Archive for June, 2015
Colorado PERA released its 2014 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report on Tuesday, and there were no real surprises, which isn’t to say it was particularly good news for the state’s retirees, government employees, or taxpayers. For the most part, it showed more of what we already knew: a system in trouble, and unlikely to earn its way out of that trouble any time soon, if ever.
The rate of return on investment was 5.7%, which is 1.8% short of the expected rate of return of 7.5%. PERA will no doubt point to the fact that it met the benchmark return, but all that means is that the funds weren’t grossly mismanaged. The net result is that the unfunded liability, as acknowledged by PERA, climbed from $23.3 billion to $24.6 billion.
In reality, the future liability should be discounted not at the expected rate of return – an accounting gimmick that is only available to US public pensions – but by the borrowing cost of the governments involved. In this case, that would mean a discount rate of about 4.5%. Running that out 15 years, we end up with an eye-popping unfunded liability of $60 billion. A 30-year window raises it to an almost unimaginable $116 billion. That’s the unfunded liability – the promises made for which we have no money.
Overall, the funding levels fell to 64.2% from 65.2%, but the two biggest funds are much worse off than that. The State Fund’s funding level slipped to 59.8%, the School Fund to 62.8%. These calculations are done using the market value of the assets, rather than the smoothed actuarial value, as they have in the past. That actually makes the funding levels look better, as the investments age out the miserable 2011 investment year, but it gets the direction right, and funds can only spend and invest actual dollars, not smoothed ones.
The amortization periods – how long it would take to get to full funding – also ballooned to 45 years for the State Fund, and 48 years for the School fund, after accounting for the future increases in the AED and SAED supplemental payments. PERA rightly points out that these numbers don’t account for the decrease in benefits for future hires, which probably shorten the amortization periods by a few years.
I’ll have a lot more to say about this, but the short version is that there’s nothing to be cheerful about here. PERA will claim that everything is still on track to be fully-funded decades hence, but then, PERA always thinks nothing’s wrong right up until the point that they come to the legislature for more money.
Photo Credit: Todd Shepherd & Complete Colorado
Last night’s 1-0 Virginia win over Florida in the College World Series was, for me, anyway, an exercise in the power of first impressions, and the value of keeping score.
Florida’s offense had looked scary the whole post-season, winning games with 19, 11, 13, and 8 runs. Their only close game was in the regionals, the 2-1 clincher over Florida Atlantic.
So when Brandon (don’t call me “Rube“) Waddell opened up with a 20-pitch first inning, including an opening out that was a couple of feet short of a home run, a walk, and a hit batter, it stayed with me the whole game. The impression was one of a starting pitcher who got rattled by that first batter almost taking him deep, and took a while to settle down. It was reinforced by a lead-off infield single in the second, and aided by the ungodly amount of time he was taking between pitches.
He was certainly throwing hard, but he wasn’t striking guys out. And because Virginia only put up the one run, and because its pitching had been shaky (Waddell’s own stats this year haven’t been world-beating), and because college baseball is still shaking off its decades-long reputation of having beer-league softball scores, it didn’t feel dominant, it felt like Waddell was tiptoeing on the edge of disaster.
Had I been keeping score, I would have seen how much he was owning the Gators. His line until the 8th – when he left with nobody out and runners at the corners – really was dominant. From the 2nd through the 7th, Waddell faced only one batter over the minimum, and had only two baserunners in all. He averaged something line 10 pitches an inning during that span, but it wasn’t until the 7th that I looked up and realized the Florida pitcher, Puk, had thrown 10 more pitches than Waddell had. But because of that shaky first inning, where appeared not to have the confidence to pitch to the batters, I spent the better portion of the game not realizing that he had settled into a lineup-killing rhythm.
The lesson? Bring a scorecard.
The Hill reported this morning that Congressional Republicans are near a deal on a bill to keep some Obamacare subsidies in place should the Supreme Court rule against the administration King v. Burwell. While this will no doubt be condemned by the usual suspects as proving the party’s insincerity in wanting to repeal the unpopular health care law, it makes sense for both policy and political reasons.
Polls show that while Obamacare itself is increasingly unpopular, and has been unpopular for the whole of its existence, they also show that people don’t particularly want an adverse decision in King v. Burwell. But such a decision in Burwell would almost certainly spell the end of Obamacare, as the states with federal exchanges would lose their subsidies, collapsing the rickety system that Obamacare put in place.
How to resolve these apparently conflicting sentiments?
I think the answer is that people dislike uncertainty, chaos, and drama as much as they dislike Obamacare itself. And while losing the subsidies would certainly collapse Obamacare, how it would collapse and how it would effect people on the way down is far from clear. This isn’t a situation where the whole health care system simply reverts to the status quo ante, people’s rates come back down, and the exchanges go away.
Instead, some states would continue to get subsidies, others wouldn’t, and the executive would scramble around in vain trying to prop up the structure. Nobody would know what the rules are, or what they would be tomorrow. This would be true not only for consumers, but for doctors, hospitals, and insurers as well. In short, for at least a while, the health insurance market would simply cease to function in any rational way. The human cost of that chaos would be swift and severe.
What the Republicans are proposing to do is extend the subsidies temporarily until the system can be transitioned away from Obamacare. This will prevent the immediate chaos, and will also possibly having the effect of reassuring that Court that it’s safe to rule against the administration.
Obama will fight this tooth and nail, simultaneously creating the drama while blaming the Republicans for it, in a repeat of the shutdown exercise from October 2013. In this they will, as always, have the slavish cooperation of the press. But the alternative – letting the administration assume the role of hero, even as people find themselves unable to obtain insurance or case – is far worse, and, as mentioned above, may be too much for the Court to swallow.
Even if the “temporary” period extends into the next administration, it would give a Republican president time to work with the Congress to pull together his own plan.
All this is only true, of course, if the actual intent is to repeal O-care and start moving toward more market-based solutions. If it really is just an excuse to put off decisions and lose the momentum of the mid-term elections, then the condemnation will be deserved.
Sunday morning, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker appeared on Meet the Press, and was asked – predictably – about gay marriage. Here are two FB posts from two of my friends, one libertarian, and one a social conservative:
Neither FB friend was happy with what Walker allegedly had to say.
In fact, the reporting on both is shoddy, short, and lazy.
Taken separately, the comments appear to have come from two completely different people, and the headlines aren’t even reflective of the articles that they accompany. (Click here for the City Pages article, here for the Hill report.)
Taken together, they form a coherent, reasonable response to a trap question. Walker says, in effect, that he doesn’t want to get distracted by the question, he doesn’t think it’s important to most people, but that for people who are worried about the Supreme Court’s decision, there are a couple of routes they could take – a Constitutional amendment, or having the states back out of the marriage license business altogether, acting as a recorder. Neither of those courses requires any sort of presidential action – Constitutional amendments do not require presidential signatures, and state-level action on marriage is obviously not a federal issue. And indeed, Walker doesn’t actually endorse either course of action.
On the whole, it seems an admirable response, especially after 6 1/2 long years of a president who not only has an opinion about everything, but a desire to incorporate that opinion into the Federal Register.
But reading the headlines alone, you’d never know that. And with FB’s increasingly silo-friendly algorithms, you’d likely never even know that the other article existed.
Lincoln Chaffee wants us to adopt the Metric System.
Because it’s European, I guess. And because it’s already been officially “adopted” since the late 1800s.
When I was in elementary school, we learned the Metric System, because we had to, and because we were all solemnly and sincerely told that English units were on their way out. And we promptly forgot about it.
In college, where I majored in physics, we did all our calculations in metric, because of exponents. But that’s what it was – the system you did calculations in. In real life, I don’t think I ever measured anything other than Imperial units.
I vividly remember a conversation with a co-worker where we discussed why we hadn’t gone Metric yet.
Cory: Because nobody knows how far a kilometer is.
Me: Sure, I do.
Cory: OK, how far is a kilometer?
Me: Six-tenths of a mile.
There’s a famous post out there about Fahrenheit vs. Centigrade vs. Kelvin, showing that 0F is pretty cold, and 100F is pretty hot, but people can survive in both. 0C is pretty cold, but 100C is dead, and 0K and 100K are both dead, so Fahrenheit is more useful for temperatures we’re likely to encounter. The same is true with all the other Imperial units.
Then, there’s the layout of our cities. Here in Denver, north-south blocks are 8 to a mile, east-west blocks are 16 to a mile, and most other western cities are laid out on some variation of that. You can approximate that with 5 and 10 to a kilometer for a little while, I guess, but it doesn’t take long before the approximation breaks down, and anyway, why do I want to bother with re-adjusting my sense of scale to make Lincoln Chaffee happy? There needs to be a bigger payoff than that for that kind of work.
When the PERA Pension Obligation Bond story was in its death throes, the Denver Post was writing a story about the political, rather than the financial angle, of the bill and its failure in committee. Treasurer Walker Stapleton had testified in favor of the bill in the House Finance Committee, although most of his testimony was of a technical nature.
At the time Post reporter John Frank called me, I had not yet heard Stapleton’s comments on the Mike Rosen Show, where he appeared to try to walk back his support for the bill. There’s no reason to rehash the controversy here, and that’s not the point of the post.
The point is this: Franks paraphrased what Stapleton had said, and asked me to comment on his on-air statements. I asked him to quote them to me. He quoted to me a couple of sentences, and I was brought up short. But this was a radio talk show, and Mike Rosen is one of the best interviewers around. The actual on-air back-and-forth was much longer than that.
So I paused, said that, even though I had just asked him to quote Stapleton to me, I really would need to hear the whole thing before I could comment. And I went on to say something Franks probably already knew – that there were legislators without pension funding expertise who had probably been swayed by Walker’s support, and by the fact that the Republican Treasurer, Democrat Governor, and “impartial” PERA Board were all in favor of the deal.
Later, after thinking about it, I came back with what I expressed as a possible interpretation of what Frank had quoted me, didn’t offer an opinion on it, and suggested he go back and listen to the whole interview with that idea in mind.
Reporters often count on people liking to talk, and liking to talk to reporters specifically, because they may get to see their names in print. But you don’t have to answer a question if you don’t want to, and you don’t have to offer an opinion when the only information you’re getting is from the reporter.
I doubt Frank was purposely trying to do a hatchet job on Walker, but there was no reason to fall into the trap of trying to offer an opinion based on an interpretation of one small piece of the story.
As opposed to 2012 and 2008, in 2016, the Republicans are blessed with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to presidential candidates.
We will see four or five well-rounded, successful governors who’ve proven they know how to make decisions and get re-elected, including Rick Perry, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, and Jeb Bush. Throw in Chris Christie and John Kasich, too, if you like.
When the field is finally complete, virtually every candidate – with the exception of Donald Trump – will have something to offer, even those who have no hope of gaining the nomination.
Marco Rubio is the most impressive of the senators running, and seems to be a quick study with a broad range of knowledge. Lindsay Graham has exactly one thing going for him – he’s serious about foreign policy – but even that’s something, and not nothing. Rand Paul whose deep unseriousness about foreign policy is nevertheless matched by equal deep feeling about liberty issues, something more applicable to the domestic sphere. Ted Cruz, for all of his lack of strategic thinking about the government shutdown, has argued and won cases before the US Supreme Court. Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson know something about business and health care, even if neither has any business in the Oval Office. Even Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, who are well outside my band-pass filters for acceptable presidential nominees, both have a talent for showing the interdependence of social and economic issues.
In some respects, this success is the outcome of a decades-long campaign by the national party to cultivate state legislative talent, and develop a strong farm system. The results have been high-water marks in both percentages of Republican state legislators nationally, and governors. Whether or not that farm system can be extended further down to the low minors of city councils and school boards remains to be seen, but that’s a topic for another day.
So what happens if a Republican wins in 2016? Typically, the response would be to look to the field of governors for executive talent, at the risk of robbing the farm system of its leadership. In some cases, that’s not a problem. A President-elect Perry could pick Scott Walker for his cabinet, knowing there was a popular Republican Lt. Governor behind him, and likewise, former governor Perry doesn’t have anything to do with Texas government any more.
But in other cases, it could be problematic. Many of the candidates are young, and in a position to run for Senate (or for re-election to the Senate), and accumulate experience and seniority. Cabinet positions are rarely springboards for further elective office.
What the Republicans could use is some way of making use of all this talent without pulling them away from their day jobs, or foreclosing options down the line. Is such a thing possible? President Obama has made liberal use of so-called “Czars,” but for all the sturm und drang surrounding these appointments that require no Congressional approval, it’s unclear what actual effect they’ve had. The real power continues to reside in the cabinet heads and the White House itself, which is as it should be. But it’s also possible that, as in the case of Valerie Jarrett, more influence is being exercised behind the scenes than we know about.
Of course, actual elected politicians won’t do anything like that without credit. Could such a system be formalized in the face of institutional turf-protections? And is it compatible with limited executive authority?
Probably and I could see it taking a number of different forms. The National Governors Association or the Republican Governors Association could be asked to elect regional representatives (if indeed they already don’t). The NGA already has policy committees for federal relations; while those currently represent state interests, perhaps they could be given a higher profile, turned over the term-limited governors who are looking for public successes and Washington experience in advance of the next elective step.
The legislative side may be a little trickier. The Senate was jealous of its privileges, at least before Harry Reid tried to turn it into an extension of the Executive Branch, and a healthy return to Constitutionality would have respect, if not encourage Congressional independence. Committee chairmen don’t like being bypassed, and may well just ignore weak liaisons. And in any case, Senators are largely Made Men in this operation, have no term limits, and can, if so inclined, grandstand their way to at least temporary prominence. But if the president persists, access to the White House or the relevant bureaucracies, and insight into the regulatory processes, can create power independent of the committee gavels. As in show business, Senators don’t have to like each other, they just have to work together.
These ideas hardly exhaust the possibilities, but they’re a start. They’d take a president supremely confident in his own abilities to lead, not only his cabinet, but also people who ran against him for the job, and who still harbor ambitions of their own, and someone capable of keeping those personalities in line.
Add that to the list of necessary qualifications when you’re deciding who to support in the primaries.
There hasn’t been a Triple Crown winner since 1978, when Affirmed and Alydar finished 1-2 in all three races? Since then, there have been 13 horses who have won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, only to come up short in the Belmont. This year, American Pharaoh will either become the 12th Triple Crown winner, or the 14th recent near-miss.
Why has it been so long – 37 years and counting – since a horse was able to pull off the feat?
In part, it’s because of the variety of circumstances a horse must win in. The races are different lengths, with different-sized fields, often raced under very different conditions.
But it’s also because owners and trainers race the Belmont differently. Instead of running the race straight up, they often gang up on the Triple Crown hopeful, forcing it not to be merely Secretariat, but also Seattle Slew and Affirmed. It’s a bill that’s almost impossible to fill; no horse can run all-out for a mile and a half without running out of gas somewhere down the stretch. Smarty Jones, possibly the best Triple Crown shot this century, may have been the victim of this sort of racing.
This year, Hillary might be vulnerable to a strategy where Republicans run at her like the competitors in the Belmont, rather than like the Derby, with different candidates showing her not just inferior to them on specific matters, but simply not credible at all.
In foreign policy,even supporters cannot name a single significant achievement, and she faces challenges from the Republicans both from the left (Rand Paul) and the right (everyone else). Painting him as irresponsible and out of touch makes the other Republicans look more serious, without reinforcing herself against their criticisms. The world is a messier, nastier place than it was when Hillary became Secretary of State. Those candidates with foreign policy expertise or experience will have no trouble pointing out that Hillary either successfully enabled disaster, or ineffectively fought against it.
Personally, people already don’t trust her. Already, her plans for summertime Foundation-linked events and publicity have been shelved. Between the emails and the Clinton Foundation (and Bill’s shell corporations), the sheer scope of corruption and irresponsibility is something that Republicans will be coming back to on just about every issue. People may be distracted for a moment by Denny Hastert’s distress, but she’d better come up with something quickly when the parry to her every answer is, “Did you check your foundation’s donor list before answering that, Mrs. Clinton?” Everyone in country knows that “You can’t prove anything” is the response of the guilty, the sort of thing Spiro Agnew might have said.
And consider what Hillary must assume is her trump card – “Don’t you want to see a woman president?” Every step of the way, Carly Fiorina has shown a willingness to confront, outthink, and disarm a frankly hostile media. Fiorina won’t win the nomination, but she’ll deny Hillary that easy trip down the backstretch that winners like to have.
Colorado has seen the “War on Women” movie in multiple elections, with decreasing effectiveness. The irony is that it was used to elect Barack Obama, not Hillary Clinton. The trope is starting to wear thin nationally, as well. How ironic would it be if Hillary were unable to make use of it?
Even on her own side of the ledger, Hillary will have to face Democrats who excite the base, and remind them of what might have been. It’s not uncommon for Belmont favorites to race other horses with the same trainer. Owners hate that. So will Hillary, because it will make her job of intervening in the Republican primary process that much harder.
Each of Hillary’s supposed strengths faces a challenge from at least one of the declared or likely Republican candidates. It’s not a given, but maybe a probable twelve to seven, that kept on the defensive the whole time, and with no clear front-runner to target, Hillary won’t be able to do to the Republican nominee what Obama did to Romney – use early money to define him.
So the question remains: aside from the more obvious aspirations, is Hillary Clinton an American Pharaoh?