America’s slow-motion public pension train-wreck (by some estimates, the shortfall currently exceeds $3 trillion) has been kept in motion for years by deeply dishonest accounting practices employed by state and local governments, which presume unrealistically that pension funds can consistently earn white-hot annual returns approaching eight percent. So it’s disappointing, but not particularly surprising, that the actuarial establishment moved to suppress a report pointing this out.Everyone knows that if you invest the public pension money in socially responsible funds, it's certain to maintain a year-over-year return of 8 percent. Every year. It's just that good! As always, Walter Russell Mead makes the salient point:
There are powerful interests that don’t want public pensions to be governed by the same kinds of accounting principles used in the private sector because… well, because if they were, public pensions would go from seriously underfunded to catastrophically underfunded.And, because incentives matter, consider the following:
In the long run, shifting to a more portable system of public pensions—defined contribution, rather than defined-benefit—wouldn’t just help save states and municipalities from fiscal ruin. It would also do much to improve the performance of the civil service. The current system creates a jobs-for-life mentality in public employment because workers need to stay at their positions for decades to collect the full value of their pensions. Somebody who was a good teacher at 30 but wants to leave and should leave at 40 is currently trapped. Also, one of the reasons the unions fight quality evaluations so fiercely is that the loss of job and pension is so much more draconian than simply losing a job."La la la I can't hear you" isn't a good basis for public policy, but it can work for a while as long as we aren't paying attention and the bill collectors keep their distance. We're approaching the end of that time.