Contracts Are Not Binding in Illinois

If you agree to work for 8 hours for $100, $60 to be paid today, $40 to be paid on Friday, and your boss only coughs up $20 when Friday rolls around, what is the best word for what has happened? To listen to Illinois's governor, state legislators, and major newspapers, you might think that the appropriate word is “reform.”

Under Illinois’s new “Pension Reform” law, workers will not be paid what what they were promised when the agreed to do the work. Among other things, the law will diminish scheduled annual pension increases for those who have already retired or who are about to retire. There would no longer be a 3% increase to the whole pension every year. Instead, to put it most simply, the increase would be on a lesser amount, and it would apply only to that amount each year. Thanks to the loss of compound interest, the reduction in the retiree’s income will become more dramatic with each passing year.

The supporters of the state’s action claim necessity: the state wants the money for other things. Doubtless everyone who wants to stiff a worker wants the money for another purpose, but that does not lessen the obligation to pay up. The state faces a crisis for the reason most people facing huge debts do: it spent without saving. While its retirees made real contributions to their pension plans, the state failed to make the promised matching payments. Instead, it made “notional payments,” matching real money from the workers with worthless IOU’s. It promised to make those markers good when the time came, and the time is now.

During the years I worked for it as a college professor, the state promised me retirement on stated terms. The deal was that I could retire at 55 after accumulating 20 years of service, and that I would then receive a pension to be figured by a set formula, a pension that would be increased by 3% each year. That was as much a part of the agreement—our contract—as that I would teach and do research and receive a salary nine months of the year. I did my part: I expect to state to do its part, too.

Some legislators and editorialists have tried to blame this crisis on the unions, which had too much influence over the craven legislature. But I was never represented by a union—and my university did all in its power to keep it that way. I simply took the deal the state offered. The state is responsible for all the agreements it entered into, even with those ogres the “union bosses.” But it cannot claim that people like me forced it to make unequal bargains, because we never had a chance to bargain with them at all. (If we had had a say, I think few would have given up Social Security benefits—the state did not care to pay its share of FICA—and many would have opted to have had the money deducted from their checks put into 403(b)’s beyond the state’s control.) The state cannot claim that its retirees receive payments thanks to the legislature’s largesse, and not by contractual right, because the Illinois Constitution explicitly states that a public pension is an “enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired” (Art. XII; Sec. 5).

What is at issue here is the sanctity of contracts. No one claims that our contract was not valid: it was clearly agreed that my colleagues and I would exchange our labor for a salary, certain benefits, and a pension with annual increases of 3%. It is the responsibility of the people of the state of Illinois to honor that contract. The state is not bankrupt so long as it has the power to tax. The people of the state—who elected legislators who made promises that are now unpleasant to keep because they set aside too little year after year—are responsible for fulfilling that contract. They have no more right to hold onto what they owe us than a boss has the right to hold back a $20 bill from a casual laborer. Illinois has not enacted a reform; it is attempting a swindle.

N.B.: I have never been a citizen of Illinois, so I stand in relation to that state only as a party to a labor contract. While citizens of Illinois in my position may be blamed for failing to discharge their crooked or incompetent legislators and governors, I cannot. And the harm the state plans to do me is real. My annual pension is now in the mid-$30,000’s. If these “reforms” are allowed to stand, in ten years’ time, I will have lost about $30,00 of what was promised me.

Is Santa Irish?

I have just been catching up on the important questions that roil the American media. I can’t deny that they go to the core of our civilization. A black lady is upset that Santa and Jesus don't look like her, and a white lady—a very blonde white lady—rushes to say: “Yes!! White! Peaches ’n’ Cream white! White and nothing but white! What’s wrong with that?” I feel their pain.

When I was a young Irish lad, looking at the pictures of Santa wounded me each Christmas. He did not look like my people. His countenance that of a man of Germanic stock. "Why not a Celtic Santa?" I asked, as I wept into my Christmas stocking—a stocking that would be filled on Christmas morning with a potato, if I had been good, or a rotten potato, if I had been bad. Why, O why, did the Dutch get to give Santa not only his name, but his looks, too? And why was Black Pete still working for that old honky?

But as the years went by, I learned that Christmas was not about Santa. It was about Jesus. People showed me pictures of him, too. He was also sometimes Germanic, but more often Italian. He was never Irish: his hair was never red, like our Irish friends, or snow white, like the pates of every male relation of mine over 27. Besides, it had clearly been styled with more “product” than any Irishman has ever wasted good Guinness money on. Was my savior really a guy from the former Holy Roman Empire? How could he care about a Gael?

While in this state of dejection—all caused by the continental chaps dressed up as Santa and Jesus—I sat myself down to read the Lives of Saints. It turned out that St. Nicholas was not Dutch! He was Greek. He lived in Turkey. He’d never even had a Coca-Cola, much less appeared in one of their commercials. Now I know the Greeks count as white people, but if you stand one up next to Heidi Klum, you’ll wonder if they are in the same species, let alone race. They are the olive-toned cousins of us pasty people!

Then I learned a little more about Jesus. Sure, the man was a Jew! And his mother was, too, so even the rabbis couldn’t tell you otherwise! Why, it made me think about James Joyce—and that always makes my head hurt from confusion until I remember the funny bits and start laughing. He talks about a fellow named Shem the Penman who has a brother named Shaun the Postman. I think they’re brothers, but Shem is Hebrew, Greek, and Irish, while Shaun is Egyptian, Roman, and English, so maybe they’re not related at all, at all. Shem is a prophet and always ends up drinking hemlock, or getting crucified, or starving in a potato feminine, while Shaun builds pyramids and paves roads and makes the seas safe for commerce and in general builds great empires while seeing to it that Shem does most of the work and only gets a potato, a stuffed grape leaf, and some bitter herbs for his trouble.

So there you are. Shaun’s paid for the pictures of St. Nick and our Lord and Savior, though I’m sure he had Shem do the painting. If you see either one of them looking like a fat old Dutchman or a fellow fresh from the hairstylist, you’ll know you being told Shaun's fairy stories, not the truth. And how would Shem depict the holy skin tones, if he didn’t need to please the old Shaun? Well, I’ve known blue-eyed Jews, and vitiligo can affect the whole body, so you can make them look Irish or German if you want to. My own bet would be that St. Nicholas would be a dead ringer for any stern but generous old guy in Athens today. And Jesus? If you want the right model, you’ll find him in Hebron or Nablus. Remember that in his day both carpentry and preaching were outdoor work, so he’ll have a good tan. (We will leave all thought of any ancestral connections Jesus might have had with the Jews of Ethiopia for another time.)

And to those ladies who got so upset over whether Santa looked like them, all I can say is, people are unhappy enough: don’t start them arguing about how the saints and savior parted their hair. And, whatever he looks like, Jesus loves you. But if I were you I wouldn’t be counting on a visit from St. Nicholas this year.

Admiral Kimmel and Secretary Sebilius

The disastrous introduction of the new healthcare website has me thinking of Admiral Kimmel. Husband E. Kimmel, the Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet in 1941, was one of the last American leaders to lose his position due to a failure. Since his day, people have lost important jobs for other reasons, but not for simply presiding over a debacle. 

Kimmel was by no means a bad man or an inefficient officer. He simply prepared for the wrong threat, ignored the real one, and left his command unable to respond when the attack came. The culpability for the loss of all the ships and planes and men fell on the Japanese Empire, but the responsibility for the defeat the American forces had suffered was Kimmel’s. He was removed from command of the Pacific Fleet, reduced in rank, and never received another appointment. And all because of a failure that wasn’t entirely his fault.

Since then military, civilian, academic, and business leaders have seen their careers destroyed, but rarely for simple failure. Most of the generals I can recall being dismissed during my lifetime lost their jobs because they criticized the president, not because they lost a battle. Academic leaders who have adopted disastrous policies or alienated their faculties keep their salaries and perks and go on to enjoy the sort of paid leave that productive scholars have to struggle to get. CEO’s can leave their companies “illiquid” or bankrupt and still walk away with golden parachutes, not to mention the inflated salaries they received while guiding their enterprises toward the cliff.

Now we are seeing that, once again, there are no consequences for failure in public office. That was made clear during the last administration, when the Medal of Freedom was bestowed on George Tenet, the CIA Director who put his imprimatur on the reports of Iraqi weapons of mass destructions that justified the Gulf War, after having failed to prevent the 9/11 attacks. Only the suspicion that he was in fact receiving a pay-off for producing the lies needed to support the war President Bush had already decided to start made that honor seem like a corrupt bargain instead of a ridiculous sham. It was truly farcical when the same president told the Director of FEMA, an agency then not doing much to assist the victims of Hurricane Katrina, that he was doing a “Heckuva Job.” 

If any hoped that things would change with the Obama administration, they have been disappointed in this area, as in so many others. The centerpiece of the president’s domestic policy is simply not working, and no one is being held accountable. The president has taken responsibility, but only to shrug it off again. He says over and over, “That’s on us,” not “That’s on me,” and never describes where he failed. The same is true of Secretary of Health and Human Services Sebilius. She takes responsibility verbally, but does not say where she herself went wrong. More significantly, she has not resigned her post, which is what someone responsible for a significant failure should do. Still worse, the president has not dismissed her. He can hardly resign: The Constitution clearly envisages that a president will fill out his term unless he is guilty of a crime. But she serves at his pleasure, and if he still thinks Secretary Sibelius the best person for the job, he clearly does not think the disastrous introduction of his health care plan as serious a matter as he claims when he takes responsibility for it.

What both these public servants owe the people is an honest explanation of how the current situation came to pass. The first question they should each answer is, “When did you first sit down at a laptop and try to log on to the prototype website?" If they never did that, we can leave it there. These leaders were too detached to see that things worked. When a software company issues a buggy release, users wonder why its CEO doesn’t try out his own stuff. All American citizens should ask the same questions of their leaders. 

The president and the secretary should then tell us why they thought the system for creating a website that they chose would work. Did they consider giving the job to a company that had done it, an eBay or an Amazon? Did they have someone who knew how such things worked in charge of the whole process? Who else in federal government actually made the decisions that led us to this point? The answers to those questions will help us do better in the future. And let’s not allow them to blame their political opponents: Once the ACA was passed, their job was to implement it despite them, if need be.

Before anything else happens, however, there has be some consequence for the failure that has become so obvious. I am not suggesting we shoot anyone, though I can’t help recalling what Voltaire said after the Royal Navy shot Admiral Byng for losing Minorca to the French: “The British shoot an admiral every now and then to encourage the others.” (I note that British admirals were largely victorious for the next 150 years.) I only suggest that someone lose a high profile job, as Admiral Kimmel did. Since it is President Obama’s duty to remain in office until the end of his term, that person should be Secretary Sebillius. Otherwise, our nation will one again send the message it has so often recently: we have zero tolerance for failure among the lowly; we do not even notice it among the great.

A Deal is a Deal. Right?

Our system of economic and social relations is built on a few simple and universally agreed upon principles. We believe in private property. You can’t just take what is mine. We believe in personal autonomy and responsibility. You can’t make me work or live somewhere if I do not myself agree to it, and I am responsible for the decisions I make and the commitments I enter into. Another one of our basic principles can be stated very simply: a deal is a deal. If two or more of us enter into an agreement and one of us does what has been agreed to, the others must live up to their end of the bargain, as well. If anything of the least value is involved in the exchange, what the lawyers call “consideration,” the agreement becomes a contract and can be enforced in the courts. In other words, a deal is a deal.

That, at least, is how I thought our society worked. It seems now that is no longer true. A deal isn’t the deal if one side doesn’t find it convenient to keep up their end, even if the other side past has fulfilled its part of the bargain for years and years and years.
Three examples leap to mind. The first is the case of retirees from Peabody Coal. I do not say from Patriot coal because many of these people didn’t work for the entity spun off from Peabody. Peabody created Patriot Coal, it seems, purely to move some of its retirement obligations off its own books so that it wouldn’t have to live up to its end of the deal, which was to provide the people who had fulfilled their end of the bargain through many years of labor with pensions and health care in retirement. Using the cloak of the bankruptcy and corporation law, they are walking out on their commitments. The directors and stockholders who elected them do not seem troubled that they are breaking the basic I-did-my-part—you-do-yours rule that underlies our society. And the Federal Bankruptcy Court seem willing to abet them in this swindle.

But the officials of Peabody/Patriot are not alone in thinking that a deal isn’t a deal if one side doesn’t feel like paying anymore. Recently
Time Magazine ran a story on “the end of alimony.” Whether people entering marriages today should be eligible for lifetime alimony if their relationships collapse is an issue on which I have no opinion. But future alimony is not what is in danger of being abolished. Many people – many women – entered marriages in the past on the understanding that they would be supported for life and that they would only lose that right if they themselves misbehaved or if they and their spouses together lost all their money. That was the deal. Now evidently many men (not to mention their second wives) find paying the money that they obligated themselves to provide when they first married inconvenient. Many legislatures and courts seem ready to take away alimony from women who got married thinking that, if worse came to worst, they would receive it. Even the financial part of the deal they made when they entered the marriage contract turns out not to be a deal after all.

I myself am discovering that a deal I entered into isn’t a deal. For many years I worked as a professor of English at one of Illinois’s state universities. The agreement was that if I taught, did research, and performed community service, I would be paid a salary, receive medical care and some other benefits, and that when I retired, I would receive a pension based on a set formula which would be increased by 3% each year, as well as medical care until I qualified for Medicare. All this would take the place of both a pension and Social Security, which the state had opted out of on my behalf. Each month the state deducted the agreed-upon amount from my paycheck. They were supposed to match that sum, but they never actually moved the cash into my account. Instead they made “notional” payments and assured me that the money would actually appear when the time came. Much to the state’s surprise, evidently, that time has come for too many of us, and the legislature and the taxpayers it represents no longer feel like holding up their end of the bargain. Even now, the legislature debates how far our pensions and the promised increases will be cut and how much we will be charged for our medical care. Strangely, no one in the Illinois Legislature rises to say, “Wait. A deal is a deal. The professors did their part. We are honor-bound to do ours, even if that means raising taxes or forgoing our own salaries.” A deal isn’t a deal or even a contract in Illinois.

Perhaps none of these situations seem terribly important if you are not a coal miner whose pension was transferred to a company you never worked for, a woman who raised a family counting on being supported for the rest for her life in return, or a college professor who counted on his promised pension and medical care once he left the classroom. But this trend should worry you even so. If those groups cannot call people, corporations, and governments to account when they break the deals they relied on, why should anyone else think they can count on receiving what they are promised once the work is done?

[November 2013 Update: Peabody decided to cough up more of the money it owned its retirees. The Illinois legislature is still debating plans to stiff the state’s retired professors. I can’t keep up with the divorce courts.]


Patriot Coal and Union Reach a Deal on Cutbacks.” New York Times, August 12, 2013.

“Ruling Favors Mining Firm in Labor Dispute.”
New York Times, May 29, 2013

Bill McClellan. “Patriot Coal case shows how federal judges live by their own rules.”
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 31, 2013

“Appeals court: Peabody liable for retiree benefits.”
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 21, 2013

“The End of Alimony?”
Time Magazine, May 16, 2013.

The Pope, The President, and the Eighth Commandment

Not long ago an article in one of the more conservative Catholic newspapers reminded its readers of something we all know, but too often forget in the heat of argument: “The Eighth Commandment is clear: Thou shalt not bear false witness.” The immediate examples of the offense he described were misrepresentations of Pope Francis’s involvement in Argentina’s Dirty War. While getting the facts of the Pope’s biography wrong is a serious matter, this writer’s audience is in little danger of breaking the commandment in that particular way. American Catholics who can be described as conservatives are not much tempted to spread lies about the Pope. In my experience, however, they are often willing to give in to the temptation to deal in lies about others. And the victim of the sin of calumny is likely to be the President of the United States, Barack Hussein Obama.

I am not, of course, saying that there is no reason to oppose Mr. Obama and his policies. I myself have filled his mailbox with pleas that he end his support for abortion, that he not require employers—and especially religious employers—to provide contraceptives, some of which may be abortifacient in effect, that while ensuring that all people are treated fairly
, he not redefine the institution of marriage. (I have also asked that he stop supporting the death penalty and end the drone attacks that so often kill innocent bystanders.) Some of his comments over the years—including those about people who “cling” to guns and religion—suggest that he would prefer that religion in the public sphere influence only our sentiments, not our actions. In the last election, I did not vote for him.

That sort of opposition, however, is based on the positions the President actually holds on the issues. If we met, we could compare our positions, explain where they differed, and try to show each other where we were wrong. Since these issues are so grave, it would be a grief to me if I could not change the President’s mind, just as it is a grief to me that I and those like me have not yet been able to win the public debate on these issues. I would still oppose him, but I would know that I had treated him as I want to be treated, as an erring brother, not an enemy.

When I attend many Catholic gatherings, however, I too often hear the Eighth Commandment broken and the clear teaching of the
Catechism ignored. To put it simply, people repeat lies about the President. Sometimes they have not bothered to check the facts, and sometimes they simply do not care: they seem to hate Mr. Obama so much that it does not even matter if things they say about him are true.

The slander comes in many forms, but a few of the lies are notable both for their prevalence and
for the absence of any evidence for them. The first of these is, of course, the suggestion that Mr. Obama is not a natural born American citizen and therefore is not legitimately the President of the United States. To believe that wild story, one would have to believe in a conspiracy that dated back to the early 1960’s, that included both the hospitals and newspapers of Honolulu, that has since encompassed the government of the State of Hawaii and its Republican governor, and that, despite their various oaths to support and defend the Constitution, has been connived at by Senator McCain, Governor Romney, the secretaries of state and other election officials of all the states in both 2008 and 2012, and all the members of both houses of Congress who counted the ballots in 2009 and 2011. Can anyone honestly believe that no one in that long list would try to do his duty? Or that every reputable news organization is wrong, and not one has tried to scoop its competition by telling the truth? The answer is clearly, “No.” But at Catholic gatherings I still hear comments about the President being a Kenyan.

The second great lie is that Mr. Obama is a Muslim. I hope that if he were Muslim, Catholics would not oppose him for that reason. Muslim theology may be closer to Catholic theology than Mormon theology is, and many Catholics recently supported a member of the LDS Church for the presidency. The fact is, however, that he is not. He has been a practicing Christian throughout his adult life. He often attends church services. He was, for a long time affiliated with the United Church of Christ, the very denomination to which my own Protestant cousins belong—and none of their neighbors in Nebraska have ever thought them to be secretly Muslim. Mr. Obama’s mother, his father, and his stepfather were either hostile to all religion or at best tepid toward it. The schools he attended included two in Indonesia, first one that reflected the faith of that country’s Muslim majority and then one that was Roman Catholic. Back in the United States, he graduated from a school founded for the children of Christian missionaries in Hawaii. There is no evidence he has ever described himself as a Muslim. Any honest evaluation of the evidence would lead Catholics to recognize Mr. Obama as one of our “separated brethren,” that is, a fellow Christian. Like many Christians he does not accept everything we hold to be part of the Catholic faith, and we might pray that God would enlighten him. We have no excuse, however, to say he is lying about his faith. To see the video clips some Catholics spread, you would think that a person becomes Muslim by learning to say “hello” in Arabic or by noting the basic historical fact that the Arabs preserved parts of Classical culture that Europe has lost. When the President
speaks to people in their own language or says something positive about their culture, he is simply being gracious, not hinting that he has accepted Islam. The recent popes have displayed the same good manners when visiting Arab lands.

Beyond the lies about the President’s birth and ancestry, I also too often hear falsehoods about his policies. It is perfectly just to oppose any leader’s proposals and actions; it is false witness to misrepresent what those proposals and actions have been. The most egregious example of this sort of false witness is the repeated talk about “Death Panels.” No version of the President’s health plan ever included panels that would pass on who was worthy of treatment and who would be left to die. It did at one point propose allowing Medicare to cover the time a physician takes to discuss “end-of-life” decisions with patients in advance. (Having such a conversation is, by the way, a good idea: after mine, I left legal instructions that direct my physicians not to initiate or terminate any medical procedure if doing so would not be in accord with the teachings of the Catholic Church.) The lies about the President’s death panels, together with variations involving the virtual elimination of all but palliative care for the elderly are still repeated by those who have not bothered to verify their facts.

There are many legitimate grounds on which to oppose the health care plan and the President’s other policies. There is never any excuse for telling lies—or for passing them on. Catholics used to be taught a word for this sin: calumny. The
Catechism of the Catholic Church still lists several offenses against the Eight Commandment: it is wrong assume another person is wicked without good reason (“rash judgment”) or to truthfully disclose a person’s failings without good reason (“detraction”). Calumny is the still more serious offense of harming the reputation of another by spreading lies (2476). Before we repeat something about another person, even the President, we should all ask, “It’s a good story, but is it calumny?” It would be a blessing if the computer could be programed to ask that question whenever we hit “forward” after reading a juicy e-mail.

Finally, if those who make these sorts of attacks on President Obama cannot be swayed by the Commandments or the
Catechism, perhaps they can be swayed by prudence and history. Lies are excellent tools, to begin with, but those who rely on them often find that they fail in the long run. Let’s take an example from France. As the 19th century drew to a close, the Church in France was, all things considered, in amazingly good shape. Just a hundred years earlier, all traces of Christianity were being cleared from French culture, from the Madonnas in the churches to the seven-day week. But after several revolutions and kingdoms and empires, the church had regained its place in society, along with much of its property and its moral authority. Some Catholics still felt embattled, however, and unthinkingly joined forces with a single faction in politics (the right wing) and with the military. When those groups stooped to telling lies, the Catholics did the same. One lie—the claim that a Jewish artillery officer named Dreyfus was a foreign spy—split the nation. Many Catholics became militant anti-Dreyfusards and acted as if supporting him meant opposing the Church. After years of struggle, Dreyfus was vindicated. The Church that had either tolerated or abetted those who smeared him, however, suffered an eclipse from which it has still not recovered. The anti-clerical elements in French culture reasserted their sway, and the church completely lost its influential role in culture and education. Moderates—even Catholics—did not want their society shaped by an institution that had contempt for the truth. Doubtless many good Catholics who passed on anti-Dreyfusard pamphlets were not bitter anti-Semites, just as there may be no tinge of racism in slurs against the President. But their tolerance for calumny itself made the church impotent for years to come. Catholics who deal in lies about the President rather than opposing him forcefully and honestly, may very well do the same thing.

Article referred to: “Anatomy of a Lie: The Assault on Pope Francis’ Reputation,” Register, 03/30/2013. (I have silently corrected “Thou shall” to “Thou shalt.” “You shall” would also be an option.)