Larry Littlefield's blog

Pensions for Non-Teachers: A Slightly Different Road to Ruin in New York City

New York City and New Jersey have more than one pension plan for public employees. There are separate plans for teachers and related workers, for police officers and firefighters, and big plans for just about everyone else. My prior post in this series, which this post will assume the reader has read, was about the New York City, New York State, and New Jersey teacher pension plans, with the New York State plan covering teachers in the part of the state outside New York City. This post is about the big plans for most public workers: 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.

I thought this post would be written very quickly, because the trends and situation would be the same as it was for the teachers. But when I put data from the database of long term Census Bureau data into the same charts that I used for the teacher pension plans, I found that wasn’t the case for New York City. The various retroactive pension increases and incentives over the years had less of an effect on inflation-adjusted NYCERS benefit payments than they did on benefit payments by the Teachers Retirement System of New York City. But NYCERS is nonetheless only slightly better funded than the NYC teachers pension plan, because the extent of taxpayer pension underfunding has been greater. Indeed, unlike the pension plan for NYC teachers, NYCERS never really got out of the hole after the big pension increases under former Mayor Lindsay in the late 1960s. Further discussion and a spreadsheet with a series of charts are here on “Saying the Unsaid in New York.”

Teacher Pensions: The Road To Ruin in New Jersey and New York City But Not (Yet) The Rest of New York State

As noted in my previous post, I have downloaded and arranged all the data the U.S. Census Bureau has collected since 1957 on currently active public employee pension plans in New York and New Jersey. I wanted a historical record of how future generations were left with this mess, a record older generations and the political class have little incentive to compile. This is the first of a handful of posts using this data; hopefully someone else will do even more with it sooner or later. This post is about the New York City, New York State, and New Jersey teacher pension plans, which also cover some related employees.

The data shows that in New York City the road to ruin was paved primarily with a series of extremely expensive pension benefit increases, employee contribution cuts, and one time “incentives” that vastly inflated the amount the NYC teacher pension plans paid out. Not shown by this data is a similarly large increase in the cost of retiree health insurance, as the city was forced to pay retirees for many additional years before Medicare picked up most of the burden. The pension benefit increases for the New Jersey teacher pension plan and the New York State teacher pension plan, which covers teachers in the rest of New York State, were not as frequent or as costly. New York City taxpayers may have also underfunded the city teacher pension plan, relative to the state, after a New York State Court of Appeals decision prevented the state pension plans from doing the same. The NYC teacher pension plan has also had lower investment returns over the long term. In New Jersey, taxpayer pension funding virtually disappeared starting in the mid-1990s, and is the primary cause of the crisis there. Further discussion and a spreadsheet with a series of charts are here on “Saying the Unsaid in New York.”

Pensions: The Nature of the Lie

Let say you are in charge of running a pension fund, and it consists entirely of one paper asset that cost $20 to acquire and entitles the fund to a payment of $1 per year, which can be used to pay benefits. How much money is in your pension fund? Twenty dollars. And what is your expected future rate of return on your investment? Five percent, because $1 is 5.0% of $20. But let’s say that as a result of a speculative bubble, people start buying and selling pieces of paper identical to yours – and still only paying $1 per year – for $100? Then how much is in your pension fund? You probably shouldn’t, but you might say $100. But then, how much is your expected future rate of return? If you were honest you might say one percent, because $1 is 1.0% of $100.

But if you were the typical public employee pension fund manager of the past 15 years, and the typical actuary such funds were willing to hire, you would probably say the future rate of return was still five percent -- even though you were only getting one dollar, not five dollars, in cash return, and even though 5.0% of $100 is $5, not $1. Because, it would be assumed, the trading price the piece of paper would keep going up and up. Or you might say that the future return would be ten percent, even though you were only getting one dollar and not ten dollars. Because it would go up even faster. That would allow you to hand out retroactive pension increases for politically powerful public employee unions, even though no money had been set aside for the added benefits during most or all of their career, and claim it would cost nothing. And/or underfund the pension fund, to divert money to other more politically powerful priorities. The nature of the pension lie was double counting: counting both the inflated asset values and the same, or a higher, rate of return from those inflated values. That lie is still being told today. Ordinary people not in on the deals, particularly in younger generations, will pay for the consequences of that lie for decades.

New York: Government Of, By and Exclusively For Today’s Seniors, Leaving Nothing For Those Coming After

Imagine that I were to propose, or some politician were to propose, or some group of politicians were to propose, or some publication were to propose exempting those age 40 and younger from New York’s state and local income taxes, while charging senior citizens the highest taxes in the country. There would be outrage at seniors receiving such a raw deal. There would be questions of fairness. The discussion and attention to the issue would be massive.

In reality, however, what is proposed and enacted over and over again in New York is the opposite: special deals for today’s seniors to the detriment of younger people, in the highest taxed state in the U.S. The latest example of this is the tax changes proposed by the Republicans in the New York State Senate. The pension income of public employees is fully exempt from all New York State and New York City income taxes, no matter how high that income is, and no matter how young the retired public employee is. As a matter of “fairness,” the State Senate Republicans now propose that ALL seniors be allowed to ripoff younger generations in the same way, by exempting private sector retirement income from taxes as well (the first $20,000 of retirement income is already exempt after age 59 ½; Social Security income is fully exempt for public and private employees).

A Progressive Policy Bill DeBlasio Could Actually Afford

People/s expectations around the DeBlasio Administration remind me of the incoming administration of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in Chicago. All the great things he said he would do, just as soon as he finessed a few financial issues! Of course it didn’t turn out that way, as the Chicago Tribune reported recently, since Emmanuel inherited a bankrupt city. That city has reached the point where Wile E. Coyote realizes he has run off the cliff, and there is nowhere to go but down, despite (in the case of Chicago) an economic boom downtown (which may be sputtering out now that people are realizing what the future holds). I suggest that DeBlasio give Emanuel a call and ask for advice. That advice would probably be much better than it would have been two years ago. (Link not working try )

If you can’t be a “progressive” by giving things to people, how about being a “progressive” by taking things away from people? That doesn’t cost anything. Here is where the new Mayor has a chance to really set the tone. I suggest cutting the pay of the management team he is going to hire -- the Commissioners, Deputy Commissioners, Deputy Mayors, Chairpersons, Directors, Counsels, Public Information Officers and the like, the top 300 or 400 people in city government – by 50 percent compared to the pay level under the Bloomberg Administration. That is the official salaries – I’m not suggesting Mayor-elect DeBlaiso himself work for 50 cents. A quick review of city salaries on See Through New York shows that these sorts of positions currently pay $180,000 to $250,000. Under this proposal, the pay level would drop to $90,000 to $125,000 for the same work, or whatever the new hired had been getting paid in their previous job, whichever were less.

What’s On Local 1199’s Mind?

The hospital worker’s union was the only big union to back Bill DeBlasio in the primary for Mayor, so after a brief period out of power it seems that they are once again our overlords. So what do they want? They would probably have us believe that they want better health care, but despite their reversal on health care reform between the early 1990s (against) and the late 2000s (for), I’m not inclined to believe them. We might suspect that their real issue is more jobs for members, and thus more dues revenue for the union, but I have reason to believe something else is on their minds. Something like this from the U.S. Department of Labor:

Notice of Critical Status for the 1199SEIU Greater New York Pension Plan: This is to inform you that on March 29, 2013, the Plan actuary certified to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, and also to the Plan sponsor, that the Plan is in critical status for the Plan Year beginning January 1, 2013. Federal law requires that you receive this notice. The Plan is considered to be in critical status because it has funding problems. More specifically, the Plan's actuary determined that the Plan has an accumulated funding deficiency for the Plan Year beginning January 1, 2013. This 1199 plan, one of three plans the union runs (as best as I can determine), is number one on the critical list. Since this post includes a spreadsheet attachment, the rest of it is here on “Saying the Unsaid in New York.”

Donald Trump, THE Man of His Generation

Over the past few decades I’ve seen a number of studies, generally produced for those in marketing trying to find someone who still had money they could sell to, showing that the inflation adjusted work earnings of ordinary Americans, at each phase of their life, has been falling generation by generation, starting at the back end of the baby boom and working its way up the educational and income scale. The peak earnings were had by those who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s, which is to say those who were born between the mid-1930s and mid-1950s, those whom I have referred to as “Generation Greed.” The same generations that, when running the country, have essentially bankrupted the U.S., while shifting the sacrifices to those who will follow. The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis recently released yet another study showing the same thing, this one a highly technical multiple regression analysis that adjusts for education, whether or not one is a saver, and other demographic and social factors. It puts the start of falling income a little earlier, in 1950, with the losses accelerating later.

The Fed’s main question for this analysis is the economic status of older Americans, and indeed since the young have other advantages the diminished status of younger generations will really hit home when they become old themselves. The diminished income and wealth of younger cohorts (based on birth year) at each point in the lifecycle is summarized starting on the bottom of page 26 and shown graphically in figures 29 and 30 on pages 73 and 74. But most people don’t like to look at graphs and think about multiple regression coefficients. They like to talk about celebrities. So I thought to myself, “which celebrity most exemplifies the direction of the country over the past 45 years or so?” And then it hit me.

Congratulations Mayor Beame II

Whoever you are. Probably DeBlasio, but let’s count the votes. In a recent article, the New York Times reported that his margin in the polls means he is “flirting with a record win for a non-incumbent; that record is currently held by Abraham D. Beame, who won election in 1973 with a 40-point victory margin, the largest in an open race since five-borough elections began in 1897.” It is fitting. Another long time Room Eight poster predicted DeBlasio would be another Lindsay, but as far as I’m concerned that job has already been taken. Giuliani, Bloomberg, and the New York State Legislature have already re-Lindsayed with regard to the debts and pension enhancements/underfunding that the next Mayor will inherit.

In keeping with a tradition that goes back all the way to Wagner in the mid-1960s, the current Mayor will leave the next Mayor a city that is going broke. Bloomberg has vastly increased the city’s debt, in some cases to pay for investments that will pay off in the future, but in other cases to just get by for a few years. After underfunding the pensions following the massive retroactive pension increases of the 1995 to 2000 period, Bloomberg is again currently underfunding the pensions by $1 billion per year according to the BS estimates of the city actuary (the reality is more). Including underfunding the huge 2008 pension increase for NYC teachers that Bloomberg went along with. Moreover, Bloomberg has also cashed out the entire retiree health care fund he built up earlier in his terms. He leaves behind public employees who have become vastly richer relative to the average New York City resident, given their pension increases and the stagnation of everyone else’s wages, and who are nonetheless demanding in the press to become richer still – and that the next Mayor not negotiate in the press. And that is just part of it, as explained further on Saying the Unsaid in New York.

The Propaganda War Against Obamacare, Citibike and the Common Core

I generally don’t pay much attention to the sludge of misinformation and deception that now passes for politics and journalism. I prefer to try to figure out what is actually true myself. But suddenly last weekend, it occurred to me that the massive propaganda war against Obamacare, Citibike and the Common Core are essentially the same. Those waging it may be different – the Tea Party, Tabloids and Teacher’s Union – but the goals, tactics and vested interests are more alike than different.

In each case, an attempt has been made to delay and then kill a different way of doing things before it got started, not because it might fail but because it might succeed. In each case, the group putting out the propaganda has an interest in keeping things as they are: older and wealthy Americans who already benefit from massive direct and indirect government health care spending on themselves and don’t want any benefits for others. Those who believe their own driving and parking is the most important (and only valid) use of the public streets that everyone pays for. And a New York City teacher’s union that has provided the people of New York City with inferior schools for nearly 50 years, generally in exchange for low funding but more recently – over the past decade -- in exchange for high funding. And the similarities don’t end there.

U.S. Healthcare: Money for Nothing?

I was intrigued by an article by a New York-based City Planner in the latest issue of Planning magazine (no link -- subscribers only). He was on a bicycle trip to Cuba when his friend dropped dead of a heart attack. “The experience, while traumatic, would take me into places difficult for a foreigner to reach.” Although Cuba has a reputation for excellent medical care he found “a country that was shockingly primitive. The medical attention my friend received was rudimentary, in a facilities that were skeletal.” He was “shocked at the worn, run down hospital corridors and the appearance of staff simply standing around, doing nothing.” He had to move his friend’s body into the hospital himself. “Parts of the hospital were dirty. To cite one vivid example: Directly across from the examining room where doctors tried to revive my friend was an overflowing toilet with a broken sink; there was no place for visitors to wash their hands.”

And yet, according to the article, "Cuba’s life expectancy matches the U.S., according to United Nations statistics.” Hmmm.

New York City: Economic Refugee Camp

When the federal shutdown ends and monthly employment data is once again released, we will probably find that New York City’s unemployment rate is still high. What is interesting, however, is why it is so high. According to the survey of business establishments, the number of people working at payroll jobs in New York City (including those who commute in) is the highest it has ever been. And according to data based on the survey of households, the number of city residents who were employed in June 2013 was only slightly below the pre-recession level of June 2007, while for the U.S. as a whole the number employed was 1.8 million lower. New York City’s unemployment rate is high because the city’s labor force, including those looking for work but not employed, has soared. In a country that is suffering a far greater economic decline than New York City, the city has become an economic refugee camp with young workers trying to find some economic hope.

But they aren’t earning so much. Before shutting down, the U.S. Census Bureau released American Community Survey data for 2012. The data showed that New York City’s median household income fell 5.5% from 2008 to 2012 when adjusted for inflation. The median work earnings per household fell 6.9%, and since full-time full-year workers showed some modest gains in earnings, the share of workers able to maintain that status must have fallen significantly. Moreover, inflation adjusted mean household income, affected to a greater extent by earnings of the rich, fell 7.7% from 2008 to 2012, showing that even the one percent have not been spared. This is the case nationally as well, according to data cited by this article. Some spreadsheets and additional commentary may be found here on “Saying the Unsaid in New York.”

How Adolfo Carrion Can Win My Vote

Unfortunately, the apathy of everyone else has left state and local politics to be dominated by the producers of public services, who want to force people to pay more for less, the wealthy, who do not require public services and benefits and do not want to pay for others to have them, and (to a lesser extent than in the past, fortunately) whackos obsessed by God, gays, guns and other issues of tribal and identity politics. These are the people and groups who donate the money and collect the signatures. And since the mainstream media uses endorsements, signatures and campaign contributions as the indicator of who is worth presenting to the broader public, their candidates are those who get the attention. Particularly since such candidates have flacks to do the work of the journalists for them.

Others are left with the valuable but unrewarding task of being protest candidates. As someone who lost nine months of income and ended my public service career to make a similar protest, they have my respect. I have previously written what the major party candidates for Mayor have to do to win my vote. If they fail to win do so, Adolfo Carrion can win that vote by showing, in the Mayoral debates, that he is prepared to speak for the rest of us, and for younger generations. Or by being excluded from those debates, which would really tick me off.

Big Issues in the Mayoral Race

In his 20s, Bill DeBlasio was interested in the Sandinistas and visited Nicaragua. Joe Lhota's wife was at fault in an auto accident five years ago. Next up, something Leonora Fulani said 20 or 30 or 40 years ago, and the candidates on twerking, whatever that is.

Not under discussion: the City of New York is broke. The State of New York is broke. The MTA is broke. The federal government is broke. People are increasingly broke, and younger generations are poorer than those who came before. Why? Who benefitted? Who should sacrifice, when and in what way, to stabilize things? It's joke.

How Joe Lhota Can Earn My Vote

I’ve noted that I don’t vote for Democrats at the local level, because they represent the producers of public services at the expense of increasingly less well off taxpayers and consumers of public services. And I don’t vote for Republicans at the federal level, on generational equity grounds and because they represent the unearned privileges of the wealthy in exchange for campaign contributions. In my post on Bill DeBlasio, I challenged him to earn my vote by separating himself from the public employee unions and contractors, to at least present the illusion that someone will be representing everyone else. In this post on Joe Lhota, I challenge him to separate himself from policies that shift costs to the future and disadvantage younger generations to make things easier for Generation Greed – and politicians today. Admit that the future will be tougher for younger generations, and they will have to settle for less as a result. And to break the seeming rule of Omerta with regard to what has gone on in the past by talking about it, saying it was wrong, and promising to try to reverse it or at least not make it worse.

In general Republican politicians have robbed the future from younger generations with debts and tax breaks for seniors, and Democratic politicians have done so with pension deals and senior services what will leave younger generations destitute when they reach old age themselves. But in bi-partisan New York State, both Democrats and Republicans work together to destroy the future of the city and state, and those who will live in it, both ways. Including the Giuliani Administration and those who have run the MTA. Let’s take a walk down memory lane with two examples of the policies Lhota would need to bring up, criticize, vow not to repeat, and admit that things will be worse – not better – to pay for going forward.

New York Times Endorsements: NYC Democrats Are Different, and Worse

I’ve often noted that my general voting rules are: don’t vote for any Republicans at the federal level, don’t vote for any Democrats at the New York City local level, and don’t vote for any incumbents from either party in the New York State Legislature. Recently, I followed a link to a timeline of New York Times endorsements for Mayor of New York, and found I may not be the only person who thinks that way, at least for the first two rules. The timeline shows that in 32 mayoral elections going back to consolidation, the Times endorsed only 9 NYC Democrats. This includes two endorsements of Ed Koch in 1981 and 1985, when he was also the Republican candidate. I’m not sure that counts. And two endorsements of Jimmy Walker in the 1920s. I think they’d like to have those back. That brings it down to 5 out of 32. And 15 times the Times endorsed third party or fusion candidates, nearly half the total. This is the organization that opposed non-partisan elections?

This is the liberal, Democrat loving Times? Yes, if you are talking about Democrats from somewhere else. At the national level, in 33 elections since 1884 the Times has endorsed Republican candidates for President only six times. And one of those was a local, Thomas E. Dewey. I’m not sure that counts, given that Dewey was probably popular with the Times’ readers. That brings it down to 5 of 33. Heck, the Times didn’t even endorse New Yorker Teddy Roosevelt. The Times has not endorsed a Republican for President since Eisenhower in 1956. There was also one third party/fusion endorsement. The rest, 25 out of 33, were Democrats.

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