Friday, April 8, 2011

Is Willful Stupidity an Excuse for Bad Policy?

According to this report in the LA Times, a number of California cities continued to ramp up public pension benefits as the 2007 recession ballooned into the full-blown collapse of 2008. And a fair part of the slashing of staff going on these days is attributable to these decisions.

For example, Costa Mesa (you know, the Orange County city that just laid off half its employees) bumped up pension benefits for firefighters at an annual cost of $694,000. According to Councilwoman Wendy Leece, "At that time, the unsustainability of pensions was not a front-burner item. We were looking at the bigger issue of reducing the budget. The firefighters came with this plan, and it saved us money, rather than give(sic) them a raise". Now the city plans to disband its Fire Department and outsource firefighting out to the County. Oops!

Then there's San Bernardino, which has seen its pension costs soar 50% since increasing benefits in 2008. Now, one in every $10 the city spends goes to pensions, and they've cut police officers and scaled back things like park and roadway maintenance. According to Councilman Rikke van Johnson, "Other cities were doing it, and we decided it would be better to pay more than lose our employees to other places and have to retrain new ones." Apparently some people will jump off a bridge if they see others doing it.

In case that wasn't dumb enough for you, the cities of Newport Beach and Laguna Beach decided to give their lifeguards the same generous pensions their firefighters and police get. According to Newport city manager David Kiff, this isn't excessive: "You should see them when there's a huge swell at the Wedge in Newport Beach. I wouldn't want to be risking my life like that."

The excuse here is that no one was worried about unsustainable pensions back in 2008, even if they saw a need to trim budgets in response to the crisis. If this is true, then these folks are either stunningly irresponsible, or dumb as bricks. Either it didn't occur to them that twin collapses in real estate and stocks would have any effect on their ability to pay for their promises, or they didn't give a s@#t and made the promises anyway. On the other hand, maybe it's not a question of either/or.


  1. JustinApr 8, 2011 03:30 PM
    Is it a measure of the current state of rhetoric that my initial reaction to the politicians' explanations was "Hmm, that's not so bad"?

    I was expecting more of a "If you want to cut our lifeguards' pensions, you want to see people die in the surf" kind of attitude.

    I'm sure it's coming, though.
  2. GSLApr 8, 2011 03:38 PM
    I guess I read them all as saying, "Sure, we made idiotic, irresponsible choices at a bad time, and now a lot of the people we wanted to help out are getting laid off, and we've contributed to a problem that may swallow California's economy completely. But don't our lame excuses make you feel better about it anyway?"

    But yes, it's probably coming. I'll never forget, when I was in Boston, how the city got a tax increase passed by threatening to euthanize zoo animals in the Franklin Park Zoo.
  3. JustinApr 8, 2011 04:07 PM
    Was it a Wilie-Horton-as-a-zookeeper ad?
  4. GSLApr 8, 2011 04:11 PM
    Nah. I think they were just going to set them all loose by the lake at Chappaquiddick.