Why We Need Pension Reform

Democrats who oppose it are putting liberal interest groups ahead of ideals

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Illustration by Oliver Munday for TIME

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The net effect of these retirement benefits is to starve state and local governments of funds for anything else. Last year, California spent $32 billion on employee pay and benefits, which is up 65% over the past 10 years. In that same period, spending on higher education is down 5%. Three-quarters of San Jose's discretionary spending goes to its public-safety workers alone--police and firefighters. The city has closed libraries, cut back on park services, laid off many civil servants and asked the rest to take pay cuts. By 2014, San Jose, the 10th largest city in the U.S., will be serviced by 1,600 public workers, one-third the number it had 25 years ago.

The system as it is evolving is highly regressive. Current workers will have their salaries cut, their numbers thinned and their benefits slashed, all to maintain relatively comfortable benefits for retirees, who are on average richer than the people who are being asked to make these sacrifices. Current residents will watch their services dwindle, so that retirees--again, who are richer on average than they are--can have guaranteed generous cost-of-living increases year after year.

Public-sector unions are strong supporters of the Democratic Party, so their clout has drowned out the voices of the poor, the young, students and average citizens. That is why real credit for courage should go to those few Democrats who are taking on these issues, even at the cost of losing support from one of their key constituencies. That includes mayors like Rahm Emanuel and Chuck Reed as well as governors like Andrew Cuomo and Pat Quinn. Sadly, they are too few and too isolated. Democrats should take note: the ideals of liberalism are now being sacrificed for the interest groups of liberals.

TO READ MORE BY FAREED ZAKARIA, GO TO time.com/zakaria

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