Act Now to Ensure a Solvent Colorado Public Employee Pension Plan

My introductory at-bat in the Independence Institute’s lineup at the Greeley Tribune:

The assumption of a 7.5 percent return masks considerable risk and volatility. Although catastrophic market years such as 2008 have historically been rare, smaller routine losses are to be expected. Those losses can force an already-underfunded system to eat its seed corn by paying benefits out of assets that should be earning returns.

As a result, considerable risk exists that in the future, the state will still need to cut benefits to those who are already retired, to raise taxes, to cut services, or all three.

There is a way out.

I suggest three reforms that would help solve the problem.  We’re no longer in a budget crisis.  The Democrats’ passion for spending every last dime that comes in on new programs that will cry poor in the next recession may fix that.  In the meantime, though, now would be a good time to fix this.

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Daily Glimpse January 15, 2014

Daily Links From Glimpse From a Height

  • NSA Can Access Non-Net-Connected PCs
    Using RF devices implanted in the computers.  Perhaps this is what that previous report of them intercepting shipments is all about.  Color me very favorably impressed. Color me less impressed with the human timber leading the government.  The Times says that it withheld this information at administration request when it was spilling the beans about our [...]
  • Goodbye to the BCS
    Grantland writers take varying looks back at the BCS: Holly Anderson: I don’t have a special set of BCS feelings I keep burnished and tucked away in a corner of the black pit where my heart should be. I watched all the BCS games, dumbly matched or not, because they were football and they were there [...]

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John Kerry – Raising the Bar for Wrongness

The Olympics are coming up, and in the judged sports, like figured skating, we’ll hear a lot about the judges deliberately grading skaters down in order to “leave room” for later competitors who might do better.  If we were to judge the Obama Administration on wrongness, we’d probably have given up and just awarded a perfect score a long time ago, but that wouldn’t have left room for the continuing improvements being demonstrated.

The latest comes via the Weekly Standard, which reports these remarks by Secretary of State John Kerry:

We talked about the common interest of Pope Francis and President Obama in addressing poverty and extreme poverty on a global basis. The United States of America is deeply involved in efforts in Africa and in other parts of the world – in Asia, South Central Asia – to address this poverty, as is the Catholic Church. And so we have a huge common interest in dealing with this issue of poverty, which in many cases is the root cause of terrorism or even the root cause of the disenfranchisement of millions of people on this planet.

The idea that poverty is the cause of terrorism has been so thoroughly debunked – most suicide bombers come from middle-class families, bin Laden was the wealthy son of a wealthy construction contractor, etc. – that his statement on the merits is hardly worth addressing.

That said, the second part of his statement, where he says that he and Theresa have therefore decided to set an example by donating their entire fortune to the Palestinian people, is really quite remarkable.

Ha, just kidding.  Of course, he didn’t say anything of the sort.  The solution, as always, will be to transfer billions of dollars of wealth from the middle-class and aspiring lower-class earners of the developed countries to the corrupt coffers of their “governments,” many of whom actively support terrorism, even as they pose as the most-reasonable-least-bad-alternative, in order to continue padding their Swiss bank accounts.  (Would that we pursued those half as assiduously as we went after law-abiding Americans with overseas money.)

In other words, Kerry wants to redistribute my future to people who want to kill me, enabling them to better do so, and feeding the contempt which is the real source of their murderousness.

Of course, Kerry himself won’t turn over his fortune to this good cause in defense of his countrymen.  He’ll pay some nominal increase in taxes, and continue to enjoy marvelous security at taxpayer expense (for a while) and then his own (for a while).

It’s really the foreign policy equivalent of Obama’s domestic policies.  Nobody thinks he or his rich backers from Silicon Valley are going to suffer from redistributionist policies.  It’s the middle-class and those just starting out who will see their futures bargained away, while the rest of us join the permanent renter class.

Foreign policy naivete combined with cronyism – the administration may finally have earned that Perfect 10.

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Daily Glimpse January 14, 2014

Daily Links From Glimpse From a Height

  • Secret Side-Deals With Iran?
    The LA Times reports: In his interview, [Iran Chief Negotiator Abbas] Araqchi touched on the sensitive issue of how much latitude Iran will have to continue its nuclear research and development. U.S. officials said Sunday that Iran would be allowed to continue existing research and development projects and with pencil-and-paper design work, but not to [...]
  • Did Someone Say Inequality, Mr. President?
    Last year, before inequality became the buzzword for the proposed Democrat rebound, Joel Kotkin explained to us what a society run by the Dems’ biggest donors looks like: Rather than a beacon for upward mobility, [Silicon] Valley increasingly represents a high-tech version of a feudal society, where the vast majority of the economic gains go [...]

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What Does Morgan Carroll Have Against Middle-Class Health Insurance?

Democrat State Senate President Morgan Carroll is preparing to kill, for the second time in her legislative career, a bill that would provide Coloradans greater choice and lower cost in health insurance.  She has assigned to the so-called “Kill Committee” Senator Greg Brophy’s (R-Wray) bill that would permit out-of-state health insurance purchases for Colorado residents.  The “Kill Committee” is the State, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee, which is stocked with reliable partisans of the majority party, who can be counted on to vote down unpopular legislation without its having to be assigned to a relevant committee of record.

Brophy’s stated hope is that somewhere, some insurance company will figure out how to offer an affordable plan, and that Coloradoans should be able to buy such a plan.

The idea has been offered before, both in Colorado and in other states, and it faces an uphill battle.

The National Conference of State Legislatures has compiled a list of similar state legislative efforts over the last few years, including some since Obamacare was passed.  This bill most closely resembles a law passed in Georgia, which permits out-of-state insurers to issue policies in that state.

A similar bill, HB08-1327,  was introduced in Colorado in the 2008 legislative session.  It was killed in Business and Labor Affairs, with then-Representative, now-Senate President Morgan Carroll casting the deciding vote against.  It would have permitted out-of-state insurers to sell here, regardless of whether they met the in-state licensing requirements.  By contrast, SB14-040 would require out-of-state insurers to meet licensing requirements for doing business in Colorado.  However, neither bill requires insurance policies to carry all of the individually mandated items that may raise the cost of health insurance here in Colorado by as much as 50%.

At the time, objections were raised that no interstate compact had been attempted; one wonders whether the Democrats will object to SB14-040 on the basis that interstate compacts are now explicitly permitted under Obamacare.

If so, Republicans can point to HB09-1256, and HB10-1163, both of which proposed Interstate Insurance Compacts, and both of which were killed in the Democrat-controlled legislature.  The former was passed out of committee as a study, and killed in the House Appropriations Committee.  The latter was permission to form an interstate compact, and was killed on a 7-4 party-line vote in the House State, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee, the House “Kill Committee.”

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Contraception Mandate the Latest Battle in a Long Fight

I mean a long fight.

I’ve been reading Norman Cantor’s Medieval Lives, a short book advertising itself as character sketches of a few important Middle Age figures.  In reality, it’s a densely-packed but highly-readable study of the interplay among religious, social, cultural, and political factors in the development of medieval civilization.  By spacing the biographies a generation or a century apart, Cantor makes it possible to trace the evolution and influence of ideas over time.

One sketch is of the first Chancellor of Oxford and inventor of the modern scientific method, Robert Grosseteste.  Grosseteste was also a fierce defender of Church privileges and the rights of ecclesiastical courts.

Before that, though, he tangled with Henry III over the exclusive right of ecclesiastical courts to try clerics.  Few students at Oxford were there to enter the priesthood, but because the University was under Church control, they were required to nominally be members of a monastic order.  As a result, when they got out of hand, as students often would, Grosseteste would routinely write the requisite letter to the common law courts testifying that they were members of the clergy, exempting them from civil jurisprudence and permitting them to be tried by the much more lenient church courts.  The traditional conflict between town and gown thus took on overtones of a larger dispute – the extent of domain of civil society over the Church.

Eventually, Grosseteste would set the tone for his collaborators in the Franciscan Order to support Simon de Montfort in his rebellion against the crown.  And we’re all familiar with the English crown’s resistance to papal duties, and Henry VIII’s financial duress leading him to separate from Rome and confiscate monastic property.  But even in 1253 or so, this tension was manifesting itself in a very specific, very legal, jurisdictional dispute.

To that extent, it looks a lot like the current disputes over the Obamacare contraception mandate – how much room for private or institutional religious conscience is there in a secular civil society?  It also demonstrates how much ground has been lost in that fight, and why Orthodox Jews are rushing to make common cause with a historic adversary and recent friend.

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More On PERA & GASB

Today at PERA’s testimony in front of the Colorado legislature’s Joint Budget Committee, the subject of the revisions of GASB’s public pension accounting rules came up.  While PERA produced the usual song and dance about discount rates, one portion of the discussion was illuminating.

It turns out that each district that participates in PERA will have to show a pro-rated portion of that fund’s liability on its own balance sheet.  PERA makes a couple of comments about this; first, that this is an unusual liability that can’t be brought forward, and second, that there’s nothing that the district can do to reduce it.  The first comment is the usual stuff that public pensions always use to justify their higher discount rate.  The second requires a little explanation.

You need to remember that the unfunded liability is PERA’s, and it’s only being distributed for accounting reasons to the various districts.  The PERA funds are managed by PERA on behalf of the individual members, not on behalf of the districts.  The districts have an annual required contribution based on the salaries of the individual PERA members working there, but that’s it.  Their contributions go into the appropriate PERA fund, and become the property of PERA.  There’s no “JeffCo School Account” at PERA, or “Mesa County Employees” account.

Which means that there’s also no way for the individual district to discharge it own portion of PERA’s unfunded liability, even if PERA were permitted to take additional contributions from employers, which it’s not.

Suppose the School Fund has an unfunded liability of $10 billion.  Suppose 5%, or $500 million of that, is attributable to JeffCo School.  And suppose JeffCo, in a Herculean effort, raises $500 million in taxes to pay it off, and ensure that they never have to worry about their portion of PERA’s unfunded liability again.  JeffCo School cuts a check to PERA for $500 million.  And that money goes into the Big Barrel called, “PERA School Fund,” reducing its unfunded liability by 5%, to $9.5 billion.  And the next year, JeffCo’s Schools gets a Thank You Note, along with a notice from PERA that they are responsible for 5% of PERA’s School Fund unfunded liability, or $475 million.  That’s what PERA means when it says that this is a unique liability for districts – they can’t really do anything about it on their own, but there it sits, on their balance sheets, screwing up their ratios.

Wait, ratios?

Yes, ratios.  It turns out that the Colorado Department of Education does a Fiscal Health Analysis on the various school districts, and a key part of that analysis is certain ratios, three of which (Asset Sufficiency, Operating Reserve, and Change in Fund Balance) depend on the districts’ General Fund Balance.   CDE hasn’t disclosed yet how they’ll deal with this change, but if it were up to me, I’d more or less ignore it in that analysis.  The liability really belongs to PERA, not to the district, and since the legislature will ultimately fix (or not) the problem, it’s almost impossible to know how it relates to any district’s current demographics, employment, or finances.

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Recycling, Global Warming Style

Guess the year:

Some climate computer models say that the warming so far this century should be greater than it has been.  Why hasn’t the Earth warmed more?

Some of the possible reasons are:

  • Pollution, especially sulfur particles, could be blocking enough sunlight to offset greenhouse warming
  • Oceans could be storing more heat that most theories allow
  • The climate might be in a natural cooling phase, offsetting some of the greenhouse warming
  • Natural “thermostats” could limit the Earth’s heating.  One idea is that as oceans warm, thicker clouds would form, blocking more sunlight and keeping temperatures from rising further

Climate models that take the effects of sulfur into account and that have more details of ocean currents come close to creating the current conditions.  [Senior Scientist at the National Climate Data Center Tom] Karl says enough sulfur is in the air over the eastern U.S., and parts of China and Europe to easily offset a greenhouse warming.  Heat stored in the oceans and changes in ocean currents could account for the 1940 to 1975 cooling.

This leads to speculation that the weather’s ups and downs of the last few years are caused by global warming.  Some have blamed greenhouse gases for Hurricane Andrew, the 1993 Mississippi floods and other events.  But there’s no real evidence that global warming was involved.  In fact, Hurricane Andrew hit in August 1992, the earth’s coldest month in a year that was cooler than any since the 1970s because of the Mount Pinatubo volcanic eruption in 1991.

Over the last few years, various scientific findings have been publicized as either proof or refutation of the idea that greenhouse gases are warming the climate.  Reports of these findings could leave “the impression that science changes its mind each six months,” [NCAR's John] Firor says.  Instead, what’s really happening, is “every year we learn a little bit by thinking very hard” about climate.  ”Science progresses very slowly.”  In climate science, “changes have been minor, even since 1988 when all the fuss about global warming was front page news.”

This means that policymakers will have to continue making decisions about the balance between economics and the danger of greenhouse warming without firm predictions from scientists. (Emphasis added.)

And then, there’s this graph:

Every once is a while, I’m able to overcome my neuroses and throw out a book that’s past its sell-by date.  But before tossing out the 1995 Weather Almanac, I thought I’d take a look at what it had to say about Global Warming.  Here are the relevant portions under, “Greenhouse update.”  The article points out that the earth was warming between 1900 – 1940, then cooled from 1940 – 1975 or so, before starting to warm up again.  This means that right at the tail end of a warming spurt, climate scientists were struggling to explain why the earth hadn’t warmed as much as models had predicted.  Sound familiar?  It should.  Right now, climate scientists are struggling with exactly the same problem right now, with no net warming (and potentially even a little cooling) since 1998.  So should some of the explanations.  (Also, note the honesty about “extreme weather events,” notably absent from most of today’s reporting about climate.)

Perhaps most notable is the simultaneous assumption that the greenhouse gases will warm the planet, along with a modesty about how much is actually known.  Actual temperatures are what matter, not models and their predictions, for instance.  That said, it’s clear that the Climatocracy already understood the dangers of public debate in a field in which they knew so little but assumed so much.  It goes a long way toward explaining the speed with which they moved to shut off that particular threat.

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The South, The Jews, and Christmas

From Eli Evans’s The Provincials, his half-memoir/half-history portrait of the Southern Jewish experience:

The most dismal moment came during the sixth-grade assembly at the annual presentation of the Christmas pageant, when the choir would recite all the verses of Matthew while the rest of us acted out the drama.  The teacher assigned me, the only Jewish boy in the class, the honor of playing Joseph, the number-one boy’s role, but I knew right away I couldn’t go through with something that close-in to the manger.  I worried for days what to do, not telling my parents because they might pull me out of the play altogether, and call too much attention to me.  Finally, I dredged up the courage to talk to the teacher, and carefully explained that I didn’t think this was such a good role for me and, though I was honored to have been chosen, I would be just as happy as a shepherd boy or as the Star of the East.  No, she thought, they were somewhat religious roles too, and she would try to think of something more secular and less objectionable.  I ended up, typecast no doubt, as the tax collector, the heartless representative of King Herod, pounding the table, demanding oppressive taxes from poor pregnant Mary and dutiful Joseph, thus forcing them to leave town for this historic rendezvous.

I played the role with verve, in Arab headdress made from a bath towel.  At the performance, under brilliant direction, I was so excessive that I got the biggest laughs of the day.

My own school experience, while not as Christmas-immersive as Evans’s, included being excused (with little if any commotion) from singing Christmas carols in 4th grade music class, and having to figure out during the Cub Scout Christmas event that it was ok to march around with the other kids and just smile during “Come, All Ye Faithful,” since nobody was going to notice, anyway.

Obviously, over time, I’ve made my peace with Christmas, choosing the enjoy the secular arm that it’s developed (to the dismay of grinches like Mr. Keillor) and the mutual religious respect (from a distance) that has been the ongoing societal miracle of my lifetime.

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Duck Dynasty, Free Speech, and Cable Unbundling

I’m not the first one to make the connection.

That’s not surprising.  What is perhaps surprising is that we’re not the first generation to have the debate over what free speech means.  In fact, the very first generation of free Americans had this debate.  This same exact debate.

I read Pauline Maier’s remarkable Ratification in 2011, but this stayed with me.  On p.71 – 75, she has a section on “Freedom of the Press.”  Surprisingly, the context is very much the same now as it was 226 years ago.

Threats…encouraged writers to continue the standard practice of publishing essays under pseudonyms.  In Boston, however, Benjamin Russell, published of the Massachusetts Centinel, announced in early October that he would print no essays that raised objections to the Constitution unless their authors left their names “to be made public if desired.”  That would clearly discourage critics of the Constitution from speaking out.  The local tradesmen and artisans (known as “mechanics”) who strongly supported ratification, “had been worked up to such a degree of rage,” one Massachusetts official noted, “that it was unsafe to be known to oppose [the Constitution] in Boston.” … Other commenters, however, charged Russell with violating freedom of the press since his policy would curtail the range of arguments available to the public.  In Philadelphia, a writer who took the pen name “Fair Play” answered the threats leveled against those who criticized the Constitution by insisting “that the LIBERTY OF THE PRESS — the great bulwark of all the liberties of the people — ought never to be restrained” (although, he added, “the Honorable Convention did not think fit to make the least declaration in its favor”).

The freedom such writers defended went back to an earlier time, when colonial printers had to appeal to a broad range of readers to stay in business; they took a neutral stand and justified necessity by defining a “free press” as one that was “open to all parties.”  That way of operating came under pressure as the market for newspapers grew and the Revolution raised doubts about giving “all parties,” including Loyalists, ready access to the reading public.  State partisan divisions during the 1780s also made it difficult, and sometimes unprofitable, for printers to remain impartial.  On the other hand, the establishment of a republic, in which all power came from the people, gave the argument for a press open to all parties a new ideological foundation: To exercise their responsibilities intelligently, the citizens of a republic had to be fully informed of different views on public issues.

That concept of a free press was, in any case, different from the standard Anglo-American understanding of “freedom of the press,” which referred to the freedom of printers to publish whatever they wanted without “prior restraint” by the government….The emphasis was on the freedom of the press to monitor and criticize persons in power and the policies they adopted.

In the end, proponents of the Constitution found an effective alternative to threats of tar and feathers and other forms of physical punishment: They could influence editorial policy by cancelling or threatening to cancel their subscriptions to “offending” newspapers.  Advocates for freedom of the press could insist that the American people needed access to the full range of opinions on the Constitution. But were individual subscribers…obliged to pay for newspapers that published essays they considered profoundly subversive of their own and the country’s best interests?

Men like Oswald were rare.  Only twelve of over ninety American newspapers and magazines published substantial numbers of essays critical of the Constitution during the ratification controversy…. If printers were “easily terrified into a rejection of free and decent discussions upon public topics,” [New-York Journal Thomas Greenleaf] wrote in early October 1787, the “inevitable consequence” would be “servile fetters for FREE PRESSES of this country.”  Greenleaf promised to give “every performance, that may be written with decency, free access to his Journal.”  For their persistence, Oswald and Greenleaf suffered verbal attacks, cancelled subscriptions, and threats of mob violence.  Their insistence on maintaining what they understood as a “free press,” that is, one that presented the people with criticism as well as hallelujahs for the Constitution, helped start a widespread public debate on the Constitution, which they they kept going. (Emphasis added – ed.)

Just because the government’s not involved doesn’t mean it’s not a free speech issue.

Arguing over whether this is a legal or a strictly First Amendment issue is the reddest of red herrings.  I suppose there’s some possibility that some judge will decide that if a baker and a photographer can be forced to provide services for gay weddings, then A&E can be forced to employ religious Christians, but absent that, it’s unlikely this will be decided through the courts.  And certainly nobody on the right is calling for a return to the bad old days of the “fairness doctrine,” which wouldn’t apply here in any event.

For most libertarians and conservatives, that’s ok.  But we can’t let it end with that.  We can’t short-circuit them by dismissing them because there are no legal implications.  As Mark Steyn points out, if we want civil society to be where these discussions take place, then we have to ensure that civil society is a place where we can actually have these discussions.

Right now, it’s difficult to tell A&E, and only A&E, that you’re unhappy with their editorial decisions, because if you want to buy A&E, you’re also forced to buy a whole package of other cable channels, not all of which are even owned by the same companies.  The most effective way to enable us to hold A&E accountable is to unbundle these offerings, and allow me to choose, a la carte, what channels I want to receive.   There’s a bill pending in Congress to do just that, and Canada has already taken that step.

In the end, even though there’s an excellent chance that unbundling will mean higher, rather than lower cable bills, it may be the best means of sending the market signals that prevent an enforced conformity.  Right now, more channels just look like a dizzying array of sameness, with those channels of communication that “appeal to a broad range” of viewers, readers, or listeners, being dictated to by bullies who cannot stand to hear that someone disagrees.

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