Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Running on Empty

Several years ago, Pete Peterson, the founder of Blackstone and an ex-cabinet secretary, wrote an important and sobering book titled Running on Empty.

The book indicts both Republicans and Democrats for ignoring two troubling twin deficits - the the trade deficit and the budget deficit - which, he believes, may ultimately bankrupt the country. The hard-hitting book highlights the off-balance sheet, unfunded entitlement program liabilities that will fall due in the coming decades. With trillions of dollars in Medicaid, social security, and drug benefits promised to current and future retirees, he warns of some very hard choices that face the nation. For example, he estimates if Congress was forced to fund promised entitlement programs, we would face, "an immediate and permanent 60 percent hike in the federal income tax, or a 50 percent cut in Social Security and Medicare benefits."

Recently, news of corporate pension plans failing reminded me of Peterson's important book. For example, Delphi's unfunded pension liabilities present a scary harbinger of what is to come in corporate and government pensions. Delphi, the world's largest auto parts maker, faces an $11bn shortfall in its obligation to retirees. Delphi management, unable to negotiate with the unions, may file for bankruptcy, which would transfer the pension liability to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp, a government agency that insures pension plans. Unfortunately, the PBGC is itself underfunded, with assets of $56bn and liabilities of $79.2bn. Total corporate pension plan unfunded liabilities are estimated to be $450bn, well beyond the financial resources of the PBGC. Ultimately, tax payers will be liable for the failings of management to properly fund future obligations.

Roger Lowenstein wrote a wonderful NY Times Magazine article, The End of Pensions, which provides scary and powerful insight into the failing of the defined benefit program and the massive state and local pension obligations that dwarf the corporate dilemma.

Why am I writing about this?

Economic growth is a function of investment. As entitlement spending drives deficits, we will need to finance them with either massive tax increases or massive borrowing to cover our shortfalls. As we borrow more, we will see a higher percentage of our tax base go to interest payments and the lions share of our local, state, and federal budgets go to entitlement spending that reward historical work rather than into investment programs that drive future growth. Both parties appear incapable of addressing this fundamental problem, and I hope that the writings of Peterson, Lowenstein, and others wake the electorate up to the scary prospects of a failing corporate and government pensions and the mortgaging of our future to fund entitlement programs.

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