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Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2011

Let's Hear It for Double Dipping

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Right-wing politicians who are trying to whip up hatred toward public employees are really into name-calling. And sometimes it's easy even for those of us who should know better to be taken in by it.

Let's talk about double dipping. Being called a double dipper is lots worse than just being called a dip. It implies something dishonest, underhanded and sleazy.

We all know Republican politicians, who are quite familiar with the concepts of dishonest, underhanded and sleazy, loathe public employees. Except, of course, when Republicans lie, cheat and twist laws to try to protect themselves from being recalled from their own jobs as public employees.

Still, Republicans were shocked to discover recently that double dipping was going on among public employees, including the worst kind of public employees in their minds: university employees.

The latest flap was over the vice chancellor in charge of finance at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, who suddenly began collecting both a salary and a pension for doing his job.

Tom Maki retired and then was rehired, so he was receiving not only his $131,000 annual salary, but also a state pension estimated at $40,000 to $70,000 a year.

It's a sweet deal. There's no question about that. But there are two other things everyone also should know.

One is that a pension, which may be an alien concept to most workers today, is a perfectly legitimate form of compensation for work already completed.

The other is that working for pay after retirement is not some kind of illegal scheme. It will probably be a requirement for everyone in the future.

First, we should explain about pensions. Gov. Scott Walker, aided by the media, misled a lot of people around the state into thinking public employees didn't have to pay anything for their pensions. But many argue that public employees actually paid 100% of those pensions.

Pensions once were a common form of compensation in this country. Instead of giving employees all their wages in a weekly paycheck, employers would hold back some of the employees' pay and put it into a pension to be paid out after retirement.

Pensions are rare today because employers began relentlessly reducing wages and benefits to increase their profits. Only employees with very strong unions managed to salvage their pensions.

Other working people either saw their pensions disappear completely or morph into 401(k)s, which employees had to fund out of their own salaries.

One of the most successful con jobs in history was Walker turning the anger of working people toward other workers who managed to hold onto pensions instead of where that anger logically should have been directed—at the employers who took away pensions from everyone else.

Playing by New Rules

For those who still have pensions, it makes perfect sense to retire and begin collecting the benefits when they are eligible. It is deferred compensation earned from years—usually decades—of work.

The next sensible thing to do, especially in these difficult economic times, is to get another job.

For most people, that does not mean getting another job as a university vice chancellor. But anyone with education, skills and years of management experience shouldn't have to become a greeter at Walmart either.

In fact, there are estimated to be about 6,000 state and other government employees who have retired, begun collecting pension benefits and then have been rehired as public employees. Only about 800 of them are university employees. Some, you may be interested to learn, are politicians.

This is beginning to look like the future for everyone.

You'd have to be living in a very deep open-pit iron mine in northern Wisconsin not to realize that politicians, especially Republican ones, want us all to work into our 70s, 80s and beyond so they won't have to fund Social Security and Medicare.

You'd also have to have a soft, well-compensated job as a congressman, senator or corporate CEO not to realize how difficult that is going to be for many people.

There are still a lot of jobs in this country that require heavy lifting. Octogenarians with walkers may not be able to continue to do the same physical labor they once did, no matter how spunky they are.

But even those working in cubicle jobs that are merely spiritually onerous become very familiar with the concept of old and in the way.

Glowing retirement tributes aside, corporate downsizing always targets well-paid veteran employees who can be replaced with cheap alternatives.

The rules of economic survival for ordinary working people keep changing.

We shouldn't attack anyone for double dipping until we find out how many dips we're going to need in order to live through whatever the top 1% who make all the rules have in store next for the rest of us.