The Church of Pensions

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

“Government Pensions Are No Longer Sacred,” — UT San Diego

Welcome to the Church of Pensions. I am your pastor, Rest. Vest Edward Wright. But you can call me Vested.

First a big thank you to the police and fire league, for your generosity in building a new sanctuary. Sometimes I wonder if there’s any limit to the amount of cash you have available to give us.

Speaking of which, it’s time for the offering. I’m going to pass the plates down the aisles, and I ask each of you to contribute to the church as generously as you…

Wait, just kidding! We never ask you to put up your own money at the Church of Pensions. It’s so much better to rely on the investment returns.

Anyway, Happy New Year. The passage of time is always important here at our Church. The culture outside still celebrates youth, but we know that getting old just means getting rich.

For those who are new to our congregation – and it’s good to see new faces, particularly after all those years of government layoffs during the recession – we’re a very special kind of church in that we have space for all of the world’s religions, except those that insist on paying back bondholders.

Many of the world’s religions believe that each human has a spirit or a soul that is immortal. That spirit or soul remains, no matter what other earthly concerns may intrude and seem more urgent. We accept this teaching, but we think it’s incomplete. There’s another thing that’s immortal, that can’t be changed no matter. And that immortal thing, the soul of our church, is the pension obligation.

That’s why you hear so much that these obligations, including vested rights, can’t be changed. Now, there are some people in certain parts of the world – federal bankruptcy judges in Detroit, mayors in San Jose – who think otherwise. But we know they are wrong. Pensions are forever. They are a promise that no Chapter 9 filing or ballot initiative can change.

We understand that protection pensions and souls requires sacrifice today, but what religion doesn’t require sacrifice? If you must fire today’s police officer to protect the pension of yesterday’s, it must be done, and here at the Church of Pensions, we will see that it is good. If you must shorten the school year to cover the STRs deficit, fear not. Know that there will be a reward (90 percent at age 55, we pray) for that less-educated child in some future life.

Today, I have a warning for you. With our church facing so many attacks, and embroiled in conflict not of our making, you may be tempted to hear of compromise. There are people who will talk in reasonable tones of reform, of curbing excesses to preserve pensions, even expanding them to private sector workers, but doing so in a less generous, more fiscally sustainable way.

Do not believe them. They are blasphemers. And if you provide them a few givebacks, or a big compromise now, they will only ask for more later. This Church of Pensions will not surrender, because we can no more surrender our pensions than we can surrender our very souls.

And so, in CalPERS’ name, we pray. Amen.

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