Today on BBC Radio 4, Francis Maude made the mistake of discussing the "affordability" of public sector pensions with the formidable Mark Serwotka. He lost the argument - massively - and various left-wing publications have been making political capital out of it ever since.
He should never have got into the argument at all. Of course public sector pensions are affordable. Any public sector expenditure of any kind is always affordable in a sovereign country that issues its own currency and its own debt, and whose debt and currency are freely traded on international markets (pace the Modern Monetary Theory folk, I'm not going down the "debt is an illusion" route in this post!).
The question should be, of course - do we WANT to spend the amount on public sector pensions that will be required to maintain them in their present form?
Public sector workers say "of course we do". Generous pensions are a part of their pay package. They are being asked to take a pay cut, in effect.
On the other side of the argument, thousands of private sector workers, who either have no company pension or whose company pension is nowhere near as generous as public sector pensions, think it's unfair that public sector workers should receive better pensions than they do. They think the money could be better spent on other things, such as uprating general pension provision for the elderly.
Public sector workers argue that their pensions are paid for through their contributions, not from general taxation, so this is an unfair comparison. I disagree. Every penny a public sector worker receives in pay - including pension contributions made both by themselves and their employers - comes from general taxation. Public sector workers are net beneficiaries of taxation in financial terms. Their pension contributions are paid out of general taxation. Furthermore, as their pension funds are "unfunded" (i.e. current contributions go to pay current pensions rather than being invested for future pension payouts), in practice their actual pensions are also paid out of general taxation. So to ask whether maintaining the existing defined-benefit schemes is a good use of public money is a perfectly reasonable question.
I don't buy the argument that someone put forward on BBC Breakfast this morning that because the private sector benefits from public sector functions such as education, therefore the private sector should fund better pensions for public sector workers than they provide for their own workforce. Education is paid for out of general taxation. In other words, the private sector already pays the wages of teachers as well as the private sector workforce. It is hard to justify the private sector providing better pensions for one set of workers over others purely because the first set are nominally employed by the state.
Of course, the private sector does provide better pensions for some people over others - notably corporate elites. It does so because it considers the work they do to be of greater value than that done by others. I'm not going to argue here whether corporate executives really justify their gold-plated pensions, but the "work value" argument is the one that is used in both private and public sectors to justify high pay and benefits. It comes down therefore, once again, to the value that we place on public sector work. Do we consider the work that public sector workers do to be of greater value than that done by private sector workers? Is the work that I do, as a freelance peripatetic singing teacher, worth less to society than the work done by my state-employed classroom colleagues? Or is it equally valuable, but remunerated less simply because it is in the private sector? And is that because the private sector underpays or the public sector overpays?
In the end these comparisons of private and public sector remuneration are as irrelevant as the affordability question. The real issue is the priorities given to different calls on public money, and the role of government in ensuring the welfare of its people. Is the remuneration of public sector workers, provision of adequate state pension provision, and protection of private sector workers from exploitation, of lower priority than paying the IMF to bail out yet more banks, fighting wars in Libya and Afghanistan, or hosting the Olympics (hat-tip to my brother Matthew Cooke for some of these questions)? Government can always find money to do whatever it wants to do. But the twin smokescreens of "affordability" and "unfairness" mean that people end up fighting with each other rather than holding government to account for its decisions.