Merge Social Security and Public Pensions

When solutions to the challenge to provide retirement security to American citizens in the 21st century are considered, they typically address either social security or public sector pensions, but rarely focus on both of these systems together. But when considered together, as systems that each have unique strengths and weaknesses that might be combined in a single program available to all Americans, options present themselves that might otherwise be ignored.

With both social security and public sector pensions, the challenge of maintaining financial sustainability is dramatically affected by the demographic reality of an aging population. As increasing numbers of people live well into their eighties and nineties, the ratio of workers to retirees edges closer and closer to 1.0.

There are four ways to address the reality of an aging population: (1) Increase withholding from current workers, (2) Increase the retirement age, (3) Lower the level of retirement benefits, and (4) Increase the amount the retirement trust fund can earn. Before delving into each of these further, however, it is important to identify one crucial advantage the USA enjoys vs. virtually all other major developed nations. America, alone among major nations, is projected to have a perfectly even distribution of ages within her population.

AMERICA’S DEMOGRAPHIC ADVANTAGE

America, like all developed nations, has an aging population. But as the four charts below indicate, unlike all other major developed nations, America’s population is replacing itself at an even rate. It is difficult to overstate the serendipity of this phenomena, nor the [...] Read More

Sustainable Retirement Finance

When assessing the financial sustainability of any government administered plan to provide retirement security to their citizens, it is important to consider two factors, (1) the nation’s overall population demographics, and (2) the economic model of the plan. In-turn, when evaluating the economic model of the plan, it is important to consider the plan’s sustainability apart from reliance on returns from passive investments. It is important to assess how well a government-funded retirement benefit plan can be supported via a pay-as-you go system, where each year, tax assessments on current workers are used to pay retirement benefits for retired workers.

In the United States, there are two government operated financial systems that administer our collectively funded, i.e., taxpayer funded programs to pay retirees a certain amount each year that they may live comfortably. One may assume a great range of thresholds to define “comfortably” but in any event these two systems are very distinct, in ways that are fairly easily explained. They are social security, for which about 80% of the U.S. workforce participates, and public employee pensions, for which about 20% of the U.S. workforce participates.

Social security is based on the assumption that participants work, on average, from the age 25 to 65, then are retired from age 66 to 85, i.e., there are two participants in the work force for every one recipient who is retired. Social security, on average, also may assume that payments to retirees average one-third what earnings are by workers. On this basis, [...] Read More

California Firefighter Compensation

On August 4th an interesting analysis of public sector compensation was posted on the blog Inflection Point Diary entitled “How to Figure Out How Much Money a Local Government Manager Makes.” In this decidedly conservative analysis, the conclusion was that “real annual compensation [is] at least 33 percent higher than the ‘salary’ the city would have told you about if you called to ask this question.”

This 33% is typically called salary overhead, and must include the current year funding required for everything not included in straight salary – such as the value of all current employee benefits, as well as the current year funding requirements for all future retirement benefits for the employee. In the private sector, a generous overhead percentage would be about 25% – about 9% for the employer’s contribution to social security and medicare, a 6% employer contribution to the employee’s retirement savings account, and roughly another 10% for the employer’s contribution towards the employee’s current health benefits.

If only the difference between private sector employee overhead were only 33% vs. 25%, however. In reality, because public sector employees receive defined retirement benefits that are anywhere between 3x and 10x (that’s right 10x, ref. Social Security Benefits vs. Public Sector Pensions) better than someone with a similar salary history can expect from social security, and because these future [...] Read More

The Price of Public Safety

There is nothing wrong with paying a premium to public safety personnel because of the risks they take. And while it is true there are other career choices that are riskier than public safety jobs, and while it is also true that on average, public safety personnel in California – according to CalPERS own actuarial data – have life expectancies that are virtually the same as the rest of us, it is still appropriate to pay public safety personnel a premium. After all, we never know when these people may stand on the front lines when something extraordinary happens – such as what occurred in New York City on Sept. 11th, 2001. People who work in public safety live with this knowledge every day, and they should be compensated appropriately for that.

The question is how much of a premium is appropriate, and how much of a premium can we afford as a society? Should a fire fighter make more than a medical doctor? Should a police officer make more than an engineer?

In order to get an idea of what public safety employees in California actually make, I obtained a roster that showed the total compensation paid to each employee of a Southern California city. Out of respect for the employees noted on this roster, I won’t identify the city, much less reveal the names of these individuals. And it is fair to state this city probably has a median income somewhat higher than the average for California. It [...] Read More