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Posts Tagged ‘Pensions’

When I write about poorly designed entitlement programs, I will warn about America’s Greek future. Simply stated, we will suffer the same chaos and disarray now plaguing Greece if we don’t engage in serious reform.

Ideally sooner rather than later.

But when I write about state governments, perhaps it would be more appropriate to warn about a Brazilian future. That’s because many American states have made unaffordable and unfunded promises to give lavish benefits to retired bureaucrats, a topic that I’ve addressed on numerous occasions.

And why does that mean a Brazilian future? Because as Greece is already suffering the inevitable consequences of a bloated welfare state, Brazil is already suffering the inevitable consequences of a pension system that treats bureaucrats as a protected and cossetted class. Here are some excerpts from a sobering report in the Wall Street Journal.

Twenty years before Michel Temer became president of Brazil, he did something millions of his compatriots do, at great cost to the country’s coffers: He retired at age 55 and started collecting a generous pension. Delaying that moment until age 65 is at the center of Mr. Temer’s proposed economic overhaul. …making that happen is seen as a make-or-break test of whether the government can get its arms around mounting economic problems like rising debt, low investment and a stubborn recession now entering its third year. New pension rules are considered central to fixing an insolvent system.

It’s easy to understand why the system is bankrupt when you read the details.

…some retirees receive pensions before age 50 and surviving spouses can receive full pensions of the deceased while still drawing their own. The generosity of Brazil’s pension system is legendary—and, economists say, troubling as the country’s fertility rate plummets and life expectancy climbs. João Mansur, a long-time state legislator in Paraná state, served as interim governor there for 39 days in 1973, a stint that qualified him to retire with a $8,000 monthly pension. …Other former public workers who retire not only reap nearly the same income they got while on the job, but also see their checks get bumped up whenever those still working in the same job category get raises. …Retirement outlays will eat up 43% of the $422-billion national budget this year. …Demographics are playing against a generous system created in great part to bridge Brazil’s infamous social gap. Official statistics say there are 11 retirees for every 100 working-age Brazilians; that will rise to 44 per 100 by 2060.

Fixing this mess won’t be easy.

Brazil’s constitution must be amended to allow its pension system to be restructured… Mr. Temer has already been forced to make a series of major compromises, including exempting state and local government employees from the overhaul. …legislators have sought to further water down Mr. Temer’s proposals, by for instance maintaining the lower retirement ages for women and dragging out the transition from the old social-security regime to the new one.

In other words, Brazilian politicians are in the same position Greek politicians were in back in 2003. There’s a catastrophically bad fiscal forecast and the only issue is whether reforms will happen before a crisis actually begins. If you really want to be pessimistic, it’s even possible that Brazil has passed the tipping point of too much government dependency.

In any event, it appears that legislators prefer to kick the pension can down the road – even though that will make the problem harder to solve. Assuming they ever want to solve it.

Which is exactly what’s happening at the state level in America.

Consider these passages from a recent Bloomberg column.

Unfunded pension obligations have risen to $1.9 trillion from $292 billion since 2007. Credit rating firms have begun downgrading states and municipalities whose pensions risk overwhelming their budgets. New Jersey and the cities of Chicago, Houston and Dallas are some of the issuers in the crosshairs. …unlike their private peers, public pensions discount their liabilities using the rate of returns they assume their overall portfolio will generate. …Put differently, companies have been forced to set aside something closer to what it will really cost to service their obligations as opposed to the fantasy figures allowed among public pensions. …many cities and potentially states would buckle under the weight of more realistic assumed rates of return. By some estimates, unfunded liabilities would triple to upwards of $6 trillion if the prevailing yields on Treasuries were used.

But this looming disaster will not hit all states equally.

Here’s a map from the Tax Foundation which shows a tiny handful of states actually have funded their pensions (in other words, they may provide extravagant benefits, but at least they’ve set aside enough money to finance them). Most states, though, have big shortfalls.

The lighter the color, the bigger the financing gap.

To get a sense of the states that have a very good economic outlook, look for a combination of zero income taxes and small unfunded liabilities.

South Dakota (best tax system and negative pension liability!) gets the top marks, followed by Tennessee and Florida. Honorable mention for the state of Washington.

And is anyone surprised that Illinois is tied for last place? Or that Connecticut and New Jersey are near the bottom? Kentucky’s awful position, by contrast, is somewhat unexpected.

P.S. Brazil’s government may kick the can down the road on pension reform, but at least they added a spending cap to their constitution.

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America’s main long-run retirement challenge is our pay-as-you-go Social Security system, which was created back when everyone assumed we would always have a “population pyramid,” meaning relatively few retirees and lots of workers.

But as longevity has increased and fertility has decreased, the population pyramid increasingly looks like a cylinder. This helps to explain why the inflation-adjusted shortfall for Social Security is now about $37 trillion (and if you include the long-run shortfalls for Medicare and Medicaid, the outlook is even worse).

But Social Security is not the only government-created retirement problem. State and local governments have “defined benefit” pension systems for their bureaucrats, which means that their bureaucrats, when they retire (often at an early age), are entitled to receive monthly checks for the rest of their lives based on formulas devised by each state (based on factors such as years employed in the bureaucracy, pay levels, contributions, etc).

Unlike Social Security (which has a make-believe Trust Fund), these pension systems are supposed to be “funded” in the proper sense, which means that money supposedly is set aside and invested every year so that there will be a big nest egg that can be used to pay benefits to future retirees.

At least that’s how it’s supposed to work in theory. In reality, politicians like promising big retirement benefits to government bureaucrats, but they oftentimes aren’t willing to actually set aside the money needed to fund the nest egg. After all, it’s more fun to spend the money appeasing other interest groups (state and local bureaucrats don’t approve of underfunding, but their retirement benefits generally are seen as a contractual obligation, so they don’t have much incentive to lobby for honest accounting).

The net result is that every retirement system for state government workers is underfunded. How far in the red? That’s a hard question to answer because you have to make long-run assumptions about the investment earnings of the various pension funds.

But the answer is going to be a big number regardless of methodology. According to a new report from the American Legislative Exchange Council, the shortfall is enormous.

When state pension funds are examined through the lens of a more realistic valuation, pension funding gaps are revealed to be much larger than reported in official state financial documents. This report totals state-administered plans’ assets and liabilities and finds nationwide total unfunded liabilities to be $5.59 trillion. The nationwide funding level is a mere 35 percent, which is one percentage point lower than two years ago. Combined across all states, the price tag for unfunded pension liabilities is now $17,427 for every man, woman and child in the United States. …Taxpayers are on the hook for the legal obligation to cover the promised benefits of traditional, defined-benefit pension plans. …When unfunded pension liabilities are viewed as shared debt placed on each individual, Alaska, where each resident is on the hook for a staggering $42,950, tops the list. Ohio and Illinois follow for the highest per person unfunded pension liabilities.

Here’s a map from the report. It’s bad news if your state is dark blue. And if your state is gray, your burden is relatively low.

Though keep in mind that these numbers are not adjusted for state income.

Louisiana, Mississippi, and Kentucky get bad scores, but they probably are in even deeper trouble that lower-ranked states like California and New Jersey where per-capita income is higher (yes, the cost of living is lower in those southern states, but that doesn’t matter since the relevant comparison is per-capita income vs per-capita pension liabilities.

The ALEC report is more pessimistic than other estimates, but that’s because they use more cautious assumptions about the potential investment earnings of the various pension funds that manage money for state and local bureaucrats.

State Budget Solutions uses a more reasonable valuation to determine the unfunded liabilities of public pension plans. Given that many plans’ assumed rates of return are too high and invite risk, State Budget Solutions uses a more prudent rate of return, rather than the loftiest goals of money managers. This study uses a rate of return based on the equivalent of a hypothetical 15-year U.S. Treasury bond yield. …. State Budget Solutions is not alone in calling attention to the flawed accounting practices of state agencies. A recent study released by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, Pension Debt: United States Public Employee Pension Systems, also suggests that states use unrealistically high rates of return to discount their pension liabilities. The study found that pension debt totals $4.8 trillion, a finding similar to this report.

A new study from Pew isn’t nearly as pessimistic, but it still shows a huge gap.

The nation’s state-run retirement systems had a $934 billion gap in fiscal year 2014 between the pension benefits that governments have promised their workers and the funding available to meet those obligations. …This brief focuses on the most recent comprehensive data from all 50 states and does not reflect the impact of weaker investment performance in fiscal 2015, which averaged 3 percent. Performance has been even weaker in the first three quarters of fiscal 2016. …Total pension debt is expected to be over $1 trillion for state plans, an increase of more than 10 percent from fiscal 2014. When combined with the shortfalls in local pension systems, this estimate reaches more than $1.5 trillion for fiscal 2015 and will likely remain close to historically high levels as a percentage of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP).

Here’s a visual from the report showing how the fiscal outlook for state pension systems has deteriorated over the past 15-plus years.

Equally troubling, most states are heading in the wrong direction.

…this brief shows that 15 states currently follow policies that meet the positive amortization benchmark—exceeding 100 percent of needed funding—and can be expected to reduce pension debt in the near term. The remaining 35 states fell short; those performing the worst on this measure typically had the largest unfunded pension liabilities.

Here’s the chart from the study. As you can see, Kentucky, New Jersey, and Illinois are falling deeper in the red at the fastest rate.

Kudos to New York and West Virginia, by the way, for being the most aggressive in trying to address long-run problems.

Moody’s Investor Services also has a new report on pension shortfalls. Here are some of the highlights, or perhaps lowlights would be a more appropriate word.

Total US state aggregate adjusted net pension liabilities (ANPL) totaled $1.25 trillion, or 119% of revenue in fiscal 2015, Moody’s Investors Service says in a new report. The results, based on compliance with new GASB 68 accounting rules, set a new ANPL baseline and are poised to rise for the next two fiscal years as market returns fall below annual targets. “The median return for public pension plans in FY 2016 was 0.52% compared to an average assumed investment return of 7.5%,” Moody’s Vice President — Senior Credit Officer Marcia Van Wagner says. “We project that aggregate state ANPL will grow to $1.75 trillion in FY 2017 audits.” Moody’s new report also introduces a new “Tread Water” benchmark, which measures whether states’ annual contributions to their pensions are enough to keep the unfunded net liability from growing. …there were several states whose pension contributions were notably below the Tread Water mark, including Kentucky (Aa2 stable), New Jersey (A2 negative), Illinois (Baa2 negative), and Texas (Aaa stable). …The states with the highest pension burdens — measured as the largest three-year average ANPL as a percent of state governmental revenue — were consistent with previous years. Illinois topped the list with pension liabilities at 280% of total governmental revenue, followed by Connecticut (Aa3 negative) at 209%, Alaska (Aa2 negative) at 179%, Kentucky at 162%, and New Jersey at 157%.

Wow, it doesn’t matter what report you look at, or what methodology is being used, Illinois, New Jersey, and Kentucky are a big mess (Alaska’s numbers also are awful, but the state – within certain limits – can use energy tax revenues to cover much of its shortfall).

So what’s the solution to all this mess? As I noted a couple of months ago when sharing other grim numbers about state pension systems, the answer is to, 1) stop promising excessive benefits to bureaucrats (and stop giving them excessive pay as well), and 2) switch to “defined contribution” plans so that workers have their own piles of money and the underfunding problem automatically disappears.

P.S. I’ve already granted the “Politician of the Year Award” to the President of the Philippines, the Prime Minister of Malaysia, and the President of France, which probably means I should have a “Politician of the Month Club” instead. And if the Award is expanded, the politicians from the Solomon Islands obviously would be good candidates for the honor.

There was a public outcry in the Pacific island nation in May 2015, when a parliamentary commission voted to exempt MPs’ earnings from tax. …now the Court of Appeal – the Solomon Islands highest court – has said that MPs can benefit from tax-free salaries after all. It ruled that while the policy may be unpopular with the public, it’s still legal.

Living off taxpayers while paying no tax. Who do they think they are, IMF or OECD bureaucrats?

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Since the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame is getting crowded, I’ve decided we need a system to limit new entrants.

So today we’re doing an experiment. We’ll look at two separate stories about lazy and overpaid bureaucrats, and the comments section will determine which one actually is most deserving of joining the Hall of Fame.

Let’s start in Italy, where Alberto Muraglia stakes his claim to membership. Here are some excerpts from a story in the UK-based Times.

Video footage of a policeman clocking in for work in his underpants before allegedly heading back to his bed has become the symbol of an embarrassing absenteeism scandal among council employees in San Remo, on the Italian Riviera. Alberto Muraglia, a pot-bellied, 53-year-old officer, was secretly filmed as he clocked on at council offices. He lives in the same building, a converted hotel, where he occupies a caretaker flat — allowing him to register his presence at work, and then go back to bed, it is alleged.

To be fair, our Italian contestant has an excuse for his truancy.

Though it’s about as plausible as the Groucho Marx quote, “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?”

Mr Muraglia’s wife, Adriana, said the family had an alibi for every instance in which her husband was suspected of clocking in at 5.30am, opening the gates to the council building, and then returning to bed. “Some mornings, if he was a few minutes late pulling on his trousers, he would clock in in that manner and then get fully dressed immediately after and go off to work,” Mrs Muraglia told La Stampanewspaper. “Some mornings he may have forgotten, and he telephoned me to clock in on his behalf.”

In any event, Signor Muraglia is not the only bureaucrat scamming the system.

More than a hundred employees — 75 per cent of the council workforce — are under investigation for allegedly skiving off in the resort town…investigators…filmed employees swiping their time cards, and sometimes those of multiple colleagues, before turning tail and heading off to pursue other interests. One employee, filmed paddling a kayak on the Mediterranean, is alleged to have spent at least 400 hours away from his desk in the planning office, a dereliction of duty estimated to have cost San Remo council more than €5,600.

Though I have to say 400 hours away from his desk is chicken feed compared to the Italian doctor who worked only 15 days in a nine-year period.

And I like how the bureaucrats awarded themselves bonuses for their…um…hard work.

Eight of the suspected skivers shared a €10,000 productivity bonus last year.

Just like the IRS bureaucrats and VA bureaucrats who got bonuses for improper behavior.

I guess there must be an unwritten rule in government: The worse your performance, the higher your compensation.

Now let’s see how Alberto compares to our American contestant. As reported by the Contra Costa Times, former City Manager Joe Tanner is scamming taxpayers for a lavish pension, yet he’s asking for more on the basis of a shady deal he made with the City Council.

By working just two and a half more years, retired Vallejo City Manager Joseph Tanner boosted his starting annual pension from $131,500 to $216,000. He wants more, claiming he’s entitled to yearly retirement pay of $307,000. …he is now taking his six-year dispute to the state Court of Appeal. At issue is whether CalPERS must pay benefits on a contract Tanner and the Vallejo City Council concocted to boost his pension.

An extra $85,000 of pension for the rest of his life just for working 2-1/2 years?

Geesh, and I though the Philadelphia bureaucrat who is getting $50,000 of yearly loot for the rest of her life, after just three years of “work,” had a good deal. She must be feeling very envious of Mr. Tanner.

Yet Mr. Tanner isn’t satisfied.

Here’s the part that seems like it should be amusing, but it’s not actually funny when you realize that government employee pensions are driving states into fiscal chaos.

Ironically, Tanner was a critic of pension excesses. …Yet his personal spiking gambit was breathtaking. The case exemplifies how some top public officials try to manipulate their compensation to grossly inflate their retirement pay. …Tanner’s quest for another $90,000 a year, plus inflation adjustments, for the rest of his life is unreasonable.

Here’s how he schemed to pillage taxpayers.

His first contract with Vallejo called for $216,000 in base salary, plus a list of add-on items that would soon be converted to salary, bringing his compensation to $306,000. But when CalPERS advised that the amount of those add-ons would not count toward his pension, he insisted the contract be fixed. The result: His contract was amended. The add-ons were eliminated and his base salary was simply increased to $306,000, plus management incentive pay and other items that brought the total to about $349,000. If CalPERS used that number, his pension would have started at $307,000 a year. CalPERS says it was an obvious subterfuge. The amended contract was never put before the City Council at any public meeting. And there was never a truthful public explanation for it.

Of course there wasn’t a truthful explanation.

Whether bureaucrats are negotiating with other bureaucrats or whether they’re negotiating with politicians, a main goal is to hide details in order to maximize the amount of money being extracted from taxpayers.

By the way, the example of Mr. Tanner is odious, but it’s not nearly as disgusting as what happened in another California community.

Before inviting readers to vote, I want to make a serious point. Government employee pensions are a fiscal black hole because they are “defined benefits” (DB plans), which means annual payments to retirees are driven by formulas. And those formulas often include clauses that create precisely the perverse incentives exploited by Mr. Tanner.

The right approach is to reform the system so that bureaucrats instead are in a “defined contribution” system (DC plans), which basically operates like IRAs and 401(k)s. A bureaucrat’s retirement income is solely a function of how much is contributed to his or her account and how much it earns over time. By definition, there is no unfunded liability. There’s no fiscal nightmare for future taxpayers.

Now that I have that cry for fiscal prudence out of my system, I invite readers to vote. Does the shirking underwear-clad Italian bureaucrat deserve to join the Hall of Fame, or should that honor be bestowed on the scheming and hypocritical American bureaucrat?

P.S. While I think DC plans are inherently superior (and safer for taxpayers) than DB plans, I will acknowledge that some nations manage to run DB plans honestly.

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I confess that I get a bit of perverse pleasure when a left-leaning media outlet screws up and inadvertently shares information that helps the cause of limited government.

A New York Times columnist, for instance, pushed for a tax-hiking fiscal agreement back in 2011 based on a chart showing that the only successful budget deal was the one that cut taxes.

The following year, another New York Times columnist accidentally demonstrated that politicians are trying to curtail tax competition because they want to increase overall tax burdens.

Now it’s happened again.

In a major story on the pension system in the Netherlands, the New York Times inadvertently acknowledged that genuine private savings is the best route to obtain a secure retirement.

Let’s look at a few excerpts, starting with some very strong praise for the Netherlands in the article.

Imagine a place where pensions were not an ever-deepening quagmire, where the numbers told the whole story and where workers could count on a decent retirement. …That place might just be the Netherlands. And it could provide an example for America… “The rest of the world sort of laughs at the United States — how can a great country like the United States get so many things wrong?” said Keith Ambachtsheer, a Dutch pension specialist who works at the University of Toronto… The Dutch system rests on the idea that each generation should pay its own costs — and that the costs must be measured accurately if that is to happen. …The Dutch approach bears little resemblance to the American practice of shielding the current generation of workers, retirees and taxpayers while pushing costs and risks into the future, where they can metastasize unseen.

Interestingly, the article doesn’t explain what makes the Dutch system so superior to its American counterpart, but the phrase “each generation should pay its own costs” is a big hint.

That basically means that the system is not based on inter-generational redistribution, which is a core feature of pay-as-you-go schemes such as America’s bankrupt Social Security system.

That’s important, but what’s really key is that the Dutch system is based on private savings and private investment. It’s not a pure libertarian system, to be sure, since there are government mandates (such as high mandatory savings to finance generous old-age payments), but it is definitely a far more market-based system than what we have in America.

Here are some details.

About 90 percent of Dutch workers earn real pensions at their jobs. Their benefits are intended to amount to about 70 percent of their lifetime average pay… For this and other reasons, the Netherlands has for years been at or near the top of global pension rankings compiled by Mercer, the consulting firm, and the Australian Center for Financial Studies, among others. Accomplishing this feat — solid workplace pensions for most citizens — isn’t easy. For one thing, it’s expensive. Dutch workers typically sock away nearly 18 percent of their pay, most of it in diversified, professionally run pension funds. That compares with 16.4 percent for American workers, but most of that is for Social Security, which is intended to provide just 40 percent of a middle-class worker’s income in retirement.

And it’s worth noting that a system based on private savings also means that there is lots of money that can be invested.

And “lots of money” isn’t just a throwaway line. The Netherlands leads the OECD in private pension assets, measured as a share of economic output.

It’s worth pointing out, by the way, that the leading nations in this chart (Chile, Iceland, Australia, Switzerland, and Denmark) generally have systems based at least in part on private mandatory savings.

And given that big piles of money are very tempting targets for greedy governments, it’s also worth noting that the Dutch haven’t allowed the system to get politicized.

There’s not the slightest whisper of a rumor, for instance, that the government will grab the money.

Moreover, unlike the United States (particularly when discussing the pension systems operated by state and local governments), pension funds actually have to maintain adequate assets to pay promised benefits.

And no using funky math!

Imagine a place where regulators existed to make sure everyone followed the rules. …standing guard over it is a decidedly capitalist watchdog, the Dutch central bank. …the central bank in 2002 began to require pension funds to keep at least $1.05 on hand for every dollar they would have to pay in future benefits. If a fund fell below the line, it had just three years to recover. …The Dutch central bank also imposed a rigorous method for measuring the current value of all pensions due in the future. …Notably, the Dutch central bank prohibited the measurement method that virtually all American states and cities use, which is based on the hope that strong market gains on pension investments will make the benefits cheaper. …He explained that in the Netherlands, regulators believe that basing the cost of benefits today on possible investment gains tomorrow is the same as robbing tomorrow’s workers to pay for today’s excesses.

No wonder the Netherlands ranks so much higher than the United States in the rule of law index.

Now that I’ve said what’s good about the system, I’ll be the first to admit that it could be improved.

First and foremost, the Dutch system is basically a near-universal defined-benefits regime, which means that workers get a guaranteed amount of money and it is up to the fund administrator to make sure there is enough money.

This type of system has been very unstable in the United States because of chronic underfunding. The Dutch so far seem to have avoided that problem, but I still prefer the defined-contribution systems, which means that workers get back exactly what they paid in, plus all the earnings.

And the good news, from this perspective, is that the Dutch are moving in this direction according to a British service that monitors global pension developments.

Occupational pension schemes in the Netherlands are still mostly defined benefit (DB) schemes. But as companies are seeking to control costs and risk, a massive shift from final salary career average plans is taking place. Also, the popularity of defined contribution (DC) and hybrid schemes is growing.

One thing I wouldn’t change about the Dutch system is the tax treatment. The Dutch have what is sometimes called an exempt-exempt-tax (EET) system, which is sort of like a traditional IRA (i.e., no double taxation).

The Dutch government explains that the income is taxed only one time.

No tax is levied on pension contributions. And the growth of pension rights via the pension fund’s investment performance remains untaxed. Pension benefit is only taxed when it is received.

And let’s hope it stays that way, though the welfare state in the Netherlands is so large that the nation does have some significant long-run fiscal challenges. And that could lead future politicians to sacrifice the stability of the private pension system in order to prop up big government.

That being said, I would gladly trade the U.S. Social Security system for the Dutch mandatory pension system. An imperfect system based on private savings is always a better bet than a perfectly terrible tax-and-transfer scheme.

For more information, here’s the video I narrated explaining why personal retirement accounts are far superior to government-run schemes such as Social Security.

By the way, since I began this column by making fun of the New York Times, I may as well close it by sharing examples of biased and/or sloppy reporting by that outlet.

And none of this counts Paul Krugman’s mistakes, which are in a special category (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here for a few examples).

P.S. I shouldn’t be too critical of the New York Times. After all, they ran a great piece by Pierre Bessard dealing with tax competition, fiscal sovereignty, and financial privacy. Heck, they once even let me pontificate on those issues.

P.P.S. While the Dutch system is far better than the American system, I think Australia is the best role model. Chile also is a big success.

P.P.P.S. You can enjoy some Social Security cartoons here, here, and here. And here’s a Social Security joke, though it’s too close to being true to be funny.

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As a supporter of genuine capitalism, which means the right of contract and the absence of coercion, I don’t think there should be any policies that help or hinder unions.

The government should simply be a neutral referee that enforces contracts and upholds the rule of law.

Similarly, I also don’t have any philosophical objection to employers and employees agreeing to “defined benefit” pension plans, which basically promise workers a pre-determined amount of money after they retire based on factors such as average pay and years in the workforce.

After all, my money and property aren’t involved, so it’s not my business.

That being said, these so-called “DB plans” have a bad habit of going bankrupt. And that means the rest of us may get stuck with the bill if there’s a taxpayer bailout.

I discuss these issues in an interview with Fox Business News.

My main point is that there’s a deep hole in many of these plans, so someone is going to feel some pain.

I don’t want taxpayers to be hit, and I also don’t think well-managed pensions should be gouged with ever-rising premiums simply because other plans are faltering.

But I bet both will suffer, as will workers and retirees in the under-funded plans.

As part of the interview, I also warned that other “DB plans” are ticking time bombs. More specifically, most pensions for state and local bureaucrats involve (overly generous) pre-determined commitments and very rarely have governments set aside the amount of money needed to fund those promises.

And the biggest DB time bomb is Social Security, which has an unfunded cash-flow liability of more than $30 trillion. That’s a lot of money even by Washington standards.

But I closed with a bit of good news.

As workers and employers have learned that DB plans tend to be unstable and unsustainable, there has been a marked shift toward “defined contribution” plans such as IRAs and 401(k)s.

These plans are the private property of workers, so there’s no risk that the money will be stolen or squandered.

But even this good news comes with a caveat. We closed the interview by fretting about the possibility that governments will steal (or at least over-tax) these private pension assets at some point in the future.

That’s already happened in Argentina and Poland, so I’m not just being a paranoid libertarian.

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Since this story is about an Italian porn star who because a politician, the title of this post could have more than one meaning, but we’re going to limit our conversation to whether it’s appropriate for politicians to receive extravagant pensions

And this is not just an Italian issue. Disgraced Congressman Anthony Weiner is eligible for more than $1 million of pension benefits according to the National Taxpayers Union, and top bigwigs from the European Union have become experts at fleecing taxpayers.

But what’s interesting about the Italian controversy is that taxpayers in that nation may have (finally) reached a boiling point. Who knows, maybe they’ll form a tea party. Here are some excerpts from the story in the UK-based Guardian.

She is famed for being the first woman to uncover her breasts live on Italian television, for recording a song entirely about the male organ, and for offering sex to Osama bin Laden (in return, she said, for giving up terrorism). But now Ilona Staller, better known as Cicciolina, is the unlikely centre of a bitter row over the cost to ordinary Italians of the perks enjoyed by their country’s tens of thousands of politicians. It emerged on Monday that the Hungarian, who starred in almost 40 hardcore pornographic movies, will soon be enjoying a €39,000-a-year (£34,000) pension, provided by the taxpayers of her adoptive homeland. The stipend, which is for life, is her reward for labouring as a member of parliament for all of five years, from 1987 to 1992. Staller was elected for the libertarian Radical party and sponsored a number of mainly sex-related bills, including one to set up “love parks and hotels”. …According to one recent estimate, Italy’s cohorts of politicians cost the taxpayers almost €1.3bn a year. With four levels of government – national, regional, provincial and municipal – the country has an inordinately large number of elected representatives. But that has not stopped them from giving themselves a distinctly comfortable lifestyle. According to the Italian parliament website, the gross salary of a member of the lower house is €140,000 a year plus an attendance allowance of up to €42,000 and a contribution towards expenses of up to €63,000. They are also entitled to free public transport, free air and sea travel within Italy and exemption from motorway tolls.

The right approach is that politicians should face exactly the same laws – for pensions and in all other regards – as regular people. That means they should be trapped in dismal Social Security systems and be subject to the market if they do private savings (heck, maybe that would encourage them to adopt pro-growth policy).

I can’t resist making two additional comments. Ms. Staller is identified as being a member of the “libertarian Radical party.” But the story also says that she introduced legislation to have the government finance “love parks and hotels.”

At the risk of speaking for all libertarians, that doesn’t sound like a legitimate function of government. Maybe the reporter should learn the difference between libertarian and libertine.

Last but not least, I wonder whether Ms. Staller’s parents were more embarrassed when they learned she was a porn actress…or when they learned she was a politician.

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If you have municipal bonds issued by the city of Los Angeles, you may want to dump them while there’s still time. The LA Times reports that one-third of the city’s budget in 2015 will get consumed by pensions and benefits for retired bureaucrats. 
The cost of retirement benefits for Los Angeles city employees will grow by $800 million over the next five years, dramatically eroding the amount of money available for public services to taxpayers, according to a report issued Tuesday. In a bleak assessment delivered to members of the City Council, City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana said pensions and health benefits for current and future retirees would jump from $1.4 billion next year to at least $2.2 billion in 2015. …By 2015, nearly 20% of the city’s general fund budget is expected to go toward the retirement costs of police officers and firefighters, who now have an average retirement age of 51. The figure was 8% last year. Once civilian employees are factored in, nearly a third of the city’s general fund could be consumed by retirement costs by 2015, Santana said.

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