The quiet looting of America’s Pension Funds is underway
The looting has been done quietly through means such as a manufactured crises, underpayment or non-payment by cities and States and the deviation of funds to risky alternative investments.
Conservative activists are manufacturing the perception of a public pension crisis in order to both slash modest retiree benefits and preserve expensive corporate subsidies and tax breaks. States and cities have for years been failing to fully fund the annual pension obligations.
They have used funds that were supposed to go to pensions to instead finance expensive tax cuts and corporate subsidies. That has helped create a real but manageable pension shortfall. Yet, instead of citing such a shortfall as reason to end expensive tax cuts and subsidies, conservative activists and lawmakers are citing it as a reason to slash retiree benefits.
The amount states and cities spend on corporate subsidies and so-called tax expenditures is far more than the pension shortfalls they face. Yet, conservative activists and lawmakers are citing the pension shortfalls and not the subsidies as the cause of budget squeezes.
They are then claiming that cutting retiree benefits is the solution rather than simply rolling back the more expensive tax breaks and subsidies. According to Pew, public pensions face a 30-year shortfall of $1.38 trillion, or $46 billion on an annual basis.
This is dwarfed by the $80 billion a year states and cities spend on corporate subsidies. Yet, conservatives cite the pension shortfall not as reason to reduce the corporate subsidies and raise public revenue, but instead as proof that retiree benefits need to be cut.
The pension “reforms” being pushed by conservative activists would slash retirement income for many pensioners who are not part of the Social Security system. Additionally, the specific reforms they are pushing are often more expensive and risky for taxpayers than existing pension plans. Whether “cash balance” schemes or 401(k)-style defined contribution plans, many of the pension “reforms” being championed by conservative activists risk incurring more costs and increasing risks for taxpayers.
The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation are working together in states across the country to focus the debate over pensions primarily on slashing retiree benefits rather than on raising public revenues.
Pew’s Public Sector Retirement Systems Project and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation are working in tandem on public pension policy to manufacture the perception of crisis and press for cuts to guaranteed retirement income. This campaign has played an integral role in states passing legislation that cuts guaranteed retirement income – all while those states preserve more expensive corporate subsidies.
The Laura and John Arnold Foundation is run by conservative political operatives and funded by an Enron billionaire.
John Arnold is an Enron billionaire whose only major experience with pension management was his role in a company that decimated public pension funds. Well-known conservative political operatives and consultants run his foundation.
The techniques used by conservative activists to gain public support to privatize the public pensions that public workers have instead of Social Security are, if successful, likely to be used in efforts to privatize Social Security in the future. The current campaign to slash public pension benefits has relied on many of the same public relations strategies as President Bush’s earlier campaign to privatize Social Security. In that sense, the campaign against public pensions is an exercise in perfecting methods that manufacture the perception of a crisis – and then result in cuts to guaranteed retirement income. If the state-based crusade against public pensions is successful, it will probably fuel a renewed effort to privatize Social Security.
In May of 2013, the Pew Charitable Trusts released a report that sounded a frightening alarm. Entitled “Retirement Security Across Generations” and widely cited throughout the national media, the study found that a lack of retirement savings, less guaranteed pension income and the economic downturn have collectively exposed the next generation of Americans “to the real possibility of downward mobility in retirement.”
Summing up the study’s implicit push to stabilize Americans’ retirement future, a Pew official declared that lawmakers must focus on creating policies that help workers “make up for these losses and prepare for the future.”
Pew’s analysis, though eye-opening, was not particularly controversial. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, conservative Martin Morse Wooster acknowledges that the Pew Trusts are “treated as benign truth-tellers, so high-minded as to be beyond politics” – and the call to shore up Americans’ retirement security, indeed, upheld the organization’s promise to “generate objective data.
Based on indisputable evidence, it proved that the country’s move away from guaranteed pension income – and states’ willingness to raid worker pension plans to finance massive corporate subsidies – will have disastrous consequences.
What was surprising was the fact that at the same time one branch of Pew was rightly sounding this moderate non-ideological alarm to shore up retirement security, and Pew’s Economic Development Tax Incentives Project was warning of states’ wasteful tax subsidies, a more political branch of the organization was working in tandem with controversial Enron billionaire John Arnold to begin championing an ideologically driven plan to make the retirement problem far worse.
This Pew-Arnold partnership began informally in 2011 and 2012 when both organizations marshaled resources to try to set the stage for retirement benefit cuts in California, Florida, Rhode Island and Kansas. With legislative success in three of those four states, Pew and Arnold created a formal partnership in late 2012 that targeted another three states, Arizona, Kentucky and Montana.
This formal partnership continues today, with the organizations issuing joint reports and conducting joint legislative briefings advocating cuts to guaranteed retirement income. It is widely expected that this partnership will continue working in these same states and potentially expand operations into Colorado, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and Nevada.
Continue reading The Plot Against Pensions. Download the report from the Institute for America’s Future here.