What the Social Security Administration Knows, and Could Tell Us

Last December I wrote a quick post expressing concern that the U.S. might have reached peak transparency, now that the Democratic Party, as a result of the rising burden of public employee pensions, has turned against the dissemination of accurate, factual information about government and society. Joining the Republicans, who have been against providing access to such information for a couple of decades.

https://larrylittlefield.wordpress.com/2016/12/10/nobodys-gonna-pay-you-to-tell-the-truth-or-worse/

Since then I’ve seen the same concern expressed by many others, now that Donald Trump, hardly Mr. Transparency himself, is President, with reports of government bureaucrats spiriting away statistical information to a secure location before the change of regime, lest it be deleted. Even so, I’m always on the hunt for alternative sources of actual facts, and this January I happened to think of one – the Social Security Administration. And wrote a letter to the Deputy Chief of the Office of Long-Range Actuarial Estimates, the office “responsible for estimates for up to 75 years in the future, based on economic/demographic assumptions developed for the annual Trustees Report.”

I didn’t receive an answer. Given that people need to keep their jobs until they can collect their pensions, and having worked for the government for 20 years myself and knowing what it’s like, I didn’t expect one. It is fair to say that I wrote the letter that follows for the purpose of publishing it on this blog after a reasonable period of waiting for a response had passed.

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DeBlasio’s FY 2018 NYC Budget, Detroit’s Bankruptcy, and NYC’s Recovery from the 1970s

I was upset that a summary table that showed how much NYC spends on the largest government functions, including debt service and pensions, and how much of this is funded by locally-raised money, was removed from NYC’s “Budget Summary” documents.

https://larrylittlefield.wordpress.com/2017/01/25/the-deblasio-budget-hiding-the-facts/

But there is good news. The table, albeit without a column for spending by agency on judgments and claims and without a comparison with prior years, is back in a more detailed document that came out later, the latest “Message of the Mayor,” page 81.

http://www1.nyc.gov/assets/omb/downloads/pdf/mm4-17.pdf

And that allowed me to easily update the tables and charts I produced last year comparing FY2014, Mayor Bloomberg’s last budget year, with FY 2017, as proposed. A spreadsheet with the tables and charts for FY 2007, FY 2014 and FY 2018 as proposed is attached below.

But in the rest of this post, I’d like to review the “Unsaid” about Detroit’s bankruptcy and New York City’s recovery from the 1970s, and their relevance to NYC today.   Because in my view, despite all that was written and said about those two past events, few have identified the most important reasons why they actually happened.

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Medicaid: The Rest of New York State (Re) Declares War on New York City

After the 1994 election, the one that saw the Republicans take Congress after decades of Democratic dominance, the New York Times published a “portrait of the electorate” based on exit polls. It showed that the 1960s generation was the one most likely to vote Republican that year. “Those hypocrites” I thought. They were “liberals” in their youth when they wanted to get out of serving in Vietnam, and now they are “small government” “conservatives” when they are at their earnings peak and they don’t want to pay taxes, but I’ll bet they’ll be “liberals” again when its time to collect on federal old age benefits. But they surprised me by being even worse than I thought. They still want even more tax cuts for themselves, and even more old age benefits for themselves, such as the Medicare prescription drug benefit. They want to borrow to pay for it. And to ensure our foreign creditors that the money will be paid back by someone else, they also want deep cuts in public services that younger generations need now, and drastic reductions old age benefits — not for themselves but for those to follow them – effective in the future.

With their aging, stagnant populations, the Downstate Suburbs and Upstate New York are now disproportionately occupied by, and almost exclusively represented by, members of Generation Greed. And back in the 1990s I had similar thoughts about their possible upcoming hypocrisy with regard to Medicaid funding, and specifically the local taxpayer share of it. But once again I’ve been surprised, because once again my cynicism was insufficient. They are even worse people than I thought. And it’s past time from them to be called to account for it.

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Metro NY Transit Revenues and Capital Expenditures: Data from the 2015 National Transit Database

I was a mass transit fan when mass transit wasn’t cool. My first job after graduate school was at New York City Transit, in logistics and inventory control in the mid-1980s, and I was a loyal transit rider for decades (though if I had gotten into bicycle transportation sooner, I might weigh 40 pounds less today). And I studied transit systems, read books about them, and after the development of the internet allowed those with similar interests but not much free time to communicate, made the acquaintance of other transit buffs and transit historians.

For much of the time from the late 1970s to today, metro New York’s rail transit system was on the upswing. Management improved, some of the worst labor abuses of the past were done away with (at least on the subway), and money was invested. As a result reliability improved, the inflation-adjusted cost per vehicle revenue hour fell until the mid-1990s, ridership increased and filled the trains, and the cost per rider fell even faster. Today ridership and revenues are vastly higher than 20 or 30 years ago on all major rail transit systems in metro New York, and those transit systems have been the engine of the New York Metro economy. If I and other transit buffs could go back in time 30 years, to the crime and grime and constant breakdowns of the 1980s, and know nothing of today other than how high ridership and transit revenues now are, what would we have thought the transit system would be like in 2017? We certainly would not have expected the disaster we seem to be facing. And collapsing systems despite soaring ridership are present elsewhere in the U.S. as well.

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Metro NY Transit Costs: Data from the 2015 National Transit Database

It has been a few years since I downloaded and compiled mass transit finance data from the Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database, so I redid the analysis to see if anything had changed since 2012. Boy, it sure has. Between 2012 and 2013, based on that data, the reported operating cost of the New York City subway soared by 27.2% in just one year, an increase of more than $1 billion.   There were no similar spikes among other major transit agencies in Metro New York. Suddenly the share of the subway’s operating costs that is covered by the fare is merely somewhat better than Metro North and the Long Island Railroad, instead of much, much better. And the wages and benefits of NYC subway workers, per hour worked, are the second highest behind PATH among major U.S. rail systems, instead of lower than those of NYC bus workers.

I’m not saying the figures for either year are false. In fact, as you’ll read, I have a possible explanation. But the new figures sure solve a lot of political problems. For TWU head John Samuelsen, who came out of the bus division and might have been catching heat from subway workers. For Governor Cuomo and suburban politicians, who might have been catching heat for the vastly higher level of subsidy for the suburbs. And for LIRR workers and their unions, who might have been concerned that featherbedding and graft would become more of a public issue, despite their control of – actually I’m not sure which politicians they control.   But let’s take a look at what the data now shows, for 2015 and over the past 25 years. This post will cover operating costs, and the next one revenues.

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Generation Greed: They Aren’t Using Those Words, but Some Folks Are Starting to Connect the Dots

After a three-decade party, with some folks getting to party a lot more than others, there is suddenly no way to avoid the reality other than drifting into closed-eyed fantasy. The generations I have identified as Generation Greed, the richest in American history, are leaving the generations to follow are much worse off in many ways. And, in many cases, those at the back end of Generation Greed are facing old age much worse off then they themselves had been, forced by their prior excess consumption, debts and prior lack of savings to downsize a material lifestyle that for many of them had been the whole project of their lives. As I most recently noted in detail in my previous post.

https://larrylittlefield.wordpress.com/2017/04/25/generation-greeds-last-economic-orgy-federal-reserve-z1-debt-data-for-2016-rising-housing-prices-census-bureau-data-on-worse-off-young-adults-falling-life-expectancy-etc/

The consequence of this realization has not been an increase in empathy or an attempt to change the worst aspects of a collective legacy while there is still time. There is still no willingness to make any personal sacrifices in the present for the collective future. The fact that the non-greedy minority of Generation Greed hasn’t stepped up to face the facts and battle for their own offspring is one final disappointment. The desperate desire of some of its rich to insulate their own children from the consequences of a diminished society — by repealing the estate tax — is the only effective example of concern by today’s seniors with what they will leave behind. Rather, the media they dominate remains filled with demands for scapegoats and rationalizations, and one more round of “what about my needs!” Needs that are somehow supposed to be met by latter born generations that are poorer, and yet are having large economic burdens shifted to them that will diminish their entire future.

But if one uses the right search terms, one can find some examples over the past year of younger generations beginning to resent the country they have inherited, albeit not enough to get off the couch and do something about it.

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