Saving Pensions Will Require Unions To Face Reality

Saving Pensions Will Require Unions To Face Reality

“Not surprisingly, within moments of news of Detroit’s bankruptcy, pension scare mongers took to their pedestals to place all the blame on pensions. California, Los Angeles, and other governments would surely follow Detroit’s footsteps in short order, they cried. It’s simply not true, like most of the claims made by the anti-pension soldiers who have been trying for years to take away the retirement security of firefighters, teachers, police officers and other public servants.”

Ralph Miller, President, LA County Probation Officers’ Union, AFSCME, Fox & Hounds, August 20th, 2013

Miller has a point. California is not Detroit. California’s population has not imploded, nor will it. Detroit’s economy was reliant on one industry, California’s huge economy is diverse and relatively healthy. Turning California around, while daunting, is going to be a lot easier than turning around Detroit. And, yes, it was a collapsing industrial base and an imploding population that did as much or more than unsustainable pay and pensions to destroy the city of Detroit’s finances. Fair enough.

Where Miller goes off the rails is when he then infers that equally bogus are “most of the claims made by the anti-pension soldiers who have been trying for years to take away the retirement security of firefighters, teachers, police officers and other public servants.”

Few, if any pension reformers want to take away anyone’s retirement security. But as a nation, we are currently on track to pay more money each year in pensions to retired government workers than we pay in Social Security to everyone else. The average pension for a recently retired government worker in California who logged at least 30 years of full-time service is about $65,000 per year. The average Social Security benefit for a private sector retiree who logged 40 years or more of full-time work is $15,000 per year.

This is not a valid social contract. Government workers, through these pensions, are no longer required to endure the economic challenges facing the taxpayers they serve. And despite rhetoric and reporting that confuses these issues, Social Security is a relatively healthy system that can remain solvent with minor adjustments to withholding and benefit formulas, whereas public sector pensions are going to catastrophically collapse the very next time there’s a bear market.

There are really two primary issues that ought to be the focus of debate: (1) What is a realistic rate of return, after adjusting for inflation, for pension funds over the next 30 years? (2) If you don’t believe that pension funds are going to continue to deliver 7% returns, 4% real returns after inflation, year after year for the next three decades, do you fix the system by converting participants to an adjustable defined benefit, or by converting participants to a 401K?

To the first question, if you truly believe real rates of return are going to hover somewhere north of 4% per year, forever, then you should have no trouble agreeing to an adjustable defined benefit. This would simply be a modification of pension formulas, whereby pension benefits would be reduced by a uniform percentage, applied to everyone – new hires, active employees, and retirees – by as much as necessary to maintain an adequate funding ratio. By applying this formula to everyone equally, the amount of sacrifice for any given participant is minimized.

The alternative, should markets turn downwards, is to intensify attempts to protect veteran employees and retirees at the expense of new entrants to the public workforce. The fatal problem with this method is that new entrants have lower rates of pay and a very long wait until they retire, both factors that minimize any benefit to the fund’s solvency by reducing their pension formulas.

The other alternative, which many pension reformers have determined is inevitable given the intransigence of public sector unions to even consider options such as an across-the-board adjustable defined benefit, is to go to a 401K defined contribution plan. That would force every individual to hope they successfully pick the best investments, subjecting them to the caprice of a highly volatile, highly manipulated global market. It would also force every individual to hope they die before they run out of money. It is not a preferable option. It is as brutal as it is whimsical.

What government union leaders and their members must realize is they have set themselves apart from the rest of the American people during a unique period in our nation’s history. Between 1980 and 2030 the percentage of Americans over age 65 is projected to double, from 11% to 22%. At the same time, the costs of healthcare march relentlessly upwards – partly because medicine can do so much more to improve the length and quality of life. Moreover, we are entering the terminal phase of a global debt bubble that has been inflating at least since 1980. It’s about to pop. Passive investment funds are not going to be coining money like they used to.

Government unions can continue to demonize wealthy people, hoping enough voters will be duped by this scapegoating, but they must understand that “wealthy people” is becoming synonymous with “old people.” Their rhetoric, therefore, will foment discord between generations. Yet the reality is quite different. If things continue the way they are today, the discord, and the wealth disparity, will not be between old and young, but between old government workers (and the super rich, of course), and everyone else – young and old private sector workers, as well as newly hired government workers.

Ensuring that every American can enjoy sufficient retirement security to allow them to live their final years with some measure of dignity is not going to be easy. The solution is to lower defined benefits for all government workers to financially sustainable levels, as needed, and more generally, to move towards applying the same set of taxpayer funded benefit formulas and incentives to all American workers equally, for them to earn regardless of whether or not they work for the government.

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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Public Policy Center and the editor of UnionWatch.org.

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