Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Public Pensions: Rotting from Within

With all the talk about earnings per share and future profits, it's easy to forget that a country's stock market won't experience a bull market if the country spends more than it collects. This is the basic law of business, and it doesn't change just because government is involved. One area that needs a closer look is public pensions.

Pension Tsunami is a website about public pensions, and it's definitely worth a look. Here is one recent article on San Jose public pensions, focusing on police officers and firefighters. (The San Jose Mercury article contains the chart posted above.)

Most people respect police officers and other public safety workers, but there is no reason for any public worker to receive more benefits and a higher salary than the average private sector worker. When government employees receive higher salaries and benefits than private sector employees, private citizens end up protecting and serving the government--an odd reversal. This is because private sector taxes and IOUs (bonds) are used to finance government expenditures, and those monies come from the private sector. If there is an imbalance, government will have to run up deficits to keep paying itself, creating an imbalance that will devalue the currency (due to the need to print more money to pay for the higher-than-normal benefits) or cause inflation. Thus, whenever the people work to serve the government instead of the other way around, fiscal responsibility will not exist.

There's also the small matter that America was created so private citizens would not have to kowtow to kings or an insulated, domineering government. In short, American government was designed to serve non-government citizens. America's founders would probably disapprove of a political system where people work primarily to serve and pay their government.

Even though the evidence favors treating government workers no better than private workers, it will take a massive paradigm shift to educate the public about the danger of excessive government spending/benefits.

First, television glorifies police officers, D.A.s, and other government workers, while accountants and small businesses don't get any airtime. I still remember my CHiPs costume when I was a kid--but I don't remember seeing any bank teller or taxi driver costumes on Halloween. When the average American watches hours of television, public sector workers have an advantage because they are portrayed as more important than private sector workers--even though it's the private sector workers who are footing the bill.

Second, most of the people teaching our children are government workers. As a result, most students spend eighteen years in a system that has no incentive to educate them about the true costs of excessive government spending and exclusive government benefits. This systemic education failure not only aggrandizes teachers' unions, who have no incentive to reform themselves, but also creates a class divide. Rich people tend to send their children to private schools rather than public schools. In addition, many top government workers, including President-Elect Obama, send their children to private schools. When the children of the middle class and poor spend eighteen years in a different system than the children of the rich, class conflict is virtually guaranteed.

This is why allowing parents to have the option of charter schools is so important. With charter schools, public schools have competition--which usually improves performance--and public schools no longer have a monopoly on education. In general, the public opposes monopolies, knowing they typically produce less innovation and high performance; however, when it comes to charter schools, much of the public is against them. This is surprising, because vouchers are the easiest way the middle-class and poor can escape the monopoly of public schools. When the public views teachers' unions as the Microsofts of education and charter schools as the Googles of education, change will happen.

There are simple ways to resolve the problem of entrenched government. One, require all government workers to have medical and retirement benefits only available to private workers. If a 401(k) is good enough for private sector doctors and lawyers, why do D.A.s and teacher get better retirement benefits in the form of guaranteed pensions? If the average private sector worker doesn't get lifetime medical benefits, why should government workers get such an expensive benefit? (By the way, if we actually equalized medical benefits, all Americans would probably get subsidized healthcare coverage.) When government workers have to use the same services as the public, they have more information about how the average person lives and more of an incentive to fix problems.

Two, institute term limits for all government workers. If we have term limits for the president and other representatives, why allow lifetime jobs for other government workers? A reasonable term limit would be 10 to 15 years. After this time period, a government worker could not go into any other government position and would have to earn his keep in the private sector. The knowledge that a government job is not a lifetime position would incentivize the government worker to improve his/her skills for the inevitable day when s/he applies for a non-taxpayer-subsidized position.

In addition, the turnover would be beneficial to the younger population, who could learn significant job skills through government work and then use those skills in the private sector. It would be like having a government-funded apprenticeship, where future leaders would be trained by experienced government workers to serve the public. Experienced government workers would begin training the new crop of workers from Year 13 to Year 15.

Doing it this way, government would be a non-fossilized place. This moderate turnover (as opposed to almost non-existent turnover) would allow new ideas to flourish in government. It is true we would lose skilled government workers to the private sector, but the key is to train newer workers to ensure a consistent stream of skilled government workers.

In the end, if America wants another bull market, it needs to return to budget surpluses. Demanding that our government not spend more than it collects is one way Americans can help get our country back on track.

More on public pensions here.

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