Doughty says the endless system of highly paid middlemen reminds him of old slapstick comedies. "It's like the Three Stooges," he says. "When you ask them what happened, they're all pointing in different directions, like, 'He did it!'"
Even worse, placement agents are also often paid by the alternative investors. In California, the Apollo private-equity firm paid a former CalPERS board member named Alfred Villalobos a staggering $48 million for help in securing investments from state pensions, and Villalobos delivered, helping Apollo receive $3 billion of CalPERS money. Villalobos got indicted in that affair, but only because he'd lied to Apollo about disclosing his fees to CalPERS. Otherwise, despite the fact that this is in every way basically a crude kickback scheme, there's no law at all against a placement agent taking money from a finance firm. The Government Accountability Office has condemned the practice, but it goes on.
"It's a huge conflict of interest," says Siedle.
So when you invest your pension money in hedge funds, you might be paying a hundred times the cost or more, you might be underperforming the market, you may be supporting political movements against you, and you often have to pay what effectively is a bribe just for the privilege of hiring your crappy overpaid money manager in the first place. What's not to like about that? Who could complain?
Once upon a time, local corruption was easy. "It was votes for jobs," Doughty says with a sigh. A ward would turn out for a councilman, the councilman would come back with jobs from city-budget contracts – that was the deal. What's going on with public pensions is a more confusing modern version of that local graft. With public budgets carefully scrutinized by everyone from the press to regulators, the black box of pension funds makes it the only public treasure left that's easy to steal. Politicians quietly borrow millions from these funds by not paying their ARCs, and it's that money, plus the savings from cuts made to worker benefits in the name of "emergency" pension reform, that pays for an apparently endless regime of corporate tax breaks and handouts.
A notorious example in Rhode Island is, of course, 38 Studios, the doomed video-game venture of blabbering, Christ-humping ex-Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, who received a $75 million loan guarantee from the state at a time when local politicians were pleading poverty. "This whole thing isn't just about cutting payments to retirees," says syndicated columnist David Sirota, who authored the Institute for America's Future study on Arnold and Pew. "It's about preserving money for corporate welfare." Their study estimates states spend up to $120 billion a year on offshore tax loopholes and gifts to dingbats like Schilling and other subsidies – more than two and a half times as much as the $46 billion a year Pew says states are short on pension payments.
The bottom line is that the "unfunded liability" crisis is, if not exactly fictional, certainly exaggerated to an outrageous degree. Yes, we live in a new economy and, yes, it may be time to have a discussion about whether certain kinds of public employees should be receiving sizable benefit checks until death. But the idea that these benefit packages are causing the fiscal crises in our states is almost entirely a fabrication crafted by the very people who actually caused the problem. It's like Voltaire's maxim about noses having evolved to fit spectacles, so therefore we wear spectacles. In this case, we have an unfunded-pension-liability problem because we've been ripping retirees off for decades – but the solution being offered is to rip them off even more.
Everybody following this story should remember what went on in the immediate aftermath of the crash of 2008, when the federal government was so worried about the sanctity of private contracts that it doled out $182 billion in public money to AIG. That bailout guaranteed that firms like Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank could be paid off on their bets against a subprime market they themselves helped overheat, and that AIG executives could be paid the huge bonuses they naturally deserved for having run one of the world's largest corporations into the ground. When asked why the state was paying those bonuses, Obama economic adviser Larry Summers said, "We are a country of law. . . . The government cannot just abrogate contracts."
Now, though, states all over the country are claiming they not only need to abrogate legally binding contracts with state workers but also should seize retirement money from widows to finance years of illegal loans, giant fees to billionaires like Dan Loeb and billions in tax breaks to the Curt Schillings of the world. It ain't right. If someone has to tighten a belt or two, let's start there. If we've still got a problem after squaring those assholes away, that's something that can be discussed. But asking cops, firefighters and teachers to take the first hit for a crisis caused by reckless pols and thieves on Wall Street is low, even by American standards.
This story is from the October 10th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.
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