Published on 15 Mar 2017
This week, James & Antony discuss the case of Connecticut’s budget shortfall. The state hopes to solve their financial problems by raiding the retirement accounts of previous Connecticut government employees who have moved out of the state, and take 30% of those savings. This plan would hurt retirees, break promises, and trap many people in the state based on a policy that may be illegal.
March 16, 2017
January 26, 2017
We saw in an earlier story that the government is trying to tighten regulations on private company cyber security practices at the same time its own network security practices have been shown to be a joke. In finance, it can never balance a budget and uses accounting techniques that would get most companies thrown in jail. It almost never fully funds its pensions. Anything it does is generally done more expensively than would be the same task undertaken privately. Its various sites are among the worst superfund environmental messes. Almost all the current threats to water quality in rivers and oceans comes from municipal sewage plants. The government’s Philadelphia naval yard single-handedly accounts for a huge number of the worst asbestos exposure cases to date.
By what alchemy does such a failing organization suddenly become such a good regulator?
January 22, 2017
I am not sure that this is a suitable subject for a blog post, probably more a project for an aspiring PhD student, but with all the discussion of conflicts of interest in the Trump cabinet, it strikes me that the most glaring conflict in the public sector is ignored: The CoI between state and local politicians elected with the support of public sector unions who then participate in compensation negotiations for the members of those unions. Here the temptation of the politicians to buy the support of the unions with public money is overwhelming. The impact of this is potentially trillions when public pension liabilities are included.
This is such an obvious conflict that I have looked to see if there are laws preventing this, but my initial research shows nothing.
It would be interesting to see if there is a statistical relationship between union support and subsequent pay rises. I would expect this relationship to be especially strong with deferred compensation (such as pensions) since this is very difficult for voters to monitor and can be easily gamed with unrealistic assumptions about, for example, investment returns.
Roger Barris, quoted by Tyler Cowen, “Understudied conflicts of interest in American government”, Marginal Revolution, 2017-01-11.
December 12, 2016
Tim Worstall points out that Thomas Piketty has mis-diagnosed the “problem” of rising capital:
The report shows that there were 13 OECD countries in which assets in funded pensions represented more than 50% of GDP in 2015, up from 10 in the early 2000s. Over the same period, the number of OECD countries where assets in funded private pension arrangements represent more than 100% of GDP increased from 4 to 7 countries.
We’re living longer lives these days, we’re working for fewer decades of them and thus people are rationally saving for their expected golden years. Thus capital as a percentage of GDP rises – not to produce inheritances, but to produces incomes in retirement. And rises by potentially at least more than 100% of GDP.
We can’t see that this is a problem and we most certainly cannot see that this is an argument for greater taxation of capital. Quite the reverse in fact, people saving for their old age should be encouraged, not specifically taxed.
So much for the most recent French call for revolution then, eh?
December 1, 2015
Brendan O’Neill says it’s time to smash the welfare system because it’s too badly broken to fix:
… however much the the apologists for the Byzantine system of welfarism might kick and shout, we need to get the facts out there, and we need to talk about them frankly.
The fact that more than half of Britain’s households, 13.7m, receive more in welfare benefits than they pay in taxes. The fact that this represents a rise from 45.9 per cent of households in 1997 to 51.5 per cent today. The fact that 20.3m families now receive some kind of state benefit. The fact that for 9.6m of these families, benefits account for more than half of their income. The fact that nearly five million people have their rent paid by the state. The fact that vast numbers of people, first through Incapacity Benefit and then through Employment Support Allowance, have been redefined by the state as ‘incapable’ — of work, of independence, of dignity, in effect — and have been put out to pasture. There are parts of Britain where a state-sanctioned culture of incapacity has deadened community spirit, destroyed its soul.
The growth of welfarism in recent decades, the replacement of economic vision and the creation of new wealth with a colossal system of state charity and therapy, has terrible consequences. It dents individual ambition, and corrodes social solidarity. When people are invited to rely for their every financial and psychic need on the distant, faceless state, then they’re less likely to rely on their own volition and on the support and kindness of neighbours and friends.
Welfarism is a classic good intention turned hellish: in the name of helping people it actually weakens both individual pluck and community zest. Of course, the loudest cheerleaders of welfarism — the comfortable, cushioned liberals who shout down anyone who criticises the welfare state — have no experience of this. They don’t even want to see it on their TV, as their lust to censor Benefits Streets demonstrated. Yet a few miles from the leafy suburbs in which they churn out their defences of welfarism there will be communities branded incapable and made divided by that welfarism.
Some people say, ‘But welfare benefits is not a huge part of government spending!’ This is true. It accounts for somewhere over 20 per cent. Or they say, ‘And old people get most of it!’ This is also true, and I think it is quite proper: the generational jihadists who moan about pension spending don’t seem to realise that old people who have worked or child-reared all their lives deserve society’s help in their twilight years, and that this is massively different to giving state largesse to fit, young 25-year-olds.
But my concern with welfarism is not how much it costs the government but the costs it has for community life, public spirit, the self-willed individual. Welfarism should be radically rethought not in order to save a few billion quid but in order to reverse the state’s spread into communities and to repair the self-belief and independence of working-class and poorer sections of society.
August 12, 2015
“… premiers look to Ottawa for one reason and one reason only: To beat the Prime Minister … over the head with their begging bowls”
Richard Anderson explains why Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is upset with Prime Minister Stephen Harper:
It is a time honoured tradition that premiers look to Ottawa for one reason and one reason only: To beat the Prime Minister of the day over the head with their begging bowls. What Kathleen Wynne is looking for is not a “partnership” but a ceaseless no-strings-attached flow of federal money. Like a petulant teenager the sextuagenarian premier always wants more and offers little in return. Prime Minister Harper has wisely refused to play her game.
Now imagine that you’re Kathleen Wynne — please try to subdue the gag reflex — and billions of dollars now flow into the provincial coffers from this de facto payroll tax. Perhaps the money gets tossed into general revenues. Queen’s Park then turns arounds and issues IOUs to the “arm’s length board” in the form of increasingly worthless provincial bonds. The pension would for actuarial purposes be “fully funded” but as a practical matter one pocket of government is borrowing from the other.
But perhaps the Wynnesters are a tad more clever than all that. The revenues from this payroll tax go directly to the allegedly “arms length” investment board. Nothing goes into general revenues and the Liberals allow themselves a patina of fair dealing. The board, however, will almost certainly have its investment guidelines laid out by the government. Those guidelines, by the strangest coincidence, will likely have an “invest in Ontario” component.
Some of the money will get used to buy up provincial bonds, lowering the government’s cost of borrowing at a time when capital markets are getting skittish about Ontario debentures. Quite a lot of the rest will be used to fund infrastructure projects, private-public sector partnerships and other initiatives that will, mysteriously, favour Liberal allies. The Chretien era Adscam scandal will seem like chump change in comparison.
March 11, 2015
March 10, 2015
January 8, 2015
Until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman. He could live where he liked and as he liked. He had no official number or identity card. He could travel abroad or lave his country for ever without a passport of any sort of official permission. He could exchange his money for any other currency without restriction or limit. He could buy goods from any country in the world on the same terms as he bought goods at home. For that matter, a foreigner could spend his life in this country without permit and without informing the police. Unlike the countries of the European continent, the state did not require its citizens to perform military service. An Englishman could enlist, if he chose, in the regular army, the navy, or the territorials. He could also ignore, if he chose, the demands of national defence. Substantial householders were occasionally called on for jury service. Otherwise, only those helped the state who wished to do so. The Englishman paid taxes on a modest scale: nearly ₤200 million in 1913-14, or rather less than 8 per cent of the national income. The state intervened to prevent the citizen from eating adulterated food or contracting certain infectious diseases. It imposed safety rules in factories, and prevented women, and adult males in some industries, from working excessive hours. The state saw to it that children received education up to the age of thirteen. Since 1 January 1909, it provided a meagre pension for the needy over the age of seventy. Since 1913, it helped to insure certain classes of workers against sickness and unemployment. This tendency towards more state action was increasing. Expenditure on the social services had roughly doubled since the Liberals took office in 1905. Still, broadly speaking, the state acted only to help those who could not help themselves. It left the adult citizen alone.
All this was changed by the impact of the Great War1. The mass of the people became, for the first time, active citizens. Their lives were shaped by orders from above; they were required to serve the state instead of pursuing exclusively their own affairs. Five million men entered the armed forces, many of them (though a minority) under compulsion. The Englishman’s food was limited, and its quality changed, by government order.
His freedom of movement was restricted; his conditions of work prescribed. Some industries were reduced or closed, other artificially fostered. The publication of news was fettered. Street lights were dimmed. The sacred freedom of drinking was tampered with: licensed hours were cut down, and the beer watered by order. The very time on the clocks was changed. From 1916 onwards, every Englishman got up an hour earlier in summer than he would otherwise have done, thanks to an act of parliament. The state established a hold over its citizens which, though relaxed in peacetime, was never to be removed and which the second World war was again to increase. The history of the English state and of the English people merged for the first time.
1 In contemporary parlance, the war of 1914-18 was always, not surprisingly, the Great War. It did not need the war of 1939-45 to change it into the first World War. Repington devised the phrase at the time of the armistice, “to prevent the millennian folk from forgetting that the history of the world is the history of war.” Repington, The First World War, ii. 291.
A.J.P. Taylor, English History 1914-1945, 1965.
January 6, 2015
Another example of unexpected consequences, this time from Frances Woolley at Worthwhile Canadian Initiative, who says we need to beware of middle-aged men waving feminist flags:
On December 12, 2006, Ontario ended “mandatory retirement.” As of that date, employers could no longer base termination decisions on an employee’s age. Ontario was following the lead of Quebec and Manitoba, which stopped having a standard retirement age in the early 1980s. Within a couple of years, mandatory retirement had effectively ended right across the country.
Fast forward to 2014. The first Ontario professors to elude retirement are now collecting their pensions. Yup, Canada Revenue Agency requires people to begin drawing their pensions at age 71, regardless of employment status. The average salary of a full professor in Ontario is around $150,000 per year […], and university pension plans are generally fairly generous. So a typical professor working full-time into his 70s will have a combined pension plus salary income of at least $200,000 a year, often more. No wonder professors 65 and older outnumber the under 35s […]. Who would willingly give up a nice office, the freedoms of academia, and a quarter million dollars or so a year?
Now if the professors fighting to eliminate the standard retirement age had said, “we have a very pleasant lifestyle and we’d like to hang onto it, thank you very much,” I could have respected their honesty, if nothing else. But instead, they draped themselves in the feminist flag. A standard retirement age of 65 was wrong because it hurt women. Thomas Klassen and David Macgregor, writing in the CAUT (Canadian Association of University Teachers) Bulletin, challenged ageism in academy on the grounds that “Mandatory retirement at an arbitrary age is devastating for female faculty who often began their careers later than males and may have had interruptions to raise children.”
Two thirds of university teachers between 65 and 69 are men […], as are three quarters of those over the age of 70. This is not simply a reflection of an academy that, 20 or 30 or 40 years ago, when these folks were hired, favoured men over women. Let’s rewind five years, to when the people who are now 65 to 69 were 60 to 64. This is more or less the same group of people, just at two different points in time.
In 2005-6, just before the standard retirement age ended, 65 percent of academics aged 60 to 64 were male […].
In 2010-11, when that same cohort of people were 65-69, 68 percent of those working as university teachers were male. There is hardly any hiring of individuals into university teaching in that age group. The only plausible explanation of the three percentage point increase in the proportion of men in the academia is that more women than men retired in that cohort.
The PhD students in the pipeline are 47 percent female […], as are 46 percent of Canadian assistant professors […]. Just 23 percent of full professors, however, are women. Replacing over 65 full professors with PhD students would result in a more gender-balanced academy.
I’m not trying to argue that we should reintroduce mandatory retirement in order to achieve greater gender balance. I am merely pointing out that who thought the end of mandatory retirement would disproportionately benefit women and promote gender equity were mistaken.
October 28, 2014
In City Magazine, Steven Malanga looks at Canada’s civil service pension problems, which may not be quite as bad as some US state problems, but are still going to be a source of conflict going forward:
Governments throughout the country are grappling with as much as $300 billion in unfunded government-worker retirement debt. In a country of just 38.5 million people, that’s a pension problem roughly equivalent to the one that California faces. And it’s widely shared.
Municipalities throughout Quebec, for instance, owe some $4 billion in retirement promises that have yet to be funded, prompting the province’s new Liberal government to demand this summer that workers pay more to bolster the system. A new report on the finances of Ontario’s government-owned utilities revealed their pensions to be unsustainable without deep subsidies from Canadian electricity customers. For every dollar that workers contribute toward their retirement, government-owned utilities now spend on average about four dollars, raised through electric bills—though the cost is even higher at some operations. The news is even bleaker at the federal level, where Canada faces more than $200 billion in total retirement debt for public workers, when the cost of future health-care promises made to public-sector workers is combined with pension commitments. One big problem is pension debt at Canada Post, whose budget is so strained that the federal government gave the mail service a four-year reprieve on making payments into its pension system, even though it’s already severely underfunded.
At the heart of Canada’s pension woes are some of the same forces that have helped rack up several trillion dollars in state and local pension liabilities in the United States. For years, Canadian governments have provided generous pensions at low costs to employees. Workers could earn full benefits while retiring in their mid-fifties, even as they lived longer. Politicians relied on optimistic assumptions about stock-market returns to justify those benefits. Governments were quick to grant additional benefits to politically powerful employee groups, but they underfunded pensions when budgets got tight.
July 10, 2014
June 4, 2014
Gave a shout out to the Rebel Alliance on Fox last night. They are a group of kids in the future who live in the sewers like Ninja Turtles and refuse to pay our bloated pensions. That’s the problem with all this talk of the debt we’re saddling our children with. It assumes they’re going to pay it.
What if they just say, “Fuck off” like they do in Costa Rica? The taxes are too high there so most people just refuse to pay. When everyone does it, the government can’t do anything about it. This next generation is tech-savvy enough to create their own currency and barter their own exchanges and the sewers they live in won’t be gross. They’ll be like a cool teen’s bedroom from 1990.
H/T to Kathy Shaidle for the link.
February 3, 2014
February 1, 2014
In Forbes, Ian Vasquez looks at the plight of the Argentine economy:
Argentina’s luck is finally starting to run out. It devalued its currency by 15 percent last week, marking the beginning of a possible economic crisis of the kind Argentina has become known for. Argentina’s problem is that it has followed the logic of populism for more than a decade and President Cristina Kirchner is showing no interest in changing course.
In the 1990s Argentina combined far-reaching but sometimes flawed market-reforms with irresponsible fiscal policies, culminating in its 2002 default on $81 billion in debt — the largest sovereign default in history. The country delinked its currency from the dollar, experienced a severe economic crisis, and initiated its current period of populist politics.
Those policies included price controls on domestic energy, reneging on contracts with foreign companies, export taxes, more pubic sector employment and vastly increased spending. When you don’t pay massive debts, you get temporary breathing room, so growth resumed. High commodity prices and low global interest rates that lifted demand for Argentine exports also helped produce Argentine growth.
But the government’s appetite has consistently grown faster, and, with little ability to borrow abroad, it has turned to other sources of finance. In 2008, Kirchner nationalized private pension funds worth some $30 billion, and has since nationalized an airline and a major oil company. As it drew down reserves, the government turned to printing money to finance itself, falsifying the inflation rate it says is about 11 percent, but which independent analysts put at about 28 percent. Economist Steve Hanke estimates it is much higher at 74 percent