Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Straight Talk from Chris Christie on Public Sector Sacrifice

by Michael Kaplan

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie confronts defenders of the blue model at a Town Hall Meeting, January 26.

“I am sorry I’m the guy who’s got to be here when the party’s over.”

Below is a video from a town hall meeting held on January 26 by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie at VFW Post 2179 in Middletown, NJ. Christie spoke about the need to cut public sector salaries and benefits to bring them in line with those in the private sector.

Governor Christie, more than most politicians, understands just how serious the crisis of the blue social model really is, and has spoken out on it without pulling any punches or sugar coating it for the public. He has tried to find workable policies to phase out the blue model in the public sector and bring it to as soft a landing as possible. Inevitably he has faced fierce opposition from the public sector employee unions and Democrats in the state legislature. Christie recently accused the legislature of paying lip service to his proposals for rolling back public sector pensions and civil service reform but taking no action on them. “They've done nothing on this issue,” he said. “It is nothing but two-page press releases with bullet points. That’s not how you fix the big things in New Jersey.” Perhaps it does take a man of Christie’s considerable size and stature to overwhelm those who would defend the blue model to the death.

At the January 26 town hall meeting, Christie took on the delicate issue of cutting pensions and health care benefits for the police force. Summing up the dilemma facing the blue states, Christie said “Other politicians made you promises they couldn’t keep.” The governor then challenged the crowd, asking “Why are you mad at me? Because I’m the one who’s telling you the truth. The numbers are the numbers. I’m trying to fix it. I am sorry I’m the guy who’s got to be here when the party’s over.” While Christie has had some heated confrontations with teachers and their union at previous town hall meetings, many of which are posted on YouTube, the governor now had to spell out the facts of economic life to New Jersey’s men and women in blue. When state corrections officer Sean Kelly, sounding more than a bit pissed off, asked how he was expected to pay for one-third of his health insurance premiums, the governor responded with typical Christie bluntness:

Kelly: With a 2% cap on a raise per year, how am I going to afford $8,000 to pay for medical benefits?
Christie: You’re not. You’re not gonna afford it. What’s gonna to happen is you’re gonna have to make choices among medical plans. And have more choices than just 3 choices which you have now, and only the Cadillac plan. You’re going to have to make choices, like everybody else is making choices in this economy. [...]
A whole bunch of politicians who came before me on the local level and the state level made you promises that they couldn’t keep. And they knew they couldn’t keep them when they made them. So, I understand you being angry. But I suggest to you, respectfully, don’t be angry at the first guy who told you the truth.
Not satisfied with Christie’s answer, Kelly went on: “I received a 2% increase in my salary 2 weeks ago, and my medical benefits started to come out. Do you know how much my check went up Sir? $4. How am I supposed to live with that?” Christie then elaborated on his previous points:

Here’s the difference. You’re getting a paycheck. And there are 9% of the people in the state of New Jersey who are not.
And if their property taxes continue to go up to continue pay for higher and higher salaries in the public sector, they’ll lose their homes.
And so, I have to tell you, I understand your frustration about not getting a higher raise. But you go around this room and talk to people who are in the private sector who haven't gotten raises for years, if they’ve been able to keep their job at all. This is the economic reality we live in now. I wish it was different, but it isn’t.
Christie went on to warn Kelly and the audience “If the public sector unions continue to be resistant to wanting to be part of the exchange, they're going to lose jobs. They're losing them already.” In a dire forecast of things to come, Camden, the city with New Jersey’s highest crime rate, laid off 45 percent of its police force in January, when city and police union officials were unable to agree on pension and benefit cuts. None of this impressed the thirty-nine-year-old Kelly, an eight-year veteran of the force, who left the meeting with the governor saying, “I appreciate his honesty. His proposals just don't fit into reality.”

Governor Christie was telling Officer Kelly that this is the new reality. Public sector employees, including police officers, are going to have to work harder and produce more for less money, fewer benefits, and less job security, just as their private sector counterparts have been doing for the past thirty years. Jacksonian populists, including Tea Party supporters, have called for extensive cuts in public sector spending to bring down state and federal debt. But while Jacksonians have no problems with teachers or bureaucratic paper pushers making sacrifices for the public good, they resist imposing austerity on policemen, firefighters, and emergency personnel. Jacksonians venerate police officers and firefighters as the domestic equivalent of the armed forces—men and women who put their lives on the line to protect the folk community. Those who made the ultimate sacrifice on 9/11 have already earned a place in America’s pantheon of sacred heroes. Jacksonians make up the bulk of the state and municipal uniformed personnel, just as they do in the military. It will be a tough sell for Christie to convince the Jacksonian public that the police should sacrifice even more.

Since taking office last year, Chris Christie has been telling the people of New Jersey some hard truths that all Americans need to hear. America is indeed a land of affluence and abundance. But that abundance cannot be taken for granted. The creation wealth involves continual hard work, struggle, and effort; the work, struggle and effort of millions of Americans pursuing happiness in a free market and a free society. The government, Christie was reminding his audience, cannot guarantee your success in that pursuit. Nor can the government create wealth. It can only redistribute the wealth already created by individual Americans in the private sector. Howard Dean, staunch liberal progressive defender of the blue model, may argue that the government’s raison d’être is to redistribute wealth: that “the purpose of government is to make sure that capitalism works for everybody, not just for the people who can run roughshod as they often do in Washington by throwingand as the Chamber [of Commerce] hasby throwing money around.” But in reality the government can’t ensure that capitalism works for everyone. No system or society devised by human beings can work equally well for all its members. In a free society there will be winners and losers, from billionaire plutocrats to minimum-wage burger flippers, and ideally with a large self-sufficient middle class in between. Government can only provide the structure of laws, policies, and institutions that enable individuals to pursue happiness and create wealth on their own in freedom and in security of life and property. Policemen like Sean Kelly make their contribution to society by providing that security.

Christie also reminded the audience that it is the wealth created in the private sector that funds the public sector. The struggling taxpayers of New Jersey and the forty-nine other states, can no longer bear the burden of funding a public sector that has grown too big and too dysfunctional; that demands too much from the taxpayers and returns too little. So let’s hope that Chris Christie becomes a model for other governors, who can work to find creative solutions to avert a disaster in public finance, and give the American people the well-functioning and responsive public sector they need and deserve.

© 2011 Michael Kaplan


  1. “I appreciate his honesty. His proposals just don't fit into reality.” Officer Kelly as most in N.J. are stuck in their own world of "it's all about me".

    Having lived in N.J. form 95 to 2004, I feel I can comment on this fairly. When I lived in Galloway Township, my property taxes were stifling. As Christie said, we had leader after leader promising something than raising taxes. While it's not surprising that people are peed off at him, they aim their vitriol at the wrong person. He is the first in a long time to tell them the truth.

    However, there are and always have been two things wrong with the people of N.J. One: they always have their hands out. It's the N.J. way. As such, it leads to number two: The people of N.J. have never seen a tax hike they would not vote for.

    Using class warfare and "we will take care of you" propaganda, the N.J. politicians managed to consolidate their power while bankrupting the sate. Now someone finally points it out and the very people that helped destroy the state are now yelling like they've been gored by a bull.

    Yes, it's hard for anyone to want Police and Fire fighters to sacrifice more. Yet, it has to be done. At the same time in N.J.'s case,it goes far beyond those twp particular union entities. The waste and overpaying of public officials is horrendous and N.J. is easily one of the poster children of this epidemic.

    kudos to Christie for trying to point this out and do something about it.

    Great article as always Mike.

  2. Joe,

    Glad you enjoyed the post. Here in New York property taxes are pretty steep. Andrew Cuomo has said he'll try to rein in spending and not raise taxes. I hope he'll follow Christie's example, but I'm not confident of that.

    To be fair to the New Jersey police, I've heard interviews with some officers who say they support what Christie is doing and that they are willing to take some cuts to ensure the state's fiscal viability.

    I really admire Christie. He's not afraid to speak the truth and take abuse for it. We need more leaders like him. I also like that he doesn't want to run for president, that he doesn't see New Jersey as a stepping stone to "bigger" things. He has a big job to do getting New Jersey's house in order. If he can do that he might show other states, and perhaps even the federal government, a way out of their fiscal mess.