Tag: Pensions

Federal Spending Has Always Been Wasteful

A new article by Ivan Eland describes how wars have stimulated growth in the American welfare state. I was interested in his discussion regarding the overexpansion of pensions following the Civil War:

In 1879, the Arrears Act caused many veterans, who hadn’t realized they were disabled until the government offered $1,000 or more for finding aches and injuries, to flood the Bureau of Pensions with claims.  Although, according to its commissioner, the bureau was the largest executive bureau in the world, it had few means to detect fraudulent claims, which were rampant. During election years between 1878 and 1899, Republicans used the bureau to dole out pensions rapidly and heavily in key electoral states.

In 1890, a quarter century after the Civil War ended, pension eligibility expanded to include any soldier who had served 90 days or more during the war and was unable to do manual labor—whether or not he was injured during the conflict, or even whether he had seen combat. Similarly, widows of soldiers serving in the war for 90 days or more got pensions, regardless of whether their husbands had died in the conflict.”

Republicans supported lavish pensions to groups in their political constituency (Union veterans) to justify continued high tariff walls to protect Northern industries, which were among the most influential supporters in their political coalition. The interests of such industrialists coincided with those of pensioner lobbies and the bureaucratic empire of the Bureau of Pensions to widen the program over time.

Politically driven overspending and waste is nothing new in Washington. In the 19th Century, there was tons of waste in federal agencies such as the Army Corps of Engineers. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) was also a very troubled agency:

Fraud, corruption, and bribes were common in the BIA during some periods in the 19th century. One reason was because local BIA officials had substantial discretionary control over cash, goods, trading licenses, and other items handed out by the agency. In the years following the Civil War, “Indian rings” of government agents and contractors colluded to steal funds and supplies from taxpayers and the tribes. The New York Times railed against the “dishonesty which pervades the whole Bureau.” And the newspaper argued that “the condition of the Indian service is simply shameful. It has long been notorious that rascally agents and contractors have connived to cheat the Indians. … It now appears that a ring has long existed in the Indian Bureau at Washington for the express purpose of covering up these frauds and facilitating others.

Pension Problems — for Rick Perry and the Taxpayers

At the Huffington Post I write about the news that Rick Perry is currently collecting both a salary and a pension from the taxpayers, and about a worse pension claim by a former Maryland governor. But I note that the real problem for taxpayers is not a few governors’ pensions but rather unfunded liabilities in the trillions facing state and local governments. And I suggest why legislators let pensions get so out-of-control:

Why do pensions get so lavish? A 2009 study by the Cato Institute argued that in negotiations between elected officials and government unions, nobody really represents the taxpayers. Elected officials are far more responsive to organized interests like unions than to the unorganized citizen-taxpayers. In effect, the principal-agent problem that analysts of the corporation worry about is far worse in government because it is very difficult for taxpayers to control their theoretical agents, the elected officials and appointed managers of government.

Whole thing here.

Strength vs. Stupidity

The New York Times weighs in this morning with a timely and sensible editorial on military spending. The main focus is on the increasingly outdated pay and benefits system for the nation’s troops. Some choice excerpts:

Military pay, benefit and retirement costs rose by more than 50 percent over the…decade (accounting for inflation). Leaving aside Afghanistan and Iraq, those costs now account for nearly $1 out of every $3 the Pentagon spends.

Much of that is necessary to recruit and retain a high-quality, all-volunteer military….But current military pay, pension systems and retiree health care benefits are unsustainable and ripe for reform.

[…]

The retirement system is both unfair and increasingly expensive. Most veterans, including many who have served multiple combat tours, will never qualify for even a partial military pension or retiree health benefits. These are only available to those who have served at least 20 years. Those who do qualify can start collecting their pensions as soon as they leave service, even if they are still in their late 30s, making for huge long-term costs.

So far, so good. Two essential points bear repeating.

First, the rise in military spending over the past decade has not been driven solely by the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pentagon costs are growing, and the rate of growth is rising. Programmatic reform is needed to reign in those costs; avoiding stupid wars won’t solve the problem (although it won’t hurt).

Second, the current system disproportionately rewards individuals who stay in the service for 20-plus years, and undercompensates those men and women who serve several tours, but who do not qualify for military retirement. A better system would allow anyone who has served to retain some of what they paid (or what taxpayers paid for them) into a portable retirement account that they control. Private industry has been steadily moving away from a fixed-benefit, pension-style system for years. I have heard the arguments against such a move, but I don’t find them particularly convincing.

One point from the Times editorial, however, calls out for clarification. The editors claim on two separate occasions that current military spending patterns are “unsustainable.” They conclude:

The United States already has a comfortable margin of [military] dominance….The Pentagon’s ambitions expanded without limit over the Bush era, and Congress eagerly wrote the checks. The country cannot afford to continue this way, and national security doesn’t require it. (emphasis added)

The latter point, “national security doesn’t require it,” is crucial, correct, and should be repeated at every opportunity. The former assertion, “the country cannot afford” it, is false. Repeating that claim plays into the hands of the inveterate hawks who never saw a war, or a weapon system, that wasn’t deserving of more lives/money.

The hawks are correct to point out that the United States has in the past, and could in the future, choose to spend as much or more on our military. Current spending levels amount to about five percent of GDP (when including the costs of the wars), and military spending as a share of total government spending has been falling steadily for years. According to the hawks, it is other spending, or too little revenue, that is putting our children and grandchildren into debt.

I wish that the Times had spent more time hammering the point that such spending is unnecessary. Contrary to anecdote and the evening news, the international system is remarkably stable and peaceful. The United States need not spend more than we did at the height of the Cold War in order to be secure from most threats. And those few genuine threats to our security could be handled with a smaller, more efficient military—if we offloaded some responsibilities to other countries that have sheltered under the U.S. security umbrella for decades.

The Times doesn’t directly address that last point. By focusing most of their attention on programmatic reforms to pay and benefits, and a bit on costly procurement of unnecessary weapons, but not enough to the underlying flawed assumptions that drive military spending, the editors contribute to the misconception that the U.S. military should continue to be the world’s policeman, and find ways to do this on the cheap.

That is unfortunate. Spending more than we need to doesn’t make us stronger. Ignoring our favorable strategic circumstances is simply stupid. We spend too much on our military because we ask our troops to do too much. To spend less, we must do less. The good news is that we can. The bad news is that too few people understand that.

As Central Falls Falls

The New York Times has an article today on the plight of Central Falls, Rhode Island, a 19,000-population industrial city that may declare bankruptcy under the fiscal weight of $80 million in pension obligations for police and fire officers. Unlike some coverage of municipal fiscal woes, this one does not dance around the way some of the problem originates in misguided labor policy:

The city, just north of Providence, is small and poor, but over the years it has promised police officers and firefighters retirement benefits like those offered in big, rich states like California and New York. These uniformed workers can retire after just 20 years of service, receive free health care in retirement, and qualify for full disability pensions when only partly disabled.

“Promised” is a word of art here, because the city wasn’t really making all of these concessions on a voluntary basis, as its negotiator explains:

state law called for binding arbitration, which for many years was a clubby process that emphasized comparable benefits all across the state more than any city’s ability to pay.

“Binding” arbitration, just to be clear, does not mean that the city agreed beforehand to settle disputes with the unions by way of arbitration; it means that state law imposed an arbitrator’s edict whether city managers ever signed up for the arbitration route or not. It thus differs from the contractually specified arbitration upheld lately in consumer contexts by the U.S. Supreme Court in AT&T v. Concepcion, a decision assailed by many of the same politicos who see no problem with genuine mandatory arbitration in the labor context.

The crisis in municipal finance wrought by binding public-sector arbitration and related laws comes as no surprise to readers who remember Cato’s excellent 2009 study “Vallejo Con Dios: Why Public Sector Unionism Is a Bad Deal for Taxpayers and Representative Government” by Don Bellante, David Denholm, and Ivan Osorio. (The California city of Vallejo declared bankruptcy in 2008 following the failure of negotiations with police and fire unions over unsustainable compensation.)

One point the otherwise thorough Times article omitted: many politicians in Washington have worked for years to impose a Central-Falls-like legal climate on states and localities lucky or farsighted enough to have avoided one in the past. During last fall’s lame duck session, then-Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) tried to push through the truly appalling Public Safety Employer–Employee Cooperation Act, which not only would have forced police and fire unionization on reluctant states and localities but also provided that in case of impasse (quoting Heritage) “States would have to provide a dispute resolution mechanism, such as binding arbitration.” And the misnamed Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), a priority of President Obama during his first years in office, would have imposed binding arbitration on the private sector. Central Falls may now be hurtling toward the waterfall, but how many other communities are just one political shove away from plunging into the same fiscal rapids?

Bureaucrats vs. Taxpayers

The political process often resembles an unseemly racket as politicians take money from people who earn it and give it to another group in exchange for campaign cash and political support. The modern bureaucracy is a good example. Government workers have now become a cosseted elite, with generous pay, extravagant benefits, lavish pensions, and ironclad job security. In exchange for this privileged status, they reward the politicians with millions of dollars of support and a host of in-kind contributions.  I have documented many of these outrages in my “Taxpayers vs. Bureaucrats” series at the International Liberty blog. Well, now we have a video detailing how the government workforce has morphed into a fiscal nightmare for taxpayers.

There are three things in the video that deserve special emphasis. First, bureaucrats are vastly overpaid. The government data cited in the video show that total compensation for the federal civil service is twice as high, on average, as it is for workers in the productive sector of the economy. There are some bureaucrats who deserve above-average pay, such as scientists dealing with nuclear weapons, but it is outrageous that the average drone in the federal bureaucracy is getting twice as much compensation as the taxpayers (serfs) who pay their salaries.

Second, this mini-documentary debunks the silly argument (put forth by government employee unions, of course) that bureaucrats are underpaid compared to the private sector. The Department of Labor has data looking at voluntary departure rates by profession. If government workers were being underpaid, you would expect them to be more likely to leave their jobs in order to take new positions in the (supposedly higher paid) private sector. Instead, the video reveals that people in the private sector are six times more likely to switch jobs than federal bureaucrats.

Third, the video concludes with the essential point that most federal bureaucrats should be paid nothing because they work for departments and agencies that should not exist.

Last but not least, Chris Edwards deserves special mention. Much of the material in this video came from his work on this issue.

The Next Ronald Reagan?

Very rarely does one find a politician with the moral clarity to provide the blunt and necessary truth about a controversial issue, but that has finally happened. But this is a good news/bad news situation for American taxpayers. The good news is that a politician has proposed to slash both bureaucrat pay and public pensions and publicly stated that, “The state sector is like a fat man of 200kg sitting on the back of a 50kg little man who is the real economy.” The bad news is that this politician is the President of Romania. A caveat is probably appropriate at this stage. I have no idea whether Presdident Basescu actually is a genuine small-government proponent. Perhaps he is just an ordinary politician forced to do the right thing by extraordinary circumstances. Nonetheless, I have a hard time imagining we will see a better quote from an elected official this year. Here’s an excerpt from a story in the Irish Times:

President Traian Basescu said officials had decided…to reduce the pay of state employees by 25 per cent from next month and pensions and unemployment benefits by 15 per cent this year. …He said the cutbacks would also help reinvigorate an economy that is being crushed by a bloated and inefficient state sector, and allow Romania to avoid steep tax hikes that could hamper investment and destroy hopes of a swift recovery from recession. “This plan was inevitable. The state sector is like a fat man of 200kg sitting on the back of a 50kg little man who is the real economy,” said Mr Basescu, who narrowly won re-election at the end of last year.