Is California’s Elite Willing to Fight for More Infrastructure? Or Just Bash Trump?

In the wake of unrest on the UC Berkeley campus last week, Robert Reich has managed to get himself some fresh national news coverage. Reich served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, and is currently a professor at the University of California at Berkeley. Reich made news by suggesting the rioters who forced cancellation of a speech at UC Berkeley by Milo Yiannopoulos were not left-wing rioters at all, but instead were right-wing provocateurs. On his own website, here’s Reich’s latest take on this: “A Yinnopoulos, Bannon, Trump Plot to Control American Universities?

It’s always tough to prove a negative, but Reich is on thin ice here. Were the rioters who nearly shut down Washington, D.C., during Trump’s inauguration last month right-wing provocateurs? Were the rioters who shut down a Yiannopolous appearance at UC Davis a few weeks ago right-wing provocateurs? Are the hundreds, if not thousands, of marchers, including rioters, who tore through a dozen major cities in the U.S. in the wake of Trump’s unexpected election victory all right-wing provocateurs? Is it right-wing zealots who are waging an ongoing war against every new pipeline in the nation? Or are they establishment reactionaries and their anarchist bedfellows?

Since Robert Reich made himself a household word this week, perhaps it is important to reiterate one of the most important lessons that the American electorate has taken to heart over the past few years, and certainly while observing the Trump phenomenon: The “establishment” in America is an alliance of extremely wealthy individuals, multi-national corporations and the professional class that serves them, big labor unions especially including public sector labor and the government agencies they control, the financial institutions, and the leadership of both major political parties. To describe this establishment as “right-wing” or “left-wing” misleads more than it illuminates.

Robert Reich is an elite member of this establishment.

Back in mid-2016 California Policy Center research Marc Joffe made Robert Reich a poster-child for establishment hypocrisy in his analysis entitled “UC Berkeley’s ‘income inequality’ critics earn in top 2%.” During 2015, Robert Reich earned $327,465, in exchange for teaching one class per week. This is about as perfect an example of elite establishment privilege as you can find. And no wonder college tuition has gotten so expensive.

Robert Reich’s resurgence in the public spotlight is based on him leveraging the name recognition he already had to turn himself into one of the most vocal critics of president Trump. But if Robert Reich, apart from costing taxpayers $327,465 per year to teach one class per week, wants to make an actual contribution to society, he should be thinking harder about what he’s for, and not just expand his fan base by bashing the new president.

Californian infrastructure development, supposedly a critical focus of Reich’s labor movement, would be a good place to start. But even there, Reich is not being helpful.

Here is Reich’s most recent essay on the topic: “Trump’s Infrastructure Scam,” published on January 23rd. In this piece Reich argues that private sector participation in infrastructure development creates extra costs and drives funds into projects such as toll roads and toll bridges that generate high revenue to investors, but neglects other sorely needed amenities such as water treatment plants. There is some validity to some of the claims Reich is making. But he’s not offering a solution.

For decades California’s infrastructure has been neglected because (1) most public money that might have been spent on infrastructure went instead to government employee pension funds and government payroll departments to pay over-market compensation to unionized public employees, (2) projects had to pass muster with the environmentalist lobby, greatly shrinking the range of possible projects, and (3) to avoid conflict with the labor union lobby, approved projects were always needlessly expensive. Now we’re years behind.

Reservoirs

Build an offstream reservoir? Why work that hard? Bash Trump and be a hero!

California now has congested, inadequate roads that are embarrassingly, destructively pitted, costing billions in damaged cars and trucks and lost productivity. We have inadequate water storage capacity and cannot capture sufficient storm runoff. We are way behind deploying water treatment technologies that would render it impossible to overuse indoor water because 100 percent of it would be recycled. We only have one desalination plant of any scale on the California coast. The list goes on. In every area of infrastructure, we are behind most of the rest of the U.S., and we are behind most of the rest of the developed world.

Before Trump, and ever since Trump’s inauguration, what has Robert Reich been saying about infrastructure?

Nothing. If you look through the Robert Reich archives, you can go back to 2012 and not find even one commentary on the subject of infrastructure. Now he attacks Trump’s infrastructure proposals, seeing only the bad and none of the good, but for years he has been silent on this topic.

Overall, when it comes to Trump, where Reich complains, the rest of California’s establishment – the democratic wing of America’s bipartisan establishment – shrieks with indignation. Why figure out complex water ownership issues so we can finally build the Sites Reservoir, when you can stand in solidarity against Trump and earn headline after headline? Why do the hard work to develop a multi-state pool of pension fund assets that can be poured into arms-length infrastructure investment in water recycling, when you can heroically declare California a “sanctuary state?”

Establishment leaders like Robert Reich have a choice. They can acknowledge that we need more infrastructure here in California and figure out how to structure new initiatives that include federal funding, or they can hide behind the media-friendly politics of race, gender, and “climate” – abetted with crowd-pleasing Trump bashing – and do absolutely nothing.

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Ed Ring is the vice president of policy research for the California Policy Center.

California’s Total Government Debt Rises to $1.3 Trillion

california-debtjust released study calculates the total state and local government debt in California as of June 30, 2015, at over $1.3 trillion. Authored by Marc Joffe and Bill Fletcher at the California Policy Center, this updates a similar exercise from three years ago that put the June 30, 2012 total at $1.1 trillion. As a percent of GDP, California’s state and local government debt has held steady at around 54 percent.

For a more detailed analysis of how these debt estimates were calculated, read the studies, but here’s a summary of what California’s governments owe as of 6/30/2015:

(1)  Bonds and loans – state, cities, counties, school districts, community colleges, special districts, agencies and other authorities – $426 billion.

(2)  Unfunded pension obligations (official estimate) – $258 billion.

(3)  Other unfunded post-employment benefits, primarily for retiree health insurance – $148 billion.

This total, $832 billion, ignores the fact that these pension obligations are officially calculated based on a return on investment projection that currently hovers between 7.0 percent and 7.5 percent, depending on which pension system you consider. But CalPERS, the largest of California’s roughly 90 major state and local government worker pension funds, has already determined they will have to lower their rate of return projection to 6.5 percent, an action that when emulated by other pension systems will immediately raise the unfunded calculation from $258 billion to $390 billion.

Our estimate, which uses the assumptions municipal credit analysts for Moody’s now use when evaluating the credit-worthiness of cities and counties, uses a rate of return projection of 4.4 percent. That rate is based on the Citigroup Pension Liability Index (CPLI), which is based on high grade corporate bond yields. This rate is far more “risk free” than 6.5 percent, much less 7.5 percent, and when you apply this rate to calculate the present value of the future pension obligations facing California’s state and local governments, the unfunded liability soars to $713 billion, bringing the total of bonds, OPEB and unfunded pensions to $1.29 trillion.

This $1.29 trillion does not include deferred maintenance and upgrades to California’s infrastructure, nor does it include California’s share of federal debt. More on that later.

For the moment, let’s just assume the pension funds manage to earn around 5.5 percent per year. That’s less than the reduction to 6.5 percent they’re already acknowledging, but it’s more than the 4.5 percent that professional credit analysts are already using when reporting credit ratings for government agencies. That 5.5 percent assumption would put California’s total state and local debt right around a $1.0 trillion. How much would it cost to pay off a cool trillion in 30 years at a rate of interest of 5.5 percent?

Seventy billion dollars. That’s over $5,000 per year for every household in California. Just to make payments on debt. That’s before any payments for ongoing services.

It gets worse.

As noted in the study, if one allocates federal debt according to state GDP, the share affecting Californians adds another $1.8 trillion to their debt burden. Again, using rough numbers, we’re now talking about $15,000 per year, per household, just to make payments on local, state and federal government debt.

Nobody knows how this will unwind. If interest rates rise, debt service will rise proportionately. To spark inflation to whittle away the impact of debt payments may be the most benign scenario, but only if inflation affects wages and not just assets. Most scenarios aren’t pretty.

The study concludes:

“Combining California’s debt with publicly held federal debt, we estimate a total debt-to-GDP ratio of 125 percent (or 153 percent using the broader definition of federal debt). This level places California distressingly close to peripheral Eurozone countries that faced financial crises in 2011 and 2012. Portugal’s 2015 debt-to-GDP ratio was 129 percent and Italy’s was 133 percent.”

While recommendations were beyond the scope of this study, here are three:

(1) Reform pensions and compensation for government workers so they experience the same financial challenges and opportunities as the citizens they serve. Cap pension benefits at twice the maximum Social Security benefit (around $62,000 per year). At a minimum, enact these reforms for all future work performed, both by new and existing public sector employees.

(2) Invest a significant percentage of California’s pension fund assets in infrastructure projects here in California. By using a lower rate-of-return projection, pension funds can compete with bond financing. They will earn a risk-free rate of return, California will rebuild its infrastructure, and millions of citizens will be put to work.

(3) Reverse the extreme environmentalist agenda that controls California’s state Legislature. Enact reasonable reforms to enable development of land, water and energy to lower the cost-of-living and encourage business growth. Private sector unions should be aggressively leading the charge on this.

There are a lot of good reasons why California is probably not destined to endure the financial paroxysms that already grip nations such as Italy and Portugal. Our innovative spirit and creative culture still attracts the finest talent from around the world. But California’s political leadership will have to admit there’s a problem, and make some hard choices. Hopefully when they finally do this, they will be thinking about the citizens they serve.

Ed Ring is the vice president of policy research at the California Policy Center.

San Francisco grapples with growing crime, blight after years of liberal policies

As reported by Fox News:

San Francisco is earning a growing reputation for more than just its unmatched tech sector – for critics, the city stands as a profound example of the damage ultra-liberal policies can do.

After 20 years of envelope-pushing changes to grow government and ease law enforcement, the once-shining City by the Bay has turned into a place where:

“There’s a very tolerant attitude, you can very much do anything on the streets you want,” said Marc Joffe, director of research at the California Policy Center think tank. “As members of a civilized society, there are things you should not accept. But we have ignored that … and there is nobody on the other side setting limits.”

San Francisco’s lax attitude is nothing new and has served as a beacon for the American counter-culture dating back to the Beat Generation. But the city’s embrace decades ago of free love and drugs has morphed into something else. …

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