Larry Littlefield's blog

Preparing for Institutional Collapse

Over the next week, I'll be reprising my Room Eight posts on this topic, with some additional commentary added, on Saying the Unsaid in New York.  You can read the originals by searching for my name, Room Eight, and "institutional collapse."

Generational Equity and the Legacy of Today’s Politicians: Update

I've repeated and written some updates for this Room Eight post http://www.r8ny.com/blog/larry_littlefield/generational_equity_and_the_legacy_of_today_s_politicians.html On "Saying the Unsaid in New York." http://larrylittlefield.wordpress.com/2014/08/10/generational-equity-and-the-legacy-of-todays-politicians-update/

The Dog Days Plan

My blogging plan for the month of August is to take a bit of a break while building up another database to write about. I plan to re-post some essays on “Saying the Unsaid in New York” that were originally posted on Room Eight some time ago, while adding in some additional updates based on changes between then and now (in italic after the word “Update”). Most of the essays, if not the updates, can already be found as MS Word documents linked from the “Helpful Background and Greatest Hits” page, but I want to repost them anyway so it is easier to direct people to them, and more likely that they will come up in searches. I find, using information available to me on Wordpress, that many people are reading items I posted last year, not just the stuff I put up in the past week. So there is an advantage to having things on the main page.

Although I will be re-posing some of my Room Eight items, I remain grateful for those who created and maintain that site for first giving me an opportunity to blog, and keeping all the posts I have written available. I have no way of knowing how many people are continuing to read what I post there, but anecdotal evidence suggests that at one time, at least, the number reading there was substantial, and included some in what I hoped to be the target audience. Those who read all my Room Eight posts over the years probably will see no need to re-read the items I will be posting on Saying the Unsaid In New York this August. If I come up with something else over the next few weeks, however, I’ll post it on Room Eight as well.


Pensions the Nature of the Lie II

Last November I wrote a post called “Pensions The Nature of the Lie.”  The post described the way politicians have used the double counting of asset price bubbles and historically average rate of returns to justify retroactive pension increases for politically powerful public employee unions, and cuts in taxpayer pension funding to shift money to other interests. With the bill shifted to the less powerful, less well off others when the bubbles inevitably deflate. In the post I predicted that if the most recent asset price bubble, driven by the sub-zero interest rate policy of the Federal Reserve, did not deflate by the end of the fiscal year, the new local liar in chief City Comptroller Scott Stringer would announce how great things are based on market values. And if it did deflate, he would claim that things were still fine based on actuarial values, which do not account for short-term market moves in either direction until years later.

The bubble has not yet deflated. According to one widely accepted set of measures, it is now the third biggest bubble in history.  According to another, it is the second biggest bubble in history.  And right on cue, Stringer announced “New York City's pension funds ended the latest fiscal year with a record-high value of $160.5 billion…The funds, which he oversees, got a 17.4% investment return for fiscal year 2014, which ended June 30. Mr. Stringer said that was one of the strongest years for the pension funds in recent times, and the annualized rate of return for the most recent five-year period is 13.4%.”  Additional commentary follows after the break.


Update: New York City Police and Firefighter Pensions

On December 20th of 2013, I published a post based on long term Census Bureau public employee pension data for the New York Police Pension Fund Article 2, the New York City Fire Department Article 1B Pension Fund, and the police and fire pension fund for New Jersey. Among its findings: the share of former NYC police officers and firefighters who were retired with disability pensions was far higher than the share for New Jersey or most other pension funds around the country with “police” or “fire” in their names. On January 7th, 2014 federal prosecutors announced the largest fraud ever perpetrated against the Social Security disability system, a scheme stretching back to 1988 in which as many as 1,000 people — many of them officers and firefighters already collecting pensions from the city — were suspected to have bilked the federal government out of an estimated $400 million.”

Last years’ post also showed that the New York Police Pension Fund Article 2, the New York City Fire Department Article 1B Pension Fund, and the New Jersey Police and Firemen's Retirement System are deep in the hole – despite sky-high taxpayer contributions in the case of the New York City funds, contributions that drain money from other priorities. As for the other pension funds in New York and New Jersey, I have updated most of the charts with one more year of data. These charts and commentary follow on “Saying the Unsaid in New York.”


Updated Long Term Pension Data for New York And New Jersey: The Large Plans for Most Public Employees

New York City and New Jersey, like most places, have separate pension plans for teachers, police officers, and firefighter, and large plans for everyone else. This post is about updated Census Bureau data, for the years 1957 to 2012, for the New York City Employees Retirement System (NYCERS), which also covers New York City transit workers, the New York (state) Public Employees Pension and Retirement System, which also covers local government workers (including police officers and firefighters) in the rest of New York State, and the New Jersey Public Employees Retirement System.

In general the findings are the same as they were in this post last year, since one year of data isn’t going to make a big difference for something as slow moving and inexorable as pension funding.  Unless there is a big retroactive pension increase, and its cost is actually admitted to. One big thing that did happen in 2012: there was a huge increase in taxpayer contributions to the New York City Employees Retirement System, balanced by a reduction in contributions to the New York City Teachers Retirement system. And one thing I learned this year: there have been more early retirement incentives in the crippled New Jersey public retirement system than I was previously aware of. Further discussion, and a spreadsheet with a series of charts can be found on “Saying the Unsaid in New York.


The 2008 25/55 United Federation of Teachers Pension Deal: An Investigation

My concern about the consequences of all the retroactive pension increases scored by the public employee unions in deals with the politicians they controlled, and subsequent cuts in pay and benefits future workers, tax increases and service cuts, is longstanding. When I ran a protest campaign against the local NY state legislator back in 2004, for example, it was specifically mentioned as a cause of my outrage. Along with other factors such as the chronic underfunding of the New York City schools, due to an unfair state school aid formula. http://www.ipny.org/littlefield/civicunion2020.html

While previous pension deals caused me to feel great concern about the future of public services and benefits, however, the 2008 retroactive pension increase for New York City teachers was enough to change my entire worldview. Unlike all the pension deals around the year 2000, there was no 1990s stock market bubble to use as an excuse. Just raw, completely selfish, “I am the world” power. Funding for the NYC schools had soared, leading to hope for the future, but the pension deal grabbed all that money back away from the classroom, dashing those hopes and leaving the schools no better off than before – despite higher taxes. The cost of this deal may be $20 or even $30 billion. But with everyone in power in on the deal it has become the ultimate “unsaid,” with no one willing to talk about it. But it was talked about on interior pages and blog posts back in 2007 and 2008, and I’ve saved some of that information and (if the UFT hasn’t wiped them out yet) links. It is that information that will be reviewed on “Saying the Unsaid in New York.” Perhaps someday it can be used as evidence in court. In the meantime, I urge those in the press to look in the mirror and read to the end, where the role of the media is discussed.


Update: Teacher Pensions in New York and New Jersey

Late last year I downloaded and arranged all the data the U.S. Census Bureau had collected since 1957 on currently active public employee pension plans in New York and New Jersey. I used the data in a series of posts: one on the teacher pension plans, one on police and fire pension plans, and one on the pension plans for everyone else. To say the posts are popular is an understatement. Since I started “Saying the Unsaid in New York,” last year’s post on teacher pensions has the most views, with the police and fire pension post second and the general pension post fifth. Even during the last 90 days, long after the posts were written (and a period when I put up three series of other posts based on three other databases I compiled), the old teacher and police/fire pension posts have been first and third in views.

The Census Bureau has now updated his information for FY 2012 (and for the NYC police pension plan, which lags, for FY 2011), and I have added the new information to the spreadsheets with the charts. Not much changed between FY 2011 and FY 2012, though I have added a few additional charts to better show what I already showed last year. So the reader may find much of what will follow duplicative. What is worthy of additional comment, however, is the political reaction to the public employee pension disaster over the past few months. The updated charts and commentary for teachers may be found on “Saying the Unsaid in New York.”


The Executive/Financial Class, the Political/Union Class, and the Serfs

We are approaching the holiday commemorating the day when, as Abraham Lincoln might have said, eleven score and eighteen years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. So I thought I’d check some data to see how the different classes in our classless society are making out. According to Local Area Personal Income data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, in 2012 those working in the Finance and Insurance Sector in Manhattan (aka Wall Street) earned (or at least got) an average (mean) of $263,979 each in wages, salaries and non-wage benefits such as employer contributions to retirement funds and health insurance. This data, unlike most you see, includes the self-employed. The average for all the other private sector workers in Downstate New York, including top executives and the highest paid workers in sectors outside finance, was $74,306. The average for state and local government workers in Downstate New York was $100,352.

But not all state and local government workers are created equal, it would seem. According to Education Finance data from the U.S. Census Bureau, as I showed here New York City spent $272,500 in instructional (mostly teachers) wages and benefits per 20 students – by that comparison more than the average for Wall Street. Based on data reported in the FY 2013 Comprehensive Annual Report of the New York City Police Pension Fund and the FY 2013 Budget Summary from the NYC Office of Management and Budget, the average NYC police officer cost $212,220 in wages and benefits – far closer to Wall Street than to average New Yorkers. Similar sources put the average cost per NYC firefighter at $229,140. According to the National Transit Database, the average employee of New York City transit cost $137,646 in wages and benefits in FY 2012, less than the teachers, police officers and firefighters but still nearly double the average non-Wall Street worker in downstate’s NY private sector. The average Long Island Railroad worker cost even more, at $162,851. It’s a tale of three cities, but no one tells it because the first two classes are the people one needs to suck up to in order to get ahead, and the third does not matter. Some charts and additional commentary on what this means may be found on “Saying the Unsaid in New York.”


Public Employee Pensions in 2012, 2002 and 1993: Census Bureau Data

The Governments Division has released data on state and local government pension plans for FY 2012, and I have downloaded and compiled it for that year and a decade and two decades earlier. The data shows the arrival of a crisis in public employee pensions, with soaring public employee retirement costs causing or threatening municipal bankruptcy and leading to tax increases, service cuts, and reductions in benefits for future (and in some cases current and past) government employees. All this has shown up in the data between FY 2002 and FY 2012, although most of the decisions that led to the crisis were made in the previous decade.

The data shows that the people of New York City are among those who have been made worst off as a result of the rising cost of public employee pensions. There is more pension drama elsewhere simply because those living there are unwilling to live with the high tax burden and low public service levels (including 50 years of lousy schools) that have been imposed on New Yorkers since the 1970s. Those imposing that burden in New York benefit from low public participation in state and local government, something our state politicians go to great lengths to encourage. To show how and to what extent people are being affected, I have produced a spreadsheet that has tables with data for New York City and the Rest of New York State, and state and local government combined in all the other states and the U.S. as a whole. That spreadsheet, a series of charts, and commentary may be found on “Saying the Unsaid in New York.”


Public School Spending in FY 2012: A Red State Comparison

As discussed in this post the latest education finance data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that New York’s public school spending per student is sky-high, not only in the suburbs but in Upstate New York and even New York City, even adjusted downward downstate for the higher cost of living here, and even compared with adjacent Northeastern states such as Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Jersey. Although you’d never know it by all the propaganda being put out, primarily by the teachers’ union, claiming that New York’s taxpayers and children deserve less because we aren’t paying enough.

To put New York’s spending in even greater perspective, how about a comparison with a state where public school spending in general, and spending on teachers in particular, really is low? Let’s compare New York with right-wing, low-tax Oklahoma. A few charts and commentary may be found on “Saying the Unsaid In New York.”


Economic Development, Finance and the DeBlasio Administration

One of the most positive trends of the past few years has been an emphasis on creating a culture of entrepreneurship in New York City and State. Until the last few years of the Bloomberg Administration economic development had meant bribing existing large companies, companies that were shrinking over time and threatening to move away, to promise to keep some jobs in New York. Bribing them with tax breaks and subsidies. New York had played this losing hand for years. More recently encouraging people to start new businesses, and at the very least not throwing obstacles in their path, has been the policy. Here as elsewhere the trend has been to latch on to whatever is trendy – new and social media, information technology, biotech, artisanal food products, artisanal alcohol, Greek Yogurt – and ignore everything else. But at least there has been some sense that economic development means encouraging and providing an environment for acts of creation, not just taxing the suckers and transferring money to existing business and unions that are failing in the marketplace but contributing to political campaigns.

With the Democrats back in charge of City Hall I feared that economic development would revert to the bad old days. After all, Bill DeBlasio is yet another ambitious politician who will require campaign cash for his next move, and businesses that do not exist yet do not make campaign contributions. Moreover entrepreneurs have not been part of the Democratic Party coalition since the New Deal, which favored existing large corporations, and entrepreneurs have generally been seen by Democrats as a source of revenues and a foil to be demonized, while existing companies are seen as a source of jobs. The good news, according to some recent reports, is the DeBlasio Administration is apparently unwilling to get in a tax break bidding war with New Jersey over large existing financial businesses threatening to leave the state. It would be better news, however, if the DeBlasio Administration (and Cuomo Administration) would double down on Bloomberg’s late term policy of encouragement for new companies. Particularly those in a decidedly non-trendy sector: banking.


New York’s Sky-High Public School Spending

It doesn’t even get much of a mention in the NYC press anymore, but the education finance data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau and released each year shows that New York State’s public school spending per student is sky high, one of the biggest reasons why New York has the highest state and local tax burden on residents and most businesses in the U.S. The Bureau’s report mostly includes data at the state level, but it releases far more detailed data in spreadsheets. In my compilation of the detailed data for FY 2012, FY 2002, and FY 1992 (which includes data for every school district in New York and New Jersey, and which you can find here), I show that New York State’s public school spending is sky high even when it is marked down in Downstate New York to adjust for the higher average private sector wage and cost of living here. It is sky high not only compared with the U.S. average and states like California, North Carolina and Colorado (let alone Tennessee and Oklahoma), but also compared with adjacent Northeastern states such as New Jersey, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, states reputed to have good schools. And it is sky high not only in the Downstate Suburbs, but also in Upstate New York and, in a change from the past, New York City.

Public school spending has soared in New York City, coming off the lows when the city’s schools were underfunded in part because the state aid formula discriminated against its children. The current level of spending seems almost unimaginable for those who have followed the data in the past and still do so today. Just on instructional (mostly teachers) wages, salaries, and benefits, in FY 2012 New York City spent $13,627 per student – or $272,536 per 20 students – even though for most of the city’s children class sizes were far higher. And in reality the cost of the city's teachers was even higher, because the city was underfunding its teacher pension plan, which is deep in the hole as a result of all of the retroactive pension increases over the years, and deferring costs to the future. Despite that sky-high level of spending, however, for a substantial minority of teachers egged on by the United Federation of Teachers (and thanks the way the union has maneuvered to have it distributed), all it bought was an attitude of resentment at how little they were paid. In the late 1990s, when spending levels were far, far lower, the courts had found (in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit) that the city’s schools were so bad they violated the state constitution. But despite a massive increase in spending in the most recent Mayoral campaign, every candidate but one asserted that the city’s schools were no better than they were in the 1990s. Spending has soared with nothing in return, and this is so out of hand as to represent a social injustice. We’ve been robbed. A series of charts and commentary of public school finance over the years may be found on “Saying the Unsaid in New York.”


Census of Governments Public School Finance Data: FY 2012, 2002, and 1992

The U.S. Census Bureau released its public education finance data for FY 2012 last Thursday, along with this report which includes data by state and for the 100 largest school districts. http://www2.census.gov/govs/school/12f33pub.pdf I recommend paying attention to Table 11, per pupil revenues and expenditures by category, and Table 12, spending per $1,000 of state residents’ personal income by category, a figure that takes into account the relative cost of living and ability to pay in different states. Table 18 has per pupil amounts for the 100 largest school districts, albeit without such an adjustment. As usual I have downloaded and compiled more detailed data from the Bureau, including more data categories and data for every individual school district in New York, also aggregated into different regions of the state, and every school district in New Jersey. It took 10 hours to do this compilation, mostly because I repeated it for FY 2012, FY 2002, and FY 1992, three roughly economically comparable years that also approximately match the beginning and end of the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations in New York City.

The data shows that in FY 2012 New York City spent $22,884 per student, somewhat lower than the average of $23,914 for the Downstate Suburbs but more than the $18,827 for New Jersey, the $18,815 for the Upstate Urban Counties, the $19,354 for the Rest of New York State, the $18,242 in Connecticut, and the $16,076 in Massachusetts. The U.S. average was just $12,295 per student. As usual I have adjusted some of these figures for the higher average private sector wage and cost of living in the Northeast. This reduces the NYC figure to $17,865 per child, still 45.3% higher than the U.S. average but below the average for Upstate New York. Moreover, on an unadjusted basis the city spent $13,627 per student on instructional (mostly teachers) wages and benefits in FY 2012. That is $272,540 for every 20 students and $163,500 for every 12 students – during a time when most New Yorkers were under stress from a weak economy and yet the NYC teacher’s union claimed teachers were underpaid and stoked their resentment and de-motivation. The spreadsheets may be found on “Saying the Unsaid in New York.”


Parkslopehenge

In recent years people have made a big deal of “Manahattanhenge,” the otherwise astronomically insignificant day when the rising or setting sun happens to line up with the Manhattan street grid. http://www.amnh.org/our-research/hayden-planetarium/resources/manhattanhenge But there is another street grid in this city that lines up with the rising and setting sun at a no less astronomically auspicious time than the summer and winter solstices. I’m referring to the street grid that begins on Garfield Place in Park Slope and extends down to Windsor Place/Sherman Street in Windsor Terrace.

The angle of the east-west streets is slightly different starting with Carroll Street to the north, and Prospect Avenue to the South. But those in between and on the Park Slope side of the terminal moraine will find the sun setting straight down the street on the summer solstice. For those on the Windsor Terrace side, the sunrise was right down the street on the winter solstice. It was about that time last year that I figured this out, following my curiosity and messing around with this site, and went out and checked. http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/grad/solcalc/


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