Politicians Continue to Cash in on Future Savings

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo presents his 2013-14 Executive Budget address on Jan. 22, 2013, in Albany. Photograph by Mike Groll/AP Photo

Illinois postponed a $500 million bond offer yesterday after Standard & Poor’s lowered the state’s rating to A- last week, with a negative outlook. Pensions are the problem. Illinois is supposed to save enough money for its state employees. It has not. Also, the state assumed unrealistic investment returns on the money it did save. At the end of 2012, S&P reports, Illinois was almost $100 billion short on what it already owes its employees for retirement, and the state legislature is incapable of making changes to what the state will owe future employees.

Meanwhile, in New York, a state that’s been more responsible with its pension program, the state comptroller, city mayors, and investors are arguing over Governor Andrew Cuomo’s plan to allow cities to cash in now on expected future savings on pension reforms enacted last year for employees who haven’t been hired yet. “This is a financing plan to get you from today to tomorrow,” Cuomo told Bloomberg News.

One of the many differences between today and tomorrow is that $100 billion in the hand today is worth more than $100 billion sometime in the future. Economists refer to this as the “time value of money.” Many assumptions about economics have come into question in the past four years. This one stands pretty firm. And it underpins several of the fights America has been having with itself.

In 2009 car companies failed, and the federal government stepped in and had to decide whether to short workers or investors. In 2011 unions swamped state capitols in Wisconsin and Ohio to protest drastic changes to collective bargaining rights. The bargaining ultimately was about pensions. Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) likes to point to a chart with an angry orange triangle showing future growth in government outlays. A “spending problem,” he calls it, but the growth will happen mostly in old-age entitlement programs—Medicare and Social Security. But the U.S. doesn’t have a car company problem, or a spending problem, or an entitlement problem, or a union problem. America has a problem with the time value of money.

Negotiations with unions and decisions about how to fund entitlement programs come down to the same question: Do you want money now or later? For the last half-century, cities, states, and companies have held the line at money now (salaries) and instead offered money later (pensions.) They did this because money later is worth less than money now. Rather than apply a discounted rate to promises of money in the future, unions accepted those promises at face value. But it’s hard to see, now, how those promises can be redeemed at face value.

Lest we chuckle at unions, we’ve all been conducting the same negotiation with ourselves. When we allow Congress to dip into the Social Security fund to pay for other things, we are admitting that spending $100 now is worth more to us than getting $100 in the future as an entitlement. But we’re still, like the unions, pretending that the money is there, that it can be redeemed at the face value of the promise.

Cuomo helped push through a responsible pension reform in New York State. This is good, and it needs to happen everywhere. But when he moves to borrow now based on expected future savings, he’s doing the exact same thing his predecessors did when they negotiated overgenerous pension benefits for future retirees: He’s cashing in now. A promise to fund pensions tomorrow is worth less—to him and to the people who elected him—than the value of cash for New York’s cities today.

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