Here’s an interesting juxtaposition of two stories from over the weekend (if you consider a Monday morning story about football over the weekend to qualify temporally), the first this one from Saturday’s Wall Street Journal about the massive underfunding of state public employee pensions. If these were private pensions, the fiduciaries of the plans would have been under much more pressure to avoid falling into this level of a sinkhole. Forget the Department of Labor, the IRS and the PBGC, and focus just on the extent to which this scenario would be soundly characterized as a failure of fiduciary prudence, putting the fiduciaries at risk of personal liability. I have said it before and I am sure I will say it again after today, but the private attorney general nature of ERISA litigation, with its attendant potential personal liability of fiduciaries charged with making decisions for a plan, creates powerful incentives to not screw up as badly as those running public pension plans have over the past few years.

The real solution to this mess going forward (although it won’t clean up the massive underfunding to date)  will likely be moving public employees towards a defined contribution type system, rather than a defined benefit system, with a boost in pay that allows them to make appropriate retirement investments. This isn’t so much a solution targeted at a problem with the employees themselves, but rather at the tendency of the managers of these plans to overpromise pension benefits in contract negotiations and under-deliver by pushing the costs of those benefits off into the future as liabilities of the taxpayers. A move to a defined contribution system would push the costs into the present, requiring that the retirement costs be paid out during the employee’s work life.

And in this story about locked out NFL referees, who are fighting with the NFL over the league’s attempt to move them from a pension plan to a 401(k) plan, you see the underlying problem. As Peter King wrote in an on-line column today on Sports Illustrated:

Many of you think for 120 part-time officials to get an average of $38,250 per year in pension contributions is excessive. But the regular officials are simply trying to keep a benefit they’ve had for the last several years. The league contributed $5.3 million to officials’ pensions last year and propose to contribute $2 million this year; the cut, the league says, is in keeping with pension plans around the country going to a 401k pension plan, subject to the whims of the stock market, rather than guaranteeing retirees a fixed return on their investments. What’s $3 million to the NFL? That’s only partially the point. The league has made many full-time employees take the lesser pension, so how can they give part-timers a better deal?

But here’s the thing about the NFL’s complaint that they have moved their other, full-time employees to defined contribution plans, and that there is no reason for the referees to not be moved as well. The difference is that the referees, unlike most of the full-time NFL employees who have been transitioned to defined contribution plans – and indeed unlike almost every private sector employee who has been forced to give up a pension in this way – don’t need the job, have other economic resources beyond just their work for the employer (in this instance the NFL) seeking to end their pensions, and have a vigorous union. They, unlike the other NFL employees who have already suffered this fate, are in a position to fight that change, and they are and will do that. No employee in America has willingly accepted this change, but the referees are some of the few in a position to fight back against it. That is what makes them different than the other NFL employees who have given up their pensions, and why the league’s argument that the referees should be treated like all other NFL employees in this regard is pure sophistry; if the other employees had been in a position to fight it, like the referees, they would have done so too.

And this, oddly enough, circles us right back around to the problem with municipal and state pensions. These are highly unionized employees who have the political power to fight back against efforts to eliminate pensions, and as such are some of the few employees left in this country who both have a pension and have the ability to push back against changes to their pensions. This sentence could just as easily describe the NFL’s referees.

There are many lessons that one can draw from the juxtaposition of these two stories, and I will leave you free to draw your own. I already know what mine are.