Like most social media profiles, the union’s “Repair Costa Mesa” page lists things the union leadership likes. On one recent night, the Top 3 likes were Occupy Irvine, Occupy Costa Mesa, and Occupy Orange County.
I’m a huge fan of the Occupy Wall Street movement and its myriad spinoffs, in part because, like a lot of Americans, I can see the Bush Administration’s bank bailout—and the banking industry’s subsequent crackdown on the very taxpayers who supplied the cash that saved the banks—only through the prism of something like Jesus’ parable of the Unforgiving Servant.
You don’t have to be a Christian to appreciate the Kafkaesque irony of Matthew 18:21-35: a king who had loaned one of his best servants $10,000 (or its Roman-era equivalent) one day told that servant it was time to pay up. The servant begged the king for more time. “Sure,” the king said. Relieved, the servant went out into the public square—and ran straight into a ragged, fellow servant who owed the servant (let’s say) $10. “Pay up,” the first servant said to the second. The rest of the story is worth quoting:
So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will repay you!” He would not, but went and cast him into prison, until he should pay back that which was due. So when his fellow servants saw what was done, they were exceedingly sorry, and came and told to their lord all that was done. Then his lord called him in, and said to him, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt, because you begged me. Shouldn’t you also have had mercy on your fellow servant, even as I had mercy on you?” His lord was angry, and delivered him to the tormentors, until he should pay all that was due to him. So my heavenly Father will also do to you, if you don’t each forgive your brother from your hearts for his misdeeds.
Like I say, we don’t have to be Christians—don’t have to be religious at all—to see that this story is about unfairness/hypocrisy/double standards. When we consider that Wall Street was saved from ruination by just massive amounts of government money, and that Wall Street returned the favor by driving Americans from their homes, well, it just makes you want to eat tofu cooked on a grill powered by a dreadlocked guy peddling a bike hooked up to a generator in Zucotti Park.
And so I understand why almost every American would feel some sympathy for the Occupy Wall Street movement—almost every American but those in Costa Mesa’s public employee unions. The members of the city’s unions must feel unsettling ambiguity, some sense of weird kinship with Jesus’ Unforgiving Servant, because their pensions, like the pensions of most public employees in California, are invested in Wall Street, via one of the nation’s maddest gambling institutions, the California Public Employees Retirement System, or CalPERS.
CalPERS is to Wall Street what a whale is to a Vegas Casino. A high roller. A player. The biggest swinging male appendage in the room. With $235.8 billion in assets, it is the nation’s largest pension fund, and among the biggest investors in the world. And it’s largely on the expected gains in its Wall Street investments that CalPERS has been able to persuade officials in many California cities and counties that they could pay rising pension benefits to their public employees.
It wasn’t always this way. For decades after its 1931 founding as a pension program for state workers, CalPERS—then called the State Employees Retirement System (SERS)—made stodgy, sure-thing bond investments. That changed in 1953 when the legislature allowed SERS to invest in real estate. Thirteen years later, there was another loosening of the restraints on the agency’s investments when state voters passed a union-backed proposition allowing CalPERS to invest a quarter of its portfolio in stocks. In 1984, high on the fumes of the Reagan Revolution, labor pushed Prop. 21, allowing CalPERS to invest anything/everything in Wall Street. CalPERS had become a whale.
But even then, you could see the specter that would come to haunt California’s cities, a kind of proto, financial Paranormal Activity. Prop. 21 “would have no direct fiscal effect on the state or local governments,” the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office told voters before the 1984 election. But then it warned obliquely of an “indirect fiscal effect,” one that “would depend on the extent to which the rate of return on the investments of public retirement funds is higher or lower than what it would have been in the absence of the additional flexibility authorized by this measure.” If the rate of return rose? Everybody’s a winner! If it fell, the fine print read, taxpayers—not CalPERS, not public employees—would make up the difference in the pension fund.
For a long time, CalPERS’ rate of return was higher than it would have been without Wall Street. Following 1984 passage of Prop. 21, “The stock lid came off as the market began a long boom, allowing funds such as the University of California’s to go two decades without contributions from employers or employees,” reports the blog Calpensions. “Years of double-digit investment earnings led to the belief that generous pension benefits . . . could be paid for by investments with little or no need for increased contributions from employers or employees.”
Alongside this ballooning confidence in the power and logic of Wall Street was a parallel optimism about what retirement ought to look like—a sense evolving over decades that California’s public employees could retire younger and younger, and rely on bigger and bigger pensions whilst buying second homes in Coeur d’Alene and sunning like gators on boats on the Snake River. In 1932, when SERS was still a mewling Depression-era babe, the pension promised to pay according to this simple formula: beginning at age 65, a retired state worker would receive 1/70 of salary times years of service; keep in mind that we died younger in those days—about age 60 versus nearly 80 today. As lives lengthened, the retirement-age paradoxically dropped for many state workers—to 60 in 1945 (thanks, Gov. Earl Warren!), and down to age 50 in 1970.
You can begin to see the confluence of forces that would generate a pension problem when you also consider that, with life-expectancy rising and retirement-age falling, California offered public workers more generous pension benefits. In 1932, that benefit was 1.4 percent per year of service; the percentage increased to 1.6 percent under Gov. Warren, and to 2 percent when Gov. Ronald Reagan took over the Governor’s Mansion in Sacramento. It’s between 2 percent and 3 percent today.
Now? “Now,” Calpensions summarizes, “a historic market crash has punched a big hole in pension funds. Government agencies face years of increased pension contributions to make up for the losses, threatening funding for other programs.”
AND SO THE UNION FINDS ITSELF split, its progressive heart inclined to the 99 percent of America that resents Wall Street’s influence in Washington, its pensions simultaneously dependent on an engorged and rampant Wall Street. That produces some weird bipolarity/split-personality disorders in organized labor and its supporters. The problem isn’t a pension system built on casino-style gaming, they say; the problem and its solution are in that gaming. They are gambling junkies.
“Let’s be clear,” wrote president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Gerald W. McEntee, a man who is anything but clear:
Underfunded pension systems resulted from unprecedented losses of asset values caused by reckless behavior on Wall Street and the refusal of some politicians to make their required payments. As recently as 2007, pension funds had, collectively, 96 percent of the assets required to meet future expenditures. But Wall Street drove America’s economy and retirement security into a ditch. And now both pension and 401(k) accounts alike must be rebuilt.
Similarly, a pro-union reader on the liberal Orange Juice blog asserted that the Costa Mesa council majority’s goal in outsourcing city jobs isn’t a response to a real financial crisis. Its goal is to destroy the American working class and “to steer pension monies to Wall Street.”
Except, of course, that’s where those “pension monies” already are. And if you listen to other union backers, it’s where that money ought to stay.
THERE’S NO BIGGER BELIEVER in Wall Street miracles than the guy whose pension is invested in highly speculative stocks. Writing on the same Orange Juice blog, “Mayor Quimby” handed out stock advice to Costa Mesans, sounding more like Mad Money’s apoplectic host Jim Cramer than an advocate of Occupy Wall Street: Keep your money in stocks, the Mayor admonished Costa Mesa: “you might find out that outsourcing will create a fiscal crisis for the city, by locking the city into losses that were incurred during the Great Recession, and missing the gains from the recovery.” That pitch—don’t leave before the miracle happens!—is how Wall Street locks in the losers.
Orange County Employees Association spokesperson Jennifer Muir was equally bullish on the markets: The Orange County Employees Retirement System “just reported a 19 percent rate of return for this year,” Muir reported breathlessly last summer. “CALPERS and CALSTRS are even higher at close to 25 percent.” Bottom line: diversify—always diversify—but keep your retirement in high-performing stocks.
CalPERS has a reputation as an activist investor. The organization has insisted on quid pro quos: in exchange for investment cash, it has pushed for caps on executive pay and transparency; has led the way for human rights, environmental and labor standards in emerging markets; and participated in class-action lawsuits against major health insurance companies, including UnitedHealth Group.
Leveraging that tradition, the city’s workers could reform their union and its bloated pensions. They could start by demanding that CalPERS invest their pensions in solid/stolid/boring U.S. bonds rather than in the speculative junk that fueled Wall Street’s rapid, unprecedented rise through the 1990s and its post-scriptural crash in 2008. That might—might—mean more modest retirements, of course, but it would certainly end union members’ hypocritical reliance on Wall Street—their affection for gambling when Wall Street inflates their pensions, their hatred of the market when it shapes the contours of their daily work.