“It’s [private equity investments] generating real returns for our members, which is exactly what it’s supposed to do,” said Joe DeAnda, a CalPERS spokesman. “It’s real value that we don’t feel there’s another way to achieve.”
– “Are private equity investments worth the risk?,” Los Angeles Times, November 14, 2015
The alliance between government unions and America’s overbuilt financial sector is one of the most unreported stories of our time. It is a story saturated in greed, drowning in delusion, smothered and marginalized by an avalanche of taxpayer funded propaganda. If this story were known and appreciated by the people most victimized by its effects, it would fundamentally shift the political landscape of the nation. The most obvious example of this alliance are the government worker pension systems, Wall Street’s biggest players, controlled by union operatives.
The problem with public sector defined benefit pensions can be boiled down to two cold facts: They are too generous, and they rely on rate-of-return assumptions that are too optimistic. The first is the result of greed, the second of delusion. To indulge these vices requires corruption, and it is a rot that joins public sector unions with the most questionable elements of that Wall Street machine they so readily demonize.
In an attempt to earn in excess of 7.0% per year, government pension systems have increasingly turned to hedge funds, whose charter, essentially, is to earn over-market returns. To do this, they do all the things that public sector unions are supposedly opposed to – opaque private equity deals, currency speculation, high-frequency trading – all those manipulative tools used by the super-wealthy, super empowered Wall Street players to siphon billions out of the economy. Except now they’re using tax dollars, channeled to them via government pension systems. And if it goes south? Taxpayers pay for the bailout.
Which brings us to sheer abuse of power. Hypocrisy aside – and how much more hypocritical can it be for union leaders to rhetorically demonize “profits,” yet ignore the fact that only profits can permit pension funds to appreciate at rates of 7.0% per year or more – it is raw power, sheer financial and legal might, that enables pension systems, with unions cheering them on every step of the way, to sue city after faltering city to ensure their “contracts” are inviolable, that relentlessly escalating pension contributions keep pouring in, even if it means raising taxes via court order, then selling the parks, selling the libraries, closing government offices and “furloughing” public servants, and giving raw deals to their new hires.
The alliance between Wall Street and public sector unions isn’t restricted to the over $4.0 trillion in government pension assets that they’ve wagered in a volatile investment market with taxpayers on the hook to guarantee perpetual winnings. The alliance extends to bond underwriters, who join with government unions to sell overpriced, often unnecessary projects to taxpayers, collecting billions in fees. It even extends to auctions of government permits to emit CO2, which when fully implemented will guarantee Wall Street firms a cut on virtually every energy transaction in America, while quietly pouring a huge portion of the proceeds into funding public sector jobs – redefined to meet “mitigation” criteria: code inspectors enforcing energy retrofits, entire cities who zone ultra-high density which presumably lowers transportation related emissions, bus drivers and other mass transit workers, police and fire agencies who confront higher crime rates and more wildfires during hot weather. And, of course, the bullet train.
Whether it’s financially unsustainable government pension systems, who are the biggest players on Wall Street, or financing overpriced public construction projects of dubious value, or imposing billions in hidden taxes on energy users to supposedly save the planet, public sector unions receive formidable political, legal and financial support from their partners in the financial sector, corrupt, crony capitalists who indeed give capitalism a bad name.
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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Public Policy Center.