Is The IPERS Cake Baked?

Tres Leches Cake Photo Credit – Stu Spivack, Wikimedia Commons

The Cedar Rapids Gazette was sitting on the break room table last week at the home, farm and auto supply store, open to an article about IPERS, Iowa’s public employee retirement plan.

Written by Matt Sinovic of Progress Iowa, the first sentence asserted more of the usual fare from the progressive group, “Once again, Republicans in the Iowa Legislature are inviting an out-of-state attack on the economic security of Iowa families.”

Thanks, but I’d already had my allowable dose of confirmation bias that morning. I closed the paper and started my shift.

That would have been that, except my state representative, Bobby Kaufmann, raised the article in a July 21 update to his legislative newsletter list.

Finally, I want to address the conversations being had regarding IPERS. I want to ensure (sic) everyone that your retirement is safe and will continue to be. There was an unfortunate editorial in the Gazette. I am being complimentary when I call it misleading and partisan. Every two years a committee meets to ensure our retirement fund is solvent. That is all that is happening. Every two years members of both parties get together and examine our retirement system to make sure our promises can be kept. I have said it before and I will say it again: I am a HELL NO on any bill that would negatively impact the retirement promise that has been made to you.

“Sh*t,” I said to myself. “Now I gotta go read that stinkin’ article.”

A long-standing complaint of Blog for Iowa is the legislature does little to address long term plans for IPERS.

“As it stands, there is no long term plan for educational financing, Medicaid, IPERS or property tax reform,” Chad Thompson wrote May 24, 2005. “What we did get was some reshuffling of bank accounts and a further drain on the reserves we do have.”

When Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds brought up the idea of a task force to evaluate modification of IPERS last January, my nerves tensed.

Reynolds, who soon will become the state’s governor, said in remarks at a Scott County Republican Party fundraiser Jan. 26 (reported by Ed Tibbetts of the Quad City Times), that commitments already made to IPERS members would be honored. “I feel very strongly about that,” she said. However, she also raised the possibility of moving toward a “hybrid” system that would include the current defined benefit pension arrangement as well as a defined contribution component. The latter is akin to a 401(k) system that is common in the private sector.

While Reynolds’ statement garnered attention, IPERS did not seem like a high priority on its own.

Iowa Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald was quick to respond to Reynolds.

On January 30, 2017, I issued a statement telling IPERS members they should be concerned about the future of their benefits.

Since that time, my concern has continued to grow. After witnessing how quickly the legislature and governor were willing to move without input from the people would privatize the investment of employees’ and retirees’ pensions. Individuals will pay more and private companies will reap the benefit.

We have made adjustments over the years to ensure the success of IPERS. We do not need to tear this plan apart, but rather continue to manage it well.

In the context of Governor Reynolds’ and Treasurer Fitzgerald’s January statements, Kaufmann’s assurances raise a flag.

I read Sinovic’s article and one of his issues is the Reason Foundation will be involved with the biannual review Kaufmann referenced.

What should we care who reviews IPERS?

The Reason Foundation, established in 1978, is part of a dark money network of wealthy libertarians that has been at work in our recent elections, according to Jane Mayer, author of Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. “Reason Foundation advances a free society by developing, applying, and promoting libertarian principles, including individual liberty, free markets, and the rule of law,” according to their web site. Their tagline is “free minds and free markets.”

Fitzgerald and Sinovic are saying the cake is baked regarding the IPERS solvency review. We don’t know the result, but can get a taste of what to expect by reviewing the law Michigan Governor Rick Snyder signed this month. Here are some key features of the new Michigan public pension plan reported by the Reason Foundation:

  1. New hires will be auto-enrolled in a defined contribution retirement plan (DC Plan) that has a default 10% total contribution rate. DC Plans inherently have no risk of unfunded liabilities, and the maximum employer share for the plan (7%) is less than what employers should be paying for the current plan.
  2. However, if new teachers would prefer a defined benefit pension plan (DB Plan), they will have the choice to voluntarily switch to a new “hybrid” plan that, unlike the current “hybrid” plan offered to teachers, uses very conservative assumptions and short amortization schedules and splits all costs 50-50 between the employee and employer.
  3. Uniquely, the hybrid plan will have a safeguard mechanism that would trigger closure if the funded ratio falls below 85% for two consecutive years.
  4. And to top it off, the reform design improves certain actuarial assumptions and infuses the plan with $250 million in additional contributions to chip away at the pension debt.

Sound okay? Obviously any change will be viewed with suspicion by IPERS participants. I don’t agree with Sinovic that the Reason Foundation’s involvement is an “attack on the economic security of Iowa families.” What will annoy people is if Republicans try to slam through a hybrid plan similar to Michigan’s as Fitzgerald feared they might.

If, as Rep. Kaufmann indicated, the biannual review is simply to produce solvency, then good job for relieving unnecessary worry. As Fitzgerald indicated, “as state treasurer, an IPERS board member, and trustee of the Fund, I can tell you that Iowa has worked hard over the years to ensure IPERS is on solid ground. And we are.”

If, as Fitzgerald and Sinovic believe, the end result will be major changes to IPERS similar in scope to the Michigan law, that’s something else entirely. Time will tell. Current IPERS participants are forewarned to pay attention.

Sinovic is free to publish his opinion about whatever he is paid to advocate. However, when he posts an article like the Gazette piece he does no favors for Democrats hoping to win back seats in the Iowa legislature in 2018. Readers can see straight through the hyperbole and associate his comments with the Democratic Party. Democrats become defenders of the status quo by default, a status quo Blog for Iowa has been complaining about for 12 years.

And seriously Republicans. You have to pick a Koch network think tank for the solvency review? One that while claiming to be non-partisan favors a certain outcome?

What’s needed in public discourse is a statement of what progressives are doing to ensure IPERS is solvent. We also need a chance to win elections, something Sinovic’s article didn’t help.

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Toward A New Electorate

Solon Beef Days, July 22, 2017

Sunday my spouse and I took the public library poster she made to the fairgrounds where the county’s seven libraries have a booth for the fair which runs Monday through Thursday this week.

We parked outside Building B, went in, and slid the foamcore board into a slot. It took a couple minutes.

A friend was there setting up an adjacent booth shared by Physicians for Social Responsibility, Veterans for Peace, PEACE Iowa and 100 Grannies for a Livable Future. We chatted for a while, about raccoons, chipmunks, single use water bottles, libraries and why I haven’t attended more events. We then went our separate ways: she and her son to Village Inn, and we to buy the first sweet corn of the season from a local farmer.

I could make similar connections with many fair booth sponsors, almost anyone could.

Last night I volunteered selling tickets at Solon Beef Days, which is the annual festival near our home. We sold about 500 tickets during my shift and had a brief conversation with each buyer.

I knew the voter registration of many who bought tickets. I remembered who they supported, which elections in which they voted, when they donated, and who lived in their households. It’s not that I’m snoopy or a gossip. It just comes with the turf of political canvassing near one’s home for two decades.

Some say we should volunteer to make phone calls and door knock on political campaigns to win elections. That may have once been true, however, the electorate is going through a profound change with the rise in importance of personal computers and cellular technology. That change is not finished.

James Carville is hard to stomach these days, but during the Bill Clinton campaign his fax machine and “rapid response” was a competitive advantage no one else had. It was an innovation that contributed to Clinton’s win.

People don’t talk much about Joe Trippi but he was one of the first to understand a virtual community and its implications for political campaigns. In his book, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Democracy, The Internet and The Overthrow of Everything he points to the moment he understood it.

“I sat at my PC, crying and watching as people eulogized David (Haines) and mourned him the way you would a good friend.

And that is the precise moment that I got it.

I was attending a funeral on the Internet.

This was not a bunch of individual people sitting in front of a television alone, watching a sad program, reaching on cue for the Kleenex brand tissue. This was a rich, fully realized community, a world of real people interacting with each other, sharing their kids’ first steps and crying on each other’s shoulders when they lost someone they cared about, someone most of us had never met.

Now campaigns have IT staffs but the Howard Dean campaign had Joe Trippi.

Today, people can always be in touch thanks to mobile communications devices and cellular technology. They are also increasingly suspicious of someone or something they don’t know or understand. I suspect that’s natural human behavior writ large as a defense mechanism to easy and increased electronic connectivity.

It’s not that people don’t know or want to know what’s going on in the broader world. World events are filtered by members of much smaller social groups, taking on more specific meaning.

Confirmation bias, the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories, increasingly plays a role in elections by drawing people into smaller, more personal networks of social relationships facilitated by electronic networking. An email, a knock at the door, or a phone call does little to penetrate such relationships in any positive way. Such personal groups may span time and distance but members are hardened into a set of beliefs that becomes resilient. That spells trouble for political campaigns trying to keep up. It deflates the value of phone calls and door knocking in political campaigns.

What to do?

My answer is pretty simple. Make friends with neighbors. Go to the county fair or a church social. Work with seniors in your community. Spend time talking to people at the town festival. Buy sweet corn from a local farmer. While these things don’t seem political, they represent a radical approach to succeeding in politics in response to the Trump phenomenon. Political operatives will adapt to the new model or hate it because small consulting firms that came up since the 2004 election may go out of business using the old one.

The potential exists for a new democratization of political campaigns but no one has cracked the code. That is, no one except Donald Trump, according to cognitive science and linguistics professor George Lakoff.

Maybe once we understand everything we like to hear on the internet is not true there will be a useful democratization of campaigns.

Until then, I’ll look forward to the next trip to the farm to get sweet corn, and my next outing tomorrow to be with people in the physical world. That’s where the action is and where the next winning campaign is being formed. Don’t get left behind.

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Democrats In McConnellville

 McConnellville (Greensburg, Kansas May 7, 2007). Photo Credit – FEMA

Mitch McConnell must miss Harry Reid and Barack Obama.

Without their foil he’s got no one to blame but himself for failing to craft a legislative agenda to support the Republican president.

He tries to blame Democrats but it falls flat.

McConnell’s agenda is built on the flawed expectation that legislation can only be passed based on Republican priorities. The approach is bound to fail in a time citizens pay more attention to politics and increasingly hold members of congress accountable.

The majority leader gets credit for holding his caucus together when Senate Republicans were in the minority. His tactics were brilliant, however, since they won the trifecta in the 2016 general election he’s been like a ship without a rudder — demonstrating the craven, whining, victimized and ultimately ineffective strategy that has been present all along.

The same electorate that gave Republicans a big 2016 win will take their power away. Trouble is the corporate media narrative — that “Democrats don’t know what they stand for” will delay this inevitable outcome.

In a July 16 Associated Press article, Steve Peoples and Bill Barrow asserted the narrative in “Dems still strive to tell voters what their party stands for.”

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley hesitated when asked about his party’s core message to voters.

“That message is being worked on,” the New York congressman said in an interview this past week. “We’re doing everything we can to simplify it, but at the same time provide the meat behind it as well. So that’s coming together now.”

The admission from the No. 4 House Democrat — that his party lacks a clear, core message even amid Republican disarray — highlights the Democrats’ dilemma eight months after President Donald Trump and the GOP dominated last fall’s elections, in part, because Democrats lacked a consistent message.

Many of us remember Bill Clinton’s famous campaign assertion, “it’s the economy stupid.” It made for good press stories almost three decades ago. Today the Democratic Party is both more diverse, and part of a larger electorate where party registration is less important. A simplistic and all-encompassing, “core message” would be so watered down as to render it meaningless. The fact there are political parties at all is less relevant than the cultural aspects of an electorate that can turn an Obama voter into a Trump voter. The narrative “Democrats don’t know what they stand for” is fake as a three-dollar bill. Just ask a Democrat and they will tell you what they stand for.

Democrats should not hope for relief from McConnell’s craven allegiance to libertarian financial backers. The Senate majority leader is a pawn in their game, one being played in shadows by a dark money network. A media narrative about Democrats lacking a consistent message plays to dark money strengths by asserting the problem in politics is us, not them.

In response to a Republican majority, Senator Chuck Schumer has been able to hold his caucus together, at least on the first couple health care bills. As Mitch McConnell’s tenure in the minority demonstrated, such tactics may create some wins, but are no substitute for strategy.

The trouble in McConnellville is different from the media narrative about Democrats. The majority leader’s expectation Democrats should join Republicans to craft legislation is laughable. The fact of voter engagement in politics by contacting elected officials effectively shut down the first three Senate proposals for repealing the Affordable Care Act. Voters are becoming more a part of the legislative mix than any political party is willing to acknowledge. Democrats should pay attention to this dynamic and leverage it for wins in 2020 and maybe 2018.

Here’s a core message for partisan elected officials, “we’re the party that doesn’t do stupid stuff.” That’s a message that makes sense. How I wish it were true.

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Act On Climate — Scary Edition

Thunderstorm Rolling In

You may have seen David Wallace-Wells’ New York Magazine article titled, “The Uninhabitable Earth.”

It’s a scary article with frightful truths circulating on social media.

Half truths according to Michael E. Mann, director of Earth System Science Center at Penn State. Mann wrote onFacebook:

Since this New York Magazine article (“The Uninhabitable Earth”) is getting so much play this morning, I figured I should comment on it, especially as I was interviewed by the author (though not quoted or mentioned).

I have to say that I am not a fan of this sort of doomist framing. It is important to be up front about the risks of unmitigated climate change, and I frequently criticize those who understate the risks. But there is also a danger in overstating the science in a way that presents the problem as unsolvable, and feeds a sense of doom, inevitability and hopelessness.

The article argues that climate change will render the Earth uninhabitable by the end of this century. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The article fails to produce it.

Read Mann’s full take-down here.

If we are clicking on New York Magazine for our information about the threats of climate change then now, more than ever, it’s clear mental health care is needed in whatever healthcare bill Congress passes this year.

Taking action on climate (or anything else) based on fear would be as scary as Wallace-Wells’ article.

On Sunday, Al Gore was in the news about his climate work.

“Those who feel despair should be of good cheer as the Bible says,” Gore told Lee Cowan of CBS News. “Have faith, have hope. We are going to win this.”

The need to act on climate is all around us according to Gore.

“It’s no longer just the virtually unanimous scientific community telling us we’ve got to change,” he said. “Now Mother Nature has entered the debate. Every night now on the television news is like a nature hike through the Book of Revelation. People who don’t want to use the phrase ‘global warming’ or ‘climate crisis’ are saying, ‘Wait a minute. Something’s going on here that’s not right.'”

Gore is right. Don’t despair. Act on climate.

If you don’t know what to do, The Climate Reality Project provides an action kit to get you started. Click here to find it.

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Social Security Runs Out! (In 2034)

Last Thursday the board of trustees overseeing Social Security released its 2018 projection.

61 million beneficiaries — retirees, disabled workers, spouses and surviving children — will get an increase in monthly benefits. The forecast increase is 2.2 percent or about $28 per month on the average payment of $1,253. Not a lot, but something.

In low wage work world, where I spend a lot of my time, I meet sixty-somethings and we talk about Social Security. They have it figured out. They’d better take what they can from Social Security as soon as they can, because one never knows if the program will be around or for how long. The presumption is the Congress will do nothing to preserve it. I’ll tell you I’m living with a bunch of spoons. That’s to say, none of them is the sharp knife in the drawer when it comes to Social Security.

“Neither Social Security nor Medicare faces an immediate crisis — they both currently have surpluses,” Stephen Ohlemacher of Associated Press wrote. “But the trustees warn that the longer Congress waits to address the programs’ problems, the harder it will be to sustain Social Security and Medicare without steep cuts in benefits, big tax increases or both.”

Those “steep cuts” and “tax increases” need not come now, as some Trump Republicans have been suggesting. The program does need reasoned consideration about who we are as an American society and what, if anything we will do to keep people out of poverty as they exit the work force. The Congress won’t address it unless there is interest from the electorate. In a time when people have U.S. Senator phone numbers on speed dial, “interest” means often and specific contact repeated over and over.

Hillary Clinton concisely stated her position during her 2016 presidential campaign.

“We can never let Republicans cut or privatize Social Security — we should protect and expand it,” Clinton tweeted on June 3, 2016.

Clinton’s statement aged reasonably well despite other options. However, it’s useless for prominent personalities to address the long term issues Social Security faces if people who will use the program don’t speak up.

I encourage people to speak up about Social Security because its future is not guaranteed. A word of advice. Before you open your mouth and remove doubt you are an idiot, learn about the Social Security program here. No need to read all 269 pages of last week’s report, but familiarize yourself with the summary beginning on page two. Once armed with knowledge, and potential questions, contact your federal elected officials and suggest we should protect and expand Social Security now. You’ll be doing yourself a favor.

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Organic Food’s Sticky Wicket

Michigan Cherries

When people think of local food, most have seasonal sweet corn and tomatoes in mind. That hasn’t changed much in years.

The quest for good-tasting food that does no harm has also been around for a long time. Organic food production came up in the early 20th Century as an alternative to the rise in mechanized, industrial farming.

An organic food production system developed, although there is less clarity about it today than there was a few years ago. Organic certification has contributed to confusion.

The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 and the National Organic Program were game changers that created a new certification process and, importantly, a greater market for organic food. Sales of organic food more than doubled during the period 2006-2015, according to the Organic Trade Association, reaching $43.3 billion in 2015. In its quest to bring standards and a market, the well intentioned government program suffered abuse in the form of government lobbyists from moneyed interests who diluted the meaning of “USDA Organic” many of us found inspiring in the 1990s. Under Sonny Perdue, the 31st U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, further erosion of the law’s original intent and the organic standard is expected.

“It seems that uncertainty and dysfunction have overtaken the National Organic Standards Board and the regulations associated with the National Organic Program,” Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kansas), chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, said recently according to the Washington Post. “These problems create an unreliable regulatory environment and prevent farmers that choose organic from utilizing advancements in technology and operating their business in an efficient and effective manner. Simply put, this hurts our producers and economies in rural America.”

Roberts statement is code for getting government regulations out of the way of large scale producers in the organic market. As the 2018 farm bill is crafted by the Congress, any meaningful regulation pertaining to organic standards is expected to be gutted by Trump Republicans.

What you see is not always what you get as organic food producers scale up to meet demand and work the system. Here are two recent examples:

Herbruck’s Poultry Ranch in Saranac, Michigan produces one in 10 organic eggs in the U.S. according to the Chicago Tribune. The linked article describes production processes indistinguishable from those of almost any Iowa confinement egg producer. Those eggs don’t seem organic despite assertions by the ranch. What does “organic” mean in this context. At a minimum, not what we expected.

In May, Peter Whoriskey of the Washington Post reported fraud in imported corn and soybeans. A large shipment of soybeans began as “regular” soybeans in Ukraine and changed to “USDA Organic” by the time it reached a California port, garnering an additional $4 million for the shipment because it was “organic.” Some doctored documents is all it took for a huge, fraudulent payday.

My perspective of organic food is from a backyard garden. Gardening is about changing one’s relationship with food as much as providing food for the table — process more than produce. Using organic practices comes naturally as gardeners are mindful of crop inputs that will land on the dinner plate. A common mistake is neglecting the social context of gardening. In most cases gardening includes family, fellow consumers, merchants, farmers and gardeners. A gardener has only slight intersection with government.

Once government got involved in organic food production a market became viable. That was a good thing for farmers who sought to make a living growing organic food. Organic food systems then merged toward commodification as they scaled to meet demand and that’s the sticky wicket.

An ability to increase organic food production without compromising organic standards has been difficult all along. When news stories raise doubt about the meaning of “organic food,” it’s one more burden for farmers to bear in a business where the challenges of producing organic food at a profit are substantial.

I work on farms that use organic practices and plan to resist compromise on organic standards in the next farm bill. If you care about what’s on your dinner plate, should too.

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A 2,000 Word Day

Japanese Beetle on a Wheat Plant

I’ll be filling in for editor Trish Nelson at Blog for Iowa the next two weeks while she takes a well-deserved break.

To meet a daily posting requirement I wrote four posts Saturday in between gardening, cooking, mowing and laundry. After the final edit this morning I counted 2,000 words! It felt like I accomplished something.

There is a lot to write about.

The challenge of writing is partly the craft. It is more the living. Without a perspective that’s unique or adds value to society, what’s the point?

The main thing in getting perspective is to shut up and listen to people, places and things around us. We Americans — and perhaps we humans — are not very good listeners so we need to work at it.

That’s how I plan to spend the rest of the day. Listening to the place I call home. That includes my spouse.

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