Thursday, March 3, 2011

A Friend Buys Into A Fox News Meme; I Reply

A conservative friend, a fellow search-and-rescue volunteer, blasted out the following email today, cut-and-pasting a new Fox News Channel/conservabot email meme about Congressional pensions and federal-worker student loan forgiveness. Normally I just chuckle and delete, but because this person is tremendously goodhearted and well-intentioned in all things, in this case I researched and replied. Since my reply (and especially my written-to-persuade-rather-than-fight dissection of Fox News, at the very end) might help someone else, I figured I'd post the exchange.

First, my buddy's email:

Subject: 28th Amendment to the Constitution

Proposed 28th Amendment to the United States Constitution: "Congress shall make no law that applies to the citizens of the United States that does not apply equally to the Senators and/or Representatives; and, Congress shall make no law that applies to the Senators and/or Representatives that does not apply equally to the citizens of the United States."

No one has been able to explain to me why young men and women serve in the U.S. Military for 20 years, risking their lives protecting freedom, and only get 50% of their pay. While politicians hold their political positions in the safe confines of the capital, protected by these same men and women, and receive full pay retirement after serving one term. It just does not make any sense.
Monday on Fox news they learned that the staffers of Congress family members are exempt from having to pay back student loans. This will get national attention if other news networks will broadcast it. When you add this to the below, just where will all of it stop?

35 States file lawsuit against the Federal Government, Governors of 35 states have filed suit against the Federal Government for imposing unlawful burdens upon them. It only takes 38 (of the 50) States to convene a Constitutional Convention.
This will take less than thirty seconds to read. If you agree, please pass it on. This is an idea that we should address.
For too long we have been too complacent about the workings of Congress. Many citizens had no idea that members of Congress could retire with the same pay after only one term, that they specifically exempted themselves from many of the laws they have passed (such as being exempt from any fear of prosecution for sexual harassment) while ordinary citizens must live under those laws. The latest is to exempt themselves from the Health Care Reform... in all of its forms. Somehow, that doesn't seem logical. We do not have an elite that is above the law. I truly don't care if they are Democrat, Republican, Independent or whatever. The self-serving must stop.

My reply:

Hi, [SAR-buddy-old-pal]. I know we have different political views, which is something I love about [SAR unit] (and America!). However, I've been pretty immersed in political journalism since 2008 -- mainly writing about the inside politics of how journalists spin the news. I love the saying that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but they're not entitled to their own facts -- and this email has its basic facts wrong.

The real story is that highly-qualified new hires like staff lawyers, forensic accountants, etc. often have large student loan burdens that often prevent them from taking jobs in the public sector, which pays them much less than the private sector does. If you're a newly-graduated, Harvard-trained lawyer with $300,000 in debt, will you take a job as a federal judicial clerk ($54,000) or with a Wall Street law firm ($170,000)? Even if you want to work in the government, you might not be able to afford to.

To help them recruit those top-level workers, federal agencies are allowed to offer student loan forgiveness -- but only if the employee doesn't quit or get fired, performs adequately, etc. There are similar proposals for inner-city schoolteachers, public health nurses, etc. And the agency has to make the loan payments itself, i.e., if the agency didn't pay the loan it likely would need to increase the salary so the employee can pay the loan. And there's a cap on how much can be forgiven. It's still a good deal for a lot of kids fresh out of school, but it's nothing evil.

Similarly, it's not true that Congresscritters get 100% of their salary in pension after one term. Congresspeople contribute to their own pensions; to get any pension benefit at all they must serve at least 5 years (so, yes, a senator earns minimal benefits in his first term, but representatives don't earn any until their third term); they can't earn the maximium amount (80%, not 100%) until they've served longer periods; and they don't draw anything until they reach retirement age (which varies according to a years served/age of retirement formula). There are 535 members of Congress at any given time; turnover in the House (where members must be re-elected every 2 years) is fairly high; there are lots of former Congresspeople; yet only about 400 former members of Congress TOTAL were receiving pension benefits as of 2006 (the year of the study I saw), and the average pension of those retiring under the system that's been in place since 1987 (and is still in place) was only $35,952.; It's still a pretty kick-ass pension, and I'd love to have it, but it's not giving away a gold mine.

I think part of the problem here is that not everyone understands what Fox News was designed to be: a political actor, not a journalism or news outlet. Don't get me wrong: I have no objection to them having an editorial slant -- everyone has one, and at least Fox admits it! But internally, and among journalists, Fox itself is pretty open about their main job being to package "news" in a way that influences elections and sway public opinion. Fox News' president, Roger Ailes, has no background in journalism at all: he was a political consultant for Nixon, Reagan, Bush I, and Giuliani. Rupert Murdoch, of course, is a money guy, not a news guy. It's not even a secret; Fox postponed starting a news channel in Canada while it tried to get a law against lying on news shows repealed -- and is abandoning that project altogether now that Canada has decided to keep that law in effect. (Imagine if we had that law!)

So the bad news is, Fox News is not a reliable source of information, and wasn't ever intended to be one. Double-check everything. The good news is, the world's not going to hell in a handbasket as fast as you thought.

Hope you take this in the spirit in which it's offered!