I have trouble communicating with people who do not appear to care about facts. One well-meaning acquaintance approached me, a public employee, and told me that the Los Angeles Times had run an article about how CALPERS (California Public Employee Retirement System) had based its projections about public pensions on the assumption that the Dow Jones would reach 25,000.
Given that the Dow Jones has never been especially close to this number, this sounded like CALPERS had made a tremendous mistake. He implied that the taxpayers are being asked to pay too much toward public employee pensions and perhaps even saying that people like me should agree to reductions.
I researched and found what I believe is the article to which he referred. Here is the relevant excerpt, from the Orange County Register, a newspaper not known to be friendly to public employees:
"CalPERS, which in 1999 advocated retroactive pension increases based on assumed rates of investment returns that essentially required the Dow Jones industrial average to reach 25,000 by 2009, is backed by taxpayers whether its projections are right or wrong."
I looked to see where CALPERS had actually made a statement or had implied that the Dow Jones would need to reach 25,000 by 2009. So I went straight to the law that enacted the pension increases in 1999, SB 400. Here is a portion of the bill where proponents say why they support it:
If this benefit package is enacted, the state contribution will fall initially in 2000-2001, to 1.07% of payroll, or $103 million, due to the initial impact of the accounting change, but will increase significantly thereafter, to 4.65% of payroll in 2001-2002, or $465.6 million. The employer rate will level off in subsequent years, eventually falling below 3% in 2008-2009, but the employer contribution amount will remain in the $379 million range. CalPERS, however, believes they will be able to mitigate this cost increase through continued excess returns of the CalPERS fund. They anticipate that the state's contribution to CalPERS will remain below the 1998-99 fiscal year for at least the next decade. Overall, the benefit equity package is the equivalent to about a 2% to 2% increase in normal costs.
If no changes in benefits are enacted, and current assumptions hold, the employer rate will continue to decline, to below 2% of payroll by the 2002-03 fiscal year. State contributions will decline from the $1.2 billion paid in 1997-98 to $112 million in 2005-06, a decline of about 90% in less than a decade. With the enactment of this bill, the state will not realize all of these currently projected savings. The CalPERS Board of Administration, however, has agreed to increase from 90 to 95% the assets considered in its valuation of the plans, and shorten the amortization of the excess assets to 20 years, to help mitigate the impact of the benefit enhancements on State employer contributions.”
I have put in bold what I think are the most important excerpts. The comments mention state contributions (i.e. taxes to go towards funding of the pensions) to decline at least until about 2009 because of “excess returns of the CALPERS fund.” I am still unclear about where the number 25,000 in connection to the Dow Jones came from.
At the time of the bill’s writing, CALPERS had gotten exceptional returns. The Dow Jones had cited CALPERS for a 20.1% return in 1999-2000. At around that time, the USA Today had said that “strapped” governments had “looked to pension funds.”
The point that critics make is not without merit. When CALPERS investments go poorly in a given year, the state uses taxes to fulfill its obligations to the pension funds. To guarantee pensions in this manner may not be the best idea, they say.
I can, as a taxpayer and as a public employee (who chooses not to belong to any union), identify with some of the calls for reform. Recent hires at my and other cities are promised a lesser pension if and when they work a certain amount of years (typically 30) and reach a certain age (55 or 60). The base of pension that one receives could be adjusted to their mean salary rather than their highest salary. Annual pensions could be capped at $100,000.
These reforms would not likely upset the obligation of the state to fund the pensions. We need a good dialogue between those who are concerned about taxes and those who serve the public. It all begins with identifying the problem, the most relevant facts and the most just solutions.
I have recently written two diaries on OpEd News, "Did God Ask to Be Trusted?" and "The Choice of a Reluctant Messiah."In the first, I questioned those who assume about Christianity what cannot be proven, such as the Virgin birth, the miracles and the resurrection of Jesus. Many of those who profess to uphold these beliefs often fail to care about the beliefs of others, as was recently the case when members of the House of Representatives re-affirmed "In God We Trust" as our motto.In the second, I made up a conversation with Jesus in which I "reported" him as one who simply preached the coming Kingdom of God and never referred to himself as the Son of God. This representation of Jesus shows him as compassionate and thoughtful and certainly not vengeful or dogmatic.I have received some replies about this diaries and was referred to a lengthy article. If you liked my diaries, this is well worth your read. It is called "About Christianity."
When you discuss matters on the Internet and get responses, be alert for those who want to make you the issue. They prey upon those who have the audacity to say what they do not agree with. Once you spot them, you will be wise to avoid communicating with them.
But first you have to spot them.
One sign of trouble comes when somebody puts a label on you. They may say that you are a “liberal” or a “wing nut” or a “wacko” though they do not even know you and do not likely know much about your ideas.
These people are easy to identify because their use of labels is about all they have to offer. They tend to see or understand complicated issues in black and white terms and once they put you in a label box, they do not care what you have to say. Ignore them and move on to more interesting people.
The Subject Changer
A little more subtle are those who pretend to consider your point of view but they ignore the context with which you make your comments. They shift the focus of the debate.
For example, I argued in an essay in 2003 that the Democratic Party should not nominate General Wesley Clark for President. I made this statement because he had not been a member of the party for very long and he had endorsed several Republican candidates for a long period of time shortly before the Democratic primaries.
I got back replies from people who questioned whether I had paid my dues, though I was not a candidate. Some suggested I was a Republican or that I was for another candidate, neither of which was true. Here is a partial list of the replies I received:
Others may ask you to provide detail for your point of view. And when you do that, they respond with more complaints about your ideas than you can wrap your head around! Too bad you are not discussing the matter in person, where you could cut them off at some point!
It can be mentally exhausting to go through each of the claims made by an opponent, especially one who misstates evidence, misquotes you or takes you out of context or otherwise manipulates you into thinking that you are in a fair debate. If you proceed with the person, you have two choices: (1) answer every claim they make or (2) answer selectively.
Neither choice is very good. Answering every claim will undoubtedly produce more rebuttals from your adversary and more headaches from their unbalanced logic. But if you only answer some of the claims, you will likely get a response that your silence on the unanswered ones must mean you endorse their point of view on them.
You will really go nowhere discussing anything with those who play games with the facts and with your mind. Like the one who pays the piper, you should call the tune in how you debate another person.
Simply say up front that you would like to argue one issue at a time. If the other person does not comply, walk away. If they call you names, walk away. If they insinuate you do not care about victims or any other irrational point of view, walk away.
And walk towards the conversations of civilized people.
The United States has no solid answers in response to the numerous problems facing us.
Unemployment is still double-digits in many areas. So we wonder about our economic security, without which we can do so little.
Two wars, Afghanistan and Iraq, fought for no good reason, continue. So we wonder about our nation's future in foreign affairs and about those who volunteer for the armed forces.
The government will still not release relevant information pertaining to events such as the JFK Assassination. So we wonder about the honesty of those who lead us.
We are a nation without answers because we do not ask the right questions. Political discussion, to be of use to our society, would revolve around identifying problems like the ones above, asking questions so as to determine their cause and use hypothesis to test for solutions. Instead, our discussion has been about whose fault something is and how it will affect the two main political parties in the next election.
Instead we hear people's feelings about political parties and candidates and outrage over who has done or said what. Two recent news stories, of Dr. Laura using the "N-word" on the radio and the proposed building of a mosque and cultural center near the World Trade Center, have stirred far more emotion than sense in those talking about them. We should respond to fear by calling upon reason. I really believe that we can do better than this and here is what I propose:
For every opinion like "Obama is not a natural-born citizen," we can use the reason of a summary judgment argument to determine if it is worthwhile to continue. In other words, we could stipulate or say for the sake of argument that the statement is true. Then we ask if it matters. Even if Obama is not a natural-born citizen, there is nothing Congress or anyone else can do to remove him from office. So we should drop the subject or put it into the political file for his opponents in 2012.
For every opinion like "The 'terrorists' are going to get us" we can employ facts over fear. We should ask who "they" are. If one responds the "Muslims" or "Radical Islam," we could ask for facts, such as any facts pointing to radical Muslims in regards to 9/11. Keeping accusers honest is imperative to keeping down the threshold of prejudice and bigotry in our society.
For every opinion like "Public employees are fat cats," we can address ad hominem attacks. Such statements stereotype a group of people unfairly and are becoming common after the City of Bell fiasco in which members of the City Council and other city employees arranged for huge salaries and pensions. The fact is that not all public employees are so well off: the average retired public employee receives $20,000 per year as a pension.
Reason tells us that it is wrong to attack those who cannot fight back. Good discussion is fair and affords everyone a chance to respond. Even if one wants all illegal immigrants deported, the scapegoating of this group or anyone without a voice in power destroys this basic tenet.
We need a dialogue, not a monologue. We can ask questions and listen to others to answer. In fact, we must do this or risk further dividing this nation based on emotions, prejudices and biases.
Here are four questions that we as a nation should answer as part of a dialogue:
What is the proper role of our government and how can we apply this role to basic issues?
Do we support the equality of opportunity and if not, to whom do we deny it and why?
How do we decide when it is time to go to war?
What is a reasonable expectation of privacy in this day and age of the Internet and cell phones?
The public should know the basics of law. Simple knowledge of legal rules like the presumption of innocence, that a law is presumed constitutional upon its passage unless a proper court rules otherwise and that the Bill of Rights refers to the government's suppression of rights like free speech and not the private sector's actions.
We can find the answers to what troubles us and make our nation a better place to live. That's my opinion. What is yours?
In his book, Secrecy and Privilege, Robert Parry quotes the late Keith Fuller, general manager of Associated Press, as saying:
""I think a nation is crying, "Enough.' A nation is saying, "We don't really believe that criminal rights should take precedence over the rights of victims. We don't believe that the union of Adam and Bruce is really the same as Adam and Eve in the eyes of Creation. We don't believe that people should cash welfare checks and spend them on booze and narcotics"but most of all, we're sick of your self-perpetuating, burdening bureaucracy weighing ever more heavily on our backs." (205)
Fuller was a big supporter of Ronald Reagan for President in 1980 when he made this statement. Over the years, I have heard similar things said by Republicans who try to explain Democratic ideas. It is bad enough that they, like Fuller, claim to speak on behalf of the "nation" or the "people."
But what is worse is that they mischaracterize some points of view and flat out distort others. So I made a dialogue between this kind of Republican and me.
"We don't really believe that criminal rights should take precedence over the rights of victims."
That's funny. Neither do I and neither does anyone else I know.
Maybe you are talking about the rights of defendants. I believe that a person is innocent unless proven guilty and deserves the rights guaranteed under the Constitution, such as the right not to be a witness against themselves, the right to counsel, the right to due process, etc.
If you want the rights of victims to take precedence over these rights, first ask yourself how you would feel if you were put under arrest.
"We don't believe the union of Adam and Bruce is really the same as Adam and Eve in the eyes of Creation."
You probably have a different concept of creation than I do. That's OK. But what is not OK is a society where my wife and I have the right to marry one another and two other people are not allowed that right.
And please do not give me a "slippery slope" argument that if we allow same-sex marriage, we will wind up allowing people to marry animals or any other absurdity. The movement to allow same-sex marriage simply would allow two people of the same sex the same rights as a man and a woman.
"We don't believe that people should cash welfare checks and spend them on booze and narcotics."
I don't believe this, either. However, it is not what you say, but what you imply.
Some people simply cannot work. Other people have trouble finding work. Still others would rather take a welfare check than work. And some of those on welfare do abuse drugs, including alcohol.
But how do we monitor those on welfare so they do not engage in this kind of behavior? Do you want to add more bureaucrats to check on them? (Just asking!)
"But most of all, we're sick of your self-perpetuating, burdening bureaucracy weighing ever more heavily on our backs."
I assume you are talking about the government. I've got news for you: have you ever been to a typical corporation? They have a bureaucracy, too. You don't apply for a job at Costco by going to the Customer Complaint line, do you?
It sounds like you are saying that you want the government off your back. What, exactly, does our government force you to do? Pay your taxes, serve on jury duty and"it used to force men to submit to the draft.
If you don't like what your government is doing, remember that most government is local. Go tell your city council what you think about regulations, taxes, fees, etc.
Oh yeah, there would be a problem if you want fewer bureaucrats: no one would be there to listen to you tell them what you are sick of!
What is the future of the society we live in?
It won't be about what laws to write, where bombs will drop or who will get elected. It will instead be about something we have known how to do our whole lives.
We need to ask the right questions of one another.
And we need to listen.
Instead of asking whether one believes in God,
we should ask whether our own actions are godly.
Instead of asking whether one is pro-choice or pro-life,
we should ask what we can do to make sure every child is wanted.
Instead of asking "Why Me?"
we should ask "What Can I Do to Help This Situation?"
Instead of demanding the truth from others,
we should tell it ourselves.
Instead of pushing to make more money,
we should ask what we can to do be more valuable to those around us.
Instead of condemning illegal immigration,
we should watch whom we hire.
Instead of blaming "the terrorists"
we should identify the term objectively.
Instead of reading history literally,
we should talk back to it until we are satisfied of its facts.
We can choose a future where we continue to divide ourselves by labels or one where we confront problems and work together to solve them. The economy will be bad for quite some time and political matters won't be much better so divisions will be costly.