Life expectancy gains: new front in CA pension funding woes

Daniel Borenstein of the Bay Area Newspaper Group had a sharp column Sunday pointing out that delays in acknowledging gains in life expectancy added to the long-term funding problems faced by CalPERS.

“The mortality issue exemplifies how CalPERS has set the rates it charges too low. Retirement systems are funded by contributions from employers and usually employees, plus investment earnings. Accurately projecting how long people will live is critical to setting those contribution rates.

“Currently, CalPERS studies the mortality data for its members every four years and from that projects how long retirees will live and receive benefits. But those numbers don't account for the expectation that people will live longer in the future; it only considers how long they've lived in the past.”

While CalPERS is at least aware of this issue and apparently doing something about it, I haven't heard of a single other California pension system acknowledging the need to change life-expectancy actuarial accounting. Nor will you ever hear reflexive defenders of the pension status quo like Steve Maviglio bring up this angle.

What about pension funding when life expectancy is 90?

Maybe because a little bit of digging shows the problem could soon be far worse than even Borenstein says, as Cal Watchdog reported in September:

“There is a hugely disruptive wild card in the pension debate that is rarely recognized. It is the growing consensus among longevity experts — a large number of whom are based in California — that they are nearing breakthroughs on several fronts that promise to dramatically expand how long humans live.

“According to data released in 2009, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System expects public employees with a current age of 55 to live to be 81.4 if male and 85 if female. These actuarial assumptions are built into how much public agencies are expected to set aside for all employees, including new hires in their 20s.

“The Golden State’s best-known anti-aging experts — Dr. Aubrey de Grey and Dr. Walter M. Bortz II  — are on the short list of the world’s leading authorities on the topic.  …

“De Grey, a native of England, oversees the SENS Research Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Mountain View. SENS stands for Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence. His focus has been on the idea that the aging process can be 'cured,' allowing humans to live far longer thanks to 'regenerative medicine' that stops the deterioration of the body. … He believes that the average life expectancy of Americans who are now alive is likely to be the early 90s, and that in 25 years time, it could be far longer as 'regenerative medicine' becomes practical.

“Bortz … a professor at Stanford University School of Medicine … sees vast progress ahead in gaining an understanding of human metabolism and its relation to longevity. He believes average life expectancy of Americans could reach 100 in coming decades.”

California's version of 'Elysium': Maviglium

Such developments, of course, would have implications way beyond CalPERS, as I noted in my Cal Watchdog story.

“Funding for Social Security and Medicare already looks imperiled because of the retirements of millions of baby boomers and the declining birth rate. If life expectancy increased to 100, it is impossible to conceive of a federal budget in anything even vaguely resembling its present form.”

But it is also true that a gain in life expectancy would hammer home one more time just how insanely advantageous it is for one set of people to have defined-benefit pensions mostly paid for by those who don't.

“Having a defined-benefit government pension when you live on average until you are 81 or 85 is already an immensely lucrative and reassuring fact of life for public employees. But having such a pension when you live until 100 is a gilded gift, one that makes past complaints about government employees being a special protected class seem simply inadequate.

“Barring a change in benefits or a dramatic increase in the minimum retirement age, public employees would enjoy an advantage so pronounced that it would be somewhat akin to that owned by the privileged elite who live in a satellite colony rotating around a decaying Earth in the recent science-fiction film 'Elysium.'”

We could just call California “Maviglium.”

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