The Great Pension Fund Hoax
When Bernie Madoff cheated thousands of investors out of their life’s savings, he went to jail. Michael Milken went to jail for ten years and paid a $600 million fine for failing to file necessary securities reports about his high yield bond trading. So, what should happen to public officials who have engaged in fraudulent management of pension funds for millions of government employees?
Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton almost daily call for throwing “Wall Street” scammers in jail. They have been silent about government officials who have perpetrated much larger and more obvious scams—not on voluntary investors, but on public employees and taxpayers who usually had no choice but participate in the public retirement plans. Both candidates, of course, are beneficiaries of public pensions and of donations from the public officials who run the pension scams.
Hundreds of counties and municipalities, maybe thousands, will not be able to pay the pensions that they promised their workers or which they created to win the money and votes of employee unions. The simplest part of their fraud is very easy to understand.
In order to promise public employees comfortable to luxurious pensions, many governments simply chose a return on the invested funds that would yield the required pension benefits. They also made assumptions about how long pensioners would live. Requiring pensioners die early and requiring unrealistic rates of return on investment, allowed governments to claim that 10 or 20 years from now, they could support present workers in a style to which the rest of us are not accustomed. That includes most private sector workers.
In 2009 New York City had about 275,000 retired workers on pension. They received $6.7 billion in benefits. The city didn’t have the money in the retirement fund. It took the money from general revenues. That means they took it from money that could have paid for schools, homeless shelters, hospitals, or roads. How did this happen?
The city estimated a 7% return on its pension funds. It received 3.4%, less than half. Depending on how one estimates, the city was $70 to $150 billion short on pension funds. The rosy 7% return on investment that helped create the shortfall was like those Madoff returns, a hoax to keep the members happy and ignorant. Federal Reserve and bank deposit interest rates were below 2%. Prudent stock investors considered 3-4% the best they should hope for.
This past week Chicago, the President’s hometown run by his former chief of staff, reported a pension liability of $18.6 billion, more than double from the year earlier. The fraud was uncovered by new rules that have long been used by the private sector. The city plan had to apply realistic rates of return for the growth of the pension funds. The city had been using 7.5%.
States and cities have also been investing billions of dollars of retirement funds through hedge funds. Those are the very Wall Street financiers that are the most heinous villains in Bernie Sanders’ campaign—the people he wants to send to jail. A teachers’ union analysis recently found that the hedge funds investments cost way more in commissions and returned less than funds invested outside the hedge funds. Nevertheless, CNBC reported earlier this month, “Large public pensions planning or considering an increase to their hedge fund allocation are the California State Teachers Retirement System, and the general state pensions of Massachusetts and North Carolina.” One is almost tempted to conclude that liberal states love Wall Street hedge funds.
The fraud is everywhere. The average rate of return used by state and local governments is 7.62%. According to the National Association of State Retirement Administrators only 10% of public funds estimate rates of return at less than 7%. The Administrators say 51% use rates over 8%. In other words, almost all public employees are being duped by the kind of promises that put Madoff in jail. They are being duped by accounting gimmicks far worse than those that sent Milken to jail.
The pension problem has been aggravated by the artificially low interest rate experiment that the Federal Reserve, with government support, has been running since 2009. Because the yields on government bonds has been kept below 2%, investors, including pension fund managers, have been desperate to chase higher yielding investments in stocks and corporate bonds. As they bid up the price of a stock or bond, its yield decreases. (I.e. a $10 return on a $100 stock or bond is 10%. If investors hungry for such a return bid up the price to $150, the return is 6.6%.)
How can politicians and public employee unions avoid this disaster that is building as certainly as pressures on the San Andreas fault? Tax the rich is the quick answer. Also a fraud. No conceivable tax on the rich would make the pension funds solvent again—even if the rich had no loopholes (like giving to the Clinton Foundation), and even if all the revenues went to pension funds. (Many rich people are already moving out of high tax cities and counties.) The only other answer is for the federal government to print trainloads of new money. That would cause inflation—the ability to pay promised pensions with dollars that buy far less transportation, food, clothing, housing, or medical care than anyone planned for.
Inflation, of course, would bring higher interest rates on government debt at a time when the national debt of some $19 trillion has almost doubled in the last 8 years. Washington and all other governments with debt would face soaring interest expenses.
Why aren’t the candidates talking about some fuzzy thing called “Wall Street” but not about this massive and widespread scam in state and local governments with names? As present and future benefits are taken back and more and more cities go bankrupt taxpayers will join beneficiaries in revolt. But that won’t happen before the November elections. Or are the beginnings of that revolt already energizing the Trump campaign?
Chicago's imploding economy leads to requests for the Illinois legislature to bail it out. The reasoning? It's too big to fail. Doesn't this situation which has already played out in Detroit and California cities suggest that the real problem with "too big to fail" handouts is not in the private sector but with governments and politicians? Hello, Senator Sanders? Mrs. Clinton? Boss Trump? Occupy Wall Street?
When I attended the annual gathering of the Thoreau Society last month Thoreau, working through the medium of my friend, his Iranian translator Alireza Taghdarreh, introduced me to Bill Powers. Bill had been corresponding with Ali via the Internet. Bill is also a medium for bringing Thoreau's voice into the present. Herewith, whether you have read or whether you like or dislike Thoreau, I want to recommend Hamlet's Blackberry by William Powers (Harper Perennial).
It hardly needs my review and recommendation since names you know already praise it: Bob Woodward, Peggy Noonan, Laura Lippman atSalon.com, Laurie Winer in the New York Times, Stephan Balkam at Huffington Post, Walter Isaacson author of Einstein: His life and Universe, and many more.
Bill begins by noting all the great gifts of the digital age. (One of them was his connection to Ali's work in Iran.) However, he writes that the great burden and danger of the digital age is "We're all busier. Much, much busier. It's a lot of work managing all of this connectedness." He adds, "We're losing something of great value, a way of thinking and moving through time that can be summed up in a single word: depth. Depth of thought and feeling, depth in our relationships, our work and everything we do. Since depth is what makes life fulfilling and meaningful, it's astounding that we're allowing this to happen."
This makes me think of the explosion of shallow memes that so many people often post on Face Book and other sites, a hurried and simple minded way to express their feelings, to substitute those feelings for facts. Far worse the memes often turn real people with whom they disagree into shallow caricatures. Memes are a way to substitute someone else's voice and thinking for their own. Many of these intellectual Potemkin Villages are posted by people with graduate degrees from distinguished universities where they once learned how to think for themselves.
When we try to understand this and answer why we let it happen, Bill Powers writes, "From there it's just a short hop to the big-league existential stumpers, Why are we here? and Who am I?"
How to lead a full, deep life in the Digital Age is the subject of the book. "It's a struggle that's taking place at the center of our lives. It's a struggle for the center of our lives, for control of how we think and feel. When you're scrambling all the time, that's what your inner life becomes: scrambled. Why are we doing this to ourselves? Do we really want a world in which everyone is staring at screens all the time, keeping one another busy? Is there a better way?"
With Thoreau as his north star, Bill Powers proposes some answers for the present. In pursuit of ways to put his answers into practice, Bill left journalism to join a team the MIT Media Lab team that is developing new (and deeper) social media at the Laboratory for Social Machines.
In the promo material for Hamlet's Blackberry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, novelist Laura Lippman at Salon.com says, "it changed my life." People still say that about Walden.
Commentary for NPR’s “Living On Earth” May 2001
In my forest where Hurricane Fran in 1996 blew down tall trees and allowed sunlight to pour in a slow kind of fireworks or green explosion is taking place. Grasses, weeds, brush, vines and young trees compete with each other now for the light whose energy they need for growth and reproduction.
The older forest around this chaos appears more ordered, more decisive. The old trees are uniformly spaced. The oaks, beeches, and hickory have formed a ceiling, which is to say each has established its claim to a well defined share of the energy arriving from that nuclear power plant called the sun. Below the old trees scattered sourwood, dogwood, and red maple lift crooked trunks upward, having bent first one way, then another searching for light that escaped the big trees. Here and there a red cedar is slowing dying, its low crown as thin as the hair of a patient starting chemotherapy. In the deep shade on the forest floor only a few plants lift a green leaf here and there.
The process which created the comfortable order of the old forest was neither fair nor unfair. It was and is much like the process that created the best economy and character of the United States—I call it natural capitalism. The capital of my forest is its store of mass and energy. The successful green residents are those who best exercised their self interest to gather, horde, and transform the nutrients of the soil, the carbon dioxide and nitrogen of the atmosphere, and the energy of the sun into useful products, not for the forest as a whole or any of their neighbors, but first and foremost for themselves. Scientists can describe this achievement by neat hypotheses. One day science may even arrive at its Holy Grail—a unified theory of matter and energy. This kind of thinking requires meticulous and tedious work and considerable brilliance. It does not, however, create anything, nor does it contain the power to predict anything but statistical generalities. It cannot say which grass, shrub, or tree sapling will triumph in the clearings made by Hurricane Fran. Neither science nor its hypotheses created the order described. The forest can be described by centralized description, but it was not created by central planning.
The forest clearing has become a market place. Energy is the money here. The bidders for space and thus sunlight are freer than any corporate raider or manager of mergers and acquisitions on Wall Street. Most pour their investment into building the stiff fiber of wood that raises their living tissue toward the sky. Most of these investors, however, will grow poorer as fewer and fewer competitors get richer. Most of today’s small rich will become the big rich. Unlike the human world, the poor cannot move. The future for the poor is in waiting or in dispersing their seed or in the biological bankruptcy called death. After six or seven decades, of course, the chaos and competition will subside and the new tycoons and oligarchs of the forest will have negotiated fixed places and most changes will be trivial. It will be an old growth forest, a mature market.
Nor can science predict when and how this forest will fall any more than scientists could have predicted the strength and exact path of Hurricane Fran even after it had set its course for the continent. When the counterclockwise winds from the storm passing slightly east of my forest rushed into these hills from the north, they caught the biggest, oldest and most successful trees with their full late summer crown of leaves, and those crowns were heavy with the same rain that was loosening the soil around their roots. Everywhere in the north-south hollows and the bed of Morgan Branch that runs in front of my house the winds seized the crowns of the big capitalist trees 80 or 100 feet in the air and pushed on these great counterweights and tore the grip of the roots from the wet earth. Many still hung on to boulders that they lifted free from the soil as the tops fell and roots rose.
By the next spring the big trees were beginning to rot. Shiny rhinoceros beetles were boring under the bark and eating the dying sapwood. Grasses and saplings were springing up where little summer sunshine had touched earth for a hundred years. Nature was imitating capitalism now—downsizing, divesting, diversifying, acquiring and merging.
The day after the hurricane when I wandered out into the devastation of old trees I had known for decades, I was angry that nature had impoverished my life. Yet here too, the more your understanding of the market grows, the richer you get.