Rolling Stone Covering Public Pensions

Miley Cyrus gets nude in the current issue of Rolling Stone which also includes an article by Matt Taibbi:

Looting the Pension Funds All across America,
Wall Street is grabbing money meant for public workers

I bought the magazine and read the Taibbi story but now I’m considering reading about Miley Cyrus’ drug use since there’s a better chance it contains more useful information on public pensions than Taibbi’s hit-piece.

Yes public pensions have been looted but to blame Wall Street hedge fund honchos exclusively is to give a pass to the real pirates.  If anything, Wall Street would be happy to see government employees get richer pensions since that would theoretically mean more money for them to invest and get fees from.

The problem with defined benefit plans in the public sector is that, without any funding rules, actuaries get hired to provide the lowest possible contribution amounts for the highest possible benefit levels so as to appease both taxpayers and public workers.  When investments do not return 8% and all the pension padding and spiking games play out exposing the inadequacy of the assets set aside to pay for those pension promises then partial default is inevitable.

The reasons alternative investments are attractive for public plans are that their nominal rates of return are massive and their market values are subject to manipulation thus allowing public plans to maintain the fiction of 8% investment returns for a while longer.

28 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Anonymous on September 27, 2013 at 3:41 pm

    A huge part of the problem is that people know more about Miley Cyrus than they do about the seriousness of the impending pension train wreck and how we got there. Sort of funny that the two articles will be in Rolling Stone. Maybe Miley can chip in a few bucks for those poor publics!


  2. Posted by Allen Green on October 1, 2013 at 4:00 pm

    “…actuaries get hired to provide the lowest possible contribution amounts for the highest possible benefit levels so as to appease both taxpayers and public workers.”

    As an actuary for the past 37 years, I totally agree with this. Hopefully new GASB rules will force public plans into a more realistic disclosure of their pension liabilities, using lower projected rates of return, which will then lower their bond ratings and make borrowing more costly. Let it all come home to roost.


    • Posted by Tough Love on October 1, 2013 at 4:41 pm

      The full context of your quote (from John) was this … “The problem with defined benefit plans in the public sector is that, without any funding rules, actuaries get hired to provide the lowest possible contribution amounts for the highest possible benefit levels so as to appease both taxpayers and public workers.”

      While not inaccurate, it misses the pre-cursor. What John should have said is:

      “The PRIMARY problem with defined benefit plans in the public sector is that, without any LEGAL barriers to prevent it, our elected officials willingly approve pensions far greater than necessary, justifiable, sustainable, or even remotely comparable to what Private workers typically get, in exchange for Public Sector Union campaign contributions and election support.”

      It’s doing THAT (granting FAR too generous and therefore extremely costly pensions) in the first instance that creates the need for the actuaries to minimize funding.


      • Posted by Allen Green on October 1, 2013 at 7:45 pm

        TL, good points. However…you propose quite a can of worms creating “legal barriers” to pensions “greater then necessary” or that are not comparable to pensions in the private sector. Who will decide what is greater than necessary? And why should public pensions be comparable to private pensions? Who says? How about a law that says that private pensions should be comparable to public pensions?

        As I tried to point out earlier, the beginning of the solution to the public pension situation (although it will naturally take many years) is a much more realistic determination of the unfunded liabilities, and then reflecting that information in the rating system. At some point, the legislators will have to deal with the pensions or face insolvency due to the higher cost of borrowing money.


        • Posted by Tough Love on October 1, 2013 at 9:49 pm

          Allen, I have been advocating for pension reform for over 5 years. I’m quite familiar with pension plan funding and design and saw this financial mess coming years before that, as the most modest of Public Sector Plans equals the most generous of Private Sector plans (when factoring in the full unreduced early retirement ages, the COLAs, the under-priced early retirement factors, DROP Plans, the very liberal definitions of “pensionable compensation”, and of course the abusive end of career pay, and hence pension, “spiking”)

          Specifically, I advocate for equal “Total Compensation” (cash pay plus pensions plus benefits) in comparable Public/Private Sector occupations (or if not directly comparable, occupations with similar risks, skill sets, educational and knowledge requirements). While each side can produce “studies” that support their position, most reasonable people would agree that with the possible exception of a few high level professional occupations (e.g., doctors, lawyers, certain IT professionals, etc.) for which it may be higher in the Private Sector, “cash pay” in the 2 sectors is very close.

          That being the case, and with equal Public/Private Sector “Total Compensation” a reasonable and appropriate goal (in my opinion), there is no justification for ANY greater Public Sector Pensions & Benefits let alone the structure we have today. You would be hard pressed to find even a modest Public Sector DB Plan where the Taxpayer paid-for share of the promised pension is not at least 2x greater in value than that granted the comparable Private Sector worker retiring at the SAME age, with the SAME pay, and the SAME years of service. And that 2x is most often 3x-4x, and even 5x-6x for “safety” workers.

          Of course we should properly value Plan liabilities (as well as not using inflated values for illiquid assets). But doing so would materially raise Taxpayer contributions, and that’s the problem I’m getting at. Funding FOLLOWS generosity, and the ROOT CAUSE of the problem we’re having (the great difficulty in fully funding the current promises) is too much generosity.

          At a minimum, future Service accruals for ALL Public Sector workers should be reduced by 50%, and even doing so just stops digging the hole we are in even deeper, leaving the unfunded liabilities for past service accrual still to be reckoned with.


  3. Posted by Anonymous on October 1, 2013 at 6:19 pm

    TL, do you have a life that exists outside of this blog?


  4. Posted by MJ on October 1, 2013 at 8:21 pm

    I actually read the article, it went on forever. Thought it brought up some good points all around. To Allen G. there is no doubt that the public pensions are overly generous and ridiculously out of touch with reality. Anyone who can retire at age 55 with most of their salary, life time health benefits, outrageous payouts for unused sick and unused vacation time, working shorter hours, more paid holidays, job security with no chance of being laid off………….yes, very very overly generous and for no reason. Publics making more in retirement than when they actually worked and getting paid out for longer periods of time (living well into their 80s and 90s) any bright 8th grader can figure out this math problem. Its not even an actuarial issue, its a common sense issue. Public pensions need to be reduced for current and future publics. How that will happen is anyones guess.


    • Posted by Allen Green on October 1, 2013 at 8:38 pm

      MJ: I bet it would not be “ridiculously out of touch with reality” if you were the one getting such benefits. Of course it results in the underfunded problem. But the issue of whether pensions and other benefits are too high remains totally subjective, and everyone reading this would “draw the line” at a different level. I’m not defending the public pension system and their faulty assumptions; I have always worked in the private sector. But even worse than the current public pension mess would be living in a society where someone dictates to everyone else the “correct” level of pensions, salaries, and other benefits.


      • Posted by Tough Love on October 1, 2013 at 10:05 pm

        Allen, A long time back I posted a long comment comparing a California Police officer’s retirement package to that of a Private Sector worker (one of the few) lucky enough to still have the old-style “traditional” DB Pension. I pasted it just below. Please critique it and tell me that such pensions are not “ridiculously out of touch with reality” .
        Even if you take (the now rare) Private sector worker who still has the old style (ala what Civil Servants have) Defined Benefit Pension, the “formula benefits” NEVER EVER approaches the Richness of what Police & Fireman get. The REAL costs are well hidden in the “details” as I will demonstrate ……..

        A 30 year Private career worker just “might” get a pension annuity of 40-50% of base pay, with NO Post-retirement COLAs, and, if they retire at 55 (vs the more standard 60-65), a 25% “actuarial reduction” in benefits for starting to collect at this earlier age. Also, overtime is NEVER included in pensionable salary in the Private Sector.

        So lets work up a comparison for a California Policeman or Fireman (with base salary of $100,000, $50,000 of overtime, 30 years on the job and now retiring at age 55, with a 3%x30 years = 90% of final pay pension), vs the Private Sector worker.

        The Private sector worker gets a life annuity (with NO COLAs) of (we’ll use the higher 50% figure) 50% of $100,000 = $50,000 reduced to .75x$50,000 = $37,500 due to actuarial reduction associated with payment beginning at age 55. Using an actuarial table of Life Annuity factors, the Present Value (think of this as the up front money it would take to buy this payout annuity from an insurance company) is approximately $37,500 X 14.24 =$534,000. That’s it, there is nothing else.

        The Policeman/Fireman get a life annuity (WITH COLA, the incremental cost of which we will address later) of 90% of ($100,000+$50,000 overtime) = $135,000 annually. With NO post-retirement COLAs, a similar calculation for the Policeman/ Fireman yields (noting that there is no reduction for payment beginning at age 55) $135,000 x 14.24 = $1,922,400.

        So, so far (were aren’t done yet) the “Cost” of the Civil Servant’s pension is $1,922,400 vs $534,000 for the Private sector worker MAKING THE SAME PAY.

        Now lets address the value of the COLA. The mathematics is quite complicated, but a life annuity of $135,000 to a 55 year old WITH post-retirement COLAs (with an assumed inflation adjustment of 3% per year) is roughly equal to a NON-CLOA life annuity of $169,800. Therefore, on a apples-to-apples comparison with the Private Sector worker (whose pension is NOT inflation adjusted via a COLA) the upfront cost of the Policeman/Fireman’s pension is $169,800 x 14.24 = $2,427,952 (since the 14.24 Life Annuity factor is applicable to a non-COLA-adjusted pension payout)

        We aren’t done yet …… since we haven’t considered the ENORMOUS cost of (free or VERY heavily subsidized) RETIREE healthcare afforded to the Policeman/Fireman, but RARELY the Private Sector worker. This cost for someone age 55 (10 years before being eligible for Medicare) is truly HUGH. Rough estimates (with 8-10% inflation in medical costs) for Family coverage typically put this cost at approximately $500,000 (more if subsidized coverage continues post-Medicare age).

        So far we have (for the SAME PAY)…..

        COST of the Private Workers Retirement benefits = $534,000

        Cost of the Policeman/Fireman’s Retirement benefits = $2,427,952 + $500,000 = $2,927,952.

        In fairness, Policeman/Fireman contribute a percentage of pay toward their pension (but not retiree healthcare). I could work up an estimate based on assumed year-by-year pay over a career, but for brevity (and since I’m tired of writing), lets assume the accumulated value of these contributions at retirement is $500,000.

        We are STILL left with a TAXPAYER FUNDED $2,927,952-$500,000 = $2,427,952 “cost” for the Public Servant vs a $534,000 EMPLOYER FUNDED “cost” for the Private Sector worker …… BOTH with the SAME PAY.

        Another way to look at this is that TAXPAYER’S are FORCED to pay $2,427,952/$534,000 = 4.55 TIMES as much as the typical Private Sector employer is willing to pay in retirement benefits……… or alternatively …… TAXPAYERS are FORCED (via their TAXES) to provide a pension to Policeman/Fireman EQUAL IN VALUE (i.e., “cost”) to a Private Sector worker making 4.55 TIMES as much pay.

        Isn’t it time for a change ?


        • Posted by Anonymous on October 2, 2013 at 9:48 am

          Thank you TL. Keep putting it out there in this simple to understand format so that more of us out there start to come to grips with what we are paying these shameless publics. Nobody but nobody is worth those kind of payouts!


        • Posted by Tough Love on October 2, 2013 at 1:16 pm

          Follow-up ……

          For those who think the above workup can’t be accurate and that these Public Sector pensions can’t be THAT rich, take a look at the following article published just yesterday:

          Taker a good look at the line “Pension contribution” and think about what YOU (if a Private Sector worker) typically gets toward your retirement ….. the 6.4% of pay employer contribution to SS on your behalf, plus 3-5% of pay into a 401K plan.

          So what do you think? Are these workers “overcompensated” (in total pay, pensions, and benefits) ?


          • Posted by Allen Green on October 2, 2013 at 1:41 pm

            Are professional atheletes overcompensated? Movie stars? Wall Street banksters? We’re all free to go work for the government. I could have had a career with CalPers (or on Wall Street). I chose not to. I may not like the way we have all (yes, all of us) become so greedy. But that does not mean I begrudge someone who is better at gaming the system than me. They did not create the game. I will also feel no sympathy for them if and when the games ends and they find their pensions reduced or eliminated.

          • Posted by Tough Love on October 2, 2013 at 2:20 pm

            Allen, Do you really believe that we should address compensation of Public Sector workers (perhaps 15% of the entire American workforce) by giving consideration to extreme outliers, be they famous athletes, movie stars, or the CEO’s of America’s most successful corporations? On the other side of that spectrum we could say that the “risk” of safety workers should be completely ignored because (per the US Gov’t BLS) neither Police nor Firefighters are in on the list of the ten most dangerous occupations where typical compensation is routinely below half that of Safety workers. I not saying that either.

            By the way, I too do not begrudge the workers (and at least to some extent their Unions) for seeking high pay and benefits. It was our elected officials who had to agree to these grossly excessive (and therefore extremely costy) pension & benefits for this financial mess to happen. However, the collusion between the 2 groups (the Unions and our elected officials), specifically the trading of campaign contributions and election support for favorable votes on pay, pensions and benefits that led us to where we are today. Clearly self-interest motivated BOTH groups and the Taxpayer had ZERO representation at these “bargaining tables”.

            Both sides should have stepped back and given serious thought to the long-term impact of binding a 3-rd party (the Taxpayers) to pay for excessive compensation to others (Public Sector workers) when they get so much less. Raising taxes, cutting services, and hiding the true costs and deferring them to future years, has limitations. Many cities have reached that point and bad outcomes are sure to follow.

            And too will find no sympathy for them if and when the games ends and they find their pensions reduced …. to a pension with a “value” (factoring in both the rich formulas as well as the very costly “provisions”) no greater than what the average comparably paid Private Sector workers gets in retirement benefits. For most, that would be a 50-75% pension reduction

        • Posted by SDouglas47 on January 4, 2014 at 7:42 pm

          Let me do my own math.

          When you give the peace officer example, some people are left with the impression that these salaries and pensions are typical.

          Of over 250,000 California state employees, fewer than 7,000 are CHP officers. Their average pay in 2012 was $87,000, median pay $94,000.

          Yes, they do have a more generous pension than most state employees, but OT is NOT calculated for their pensions. Only base pay.
          For MY example, I will use the workers that everyone “loves to hate”: CalTRANS and DMV.

          Lest you drive down lifes highway (literally) and see those CalTRANS workers slowing you down and you remember ToughLove on that blog (or the infamous glib Rush Limbaugh) You MIGHT think these people retire at 50 with $100,000 a year. It’s typical, right? And those slow azz clerks at DMV who are slowing you down (make an appointment next time, it always works for me.) $100,000 pensions?


          Now we’re talking about over 30,000 state workers.
          Average pay for these folks is $33,000 to $45,000 per year. ( )
          Let’s be generous and pay them $4,000 a month for simplicity.

          A CalTRANS worker makes $4,000 per month.
          The state contributes an additional $400 to the pension fund, for a “total compensation” of $4,400 per month.
          An additional $400 is withheld from the employees check for retirement contribution.

          An equivalent private sector worker earns $4,200 per month plus $200 in matching funds (roughly 5%). For a “total compensation” of $4,400. Just like the CalTRANS worker.
          The private sector worker has $200 withheld from his cash pay to fund his 401(k).

          Disregarding inflation, over 30 years, the Caltrans worker has earned $1,296,000 in “take home pay”.

          The private sector worker, $1,440,000. That is 10% MORE lifetime cash pay.
          And he and his employer have contributed $144,000 total to his 401(k).

          The CalTRANS worker and his employer have contributed a combined $288,000.

          I wonder which one will get “TWICE as much” in retirement?
          This is an example of “roughly equal” TOTAL compensation.

          ToughLove continuously repeats that public and private sector earn the same “cash pay”, but most studies say that public sector workers earn less for EQUIVALENT positions.

          In a Heritage Foundation paper, Biggs and Richwine state:
          “Compared to private
          workers, state and local workers tend to earn less
          in wages, but more in benefits. The net impact on
          overall pay is controversial.

          The Center for State and Local Government
          Excellence, the Center for Economic and Policy
          Research, the Economic Policy Institute, and
          the Center on Wage and Employment Dynamics
          (CWED) have all released similar studies arguing
          that the compensation that state and local workers
          receive is less than or equal to that of comparable
          private workers.”

          Specifically, they say:
          “After controlling for observable skills and a detailed list of personal charastics, state workers in California earn about 10.2% less in wages than private-sector workers.”

          To be fair, the Heritage Foundation claims that when the value of healthcare and pensions are “properly accounted for”, state workers earn more. I can agree to disagree on the magnitude of this difference. To see the paper, go to :

          These examples I give because they are the people I worked with. With 30 years service, they will retire with $3,000 a month, tops. Not $100,000 a year.

          And they will probably retire at age 65, give or take a year, NOT 50 or 55.


      • Posted by Anonymous on October 2, 2013 at 8:59 am


        There is nothing subjective about determining what is a fair and equitable salary for various occupations. Its called the free market and laws of economics, supply and demand, etc. In the private sector that’s what salary, vacation time, health benefits and other compensation in based on for most employees working in similar type public jobs. The problem with the public sector is that it is artificially inflated where employees are compensated based on out of date, unrealistic promises, and refusal to accept that there is a new economy with a very shaky outlook. For example, when you receive your real estate tax bill or school district budget, note how much is spent on employees and compensation. Mine is about 78% and counting. Way, way too much spent on employees. A private company would be out of business. Nothing subjective about it. It is typical for a school district to receive over 300 applications for one open FT teaching position—in the real world, that means one is paying way way too much for the available labor… Nothing subjective about it. To answer your question, I would still be advocating for change for overly paid publics to better reflect the reality of the economy today just as I advocate for those who have to foot the bill. There is nothing subjective about publics taking cuts in overly generous pay, benefits, pensions etc. to reflect what is going on all around them. The bubble has burst and it is time for major change and reform.


  5. Posted by MJ on October 2, 2013 at 8:26 pm

    Allen, Yes i think that professional athletes, movie stars and CEOs are over compensated but to compare to public workers is again ridiculous; the main reason being that these are private entities fueled by private money that the celebrity actually earns. If the celebrity does not produce they are out on the street. If one chooses to purchase CDs, concert tickets, movie tickets etc. that is again private sector money. CEOs may be a different story but if you think Apple or Berkshire Hathaway all are successful due to the personal risk that they took to get where they are today. Publics have not taken any personal risk they simply suck off of the success of others, namely the private sector taxpayers and expect more and more and more no matter what the conditions of the economy or real world state of affairs. I do not begrudge anyone anything if it is earned fair and square. There is nothing special about any public employee. In fact, the brainier, harder working and entrepreneurial individuals are in the private sector. To compare publics to celebrities is nonsense as celebrities will earn only what the market will bear. After that, there are thousands of wanna be to fill in just as there are thousands of unemployed who would do a better job and be more than happy to contribute more to benefits and retirement. Way too many publics doing way too little for way too much.


    • Posted by Allen Green on October 2, 2013 at 9:29 pm

      MJ, you missed my point. I was saying that if anyone feels superior enough to judge whether gov’t workers are making too much money, or getting too many benefits, they can then move on to all people and all professions. And if they have any time left over, they can rule on the appropriate size of everyone’s house. I am not such a judge, and would never want to be; but it sounds like some others feel differently. And, BTW, going back to the discussion of subjectivity, who decides what is “fair and square?” You? Or is there an objective standard of fair and square, that everyone agrees on? If not, then it’s just your opinion, and your standard, and that’s what subjective is.


      • Posted by Tough Love on October 2, 2013 at 11:20 pm

        Allen, Do you feel it unreasonable to believe (as I do) that “Total Compensation” (cash pay plus pensions plus benefits) in comparable Public and Private Sector occupation should be quite close? If not, why not ?


        • Posted by Allen Green on October 2, 2013 at 11:56 pm

          I do feel it is unreasonable because of the type of society we would have to become to make it work. (Of course, and I know this can quickly get way off topic, it can be argued, probably correctly, that we are moving in this direction anyway.) IMO, the solution (i.e. greater equality in pay/benefits) could very well be worse than the problem.


          • Posted by Tough Love on October 3, 2013 at 12:14 am

            Cretainly we can agree to disagree.

            But just curious, what is the % split of your practice in doing work for Public vs Private Sector pension Plans?

  6. Posted by Allen Green on October 3, 2013 at 12:23 am

    100% private.


    • Posted by Tough Love on October 3, 2013 at 1:42 am

      Thank you.

      I can understand why succeeding at getting materially above-norm wages & benefits by being a better or more skilled “negotiator” is not necessarily a bad thing (some might even say it’s part of the American way), but it certainly is a bad thing when, in the Public Sector arena, it is most often accomplished not by greater negotiating skills, but by buying-off the other side (via campaign contributions and election support). Comparable actions in Private Sector compensation negotiation would almost certainly be criminally prosecutable offenses.

      Do you not believe that such underhand collusion is at work, or is it that it just doesn’t bother you ?


      • Posted by Allen Green on October 3, 2013 at 12:14 pm

        Yes, there is collusion, as you say. (BTW, let’s not forget one more “co-conspirator” back at the negotiating table: the consulting actuary brought in to cost out the proposed benefit improvements.) But where is there not collusion? What about the collusion between Wall Street and the Federal Reserve to get all that bail out money? Or the collusion between the FDA and the pharmaceutical industry to get quick approval on untested drugs? Is there any more collusion in the the public sector than non-public? I doubt it. Am I bothered? There’s a point where it’s just not worth it to be bothered anymore, given how universal it really is. In the case of public pensions that we have been discussing, I have full confidence that it will work out in the end, along with the entire debt issue facing all the thousands of cities, counties and states. But, for sure, it will not be a pretty picture.


        • Posted by Tough Love on October 3, 2013 at 7:24 pm

          Quoting ..”There’s a point where it’s just not worth it to be bothered anymore, given how universal it really is. ”

          So you give up and accept his abuse? That’s just what the Public Sector Unions/workers want.

          Well I won’t, and will continue to strongly advocate for necessary and eminently just material* pension reform for CURRENT (not just new) workers.

          * a minimum 50% reduction in the pension accrual rate for the future service of ALL current workers. Such reductions are both legal and routine in Private Sector Pension Plans. What makes Public Sector workers so “special’ that they deserve (while getting equal cash pay), MUCH greater pensions, MUCH better benefits, and MUCH greater protections from change.


          And quoting …”In the case of public pensions that we have been discussing, I have full confidence that it will work out in the end, along with the entire debt issue facing all the thousands of cities, counties and states.”

          Do you mean full payment of the promised pensions without major tax increases or significant additional service cuts? How ?


          • Posted by Allen Green on October 3, 2013 at 7:51 pm

            No. I mean a combination of municipal bankrupcies, loss of jobs, and loss of benefits. (Referring here to public jobs and benefits)

            Good luck with your advocacy.

          • Posted by Tough Love on October 3, 2013 at 8:05 pm

            Allen, My advocacy (along with that of many others and the “pick-up” from the media) will hopefully one day wake up Taxpayers to stop electing (and re-electing) politicians who financially betray them.

            Nobody said this is an easy battle, but you have to have hope we can constructive change things for the better (for the masses, not just Public Sector workers).

  7. Posted by Anonymous on October 3, 2013 at 10:43 am

    Allen, anything that comes out of my hard work in the form of taxes should be ngeotiated in favor of the ones footing the bill (the private sector taxpayers) While I do not believe myself to be judgemental, as one who has been in the private sector financial and business area, the employees can’t be making more than the employer. As I stated before, public employees are not worth more than anyone else with similar skills, experience, education, etc. We need only look around at Detroit, CA, PA, RI to see what happens as the result of reckless, irresponsible and frivolous use of our hard earned taxpayer dollars. And please spare me the BS of publics pay taxes too—what their overly generous salaries, pensions and benefits far outweigh what is paid in taxes.


    • Posted by Tough Love on October 3, 2013 at 8:01 pm

      There are no groups that I am aware of that openly ADVOCATE for tax increases other than Public Sector workers (and perhaps the very poor who like a hefty plate of free service w/o paying any taxes), and the do so because they know that while THEY (as a group) will contribute perhaps 20% of the total increase, they will likely get 90% of the total increment from everybody, with most going to support their absurdly generous pensions and benefits.

      Who wouldn’t want to pay $1 in additional taxes to get $5 back ?


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