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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Workplace change spurs 'pension envy'

Business professor Olivia Mitchell, of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, says she isn't sure if she was the first to use the phrase "pension envy."

"Nevertheless," she adds, "I have certainly hit a nerve when using the term -- and am widely quoted because of it."

Pension envy can be defined as resentment against those who stand to get traditional public pensions -- deals that commonly compare very favorably to what your average private-sector employee may expect.

Long Islanders know by now the stories of abuse. Double-dippers have long collected salaries and pensions together. Boosting overtime in the last three years to fatten payouts is common. Also, the New York State Constitution's guarantee of public pension rights feels perverse when a corrupt employee is convicted but held harmless from losing retirement pay. And, big supervisory salaries now in the spotlight beget proportionally big pensions.

But along with fiscal concerns comes a sharp emotional edge to pension envy -- one that seems to have eclipsed the spectacle of a couple of years ago when the U.S. taxpayer subsidized fat bonuses for private-sector financial executives.

Consider this one case where the taxpayer feels entitled to act as if he's the boss. Some citizen-bosses -- or at least citizen shareholders electing bosses -- just don't want to hear it when civil servants note that this is the deal they signed on for: deferring salary in exchange for future security.

At St. John's University in Queens, David Gregory, executive director for the Center for Labor and Employment Law, recalls working on assembly lines in Detroit, where he grew up, while attending college.

"In the 1960s and 1970s, if you were smart but not book smart, you could move up on the assembly line, with overtime you could make what in today's dollars would be $100,000 a year -- enough to send your kids to college," Gregory says. "At the middle level on the block was the postal worker, or the Department of Energy worker."

But today, he says, "the elite industrial manufacturing worker is gone, an artifact, a relic. What happens is the postal worker, the Department of Energy guy, is now the new 'elite.' Human nature and jealousy being what they are, that worker is transformed, by political and corporate money, into the villain. There are villains out there -- they are not represented by the guy who works for a living."

University of California linguistics professor George Lakoff, author of the 2008 book "The Political Mind," said during a wide-ranging phone interview Thursday that by the precepts of prevalent conservative ideology, "teachers are triply bad." They are often unionized, they are on the public payroll, and, as Lakoff put it, they are "nurturers" who could have authority over parents.

"In my view," says Mitchell, a professor of insurance and risk management at the Wharton School, "pension envy comes . . . from the long, grinding recession, which has put so many people out of jobs and made the rest worry about their jobs, their pay, their health care and their retirement."

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