A Run On The Fund

A sad and scary drama has been playing out in Dallas over the last few days.  The drama was a run on the reserves of a public pension fund, and the latest act was a lawsuit and a resulting decision to suspend lump-sum withdrawals from the fund.

5994513The fund is the Dallas Police and Fire Pension Fund, and the actors included the mayor, who brought the lawsuit seeking to stop the withdrawals that were depleting the fund’s liquid assets, and the board of trustees of the fund, who finally voted to stop the withdrawals in the face of a possible restraining order.  The run began when the board announced proposed benefits cuts in August.  At that point, some retirees began taking advantage of an option that allowed them to take lump sum payments from the fund, and more than $500 million was withdrawn, leaving only $729 million in liquid assets.  With the fund needing at least $600 million in liquid assets on hand, and requests for another $154 million in lump sum withdrawals pending, the math was irrefutable and the result was inevitable.  The trustees had to act if the fund is to be salvaged.

And now the fund is asking the city for a $1.1 million bailout.  No one wants to leave police and firefighters without pensions they were promised, of course, but how many taxpayers are going to be willing to fund a bailout of a pension system that pays far richer benefits than they are earning in their 401(k)s . . . if they have any retirement savings at all?

The Dallas Police and Fire Pension Fund is not unique.  Its problems — overly rich benefits in view of increasing life expectancy, guaranteed interest returns that were hopelessly out of whack with market returns, overvalued assets and risky investments, underfunding, public officials and boards that kick the actuarial can down the road, hoping that the magic pension fund fairy will somehow help the fund to avoid a crash, and ultimately a request for a public bailout — are found or will be found in many public pension funds.  The Dallas situation is likely to be a precursor of what we may see in many other towns, counties, and states, as decades of neglect, mismanagement and ill-advised guarantees finally come to a choke point.

We can hope that the Dallas fund will make changes to restore sanity to its benefit structure and allow the fund to survive, and we can hope that pension fund boards and officials elsewhere in America take note and take necessary action to address their own situations.  We can hope — but I doubt it’s going to happen.  Too many of those boards and officials are themselves hoping that the curtain doesn’t get pulled back to reveal just how dire their underfunding situations actually are.  We’re going to hear a lot more about public pension funds in the coming years, and it isn’t going to be pretty.

Concourse C, 4:49 A.M.

Today I’m on one of those dreaded 6 a.m. flights.  Dreaded, because I never sleep soundly the night before for fear of oversleeping, and dreaded, because you never know what you’re going to find in the way of lines when you arrive.

This morning the newly named John Glenn International Airport — formerly the homey “Port Columbus” — was surprisingly, briskly busy, and my friendly TSA agent said a hectic day was expected.  If you’re traveling during next two weeks, as I am, he advised to expect long lines and long waits, and encouraged travelers to arrive early.

4:49 a.m. Is definitely early.

The Cold Front Cometh

There’s a turning point each winter.  For weeks the trend has been gradual cooling, to the point where you’re acclimated to temperatures that are about 40 degrees.  Then, suddenly, the mercury plummets, and you’re dealing with the first significant snowfall, or the first truly frigid day where the temperature falls below 20.

img_3220This used to be a surprise.  Unless you were someone who actually watched the local news — and who under the age of 90 watches the local news these days? — you had no idea what the weather was going to be.  There’s a reason why the nuns in The Sound of Music sang about Maria being as “unpredictable as weather.”  The weather was a constant surprise.

But that was in the days before weather apps on smartphones became ubiquitous.  Now, when you tap your weather app to see if it’s supposed to rain today, you’re automatically exposed to a solid week’s worth of forecasts — and you can’t help but look at it.  And when I checked the app this morning, I saw that we’re supposed to get a steady diet of lows in the teens, then two days of snow, and finally a day where the low is three degrees.  Three degrees!  I like the song When Will I See You Again? as much as the next R&B fan, but “three degrees” isn’t a word combination I want to hear right now.  It means that the turning point is here, and winter is about to strike with all of its brutal iciness, and it’s time to rotate to the heavier coats and clothing and to start eating hot food at every meal.

I liked it better when the turning point caught me by surprise, and I spent the last few days of pre-winter unaware of what was to come right around the corner, rather than bracing myself for the onslaught.

The Monitor/Keyboard Tug Of War

You can always tell who in our household has been the last to use our upstairs desk and computer.

If it’s Kish, the  monitor and keyboard are positioned at the front of the desk.  She likes to get up close, almost to the nose-touching-the-screen position, when she’s checking her email and the New York Times. 

If it’s me, the monitor and keyboard are at the back of the desk, as far away as I can move them.  I’m like the squinting guy at the restaurant who can only read the menu if it’s held out at extended arm’s length.

So every night and every morning the computer gets repositioned, alternately scooted back or tugged forward.  We’re going to wear a groove in the surface of our desk, but that’s what happens when eyesight changes happen to a married couple.

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2016

Hey — it’s December already!  That means I need to get off my butt, stop trying to analyze the Ohio State-Clemson matchup in the college football playoffs, and start thinking about what cookies I’m going to be baking for the holidays.

This year I’m going to be making some gluten-free options, in view of a new acquaintance who is of the gluten-free disposition.  When I started looking around for recipes, I learned to my surprise that there are an abundance of gluten-free cookie recipes available.  This one looked interesting, and not just because it might cause me to learn how to pronounce the word “quinoa” and give me my first chance to eat something containing “tahini.”  I’d also be interested in any other gluten-free recipes readers would be willing to share.

Quinoa Tahini Cookies

picjok7auIngredients:  1/2 cup honey, 1/3 cup brown sugar, 1/2 cup butter, 1/2 cup tahini, 1 1/4 cups rice flour, 7/8 cup quinoa, 1 teaspoon baking soda, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Combine honey, brown sugar, butter, and tahini; mix until creamy.  Add remaining ingredients and mix well.  Spoon rounded teaspoonfuls of batter onto cookie sheets.  Bake for 10 – 14 minutes, until cookies start to turn golden brown.

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2015

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2014

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2013

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2012

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2011

Calling for Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2010

Calling for Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2009

Wishing, And Hoping

Today is the day the College Football Playoff Selection Committee earns its keep.

They’ve been watching games all season, and since mid-season they’ve been issuing interim rankings after each weekend of play.  But now the regular season games and the conference championship games are done, and it’s time to finally decide:  which four teams should be in this year’s playoff?

urban-meyer-explains-why-an-8-team-college-football-playoff-wont-work-and-he-makes-a-good-pointAlabama is in, of course, as the number one seed.  They romped through a pretty pathetic SEC without a loss and drubbed an offensively challenged Florida team in the SEC championship game.  That’s an easy call.  But who else do you select?  One-loss Clemson won the weak ACC, edging out a pretty one-dimensional Virginia Tech team in last night’s championship game, and has looked good at times but bad at times, too.  One-loss Washington played one of the easiest schedules in college football and won the PAC 12, beating up a hapless Colorado team in the championship game.  Oklahoma, with two losses, won the defensively challenged Big 12.

And then there’s the Big 10.  Ohio State played one of the toughest schedules in college football, smashed Big 12 champion Oklahoma on its home turf, and beat a series of top ten teams during the season, including winning a thrilling edition of The Game against Michigan.  But because Ohio State lost at Penn State, on a blocked field goal in the fourth quarter, the Buckeyes didn’t play for the conference championship.  Penn State did and won last night, coming from far behind to beat Wisconsin.  But the Nittany Lions have two losses, one of which was a 39-point thrashing at the hands of That Team Up North.

So who should join Alabama in the playoffs?  The dedicated members of Buckeye Nation obviously hope the Committee selects Ohio State, which was ranked number 2 after last week’s Committee vote.  Should the Committee just pick the one-loss teams from the Power Five conferences, which means Ohio State, Clemson, and Washington should make the cut?  Or should Penn State’s impressive run and conference championship knock out one of those teams?  But how do you vault the two-loss Nittany Lions above two-loss Michigan, which beat Penn State like a drum early in the season?

Ohio State fans are wishing, and hoping, that the Buckeyes make the cut.  Having watched a number of games with the top teams, I honestly think Ohio State is one of the top four teams — but I’m not on the committee.  We’ll know at 12:30.

The Morning Head-Scratcher

One weird thing about American hotels — they’re not satisfied with traditional table items.  So instead of a little pitcher that immediately tells you it holds cream, you see a steel rectangle with a notch in the side . . . and you have to figure out it’s the cream dispenser.

Well, I guess it helps you to get your brain working in the morning.