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Akst: Tired of waiting for something to get done

Published: Friday, Jan. 11, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

My office mate and I joke about how satisfying it is to cross something off a to-do list. Both of us have added something we’ve already done to a list merely for the pleasure of crossing it off.

It’s funny at work, but I can’t shake the feeling that a large part of the disappointment about the Illinois Legislature not enacting pension reform legislation is about not getting something done.

Never mind that the pension reform plan that came closest to passing would have been a staggering body blow to current and future public sector workers who have never, ever missed paying their fair share into the state’s pension systems.

Getting something done is a powerful high. I’m not joking. Martin Seligman, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and former president of the American Psychological Association, told the New York Times in May 2011 that the feeling of accomplishment leads to happiness, but it goes awry if people seek accomplishment merely for the sake of saying something is done.

The blamestorming has begun in earnest. The Chicago Tribune is calling the governor and legislators of both parties “cowards,” and adds, “Tuesday was the last in a series of days when lawmakers of both parties could have bucked the public employees unions that dictate so much of state government’s policy and spending decisions.”

I’m not cheerleading for unions, because the “victory” they are claiming (disclosure: I’m a dues-paying member of the University Professionals of Illinois), is short-lived.

If legislation on pensions happens during the new session – or ever – those who will lose the most are the workers who unswervingly pay into the system and who have been duly and lawfully promised a pension. There’s no doubt about that in my mind.

Meanwhile, those who caused this problem – lawmakers – might lose an election at most.

To be sure, the state’s pension crisis is a toxic stew.

The $96 billion unfunded liability, which grows by $17 million a day, is eating the budgets of other worthwhile needs. It’s responsible for credit rating downgrades, an unfavorable business climate, and a perception of corruption and incompetence throughout America.

That means we’re all in this together, and real fixes have to be done correctly, not just done.

What we need to get past this crisis is to shed the winner/loser mentality, and to compromise.

Writing convincingly for Psychology Today in January 2012, Richard E. Cytowic, M.D., notes that “the zero-sum premise is that every winner demands a loser and that personal accomplishment only comes at the expense of someone else. This is rubbish. But the thinking persists and would be merely annoying if its effects weren’t so corrosive.”

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. You can reach him at jasondakst@gmail.com.

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