Category Archives: public employee pensions

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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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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Long Term Census Bureau Public Employee Pension Data for NY and NJ Through 2019: The Public Service Killers are Hiding the Fiscal Mass Graves

Three years have passed since I last appended data from the Governments Division of the U.S. Census Bureau to my spreadsheet of individual public employee pension plans in New York and New Jersey.  The latest data for 2019 may be found here.

https://www.census.gov/topics/public-sector/public-pensions.html

There were some big changes for 2019.  Both the pension plan identification codes, and the data item codes, have been changed from the prior few decades, and some data items previously available have been eliminated.   But an entirely new set of data items has been added as part of a separate “actuarial” file, with data on how well funded each state and local government pension plan is, its covered payroll, its total unfunded liability, and its discount rate.  

The new data shows something very important and perplexing that I have written about before – the New York State pension funds that also cover local government workers in the rest of New York State are far better funded than the New York City pension funds for employees of the City of New York and New York City Transit.  Even though the same New York state legislature has set the rules for both for decades.  And even though the people of New York City have paid far more into the city pension funds over those decades, with higher taxes for worse services as a consequence, than have people in the rest of the state.  How?  Why?  And why has the media failed to ask that question of the City and State Comptrollers, and pursue the answers?

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