Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Michael Lewis and California's Budget Crisis

The reason states are having so many budget problems stems from their pension obligations which are coming due as more and more workers retire. The so called "cuts" we all hear about don't apply to pensions and generally apply only to newer, younger government workers even as a growing portion of state and local budgets are being allocated to pension obligations. Michael Lewis wrote a piece on this regarding California in Vanity Fair which is below. I suggest everyone read the article as it shows clearly how government workers have used the system to enrich themselves.


From 2002 to 2008, the states had piled up debts right alongside their citizens’: their level of indebtedness, as a group, had almost doubled, and state spending had grown by two-thirds. In that time they had also systematically underfunded their pension plans and other future liabilities by a total of nearly $1.5 trillion.

In 2010, for instance, the state spent $6 billion on fewer than 30,000 guards and other prison-system employees. A prison guard who started his career at the age of 45 could retire after five years with a pension that very nearly equaled his former salary. The head parole psychiatrist for the California prison system was the state’s highest-paid public employee; in 2010 he’d made $838,706. The same fiscal year that the state spent $6 billion on prisons, it had invested just $4.7 billion in its higher education—that is, 33 campuses with 670,000 students. Over the past 30 years the state’s share of the budget for the University of California has fallen from 30 percent to 11 percent, and it is about to fall a lot more. In 1980 a Cal student paid $776 a year in tuition; in 2011 he pays $13,218. Everywhere you turn, the long-term future of the state is being sacrificed.

Below, Lewis continues with an interview with the mayor of San Jose whose problems are a microcosm of what local governments are facing.

He hands me a chart. It shows that the city’s pension costs when he first became interested in the subject were projected to run $73 million a year. This year they would be $245 million: pension and health-care costs of retired workers now are more than half the budget. In three years’ time pension costs alone would come to $400 million, though “if you were to adjust for real life expectancy it is more like $650 million.” Legally obliged to meet these costs, the city can respond only by cutting elsewhere. As a result, San Jose, once run by 7,450 city workers, was now being run by 5,400 city workers. The city was back to staffing levels of 1988, when it had a quarter of a million fewer residents. The remaining workers had taken a 10 percent pay cut; yet even that was not enough to offset the increase in the city’s pension liability. The city had closed its libraries three days a week. It had cut back servicing its parks. It had refrained from opening a brand-new community center, built before the housing bust, because it couldn’t pay to staff the place. For the first time in history it had laid off police officers and firefighters.

By 2014, Reed had calculated, a city of a million people, the 10th-largest city in the United States, would be serviced by 1,600 public workers. “There is no way to run a city with that level of staffing,” he said. “You start to ask: What is a city? Why do we bother to live together? But that’s just the start.” The problem was going to grow worse until, as he put it, “you get to one.” A single employee to service the entire city, presumably with a focus on paying pensions. “I don’t know how far out you have to go until you get to one,” said Reed, “but it isn’t all that far.” At that point, if not before, the city would be nothing more than a vehicle to pay the retirement costs of its former workers. The only clear solution was if former city workers up and died, soon. But former city workers were, blessedly, living longer than ever.

A lot of people are confused over why they are seemingly having to pay more than ever in combined taxes, yet are getting less and less in terms of services. It's time to wake up, there are special interests that are clearly using government to enrich themselves and they are not limited to corporations or banks. We are on a course for disaster.

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