“You will find that powerful financial and investment institutions are the ones promoting the attacks on your pensions. Firms like Berkshire-Hathaway and the Koch brothers are backing political candidates and causes all over the country in the hopes of making this issue relevant and in the mainstream media. Why? Because if they can crack your pension and turn it into a 401(k), they will make billions. Your pension is the golden egg that they are dying to get their hands upon. By the way, it was those same financial geniuses that brought about the Great Recession in the first place. After nearly collapsing the entire financial system of western civilization, they successfully managed to deflect the blame off of themselves and onto government employee pay/benefits.”
– Jim Foster, Vice President, Long Beach Police Officers Association, posted on PubSec Alliance website
These comments form the conclusion to a piece published by Foster entitled “What does “unfunded liability” mean?,” published on PubSecAlliance.com, an online “community of law enforcement associations and unions.” If you review the “supporters” page, you can see that the website’s “founding members,” “affiliated organizations,” and “other groups whose membership is pending” are all law enforcement unions.
In Foster’s discussion of what constitutes an unfunded pension liability, he compares the liability to a mortgage, correctly pointing out that like a mortgage, an unfunded pension liability can be paid down over many years. But Foster fails to take into account the fact that a mortgage can be negotiated at a fixed rate of interest, whereas a pension liability will grow whenever the rates earned by the pension system’s investments fall short of expectations. When the average taxpayer signs a 30 year fixed mortgage, they don’t expect to suddenly find out their payments have doubled, or tripled, or gone up by an order of magnitude. But that’s exactly what’s happened with pensions.
Apart from ignoring this crucial difference between mortgages and unfunded pension liabilities, Foster’s piece makes no mention of the other reason unfunded pension liabilities have grown to alarming levels, the retroactive enhancements to the pension benefit formula – enhancements gifted to public employees and imposed on taxpayers starting in 1999. These enhancements were made at precisely the same time as the market was delivering unsustainable gains engineered by, as Foster puts it, the “same financial geniuses that brought about the Great Recession in the first place,” and “nearly collapsing the entire financial system of western civilization.”
This is a huge failure of logic. Foster is suggesting that the Wall Street crowd is to blame for the unfunded liabilities of pensions, but ignoring the fact that these unfunded liabilities are caused by (1) accepting the impossible promises made by Wall Street investment firms during the stock market bubbles and using that to justify financially unsustainable (and retroactive) benefit formula enhancements, and (2) basing the entire funding analysis for pension systems on rates of return that can only be achieved by relying on stock market bubbles – i.e., doomed to crash.
You can’t blame “Wall Street” for the financial challenges facing pension funds, yet demand benefits based on financial assumptions that only those you taint as Wall Street charlatans are willing to promote.
Foster ignores the fact that the stock market bubbles (2000, 2008, and 2014) were inflated then reflated by lowering interest rates and accumulating debt to stimulate the economy. But interest rates cannot go any lower. When the market corrects, and pension funds start demanding even larger annual payments to fund pensions and OPEB that now average over $100,000 per year for California’s full-career public safety retirees, Foster and his ilk are going to have a lot of explaining to do.
There is a deeper, more ominous context to Foster’s remarks, however, which is the power that government unions, especially public safety unions, wield over politicians and over public perception. The navigation bar of the website that published his essay, PubSecAlliance, is but a mild reminder of the power police organizations now have over the political process. Items such as “Intel Report,” “Pay Wars,” “Tactics,” “Tales of Triumph,” and “The Enemy” are examples of resources on this website.
When reviewing PubSecAlliance’s reports on “enemies,” notwithstanding the frightening reality of police organizations keeping lists of political enemies, were any of the people and organizations listed selected despite the fact that they were staunch supporters of law enforcement? Because pension reformers and government union reformers are not “enemies” of law enforcement, or government employees, or government programs in general. There is no connection.
Here are a few points for Jim Foster to consider, along with his leadership colleagues at the Long Beach Police Officers Association, and police union members everywhere.
TEN POINTS FOR MEMBERS OF PUBLIC SAFETY UNIONS TO CONSIDER
(1) Not all pension reformers want to abolish the defined benefit. Restoring the more sustainable pension benefit formulas in use prior to 1999, and adopting conservative rate-of-return assumptions would make the defined benefit financially sustainable and fair to taxpayers.
(2) Over the long term, the real, inflation-adjusted return on investments cannot be realistically expected to exceed the rate of national and global economic growth. You are being sold a 7.0% (or more) annual rate of return because it is an excuse to keep your normal contribution artificially low, and mislead politicians into thinking pension systems are financially sound.
(3) As noted, you can’t blame “Wall Street” for the financial challenges facing pension funds, yet demand benefits based on financial assumptions that only those you taint as Wall Street charlatans are willing to promote.
(4) If public safety employers didn’t have to pay 50% or more of payroll into the pension funds – normal and unfunded contributions combined – there would be money to hire more public safety employees, improving their own safety and better protecting the public.
(5) Public safety personnel are eyewitnesses every day to the destructive effects of failed social welfare programs that destroy families, ineffective public schools with unaccountable unionized teachers, and a flawed immigration policy that prioritizes the admission of millions of unskilled immigrants over those with valuable skills. They ought to stick their necks out on these political issues, instead of invariably fighting exclusively to increase their pay and benefits.
(6) The solution to the financial challenges facing all workers, public and private, is to lower the cost of living through competitive development of land, energy, water and transportation assets. Just two examples: rolling back CEQA hindrances to build a desalination plant in Huntington Beach, or construct indirect potable water reuse assets in San Jose. Where are the police and firefighters on these critical issues? Creating inexpensive abundance through competition and development helps all workers, instead of just the anointed unionized government elite.
(7) If pension funds were calibrated to accept 5.0% annual returns, instead of 7.0% or more, they could be invested in revenue producing infrastructure such as dams, desalination plants, sewage distillation and reuse, bridges, and port expansion, to name a few – all of which have the potential yield 5.0% per year to investors, but usually not 7.0%.
(8) Government unions are partners with Wall Street and other crony capitalist interests. The idea that they are opposed to each other is one of the biggest frauds in American history. Government unions control local politicians, who award contracts, regulate and inspect businesses, float bond issues, and preserve financially unsustainable pension benefits. This is a gold mine to financial special interests, and to large corporate interests who know that the small businesses lack the resources to comply with excessive regulations or afford lobbyists.
(9) Government unions elect their bosses, they wield the coercive power of the state, they favor expanded government and expanded compensation for government employees which is an intrinsic conflict of interest, and they protect incompetent (or worse) government employees. They should be abolished. Voluntary associations without collective bargaining rights would still have plenty of political influence.
(10) Expectations of security have risen, the value of life has risen, the complexity of law enforcement challenges has risen, and the premium law enforcement officers should receive as a result has also risen. But unaffordable pensions, along with the consequent excessive payments of overtime, have priced public safety compensation well beyond what qualified people are willing to accept. Saying this does not make us your “The Enemy.”
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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.
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