Detroit may mark the Beginning of the End of Generational Theft by Public Sector Unions

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 4th, 2013

Week in Review

So who’s to blame for Detroit?  The greedy.  The greed of the public sector.  Who stole as much as they thought possible from future generations.  Laughing all the way to the bank.  But never did they think that their greed would eclipse the paying-ability of those they were stealing from.  Future taxpayers.  Which is what happened in Detroit.  And will probably happen elsewhere throughout the nation (see The Unsteady States of America posted 7/27/2013 on the Economist).

Nearly half of Detroit’s liabilities stem from promises of pensions and health care to its workers when they retire. American states and cities typically offer their employees defined-benefit pensions based on years of service and final salary. These are supposed to be covered by funds set aside for the purpose. By the states’ own estimates, their pension pots are only 73% funded. That is bad enough, but nearly all states apply an optimistic discount rate to their obligations, making the liabilities seem smaller than they are. If a more sober one is applied, the true ratio is a terrifying 48% (see article). And many states are much worse. The hole in Illinois’s pension pot is equivalent to 241% of its annual tax revenues: for Connecticut, the figure is 190%; for Kentucky, 141%; for New Jersey, 137%.

By one recent estimate, the total pension gap for the states is $2.7 trillion, or 17% of GDP. That understates the mess, because it omits both the unfunded pension figure for cities and the health-care promises made to retired government workers of all sorts. In Detroit’s case, the bill for their medical benefits ($5.7 billion) was even larger than its pension hole ($3.5 billion).

Some of this is the unfortunate side-effect of a happy trend: Americans are living longer, even in Detroit, so promises to pensioners are costlier to keep. But the problem is also political. Governors and mayors have long offered fat pensions to public servants, thus buying votes today and sending the bill to future taxpayers. They have also allowed some startling abuses. Some bureaucrats are promoted just before retirement or allowed to rack up lots of overtime, raising their final-salary pension for the rest of their lives. Or their unions win annual cost-of-living adjustments far above inflation. A watchdog in Rhode Island calculated that a retired local fire chief would be pulling in $800,000 a year if he lived to 100, for example. More than 20,000 retired public servants in California receive pensions of over $100,000.

This is an important point.  People say that we must honor these lavish pension and retiree health care benefits because they made a deal.  A contract with the city.  Or the state.  But did they?  No.  The public sector unions and the cities and states colluded together to steal money from future generations.  Who were not a party to those agreements.  This amounts to generational theft.  And the generous size of those benefits just makes that theft worse.  Transforming the public sector into an aristocracy.  That cares little for the future taxpayers that they will be bled dry to pay for their long and comfortable retirements.

Detroit is just the first domino to fall.  This generational theft is just unsustainable.  Something has to be done.  But what?

Public employees should retire later. States should accelerate the shift to defined-contribution pension schemes, where what you get out depends on what you put in. (These are the norm in the private sector.) Benefits already accrued should be honoured, but future accruals should be curtailed, where legally possible. The earlier you grapple with the problem, the easier it will be to fix. Nebraska, which stopped offering final-salary pensions to new hires in 1967, is sitting pretty.

In other words our public servants should not live a better life than their masters.  Those people paying the bill.  There should be no aristocracy in the United States.  People in the public sector shouldn’t be able to retire young and live a long life in retirement while someone else is paying the bill.  The taxpayer.  People who have to work until they drop dead to save for their own retirement.  That just isn’t right.  If our servants in the public sector want that long and comfortable retirement then they must do what people in the private sector do.  Save for it.  Make sacrifices.  And live more frugally.  Because there shouldn’t be two Americas.  Where one enslaves the other.  While setting up a string of municipal and state bankruptcies because of their greed that threatens the financial wellbeing of the nation.

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