Most people have heard the term Ponzi scheme and have a vague sense that the victim of the scheme is getting ripped off. In an actual Ponzi scheme, early investors see a substantial return on their investment. What they don’t realize is that the money they are getting is money being put into the investment by new investors. The system continues working as long as enough new investors come in to pay the people who were there before them. The architect of the scheme, never admits that this is what is happening and eventually the system collapses.
As noted by Chris Comisac at Capitol Wire (paywall), the description of a Ponzi scheme and a description of the state pension system by House Minority Leader, Rep. Joe Markosek are remarkably similar. In a recent email Rep. Markosek said:
"If Pennsylvania decided that 18 blue moons from now it would no longer offer retirement benefits for teachers and state employees … And the commonwealth’s debt was still $65 billion … Taxpayers would still be ‘on the hook’ to pay that $65 billion. BUT … Teachers and state employees would no longer be contributing their share (something they’ve always done while policy officials haven’t, until this fiscal year) and it would take taxpayers even longer to pay down that bad pension puppy."
In other words, money coming in now is paying the unfunded liability; without that new money, we wouldn’t be able to pay people who are about to retire. When Comisac followed up with Rep. Markosek’s staff, they were quick clarify the statement and make sure that everyone knew that the Representative didn’t mean it was a legalized Ponzi scheme.
It is worth looking at a longer excerpt from Comisac’s analysis to drive home exactly what is going on; the emphasis is CAP’s:
"However, the claim that closing the current defined benefit plan, either to completely eliminate the DB plan for new employees or replace it for new employees with something like a 401(k)…would bring about the collapse of the closed DB [defined benefit] plan is simply ridiculous.
"First, the systems are currently in a state of negative cash flow, meaning, just like Fox wrote, "the systems must liquidate assets to pay bills," and that’s with no closing of the plans or changes by SERS and PSERS to their pension assumptions – just the bad funding policies the systems currently employ.
"Second, closing the system doesn’t limit cash flow into the system any more than it’s currently being limited by not closing the system.
"If the DB plans were closed, the people in that plan at the time of closure would continue to contribute to their plan (as well as their employer on their behalf), with no additional funding needed from any of the people to be hired in the future who would be in a different retirement plan.
"Of course if that closed plan employs unsustainable assumptions upon which all the contribution rates for employees and employers are based, well then there could be a big problem – but that has nothing to do with the plan being closed and everything to do with how the plan was designed."
That last part is why CAP has been adamantly opposed to a "hybrid" pension plan that combines defined benefit (DB) and defined contribution (DC) elements. Some politicians and government union officials bring up the specter of "transition costs" as a reason to avoid switching to a pure 401k style DC plan. They’ve never once given an example of a private sector employer citing transition costs as a reason to keep offering pensions. A DC plan is the best way to protect beneficiaries and taxpayers.
As long as there is a DB plan, politicians will control what constitutes fully funding and what assumptions are made to determine liability. There is nothing to stop the General Assembly from making politically-driven assumptions about return on investment, life expectancy, and other factors that impact the liability. The further politicians deviate from reality in an attempt to enrich themselves and other government employees, the more likely it is that the money won’t be there to pay for their promises. Promising a lavish retirement is much more likely to get you votes than paying for it will. And, that bill is coming due.