Brandon Ferdig’s article “Addressing race and disparity: One life at a time, all ideology aside” (Opinion Exchange, Feb. 14) contained the most telling quotes on the topic ever printed in these pages.

John Turnipseed, vice president of the Center for Fathering at Urban Ventures said, when asked to address the core of the problem, “[e]ighty percent of kids in this neighborhood don’t have a dad. Fathers all left, mothers collected welfare. The kids banded together and started a gang.”

He goes on to say:  “You want to end gang problems? You want to end kids going to jail? Put a father in their life. That is the single biggest thing.”

Turnipseed works directly with troubled young people and he has a big personal history on the streets. I get the impression that he is tuned in and exactly right.

Is anybody listening?

Dale Vaillancourt, Burnsville

• • •

Recently, the chairwoman of the Minneapolis school board reiterated the board’s desire to hire a superintendent who would provide leadership to our diverse population. Much to the chagrin of Minneapolis residents, the board has searched far and wide, casting the net from Massachusetts to Texas. Learning, perhaps, that the grass isn’t always greener. (Although the way the process was bungled, I suspect former top candidate Sergio Paez is breathing a sigh of relief to be relieved of this mess.)

I suggest that the school board look no further than the source of the following quote, north Minneapolis’ own John Turnipseed: “If the only way that I can do better is if you change, then I’m in trouble.”

Would Turnipseed be a controversial choice? Absolutely. Would he be a tough sell to board members seeking a “safe” candidate? You betcha. However, Turnipseed’s message of personal accountability coupled with his inspiring personal story would resonate with both students and parents alike. He just might provide the fire that can breathe life into a school district slipping further and further into mediocrity with each passing semester.

Ryan Sheahan, Minneapolis

 

THE ECONOMY

When it comes to prosperity and growth, measure what matters

Dick Meyer’s article about our expectation and dependency on economic growth was very insightful (“The best of times are in the rearview mirror,” Feb. 14). Economists, the media, politicians and we, the public, assume economic growth is required for a successful economy. However, not only is this assumption environmentally unsustainable, it diverts our attention from more meaningful measurements of well-being like health, happiness, productivity, educational attainment, the environment, per-capita income and a reasonable distribution of that income. Too often we judge success by whether GNP grew last year by 3.1 percent vs. 1.2 percent. We scoff at Europe and Japan for growing only 0.5 percent and marvel at countries that grow 7 percent. We fail to realize that economic growth largely follows population growth (and/or increasing labor force participation). Want the U.S. to grow at 20 percent per year? Then open the borders and increase our population 20 percent each year. We’d be bigger, but not necessarily better.

We need to change our focus from economic growth to quality of life. Increasing productivity can create a strong economy for everyone, without perpetually high growth, especially if the benefits of productivity are widely distributed and we measure well-being by values that actually matter.

Ryan Pulkrabek, Minneapolis

• • •

Dick Meyer laments the poor-performing economy with a caveat when he states: “Perhaps the key to flourishing amid ordinary times requires spiritual remedies more than material.” Social scientists have long agreed that prosperity does not necessarily correlate to happiness. This is a surprising and startling realization for many. Happiness adaptation means we become desensitized to our own well-being, therefore our expectations grow more ferociously. Expectations, if not reigned in, are insidious and counterproductive. Where did we gain our false perspectives, and how do we fit into the current culture? Our upbringing, schooling, place of work and relationships in general serve as conduits, perhaps, to foolish comparisons between us. Whether we like it or not, a sort of brainwashing occurs and fuels these expectations. So that anger toward others, for example, is a base reaction toward unmet expectations in ourselves. Lashing out is predictable, and a reminder for us to step back and re-evaluate our positions. The possibility for acceptance of our lot in life touches on a basic human desire — the need for spirituality and the need for peace of mind.

Sharon E. Carlson, Andover

 

PENSION PLANS

Public-sector funds sustainable, and 8 percent return attainable

Lee Schafer’s column “State aims to stabilize funding of pensions” (Business, Feb. 14) correctly notes that sustainability measures proposed by the state pension plans’ boards would significantly reduce unfunded liabilities if all assumptions are met, including a key assumption of attaining an 8 percent long-term investment return.

However, we disagree with the notion that the assumed 8 percent return is too high and could lead to “chronic pension underfunding.” The article compares public-sector pension funding with private-sector rules that require lower return assumptions. This public-private comparison is inappropriate. Private-sector firms run a risk of going out of business, rendering them unable to meet their long-term pension obligations. State governments don’t run the risk of going out of business and have a very long-term horizon to fund pension costs.

In Minnesota, the Legislature and the state’s pension plans’ boards adhere to a rigid process that regularly reviews all plan assumptions, changes those assumptions when needed and, most important, makes benefit and funding changes to assure long-term sustainability of the plans. The current proposals under debate are examples of that process. These proposals will decrease system liabilities by $1.4 billion — and this will be on top of $6.8 billion in liability reductions legislated in 2010. This process does not perfectly ensure that plans are always 100 percent fully funded, but it does ensure that they will progress toward being fully funded over a reasonable time period.

With respect to whether the 8 percent return assumption will ultimately be met, we simply note that this is a very long-term assumption covering a period of future payouts that will extend nearly 100 years into the future. For historical perspective, the State Board of Investment has shown a return averaging 9.1 percent for the past 30 years.

The accusation of “chronic pension underfunding” hardly seems appropriate when you consider the fact that Minnesota’s public pension plans have successfully met monthly pension obligations to our participants for the past 85 years, continuously monitor and adjust all assumptions related to the plans, and initiate corrective actions when needed to improve funding levels to 100 percent.

The relative health of the Minnesota pension funds is good and expected to improve if recommended actions are taken.

Doug Anderson,

Dave Bergstrom,

and Laurie Hacking

The writers are, respectively, executive directors of the Public Employees Retirement Association, the Minnesota State Retirement System and the Teachers Retirement Association.

• • •

Mark Haveman, executive director of the Minnesota Center for Fiscal Excellence, proposes to fix the public employee pension plan by transitioning to a 401(k) plan. I suspect his sympathies lie with private sector employees who declare, “I don’t have a guaranteed pension. Why should public employees have one?” The shift to defined contribution plans like the 401(k) has placed our country’s future on precarious footing. We should not only reject the 401(k) cop-out for public pensions, we should swiftly return private pensions to the more stable ground that defined benefit plans provide.

If the most talented financial minds in the country find it difficult to run a successful retirement plan, what chance does the average employee have in this endeavor? Assuming equivalent contribution levels, even the most financially savvy 401(k) participant can expect no more than half of the pension benefits provided by a defined benefit plan, primarily because the pension fund remains fully invested continuously. Individual investors must reduce risk as retirement approaches, sidelining their money during a period of greatest potential gain.

With the majority of future retirees having underfunded plans, retirees increasingly will qualify for Medicaid, food stamps and government-paid long-term care. Pay a little now, or pay a lot later. So tweak the public employee pension plan a little now to make it sustainable into the future, and through tax incentives, encourage the private sector’s return to the defined benefit plans once provided for our parents. We ignore this looming catastrophe at our own peril.

Joseph Ehrlich, Arden Hills