For every $1-an-hour pay increase, noted Dennis Cauchon in USA Today, public employees have gotten $1.17 in new benefits. Private workers have gotten just .58 cents in benefits for every $1 raise. This gap worries left-liberal labor economist Barry Bluestone. The price of state and local public services increased by 41 percent nationally between 2000 and 2008. Private services only increased by 27 percent. The benefit growth has continued unabated into the Great Recession, and Bluestone says the gap will inevitably produce a backlash.
Like banks, but with even less self-control, state governments make long-term promises in boom times while depending on the short-term flow of revenues. But when the boom ends, the benefits that have been ratcheted up have to be paid for out of a declining private sector economy. Barring a sharp recovery, state and local government tax-funded pension contributions in New York are likely to triple over the next five years in order to pay out the pension benefits guaranteed by the state constitution. (This is equally true in Illinois.) California’s public pension fund liability has already topped $200 billion, and in cities such as Oakland, Vallejo, and Rio Vista bankruptcy looms.If you want to really scare people on Halloween, dress up as a retired teacher, police officer, county lawyer, or any other public employee eligible for a pension and lifetime medical benefits. (Actually, that's the problem--we're not yet scared of these people, even as California issues IOUs. Maybe we'll pay attention when the sales tax is 20% and the DMV charges $400 to register an old car.)