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  • Two Different Approaches to "Finding A Way"

    Two events during the past week have been very interesting to me, to say the least.

    First, Governor Chris Christie has withdrawn from the 2016 presidential race and decided to return to New Jersey to resume his political role as chief executive of the State of New Jersey. Second, I attended an inspirational talk by Diana Nyad, the world famous long-distance swimmer, whose theme was “Find A Way.”

    Why, you may ask, are the two items mentioned in the same paragraph? What commonality do they have? And how do they relate to a column about pensions and benefits?

    Diana Nyad’s persistence in 2013 at age 64 in pursuing her goal to swim from Cuba to Key West Florida without a shark cage, a 111-mile journey that took 53 hours to accomplish, is not only heart-warming, but it shows that what is considered to be nearly impossible can be done if one is willing to be relentless in finding answers. As the title of her 2015 book recapping her remarkable feat says, one has to “Find A Way” if one is to reach the ultimate goal. She made her first attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida in 1978, but abandoned it after 42 hours in the water. She was not to try again for over thirty years. In 2011, at age 60, she began training again for the swim. From 2011 to 2013, she made three attempts to cover the distance, but each one fell short. Finally, on September 2, 2013, she successfully completed her journey.

    Governor Christie’s budget address two days earlier with his bashing of the pension and health benefits of teachers and other public employees was certainly not heart-warming. He strongly suggested that the only solution to the long-term fiscal problems created by these benefits was to adopt the recommendations of his hand-picked Pension and Health Benefit Study Commission to abandon the current pension system and replace it with an inferior system and to reduce the dollar value of the health benefits. Further, the Commission recommends that the cost of pensions become the responsibility of the local school district. (Interestingly, the “Supplemental Report on Health Benefits” providing material to justify the Commission’s recommendations was released four days before the Governor’s budget message.) These solutions are a far cry from finding a way to completely fix the system. It is rather a way to destroy it and put a new one in its place.

    As I drove home from the Nyad talk, my mind began an inter-play of the words and tone of the Governor’s words and the words and tone of her words. She had spoken of completing a task by finding a way to accomplish that task by building on previous failed attempts. She had talked about never giving up and about team commitment leading to positive results. There was never a hint of tearing down what she and her team had already encountered. It was all about praise for those that comprised her team. 

    In his budget message, the Governor spoke negatively about teachers and public workers and the benefits they enjoy. He tried to drive a wedge between the workers and the public at large by characterizing the employees as a “privileged few” who have “platinum benefits” and “exorbitant pensions.” (One of his aides, speaking after his message, referred to the benefits of public employees as “entitlements,” conveniently forgetting that teachers and public employees contribute every month for their pensions and for their health benefits.) It was all denigration for those who work for him and the public.     

    In trying to analyze why the two orations seemed to collide in my head, I realized that connection had to do with the motivations of the speakers.

    Diana Nyad has no axe to grind, no hidden agenda. Her talk was intended to inspire people to continue to strive to reach the end of their journeys, no matter how difficult. “Never give up,” she says. “Never.” She is not a politician who must be careful with her words. She is not looking for anything else. She is, in this politically polluted atmosphere, a breath of fresh air. 

    Chris Christie is a politician. He is fresh off a campaign for President of the United States. He does not care whom he tramples to reach his goal. (Public employees are always good targets.) He has many axes to grind, many hidden agendas. If he still harbors a desire for a higher office, as many people think, his comments will always have to be carefully scrutinized. He is part of the polluted atmosphere. He has no reason to "Find A Way." His commitment to New Jersey ends in the next year.

    Perhaps, it is the clash of the totally non-political person with the committed politician that made the connection in my head. Or maybe it is my deep-seated wish that politicians, like non-politicians, provide teachers and other public employees with the dignity they deserve.

    Addendum: In order to link this column with finance and retirement, let me offer one tidbit relating to the pension system:

    The Governor’s return to New Jersey, coming just before his State of the Budget message, gave him an opportunity to ruminate about his favorite topic, bashing the pension and health benefits of active public employees and teachers and the health benefits of retirees. He highlights the contribution of $1.86 billion his budget includes for the pension systems, which, if made, would still be $2 billion less than what the actuaries say should be made this year. (Remember, he never fulfilled his commitments under the law he signed in 2011 and he reduced the contribution that he budgeted last year.)