Thursday, May 7, 2009

Who's With Us?

In keeping with a recent trend, the following post is a transcript of a conversation with fellow blogger "Smack" - with this added wrinkle: it cross references a post from Paul Levy's excellent blog Running A Hospital.

The topic at hand, as introduced by Paul Levy's post, is the unethical pension payments being made to 10 former Massachusetts legislators, and an interesting proposal on how current elected officials can address this issue.
Excerpts from Paul's post, including my comments (the first of which I erroneously posted anonymously) comments, are below, followed by the conversation with Smack. I encourage readers to weigh in with their own opinions by posting a comment. Enjoy.
Here's a proposal for a different approach to a political issue currently facing the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, one that would enhance the stature of the Governor and would also achieve the result most people think is correct.

Imagine the following. Each of those 10 former legislators receives the following call from the Governor's office: "I'm calling to let you know that at 3pm this afternoon, Governor Patrick is going to call on you and the other nine former legislators to voluntarily relinquish this pension benefit. He would be honored to have you stand by him during this press conference to announce that you have agreed to do so -- to give you a chance to receive credit for a selfless act that sends a signal to the people of the state that former public officials realize that this kind of benefit undermines public confidence and current efforts to balance the state budget and retain important services."

The second part of the conversation, to be held in reserve pending the reaction to this request, would be the following:"I'm sorry to hear that you feel this way. The Governor wanted me to let you know that, in that case,we will display a picture of you with the amount of payments you will receive in your lifetime both at this press conference and in every public appearance the Governor makes and on his websites, where hundreds of thousands of people will see this until the situation is legally reversed. He would prefer not to do that because he appreciates your years of public service, but there is something more important at stake here."

Now, perhaps those ten people wouldn't care about this, but I am guessing that their reputation in their community matters to them.

Maybe that would help them to do the right thing. Whether they did or did not, it would give the Governor additional moral authority to pursue appropriate legal action to undo this benefit and achieve other reforms. It would set him apart in the public eye and help in pending budgetary and pension fund matters.

Anonymous said...
Paul, it’s one thing to capitalize on public opinion to bring about meaningful reform, but it’s another thing entirely to use a public office to strong-arm citizens under an ambiguous "moral authority." Should these pension payments cease? Absolutely. Is there a more practical and ethical way of handling this? Certainly. Imagine the precedent an action like this would set. What limits would this moral authority have? What recourse would the next group of targeted individuals have?

Paul Levy said...
These are not "citizens" in the general sense. They are former legislators and are earning this money solely as a result of that legislative service. I think the Governor has the right to ask them to display a higher standard.

Ian McCarty said...
1. The Governor has no "moral authority."2. We are all citizens in the"general sense."3. This would just be more grandstanding by the Governor, still the only hold out in terms of filing actual legislation to resolve this issue. As Tim Cahill said on Tuesday "I think the Governor is grandstanding on this issue. He's the only one who hasn't filed legislation to change this. The Senate has, the House has, and we've been filing some form of pension legislation for the past couple of years. Change going backward is just grandstanding. It's not going to save a lot of money in the long run, and it's not going to restore confidence if we're not changing things going forward."
Within Reason: Check this out - interesting topic.
Smack: I think I basically agree with Paul.

WR: You're kidding. You think the Governor should be able to strong arm law abiding citizens based on a non-existent moral authority? Should a pro-life governor post photos of women who have had abortions on-line?

This is like when the government starts taking away civil liberties and tries to sooth the public by saying "law abiding citizens have nothing to fear."

S: How do you figure that public servants have no moral obligation? They’re voted into public office to serve the state. It’s wrong that they’re taking a pension. They should stop or face public scrutiny. It’s state money that they’re messing with. I don’t feel the same way about the private sector.

WR: We are governed by laws - not people. We don't elect kings, we elect officials to administer our government. Granted, we want forward thinking officials who can be both proactive and reactive in their management of our government. You do not legislate morals in this country - in fact, quite the opposite. Legislating morals violates freedoms that are inherently granted to us, and the government cannot impede upon or legislate - in other words, we come into being with rights, the government is in place to make sure no one gets in our way of exercising them.
If it's the public money that bugs you, what if Governor Patrick wanted to amend our welfare system to a point where a few dozen people, who were legally receiving government money, were asked to repay the government, or face public scrutiny. Would that work for you?

S: No, that’s different. Unless the people on welfare are elected officials and their welfare payments are public record.

I don’t know the specifics about this law that they’re collecting pensions under so I can’t comment on the legality of what these people are doing. Following your logic…Outing these people would legal. The info is all public record. So it’s ok, right?

WR: About the law - it's questionable, and should be revoked - but it's the law. About the public record - you're right. But I'm not talking about the availability of information, I'm talking about the intent to intimidate. About the elected officials - if we expect them to follow the laws, they must be the same laws that govern all of us, and they must be enforced uniformly throughout the populous.
There are laws in place to ensure the "good behavior" of elected officials (ask Former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, or Rod Blagojevich), but these 10 former legislators were operating within the law.

S: There’s a fine line between aggressive reform and two wrongs making a right. I think, specifically in this case, it’s ok to send a message. I don’t think it’s setting the precedent to strip private citizens of any rights.

WR: The precedent it's sets is "I am the Governor. My opinions regarding past events are de facto law. Anytime I find out somethings been going on that I don't like, I will change it - and pressure ‘violators’ to act like the law has been in place all along."

S: There are no quotes necessary for violators. What’s happening is not illegal but it’s wrong.
The precedent it sets is: if you’re a public official then you’re publicly accountable for wrongdoing.

WR: When does wrongdoing become wrongdoing?

S: In general or in this example? In this example it became wrong when they unethically took pensions.

In general - I don’t have enough time to put proper thought into a definition right now. I’m not going to just throw something out there for you to rip apart.

WR: Here is my larger point - both you and Paul are trying to say that the government should be able to specifically target individuals and instances that, however legal they may be, are not ethical, popular, or both. The problem with that is - we are a society of laws. When the government starts side stepping laws to enforce their agenda, even if it is in lock step with public opinion, you get the breakdown of our society. That may sound dramatic (and it is - but come on, this is me), but you can draw a parallel between this and, say, water-boarding, i.e. Terrorists: "Immoral." American Government: "Moral Authority." American Public: "Terrorists Bad!" American Government's course of action - "To hell with the laws! We're right! Go get the caterpillars and Dobermans." See what I mean?

S: But this isn’t about enforcing a particular agenda, unless you think doing the right thing is an agenda. This is about fixing a problem in a public forum. You can’t liken this to water-boarding because torture is illegal.

It’s the corruption that’s breaking down our society. If we start making these people accountable then maybe we’ll get somewhere. FYI, I think we should amend the law also.

WR: What is the "right thing?"

S: That goes beyond the scope of my argument. In this case it’s clear and it’s my understanding that you agree with me on that.

WR: I'm not arguing that the law is correct, I am arguing that law itself is correct.
I am sure there have been plenty of elected officials - again, W. comes to mind - who have thought "To hell with the law, it's wrong and I AM RIGHT!" It does not work that way, though. If you want the pensions to stop, change the law - you are the government, you can do that (to a point). As a matter of fact, it is all you can do within your elected capacity. To step outside of that capacity is an even more severe transgression against our system of government than is bilking it for a few thousand $k.

S: I agree that they should change the law.

I still have no problem with publicizing what these legislators have been doing and how much they’ve been taking. It’s not an extreme measure. The public should know, especially if these people are in a position to run again.

WR: We'll have to end it there, agreeing to very strongly disagree. The law is the law for a reason. I understand that in this case, the "violators" in question are former public officials, but this standard is an imaginary line that could be placed anywhere moving forward, were this precedent to be set.

S: But how is this even a precedent? Since when is pointing out public information a new thing?
There has to be accountability and transparency.

WR: We’re at an impasse. Let’s open this up to commenters.


  1. The law is the law. There are ways to change/reform laws through legal channels and legislation. Slavery anyone? How about a women's right to vote? A democracy is not intended to govern by humiliation and bully tactics...
    Hold on a minute. I like this
    holding public officials to a higher standard slant. I think we may be onto something. Let's expand that a bit. Let's include clergy, police officers, firemen, and teachers. They all have pensions and certainly they should be held to that higher standard.
    If they don't like it, let's just humiliate them. Hey, what about doctors? Especially pediatricians, after all they work with children...
    Wait a minute here. We can solve the fiscal crisis. Let's hold anyone with a pension to a higher standard! It's for the common good. No need to worry about any laws here.
    We are all being held to a higher standard.

  2. Thanks for weighing in.

    I absolutely agree with your line of thinking. There is no problem with an elected official wanting to change the way our government operates - in fact, I remember that being pretty popular about 7 or 8 months ago - but to do so in a manner that is not in line with the prescribed authority of our government is, quite simply, an abuse of power.