I’ve been trying to think of a good metaphor for the public-employee pension story, a way to explain what’s going on without making it so complicated that it becomes a battle of political slogans. Here’s what I’ve come up with.
Imagine you and your friends all work at a resort hotel, and you’ve been there a while, and you approach the boss and say it’s expensive to live in the area and you want a raise. But your boss isn’t handing out any more cash — he wants to hire his girlfriend for a cush job, and he wants a promotion in the resort chain, so he has to keep the bottom line tight.
But he can’t afford to lose the group of you, so he offers a deal: no raise, but you and your coworkers can eat lunch free at the resort restaurant. It’s a painless offer for him; the restaurant is booming, so much cash coming in that nobody will notice a few free meals. Still, it’s a benefit you didn’t have, so you accept.
Then a year passes, and resort traffic drops off, and the price of lunch food goes way up, and the guy who handles the books at the restaurant has been skimming and pocketing a big chunk of the proceeds — and suddenly, the free meals aren’t so free for your boss. So he starts pointing fingers at you, telling all the other diners that it’s unfair you get to eat free. The cry goes out: “No free lunch!” He starts to demand that you pay “your fair share.”
Now: you realize like everyone else that the resort is in financial trouble, and you’ve already accepted unpaid overtime and fewer work days. You also realize that a couple of your greedier friends have been taking extra sandwiches home in their pockets and they need to knock it off.
But the huge chain that owns the resort is still doing fine; the percentage profits off the top never change. No cuts there. And your free lunch isn’t “free”; it’s part of your pay. And you suspect that at some point, the economy will pick up and the restaurant will be flush again — and if you give up your benefit now, you’ll wind up with no raise and no lunch either.
But somehow, it’s all your fault. You are the ones bleeding the resort dry.
Look at it that way, and the picture is a little different.