Attending a high school reunion after more than a few decades ought to be a memorable experience for anyone. Hopefully the occasion is filled with warmth and remembrance, rekindled friendships, stories and laughs. But as our lives develop and we build our adult networks based on shared values and common professions, a high school reunion offers something else; a unique opportunity to meet people we knew very well and still care about, whose lives all went in completely different directions.
My high school classmates chose a diverse assortment of careers. Some became engineers, some went into sales, some are entrepreneurs; some work in high-tech, some in aerospace, others in construction. And some are teachers, some are police officers, and some are firefighters. Without any exceptions I could observe, all of them made conscientious choices, all of them worked hard, all of them were responsible with their savings and investments. And now they’ve reached the age where whatever retirement plans they made are unlikely to change much.
How to ensure government pensions are not blown up by the next sustained market downturn is a complex challenge, complicated further by ideological divisiveness and political opportunism. On one side are powerful financial special interests in the form of the pension systems, and their government union allies. On the other side are poorly organized taxpayer activists whose grassroots strength, combined with fiscal reality, attract support from increasing numbers of local and state politicians. But caught in the middle are the people who served in government jobs, the overwhelming majority of whom did those jobs well, and have earned the right to retire with dignity. It’s personal.
Figuring out how to make government retirement benefits financially sustainable should be part of a bigger conversation, which is how all Americans are going to have the ability to retire with dignity. It is part of a conversation even bigger than that – how to nurture sustainable economic growth while coping with an aging population, environmentalist considerations, globalization, debt/GDP ratios at historic highs, and mushrooming new technologies that present unprecedented potential to eliminate human jobs. All of these mega-trends are this generation’s challenge, all of them are urgent, all of them are personal.
It’s easy to solve all of these challenges if you are willing to ignore reality and hew to an ideological pole-star. Libertarian answers to social and economic policy issues inevitably advocate privatization. Socialist theorists inevitably advocate state ownership. But both of these ideologies, in their most orthodox forms, are utopian. Libertarians envision a stateless, humane society based on personal liberty and private ownership. Socialists envision a stateless, humane society based on common ownership. If these extremes are so absurd, why is the center so uninviting?
It’s a long way from Silicon Valley to utopia, but in that fabled land, anchored by what was only referred to as San Jose back when we were high school students there, thoughtful futurists abound. Some think we shall all become independent contractors, linked by technology to virtual employment opportunities all over the world. They believe secure full time jobs will wither away entirely, and everyone will thrive as free agents in a wired world. Others think automation will eliminate so many jobs, and create so much abundance, that guaranteeing a minimum income to everyone will be feasible and necessary, whether they work or not. The conversation taking place among the Silicon Valley elite regarding the political economy of our future is helping to define that future as much as their innovative new products. It’s a conversation worth listening to without ideological blinders.
My classmates who chose careers in public service, just like my classmates who pursued careers in the private sector, are starting to retire. Just like everyone else – our friends, our families, our neighbors – they want answers, not ideology. They want constructive solutions, not controversial schemes. Is there enough room in the political center to permit a conversation that sticks to facts and practical solutions, or will the professional chorus of perennial opponents crush them, abetted by all those millions who are comforted by inflexible ideologies?
One ideologically impure, centrist way to save defined benefits would be to borrow concepts from Social Security. Reformed defined benefits would be (1) awarded according to progressive formulas, where the more someone makes, the less the pension benefit is as a percent of their final salary, (2) there is a benefit ceiling which no individual pension can exceed, (3) pension contributions in the form of employee withholding can be increased without commensurate increases to overall salary, (4) annual pension accrual multipliers, going forward for active workers, can be reduced depending on the system’s financial health, and (5) when necessary, pension benefits to existing retirees can be reduced, in order to maintain the overall financial health of the system. Often that can be as little as skipping a COLA.
When political professionals, volunteer activists, policymakers, commentators, analysts, or anyone else influencing the pension debate speak on the topic, they should imagine the following situation: With every word, they are looking into the eyes of two close friends or family members, two people nearing retirement, one of them about to collect a government pension, the other a taxpayer who will rely on Social Security supplemented by a lifetime of personal savings. People who didn’t create the financial challenges we collectively face. People we love.
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“Alright, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”
– John Cleese, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, 1979
Any discussion of California’s neglected infrastructure has to recognize the three factors most responsible, libertarians, environmentalists, and government unions. Picking libertarians as the first example is not by accident, because libertarians are perhaps the most unwitting participants in the squelching of public infrastructure investment. By resisting government involvement in any massive public works project, libertarians provide cover to public sector unions who know that public works funding competes for tax revenues with their own pay and benefits.
When it comes to squelching public infrastructure investment, however, nobody can compete with California’s environmentalist lobby. Their lawsuits have stalled infrastructure development for decades. And the identity of interests between government unions and environmentalists is multi-faceted. The most obvious is that when there is no money for infrastructure there is more money for government worker pay and benefits. And of course, the more environmentalist regulations are passed, the more need to hire more unionized government workers.
Then there are the unintended and largely unnoticed financial consequences of environmentalism abetting the government union agenda. As California’s carbon emission auction collections slowly grow into billions per year, government jobs are redefined to incorporate “climate change mitigation.” Code inspectors and planning dept. personnel become climate change enforcers ala revised building codes and zoning laws. Bus drivers become mass transit workers mitigating climate change. Firefighters combat lengthier fire seasons, and even police are called into action because hotter weather is correlated to higher crime rates. And as they work to mitigate the impact of climate change, all of them quietly qualify for a share of the carbon emission auction proceeds.
The unintended economic consequences of environmentalism abetting the government union agenda are among the hardest to explain. Of course environmentalism can slow down economic growth. At some reasonable level – which we’re well beyond – that’s even desirable. But the environmentalist squelching of public infrastructure development, along with competitive private sector development of land, energy and water resources, has created artificial scarcity. In turn, this drives up asset values which helps government pension funds two ways (1) directly through appreciation of their invested assets, and (2) indirectly, by creating new real estate collateral for consumer borrowing which stimulates consumer spending which creates corporate profits and stock appreciation. In short, the economic consequences of artificial scarcity are asset bubbles that, for a time, keep unionized government worker pension funds solvent. When you can’t afford to own a modest home, or run an energy intensive business, remember this.
What libertarians and environmentalists both need to understand is that massive public works are one of the prerequisites for broadly distributed prosperity. And the environmentalist bias against massive civil engineering projects is two-faced. For example, managing delta salinity, the flow of the San Joaquin River, and the very existence of one of the largest refuges for waterfowl in the American southwest, the Salton Sea, are all dependent on dams, aqueducts and irrigation. But no more?
If you search for interest groups that favor massive civil engineering projects, you’ll look far and wide and find nothing of significance. Private sector unions ought to be leading the charge, but in recognition of the power of environmentalists and government unions, they settle for politically correct projects of marginal productive value – high speed rail, delta tunnels, and the occasional stadium. The Silicon Valley lobby is even worse – rather than support abundance through innovation, they embrace conservation through surveillance. If Californians recovered an additional 10 million acre feet per year of fresh water through civil engineering projects such as desalination, dam storage, and sewage reuse, there would be no need to embed internet devices into “smart” (and mandatory) side loading washers, low flow toilets, water meters, dish washers, and irrigation systems.
The biggest challenge ideologically however confronts libertarians. Because in the real world, we need to build civil infrastructure within a financial and legal framework that relies to some significant degree on government. If libertarians can reconcile their ideals with the needs of Californians, they might rally private sector union leadership, practical environmentalists, and altruistic members of the public sector. Massive infrastructure development in California on all fronts is long overdue. The revenue producing elements of this infrastructure could be financed through the pension funds – only consuming a fraction of their assets – and give truth to their currently preposterous assertion that they’re helping our economy.
Imagine if California’s government, with help from private and federal sources, was truly committed to creating abundance again through massive civil engineering projects across all areas of critical infrastructure. Can libertarians find a formula that would enable them to urgently support this without violating their core ideals? Can they support development while also being the watchdog against corruption? It could make all the difference in the world.
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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.
In California, the root cause of government waste, failed programs, high taxes, debt and deficits, regulatory abuse, civil rights abuse, and even corporate cronyism is public sector unions. Their agenda is intrinsically in conflict with the public at large because any government program, any government regulation, any tax and any new debt, benefits them regardless of the cost or benefit to society.
In California, public sector unions collect and spend over $1.0 billion per year in dues. Their combined political spending and lobbying easily exceeds a half-billion per two-year election cycle. They are by far the most powerful special interest in California. Businesses embrace cronyism because they have no choice. The unions rule. Businesses either make a deal with the unions who run the state and local agencies, so they can get a subsidy or favorable regulation, or they can fight an irresistible machine.
If you accept this premise, powerful allies are hard to find.
When searching for help in the cause of public sector union reform, one staunch and rising group are those individuals and organizations who characterize themselves as “free market.” Nearly all of them embrace libertarian ideology. Libertarian and fiscal conservative political agendas align insofar as they both want government to operate in a financially sustainable mode that is efficient and accountable.
When a liberal examines the libertarian agenda, however, their support typically peaks on the issues of civil liberties and then falls off the cliff on the economic issues. Good government liberals know something is wrong. They know the economy is rigged by cronyism. They know the government is corrupted by government unions. They want answers. Libertarians have an opportunity to provide those answers, but it won’t be easy.
Google any relevant term, “free market,” or “libertarian ideology,” and you’ll find endless discussions of libertarian principles. But if you don’t already believe in these principles, you aren’t likely to be converted. Here is an attempt at posing some questions – small, then larger – that libertarians have to answer with more than high-minded academic platitudes, if they want their movement to gain a wider following:
(1) People working for large retail operations are not paid enough to survive on part-time work. So they have to take on two or more part-time jobs to support themselves and their families. But it is common now for large employers to use automated scheduling optimization programs that vary a worker’s part-time schedule from week to week. This makes it impossible for them to hold more than one job. Should any policy solution attempt to address this?
(2) Automation is making it possible to remove increasing numbers of people from the workforce. Within a few decades, retail clerks, professional drivers, farmworkers – and a host of other jobs and professions ranging all the way to local sports and routine financial reporting – will be fully automated. Is the current wave of technology, one that has the potential to literally replace 50% or more of current jobs with machines, any different from past disruptions?
(3) For the first time in history, the “population pyramid” of humanity is shifting from a population of primarily young people to one where the elderly constitute the largest percentage of individuals. One would think that automation displacing jobs would be good, since so many people will want to be retired. But what sort of market mechanism will enable all these retirees to survive with dignity?
There are endless permutations of these questions. Libertarians and conservatives are getting better at pointing out the difference between crony capitalism and competitive capitalism, or between engaging in casino finance and providing genuine financial services. They’re right that private enterprise almost always does a better job than government to provide cost-effective services. They’ve been explaining that the conventional notions of extreme left and extreme right are actually both authoritarian nightmares, and people are starting to listen. They need to emphasize more fully the win-win that is realized when businesses are permitted to compete to develop resources of land, water and energy, in order to lower the cost of living for everyone. But they don’t have all the answers. At least not yet.
Thrashing into the weeds of reality may not appeal to orthodox libertarians any more than it appeals to die-hard leftists. But that is the challenge that beckons, in order to debunk and defeat the rhetoric of the ruling class – the government unions and their crony capitalist allies – and to nurture the hopes and assuage the anxieties of millions of part-time workers, displaced workers, and aging workers.
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