Last week yet another missive on the lessons to be learned from Detroit’s bankruptcy was published, this time in Forbes Magazine by Jeffrey Dorfman, an economist at the University of Georgia. Dorfman’s article, “Detroit’s Bankruptcy Should Be A Warning To Every Worker Expecting A Pension, Or Social Security,” clearly implies that future Social Security benefits are as financially imperiled as public sector pensions.
This is patently false, and spreading this falsehood has dangerous consequences.
Not only are the financial adjustments necessary to fix Social Security far easier to implement than what it’s going to take to rescue public sector pensions, but the sheer size of the public sector pension liability is actually bigger than the total liability for the entire Social Security fund. It is imperative that American voters understand this fact.
In the United States today about 20% of workers are employed by the government (or public utilities that offer benefits on par with government). For recent retirees, their average pension after a 30 year career is over $60,000 per year, and their average retirement age is 58. Because they retire ten years before full Social Security benefits are eligible to private citizens at age 68, retired public employees actually comprise nearly 30% of the retired population. The average Social Security benefit is less than $20,000 per year. Critically, the ratio of workers to retirees in the Social Security system is more than 3-to-1, set to move downwards marginally within the next 20 years, whereas the ratio of workers to retirees participating in government worker pension plans is already less than 2-to-1 and is on track to move to roughly 1.5-to-1 within the next 20 years. Here’s how that math stacks up:
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2030, when Social Security will be supposedly approaching insolvency, there will be 99.4 million citizens over 58 years old, and 59.5 million citizens over 68 years old. This means that by 2030 (assuming no public employees also participate in Social Security – which many of them do) there will be 19.9 million government retirees collecting pensions that average $60,000 per year, and there will be 47.6 million private sector retirees collecting Social Security benefits that average $20,000 per year. Got that? The total pension payouts to government retirees, who were only 20% of the workforce, will be $1.2 trillion, whereas the total Social Security payouts to private sector retirees will be $952 billion, only 80% as much.
Now let’s talk about solvency, something that trained economists like Jeffrey Dorfman ought to understand thoroughly. Assuming government’s share of the workforce remains at around 20%, in 2030 we will have 247 million citizens over the age of 25. On a pay-as-you-go basis, to pay $1.2 trillion annually to 19.9 million government pensioners, 29.6 million active government workers would each require $40,343 per year withheld from their paychecks; to pay $952 billion annually to 47.6 million retired Social Security recipients, 150 million private sector workers would require $6,337 per year withheld from their paychecks – one sixth as much.
You can tweak the numbers all you like. Use medians instead of averages. Assume the public sector worker actually keeps working, on average, to age 60. Take into account disability payments, which are drawn from the Social Security fund. Assume people collect Social Security benefits before age 68. The stark fact remains: Our government pays more money to its own retirees – who represent 20% of the active workforce – than it pays in Social Security retirement benefits to everybody else put together. Financing Social Security, forever, can be accomplished with relatively minor incremental adjustments to withholding and benefits.
It is in this context that two powerful special interest groups, public sector unions, and public/private investment fund managers, would have you believe Social Security is the bigger problem. Government labor unions want our attention drawn away from the cataclysmic disaster facing public sector pensions for as long as possible. They want voters to perceive the problem of retirement security to be one that requires shared sacrifice, when nothing of the sort reflects reality. Pension fund managers are getting filthy rich investing public sector pension fund money, and would love to get their hands on the nearly equivalent funds that currently flow into Social Security.
Dorfman’s final insult is to suggest 401K funds provide a more secure retirement than defined benefits. Sure, if you are a fund manager collecting commissions on individual 401K accounts, regardless of their volatility.
The reality is that defined benefits are always preferable to 401K accounts because they greatly reduce market risk and they virtually eliminate mortality risk – i.e., in a pooled fund you don’t have to hope you die before your money runs out. The problem with public sector pensions is simple: (1) They rely too much on asset appreciation, something that is going to be increasingly problematic in our debt saturated, deficit ridden, aging society, and (2) they are way, way out of line with what ordinary citizens can ever hope to expect from Social Security.
Fixing public sector pensions is furthered by borrowing some concepts from Social Security, which might be characterized as an “adjustable defined benefit.” Here is the solution:
(1) Base pension benefits on career earnings, not final years of earnings.
(2) Stop using taxpayer’s money to manipulate global investment markets and just put all the funds into Treasury Bills; better yet, put pensions onto a pay-as-you go financial footing where current workers pay for retiree benefits.
(3) Calibrate benefits so highly compensated participants get a lower pension as a percent of their career earnings than participants with low or average career compensation.
(4) Put a ceiling on annual pension benefits of twice the maximum annual social security benefit.
(5) Whenever necessary, lower pension benefits for all retirees on a pro-rata basis (subject to a floor equivalent to 75% of the average Social Security benefit) to the extent the system is underfunded, in order to restore full funding.
(6) Raise the age at which participants become eligible for pension benefits to a minimum of age 60.
Public sector unions and private investment fund managers are allies in what is probably the most egregious fleecing of taxpayers in American history.
* * *
Ed Ring is the Executive Director of the California Policy Center.