Who Really Betrayed Detroit?

FILE - This Oct. 24, 2012 file photo shows a graffiti-marked abandoned home north of downtown Detroit, in background.(AP Photo)

This Oct. 24, 2012 photo shows a graffiti-marked abandoned home north of downtown Detroit  (AP Photo)

The pension-system trustees and the municipal unions

Steven Malanga writes:  A federal judge’s ruling yesterday that Detroit worker pensions can be cut as part of the city’s bankruptcy case has angered city workers and shocked some of their supporters. Workers carrying signs outside the federal bankruptcy court yesterday blamed big banks for Detroit’s fiscal woes and demanded, “No cuts to our pensions.” They carried photos of Michigan governor Rick Snyder, painted to make him look like the devil. But if workers seek a culprit, they might look at the city’s pension-system trustees and the unions that were supposed to have influence over them. For years, the trustees granted annual bonuses to retirees and fattened worker-savings accounts with high guaranteed rates of return, siphoning crucial assets out of the retirement system, even as Detroit’s finances deteriorated. By one estimate, reported in the Detroit Free Press in September, the bonuses and guaranteed-interest programs cost the pension funds nearly $2 billion in contributions and foregone investment returns—money that might have made the pension system well-funded today and allowed retirement benefits to remain untouched.

Most press accounts note that city-worker pensions in Detroit are modest. They rarely mention that, for two decades, the city supplemented those pensions with annual, so-called “13th checks” for retirees—an additional monthly pension payment. Pension-fund trustees—themselves city workers, retirees, city residents, and elected officials—handed out nearly $1 billion in these annual payments to retirees in the city’s general pension fund. The trustees defended the payments as rewards to workers in years when the pension system’s investment returns exceeded projections. In lean years, they justified them as social policy. “Many retirees relied on that check to pay their increased utility bills during the winter,” wrote an attorney for the city’s pension system in 2011. “Also remember that the money would go directly into the local economy.”

Some reform-minded Detroit officials tried to halt the payments, understanding that they undermined the pension system’s finances. When he succeeded Coleman Young as mayor in 1994, Dennis Archer grew alarmed at the extra payments. He was rightfully concerned—as the Free Press noted, the pension system “was largely controlled by union officials acting as trustees.” Archer placed a voter initiative on the ballot in 1996 to cease the extra payments, but ferocious union opposition helped defeat it. “That’s a whole lot of money that if it was in the pension fund today, that may have made a difference in terms of where the pension fund stands,” Archer recently said.

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Interview with Kevin D. Williamson: What Doomed Detroit

williamson_detroit_cover_11-26-13-1Ed Driscoll writes: Has there been a more spectacular downfall to an American city than Detroit? As late as 1965, Jerome Cavanagh, its then-mayor, the first of what would be to this very day an unending series of Democrat party officials leading the city, could say with some honesty, “frequently called the most cosmopolitan city of the Midwest, Detroit, today, stands at the threshold of a bright new future.”

And the Titanic was thought to be unsinkable as well, right up until she left the Southampton docks.

The riots of 1967 would be Detroit’s equivalent of the iceberg; the 1974 election of Coleman Young as the city’s mayor for the next two decades would cement its doom permanently, until ultimately, it was forced to declare bankruptcy this past July. And in addition to the city’s institutional reverse-racism, its fiscal mismanagement has been spectacular as well. As PJM’s own Richard Fernandez noted back in September, inside Detroit’s City Hall, from 1985 through 2009, “the pension trustees were draining the pension because they were so sure, so absolutely certain that the taxpayers would have to refill the pot they felt safe helping themselves to whatever they wanted… What could go wrong? To everyone’s amazement something completely unprecedented happened: City Hall went broke. ‘They didn’t reckon with the possibility,’ [Megan McArdle wrote inBloomberg News] ‘that the city would simply run out of money, and the state would decline to step in, leaving them with no deep pockets to make up for their mismanagement.’ And so the Detroit pension is bust unless they find something they can siphon off to replenish it.”

To borrow from one of Glenn Reynolds’ recurring leitmotifs, a paraphrase of economist Herb Stein, something that can’t go on forever, won’t.

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