Every successful revolutionary movement starts with an act of defiance – as ordinary people stand up against the tyrants who are ruling them. The Boston Tea Party of 1773 is an iconic example, as colonists dumped a shipload of tea into the harbor rather than acknowledge the right of the British Parliament to tax it. The tea party, of course, helped spark the American Revolution as its message of “no taxation without representation” gave voice to deeply held resentments throughout the American colonies.
The media have made much ado about the political Tea parties, started in 2009, that have had some level of success in protesting the government expansions under the Obama administration. Unfortunately, that movement – for all its many good points and despite the clarity of its Taxed Enough Already moniker – represents a mish-mash of ideas and has been plagued by factional disputes. The most successful mini-revolutions take place when the People are unified around a simple and clearly understood theme.
One of the best recent representations of that old defiant spirit can be found in the past couple of weeks in the Los Angeles suburb of Bell, a poor mostly Latino city of about 37,000, where about 2,000 city residents showed up and forced the resignation of worthless city officials after they learned about the way they had enriched themselves at the expense of city taxpayers. As one Bell resident said after a council member gave a self-serving justification of her $100,000 part-time salary (council members typically earn about $8,000 a year): “You were a crook yesterday, you’re a crook today, and you’ll be a crook tomorrow.”
That’s a simple idea most of us can rally around! The crooks are ripping us off.
The Bell situation garnered national attention because of the level of plundering. A city manager, Robert Rizzo, earned $787,000 a year from the impoverished burb – a place that has been cutting services and where 10 percent of the budget went to Rizzo, Police Chief Randy Adams ($457,000) and Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia ($357,000).
Rizzo – who lives in fancy digs in Huntington Beach and has a horse farm in Washington state – boasted that he could have easily earned as much in the private sector, which is a load of nonsense and something that all city managers claim. Yet these managers, who typically make nearly $300,000 a year in California, manage basic city tasks in a bureaucratic monopoly environment. They do not run the equivalent of private, competitive firms.
Because of the bad publicity, California officials rushed in to make declarations about the awfulness of the Bell situation. Attorney General Jerry Brown, who is almost wholly dependent on the public sector unions for his gubernatorial campaign against former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, decried the salaries and launched investigations in city contracts. Steve Cooley, the Los Angeles County district attorney and GOP attorney general candidate, vowed to look into various fraud allegations surrounding the corrupt little Bell fiefdom. But Cooley himself is a testament to the pension problem, given his expected $275,000-plus cost-of-living-adjusted pension from Los Angeles County taxpayers. And where were they before this? Where are they on the many other little fiefdoms that are ripping off the populace?
Reports suggest that Rizzo and his cohorts manipulated a bureaucratic system that they understood (and the city residents didn’t) to enrich themselves. Pending anything that the AG and DA can prove, this appears to have been legal. The problem in Bell is that the greedbags got too greedy. How can anyone justify a pension for Rizzo that is worth somewhere around $30 million and whose costs will be spread out among 140 cities that are pooled with Bell in its retirement system? It wasn’t justified — it was quietly pushed through.
The real problem is politicians of all stripes and from the federal to the state to the municipal level have created an unsustainable two-tier system – the system of haves (government employees, who can retire as early as their 50s often with six-figure salaries) and the have-nots (private workers who will work until we drop and rely on measly Social Security returns and whatever savings and 401/k plans we have). Public employee unions would have us believe that there have been excesses at the top, but that the system is otherwise fine. They point to relatively low pension averages, which are deceptive given that averages include people who worked a short time in employee retirement systems and ignore the vast pension-spiking in recent years (and the fact that public retirement averages are around three times private averages).
The government employee excesses go top to bottom. California’s $100,000 Pension Club has 15,000 members and membership is growing by about 40 percent a year, according to the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility, which sponsors the database. Rank-and-file police and firefighters are found throughout that list. One cop in San Francisco – not the chief, mind you – has a compensation package of $517,000 a year. Public safety officials have abused the trust the public places on them, and have often trotted out the memory of 9-11, to enrich themselves beyond belief. They abuse overtime, disability retirements and other rules to in essence make themselves millionaires who can retire as early as 50 and live a life of leisure. They overstate the dangers they face and use emotional arguments to eliminate criticism of the plundering they seek from the taxpayer – and these unions have been particularly effective at intimidating politicians at the local level. Who doesn’t want the police and fire endorsement and to pose by police cars and fire trucks in campaign literature? No candidate wants to endure the endless hit mailers depicting them as enemies of public safety.
This is a bipartisan problem, even though Democrats tend to be wholly owned subsidiaries of the unions, except in rare cases. Unfortunately, in my days a writer for the Orange County Register in rock-ribbed Republican country, I rarely saw much protest as these enrichment schemes were publicized. Yet in liberal Democratic and heavily immigrant Bell, Calif., where a large percentage of the population is thought to be here illegally, the population has taken the all-American approach to dealing with scoundrels. I applaud them.
I’m often asked how to fix the pension system. It’s a tough one. The rules are rigged at every level in the unions’ favor, which is no surprise given that union-backed legislators have been writing those rules for years now, with no one paying much attention to them. But imagine what would happen if city residents showed up at city halls around California and the nation and showed the level of anger that Bell residents displayed earlier in the week. Maybe things might change.
It’s time to dump greedy and self-serving council members and legislators into the harbor, figuratively speaking of course.