Honoring Labor....at CalPERS
It is not uncommon for legitimate criticisms of a larger policy or organization to morph into a narrative that unfairly characterizes entire groups of workers. Before launching my summary of various problems at CalPERS, I want to distinguish those occupying the upper reaches of management from the many thousands of other workers employed at the pension fund. Why ?
One of my early lessons in the California Legislature emerged with what for me was a novel political agenda: down-sizing government. While criticisms were readily available to attack the performance of any group of public workers, various partisans were always prepared to use such reviews as the basis for dismantling entire programs, departments, or agencies. Part of what the general public so often missed in the rough and tumble of politics is that those seeking to prove the virtues of running government like a business often engaged covert actions to discredit the work of public agencies. A casualty of these attacks often included not-so-subtle attacks on public workers including their inability to perform their jobs as well as their counter-parts in the private sector.
Arnold Schwarzeneggerʻs original campaign promise for "blowing up the boxes" - ridding the public of the waste and fraud in Sacramento represented a classic example of such baseless attacks on public workers. After months of internal reviews, audits, and task force meetings, many citizens recognized that the actor-governorʻs campaign posture, while perhaps a compelling sound-bite, reflected considerable ignorance regarding the millions of public employees who keep things running across the state.
Teaching our children, maintaining transportation, protecting our environment, and taking care of the elderly represent the daily accomplishments of public workers performing the essential tasks of a modern society. More crucially, public workers perform virtually all of these tasks in accordance to an agenda to enrich the lives of citizens, not to line the pockets of the wealthy. Indeed, it is the conflict between private and public interests that so often represents the heart of so many political battles - a dynamic that certainly appears evident in the conflicts at CalPERS.
At the heart of many critical reviews surrounding CalPERS has been the issue of public participation and inquiry into the management of the pension fund. To many, such arguments sound like a boring transcript containing an abundance of procedural minutia. Yet, beneath the mind-numbing back and forth is a deeper conflict, one involving a tussle between public and private interests. Indeed, it is a classic confrontation where the exclusion of public discussion and transparency reflects the anti-democratic character that so often accompanies private-sector decision-making.
As I explore the criticisms that have been leveled against CalPERS in the coming days, I hope readers will appreciate the important difference that so often exists between the responsibilities and duties of those holding positions of authority versus the much larger group of individuals performing the daily task to ensure for the retirement and well-being for millions of Californians.