In 2011, Pew began to align itself with a figure who was decidedly neither centrist nor nonpartisan: 39-year-old John Arnold, whom CNN/Money described (erroneously) as the "second-youngest self-made billionaire in America," after Mark Zuckerberg. Though similar in wealth and youth, Arnold presented the stylistic opposite of Zuckerberg's signature nerd chic: He's a lipless, eager little jerk with the jug-eared face of a Division III women's basketball coach, exactly what you'd expect a former Enron commodities trader to look like. Anyone who has seen the Oscar-winning documentary The Smartest Guys in the Room and remembers those tapes of Enron traders cackling about rigging energy prices on "Grandma Millie" and jamming electricity rates "right up her ass for fucking $250 a megawatt hour" will have a sense of exactly what Arnold's work environment was like.
In fact, in the book that the movie was based on, the authors portray Arnold bragging about his minions manipulating energy prices, praising them for "learning how to use the Enron bat to push around the market." Those comments later earned Arnold visits from federal investigators, who let him get away with claiming he didn't mean what he said.
As Enron was imploding, Arnold played a footnote role, helping himself to an $8 million bonus while the company's pension fund was vaporizing. He and other executives were later rebuked by a bankruptcy judge for looting their own company along with other executives. Public pension funds nationwide, reportedly, lost more than $1.5 billion thanks to their investments in Enron.
In 2002, Arnold started a hedge fund and over the course of the next few years made roughly a $3 billion fortune as the world's most successful natural-gas trader. But after suffering losses in 2010, Arnold bowed out of hedge-funding to pursue "other interests." He had created the Arnold Foundation, an organization dedicated, among other things, to reforming the pension system, hiring a Republican lobbyist and former chief of staff to Dick Armey named Denis Calabrese, as well as Dan Liljenquist, a Utah state senator and future Tea Party challenger to Orrin Hatch.
Soon enough, the Arnold Foundation released a curious study on pensions. On the one hand, it admitted that many states had been undercontributing to their pension funds for years. But instead of proposing that states correct the practice, the report concluded that "the way to create a sound, sustainable and fair retirement-savings program is to stop promising a [defined] benefit."
In 2011, Arnold and Pew found each other. As detailed in a new study by progressive think tank Institute for America's Future, Arnold and Pew struck up a relationship – and both have since been proselytizing pension reform all over America, including California, Florida, Kansas, Arizona, Kentucky and Montana. Few knew that Pew had a relationship with a right-wing, anti-pension zealot like Arnold. "The centrist reputation of Pew was a key in selling a lot of these ideas," says Jordan Marks of the National Public Pension Coalition. Later, a Pew report claimed that the national "gap" between pension assets and future liabilities added up to some $757 billion and dryly insisted the shortfall was unbridgeable, minus some combination of "higher contributions from taxpayers and employees, deep benefit cuts and, in some cases, changes in how retirement plans are structured and benefits are distributed."
What the study didn't say was that this supposedly massive gap could all be chalked up to the financial crisis, which, of course, had been caused almost entirely by the greed and wide-scale fraud of the financial-services industry – particularly with regard to state pension funds.
A study by noted economist Dean Baker at the Center for Economic Policy and Research bore this out. In February 2011, Baker reported that, had public pension funds not been invested in the stock market and exposed to mortgage-backed securities, there would be no shortfall at all. He said state pension managers were of course somewhat to blame, but only "insofar as they exercised poor judgment in buying the [finance] industry's services."
In fact, Baker said, had public funds during the crash years simply earned modest returns equal to 30-year Treasury bonds, then public-pension assets would be $850 billion richer than they were two years after the crash. Baker reported that states were short an additional $80 billion over the same period thanks to the fact that post-crash, cash-strapped states had been paying out that much less of their mandatory ARC payments.
So even if Pew's numbers were right, the "unfunded liability" crisis had nothing to do with the systemic unsustainability of public pensions. Thanks to a deadly combination of unscrupulous states illegally borrowing from their pensioners, and unscrupulous banks whose mass sales of fraudulent toxic subprime products crashed the market, these funds were out some $930 billion. Yet the public was being told that the problem was state workers' benefits were simply too expensive.
In a way, this was a repeat of a shell game with retirement finance that had been going on at the federal level since the Reagan years. The supposed impending collapse of Social Security, which actually should be running a surplus of trillions of dollars, is now repeated as a simple truth. But Social Security wouldn't be "collapsing" at all had not three decades of presidents continually burgled the cash in the Social Security trust fund to pay for tax cuts, wars and God knows what else. Same with the alleged insolvencies of state pension programs. The money may not be there, but that's not because the program is unsustainable: It's because bankers and politicians stole the money.
Still, the public mostly bought the line being sold by Arnold, Pew and other anti-pension figures like the Koch brothers. To most, it didn't matter who was to blame: What mattered is that the money was gone, and there seemed to be only two possible paths forward. One led to bankruptcy, a real-enough threat that had already ravaged places like Vallejo, California; Jefferson County, Alabama; and, this summer, Detroit. In Rhode Island, the tiny town of Central Falls went bust in 2011, and even after a court-ordered plan lifted the town out of bankruptcy in 2012, the "rescue" left pensions slashed as much as 55 percent. "You had guys who were living off $24,000, and now they're getting $12,000," says Day. Though Day and his fellow retirees are still fighting reform, he says other union workers might rather settle than file bankruptcy. Holding up an infamous local-newspaper picture of a retired Central Falls policeman in a praying posture, as though begging not to have his whole pension taken away, Day sighs. "Guys take one look at this picture and that's it. They're terrified."
Such images chilled many public workers into accepting the second path – the kind of pension reform meagerly touted by one-percent-friendly politicians like Gina Raimondo. Anyone could see that "reform" meant giving up cash. But the other parts of these schemes were murkier. Most pension-reform proposals required that states must go after higher returns by seeking out "alternative investments," which sounds harmless enough. But we are now finding out what that term actually means – and it's a little north of harmless.
One of the most garish early experiments in "alternative investments" came in Ohio in the late 1990s, after the Republican-controlled state assembly passed a law loosening restrictions on what kinds of things state funds could invest in. Sometime later, an investigation by the Toledo Blade revealed that the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation had bought into rare-coin funds run by a GOP fundraiser named Thomas Noe. Through Noe, Ohio put $50 million into coins and "other collectibles" – including Beanie Babies.
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