We are locked in a generational war, which will get worse before it gets better. Indeed, it may not get better for a long time. No one wants to admit this, because it’s ugly and unwelcome. Parents are supposed to care for their children, and children are supposed to care for their aging parents. For families, these collective obligations may work. But what makes sense for families doesn’t always succeed for society as a whole. The clash of generations is intensifying.
The explanation for this is politics. For states and localities, benefit cuts affect government workers — a powerful but small group — while at the federal level, it’s all the elderly, a huge group that includes everyone’s parents and grandparents. As a result, the combat has been lopsided. Political leaders of both parties have avoided distasteful choices. Younger Americans have generally been clueless about how shifting demographics threaten their future government services and taxes.
First and foremost, Detroit suffered from an unprecedented loss of public revenue. As I’ve previously reported, this was brought on by many factors. The most obvious of those were the recession and free-trade-related deindustrialization, both of which decimated the city’s manufacturing job base and drove population out of the city. On top of that, the state of Michigan reduced its revenue sharing with the city.Second, the city and state spent — and is still spending — big money on wasteful corporate subsidies to politically connected private interests. That includes a reaffirmed commitment to spend $283 million — or more than the city’s entire annual budget shortfall — on a new professional hockey arena. Such profligate expenditures have drained revenues out of city coffers.But perhaps the least discussed factor is the financing cost associated with a series of Wall Street-engineered debt deals back in 2005 and 2006. These schemes crafted by UBS and Bank of America’s Merrill Lynch were supposed to reduce pension fund obligations by using derivatives to try to “synthetically” convert variable-rate interest instruments into fixed-rate contracts.
Commissioned by the think tank Demos, the new report out today from former investment banker Wallace Turbeville shows that contrary to the myths about a bloated municipal government overspending on lavish social services, Detroit’s “overall expenses have declined over the last five years” by $419 million thanks to the city “laying off more than 2,350 workers, cutting worker pay, and reducing future healthcare and future benefit accruals for workers.” Today, Turbeville notes that “Detroit has a significantly smaller workforce per capita than comparable cities.” Yet, those draconian cuts still left the city with an annual $198 million shortfall because of three big problems — none of which has anything to do with supposedly greedy public workers and their allegedly overly “generous” pension benefits.