Pension Reform Freak-Out

Pension reform should be driven by conservative assumptions -- and a conviction that pensions are about providing security for everyone, not deferred compensation for a few.

But that's a very hard conversation -- for left, right and center.

It's much easier to freak out about numbers.

The state badly needs to have an adult conversation that is not only about public employee pensions but also about retirement security for us all.

The question shouldn't be driven by volatile estimates of future obligations. Pension reform should be about the long term.  

Whether you're talking about providing security for workers for decades to come, or whether you're talking about the financial obligations and investments necessary to provide that security.

But the current policy debate about how, or whether, to fix pensions is short-term.

For that reason, the momentum to cut back on pensions for public employees may be about to run out of steam.

That's because the campaign to limit public employee pensions had been fueled too much by numbers.

Big scary numbers that run into the hundreds of billions of dollars. Those numbers represent public pension obligations in California.

Those numbers also are based on slower economic growth and lower investment returns in recent years.

But some of those numbers may be about to get smaller, as CalPERS, the state's leading pension fund, and CalSTRS, the teachers' retirement fund, reported big gains in their investment returns. (See "Pension Funds Fatten Up" by Larry Gerston.)

Opponents of the broader changes on pensions wasted no time trumpeting those investment returns. If CalPERS continues to perform well, it's not hard to imagine the pension debate disappearing for a while.

Which would be too bad.

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