has cast his arms abroad for agony and loss,
And called the kings of Christendom for swords about the Cross.
The cold queen of England is looking in the glass;
The shadow of the Valois is yawning at the Mass;
From evening isles fantastical rings faint the Spanish gun,
And the Lord upon the Golden Horn is laughing in the sun.

Dim drums throbbing, in the hills half heard,
Where only on a nameless throne a crownless prince has stirred,
Where, risen from a doubtful seat and half attainted stall,
The last knight of Europe takes weapons from the wall,
The last and lingering troubadour to whom the bird has sung,
That once went singing southward when all the world was young.
In that enormous silence, tiny and unafraid,
Comes up along a winding road the noise of the Crusade.
Strong gongs groaning as the guns boom far,
Don John of Austria is going to the war,
Stiff flags straining in the night-blasts cold
In the gloom black-purple, in the glint old-gold,
Torchlight crimson on the copper kettle-drums,
Then the tuckets, then the trumpets, then the cannon, and he comes.
Don John laughing in the brave beard curled,
Spurning of his stirrups like the thrones of all the world,
Holding his head up for a flag of all the free.
Love-light of Spain–hurrah!
Death-light of Africa!
Don John of Austria
Is riding to the sea.

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Twirling, Twirling Towards Freedom

On Monday night there was a debate between Connecticut Senatorial candidates Richard Blumenthal and Linda McMahon.  During the debate Linda McMahon asked Mr. Blumenthal, “How do you create a job?”  Blumenthal’s answer was, well, see for yourself.

Watching this, I couldn’t help but be reminded of another example of genius on display.

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Political Miscellania 10\6\10

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A roundup of recent political news.

1.  I am not a witch!  Christine O’Donnell’s “I am not a witch” opening salvo in her ad campaign.  Normally an ad from a candidate denying she is a witch would be the last thing heard from a campaign doomed to defeat and oblivion.  However, these are far from normal times.  O’Donnell does two things with this ad.  First, she shows the public that she is a real person and not the cartoon character created by the mainstream media and the denizens of the Left, and she begins to position herself as what she is:  the ultimate outsider.  Not a bad strategy in a political year that will be kind to outsiders and cruel to insiders.

2.  Gallup Poll-Gallup for some reason has been late this year applying a likely voter screen in their polls.   The closer you get to an election the more reliable likely voter polls get, and the less reliable registered voter polls are.  In a high turnout election, Gallup predicts a 13 point Republican advantage among likely voters and in a low voter turnout election Gallup predicts an 18 point Republican advantage among likely voters.  Go here to read the results of the poll.  For comparison’s sake, in the 1994 election when the Republicans took both the House and the Senate, in the Congressional elections the GOP had a six point advantage on election day. →']);" class="more-link">Continue reading

A Catholic Ghost Story

What are Catholics to make of supernatural phenomena? and ghosts in particular?

There is little question that the Catholic Church believes in the reality of the spiritual realm — St. Paul in Ephesians speaks of “our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and power, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places.” But it is a realm inhabited by angels, demons, and of course, Satan himself. (And, if you’re an enlightened “post-Vatican II” Catholic like Fr. Richard McBrien, you can scoff at the very mention of the latter).

As far as ghosts are concerned, the prevailing tendency among Catholics is to look askance at the concept of “lost souls”, trapped in this life and waiting to cross over. There is scarce mention of “ghosts” in the Catechism and judging by the absence of clear, definitive teaching — the Church has refrained from adopting a firm position on their existence.

According to Gary Jansen, a contemporary Catholic from Rockville Centre, Long Island, ghosts simply didn’t exist. For him, “heaven, hell, angels were basic tenents of my Catholic faith, but never basic tenents of my life. . . . these topics were never discused during my twelve years of attending parochial school.” While his devout Catholic mother would mention strange occurrences, he prided himself on his rationality.

Until, that is, when he had an unsettling encounter in his son’s bedroom in 2007. Holy Ghosts: Or How a (Not-So) Good Catholic Boy Became a Believer in Things That Go Bump in the Night is an account of one Catholic’s real-life haunting: →']);" class="more-link">Continue reading

The Ground Zero Mosque And Religious Freedom, Part Four

I would like to continue our conversation regarding The Ground Zero Mosque, Religious Freedom, and Interfaith Dialog with Islam. Earlier posts on this topic can be found here (Part One, Part Two, & Part Three).

Johan Bonny has written what I consider to be a very helpful article entitled “Christian Witness and Ecumenism in a Society with a Muslim Majority“. (HT Stephen Hand ~ Time Out of Joint)  I especially appreciate how he deals with the issue of violence and how he refers folks to the life of Brother Charles de Foucauld.  I encourage everyone to read the entire article, but here are some highlights for your reference.

Christian and ecumenical witness is first of all related to the heart of the Gospel, to the example and the commandment of Jesus Christ. How can Christians live and profess together the essence of Christian faith: this is the key question in any ecumenical reflection. This question, however, leads to a deeper one: what is then the essence, the very heart of Christian faith? What is the specific genius of Christianity among the three monotheistic religions, that has Abraham as their common father in faith: Judaism, Christianity and Islam?

…The dialogue between Christianity and Islam will certainly become a major challenge of the new millennium. No dialogue, however, has a chance, unless it is based on friendship and mutual trust. How can personal trust and friendship be improved, where Christians and Muslims are living together, day after day?

Notre Dame 88

By Charles E. Rice

Fr. Norman Weslin, O.S., at the complaint of Notre Dame, was arrested in May 2009 and charged as a criminal for peacefully entering the Notre Dame campus to offer his prayer of reparation for Notre Dame’s conferral of its highest honor on President Obama, the most relentlessly pro-abortion public official in the world.  The University refuses to ask the St. Joseph County prosecutor to drop the charges against Fr. Weslin and the others arrested, still known as the ND 88 although one, Linda Schmidt, died of cancer this past March.  Judge Michael P. Scopelitis, of St. Joseph Superior Court, recently issued two important orders in this case.

The first order denied the State’s motion to consolidate the cases of multiple defendants.  That motion would have denied each separate defendant his right to a separate jury trial.  The order did permit consolidation of the trials of twice-charged defendants on the separate offenses with which that defendant was charged; a defendant charged, for example, with trespass and disorderly conduct would therefore not have to appear for two trials.  Judge Scopelitis also denied the prosecution’s attempt to force each defendant to return to South Bend for each proceeding in the case, which would have coerced the defendants to abandon their defense.  Instead, the Judge permitted the defendants to participate by telephone in pre-trial conferences.

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TAC Pro Football Rankings: Week 4

Is anyone any good? Jeesh, I know Texas is a horrible place to visit, but surely the Superbowl is worth the incursion? After all, Louisiana is right next door.

Last year was year of the Titans, with the Colts, Vikings, and Saints clearly in another league. This year, everyone has significant problems. The Colts have dropped 2 games. Favre wants to go back to Miss. The Saints have a plethora of injuries and the offense hasn’t looked great.

Each team seems to have an inexplicable loss on their record. The Jets opener against the Ravens, the Pack’s loss to the Bears, etc. After Week 4, you have a pretty good sense usually of where everybody stands. Everyone has significant improvements that need to be made; the question is who can make them in time to get into the playoffs, as it seems that unlike last year, once you’re in the playoffs it’s anybody’s game.

To the rankings!

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Gracious Loserman

Here’s an update to my post from last week.  Doug Hoffman has just announced that he is dropping out of the NY-23 House race and has endorsed the Republican nominee Matt Doheny.  His full statement is here.

“It was never my intention to split the Republican vote in the 23rd District.  So today, I withdraw as a candidate from this race.  Under New York State Election Law my name cannot be removed from the Conservative Party line on the ballot. However, I strongly urge and request that my supporters not vote for me and certainly not vote for the Democrat or Working Families Party candidate.

“Matt Doheny and I may have differed on some issues during the course of our primary race. Now, we must put those differences aside and do what is best for our nation. So today, I am asking all my supporters to cast their vote for Matt Doheny on Election Day, November 2nd.

Classy move, and I think the right one.

And yes, I need to work on my headline writing.

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