A politically created crisis of epic proportions is brewing in California and elsewhere across the United States. For decades, public pension officials and politicians of both parties have promised their employees increasingly generous retirement benefitswhile low-balling the contributions from government agencies and employees that are needed to cover these promisespresenting our greatest financial challenge since the Great Depression.
Pushing the pension liability from today and onto our children and grandchildren leaves them with a depleted future and a potentially bankrupt California.
State and local governments will scramble to find funds, forcing them to raise taxes, slash public services, and/or declare bankruptcy.
Schools, parks, emergency services, and public-employee retirement benefits will be at risk.
Politicians will defer until circumstances force them to reckon with a disaster of their own making.
The problem? For far too long, state and local governments have promised their employees increasingly generous retirement benefitsbut without ensuring that sufficient funds will be on hand when the pension payments come due.
In California Dreaming, Lawrence J. McQuillan pulls back the curtains covering this unfunded liability crisis. He describes the true extent of the problem, explains the critical factors that are driving public pension debt sky-high, and exposes the perverse incentives of lawmakers and pension officials that reward them for not fixing the problem and letting it escalate. Finally, he offers the six crucial reforms needed to restore the financial health of California and other threatened jurisdictions.
If California Dreamings roadmap for reform is adopted, the prospects for achieving a thriving, balanced and equitable future are highly favorable in California and any state or municipality facing its own public pension problem. If not, the many opportunities that once made the Golden State seem like a Promised Land will quickly evaporate.
Table of Contents
Tables and Figures
SECTION I: The Problems
1 How Are Defined-Benefit Pensions Calculated?
2 How Are Pension Funds Amassed?
3 Californias Massive Public Pension Unfunded Liabilities
4 What Are the Major Drivers of the Pension Problem?
5 Why Did Lawmakers Allow This Problem to Worsen and Why Have They Not Solved It?
6 The Immorality of Californias Public Pension Crisis
SECTION II: The Solutions
7 Why Offer Pensions at All?
8 The Critical Elements of a Comprehensive Solution
SECTION III: How a Comprehensive Public Pension Solution Benefits You
9 The Fiscal Advantages
10 The Moral Advantages
About the Author
Californias public pension crisis is the greatest financial challenge the state has
faced since the Great Depression. Independent experts estimate that state, county, and city
governments will collectively be able to meet only 51 percent of their total pension
obligations. The predicted $576 billion shortfall threatens to seriously disrupt public services
such as schools, roads, parks, libraries, police, and fire departments; slash pension payouts
to millions of public retirees; hurt the investment portfolios of bondholders; trash the credit
ratings and borrowing capabilities of state and local governments; and impose huge tax
burdens on current taxpayers and future generations.
Politicians of both parties, as well as opportunistic special interests, helped
create Californias impending public pension tsunami. The states unfunded pension
liabilities have swelled to unprecedented size due to a combination of generous pension
benefits, rosy investment assumptions, politically motivated underfunding, and deliberate
misinformation by pension officials. Each year, the equivalent of 18 percent of the state
budget is spent on the three largest public pension funds: the California Public Employees
Retirement System (CalPERS), the California State Teachers Retirement System (Cal-
STRS), and the University of California Retirement Plan (UCRP). Although the financially
troubled plans claim they can meet 79 percent of their pension promises, even this admission
is incomplete; realistic estimates show they can barely cover one half.
Although California is heading toward a fiscal cliff , a handful of reforms would
permanently fix the public pension problem. They are: (1) require financial transparency
and sound actuarial assumptions; (2) require full annual funding of each pension plan
without the issuance of pension obligation bonds; (3) give state and local governments the
flexibility to switch to sustainable defined-contribution pensions for all public employees;
and (4) require voters to pre-approve any pension-plan change that increases financial obligations.
Together, these reforms would cap the pension debt, pay all earned pension benefits,
limit the intergenerational transfer of pension burdens, better protect public services, and
provide pension benefits going forward that are aff ordable and comparable with those offered
in the private sector.
California is not the only state with massive public pension debt and pension
costs that are devouring government services. Similar problems confront Connecticut,
Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and other states.
And cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and Philadelphia face their own local
pension crises. California Dreaming provides a blueprint for America on how to measure
the true extent of a pension problem, identify the political drivers of a crisis, and make
strong fiscal and moral arguments for the pension reforms needed to permanently fix the
problem. The methods and hard lessons learned in the Golden State can be applied anywhere
A crisis of epic proportions is brewing in
California and elsewhere in the United
States, a politically created crisis that threatens
to inflict harm on countless residents
and retirees: a drastic shortfall between public
pension promises and the assets needed
to make good on those promises.
Public pension plans are supposed to be
financed by contributions from government
agencies and their employees, with those
funds invested in profitable assets that enable
the plans to pay the promised benefits for
20, 30, or 40 years after the employees retire.
In California, however, pension officials and
politicians of both political parties deliberately
lowballed the contributions and increased the promised benefits to such an extent that
the plans wont be able to cover all of their
pension liabilities. When the day of reckoning
comes, taxpayers will be on the hook
to make up the diff erence between pension
promises and pension assets.
In California Dreaming: Lessons on How
to Resolve Americas Public Pension Crisis,
economist Lawrence J. McQuillan (Senior
Fellow, The Independent Institute) pulls back
the curtains covering the unfunded liability
disaster. After describing the true extent of the
problem, McQuillan focuses on the critical
policy actions that drove Californias public
pension debt sky-high. He also examines a
more fundamental problem: the perverse
incentives of lawmakers and pension officials
that reward them for not fixing the problem
and letting it escalate. Finally, he examines the
immorality of the crisis, the crucial reforms
needed to fix the problem, and the long-term
benefits of a permanent solution.
If reformers heed the analysis and proposals
presented in California Dreaming, the
prospects for achieving a balanced and equitable
resolution are favorable, in California
and in any state or municipality struggling
with its own public pension problem. If
not, many opportunities that once made the
Golden State seem like a Promised Land will
California has 86 defined-benefit public pension
plans with about 4 million members, or
roughly 11 percent of the states population.
Its state and local government employees receive
defined-benefit pensions that guarantee
specific monthly payments to retirees for life.
The monthly checks are calculated based on
final compensation, age at retirement, the
number of years of service, and any cost-ofliving
State and local government public pension
plans say they need $158 billion more in
assets today to make good on their pension
promises. According to McQuillan, however,
official measures of funding status are seriously
flawed, and correct assessments reveal
that Californias public pension systems
are in much worse health than officially reported.
When measured correctly, unfunded public pension liabilities in the state are
nearly four times as large as official government
estimates, reaching a staggering $576
billion or nearly $15,000 per Californian.
McQuillan examines the history of Californias
Big Three public pension plans and
identifies the critical policy actions that drove
the pension debt sky-high. The history lesson
shows that the unfunded liabilities are selfinfl
icted, and not primarily due to the Great
Recession. Most of the critical drivers of the
crisis were set in motion long before 2008.
Poor public governance, not macroeconomic
troubles, drove the severe financial problems.
Four variables aff ect the health of any
defined-benefit pension plan: (1) employer
contribution amounts, (2) employee contribution
amounts, (3) investment returns, and
(4) promised benefits. McQuillan shows that
in each area, reckless decisions by politicians
and pension officials drove unfunded liabilities
to unsustainable levels, and macroeconomic
developments amplified the poor
The critical drivers include: funding
pension systems below the annually required
levels; providing contribution holidays and
pension pickups; increasing the riskiness
of investment portfolios over time; setting
unrealistically high actuarial rates of return
and discount rates; underestimating the life
expectancy of pensioners; miscalculating
government workers retirement dates; giving
more-generous benefits through formula
enhancements, COLAs, and skimming;
lowering the minimum age of retirement; allowing
retroactive application of more generous
benefit formulas; and unleashing bidding
among government agencies using pension
benefits to lure new employees.
According to a leading study, California
state workers receive government pensions
about 30 percent larger than their privatesector
Why Lawmakers Have Failed
to Solve the Problem
McQuillan explains that perverse incentives
of lawmakers and pension officials encourage
unfunded liabilities to escalate over time.
These harmful incentives exist in any jurisdiction
with public governance of defined-benefit pension plans.
Elected officials know pension recipients
and their families are more likely to vote for
them if they increase pension benefits. Lawmakers
seek votes and campaign contributions
by pandering to special interests with
higher pension benefits. Also, many voters
and taxpayers are happy to receive public services
without paying the full cost, meaning
the cost that includes the public employee
Pensions are particularly well suited for
vote buying because the full costs of higher
pensions are not realized initiallythe pension
tsunami takes years, if not decades, to
swell. Lawmakers can make pension promises
today, and the full cost is pushed into the
future, usually after the legislators have left
California lawmakers also promised
generous pension benefits, but contributed
little money up front because they assumed
the contributions would earn a high rate of
return for decades when invested. The Big
Three assume that they will outperform the
average portfolio return in the twentieth
century by 21 percent every year forever. This
risky approach frees up money to be spent on
other programs, but it is a collapsing house
of cards when reality does not match the
politically motivated rosy assumptions.
McQuillan shows that both Democrats
and Republicans played the pension game
because, ironically, these reckless decisions
advanced politicians short-term interests.
Perverse incentives motivate politicians to
blow a hole in defined-benefit pension plans.
The Immorality of the
Public Pension Crisis
McQuillan explains that the failure to fully
fund the pension promises has allowed the
current generation to receive public services
that they did not fully pay for, pushing the
pension problem onto future generations.
This approach to pension funding produces
massive intergenerational inequity, treating
our children and grandchildren as piggy
The unwillingness to confront the true
scope of Californias pension costs, to pay for
the promises made, and to make changes to
control future obligations means these costs
are pushed onto our children and grandchildren who are forced to pay for promises they
did not make and for services they did not
agree to. The injustice is apparent to anyone
who cares to see.
Future generations will have to forego
government services that their parents and
grandparents enjoyed, such as police and fire
protection, library services, and education,
in order to pay for past pension promises
they didnt consent to. This service-delivery
insolvency is as real as financial insolvency.
Skyrocketing public pension costs are crowding
out spending on other public services.
Left unchanged, the financial burden of
the pension problem will crush our children
and grandchildren, leaving them with a depleted
future and a depleted California. The
responsibility to fix this problem is as great
as any moral imperative because it directly
impacts the quality of life our children will
enjoy and their chances for upward mobility.
A Comprehensive Solution
A true solution to Californias public pension
crisis must do two things: (1) shore up
Californias current public pension plans,
and (2) ensure that California never repeats
this crisis. McQuillan offers six reforms that
would solve Californias pension problem in
an equitable, responsible, and moral way by
preserving pension benefits already earned;
allowing governments, if they choose, to
provide competitive defined-contribution
pensions going forward to all employees; and
granting governments the flexibility needed,
so that future generations are not paying for
deals they did not make. These reforms could
be applied anywhere in America facing a
The specific recommendationsmost of
them already in place in the private sector
would require financial transparency and full
annual funding of each pension plan without
issuing pension obligation bonds. Also, the
reforms would give state and local governments
the flexibility to switch to sustainable
401(k)-style defined-contribution pension
plans going forward for all government
employees. Voters would also be required to
pre-approve any pension plan change that
increases financial obligations.
These reforms are the crucial elements of
a comprehensive solution. They would stop the problem from getting worse, fully fund
the pension plans without severe hardships
on future generations, and guarantee that the
crisis is never repeated.
How a Comprehensive
Solution Benefits You
The reforms presented in California Dreaming
would provide significant fiscal benefits
for consumers of government services, public
employees and retirees, taxpayers, voters, legislators,
younger people, and poorer people.
For example, McQuillan shows that by
freezing the Big Threes defined-benefit plans
and switching to defined-contribution plans,
California could save at least $6 billion a
year, which would pay for the closure of the
defined-benefit plans over about 30 years, if
the governments actuarial scenario proves
to be correct. The $6 billion annual savings
would make a significant contribution
toward paying down past pension debt (in
other words, paying for all earned pension
benefits) while capping the debt, limiting
the intergenerational transfer of burdens,
better protecting public services, and providing
pension benefits going forward that are
competitive with those offered in the private
sector. Once the pension debt is paid, the
tremendous savings could be redirected to
restoring public services, such as education,
police and fire protection, libraries, and
roads and bridges, or it could be refunded to
taxpayers for their own retirement savings.
Without the reforms, pension burdens will
be crushing, growing, and repeatable.
McQuillan also explains that current and
future government retirees, in particular,
would be wise to accept the recommended
reforms because the changes would fully pay
for accrued benefits and decouple future
retirement benefits from government treasuries,
which are increasingly teetering on
bankruptcy or already insolvent. Recent federal
bankruptcy court decisions in both the
Detroit and Stockton municipal bankruptcies
ruled that pension checks of current and
future city retirees may be cut in bankruptcy
proceedings. Both cities were driven into
bankruptcy by unaffordable pension obligations.
Defined-contribution pensions would
untether retirement security from the future
financial health of municipal governments.
Mayors, governors, and other policymakers around the country are struggling to maintain services while paying for the skyrocketing costs of public employee retirement benefits. California Dreaming explains why it is so difficult to solve this problem and identifies a key framework for solutions.
Chuck Reed, former Mayor, City of San Jose, California
Lawrence McQuillan's California Dreaming is a superb, wake-up call to all those depending on generous pensions from state and local governmentsthey simply won't be there, or at least in the amounts expected. The book is also a wake-up call to California taxpayerswho will be shocked to learn of the huge tax liabilities they face. McQuillan explains how governments have created this mess and offers sensible reforms to end the crisis and preserve retirement benefitswithout bankrupting taxpayers.
James C. Miller III, former Director, U.S. Office of Management and Budget; former Chairman, Federal Trade Commission; former Executive Director, Presidential Task Force on Regulatory Relief
California Dreaming is a horrifying must-read that exposes the steal-as-you-go policies driving the state (and our country) straight down the tubes!
Laurence J. Kotlikoff, William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor and Professor of Economics, Boston University; former Senior Economist, Presidents Council of Economic Advisers
Unfunded public pensions and healthcare are the greatest threats to government financial stability in our country. Over 80% of the government bodies in California are headed for bankruptcy for owing more than a half trillion dollars in unfunded pension and healthcare debt. Mounting debt will force the closing of public libraries, parks, and schools. Police and fire services will be cut, streets will be in disrepair, and we will find ourselves living in a Third World country. Lawrence McQuillans outstanding book California Dreaming spells out these disasters about to happen with perfect clarity.
Richard J. Riordan, former Mayor, City of Los Angeles, California
California Dreaming is as important as an early warning of an impending tsunami. Ignoring its message would be equally irresponsible. Underfunding fixed pension benefits for California employees with an inadequate portfolio of risky assets will eventually fail catastrophically. Almost everyone, particularly future taxpayers, will suffer. As with a tsunami warning, quick action offers the opportunity of minimizing the damage from current policies. Lawrence McQuillen offers a thoughtful menu of policy reforms which would improve the situation dramatically.
John B. Shoven, Charles R. Schwab Professor of Economics and Trione Director of the Stanford Institute of Economic Policy Research, Stanford University
Politicians must learn not to make retirement finding decisions for city and state employees and not be able to fulfill them. It is unfair to current and future employees as well as the general public to carry the financial burden of past, unrealistic, unfunded liabilities. California Dreaming is the right book at the perfect time to explain the issues and suggest a realistic approach. The public needs to hold politicians much more accountable or suffer the financial consequences.
Frank M. Jordan, former Mayor and former Chief of Police, City and County of San Francisco, California
California, the canary in the coalmine for practically all of Americas states, faces an enormous and largely unacknowledged crisis in its system of pensions for teachers and other public employees. In California Dreaming, Lawrence J. McQuillan writes that those pensions are like tapeworms in the guts of public treasuries. The result is a shortfall of more than half a trillion dollars. The good news, though, is that McQuillan has the answera handful of reforms to fix Californias pension problem permanently, and a lesson for the rest of the states in this very important, timely, and well-researched book.
James K. Glassman, Visiting Fellow, American Enterprise Institute; Member, SEC Investor Advisory Committee; former U.S. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy; former Publisher, The New Republic; former President, The Atlantic Monthly
Californias policymakers are living in Fantasy Land, as they downplay the depth of the states pension crisis. In California Dreaming, Lawrence McQuillan does a remarkable service explaining why the public pension systems are broken. He then offers sensible solutions for fixing them, and all California officials should listen. This is a great book for anyone who wants to understand an issue that unless averted will erode public services, destroy budgets and bankrupt our future.
Steven M. Greenhut, columnist, U-T San Diego
In California Dreaming, Lawrence McQuillan does a great job of clearly explaining how the mismanagement of Californias state pension plans has led to massive unfunded pension liabilities. McQuillan offers sensible policy reforms to address California's pension crisis, and explains why all Californians would benefit from those reforms. Unfunded pension liabilities plague many states, and this book offers the clearest explanation on how the problem arises and how it can best be addressed.
Randall G. Holcombe, DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics, Florida State University
Public employee pensions could be the next fiscal crisistrillions of dollars placed in increasingly risky investments, managed by organizations with little understanding of the risks, operating under accounting rules that provide little transparency for elected officials and citizens to understand what is going on. Lawrence J. McQuillans important book California Dreaming shows how the Golden States pension system encouraged policymakers to promise too much, fund too little, and take excessive risk with the plans investments. But McQuillan does not merely have lessons for Californians. Citizens across the country need to learn more about the risk posed by public pensions and how to fix those plans, and California Dreaming is a great place to start.
Andrew G. Biggs, Resident Scholar, American Enterprise Institute
"California Dreaming: Lessons on How to Resolve America's Public Pension Crisis is a wake-up call about a simmering crisis in California and the United States. As the baby boomer generation grows older and retires, increasingly government pensions and retirement benefits are a rising cost that threatens to force state and local governments to raise taxes, slash public services, declare bankruptcy, or all three. California Dreaming examines the extent of the problem, the causes that are forcing public pension debt to unprecedented levels, and lists six critical reforms needed to bring financial stability to California and other jurisdictions in trouble. Accessible to readers of all backgrounds, California Dreaming is a 'must-have' for policy makers and public and college library Economic Studies shelves."
Midwest Book Review
California Dreaming exposes the financial and political quagmire of local and state governmental pensions in California, in a comprehensive, critical, yet solvable manner. Dr. Lawrence J. McQuillan represents the Boswell to those analysts, commentators, and civic independents who have disregarded the spiraling, post‑World War II, public-pension plans, the impoverishing fiscal crisis politicians love to bury. The book is concise, literate, and instructive for elected and appointed public officials and, especially, taxpayers gulled by their leaders.
Quentin L. Kopp, former State Senator of California; former Judge, San Mateo Superior Court; former President, San Francisco Board of Supervisors
Governments have a tendency to commit to tasks that they really cannot deliver on. Public pensions are an example of this general tendency. Generous promises are made and then underfunded because of the pressures of elective office. California Dreaming provides very useful evidence of both the generosity of the unsustainable promises made to California's public-sector employees, and the failure to fully pay for those promises. The result may be a fiscal catastrophe for Californian taxpayers and retirees in the not-too-distant futureunless this very timely books reforms are adopted in the next few years.
Roger D. Congleton, BB&T Professor of Economics, West Virginia University
The message of this highly readable volume is both realistic and hopeful: The California public pension system is an economic time bomb, yet the explosion is not inevitable. Lawrence McQuillan points the way to six reforms that would not only defuse Californias problems but would also benefit other states in the same predicament. I recommend California Dreaming to anyone who wants to understand the scope of the public pension crisis, how we got there, and what we can do to effect a permanent solution.
William E. Simon, Jr., Co-Chairman, William E. Simon & Sons, LLC; former Candidate for Governor of California; former Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York
In California Dreaming, McQuillan provides a beautiful case study of the way politics operates to produce public pension policies based on an insidious form of hidden deficit finance that harms future generations and undermines sound policies today. We may hope that his trenchant analysis of Californias problems will serve as a guide to much needed reform of local, state and federal government policies.
Edgar K. Browning, Professor Emeritus of Economics, Texas A&M University
In California Dreaming, Lawrence J. McQuillan tackles Golden State woes regarding public-sector pensions underfunded by hundreds of billions of dollars. But the comprehensive solution he offers could be applied anywhere in America facing a similar problem, the publisher says. After explaining some pension-fund basics, he covers the factors that led to California's massive problems, including politicians allowing the crisis to grow and failing to fix it. McQuillan proposes six reforms that he says would resolve California's pension crisis equitably, responsibly and morally while preserving benefits already earned, providing competitive pension plans going forward, and giving municipal and state governments the flexibility necessary to ensure that future generations won't end up footing the bill for todays unfunded liabilities.
2015 Foreword Reviews' INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award Finalist: Business & Economics (Adult Nonfiction)