Category Archives: new york city pensions

DeBlasio and Cuomo Administration Management: A Review

Imagine it’s 10:30 am on a typical weekday during the school year.  At that time New York City is paying 211,843 members of the NYC teachers’ retirement system (or was a couple of years ago).  What are they doing?  If you made a pie chart, what would it look like?  How many are retired? (We know that, it was 88,507, or 41.8% of the total).  How many are out sick?  How many are in preparation periods?  How many are on break?  How many are in out of classroom assignments or administrative posts?  How many are on release time?  How many are on sabbatical?  How many are the second pedagogical employee in a classroom?  How many are doing not much useful because they are waiting for something from someone else, because of some disorganization that wasted their time?  And finally, how many are actually doing something useful with regard to the education and child care of children?

What if, instead of the pie chart being based on the number of people, it were based on the total cost of the NYCTRS members in each category – their cash pay or pension, their health benefits, their other benefits?  Now imagine the same charts being produced for all the other city and state agencies – police, sanitation, fire, transit, corrections, judiciary, parks, social services, hospitals, etc.  

Good management seeks to ensure that workers have the qualifications, motivation, training, tools, organization and scheduling to do useful work almost all the time they are being paid, and to limit the amount going to those not doing such work, to the extent possible.  So that the workdays fly by, and the maximum (or at least a fair) amount in services is produced for a given about of cost.  By that standard, how good was the management in the Cuomo and DeBlasio Administrations?  How fair is the deal the employees and contractors of the City and State of New York provide to other New Yorkers, compared with what public employees, retirees, contractors and their retirees expect to be provided with by private sector workers in exchange?  What would happen if an organization such as Consumers Union (Consumer Reports) were to examine the quality and value of public services provided by state and local governments the same way it looks at the goods and services provided by private corporations?  That is the topic of this post.

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The DeBlasio and Cuomo Administrations: A Review

A public chief executive has three jobs: policy, management, and leadership. With leadership being using one’s influence as a public figure, in competition with celebrities and marketing influencers, to change what people voluntarily do on their own, rather than what the government forces them to do or does for them.  For state and local government, the key policy is the budget — who is made to pay how much, and what it is spent on, compared with the past and compared with other places.  Management determines how much in services and benefits people actually get for that spending.

Mayor Bill DeBlasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo spent much of their tenures feuding.  They would have you believe it was over policy and ideological differences.  I believe their primary ideology is careerism, the advancement of their own careers to higher office, and this made them rivals — and the rest of us and our futures pawns.  Perhaps that’s why both “President” DeBlasio and “President” Cuomo left office widely despised.  

But what did they actually do?  Even as we just had an election for Mayor, and are currently having an election for Governor, the media doesn’t seem to be talking about it, other than issues of the moment such as bail reform.

Most people can’t do it, but one ought to separate what the pols do from the broader situation. DeBlasio and Cuomo didn’t cause the opioid epidemic, the surge in homelessness, or the COVID-19 pandemic, or in Cuomo’s case, the long-term economic decline of Upstate New York.  But they didn’t cause the economic boom and soaring federal debt that allowed them to pander to every special interest group without completely screwing anyone else except transit riders and the later-born (until the future) either.  With regard to the budget, I’ve created some charts that make a fair and perhaps telling comparison.  This post will briefly describe what I plan to do, with additional posts making the comparisons to follow.

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Sold Out Futures by State:  The Sold Out Future Ranking For 2019

Over the past three posts I’ve documented how today’s and tomorrow’s Americans have had their future sold out and cashed in with regard to state and local government debts, inadequate past infrastructure capital construction, and retroactively increased and underfunded public employee pensions.  Over and above the generational inequities at the federal level in government, in the private sector, and even in many families.  Plus climate change, which some have claimed will be so bad I should stop worrying about other aspects of generational inequity.

These aren’t technical issues to be discussed one at a time, as if they were independent of each other.  They are a single ethical issue to be discussed and understood as a whole.  Look at any issue, any institutional decision in government, business and the professions, any social trend of the past 40 years, and examine how it has affected those in different generations – who benefitted, and at whose expense.  And you will find the same thing.  

That is why our society is in decline, something all those crazed about the tribalist cultural issues that consume out geriocratic politics apparently understand, and are desperate to find someone else to blame for.  The Sold Out Futures by state ranking, based on the state and local government part of it, is my contribution to the bigger story, one that remains under Omerta.  

Adding it up, on average today’s and tomorrow’s Americans have inherited a Sold Out Future due to past state and local government deals and non-decisions equal to 47.0% of their personal income in FY 2019.  That is virtually unchanged from the 47.1% I found when I did the same analysis for FY 2012, despite a much stronger economy and another asset price bubble.   

Unlike the other generational inequities in our society in the wake of Generation Greed (and more like the differences between families), the state and local government burden is not the same everywhere in the U.S.   It is greater or smaller depending on where you live.  It attaches to the people there now, unless they move away from it, and may eventually attach to each place’s real estate, since real estate cannot pick up and move.  This final post in the series will rank states, and New York City and the Rest of New York State separately, based on how sold out their futures are.

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Sold Out Futures By State:  Public Employee Pensions from FY 1972 to FY 2019

Even another stock market bubble, in fact an everything bubble that has temporarily inflated the price of every asset to historically high levels relative to income, has not been enough to get the average U.S. public employee pension fund out of the hole.  But it has been enough to knock the public employee pension crisis out of the news, and give politicians an excuse to shift even more of the cost to the future.  As I showed here…

When asset prices bubble up, future investment returns are going to be lower.  If the bubble is big enough, future returns could be negative for decades, as they have been in aging countries like Japan, and countries that try to inflate away their debts like Argentina, two (hopefully but not necessarily extreme) versions of our own future.  Predicted future return returns should be reduced as asset prices rise, as ERISA requires private pension funds to do by tying future returns to current interest rates.  But in the public sector, which was exempted from ERISA, when asset prices bubble up public unions cut deals with the politicians they control to increase benefits in Blue States, and while anti-tax politicians slash pension contributions to cut taxes in Red States.  (Actually, they do both things in both types of state).  Then, when asset prices correct to normal, somehow it’s nobody’s fault.  Wall Street stole the money!, PBS Frontline claimed in an investigation of the problem.  That’s why nobody is talking about pensions now – that lie temporarily unavailable.  

Thus far the federal government, at great cost to ordinary people in disadvantaged later-born generations, has managed to keep paper asset prices – and housing prices – inflated, to benefit the rich and seniors.  Even so in FY 2019, despite sky-high asset prices and the passage of more than a decade since the problem was acknowledged (by some), my back-of-the-envelope estimate is that U.S. state and local government pension funds were $3.65 trillion in the hole, more than ever before.  A more sophisticated analysis by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, using the assumptions private pension funds are required to use, put the hole at $4.54 trillion in 2018.  But in which states is the problem the greatest?  Read on and find out.

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Sold Out Futures:  A State-By-State Comparison of State and Local Government Debts, Past Infrastructure Investment, and Unfunded Pension Liabilities Through FY 2019

In two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, with society under stress, we have seen increasingly strident political fights over whose cultural attitudes and preferences should be imposed on others, who should get to contribute less to the community, and who should get to take out more.  In the shadows, however, is a bipartisan consensus as to who should be made worse off and be sacrificed the rest of their lives to pay for it all.  Ordinary people in later born generations, those who will be living in the United States in the future.   The pandemic has given politicians of all alleged views, and the interest groups that back them, an excuse to do, to an even greater extent, what they have done for 40 years.  Cash in the common future to address the perpetual “emergency” of the present.

So it was in Washington in 2020 when The Donald and the Republicans, having already sent the federal debt soaring to cut taxes for the rich and then ran a federal deficit equal to one-quarter of the U.S. economy.

And so it is in Washington today, where Biden in the Democrats claim their plans will be “paid for” – meaning the burden shifted to the future would only be as great as it was under Trump and the Republicans.

It is in this context that for the fifth time, I have reprised an analysis of state and local government finance data from the U.S. Census Bureau, for all states and for New York City and the Rest of New York State separately, with data over 49 years, to determine the extent to which each state’s future had been sold out due to state and local government debts, inadequate past infrastructure investment, and underfunded and retroactively enriched public employee pensions.   You’d think that the extent of disadvantage for the later-born, and who benefitted from creating it, would be the number one issue in every state election, and the number one topic of debate in the media.  Instead, it remains under Omerta, especially here in New York.  Shouted down under the comforting culture war issues that Generation Greed prefers.  So, although standing up for the later born and common future may amount to nothing more than standing on the beach shouting into a hurricane as a social tsunami heads for shore, over the past month I have updated the “Sold Out Future” analysis with data through FY 2019.  This post, a national summary and explanation of where the data comes from and how it was used, and the next three, will show what I found.

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The Economist Notices the NYC Department of Corrections

Word of the meltdown of New York City’s jail system has crossed the Atlantic, and apparently somebody has given The Economist magazine the kind of information that, in general, no one is allowed to talk about here in “progressive” New York.

https://www.economist.com/united-states/2021/10/02/the-jail-on-rikers-island-is-both-appalling-and-generously-funded

The title?  

Aggravated robbery

The jail on Rikers Island is both appalling and generously funded

It costs $438,000 to jail one person for one year there

Gee, I thought everyone was obliged to say the people of New York deserve nothing because they don’t pay enough money in taxes, and cheat public employees and contractors out of $billions?  And because New York doesn’t tax the rich.  Didn’t the city just agree to increase the Department of Correction budget and staffing levels in response to a crisis that department and its union created?

The misery at Rikers is not for lack of resources. The jail’s population fell by half between 2012 and 2020, yet its budget grew by 24%. It costs $438,000 to jail one person there for one year. Of this $379,216 goes to personnel costs; less than 5% goes to services like substance-abuse treatment. The average salary for guards, after five and half years on the job, is $92,073. In 2012, the ratio of inmates to officers in the city was 7:5. In 2020 it was 1.6 officers per inmate.

And yet, the island’s chief medical officer said he is seeing “a collapse in basic jail operations.”  On September 29th a federal judge issued an emergency order to safeguard inmates’ wellbeing.

To hear local politicians talk about it, the problem is the buildings located on Rikers Island are attacking people, and it’s the buildings that must be replaced.  At a cost of $8 billion, more 10 times as much per square foot at the cost of luxury condominiums, to benefit the construction unions and contractors.  The problem couldn’t be the inmates, or the guards and its union, or other parts of the public sector, could it? 

So why was someone willing to make a comparison between New York’s local corrections spending today and the past, and with other places?  Did the corrections officers’ union not give enough money to the right politicians?  Because here is what The Economist didn’t say:  the same excess of funding and staffing compared with other places, even adjusted for the cost of living here, may be found in just about every state and local government service in New York City.  Even those that are merely, intentionally, inadequate, or getting worse, not “appalling,” so the inadequacy could serve as the basis for a demand for more money.   Nowhere else in the U.S. is close:  not New Jersey, not Connecticut, not California, not Illinois, nowhere.  And unlike the Department of Corrections, at least for the moment, no politician or media source will talk about it.

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“Affordable” Phonies Make Life Unaffordable for the Serfs

According to Merriam Webster online, affordable means able to be afforded: having a cost that is not too high.  And among New York’s Democrats and progressives there is always talk of having government policies make something affordable:  affordable education, affordable health care, affordable housing, affordable transportation, etc.  And yet observing 40 years of public policy in New York, I can think of only a handful of examples of policies that have actually made life, or a better life, less costly for the public at large.

When one examines the totality of public policies enacted in so-called Blue States, you see that the goal actually seems to be to make many things more expensive.  

Sometimes for reasons I agree with.  A developed country (and I’m not sure ours is) shouldn’t be making goods and services more affordable in the short run by making them more expensive, more dangerous, or more misery-inducing for the community as a whole, in the long run.  That’s what the builders of the “affordable” Surfside condo in Florida did by cheaping out on the building structure.

https://www.wsj.com/articles/behind-the-florida-condo-collapse-rampant-corner-cutting-11629816205?mod=trending_now_news_1

But mostly for reasons that would be impossible to justify if openly admitted.  To make some workers — those who work for the government, or are paid funded by government programs — richer compared other similar workers, at the expense of making those other similar workers pay more and become poorer.  And to make it more expensive to live in politically influential “liberal” communities, ensuring the less well off, their burdens and troubles, will be somewhere else.  The result is hypocrisy.

When Democrats and progressives say “affordable” what they really mean is “subsidized.”  Part of the cost is paid for by someone else, so it seems to be more affordable.  But since fiscal resources are not unlimited, even in New York City where we have the highest state and local tax burden and the most debt, the subsidies for “affordable” health care, education, transportation, housing etc. only end up going to the fortune few.  And many if not most of those few often turn out to be among those were already fortunate.  For the rest, somebody has to pay after all.  Often those who are already burdened by policies to make things more expensive – policies that lead to the need for subsidies to begin with.

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Education in New York: Stop Trying, Stop Lying, Pursue Alternatives

Year after year, deal after deal, the United Federation of Teachers continues to jack up the cost of providing even a decent education for NYC’s children, by ordering its politicians to irrevocably allow them to work fewer years, fewer hours with children, and fewer days, with less accountability, and get paid more for it compared with the people who don’t matter.  No matter how high spending goes, no matter how high taxes go, no matter how much other needs are neglected, no matter what other services are cut, it is never enough.  Even after doubling to a level far above just about anywhere else, as shown in my prior post.

And since that works out so well for them (or at least some of them), and because they have developed such a sense of entitlement that they are completely incapable of enlightened self interest (the belief that in the long run self-interest requires accounting for the needs of other people too), it will never, ever, get any better.

After the 2008 25/55 pension deal for NYC teachers, the last straw and the deal that ended “school reform” in New York, I thought about what could be done for seven years.  

And the title of this post is the formula I came up with.   All you have to do is start with a blank state, without the UFT contract, its repeatedly retroactively enriched pensions (that might have been increased again last night at 3 am in secret but can never then be reduced), the bureaucratic mess coming down from the state under UFT/NYSUT orders, and the Department of EducationEarly Retirement, and you’ll see that for far less money than was spent in NYC in FY 2019 (and vastly less than today) it would be possible to have a class size of 12, with teachers who are paid more in total compensation than the average person who is paying for them.  Like the U.S. health care system, for which we are already paying as much as developed countries do for universal health care, if New York’s school system didn’t already exist no one would dare to suggest it.

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Comparative Public School Spending from FY 1997 to FY 2019: In New York The More They Get, the More They Feel Entitled To, and The Less They Provide in Return

Let’s start this post the way the prior one ended, with the quote from the ACLU, referring to the level of public school funding in New York in FY 2019.

https://www.nyclu.org/en/news/ny-cheating-its-schools-out-billions-dollars

Every year, the government of New York shirks its legal responsibility to adequately fund our public schools.

In 2006, the New York State Court of Appeals ruled New York was violating students’ constitutional right to a “sound and basic education” by not putting enough money into its schools. The court ordered that schools were entitled to $5.5 billion more in unrestricted state funding, known as Foundation Aid….

But year after year, state lawmakers substituted politics for the Foundation Aid Formula, shortchanging schools and hurting students who need the money most.

That is, simply put, not true.  In the 1990s New York City school spending was low, in part because a state school aid formula discriminated against the city’s children.  Judge Leland DeGrasse ordered the city’s school aid to be increased by $1.9 billion, based on the low funding levels of the time.

https://trellis.law/judge/leland.g.degrasse

As a trial judge, he ruled against New York’s system for financing public schools in Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State. Ultimately, the decision, which sought to overhaul the state aid-to-education formulas, was appealed to the New York Court of Appeals, which resulted in an additional $1.9 billion in state aid awarded to New York City schools.

I know this history because I provided data to the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, the same kind of data that will be discussed below.  Much to my disappointment, however, CFE turned out not to be interested in either fiscal equity or better schools – just a richer deal for those working in the public school system.  So despite another $1.9 billion (and another $1.9 billion and another $1.9 billion and another $1.9 billion) they kept suing. In exchange for political support for his election for Governor, Eliot Spitzer then settled the suit for even more money.  No judge ever ordered it, or found that was what was required. It was a political deal, with a massive increase in pension benefits for teachers as part of the same deal, not better education.

That deal, which multiplied by a bunch of prior retroactive pension increase deals (now starting up yet again), was for me a kind of last straw. So what was the level of school spending in NYC, by category and compared with other places and the past, in FY 2019 when the ACLU claimed that the people of New York were cheating those who worked in education out of $billions?  Read on and find out.

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DeBlasio’s Last New York City Budget: He Predicts Even More Inequality and Gentrification, or Else NYC is Toast, Because Those Cashing in And Moving Out Will Take More Off the Top No Matter What

Mayor Bill DeBlasio released his last budget recently, and it assumes that pre-pandemic trends will continue.  The rich will continue to get richer and the stock market bubble will continue to inflate, thanks to the federal government doing whatever it takes, regardless of the long-term cost, to prevent asset prices from going down.  Despite higher and higher taxes, the rich will stay in New York City and just keep paying.  So will hundreds of thousands of young adults, who will continue to live in less and less space for higher and higher rents and accept higher taxes, fees and fares and diminished public services, including crowding and unreliable service on the subways no elected official is in charge of.  More and more economic activity and educated workers will be concentrated in New York City compared with the suburbs, and in metro New York compared with the rest of the country.

All this will offset the extent to which DeBlasio’s (and all the other NY politicians) public union and contractor supporters will continue to get richer and richer, compared with other workers.   Other workers whose lower pay will keep the cost of living down for public workers and retirees, as the overall inflation rate remains below the long-term trend.  Based on these assumptions, the total city budget will grow more slowly than the total personal income of NYC residents over the long term.  Even if the average New Yorker continues to become worse off, because there will be more and more working adults.

But if that is what has happened, and will continue to happen, then why have NY’s state and local taxes been increased, over and over, and risen as a percent of personal income?  Instead of falling.  Why are debts continually increasing, and with interest payments rising as a share of city residents’ personal income despite rock bottom interest rates (also assumed to be permanent)?   Instead of debts being paid down.  Why does the Mayor plan to hand early retirement deals to city workers age 55 and over yet again, to “prevent layoffs,” after having already agreed to no-layoff guarantees? And why, in this Mayoral campaign, is no one asking questions about any of this – in the place with the highest state and local tax burden in the country, where the media is full of claims that we deserve even less in return because we aren’t paying enough – notably by the police and teachers?

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