Stephanie A. Miner, the Mayor of Syracuse NY, has an important op-ed essay in The NY Times Thursday. Syracuse is one of hundreds of cities around the state and tens of thousands around the country that are struggling with the potentially disastrous effects of out-of-control pension costs. Where this crisis is heading can be seen in California, where San Bernadino has become the third California city to declare bankruptcy. These cities are dying. They are caught in a bind. Either they decide not to pay their promised debts to pensioners; or, in honoring those debts, they so fully raise taxes and cut services as to ruin the lives of their citizens.
In Syracuse, Mayor Miner understands well the depth of the problem. First, public employee labor costs are too high not because salaries are high, but because pension costs and medical benefits are rising without limit. Second, revenues are being slashed, both from the recession and from cutbacks from the state and federal governments. Finally, the middle and upper class flight from cities to suburbs have left the tax base in cities low at the moment when poorer city dwellers are disproportionately in need of public services.
The result is that cities are faced with a stark choice: Do they pay older citizens what has been promised to them? Or do they cut those promised pensions in order to provide services for the young? This is a generational conflict that is playing out across the country.
Miner is worried that the response by NY State is making the problem worse. In short, Governor Cuomo and the legislature have decided to let cities that cannot afford to fund their burgeoning pension obligations borrow money to pay those pensions. The kicker is, that the cities are being told to borrow money from the very same pension plan to which they owe money.
If this sounds suspicious, it is. As Danny Hakim—one of the best financial reporters around—wrote almost exactly one year ago in the NY Times, this is a desperate and dangerous move:
When New York State officials agreed to allow local governments to use an unusual borrowing plan to put off a portion of their pension obligations, fiscal watchdogs scoffed at the arrangement, calling it irresponsible and unwise.
And now, their fears are being realized: cities throughout the state, wealthy towns such as Southampton and East Hampton, counties like Nassau and Suffolk, and other public employers like the Westchester Medical Center and the New York Public Library are all managing their rising pension bills by borrowing from the very same $140 billion pension fund to which they owe money.
The state’s borrowing plan allows public employers to reduce their pension contributions in the short term in exchange for higher payments over the long term. Public pension funds around the country assume a certain rate of return every year and, despite the market gains over the last few years, are still straining to make up for steep investment losses incurred in the 2008 financial crisis, requiring governments to contribute more to keep pension systems afloat.
Supporters argue that the borrowing plan makes it possible for governments in New York to “smooth” their annual pension contributions to get through this prolonged period of market volatility.
Critics say it is a budgetary sleight-of-hand that simply kicks pension costs down the road.
Borrowing from the state pension plan to pay municipal pension costs is simply failing to pay the pensions this year and thus having to pay more next year.
Hakim, as good as he is, allows Thomas P. DiNapoli—the state’s comptroller—to get away with calling the scheme “amortization.”
The state’s comptroller, Thomas P. DiNapoli, said in a statement, “While the state’s pension fund is one of the strongest performers in the country, costs have increased due to the Wall Street meltdown.” He added that “amortizing pension costs is an option for some local governments to manage cash flow and to budget for long-term pension costs in good and bad times.”
But how is this amortization? The assumption or hope is that the market will rise, the pension fund will go up, and then the municipalities will owe less. That is hardly amortization. No, it is desperate speculation with public monies.
The crisis in our cities afflicts the whole country, according to a study by the Pew Center on the States.
Cities employing nearly half of U.S. municipal workers saw their pension and retiree health-care funding levels fall from 79% in fiscal year 2007 to 74% in fiscal year 2009, using the latest available data, according to the Pew Center on the States. Pension systems are considered healthy if they are 80% funded.
The reason to pay attention to the problems in cities is that cities have even less ability to solve their pension shortfalls than states. The smaller the population, the more a city would have to tax each citizen in order to help pay for the pensions of its retired public workers. The result is that either cities get bailed out by states and lose their independence (as is happening in Michigan) or the cities file for bankruptcy (as is happening in California).
Mayor Miner, a Democrat, takes a huge risk in standing up to the Governor and the legislature. She is rightly insisting that they stop hiding from our national addiction to the crack-cocaine of unaffordable guaranteed lifetime pensions. Piling unpayable debts upon our cities will, in the end, bankrupt these cities. And it will continue the flight to the suburbs and the hollowing out of the urban core of America. Above all, it will sacrifice our future in order to allow the baby boomers to retire in luxury. Let’s hope Miner’s call doesn’t go unheeded.
The Wall Street Journal ran an interview this week with Luke Muehlhauser, the Executive Director of the Singularity Institute. The Journal asked: Will Artificial Intelligence Make us Obsolete? Muehlhauser's answer was, well yes. In his words:
Cognitive science has discovered that everything the human mind does is done by information processing and machines can do information processing too.
The first statement is clearly false, or at least depends on a strangely mixed up idea of "information processing." The old determinist canard that humans are simply complex machines has not been proven or discovered by cognitive science. And even if humans do process billions upon billions of bits of information it is not at all clear that such a humanly fallible process is reproducible. That is not the claim that cognitive science can make.
But cognitive science can claim that machines can be built that act in ways that are so like humans as to be almost nearly indistinguishable from them. Or, they can even be better than humans in doing many quintessentially human tasks. So machines can not only beat humans at chess, they can make moves that seem like moves only a human could have made, as Gary Kasparov learned to his dismay in the second game of his rematch with Deep Blue. Machines can create paintings that appear to be fully creative, as does Aaron, the painting machine created by artist and computer scientist Harold Cohen. And machines can increasingly make ethical decisions in warfare, as the robo-ethicist Ron Arkin has argued—decisions that are more humane than those made by human warriors.
Too much of the debate over artificial intelligence is caught up in the technical and really irrelevant question of whether machines can fully replicate human beings. The point is that if machines act "as if" they are human, or if they are capable of doing what humans do better than humans, we will gradually and continually allow machines to take over more and more of the basic human activities that make up our world. Already computers make most of the trades on Wall Street and computers are increasingly used in making medical diagnoses. Computers are being used to educate our children and write news stories. Caregivers for the elderly are being replaced by robotic companions. And David Levy, artificial intelligence researcher at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands, argues that we will be marrying robots in the near future. It is not that these robotic lovers or artificial artists are human, but that they love and paint in ways that do or will soon pass the Turing test: they will be impossible to distinguish from human works.
Undoubtedly one reason machines are acting more human is that humans themselves are acting less so. As we interact more and more with machines, we begin to act predictably, repetitively, and less surprisingly. There is a convergence at foot, and it is the dehumanization of human beings as much as the humanization of robots that should be worrying us.
Readers of the Hannah Arendt Center blog are well acquainted with the pension train wreck that is heading our way. It is not only public union pensions but also those corporate pensions that still guarantee defined benefits that are radically underfunded. And what hides the immensity of the problem is continued unrealistic assumptions about long-term future returns.
As was reported recently, Maryland—to take just one example—continues to assume a 7.75% annual return on its public pensions, which is even higher than the 6.6% 100 year historical average on stock returns.
While there is blame to go around—including feckless politicians and Wall Street hucksterism—the root of the problem may be a general unwillingness on all sides to realize that the last 100 years may have been an aberration. This is the argument that legendary investor Bill Gross makes in a report he sent to PIMCO clients this week.
Gross takes aim at the oft-repeated "truth" that over time stocks will return a real return of 6.6%. He argues that the returns over the last century were predicated on a Ponzi scheme, giving extra returns to shareholders at the expense of laborers (declining real wages) and government (declining real taxes). As those trends reach their limits, it is inevitable, Gross writes, that real returns must decline as well:
The legitimate question that market analysts, government forecasters and pension consultants should answer is how that 6.6% real return can possibly be duplicated in the future given today’s initial conditions which historically have never been more favorable for corporate profits. If labor and indeed government must demand some recompense for the four decade’s long downward tilting teeter-totter of wealth creation, and if GDP growth itself is slowing significantly due to deleveraging in a New Normal economy, then how can stocks appreciate at 6.6% real? They cannot, absent a productivity miracle that resembles Apple’s wizardry.
And it is not only stocks that will suffer. With treasuries yielding 2.55% (less than inflation), it is increasingly unlikely that long term bonds will provide meaningful returns. The sad result:
Together then, a presumed 2% return for bonds and an historically low percentage nominal return for stocks – call it 4%, when combined in a diversified portfolio produce a nominal return of 3% and an expected inflation adjusted return near zero. The Siegel constant of 6.6% real appreciation, therefore, is an historical freak, a mutation likely never to be seen again as far as we mortals are concerned.
The consequence of these reduced expectations for public and private pension funds (and also for retirees with 401k plans that assume healthy investment returns) are dire. Simply put, throughout society, we are living beyond our means. We are in denial and continuing to make unrealistic investment assumptions. Gross draws the inevitable lesson for pension plans:
Private pension funds, government budgets and household savings balances have in many cases been predicated and justified on the basis of 7–8% minimum asset appreciation annually. One of the country’s largest state pension funds for instance recently assumed that its diversified portfolio would appreciate at a real rate of 4.75%. Assuming a goodly portion of that is in bonds yielding at 1–2% real, then stocks must do some very heavy lifting at 7–8% after adjusting for inflation. That is unlikely. If/when that does not happen, then the economy’s wheels start spinning like a two-wheel-drive sedan on a sandy beach. Instead of thrusting forward, spending patterns flatline or reverse; instead of thriving, a growing number of households and corporations experience a haircut of wealth and/or default; instead of returning to old norms, economies begin to resemble the lost decades of Japan.
We should applaud Gross for saying what many of us suspect: that the efforts of technocrats who populate pension plans to predict future returns is unpredictable at best and more likely subject to rosy biases. And yet even Gross then goes on to assume the tone of an all-knowing sage, something that seems de rigueur for public commentators today. We will solve the problem, Gross assures us, by turning to inflation.
Maybe Gross is right. But whatever the future holds, we must first confront the fact that as things now stand, we face a collective reduction in our wealth. How we respond to the reality of that threat will define the United States in coming generations. Either we can continue to insist that we are a wealthy nation and go on spending and living as if nothing had changed, or we can adjust our expectations downward.
Or we can somehow seek to unleash new forces of wealth creation that would generate the kind of economic growth and social and economic change that will lead to unexpected transformations in who we are.
We should neither take Bill Gross' prognostications as prophecy nor deny the reality he describes. Gross offers merely a hypothesis about the future, something far different from a fact. We do not have an adequate understanding of human nature and human economy to predict the GDP for this year, let alone for 2030. Human spontaneity, chance, and freedom mean that predictions of the future are simply calculations based upon the assumption that such and such will happen if men act rationally and nothing unexpected happens. In such cases it is helpful to recall Pierre-Joseph Proudhon's remark (loved by Hannah Arendt) that "the fecundity of the unexpected far exceeds the statesman's prudence."
*This post originally appeared yesterday on Via Media.
Ryan Lizza has a must-read essay in The New Yorker on the challenges of presidential leadership. The first thing to note is that when Lizza began asking President Obama's team about their vision for what they want to accomplish in a second term, they hesitated to answer. "Many White House officials were reluctant to discuss a second term; they are focused more on the campaign than on what comes after." When pressed, Obama's team offered a litany of hopes for a second term, including: climate control, immigration reform, and a more robust foreign aid agenda. Also mentioned are housing reform and energy reform. While these are all important, they aren't what really ails the country. The American system of government is paralyzed. Corruption is becoming rampant on Wall Street and K Street. Our pension system is underfunded. Unemployment and underemployment are dangerously high and there are structural changes to the economy that require bold leadership.
The question raised is what leadership is and why it is so difficult in contemporary politics. Here is Lizza on one example of Obama's unwillingness to pursue his own agenda:
In 2010, Obama negotiated a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with the Russians and won its passage in the Senate. But, despite his promise to “immediately and aggressively” ratify the C.N.T.B.T., he never submitted it for ratification. As James Mann writes in “The Obamians,” his forthcoming book on Obama’s foreign policy, “The Obama administration crouched, unwilling to risk controversy and a Senate fight for a cause that the President, in his Prague speech, had endorsed and had promised to push quickly and vigorously.” As with climate change, Obama’s early rhetoric and idealism met the reality of Washington politics and his reluctance to confront Congress.
Lizza explores the incredible difficulties recent Presidents have faced in pursuing their agendas. One takeaway is that the idea of a presidential mandate is a myth.
•"The idea of a mandate from the people defies the intentions of the Founders and is contrary to the way that most early Presidents viewed their role."
•"The concept of a mandate was essentially invented by Andrew Jackson, who first popularized the notion that the President “is the direct representative of the American people,” and it was later institutionalized by Woodrow Wilson, who explicitly wanted the American government to be like the more responsive parliamentary system of the United Kingdom."
•"But the idea [of the mandate] is mostly a myth. The President and Congress are equal, and when Presidents misinterpret election results—especially in re-elections—they get into trouble."
Lizza argues that Presidents don't have the importance or authority that they claim and we ascribe to them. And yet, there are exceptions.
The last two presidents who successfully amassed large majorities to pass transformative legislation were Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan. What unites Johnson and Reagan—different in temperament and politics—was an uncanny quality of leadership. They were able to bring opposing sides together to accomplish grand and important visions. It is just such political leadership that we desperately need and clearly lack today.
Is such leadership possible anymore? When one looks to politics and sees that unyielding partisanship, consultant-driven talking points, and PR campaigns, one must wonder if a President can actually lead. Whether in Europe or in the US, it seems as if leaders are on strike, only acting when they absolutely have to. It is not simply a matter of lacking vision, although it is that too. More, it is that leaders are so careful and pre-packaged that politics has come to be more about marketing than about thinking and action.
Politics, Hannah Arendt argued, requires courage. It demands a risky and rare willingness to experiment and seek to bring about new directions in the world. To act politically demands doing things that are spontaneous and new; politics requires actions that are surprising and thus attract attention and generate interest, drawing people together around a common idea. Arendt's point was that a political leader can only attract citizens to their vision when they act in ways that are surprising and noteworthy. The political leader must take the risk of leadership that can either succeed or fail. When it succeeds, the surprising and new act generates enthusiasm and followers. When it fails, the people reject it.
Leaders are those who take risks and are willing to fail. To look at Mitt Romney and President Obama is to see what happens when leaders are afraid to lose. We must now confront the fact that the need to raise money and the rise of consultants and the dominance of public relations has sapped politics of the spontaneity, thoughtfulness, and fun that can and should be at the center of political action.
How can we today resuscitate a political culture of risk-taking and leadership? How can we make the president matter again? Do Occupy Wall Street and the rise of the Pirate Parties in Europe presage a new style of political leadership? These are important questions, and will be the topics of the Hannah Arendt Center's Fifth Annual Conference: Does the President Matter? The Arendt Center Conference will take place on Sept. 21-22, 2012 and will feature Keynotes by Ralph Nader, Bernard Kouchner, Rick Falkvinge, and Jeff Tulis. It also features talks by John and James Zogby, Todd Gitlin, Ann Norton, and many others. We hope you will join us.
Ina Drew has resigned. Why wasn't she fired?
Drew is the executive at JPMorgan being asked to fall on her sword for the $2 Billion+ loss in hedging trades. Jamie Dimon, who for four years has taken credit for running a tight ship in which he was responsible for steering JPMorgan through the financial crisis, will of course soldier on, beaten but not broken.
Aside from allowing her the dignity of not being fired, the resignation also, I have to imagine, preserves what must be a very generous severance package. All present reports refuse to disclose Drew's severance package. She was paid $15.5 million last year and almost $16 million in 2010. What justification is there for now allowing her to resign and potentially keep a severance?
The answer seems to be that Drew, like all the executives on Wall Street, deserves their stratospheric compensation. This of course was Dimon's point in his announcement of her resignation. He writes:
Ina Drew has been a great partner over her many years with our firm. Despite our recent losses in the CIO, Ina’s vast contributions to our company should not be overshadowed by these events.
In other words, Drew is brilliant and has been valuable. She should not be blamed for losing $2 Billion. She still deserves what is reported to be a severance package of over $14 Million in equity rewards, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The canard of the best and the brightest is one we hear over and over. The basic fallacy here is the belief that these executives are so smart and so valuable that they can't be angered or let go.
The fact that these blow-ups keep happening has done little to quell the applause for the bankers. All the incentives are for the executives to take on risk. What happens when they lose? They resign. I am sure Ina Drew is smart and capable and no doubt she will be back at a hedge fund or a new firm as soon as she wants.
The bigger issue, however, is that there is still the feeling around that these executives deserve to be making tens of millions of dollars every year. Recall that back in 2009 after the best and brightest brought the country's best (i.e. biggest) banks to their knees at the federal taxpayers' dole, Ken Feinberg was appointed to oversee bonuses and compensation at those banks. He has told how the big banks decided that every single one of their executives had performed above average and deserved extravagant bonuses. In an article about Feinberg from 2009, Steven Brill writes:
To take a near-comic example, the firms did not present a single executive as meriting a pay grade below the 50th percentile of their supposed peer group.... In fact, all 136 of the executives (the 25 top earners for each of the seven companies, less 39 who left during the year) were depicted as well above average, typically in the 75th percentile or higher. And the peer groups they were supposed to be in were often inflated; for example, someone running a unit might be portrayed as a chief executive because, the argument went, he ran a really big unit.
Citigroup and Bank of America, Brill writes, "concluded that everyone in their executive suites was above average when compared with peers at other giant banks that didn’t need a bailout." The banks then proposed that their average executives deserved bonuses of between $10-$21 million. After months of negotiating and cajoling, Feinberg talked them down, so that in the end, the average banker received a year-end bonus of $6.5 million at Bank of America and $6.2 million at Citigroup.
Those paltry $6 million bonuses were in a year that the banks went bankrupt and had to be bailed out. No wonder the best and the brightest like Drew deserve $14 and $16 million when times are good. Of course, the incentives to take risks are still there. If your risks work out, you make a fortune. When your risky trades go bad, you resign and take your winnings and your severance.
These bankers have nothing at risk and everything to gain by taking risks. Four years after the financial crisis, it seems that little if anything has changed.
It was Winston Churchill who said that democracy was the worst form of government, except for all the others. We have been living in passive agreement with Churchill's witticism for half a century. But slowly, harrowingly, fatalistically, people around the world are giving up on democracy.
Greece, the birthplace of democracy, and Italy (well, it's Italy) are now both governed by unelected technocratic governments charged with carrying out austerity programs that democratically elected leaders would not or could not bring about.
According to Gillian Tett, the Financial Times columnist, "the situation calls for very firm, forward-looking action that is almost impossible in a rowdy democratic political system at the moment." Tett is not alone in seeing the failure of democratic leadership in crises and the inability of democratic politicians to allocate pain and sacrifice amongst their constituents.
We in the United States are showing a similar predilection to trade democracy for technocratic management. Michigan is at the forefront of this trend. Governor Rick Snyder has been aggressive in appointing emergency managers to take control of city finances. In Pontiac, Flint, Benton Harbor and other Michigan cities, the mayors and town councils have been fired and rendered obsolete, replaced by a manager appointed by the governor.
In New York, Nassau County is now under the rule of an "oversight board" that controls its budget and finances. In Michigan, financial managers have the power to void labor contracts, privatize public services, and dismiss elected officials. These managers serve at the will of the governor, but they have no set term.
Tomorrow we may learn whether Detroit, Michigan's biggest and once proudest city, will also succumb to an emergency manager. The only alternative, it seems, is a consent decree with the State that will turn the city over to a manager jointly selected by the city and the state from a slate of candidates approved by the governor. The problem, once again, is that democratic governments have simply been unable to make the hard decisions needed. The result is that Detroit is bankrupt and in need of a state bailout and the state is treating Detroit like the spoiled child it is, just as the European Union treats Greece and Italy. Money will come, but only if the children agree to be treated like children.
I can only point out so many times that Wall Street bankers also acted like spoiled children, but they received their bailouts and undeserved bonuses without the demeaning financial oversight. Hypocrisy, however, is not an argument for or against such oversight, even if it does reveal that there are issues beyond simple economic calculation at play. In Europe, there are prejudices against the laziness of southern peoples, and here in the U.S. racial prejudices are no doubt active, as can be seen by one commentator's likening Detroit's citizens to addicts:
As those of us in surrounding communities watch the ongoing tragedy unfolding in Detroit, we really need to hope that this once great city can stop its decline, and begin to recover. But just like with an alcoholic, the city's so-called leaders must first admit they have a problem, and that they are unable to fix it on their own. Unfortunately, they do not appear to have reached that point yet. I guess a nice way of putting it would be to say that they are in denial.
Patronizing rhetoric aside, the basic problem is that the people of Detroit—like the people of Greece and Italy—are unwilling to govern themselves and are welcoming technocrats to take over that task. We witness once again how easily people will abandon democratic freedoms for the promise of a bailout. The current argument in Detroit is less about whether to give up self-government—a foregone conclusion—but how much money Detroit can extract in the deal for doing so.
The Romans had a provision in their law for the appointment of a dictator during emergencies, especially at war. A dictator, as Andreas Kalyvas reminds us, was not a tyrant. A dictator in Roman law was a 'temporary tyranny by consent' while a tyrant was a 'permanent dictator.' The Roman Republic recognized that crises required decisive action that a sprawling democracy was frequently unable to muster. The dictator was not illegal, but was a constitutionally approved office that was appointed for a set term, after which time power would revert back to the people. In other words, a dictator was a constitutionally regulated and democratically agreed upon safety valve for the failures of democracy.
Modern democracies have largely avoided such emergency powers, and for good reasons. It seems, however, that such resistance is fading. Will it be until we have no choice but to appoint an emergency financial manager to do the job we won't do for ourselves? But then again, who would appoint such a person?
For Hannah Arendt, this was and remains a crucial question. For human beings are political beings who actualize their freedom in public action with others. The entire premise of what Arendt once called the "dictatorial intervention" is to replace politics with the temporary tyranny of the educator. It is to admit our immaturity and call for a tyrant who will treat us as children. And yet that is, precisely, what it seems we want.
Is economic inequality becoming a problem for Americans? The common sense today is that OWS has put inequality on the agenda today in a way that is new in American politics. And today Eduardo Porter makes the argument that OWS is having some traction on the question of income inequality. While Americans traditionally are tolerant of inequality, that may be changing.
Our tolerance for a widening income gap may be ebbing, however. Since Occupy Wall Street and kindred movements highlighted the issue, the chasm between the rich and ordinary workers has become a crucial talking point in the Democratic Party’s arsenal. In a speech in Osawatomie, Kan., last December, President Obama underscored how “the rungs of the ladder of opportunity had grown farther and farther apart, and the middle class has shrunk.”
There are signs that the political strategy has traction. Inequality isn’t quite the top priority of voters: only 17 percent of Americans think it is extremely important for the government to try to reduce income and wealth inequality, according to a Gallup survey last November. That is about half the share that said reigniting economic growth was crucial.
Seventeen percent seem a low number of citizens concerned about inequality, but looking deeper, Porter argues that attitudes are changing.
A slightly different question indicates views have changed: 29 percent said it was extremely important for the government to increase equality of opportunity. More significant, 41 percent said that there was not much opportunity in America, up from 17 percent in 1998.
Statistics on income mobility are notoriously hard to measure and contested, but the surveys indicate that optimistic Americans are losing that sense of mobility and possibility. Even if people can and do often earn more than their parents, the vast rifts opening up between rich and middle class means that increasingly Americans live in different worlds. These vast divisions are now seen as a problem not only by liberals, but also by conservatives like Charles Murray, whose book Coming Apart bemoans the loss of a common sense of American values. There is a way in which the truly extraordinary gaps in income are unraveling the social contract that holds the country together.
In other words, even for those who are accepting of inequality and who believe in a meritocracy, excessive inequality cannot be justified. As Porter writes:
One doesn’t have to believe in equality to be concerned about these trends. Once inequality becomes very acute, it breeds resentment and political instability, eroding the legitimacy of democratic institutions. It can produce political polarization and gridlock, splitting the political system between haves and have-nots, making it more difficult for governments to address imbalances and respond to brewing crises. That too can undermine economic growth, let alone democracy.
Read more here.
The public pension crisis is eroding the American social contract. While many are up in arms against Governor Scott Walker's heavy-handed attack on public unions, the fact is that Democratic governors in NY and California are also struggling with the inevitable need to reduce public pensions. Governor Jerry Brown in California admitted recently that public pensions were a Ponzi scheme. That is obvious. What is now sinking in as reality is that the Ponzi scheme is out of money and falling apart.
The Pew Center on the States published a study in 2011 called the Trillion Dollar Gap. The first sentence states the point:
$1 trillion. That’s the gap at the end of fiscal year 2008 between the $2.35 trillion states had set aside to pay for employees’ retirement benefits and the $3.35 trillion price tag of those promises.
A mere one year later, the gap had increased 26%!
The gap between the promises states have made for public employees’ retirement benefits and the money set aside to pay for them grew to at least $1.26 trillion in fiscal year 2009-a 26 percent increase in one year-according to a Pew report.
The gap is actually much bigger than the Pew Center numbers suggest, since the report is based on the official numbers that use way too optimistic expectations of returns.
The Pew Center Report continues, stating the reason this matters so much:
Why does it matter? Because every dollar spent to reduce the unfunded retirement liability cannot be used for education, public safety and other needs. Ultimately, taxpayers could face higher taxes or cuts in essential public services.
Municipal bankruptcies are mounting. Prichard, Alabama and Central Falls, Rhode Island both filed for bankruptcy, and they have had to vastly reduce the pensions promised to their public employees. The city of Stockton, California is in bankruptcy court now, and it must pay $30 million every year in pension costs, even as it only sets aside .70 cents for every dollar it must pay.
The crisis is spiraling. In essence, cities and states around the country will have to decide whether to honor their legal debts to public employees or pay for services like police, fire, and parks needed by their current residents. The only other option is a bailout from the federal government, but the size of the problem is enormous and such a bailout seems highly unlikely.
In the meantime, states continue to juggle money around to keep the Ponzi scheme going. Just this month New York State decided to let municipalities and public entities borrow money from the state pension fund to make their payments back into the state pension fund. This is nonsense. Dangerous nonsense.
And while New York State did finally pass a version of pension reform last week, the reform falls far short of what Governor Cuomo wanted and what is needed. The Assembly raised the retirement age for public employees (not for policeman and firemen) to 63 from 62, whereas Cuomo sensibly asked it be raised to 65. As it stands now, the New York State pension plan is expected to consume 35 percent of the New York State's budget by 2015. This is up from a mere 3% in 2001. More.
For anyone who cares about government and wants government to succeed, the pension problem must be addressed, for it threatens not only economic disaster, but political cynicism beyond even today's wildest dreams. Across the country, teachers, policemen and firemen, not to mention civil service employees and others, will see their promised pensions shrink precipitously. Not only will this devastate retirement nest eggs for millions of people, it will fray the social contract—pitting young against old and taxpayers against public employees.
It is bad enough that we will have to renege on pensions owed to public service employees (as municipalities in Rhode Island, Alabama, and California are already doing), but it is worse that we will do so after bailing out Wall St. bankers and allowing taxpayers to pay their contractually-obligated bloated bonuses. That these seven-figure bonuses were paid and yet we are unable and unwilling to pay contractually obligated pension costs is both a fact and an example of why the bailout of the bankers was so deeply wrong and misguided.
The issues around public pensions are complicated. They involve contractual promises made to workers that simply cannot be honored as well as pitting public servants against everyday taxpayers. There is also the fact that public employees are paid significantly more than similarly educated private employees at all but the highest levels of income and education. A recent Congressional Budget Office study concluded that:
- Average benefits for federal workers with no more than a high school diploma were 72 percent higher than for their private-sector counterparts.
- Average benefits for federal workers whose education ended in a bachelor's degree were 46 percent higher than for similar workers in the private sector.
- Workers with a professional degree or doctorate received roughly the same level of average benefits in both sectors.
The CBO chart below shows clearly the relative overcompensation of public workers against their private-sector counterparts. While one could turn this around and argue that private-sector workers are underpaid, the fact is that the current level of benefits for public-sector workers is bankrupting our municipalities and states. We can argue all we want about what is fair pay, but the current pay levels are clearly unsustainable. More, they are threatening to devastate public services as we continue to cut services in order to pay outsized benefits to retired public-sector workers.
Do public employees deserve to make more than private employees? Should we say that someone teaching in public schools deserves more than one teaching in private schools? For some, the answer is yes and there is a sense that it is more noble and thus valuable to serve in the public interest. Some might even turn to Hannah Arendt to justify such a claim, that a public-service career is more public-spirited and thus more socially valuable than a private-service career.
As much as I value public-sector employees, it is a mistake to put them on a pedestal. It is unclear whether most public employees are more public-spirited than their private-sector counterparts. It is also unclear whether public school teachers and professors are better, more important, or more noble than their private school counterparts.
What is clear, however, is that public employees have a private interest in taking more and more of the taxpayer-generated revenue for themselves. In other words, public employees have a private interest in diverting public funds from public services to their wages and pensions. In this sense, the increasing numbers of public employees and their increasing wages and benefits threaten to hollow out public services in our country.
This is not to condemn public employees. Nor is it to deny that at the higher incomes, wealthy Americans should pay more in taxes to support governmental services. But we should be honest and contest the prejudice that public employees have the public interest at heart. And we need to have an adult debate about what to do about underfunded and ballooning public pensions.
This week, Greg Smith announced his resignation as an executive from Goldman Sachs in a highly publicized Op-Ed piece for the New York Times, aptly titled “Why I am Leaving Goldman Sachs.” The letter describes a transformation in the “culture” of the giant investment firm that has gone from a business with integrity to one which is now “as toxic and destructive” as Smith has ever seen it during his twelve year tenure. “To put the problem in the simplest terms, the interests of the client continue to be sidelined in the way the firm operates and thinks about making money.”
Such behavior being tied to a Wall Street firm is not exactly surprising. And in Goldman's case, one wonders where Mr. Smith has been. In the last few years, a number of Goldman's clients have sued the bank, including ACA Financial Guaranty, Basis Capital, an Australian hedge fund, and ABP, a Dutch pension fund. Each argues that Goldman materially harmed them by selling them bad products. And Goldman already paid out $500 Million dollars to settle the Abacus case, in which Goldman was accused of illegally profiting by deceptively selling worthless paper to its customers.
There is a sense in which one looks at Mr. Smith's holier than thou revelation that Goldman was not the noble corporation he once thought it was and asks: really? Haven't you read anything Michael Lewis has written over the last 10 years? Not to mention Matt Taibi—the author of a take down of the mythic Goldman Sachs culture that was published two years ago.
Smith derides his former employer for focusing on profit above the well-being of the client. He puts this is stark business terms. He writes:
It astounds me how little senior management gets a basic truth: If clients don’t trust you they will eventually stop doing business with you. It doesn’t matter how smart you are.
What Smith takes as a simple truth, is anything but. Trust is in short supply, and yet people work with Goldman and others because they believe that Goldman will make them money. As long as they think that Goldman will make them money, they don't really care that Goldman will make more money or that Goldman is looking out for itself. Clients continue to flock to Goldman because making money is what everyone cares about, not trust. One client of Goldman Sachs was even quoted as calling Smith “naïve” for believing that the business he is in was ever about anything but profit.
Frank Portnoy, writing in the Financial Times, argues that what is really at stake here is the definition of a client. Goldman is now a huge public firm with a few big clients it serves as advisors, and then thousands if not millions of smaller clients who simply buy its products. Goldman needs to have the trust of its major clients, but not is smaller ones. Just as Coca-Cola has an obligation to make sure that what it is selling is actually Coca-Cola, Goldman has a responsibility to sell you what it tells you it is selling you. But neither Coca-Cola nor Goldman are obligated to tell you that their products aren't healthy for your body or your wallet.
The Goldman myth is just that, at least today. After Goldman went public it transformed from a small investment bank with $1.4 billion in investments in 1998 to a huge corporation with investments of $13.96 billion in 2008, using a leverage ration of 26 percent. Does anyone really think that such a company is not driven by the bottom line?
Reconciling ourselves to reality—telling ourselves the truth—is one of the first demands of ethical life.
One such truth is that business today is very different than it used to be. One needs to confront and comprehend such a truth, especially if you want to resist it. And that is the problem with too many of the responses to Greg Smith's letter.
Yes, Smith seems naive and snarky. And why did he give us his resume at the end of his letter? He clearly has some issues. But the basic point he raises—that business should be conducted with some basic ethical standards beyond that of minimally following the letter of the law—is one worth discussing. There are some clients who want to work with bankers that treat them both kindly and respectfully, and they should know to avoid swimming with the sharks. And there is a real question whether pension funds and other institutions are sophisticated enough to swim in the waters with the likes of Goldman. And finally there is the worry that so many of our brightest young people want to work for firms at which the unmitigated search for profit—restrained only by the letter of the law—is the cultural demand. We need more discussions of such questions. So, as distasteful as I found Smith's letter, I must admit I am happy he published it.
A better airing of many of these same issues happened at the Hannah Arendt Center's 2009 Conference, The Intellectual Origins of the Financial Crisis. A number of our panelists touched precisely on this question of the cultural change in business and Wall Street in particular. The book of essays based on that conference will be published this year.
In the book is included an interview with Vincent Mai, at the time the Chairman and Partner of AEA Investors. In this interview, Mai offers an insiders' perspective on the cultural changes that the financial world has undergone. With more eloquence and also more awareness than Greg Smith, Mai offers an account of an inverted world, one in which trust, reputation, and respect have been replaced by a whole new set of values.
I don’t mean that everybody was a saint and today they’re all sinners. Far from it. But there was a set of ground rules that governed the way you did business which imposed a discipline which was central to the way Wall Street worked. It was the same in all the firms. And I’ve watched with a combination of fascination and horror at the way the world has changed, turned upside down.
Mai's story of the way the world of Wall St. has been turned upside down is fascinating reading, and worth more of your time than another 10 commentaries on Greg Smith. The book with Mai's interview won't be out for a few months still, but for now you can read it here. I recommend you do so for your weekend read.
Governor Mitt Romney released his taxes for the last two years today. He refused to release earlier records. These two years of records are from the years when he knew he was running for President for the second time.
We can assume they are to some degree cleansed of the most egregious of offenses. That said: Wow!
As my friend John Drabinski just wrote:
Romney has Cayman Island, Luxembourg, and Swiss bank accounts (I'm sure that's patriotic), made over $20 million and paid a 13.9% rate (wtf?!), and I'm telling you, if folks don't flip out over this, then we deserve what we get in this country.
Romney's tax rate is below 15%! That is even below the capital gains rate and the unjustifiable carried interest rate for hedge fund investors. Why? Because he has tax havens and secret Swiss bank accounts that he uses to reduce his taxes. He just closed a Swiss bank account (not fast enough I guess).
This is disgrace. Someone who uses the gray zone of tax haven law to hide his income is not simply playing by the rules. Money in tax havens is protected from taxes, but also from regulations and disclosure rules. I am not saying Romney broke laws. But he wants to be President, the personification of the public spiritedness of the nation. To hide money around the world in tax dodges and secret accounts sends a clear message: protecting my money is more important than paying my fair share to the country. While this may be legal, it is hardly a recommendation for public service.
Unfortunately, Romney's approach to financial secrecy is all too common amongst the people in his elite circle. It is one thing to have a low capital gains rate tax for investment in equipment and factories. That does spur investment. I would favor a low 5% or so capital gains tax—but only if it were limited to actual capital investment. However, to tax investment in stocks at that low rate makes no economic sense. And the idea that carried interest (the profit a hedge fund manager or private equity manager makes on their investments) should be taxed at 15% is ludicrous, as every hedge fund manager I know admits in private.
Tax havens and tax policies are not simply economic questions. A just system of taxation is essential to preserve our democracy. You simply cannot have a country that puts the common interest above the private interests of its members when the wealthiest of its citizens are employing armies of lawyers and consultants to hide their money and assets.
The best account of these tax havens is found in Nicholas Shaxson's book Treasure Island: Uncovering the Damage of Offshore Banking and Tax Havens. Here are a few key quotes:
It is essential to understand from the outset that the offshore system is ultimately not about celebrity tax exiles and mobsters.... The offshore system is also about a more generalized subversion of democracy by our increasingly unaccountable elites. "Taxes are for the little people," The New York millionaire Leona Helmsley once famously said.
Much of what happens offshore is technically legal. A lot of it is plainly illegal and often criminal. And there is a vast gray area in between. All of it is profoundly dangerous, corrosive to democracy, and morally indefensible.
The Offshore World is All Around Us. Over half of world trade passes, at least on paper, through tax havens. Over half of all bank assets, and a third of foreign direct investment by multinational corporations, are routed offshore. Some 85 percent of international banking and bond issuance takes place in the so-called Euromarkets, a stateless offshore zone that we shall soon explore. Nearly every multinational corporation uses tax havens, and their largest users—by far—are on Wall Street.
Tax havens don't just offer an escape from tax. They also provide wealthy and powerful elites with secrecy and all manner of ways to shrug off the laws and duties that come along with living in and obtaining benefits from society—taxes, prudent financial regulation, criminal laws, inheritance rules, and many others. offering these escape routes is the tax havens' core line of business. It is what they do.
Just last week, the watchdog Global Financial Integrity revealed that the developing world suffered nearly $1 trillion in illicit financial outflows in 2009, "a number that is almost 10 times larger than the official development assistance they receive each year from Western economies like the United States, United Kingdom and Norway." As Raymond Baker writes:
A shadow financial system consisting of tax havens, secrecy jurisdictions and anonymous corporate vehicles makes it easy for corrupt dictators, terrorists, drug traffickers and tax evaders to quietly shepherd their funds out of the developing world and around the planet without notice.
Again, I don't know if Governor Romney broke laws. I imagine he stayed just this side of illegality.
But we have a moral and ethical problem in this country. A republic, as Montesquieu saw, runs on the fuel of the virtue of its citizens, which Montesquieu defined as their willingness to put the public interest above their private interests. We are a nation in need of renewal, and that demands leadership that inspires us to re-commit ourselves to the American dream and the American story. It is a great story, one worthy of being re-imagined. But how can someone lead us to that promised land when he has, by his actions, shown himself to care more about protecting his money in offshore tax havens than doing his duty as a citizen? He can't.
Andrew Sullivan calls for President Obama to go big and make tax reform a central priority in the State of the Union tonight. I agree. He also says:
It seems to me that this is not about Romney and shouldn't be about Romney. He broke no laws; he seems admirably charitable; his massive wealth is not a marker against him. The issue is the system. My basic view has long been for a flat, simple tax code, in which everyone pays either the same rate, or two or three clear rates, and all deductions are removed. You tax income and dividends at the same rate. You get government out of the way of an economy's market decisions, by not tilting the playing field.
I agree that Romney's tax write is not a marker against him. It is one thing to play by the rules and pay the required capital gains tax rate. And yes, he did give $7.1 Million to charity which comes to something like 17% of his income. But the issue is that he also seems to have taken aggressive measures to hide and protect that money offshore. While this is not technically illegal, it is not simply playing by the rules of the tax system. It is employing accountants and lawyers to seek loopholes and avoid the intent of those rules. And that is wrong, even it is not illegal.
Sullivan gets the main point right on:
To put it more bluntly: The president and the Democrats should not be piling on Romney because he's rich. They should be piling on the tax code because it is so insane. This issue is populist and good economics. With a full-scale Bowles-Simpson attack on deductions, reform could keep taxation simple and low and easier to understand. And that restrains lobbyists, who suddenly have far less to lobby for; and it restrains taxation. If you have three simple rates - say, 10, 20, 30 - then any increase in them is very, very visible. You want a government that can be monitored and controlled by the people? Simplify the tax code!
Read Andrew Sullivan here