George Will

WASHINGTON -- A puzzle from Philosophy 101: If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? A puzzle from the prairie: If an earthquake occurs in Illinois and no one notices, is it really a seismic event?

Gov. Pat Quinn called it a "political earthquake" when the state's Legislature recently voted -- by margins of 92-17 in the House and 48-6 in the Senate -- to reform pensions for state employees. There is now a cap on the amount of earnings that can be used as the basis for calculating benefits. In some states, employees game the system by "spiking" their last year's earnings by accumulating vast amounts of overtime pay.

An even more important change -- a harbinger of America's future -- is that most new Illinois state government employees must work until age 67 in order to be eligible for full retirement benefits. Those already on the state payroll can still retire at 55 with full benefits.

The 1935 Social Security Act established 65 as the age of eligibility for payouts. But welfare state politics quickly becomes a bidding war, enriching the menu of benefits, so in 1956 Congress entitled women to collect benefits at 62, extending the entitlement to men in 1961. Today, nearly half of Social Security recipients choose to begin getting benefits at 62. This is a grotesque perversion of a program that was never intended to subsidize retirees for a third to a half of their adult lives.

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It also reflects the decadent dependence that the welfare state encourages: Because of the displacement of responsibility from the individual to government, 48 percent of workers over 55 have total savings and investments of less than $50,000.

Because most states' pension plans compute their present values -- and minimize required current contributions -- by assuming an unrealistic 8 percent annual return on investments, the cumulative funding gap of state pensions already may be $3 trillion, and certainly is rising. For example, last Wednesday's New York Times contained this attention-seizing bulletin: "An independent analysis of California's three big pension funds has found a hidden shortfall of more than half a trillion dollars, several times the amount reported by the funds and more than six times the value of the state's outstanding bonds." It is not news that California is America's home-grown Greece, but the condition of the three funds, which serve 2.6 million current and retired public employees, is going to exacerbate the state's decline by requiring significantly higher taxpayer contributions.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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