Let me tell you about multiemployer pensions (and a whole host of related gripes)

Let me tell you about multiemployer pensions (and a whole host of related gripes) December 12, 2018

That’s what I’ve been writing about at Forbes.

I had planned to do a couple articles on the topic, but had delayed because the topic is so complex that I just had a really messy draft, but was finally pushed to start writing by a news item about the Dutch equivalent, and because the Congressional Joint Committee that was supposed to figure out a way to save them, was supposed to report on their recommendations by November 30th.  They didn’t, but I’ve been plowing through and have written five articles on the topic and have a couple more before I’ll have covered it.

And I’ve been wanting to take a step back and think about this in a more bloggy way — by which I mean with more personal reflection — so, well, I’m going to blog about this.

You can read all the details about this topic at the Forbes site but what it boils down to is that multi-employer plans are plans which are managed by unions on behalf of their members who work at multiple employers and change employment among them, and something like 10% of them are so woefully underfunded that they’re about to become insolvent and take the federal agency the PBGC with them.  And the commission was charged with figuring out a solution — but the real solution involves no one being happy, with plan participants taking benefit cuts and a bailout serving to mitigate the harshness of those cuts.  Heck, the reality is that the unions, in many cases, ought to cough up whatever slush funds they have, or sell the cabins-up-north they have for their executives.

Now, the Teamsters have proposed a solution that they claim would fix everything without bailouts — but that’s a “loan” which would be forgiven as needed at the end of the payment period.  Whether they have the best of intentions or whether everyone involved figures this is just more palatable, I don’t know, but it won’t actually work because there is not enough money to pay it back.

So (spoiler alert!) I’ve been trying to set the stage in what I’ve written so far for suggesting that there are grounds for calling for a bailout that extend beyond just “people will suffer!” and that’s that Congress wrote a series of very bad laws regulating these plans, laws that seriously hampered these plans’ ability to cope with a changing economy.  Two of the most troubled plans are the Teamsters (Central States), who lost tons of their participants through trucking deregulation, and the United Mine Workers, who, as you can imagine lost a large portion of their workforce, but the law just didn’t envision a plan needing to overfund to plan for future contingencies, and actually prohibited it until 2006, and likewise, prevented plans reducing benefits in a reasonable way when it becomes clear those benefits are not sustainable.  (My latest post details the latter.)

There’s more to it, of course, but my point is that Congress bears a part of the responsibility for creating this situation and therefore has a particular moral obligation to fix it rather than just saying, “too bad, so sad, looks like you’ll have a benefit cut.”

And this is where I want to take a step back and offer a few thoughts that I can’t really say on the Forbes site because of the nature of the writing style.

Partisanship sucks.  I just finished reading Them:  Why We Hate Each Other — And How To Heal by Ben Sasse (blog post upcoming), and he describes manning a water station at a local marathon and having people yell at him and say “don’t take that water!  It’s probably poisoned!”

And just a few minutes ago I read an article on Child Benefit proposals at Vox.  The article marshalled lots of facts to say that parents don’t spend their child benefit money on drugs and alcohol but studies show it improves children’s well-being.  (The article didn’t address one key concern, though:  dos the provision of substantial direct cash reduce the efforts single parents make to earn a living?)  And Child Benefit is a perfectly normal part of the tax (as a paid-in-advance refundable “credit”) and benefit structure of European countries, so it’s not as if it’s radically socialist; whether to implement a Child Benefit is a discussion that we could reasonably have about the best way to ensure that all American children have their needs met.  But then the Vox author says:

If you’re a 2020 contender, like Bernie Sanders or Beto O’Rourke or Amy Klobuchar, the strategy is simple: Tell voters you will give them $300 per month, per child, in a check in the mail that has your smiling face on it. Call them BernieBucks or BetoBucks or KlobKash. You will materially help people out. And you’ll have a monthly reminder sent to the homes of all your constituents, reminding them that you, unlike Trump, actually helped them out.

In other words, yet again, rather than promoting working together, it’s a matter of waiting for your party to fully control government so that you don’t need to compromise or talk to the other party, but can use this great policy idea you have in order to score a Win for your party.

Not long ago, Megan McArdle addressed the topic of why Congress is so much less capable of producing bipartisan legislation.  Here’s her conclusion:

There are two answers, both of them discouraging. First, the parties have become more ideological; the average Democrat is much more liberal and the average Republican much more conservative, a separation that makes it harder to forge compromises. Second, as the parties have become more ideological, control of Congress has begun shifting more often. In postwar decades during which Democrats controlled the House, both parties had reason to make what deals they could: Democrats because they’d be held responsible for inaction, and Republicans because they saw no hope of getting anything done any other way.

But now both parties have every reason to wait two years and see if their bargaining position improves. Particularly since more-ideological parties mean their respective bases will regard any compromise as less an unpleasant political necessity than a desecration of sacred principle.

Oh, and here’s another link:  it’s to an article I wrote in The Federalist.  Here’s a summary:  the Democrats are pushing for a form of “gerrymandering reform” that identifies wrongly-gerrymandered districts by the gap between the proportion of state legislature seats held by a given party and the overall vote totals that party received statewide, and attempts to remedy the “efficiency gap” by redrawing districts to produce ratios that are more in line.  But this is its own form of gerrymandering, and similarly takes away from the ability of voters to have representatives who represent their interest as a member of their community.   If a state wants to have proportional representation, then that state should develop a system of proportional representation, either directly, or by using something like what the Germans do, of adding in additional at-large members as needed to get the proportions right (and giving minor parties who get at least 5% of the vote, their own representatives).

And I asked myself:  what would happen to partisanship, if each party had to appeal to everyone on the state based on its general identity as a party, rather than more liberal members winning liberal districts and more conservative members seeking office in conservative districts?  Would the more radical folks split off into their own parties?  Or would the determination to maintain a uniform party identity further reinforce the partisanship of “wait ’til we control everything, then cram our preferred legislation down their throats”?

And one further comment:

it will come as no surprise to readers that I am one of the less well-read blogs on this site.  And that’s fine.  It’s a nice platform, but the popular posts get hundreds or thousands of shares.  My prior article?  18.  Then 10, 5, and — oh, hey, 60 shares for my article on genetic experimentation.

On Forbes, well, I muddle along.  My articles on multi-employer pensions have 1167, 5857, 1402, 884, and 162 pageviews, with the counts dropping the more “into the woods” I get.  And that’s fine (so long as Forbes keeps me as a Contributor!) because I have a different objective, and I really want to work out the whole issue and (I know, this sounds naïve and idealistic) persuade people who care about the issue.  And a lot of the authors there provide more practical information on retirement planning, which has a different audience.  But there are several authors who do drive up their pageviews with Angry article-writing, e.g., (not an actual article title), “Trump, the GOP, and Big X have done a Mean Thing because they Hate the middle class,” and it drives me nuts.  (Sasse talks about this, too, that even mainstream publications respond to the market with an increasingly Angry tone to their articles because it’s what’s profitable, and it’s profitable because people are far more likely to click on them.)

So it’s frustrating.  There are so many problems Congress should be working on — from my vantage point, we are running out of time on both multi-employer pension fixes and Social Security reform in particular — that it’s insane to imagine putting on hold until 2020.  But here we are.

Image: V0050236 A fist-fight between Lord Brougham and Lord Melbourne as Pea
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

A fist-fight between Lord Brougham and Lord Melbourne as Peachum and Lockit. Coloured lithograph by H.B. (John Doyle), 1837.
1837 By: John DoylePublished: 22 October 1836
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

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