Compensation for police and fire fighters

I thought I would call IOM readers' attention to this piece by Daniel Foster in National Review, which argues that public safety workers -- cops and fire fighters -- are overpaid. This interesting tidbit isn't the crux of the piece, but it is, er, interesting:

In New York, for instance, a “presumptive disability” law makes it easy for firemen to secure lifetime, tax-free pensions at three-quarters pay; when examining a fireman for the purpose of determining whether he has a work-related disability, a doctor is required to start with the assumption that certain illnesses are job-related even if there is no evidence that they are. A fireman from a Bronx ladder company who develops a lung disorder will qualify for disability retirement even if it’s unclear whether he developed his impairment from smoke inhalation on the job, or from his two-pack-a-day cigarette habit.

The “presumptive disability” bonanza is sometimes exacerbated by abuse. In July, the New York Post told the story of John C. McLaughlin, a 55-year-old former FDNY lieutenant who retired in 2001 with an $86,000-a-year disability pension, after it was determined that he was an asthmatic with diminished lung capacity. This despite the fact that McLaughlin is an accomplished triathlete who regularly competes in long-distance races.

McLaughlin is hardly alone. An astonishing 80 percent of 2010 FDNY retirees have qualified for disability benefits.

Also worth reading is Jonathan Cohn's response at the New Republic. Cohn's basic take is that local and state governments probably do need to cut salaries in the short term, because of their current fiscal condition, but that in the long term, we should figure out how to pay cops, firemen, nurses and teachers more -- both because he doubts Foster's conclusions about public sector workers being overpaid, and because of the high social value of much of their work.

On the pension point in particular, Cohn quotes a reader who wrote in to Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish:

I am an actuary in the pension field, so I think it's fair to say I know more about pension accounting than most people. Lately it has become fairly popular to blame public pensions for most if not all of state and local fiscal problems, rather than the criminal financial management of those pensions by state officials. When a politician decides to cut taxes by ending all contributions to the state pension fund, and then 20 years later the pension is only 20% funded, this makes the pension fund look like it's costing the state lots and lots of money, when what really happened is that the state started borrowing money from the pension fund and now has to pay it back.

This defense doesn't include things like "presumptive disability," of course. But now that I think about it, there may be a defense for that as well. Is it so crazy that a high percentage of people who spend their careers running into burning buildings would develop job-related health problems?


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