Christmas Cards 2012

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Martini 19.75″ x 27.5″, 2005

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Pinwheels 19″ x 24″, 2006

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Mandala 18″ x 18″, 2007

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Octopus 12″ x 12″, 2008

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Backgammon 16″ x 18.5″, 2009

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Yin Yang 18″ x 18″, 2010

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Andromeda 20″ x 34″, 2011

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Chromaticism 10.75″ x 13.5″, 2012

 

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Defending Defined Benefits

Among pension reformers there is a spirited ongoing debate regarding what might constitute a financially sustainable yet equitable solution. On one side there is a call to do away with defined benefits entirely, replacing them with defined contribution plans. The argument is compelling; with defined contribution plans, when the participant retires, they survive on the assets they have invested, and the employer has no contingent liability whatsoever. This is an appealing scenario to anyone who fully appreciates just how close our public sector pension funds are to financial collapse. But some of the ways defined benefits are characterized by their detractors are inaccurate.

For example, defined benefit plans are often referred to as “Ponzi schemes,” based on the premise that pension funds depend on new participants making contributions in order to fund the distributions being made to retirees. But the scam used by Ponzi (and Madoff) was to let new investors fund interest payments to existing investors, while all the while making the promise that existing investors had a claim on their original principal investment and could have it back at any time. Defined benefits do not offer a return of principal. If incoming contributions, plus interest earned on assets under management, offer sufficient extra capital to fund distributions, a pension fund is sustainable. A Ponzi scheme by definition is not sustainable.

Slightly more apt, but still inaccurate, is to characterize defined benefit plans as “Pyramid schemes,” based on the same premise – that their solvency depends on new participants [...] Read More

Solutions for California

When Governor Jerry Brown, back in the 1970′s, suggested that California should have its own aerospace program, he was dubbed “Governor Moonbeam,” and the moniker has stuck to this day. That’s too bad, because at the time Gov. Brown made that statement, California had the most robust aerospace infrastructure in the U.S. The nexus of companies in Los Angeles – Northrop, Hughes, Rockwell, TRW, plus the branches of dozens of others – the launch complex at Vandenberg, the vast resources of land in the Mojave including Edwards AFB – made California a natural location to further America’s space efforts.

Today half of the companies noted above have been driven out of California by over-regulation, and instead of talking about mining the asteroids, Jerry Brown is talking about a bullet train to nowhere. Before you laugh at the Gov. Moonbeam’s original idea, consider California-based entrepreneur Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX. This private aerospace company, which is already supplying launch vehicles to NASA, has just announced that their “Falcon Heavy,” the largest launch vehicle since the Saturn V moon rocket, will be tested later this year.

The asteroids will be explored and mined by robotic spacecraft within a few decades. And much of the ingenuity and entrepreneurship, risk capital, and high technology will be coming from California. Imagine if California’s dawning recapture of the lead in aerospace technology, following her existing lead in biotech and info-tech, were encouraged by California’s laws and regulations instead of occurring in spite of them?

There are [...] Read More

What Unions Should Be in 21st Century America

The role of unions in the United States has historically been to pool the collective power of workers to negotiate an end to exploitative work conditions and elevate rates of compensation. During the late 19th and early 20th century, unions fought courageously and successfully to raise the standard of living for workers and to push for systemic legislative reforms. While union spokespersons today may overstate their role in the creation of a middle class in America, their legacy is one of undeniable heroism and accomplishment.

In the aftermath of WWII, when the United States had an economy that was larger than the rest of the world combined, and a uniquely intact industrial base, unions flourished as never before. As America’s manufacturers enjoyed a near monopolistic position on world markets, and exported products to the recovering and developing nations, record profits amid minimal foreign competition enabled management to grant request after request to union negotiators, and a middle class was established that enjoyed an unprecedented level of broad prosperity.

Today the status of unions, and workers, is very different. The recovery of Europe and Japan, followed by the rise of great manufacturing nations throughout the world, has disrupted if not destroyed entire industries in the U.S. The American consumer can purchase a dazzling array of products at incredibly low cost, but the price for this has been the decimation of private sector unions. And into this void, public sector unions have emerged as the new voice of labor in the United [...] Read More

China’s Economy is About to Crash

Close attention has been paid to the fragmenting Eurozone, where social benefits funded by debt accumulation are bankrupting the entire aging continent. Less attention has been paid to China, where debt accumulation has financed not social benefits, but massive construction projects.

Financial strength is always ultimately found on the balance sheet of a nation, not the income statement. A nation with high GDP, i.e., strong revenues, may be funding that growth through massive borrowing. As the income statement racks up a string of impressive performances, the balance sheet may be steadily worsening.

Nearly two years ago, in “The China Bubble,” I pointed out numerous examples of asset inflation, primarily in real estate, that had already been going on for over a decade in China. Just like in the United States, these over-valued assets have been used as collateral to fund economic expansion. And just like in the United States, eventually people in China will stop buying over-valued assets and their price plummets. This is happening now in China.

One of the best economics blogs out there is “Global Economic Analysis” by Mike Shedlock. His recent post entitled “Real Estate Crash in China Underway: Foreign Funding Down 80%, Land Sales Down 57%, Starts Down 27%; Expect Chinese GDP to Plunge,” says it all. In his post, Shedlock references a report entitled “China Real Estate Unravels” by Patrick Chovanec, a professor at Tsinghua University’s School of Economics [...] Read More

California’s Government Worker Pensions Are Bankrupt

As reported today in Capitol Weekly, in a post entitled “CalPERS ignores Brown, delays pension payment” by Ed Mendel, the amount taxpayers will have to fork over to CalPERS next year will rise by $213 million, to a total of $3.7 billion. Governor Brown, quite rightly, believes the full amount of the necessary increase should have been assessed, another $149 million, instead of being “smoothed” over the next twenty years.

But CalPERS – the largest of over 30 major government worker pension funds in California, only manages about a third of the the state and local public sector pensions. And CalPERS is basing their increase on a lowering of their projected rate of return for their invested funds by one quarter of one percent, from 7.75% down to 7.5%.

People may debate endlessly over whether or not government worker pension funds in America, now managing over $4.0 trillion in assets, can actually earn 7.5% per year, every year, for decades on end. We have argued repeatedly that this rate of return is impossible to achieve any longer, because (1) high returns in the past depended on debt accumulation, which poured cash into the economy, which stimulated consumer spending, investing, and asset appreciation – enabling more borrowing – all of which caused investment returns to grow at levels that cannot continue now that borrowing has reached its practical limit, (2) our aging population means more people will be selling their investments to finance their retirements – including the pension [...] Read More

How Construction Worker Unions Can Save California

The California Labor Federation has a membership of more than 1,200 unions, representing over two million workers. And the first of seven key issues they list on their legislative agenda for 2012 is supporting high speed rail. As they put it, “Building high speed rail will grow our economy and create long-term jobs. An estimated 450,000 jobs in operations, maintenance, ticketing, and services will be needed to keep HSR up and running.”

It is difficult to imagine economic thinking more well intentioned yet fundamentally flawed. What private sector unions want, ideally, is to work cooperatively with government and industry to help create well paying jobs. But high speed rail will incur far more economic costs than economic benefits. Massive construction projects, using public/private financing mechanisms, have to benefit the economy. Otherwise they are examples of private gain – high paying jobs for workers who happen to belong to unions involved in the construction and maintenance of the project – in exchange for socialized loss – higher taxes that lower the disposable income of everyone else.

Policy activists who are critical of unions must understand that there are two crucial debates they are engaged in with unions. The first one is an economic argument – convincing union leadership that encouraging free market competition will lower the cost of living for everyone, and that when this happens all workers benefit. This is a tough sell, despite being entirely accurate. But the second debate, which regards what projects unions should be [...] Read More

Social Security Isn’t Insolvent, Public Pensions Are

In the March 19th, 2012 issue of the New Yorker magazine, as part of a full-page advertisement for MSNBC, there is a quote from Rachel Maddow that I couldn’t agree with more. She says:

“Social security isn’t a Ponzi scheme. It’s not bankrupting us. It’s not an outrage. It is working.”

Rachel Maddow is absolutely right. In one of several attempts to compare the costs, benefits, and solvency of social security to public sector pensions, in the post from November 2011 entitled “Merge Social Security and Public Sector Pensions,” I concluded the following:

“If one strips away the reliance on investment returns and compares social security to public sector pensions based on payroll withholding from current worker’s providing 100% of the funds required to make current payments to retirees, it quickly becomes obvious that public sector pensions are completely unsustainable, whereas social security can be rendered permanently solvent with relatively minor tinkering.”

The reason for this is simple enough: Social security, on average, collects about 12.5% of someone’s annual earnings for about 40 years, then when that someone retires in their mid-sixties, it pays back about 33% of those earnings for about 15 years. Public sector pensions, by contrast, on average collect not quite 20% of a government worker’s annual earnings for about 30 years, then when that government worker retires in their mid-fifties, it pays back about 75% of those earnings for about 25 years. Do the math.

Compared to public sector pensions, along with having far [...] Read More

Senator DeLeon’s Universal Retirement Security Act

The challenge of providing retirement security to all citizens is the broader issue behind the debate over what level of public sector pension benefits are both equitable and financially sustainable. California Senator Kevin De Leon’s proposed legislation, SB 1234, will hopefully further this debate.

As reported in the Sacramento Bee by Jon Ortiz on February 24th “California Democrats push pension plan for nongovernment workers,” and in the Los Angeles Times by Mark Lifsher on February 23rd, “Private-sector retirement savings plan proposed for California,” DeLeon’s bill will require every employer in the state with five or more employees to participate in the plan. If employers already offer a pension plan or 401K plan, they would be exempt.

Plenty of commentators have already weighed in with sobering missives on the many problems with DeLeon’s bill. You can read them in the San Bernardino Press Enterprise, the Pleasanton Weekly, CalWatchdog, CalWhine, and elsewhere. But when DeLeon says his bill “is designed to supplement Social Security retirement benefits,” he is on to something bigger than he may realize.

The goal of taxpayer funded retirement security, whether it is for a retired government worker or a retired private sector worker living on social security, is not to support an affluent lifestyle. A taxpayer funded retirement pension should be a modest amount, better than social security – but not some huge amount that enables an affluent lifestyle. To have an affluent lifestyle [...] Read More

Government Workers vs. Self-Employed: A Financial Comparison

When discussing what level of compensation is appropriate and affordable for government workers, it is helpful to make apples-to-apples comparisons between public and private sector workers. In this analysis, the ultimate private sector taxpayer, the self-employed worker, is compared to the typical state or local government employee in California. In both cases, the annual compensation used for comparison is $70,000, which is the average base salary paid to state and local government employees in California (ref. U.S. Census data for California: State, and Local). But the impact of benefits paid by the government employer, combined with the impact of mandatory employee contributions (taxes, retirement set-asides, and healthcare costs), yield dramatically different end results in terms of total net compensation. Both the self-employed worker and the government worker make $70,000 per year. But to say they make the same amount of money is grossly misleading.

The table below, “Total Compensation – Gov’t vs. Self-Employed Worker,” begins to illustrate this disparity. The difference between total compensation and gross earnings in the case of the self-employed worker is zero. There is nobody paying for benefits beyond what the self-employed person earns. Whatever amenities they need to purchase, they have to pay for out of their gross earnings.

In the case of the government worker, there are a host of employer funded benefits; only the basic ones are covered here, using conservative assumptions. If it is assumed the average household health insurance coverage is $500 per month, [...] Read More