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My Body Isn’t 40 Anymore: Three Faces of Retirement

11:12 am in Pension by Gary Cohn

It’s official: America has entered a retirement crisis. Or, as Forbes understatedly put it, “the greatest retirement crisis in the history of the world.”

And, while the causes are manifold — the demographic bulge of baby boomers leaving the fulltime workforce; greater worker longevity; the disastrous, 30-year shift from traditional defined benefit pensions to costly 401(k)-style plans — most experts agree that the national retirement implosion has gone critical, with an estimated 75 percent of Americans who are nearing retirement age having less than $27,000 in their retirement accounts.

Even John C. Bogle, the founder of the $2 trillion mutual fund and 401(k) behemoth Vanguard Group, recently admitted that the system of retirement plans that rely on 401(k)s is broken.

“[401(k)s were] designed as a thrift plan, and it doesn’t work as a retirement plan,” Bogle declared.

So it is with some irony that a Texas hedge fund billionaire/former Enron trader and a politically ambitious Northern California mayor have teamed up to cripple one of the few parts of the retirement story that still works — California’s public-sector pension system. Last month San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed filed papers with the state attorney general’s office to begin the qualification process for what Reed called the Pension Reform Act of 2014.

The measure, which was financed with a $200,000 down payment from John Arnold, the Houston billionaire and right-wing libertarian, seeks to rewrite California’s constitution to effectively empower the state and local governments to gut retirement benefits for current employees for the years of work they perform after the changes go into effect, should the measure pass.

Reed and his billionaire backers (including Silicon Valley venture capitalist Michael Moritz) will have to move quickly, however, if they want to make their claims stick about the “unfunded liability” of California’s public pension structure. According to the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS), the system was 101 percent funded before the 2008 crash and is today well on its way to a full rebound, even during this sluggish recovery.

The new ballot initiative’s dry run came last year when Reed persuaded 69 percent of San Jose voters to pass Measure B, his municipal pension-cutting measure that forces city workers to cough up an additional 16 percent of their take-home pay into their pensions while paring benefits for new hires — or it will, if the measure can survive a gauntlet of lawsuits challenging its constitutionality.

If Measure B is any indicator, and if Reed’s new effort qualifies for next year’s ballot, California voters can look forward to a barrage of claims from Reed’s anti-pension forces who will employ his voter-tested mix of statistics, distorted bookkeeping and exaggerationabout the prodigal lifestyles enjoyed by public pensioners, and the unsustainability of such taxpayer largesse.

These campaign strategies include cherry-picking the six-figure retirement compensation packages of top-tier city and county executives to create poster children for “skyrocketing pension costs.” Yet according to CalPERS, the average pension for state workers is about $25,000 per year and that half of CalPERS retirees receive $18,000 per year or less in benefits.

While Reed and company aren’t explicitly articulating their vision of how the Golden State’s public retirees are supposed to survive on less during their golden years, Frying Pan News recently spoke with some former state, county and municipal workers for a picture of how their retirements have been living up to their expectations.

Norma Anders, Long Beach

Retired career librarian Norma Anders’ eyes light up when she speaks of her 30 years in the City of Los Angeles’ public library system. “We make a big difference,” she declares proudly. “We’re one of the forces that’s giving our country an educated workforce, an informed citizenry. [It’s how] we’re going to be able to keep our [nation] growing and growing.”

Norma Anders (Photo: Bill Raden)

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Pension Cutters: Bipartisan Slogans, Right-Wing Money

10:36 am in Pension by Gary Cohn

Last week San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed delivered his usual speech about the benefits of slashing the retirement benefits of his city’s public employees – and why he is now pushing for a statewide ballot measure that could dramatically change the lives of hundreds of thousands of Californians. Reed’s initiative – which he characterizes as a bipartisan effort and which hasn’t yet qualified for the 2014 ballot — would allow the state and local governments in his home state to reduce retirement benefits for current employees for the years of work they perform after the measure’s changes go into effect. What was not usual about Reed’s speech was its setting: The Roosevelt Hotel in New York City, 3,000 miles from California.

Reed was a keynote speaker at a “Save Our Cities” conference sponsored by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank co-founded by Ronald Reagan’s CIA director, William Casey. There was another California presence at the gathering: The video-streamed image and voice of former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan who, like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, seemed to demand revenge – in this case, for the ignominious implosion of his own $800,000 effort in 2012 for an L.A. ballot measure that would have forced city employees into 401(k) plans.

New York wasn’t Reed’s only port of call last week. The following day he spoke again — on a panel at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Washington, D.C. There he discussed firefighter and police pensions as part of a conference on state and local retirement systems sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Urban Institute and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

Reed was invited to both events, says Michelle McGurk, Reed’s spokesperson. She says the Manhattan Institute and Pew Charitable Trusts each paid for one flight, and the city of San Jose also paid some costs, based on the amount of city work Reed did while on the East Coast.

“It was a mixture of him being invited to speak and city business,” McGurk says.

Reed’s message at both venues was the same: Cutting pensions of public employees is needed to stave off cuts in public services and even possible bankruptcy. That, and the fact that his initiative is part of a bipartisan or even largely Democratic-led effort.

This last statement has raised eyebrows.

“Mayor Reed’s East Coast junket shows exactly where his bread is buttered,” says Jordan Marks, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Public Pension Coalition. “The Manhattan Institute and Pew Charitable Trusts are both aligned with right-wing ideologue John Arnold, who has funded a massive effort to gut public pensions all across the country.”

On October 15, Reed filed papers with the California Attorney General for his ballot initiative, known as the Pension Reform Act of 2014. Democratic mayors Bill Kampe of Pacific Grove, Pat Morris of San Bernardino and Miguel Pulido of Santa Ana, along with Anaheim’s Republican mayor, Tom Tait, joined Reed in filing the papers. Since then Reed has become a national spokesman for slashing the retirement benefits of public employees.

In a statement released during the October 15 filing, Reed said that “skyrocketing retirement costs are crowding out funding for essential public services and pushing cities, counties and other government agencies closer to insolvency.”

The money Reed has raised for his bipartisan effort has come from mostly partisan conservative policy advocates. He has drawn $200,000 from the Action Now Initiative, a nonprofit affiliated with Texas billionaire and former Enron trader John Arnold; $25,000 from Basic American Foods heir George Hume; $25,000 from venture capitalist Michael Moritz and his wife, novelist Harriet Heyman, and $50,000 from Richard Riordan. Reed disclosed the payments in behested payment reports filed with the city of San Jose.

“Californians,” says Jordan Marks, “should be wary of what Texas billionaires are selling for its firefighters, police officers, teachers and thousands of other public workers.”

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