Right-wing pension-cutters get humiliated by their own survey data

Conservative ploy to slash public employee benefits runs into trouble when its own poll shows an unexpected reality

Published November 19, 2013 4:06PM (EST)

John Arnold         (AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Pat Sullivan)
John Arnold (AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Pat Sullivan)

Late last month, the Pew Center on the States began ratcheting up its now-infamous campaign to slash public employee retirement benefits. As damaging stories about its partnership with former Enron trader John Arnold swirled through the media, the organization convened a two-day conference for politicians, lobbyists and activists at the swanky Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Washington, D.C.

With pension-slashing politicians like San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed (D) rallying the troops, the event's goal seemed obvious: to reinvigorate the Plot Against Pensions and gear up for yet another push for big retirement benefit cuts in the upcoming state legislative sessions. Yet, there was one big embarrassing problem: When the organization released its new poll at the conference in support of its pension-cutting agenda, the survey data showed that the American public is powerfully rejecting the right's anti-public-worker crusade.

Salon has obtained a copy of the results of the Pew-commissioned poll, which was jointly conducted by the Democratic-aligned Mellman Group and the GOP-aligned Public Opinion Strategies. You can review the full results of the survey here. The key findings include:

  • Though the anti-pension coalition has spent millions of dollars on ads and public campaigns to portray public employees as greedy parasites, the pollsters found that "voters have generally favorable views of public employees" and that those favorable views are found among voters of both political parties. Poll respondents gave teachers, police officers and state public employees net favorability ratings of 88, 86 and 60 percent, respectively.
  • Anti-pension activists have cited places like Detroit and California as proof that retirement benefits are too generous and unsustainable, even though average public employees in those locales make an annual $19,000 and $26,000 in retirement benefit, respectively. Pew's poll shows that Americans are seeing through the anti-pension propaganda and appreciating the reality of those numbers. In all, 55 percent of poll respondents believe public pension benefits are currently about the right amount, or too small.
  • Pew and other anti-pension activists have claimed that a 30-year $1.3 trillion pension shortfall is a huge crisis, even though according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research the shortfall only represents about 0.2 percent of projected gross state GDP. Though modest adjustments may be required, the situation is hardly a crisis, especially with the shortfall being far less than the amount states, counties and towns are currently spending on corporate subsidies. Pew's poll shows that the majority of Americans seem to understand the reality of the situation. In all, 50 percent of poll respondents said that public pensions face minor problems or no problems, while just 33 percent believe anti-pension activists who say public pensions are facing major problems.
  • Anti-pension activists (backed by Wall Street firms that stand to financially gain) have insisted that public pensions should be changed from defined benefit systems into defined-contribution plans like individually managed 401(k)-style accounts. Yet, Pew's poll shows that in the eyes of taxpayers, traditional defined benefit plans for public employees are far superior to defined contribution plans. That makes sense as actuarial data prove defined-benefit systems are far more cost-effective for taxpayers and stable for retirees than 401(k)-style systems.

The overarching takeaway from these numbers is pretty straightforward: The political class's assumptions about the politics of public employees, budgets and pensions are way off the mark. Indeed, as much as operatives, ideologues and moneymen may think it is great politics to demonize teachers, firefighters and police officers, and as much as they may think it is great politics to pretend radical cuts to retirement benefits are needed, Americans clearly aren't buying that propaganda.

Of course, that doesn't mean the Plot Against Pensions won't move forward. Between money from billionaires, cash from Wall Streeters looking to profit from pension conversions, and support from conservative activists who ideologically oppose the idea of guaranteed retirement income, the plot has vast resources behind it.

Will those massive resources be able to manufacture a sea change in public opinion? Will they make Americans hate public employees and punish those employees by stripping them of the retirement benefits they were promised? It is certainly possible -- but it looks like it is going to be a lot harder (and probably more expensive) to engineer such a scam than the anti-pension activists once thought.

By David Sirota

David Sirota is a senior writer for the International Business Times and the best-selling author of the books "Hostile Takeover," "The Uprising" and "Back to Our Future." E-mail him at ds@davidsirota.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com.

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Enron Pension Reform Pensions Pew Poll Public Employees The Right Wall Street