IMHO: Promises Premises

February 23, 2010 ( - It was hard not to be struck this past week by that Pew Center on the States report titled “The Trillion Dollar Gap.”

That title was a reference to the apparent chasm between the potential obligations of the assorted pension and retiree health-care programs of the 50 states, and the money set aside to pay for them (see “States Face $1 Trillion Retirement Benefits Funding Gap).  In some respects, the portrayal was better than it might have been: For one thing, the analysis was based on plan year-ends that predated the Q4 2008 meltdown, and it focused only on state programs, rather than the assortment of local government programs.      

On the other hand, it suffered—as many of these reviews do—from a lack of context.  It combined the obligations represented by retiree health and pensions—and, while both surely are financial obligations, they are driven by different factors.  More importantly, most of the public sector has, until very recently, treated retiree-health obligations as a pay-as-you-go obligation—just as the corporate sector did until the mid-1990s, when accounting rule changes mandated a different approach (and one that, in short order, pretty much eviscerated the notion of retiree health-care coverage in that sector, certainly on a prospective basis).  Thus, while the obligations presented are real, it’s hard to escape a certain “gotcha” sense in a report that presents a crisis so soon after the accounting rules have shifted so dramatically1.   

“Bad” Timing

The news couldn’t come at a worse time for public pension programs.  In recent months we’ve been treated to a series of stories of well-heeled attorneys and politicians effectively “scamming” the system by exchanging a modest amount of service for huge pension payoffs, as well as the publication of $100,000 Pension Club lists in California (with searchable capabilities, no less), alongside the intimations that insidiously titled “private placement agents” have been lining their pockets with ill-gotten gains from the public treasuries. 

This at a time when there is a growing perception that public-sector workers are paid “better”2, that the public sector accounts for most of the jobs “saved and/or created” by stimulus spending—oh, AND that “they” get the kind of pension and post-employment health-care coverage that most private-sector employers long ago eschewed.  These concerns in that context will certainly be exacerbated by the Pew study—which, lest we overlook the point, reminds us that “[u]ltimately, taxpayers could face higher taxes or cuts in essential public services.” 

Of course, reports of a “crisis” in underfunded pension plans is hardly an unusual occurrence—indeed, they are as regular as the market’s cycle itself (see “‘Over’ Blown).  Crooks, like Willie Sutton, are inexorably drawn to big piles of money—and promises that can be made today, but not fulfilled until later, are mother’s milk for the political class.  And, while the Pew report acknowledges that “many state officials grasp the depth of the funding challenges for their public sector retirement benefit systems and the need to respond,” it also cautions that “the pressure in an election year to channel money to competing priorities such as education may tempt lawmakers to neglect the problem.”        

Those are legitimate concerns, of course, but IMHO, what goads the public most about the current situation is a sense that these decisions are taking place with “our” money.  That said, at a time when it is clear (to me, anyway) that the nation could stand a good shot of fiscal prudence, and while all government expenditures seem fair game for review, it’s worth remembering the following about those public pensions to put those concerns in context:

  • The median annual (national) pension is less than $20,000.  There are abuses, but those are the exception, not the rule.  Most aren’t getting rich off these payments.
  • Most of the funding for those retirement benefits still comes from investment income, not contributions (from taxpayers).
  • To some extent—and, in some cases, to a great extent—the funding problems presented are the result of changes in accounting rules, not a sign of mismanagement.
  • Many public-sector workers contribute to those pension plans—putting their savings at risk, as well as their pensions, when the funds are mismanaged.
  • Many public-sector workers contribute to those public pension plans at rates—and sometimes mandated rates—that are well above the average 401(k) deferral rates in the private sector.


Taxpayers—and that certainly includes public-sector workers—clearly have a stake in the management of these programs and the financial obligations they entail.  And it should be said that, for the very most part, those responsible for the systems reviewed in the Pew study have been good stewards of what they’ve been given.  However, actions have consequences, and the impact of decisions delayed can compound over time.  All too often, politicians have intercepted/redirected funds that should have fulfilled those commitments to causes more exigent to their current political or financial realities. 

As the Pew study reminds us, we must continue to be cognizant of the costs of those obligations, but also attentive to the fulfillment of the funding commitments that underlie them. But more importantly, IMHO, we must be more mindful of the promises made—because they can become promises we have to keep.


1 Even on the pension side, while acknowledging that, in aggregate, the state systems were 84% funded (and, while that was before the worst of the market slide, it’s still an incredibly good number, IMHO—do YOU have 84% of the value of your mortgage sitting in your bank account?), the report’s authors couldn’t resist reminding us just how much money was represented by that remaining 16% (about $452 billion, in aggregate).

2 Care should be taken in drawing conclusions on pay levels since such “average” comparisons inevitably gloss over the realities of pay differences legitimately based on education, job title, and tenure.