Posts tagged ‘pensions’

The Core Problem with Social Security

I am happy to see others making the point I have tried to make for years:  That the coming financial problems with Social Security are not its biggest problem.  Megan McArdle and Clive Cook say it very well:

In this post on Paul Krugman and Social Security,
Clive, as usual, targets with laser accuracy the real problem with the
Social Security system: not that it is bankrupt, but that it encourages
people to make extremely bad decisions about providing for their future.

It starts with childbearing:  social security systems seem to exert downward pressure on birthrates,
in effect undermining their own actuarial base. Social security
socializes the benefits of childbearing in providing for retirement,
but no one has yet figured out how to socialize the main cost, which is
turning your life choices over to a screaming pre-verbal dictator.
People are thus tempted to free ride on the childbearing of others, and
the more generous benefits are, the more they seem to free ride. This
is one reason that Social Security, which used to have more than 30
workers for each retiree, now has only three, headed towards two.

Social Security also encourages people to leave the workforce
earlier than they otherwise would. People are healthier than ever at
65, but while in 1950, almost half of all men over the age of 65
worked, that number is now less than 20%. This appears to be highly
correlated with the spread of defined benefit pensions such as social
security, which offer no advantage to delaying retirement. Indeed,
Social Security perversely penalizes anyone who takes early benefit but
continues to work, docking a third of their earnings.

Finally, Social Security discourages private savings. This is
terrible for two reasons. If future fiscal problems force the
government to reduce benefits, the people who didn't save enough
because they relied on those promises will be made much worse off than
they would otherwise have been.

The other problem is that Social Security is not a productive
investment. Privately saved money is mostly lent to corporations that
mostly use the money to do things that make the economy more
productive, such as R&D and capital equipment upgrades. Social
security "contributions" are lent to the government, where they are
mostly spent on things that could not be remotely described as
improving our economy's productive capacity, such as farm subsidies.

Excellent.  I ran the numbers and discussed what a bad investment return was paid by Social Security here.  I discussed Social Security as intellectual welfare here.

And the First to Violate Net Neutrality is ... The Government!

I have never been very excited about the concept of "net neutrality."  Various bills in Congress trying to enforce this strike me as Trojan horses for regulation of the Internet, and are at best the attempts by one segment of the population to enforce their vision of the Internet via the coercive power of the government. But more on this in a second.

The City of Boston has a free municipal Wi-Fi network  (I aired some of my objections to this here).  By using this "free" wi-fi network (which is free only in the sense that you paid for it via taxes rather than use fees) you apparently must accept government filtering of the content, which caused Boing-Boing to get blocked the other day, for some "arbitrary and capricious" reasons.  Readers may remember I already dinged Boston once when it used its government power to try to block free competitors.

So despite all the panic that evil capitalist broadband suppliers will somehow block or skew content from certain content suppliers, it turns out that the government, acting as broadband supplier, is the first to do so.  Fortunately, Bostonians have many free competitors to the municipal service that provide uncensored access to the Internet.  But without those private options, they would be enjoying the Chinese Internet experience.

Which gets us back to the issue of accountability.  In short, socialists distrust individual self-interest and the market as accountability tools, and believe the government is much more accountable, and therefore trustworthy, than any private institution.  What amazes be is that anyone with a working knowledge of history can continue to believe this.  Take any issue:

  • Corruption?  Sure there was Enron and Worldcom, but any crimes at these institutions are trivial compared in both magnitude and frequency to the financial abuses of government.  Take pensions as one example.  Maybe 10-20 out of 500 of the companies in the DJIA have underfunded pensions, with some money put away but not enough.  But probably 99 out of every 100 municipalities you can name have underfunded pensions, and in most cases these not only have too little money put away, they have ZERO!
  • Worker health?  Almost all private work environments are incredibly safe -- the very fact that we are worried about carpal tunnel syndrome should tell you something.  But what about in the past?  Well, take one of the highest profile cases of worker harm, that of long-term asbestos exposure.  A huge number of the worst asbestos cases are people exposed in government naval yards.  Government naval yards, for decades, eschewed basic worker protections from asbestos that were common in private industry.
  • Environment?  One only has to look at the superfund site list and see that government sites are represented way out of proportion to their economic activity.  This is not to say their are not god-awful private sites, created either through ignorance or willful disregard, but you will find that the government was at least as active a polluter as even the worst private polluters.   Or look around today, at water quality.  The number of private contributors to water problems is nearly nil.  Most modern water pollution problems are caused by governments (Boston's "solution" to piping raw sewage into the harbor was to... lay a longer pipe and dump it further out in the ocean).
  • Monopoly?  It is hard to find, in history, any stable private monopolies.  Perhaps the most famous, Standard Oil, was losing market share rapidly due to private forces at the time of its breakup.  Government monopolies, however, can last forever despite high prices and crappy services.  Just look at public education.
  • Commerce?  Those who are frequent readers will know that I buy some product from the government, and they are by far my worst, hardest to deal with, and most abusive vendor.

Getting back to the issue of net neutrality, let's take a look at what accountability-enforcement tools a private individual has over a private vs. a public broadband supplier.  If I don't like my private broadband supplier, I can make a phone call and switch to one of several others.  Time elapsed:  About 30 minutes.  If I don't like my public broadband supplier, I could switch to a private company.  But this is really a libertarian end-around to the socialist problem.  To be fair, we need to look at a pure socialist system and evaluate the accountability tools in this system.  So, assuming the government entity has enforced a monopoly position for itself (like in education or the postal service), I would have to muster a grass roots campaign and likely millions of dollars to force any changes through an entrenched and brain-dead legislative body.  Time elapsed:  From 3 years to never.

Government Workers Protect Themselves

A few days ago, I did the calculations on my Social Security statement and discovered the government was paying me a -0.8% a year return (yes that is negative) on the taxes paid into the system on my behalf.  But rest assured, government workers, who know they are sticking it to us with Social Security, would never allow such a thing to happen with their own pensions:

In New York and Oregon, public employees who contribute their own money
to retirement plans get a guaranteed rate of return that is often far
beyond what the market provides, and taxpayers must make up the
difference. In Oregon, the return is 8 percent annually"”about double
what safe investments like treasury bonds provide today.

Part of a great article by Steven Malanga on the growing power of public sector unions.

Business vs. Government Time Horizons

One of the excuses statists often use to promote government over private enterprise is that businesses are "short-term focused".  They are only after "profit in the next quarter."  They don't "invest for the long-term" like a government can.  Really?

Iran's oil exports are plummeting at 10pc a year on lack of
investment and could be exhausted within a decade, depriving the world
economy of its second-biggest source of crude supplies.

A report by the US National Academy of Sciences said rickety
infrastructure dating back to the era of the Shah had crippled output,
while local fuel use was rising at 6pc a year.

"Their domestic demand is growing at the highest rate of any country
in the world," said Prof Roger Stern, an Iran expert at Johns Hopkins
University, Baltimore.

"They need to invest $2.5bn (£1.28bn) a year just to stand still
and they're not doing it because it's politically easier to spend the
money on social welfare and the army than to wait four to six years for
a return on investment," he said.

"They've been running down the industry like this for 20 years."

You never hear this problem in the privately run oil industry.  And I can say with complete confidence that this is a government problem, not just an Iran problem. 

Take one area in this country I know about, public recreation.   The BLM, the Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Corps of Engineers (not to mention state, county and local authorities) all run thousands of recreation facilities across the country.  And I can tell you that no public entity I know of budgets or spends adequate money on preventative and routine maintenance.  The nature of the process is that Congressmen love to get their name attached to building a new government recreation facility - that's sexy.  But then they never appropriate enough money to keep it maintained.  In their calculus, politicians can get a lot more political mileage from spending money in year 2 on another flashy announcement of a new facility than they can from spending that money to maintain the facilities they funded in year 1.

Can you imagine someone like Disney doing this?  Of course not.  The Magic Kingdom at DisneyWorld, the oldest of the them parks there, looks as fresh and new and well-kept when you visit it as does the newer MGM and Animal Kingdom parks.

And don't even get me started on government pensions and Social Security.  Oops, too late, I am started.  Yes, a few private companies in steel and airlines have under-funded pensions (though the government is partially to blame there) but by the definition of "under-funded" that private companies use, nearly every single public pension fund in the country is under-funded.  That is because most public pensions do not actually put away any money (zero, zip) for future liabilities -- they simply pay this year's required payments out of this year's funds.  States and municipalities have a huge balloon pension burden coming -- just wait twenty years and we will all be talking about it.  And Social Security, for all the smoke and mirrors, effectively works the same way, since current premiums in excess of current obligations are spent on the feds general obligations (if you still think there is some trust fund out there, wake up.)

Shifting Nature of Income

Kevin Drum takes the following statistic:

As a result, wages and salaries no longer make up the smallest share of
the gross domestic product since World War II. They accounted for 46.1
percent of all economic output in the second quarter, down from a high
of 53.6 percent in 1970 but up from 45.4 percent in the spring of 2005.

And declares it to be a bad thing.  He doesn't really explain, but as a frequent reader of his site I can guess his issue is that he interprets this statement as a sign of the weakening fortunes of the American wage earner.

Isn't it really dangerous to leap to such a conclusion?  I can think of a number of perfectly innocuous, even positive trends that would cause such a shift:

  • Aging of population means more people retirement age who take their income in form of dividends, investment returns, pensions, social security, etc., none of which are included in "wages"
  • Ownership of investment assets, and thus income from these assets, has spread from just the rich to the middle class, meaning most people get more of a share of their personal income from investments and asset (e.g. house) appreciation
  • Entrepreneurship rates are way up since 1970.  This means many more people, particularly in the middle class, have given up working for someone else for a wage and now work for themselves for a business profit.

I know Drum wants to interpret it as a "the poor are poor because the rich take all the money" zero sum game.  Anyone know what is really going on behind these numbers?

Update: Children in European Restaurants

Not really forewarned about this social trend in advance, my family was surprised to find that many restaurants in smaller English towns would not let us in with our children.  I wrote about the strange Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang-esque reactions we got to our children here.

Reader Tom Van Horn sends in this update from Newsweek:

a recent British study showed a house's value drops by 5 percent if
neighbors move in with teenage kids. Hotels are catering to the
childless, too; Italy's La Veduta country resort promises, "Your Tuscan
holiday will not be shattered by the clamor of children." In Rome, many
restaurants make it clear that children are not welcome"”in some cases
by establishing themselves as "clubs," where members must be older than
18 to join.

*shrug*  There are times when my wife and I like to get away from kids too, and we have a couple of them.  I know a few couples who have chosen to remain childless and I can assure you they are sick and tired of being asked about their childlessness like it was some kind of disease.  I am sure they will welcome a sense of normalcy for their chosen way to live.  Combining this trend with my observation that Parisians will take their dog anywhere, it is probably not long before there are public places in Paris where dogs are welcome but kids are not.

That doesn't mean that everyone shares my willingness to let folks live in peace like they choose.  Certain politicians around Europe seem to want to intervene (and isn't that why people become politicians in the first place -- to force other people into making choices that they would not have made for themselves?)

Politicians and religious leaders warn darkly of an "epidemic" of
childlessness that saps the moral fiber of nations; they blame the
child-free for impending population decline, the collapse of pension
systems and even the rise in immigration. In Japan, commentators have
identified the "parasite single" who lives off society instead of doing
his duty to start a family

In Germany, where the childless rate is the
highest in the world, at 25 percent, the best-seller lists have been
full of tomes forecasting demographic doomsday. In "Minimum," the
conservative commentator Frank Schirrmacher describes a "spiral of
childlessness," where a declining population becomes ever more
reluctant to have kids. Media reports have stigmatized the "cold career
woman""”one such recent article came with mug shots of childless female
celebs"”accusing them of placing their jobs before kids. Never mind that
Germany trails its neighbors in the availability of child care, or the
amount of time men spend helping around the house.

Germany to Russia, there is increasing talk of sanctions against the
childless. In Slovakia, a leading adviser on the government's Strategic
Council on Economic Development proposed in March to replace an
unpopular payroll tax with a levy on all childless Slovaks between the
ages of 25 and 50. In Russia, where the birthrate has dropped from 2.3
in the 1980s to 1.3 today, a powerful business lobby has called for an
income-tax surcharge on childless couples. In Germany, economists and
politicians have demanded that public pensions for the childless be
slashed by up to 50 percent"”never mind that such pensions were invented
as an alternative to senior citizens' having to depend on their

More Trouble Than I Thought at GM

Today's announcement that GM will sell 51% of their GMAC financing arm really brought home to me how bad things are at GM.  I haven't really followed the situation, but I had assumed that GM was facing the same type demographic bomb as the airlines, fat and underfunded pensions and retiree health care benefits promised when times were good and US auto makers didn't face much troubling competition.

Here is what I found interesting:  GMAC is reported to make about $2.5 - 3 billion a year in profits.  This might tend to imply a value of at least $25 to $30 billion, which is confirmed by the fact that GM just sold half for $14 billion.  But GM as a whole has a market cap of just under twelve billion.  This means that their entire manufacturing business is valued in the market at roughtly -$16 Billion.  Yes, negative sixteen billion.  Another way to look at this is that if instead of selling GMAC yesterday, GM had instead sold all of their automotive manufacturing, brands, designs, etc. to someone for $1, and became a pure financing business, GM shareholders would be richer by $16 billion, the equivilent of raising the current stock price from about $21 to about $49.

Unfunded Public Retirement Benefits

The NY Times has a fairly scary (though not particularly surprising) article about unfunded retirement obligations of government bodies.

Thousands of government bodies, including states, cities, towns, school
districts and water authorities, are in for the same kind of shock in the next
year or so. For years, governments have been promising generous medical benefits
to millions of schoolteachers, firefighters and other employees when they
retire, yet experts say that virtually none of these governments have kept track
of the mounting price tag. The usual practice is to budget for health care a
year at a time, and to leave the rest for the future.

Off the government balance sheets - out of sight and out of mind - those
obligations have been ballooning as health care costs have spiraled and as the
baby-boom generation has approached retirement. And now the accounting rulemaker
for the public sector, the Governmental Accounting Standards Board, says it is
time for every government to do what Duluth has done: to come to grips with the
total value of its promises, and to report it to their taxpayers and

Its not too surprising to most of us that the government, which is actively putting Enron managers in jail for hiding liabilities off-balance-sheet, turns out to be a far worse offender at the same practice.  The few agencies that have performed the actuarial calculation are coming up with staggering numbers:

Stephen T. McElhaney, an actuary and principal at Mercer Human Resources, a
benefits consulting firm that advises states and local governments, estimated
that the national total could be $1 trillion. "This is a huge liability," said
Jan Lazar, an independent benefits consultant in Lansing, Mich. "If anybody
understands it, they'll freak out."...

Maryland, for example, now spends about $311 million annually on retiree health
premiums. But when that state calculated the value of the retirement benefits it
has promised to current employees, the total was $20.4 billion. And the yearly
cost will jump to $1.9 billion under the new rule, according to an analysis for
the state by actuaries at Aon
Consulting, which advises companies on benefits.

I usually severely discount consultant scare numbers like "$1 trillion", particularly after the year 2000 bug orgy of doomsaying, but if Maryland, an average size state, is facing $20 billion, then a trillion may only account for state governments.  The number may well be higher when you include cities, counties, school districts, etc. 

While this is clearly bad news, there is also a silver lining.  Politicians for years have given away richer and richer public employee retirement benefits because they appeared "free"  (free to a politician being anything that doesn't have to be paid for when he/she is in office).  By changing accounting standards to force acknowledgment of this liability, politicos will at least have to address true costs of any future giveaways.

As a minimum, most public authorities are looking to change benefits for new employees, which is an entirely reasonable response that should have been taken years ago.  Just as past changes in public accounting for pensions caused agencies to shift benefits to 401K's from defined benefit pensions, so this rule-changes in retiree medical care will certainly change benefits packages.

However, that being said, I have a much bigger problem with several state's proposals to retroactively reduce benefits for existing retirees and employees.  These retirement benefits are a contract, and should not be allowed to be changed casually, any more than could an agency just choose to renege on a municipal bond payment.  Sure, the commitments may have been irresponsible, but that does not make them automatically void.  Private companies from time to time get themselves in a similar mess, and the only way for them to relieve themselves of some of this liability is through the bankruptcy process.  Public agencies should be forced to do the same.  They should not be able to use their coercive legislative power to just make these obligations disappear at the stroke of a pen -- they need to go through the pain of a bankruptcy, where all creditors, not just pensioners selectively, will need to share in the haircut.

Airlines and Credit Cards

Via Marginal Revolution, I thought this was fascinating:  The profits from those airline frequent flyer Visa and Mastercards (like my Citibank Advantage Visa) dwarf those of the airline business itself.  OK, so the profits of my tiny little company probably dwarfed the anemic profits of most airlines last year, just because they were positive.  But the magnitude is staggering:

Juniper bank is contributing $455 million to the merger of America West and
USAirways in exchange for the right to issue its frequent flyer credit card. This was a
huge blow to Bank of America, which had been issuing cards for both airlines,
and BofA is taking the deal to court.

They have several more examples, with credit card companies providing much of the new financing in recent airline bankruptcies.

By the way, why is it that frequent-flyer miles holders, who are a creditor of the airlines after all, are the only major creditor consistently NOT asked to take a haircut in these bankruptcies.  For god's sakes, there are retired workers losing a large portion of their pensions, but I still get to retain all my miles so I can go to Hawaii next year?

Update:  The fact that mileage holders have not taken a hit in bankrupcy does not mean they have not ever taken a hit.  Airlines from time to time devalue miles, by raising redemption rates, as Northwest did last year.

Two of My Favorite Topics

Tim Harford at Marginal Revolution touches on two of my favorite topics in one short post.  I have written a number of times about how frequant flyer mile holders seem to come out whole from airline bankrupcies when every other creditor has to take a major hair cut.  Even pensions are cut before frequant flyer mile obligations. Tim shares some ideas and a link to an Economist story with more on this topic.

What really caught my attention was when he discussed whether difficulties in getting any airline help in actually cashin in the miles was a stealthy way of repudiating the miles.  In his analysis, he has this nice restatement of Coyote's Law:

Never attribute to conspiracy that which is adequately explained by

Orange County Moves to Ohio

If you thought the idiots who ran Orange County's finances into the ground were bad, wait until you meet these jokers:

Two months ago, reports emerged that $300,000 in rare coins was missing from a
collection in which the state Bureau of Workers' Compensation (BWC) began
investing in 1998 as a peculiar form of stock hedge. That was bad enough. But
last week, word came that between $10 million and $12 million in coins had
disappeared. That caused BWC director Jim Conrad to announce his resignation,
and launched a flurry of accusations and calls for legal action.

As if my workers comp. rates weren't already too high.  There goes my idea to invest Social Security funds in beanie babies and 60's lunch boxes.  Apparently most of the major lawmakers in the state got large campaign donations from several large coin dealers, and they returned the favor by investing public funds in coins through these dealers.  I often make the argument not to let the government have control of large equity investment funds -- I did not even occur to me to include coins.  One of the things about coins - you have to hold them for a long, long time to make money, in part because commissions markups are so high vis a vis other investments (which explains why coin dealers so readily donated large sums of money for government business).

Reason has a good roundup.  Unfortunately, I am sure this will all lead to more restrictions on spending and speech in campaigns, though it appears the system is working fine - full disclosure of funding sources certainly has everyone running for their lives.

The real solution is to make elected officials take a real fiduciary interest in the state's investment funds (pensions probably being the largest).  What they would prefer to do is to legislate a set of rules and then leave managers to follow these rules, giving them plausible deniability.  What they should do is sit down once a quarter and review portfolio investment performance and asset allocations.

Classic Moral Hazard

According to the WSJ($), you and I are going to take on the pension obligations of UAL:

A bankruptcy judge approved a
proposal from United Airlines parent UAL Corp. to transfer four
underfunded employee pension plans to the federal government, paving
the way for the largest pension default in U.S. corporate history.

The plans, which have a shortfall of $9.8 billion,
cover more than 120,000 United workers and retirees. United, the
nation's second-largest carrier in terms of traffic, wants to transfer
them to the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., or PBGC, which
would add to the already heavy strain on the agency from a spate of
pension defaults in recent years. Since accounting for United's
obligations last year, in anticipation it would assume them, the agency
has taken on obligations exceeding its assets by $23.3 billion  [ed note- the agency takes in only about $1 billion a year in premiums, so $23.3 billion in the hole is a very big number]....

The court's decision could have wide
repercussions in the airline industry, which is struggling with high
fuel costs, intense fare competition and overcapacity. Sidestepping its
pension liabilities will help UAL attract additional funding, while
giving it a huge cost advantage over many of its rivals, which are
saddled with underfunded defined-benefit retirement plans of their own.
That will put further pressure on those airlines to slash their costs
or in some cases seek bankruptcy protection in hopes of terminating
their own pension plans.

It is difficult for me to even start on how much this pisses me off.  These pensions are real obligations that UAL took on, and represent value provided in exchange for work that has already been done.  As outlined below, I am not big on the defined benefit pension model, but that does not change the fact that these companies are defaulting on a solemn obligation.  The temptation I guess is always great when finances get tight to defer obligations that are the farthest in the future, and so pension underfunding is one of the first things to occur.  There is no way management should get a pass for this, and I am flabbergasted that equity holders expect to retain anything out of the bankruptcy when employees have not been fully paid.

This being said, there is plenty of blame to go around, including for the union and the government.  The UAL unions should have been dropping the hammer on the company in the form of strikes or whatever at the first sign of under-funding.  Instead, they were more concerned about jacking up their salaries to the highest levels in the industry, ignoring the reality that airline finances by the late 90's were basically a balloon that if you pushed on it in one place, it popped out in another.  Unions allowed the underfunding to continue in large part lulled by the promise of the PBGC and taxpayers to make the pension funds whole if they continued to be underfunded.  This is the moral hazard that occurs in any kind of financial insurance like this, and the unions apparently were both right and wrong - we taxpayers will take on the obligations but their benefits will also get a haircut.

One of the lessons I thought was learned from the S&L bailouts of the 90's was that you can't provide such financial insurance without a parallel regulatory structure to make sure some kind of minimum fiduciary responsibility exists.  But, not learning a thing, the government has this pension guarantee program in place and exercises virtually no oversight over the funding or management of the insured pensions.

It is astounding to me that a large number of people still support defined benefit plans over defined contribution plans. What I don't honestly understand is why the rank and file still buy into this.  Defined contribution plans are much easier to monitor and audit and keep companies honest.  Once the money is in a vehicle such as a 401K, the money can't be taken away by the company or lost in a bankruptcy (unless the 401K is invested in the company's stock, which any adviser will tell you to never, ever do (see "Enron").  Now, I understand that there can be some tricky migration issues from one system to another, and companies use the transition as an excuse to cut back on their net contributions, but these are workable and negotiable issues .  My guess is that the support for defined benefit plans comes mainly from union leadership, since these plans give
them control of huge amounts of funds and thereby gives them extra
power (see Teamsters for the classic example, or more recently, the situation at Calpers).  I wrote more on this topic here.

The issues here are surprisingly similar to the Social Security debate, as discussed here.  Would you rather have the money in your own account, despite the fact you will then have to bear market risks, or would you rather the money remain in the hands of your company or your Congress.  In entirely parallel situations, money entrusted to UAL management and to Social Security has all been spent, with nothing now left to pay retirees. 

Update:  It just occured to me to ask - why don't frequent flyer mile holders ever have to take a haircut in an airline bankruptcy?  We frequent flyers are creditors too, holding a claim on the company in the form of our miles.  In fact, I would think my claim as a holder of miles is much much worse than other creditors.  For example, why should employees have their pensions cut before I get my miles account cut?  Heck, employees seem to have a much better claim than I do, especially since many of my miles were earned, like everyone else's, as marginally ethical kickbacks directly to me for influencing my employer's spending on air travel.  Despite this, it appears that pensions will be cut, and salaries will be cut, and bondholders will lose value, and stockholders will be diluted, but my miles will all still be good.

Update #2: Assymetrical information has a nice post along the same lines, pointing out an issue with corporate defined benefit pensions that I forgot to mention:  If you are 20 years old with a company, are you really willing to make a bet that your company will even exist in 60 years to pay off your pension?  Not to mention the portability issues, since few people remain with the same company to retirement.  I think I actually have a couple of defined benefit pension plans I am vested in from early in my career - one from Exxon, when I was about to quit to go back to school and was offered, due to poorly structured plan rules, the chance at early retirement instead.  I think I qualify for like $1.23 a month for life from that plan.

More also from Will Collier:

I don't mean to tread on Martini Boy's turf here, but the pensions
crisis among all of these old-line companies illustrates a great no-no
of long-term investing: lack of diversification. In the end, even
though they presumably didn't have much choice in the matter, all those
UAL employees who've been promised a defined-benefit pension are in the
same boat as the Enron and WorldCom employees who voluntarily put all
of their 401(k) money in their own company's stock. They bet the house
on one horse, and by they time old age caught up with the grizzled nag,
there was barely enough left of it to cart off to the glue factory

Kevin Drum also points out that these defined-benefit funds are easy to manipulate, since managers can play with the "expected returns" variable to change the necesary annual contribution. 

Why do So Many Libertarians Blog?

A few weeks ago, in an interview about blogging, I was asked "why are there so many libertarian bloggers?"  My answer didn't make the final cut for the article, but I thought it was worth repeating here**:

First, I am tempted to answer with a variation of the argument that the left uses to justify why so many academics
are liberal "“ ie, that we bloggers are all smarter and therefore libertarians.  I will eschew that one though, because I think the real reason is that libertarians have never had a really good outlet for our opinions and it is a relief to have a channel to be able to express our views without distortion. 

Part of this is because there are few good organized outlets for libertarians.  In the past, libertarians could perhaps find a voice in one of the two major parties, but that tends to just end in frustration as about the 50% of what either party espouses is inconsistent with a true respect for individual liberties.  At the same time, the formal libertarian party has often been a joke, fielding some pretty bizarre candidates with some pretty niche priorities.

However, a major part of the problem is that libertarianism resists organization.  Libertarianism tends to be a big tent that attracts everything from anarcho-capitalists to Cheech-and-chong-esque hempfest organizers to Larry-Flint style pornographers.  For this reason, libertarianism defies efforts to brand it, which is a critical shortcoming since the two major political parties nowadays are much closer to brands than ideologically consistent philosophical alternatives. 

Libertarians revel in differences and being different.  Almost by definition, none of us have the same message, or even believe that we all should have the same message. Many of us are suspicious of top-down organization in and of itself.  Blogging is therefore tailor made for us "“ many diverse bottom-up messages rather than one official top-down one.

Finally, since libertarianism is really about celebrating dynamism and going in a thousand different directions as each individual chooses, in some sense the Internet and blogging are not only useful tools for us libertarians, but in and of themselves are inherently libertarian vehicles.  Certainly libertarian hero F. A. Hayek would recognize the chaos of the Internet and the blogosphere immediately.  For a good libertarian, chaos is beautiful, and certainly the blogosphere qualifies as chaotic.   The Internet today is perhaps the single most libertarian institution on the planet.  It is utterly without heirarchy, being essentially just one layer deep and a billion URL's wide.  Even those who try to impose order, such as Google, do so with no mandate beyond their utility to individual users.

When people are uncomfortable with the blog phenomenon, they tend to be the same people who are
uncomfortable with anything chaotic.  I have written several times, particularly here and here, that people across the political spectrum, from left to right, are united by an innate fear of and need to control chaos.  Conservatives don't like the chaos of themes and messages found in movies and media.  Liberals insist on a unified public education system with unified messaging rather than the chaos of school choice and home schooling.  Socialists hate the chaos and uncertainty of the job market, and long for guaranteed jobs and pensions.  Technocrats hate the chaos of the market, and seek to impose standardization.  Everyone in the established media hates blogs, which threaten to upset the comfortable order of how-we-have-always-done-things.

** Which just demonstrates another reason why we all blog- no editors!  There is a saying that a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client.  It may well be that we bloggers are in the process of proving a parallel adage about being our own editors.


Beyond Red and Blue

Steven Malanga has a fascinating analysis of electoral politics in big cities (via reason):

The electoral activism of this New New Left coalition--public-employee unions, hospitals and health-care worker unions, and social-services agencies--has reshaped the politics of many cities. As the country's national political scene has edged rightward, thwarting their ambitions in Washington, these groups have turned their attention to urban America, where they still have the power to influence public policy.

In New York, this public employee coalition makes up a third of the work force and an even larger portion of the voters in the last election. 

An exit poll conducted by City Journal of the 2001 New York mayoral election found that private-sector workers heavily backed Michael Bloomberg, the businessman candidate who had been endorsed by Rudy Giuliani and had run on a pledge of no new taxes (which he broke after his first year in office), while those who worked in the public/health-care/social-services sectors favored his Democratic opponent, who ran on a promise of raising taxes to fund further services. In the race, Bloomberg won among private-sector voters by 17 percentage points, while the Democrat won by 15 points among those who worked in the public/nonprofit sectors

Read it all.

Several months ago in this post, I pointed out that the income tax system has become so "progressive" that:

Half of the people in this country pay more than 100% of the personal income taxes. The other half get, as a group, a free ride (though there are individuals in this group that pay paxes, net, as a group, they do not). We are basically at the point in this country where 51% of voters could vote themselves all kinds of new programs and benefits knowing that the other 49% have to pay for them.

Malanga's article points out the other side of the coin.  We are also increasingly approaching the point where, at last in certain urban centers, half the workers can vote themselves government jobs (and pay raises, pensions, etc) at the expense of the other part of the population.

Messed Up Pensions

Recently, the government announced that it would take over the United Airlines pilots pensions in the government-funded Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.  This move is irritating pilots, because their pensions get reduced, and it is annoying to me as a taxpayer, that I have to bail out a company that was too screwed-up to fully fund its pension obligations. 

This points up the biggest danger of government guarantees -- it causes companies to be more reckless.  Back in the 80's, banks and S&L's made insanely risky investments with bank deposits.  The people who should have been most interested in this problem - bank depositors - ignored it because they felt safe that the government had guaranteed their deposits.  In the same way, airlines and other ailing businesses with defined benefit pensions cut back on pension funding when times were bad, and the very group that should have been crying foul - the company unions - did not, because they again counted on a bail-out.

I put the blame squarely on the company's management, who made a commitment to employees and then failed to keep it, and now are using government pension gaurantees as a subsidy to close their cash flow gap.  However, it is interesting to look at the role of unions too.  For decades, unions have demanded defined benefit pensions (ones that promise a fixed amount per month at retirement) and have opposed defined-contribution pensions (ones where the company promised to contribute a fixed amount today into an investment fund).  I assume the main reason for this is that unions do not want workers to bear the market risks on investments.

Over time, though, defined benefit plans have, despite this opposition, gone the way of the dinosaur (at least in private companies - most government jobs still have them).  This is for a number of reasons:

  • 401-K accounts now offer much of the same tax-deferral benefits for defined contribution programs that defined-benefit plans had
  • Defined-benefit plans turn out to have market risk too.  One is inflation - benefits levels may be guaranteed, but unexpectedly high inflation can effectively reduce them, while defined contribution plans, if invested correctly, will likely produce returns to offset these inflation losses.  In addition, during go-go stock markets, holders of defined-benefit plans found out that they did not enjoy the benefits of higher investment returns - their employers pocketed them (by the way, may Americans are discovering the same about their Social Security benefits).
  • As employees move around more, workers have found that defined benefit plans are not very portable, and tend to punish workers who do not stay for decades.  401-K plans are much more beneficial to workers who do not stay their whole career, or at least 20 years, in one place.
  • As United pilots have found, defined benefit pension plans are hard to police by current employees- there are just too many variables that allow companies to argue that the pensions are OK.  On the other hand, defined contribution plans are very easy to police- one can check the amount of contribution each month against the amount promised.
  • Finally, defined benefit plans rely on their company staying in business and fiscally sound for decades into the future.  This may have seemed a good bet at US Steel or United Airlines in 1950, but would anyone make that bet today?  For any company?