Last month, the Legislative Analyst Office predicted a budget
shortfall for California’s next fiscal year so large it shocked even
seasoned observers. The projected $20 billion shortfall is larger
than the entire state budgets of all but a handful of other states.
The LAO also excoriated the continued use of budget gimmicks,
including unrealistic assumptions of new revenue and accounting tricks
employed to effectively borrow from future years.

But it is not as though we didn’t see this coming. Try as they might,
our state political leaders simply cannot reduce spending to a level
equal with revenue. Instead, with the help of a few Republicans, last
February the state enacted the largest tax increase ever imposed by
any statehouse in the history of America. The results were
predictable: Like the tax increase of 1991, California plunged deeper
into recession and produced less revenue.

The inability of politicians to restrain their spending of taxpayer
dollars is the direct result of the forceful application of political
power. And, in California, there are no greater political influences
than the public employee unions. Between the most powerful unions –
reflected in the alphabet soup of acronyms CTA, SEIU, CCPOA & AFSCME –
they are able to force the legislators whom they placed into power
(many union leaders themselves) to maintain a high level of government
largess. Even liberal Democratic leader Bill Lockyer, now state
Treasurer, publicly scolded a legislative committee saying they were
incapable of reforms because of who put them in power.

It is in this context that Steven Greenhut has just released his book,
aptly titled Plunder! How Public Employee Unions Are Raiding
Treasuries Controlling Our Lives and Bankrupting the Nation. Readers
who have high blood pressure are advised to take a double dose of
medication before opening this book. For the vast majority of
ordinary citizens who toil in the private sector, this book will
produce more than outrage – it is likely to spur many to take up the
cause of stopping these corrupting influences on our systems of

The real outrage will kick in at Chapter Two, entitled Unbelievable
Pay and Benefits. It is here that Greenhut catalogs the shocking
abuses of public employee compensation. While the book is national in
scope, much of it focuses on California because it is in the aptly
named Golden State that produces great treasures for those on the
public payroll.

Public employee pensions, Greenhut explains, are fundamentally
different from the retirement plans in the private sector. Unlike
401(k) accounts, the public sector offers “defined benefit” retirement
– meaning that the amount of the retirement benefit is guaranteed (by
the taxpayers, of course) even if the retirement account itself is too
small to cover the obligations. Thus, we poor saps who may have a
401(k) or a modest IRA have the “privilege” of seeing our own
retirement benefits shrink with the recession but, at the same time,
must shell out larger amounts of taxpayer dollars to ensure that
public employees are given their gold plated retirements.

Greenhut also dedicates a full chapter to discussing our dysfunctional
public education system. While most Americans take public education
as a given, Greenhut asks some pointed questions about our
assumptions. Why should we, for example, hand society’s most
important function – the education of our children – over to a
monolithic and monopolistic institution? Indeed, is it not because
schools have no competition that is the source of much of the
dysfunction? Why is it that private schools frequently educate our
young more effectively and cheaper than the public schools? Again,
the resistance to any competition, meaning charter schools and
especially against school vouchers, is driven not by the interests of
the students, but by the interests of the powerful teachers unions.

In sum, Plunder! is a powerful indictment against the most corrupting
influences on our political system. The unions are expert at gaming
this system and, unless those of us on the private side of the ledger
wake up and realize the extent of these distortions, we will never be
masters of our own fate. Quoting Bess Myerson, Greenhut states “the
accomplice to the crime of corruption is frequently our own

To make a difference, lovers of liberty ought not only to buy
Greenhut’s book, but buy several copies to distribute to friends and
family. To win the battle, we have to educate voters and Plunder!
will not only educate, it will enrage. And in this case, a little
rage is a good thing.