False Platitudes

Lou Paulson
President of California Professional Firefighters, which represents more than 30,000 local, state and federal firefighters

During my three decades as a frontline firefighter, I had the honor to receive innumerable expressions of appreciation from the people we serve. Although firefighters and police officers don’t think of themselves as “heroes,” the heartfelt support from the public is humbling … when it’s sincere.

Sometimes, though, it isn’t sincere. Then it’s downright infuriating. Exhibit A: David Crane.

The Wall Street lawyer and former Schwarzenegger advisor recently extolled the importance of thousands of “public safety workers” who battled the devastating North Bay firestorm. Even as the deadly fires were still smoldering, Mr. Crane invoked the good name of our brothers and sisters on the lines not to praise them, but to attack their retirement security.

Thanks for nothing, Dave.  

There really is a retirement crisis in our state and our nation and it is a “threat to civil order.”  It’s not the pensions of firefighters, police officers and school custodians. It’s the tens of millions of Americans who have no hope of retirement because they can’t afford it.  Here are the facts: Three out of four Americans worry that they will not have enough money to retire, according to the National Institute on Retirement Security. Nearly 45 percent haven’t saved a penny toward it.

Not long ago, many workers depended on defined-benefit pensions. But most such plans have been undone by corporate greed, leaving most to squirrel away what few spare dollars they have into personal savings.  If they’re lucky, workers may have a risky 401k, leaving their retirement entirely to the whims of Wall Street. (Spoiler alert: Whether stocks go up or down, the barons of Wall Street always win).

The cold reality is that retirement security is being hijacked. Wall Street profits handsomely from the costly fees of private retirement plans that do not provide the guarantee of retirement security. Crane himself made millions while he was a partner at the now-defunct international financial firm of Babcock and Brown.

For Crane and his fellow heralds of “civil disorder”, blowing up pensions is good for business. And now, if Congress gets its way, even the meager tax benefit for 401k savings will be gone.

Those of us fortunate enough to have a secure retirement understand its value, and truly appreciate the contributions of those – including taxpayers – who make it possible. But these benefits are not a gift – they were earned from a lifetime of service and were negotiated in good faith with our elected leaders. They’re also paid for: Across California, millions of working people are paying a whole lot more for their pensions.

We are seeing critical shortages in attracting and retaining those who dedicate their life to public service. Cities including San DiegoPalo Alto , and Sacramento are offering significant incentives beyond pensions to attract qualified peace officers. San Jose’s department has shrunk by 33 percent – largely due to former Mayor Chuck Reed’s pension attacks. California’s teacher shortage is at its worst in a decade. Eliminating retirement security for these public servants won’t solve these shortages. It will only make them worse.

It’s one thing to have the David Cranes of the world launching bold-face attacks on the retirement security they have worked so tirelessly to undermine. But when they do it by invoking the public safety’s good name even in the shadow of catastrophic fires, well it’s hard not to take that personally.

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