Invest California’s Pension Funds in Water and Energy Infrastructure

“We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”
–  Peter Thiel, in his 2011 manifesto “What Happened to the Future.”

Anyone living in California who’s paying attention knows what venture capitalist Thiel meant. While a handful of Silicon Valley social media entrepreneurs have amassed almost indescribable wealth, and fundamentally transformed how humanity communicates, investment in boring things like roads, bridges, tunnels, ports, aqueducts, reservoirs and railroads – the list is endless – has stagnated. Especially in California. Flying cars? Forget about it. Go tweet.

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Why? Why the neglect?

(1) For starters, why invest in moving atoms around, which is messy and might incur the wrath of powerful climate change activists, when you can move electrons around in new and exciting ways and make billions? Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are making a rational choice to prefer manipulating characters to manufacturing cars.

(2) And when it comes to innovations that do involve atoms, that is, actual manufactured goods, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are lobbying for mandates that force people to purchase internet enabled home appliances, connected to smart meters, that punitively bill consumers who, for example, operate their clothes dryer or dishwasher at the “wrong” times.

(3) Public money that might be used to backstop private investment in infrastructure is being used instead to pay over-market compensation to California’s state and local workers, who now receive pay and benefits that on average are twice what California’s private sector workers earn.

To justify this neglect, California’s governor Brown has been the cheerleader for a culture of austerity. But there is an alternative that would lower the cost of living for all Californians, and even make it possible to lower public sector compensation without lowering their living standards. That is a culture of abundance.

The culture of abundance used to be synonymous with the Silicon Valley. “Better, faster, cheaper” used to be the mantra that informed innovation in the Silicon Valley. And throughout history, the human condition has marched fitfully but inexorably upwards because human creativity and innovation made everything we needed better, faster, cheaper. So how can we invest public and private funds to create cheap and abundant water, energy, transportation and housing?

One untapped source of investment are California’s public employee pension funds, which collectively manage nearly $800 billion in assets. Investing just a fraction of these assets in revenue producing civil infrastructure could have a decisive positive impact. Using water as an example, along with a crumbling distribution infrastructure, there are well established water markets in California. Investing in sewage reuse, seawater desalination, and aquifer and reservoir storage for runoff could eliminate water scarcity in California.

There are several interlocking benefits to investing pension funds in California’s infrastructure. For the pension funds, these would be safe investments that over time would yield more than typical fixed income investments and in fact may exceed their target returns of 6.5% or more per year. For California’s workforce, building and operating these assets in water, energy, and transportation would create tens of thousands of high-paying jobs. For California residents, these assets would create abundance instead of scarcity, and lower the cost of living.

With respect to the environment, increasing the diversity and quantity of water and energy supplies would create climate resiliency, and in nearly all cases – since this factor is of great concern to many Californians – these operations would be either “carbon neutral” or very nearly so.

The challenge to rebuilding California’s infrastructure is not primarily financial. Attracting pension fund investment might be the centerpiece of finding the capital for these projects, but there are all the traditional sources of funds, namely bonds and private investment. The bigger challenge is cultural. Joel Kotkin, writing for the Orange County Register, vividly frames the cultural challenge we face:

“California is on the road to a bifurcated, almost feudal, society, divided by geography, race and class. As is clear from the most recent Internal Revenue Service data, it’s not just the poor and ill-educated, as Brown apologists suggest, but, rather, primarily young families and the middle-aged, who are leaving. What will be left is a state dominated by a growing, but relatively small, upper class, many of them boomers; young singles and a massive, growing, increasingly marginalized “precariat” of low wage, often occasional, workers.

This social structure can only work as long as stock and asset prices continue to stay high, allowing the ultra-rich to remain beneficent. Once the inevitable corrections take place, the whole game will be exposed for what it is: a gigantic, phony system that benefits primarily the ruling oligarchs, along with their union and green allies. Only when this becomes clear to the voters, particularly the emerging Latino electorate, can things change. Only a dose of realism can restore competition, both between the parties and within them.”

Californians must be convinced that the “better, faster and cheaper” mantra that used to define the Silicon Valley, and the cost-cutting virtue of innovations that have uplifted humanity throughout history, can again be our cultural guiding principle. They must be convinced that good jobs and affordable abundance are possible without overly compromising our culture that cherishes the environment. They must be convinced that these “green” values have been taken too far; that they are a cover for condescending, statist oligarchs.

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Ed Ring is the vice president for policy research at the California Policy Center.

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