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Don’t buy the right-wing myth about Detroit

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Money Won't Change You
Money Won’t Change You

David Sirota has an excellent point about the conservative narrative about Detroit. Notice how many times pensions get mentioned in coverage of Detroit’s bankruptcy and how many times corporate welfare does. 50 times to once? Something like that kind of ratio. Basically ignored, in other words. Corporate welfare is sacrosanct; pensions, not so much.

That brings us to how this all plays into the right’s push to enact ever more regressive tax cuts, protect endless corporate welfare and legislate new reductions in workers’ guaranteed pensions.

These latter objectives may seem unrelated, but they all complement each other when presented in the most politically opportunistic way. It’s a straightforward conservative formula: the right blames state and municipal budget problems exclusively on public employees’ retirement benefits, often underfunding those public pensions for years. The money raided by those pension funds is then used to enact expensive tax cuts and corporate welfare programs. After years of robbing those pension funds to pay for such giveaways, a crisis inevitably hits, and workers’ pension benefits are blamed — and then slashed. Meanwhile, the massive tax cuts and corporate subsidies are preserved, because we are led to believe they had nothing to do with the crisis. Ultimately, the extra monies taken from retirees are then often plowed into even more tax cuts and more corporate subsidies.

We’ve seen this trick in states all over America lately. In Rhode Island, for instance, the state underfunded its public pensions for years, while giving away $356 million in a year in corporate subsidies (including an epically embarrassing $75 million to Curt Schilling). It then converted the pension system into a Wall Street boondoggle), all while preserving the subsidies.

Similarly, in Kentucky, the state raided its public pension funds to finance $1.4 billion a year in tax subsidies, and then when the crisis hit, lawmakers there slashed pension benefits — not the corporate subsidies.

The list of states and cities following this path goes on — but you get the point. In the conservative narrative about budgets in general, the focus is on the aggregate annual $333 million worth of state and local pension shortfalls — and left out of the story is the fact that, according to the New York Times, “states, counties and cities are giving up more than $80 billion each year to companies” in the form of tax loopholes and subsidies.”

The mythology around Detroit, then, is just another version of this propaganda.

(click here to continue reading Don’t buy the right-wing myth about Detroit – Salon.com.)

Stilton with candied lemon peel
Stilton with candied lemon peel

and those evil, greedy workers are always the problem. How dare they depend upon $19,000 a year pensions – that they paid with their work for 20 years or longer – when corporations need free cheese! $80,000,000,000 a year in free cheese – cheese that could be spread elsewhere…

So, for instance, from the administration of right-wing Gov. Rick Snyder, we are hearing a lot of carping about the $3.5 billion in pension obligations that are part of the city’s overall $18 billion in debt. The focus leads casual onlookers to believe that — even though they on average get a pension of just $19,000 a year — municipal workers’ supposed greed single-handedly bankrupted the city. What we aren’t hearing about, though, is the city and state’s long history of underfunding its pensions, and using the raided money to spend billions of dollars on corporate welfare.

For a good sense of some of the most expensive, absurd and utterly wasteful boondoggles in the Detroit area over the last few decades, read this piece from Crain’s Detroit or see this 2011 article entitled “Detroit’s Corporate Welfare Binge” by Detroit News columnist Bill Johnson. Alternately, recall this is in the heart of a region that infamously spent $55.4 million in 1975 (or a whopping $180 million in inflation-adjusted dollars) on a football stadium and then sold it off for $583,000. Or, just note that Detroit is the largest city in a state that, according to the New York Times, spends more per capita on corporate subsidies — $672 (per capita) or $6.6 billion a year — than most other states.

It Pays to Play
It Pays to Play

There’s more to the myth of course, NAFTA, taxes and the like.

In the conservative telling of this particular parable, Detroit faces a fiscal emergency because high taxes supposedly drove a mass exodus from the city, and the supposedly unbridled greed of unions forced city leaders to make fiscally irresponsible pension promises to municipal employees. Written out of the tale is any serious analysis of macroeconomic shifts, international economic policy failures, the geography of recent recessions and unsustainable corporate welfare spending.

This is classic right-wing dogma — the kind that employs selective storytelling to use a tragic event as a means to radical ends. In this case, the ends are — big shocker! — three of the conservative movement’s larger long-term economic priorities: 1) preservation of job-killing trade policies 2) immunity for corporations and 3) justification for budget policies that continue to profligately subsidize the rich.

Read David Sirota’s entire indictment yourself, and remember it when you next hear a bloviator discuss Detroit pensions, or austerity…

Written by Seth Anderson

July 23rd, 2013 at 8:37 am

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