"All good things got to come to an end."
-- Jackson Browne, 2002
I am returning to public service. As of July 2, I'll be the new Chief Investment Officer of the Orange County (CA) Employees Retirement System.
Those who know me best will understand why: I'll be working hands-on to improve a retirement system, while performing the labor I love the most -- investing public funds. I've held two other, national-level "C-suite" jobs in my career. My hope is that this new one will round out a lifetime of work in the public finance and public-sector retirement communities, contributing from all four corners of the street at one time or another.
When I interviewed at OCERS I told the CEO and the board there that my work for them would be all-consuming, and that I would devote my full time and attention to their portfolio with no other competing outside interests. That includes my public commentaries at Governing, which will conclude now, with this column. After I complete three previously scheduled presentations to national pension and policy groups, I will also be confining my public speaking to the topic of public pension investments and nothing else. My focus will be devoted exclusively to the prudent and skilled management of OCERS' investment portfolio, and capacity-building within that organization. Other activities would be a distraction that would detract from my effectiveness in this new and challenging role. For the next 10 years, I want to lead by example, focusing on the specific rather than the general.
Looking back over the past five years with Governing, I have done my best to "tell it like it is" to those looking for genuine ways to reform and improve pension systems. I've tried to be fair in my work and my writings, defending the interests of taxpayers first while recognizing the value of public service and the contributions of many who devote their working lives to that cause. Sadly, many public sector retirement systems today are so under-funded and mal-structured as to present a serious financial threat to state and local governments and their citizens. As my companion column on the voters' mood this week explains, I believe the tide has turned -- perhaps irreversibly now -- toward incremental and systematic reforms that will ultimately swing the pendulum back to sustainable yet sufficient public employee benefits plans.
My voice has been just one of many. But I have written enough to compel the skeptics, the believers and the devils in this business to think about the underlying structural and financial problems more intelligently than they would have otherwise. That's really all that any commentator can ever hope to achieve. Governing will keep my archives alive for use by future researchers looking for alternative views and occasional insights into the intellectual history of the recent retirement reform era. A few, like Pension Puffery: 12 Myths That Deserve Debunking, are worth keeping alive online for a few more years.
I will dearly miss my colleagues at PFM. There's not another firm in the world that would ever have given me the latitude to write as freely as I have, without editing for "compliance" my high-octane, sometimes flammable pro-bono freelance work for Governing. From Day 1 with the company, I was always allowed to write and say what I believed -- and sometimes to even vent my spleen when the pension reform debates got heated. Even when I stepped on a few toes and ruffled the feathers of some of PFM's good clients, or gave competitors an angle to gossip against them, the company's leaders staunchly defended my First Amendment rights without ever once blinking an eye. A finer group of professionals you will not find elsewhere.
My alma mater is the Maxwell School of Public Affairs at Syracuse University, where I obtained my first master's degree in 1973. There's an inscription in stone behind the statue of George Washington at Maxwell Hall, where every incoming and outgoing MPA class is convened, to inspire them in their academic careers and their work thereafter. It came from the oath of the ancient Athenian city-state, and it has guided me throughout my career, working within and with the public sector:
"We will revere and obey the City's laws,
and will do our best to incite a like reverence
and respect in those above us who are prone
to annul them or set them at naught.
We will strive increasingly to quicken
the public's sense of civic duty.
Thus in all these ways we will transmit this City,
not only not less, but greater and more beautiful
than it was transmitted to us."
Needless to say, it left a lasting impression and inspiration. I've always strived to uphold that credo -- to remember to leave the campsite in better condition than when I arrived. I will never allow the tragic ways of today's Athenians to wash onto the soil where I live. So don't be surprised if you see a much stronger funding ratio at the Orange County pension system after the next 10 years.
Adieu and auf Wiedersehen.
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