Unfunded Pension Liability Map

The map below shows unfunded pension liabilities by state for state-run pension systems. You can see the unfunded liability at both the stated and Treasury discount rates, plus view those same figures as a percentage of GDP. This was built using the amazing tools available at Geocommons. All data comes from "Public Pension Promises: How Big Are They and What Are They Worth?" by Robert Novy-Marx and Joshua Rauh. Click here to interact with the map.


We Need a Montage!

The communication of time can be an annoying constraint when making a film.  Viewers expect that time in a movie is continuous, or just like real life, unless you tell them otherwise.  Communicating the passage of time can be done explicitly, like when you see a clock spin or a calendar flip, or implicitly, by using long fades or moments of black to convey that time has passed.  As a rookie filmmaker, I was somewhat clueless on this aspect of filmmaking until I got to the editing room and realized these things were missing. 

One popular way to pass time in a movie is through a montage.  In general, within a scene, you expect time to be continuous.  Between scenes is normally when you pass time.  A montage is unique in that it takes a bunch of scenes and puts them in a blender, spitting out little clips along the way, few of which are continuous.  It's a very useful tool for a filmmaker as it provides a lot of flexibility to convey a ton of information to the viewer in very little screen time.

One of my many mistakes when writing and directing "Standards of Ethical Conduct" was having little appreciation for what it took to successfully use a montage in a movie.  When I wrote the movie, I had montages all over the place.  An ongoing joke on set was "we'll just montage it".  Some difficulty with continuity in the scene?  Fuggaboutit, we'll just montage it.  

Here's an example of a montage done correctly.  An editor can learn a lot about cutting montages just by watching this classic.  Simply breathtaking.

(If the video is missing, search for the montage song from Team America.)

I really love how the guy in that clip sings the word "montage".  Since I use that word profusely in this post, I'd suggest using the same pronunciation of "montage" while reading it.  It's quite enjoyable.

Anyways, when I wrote and shot the stuff for the montage (girl we want a montaaaaj), I didn't give much thought to how I would transition into the montage, or how the montage would be structured.  I simply shot a lot of what I thought was funny footage, and figured I'd just wave my magic wand over it during editing and it would become a montage.  I learned the hard way.  Probably 60% of the time I spent cutting the movie was on this damn montage (even Rocky had a montaaaaaj).  After creating 10 different versions of the scene, I finally found something that worked. 

In the previous montage, imagine that you take the music and the slow fades out of the scene.  You'd have the guys talking and then immediately one guy shooting a gun and then running on a treadmill.  That would be confusing. 

In order for it work as a montage, you have to use the "devices" employed in most montages to help viewers understand what's going on.  The montage above clearly shows what you need:  a blaring song, a fade-in, a bunch of rapidly cut clips and a fade-out.  Additionally, most montages focus on one character and convey a long time passing.

My montage did not have a clear character to focus on, and it was supposed to encapsulate minutes, not days, of real time.  Plus the normal fade-in and fade-out wasn't working for various reasons.  So in short I had no idea what I was doing. 

One of the first major revisions I made was to decide that Trevor Bagwell was going to be our tour guide through the montage.  A quick aside on why I chose Trevor Bagwell as his name.  You know how its common for sports players to be called their first initial plus part of their last name (ie Alex Rodriguez becomes ARod)?  There was a joke where Binger screams Trevor's version of that nickname from the kitchen in front of the military fella.  Go ahead, what's the ARod version of Trevor Bagwell?  Funny no?  Well, it didn't work as well as I hoped.  Yes, I have the maturity of a 10 year old boy.  Back to the story.

Once I decided to focus on Trevor, the montage had a structure that allowed it to work.  You start with Trevor and follow his reactions as the interview spins out of control.  However, transitioning into the montage was still difficult.  The fade-in wasn't working, so I needed some other way to go from continuous time to crazy montage time. After much experimentation, I settled on speeding up the cutting while sliding more and more non-continuous clips to transition to a full-blown montage.

However, I still wasn't happy.  I didn't appreciate how much the music helps the transition to a montage work.  I was cutting without the music as my composer (the talented Jay Brunner) was going to create the music after the cut was done. So I had to imagine what music would add.  This was what I had:

It wasn't working for me.  However, once I layered Jay's music on top, it seemed to pop into place.  Check out the final cut.

What do you think?  Does it work?  Could I have done it better?


The "Inappropriate Elephant" Halloween Costume

Are you wondering what to wear for Halloween?  You want something funny, and maybe a tad inappropriate, but in a subtle way? 

Check this costume out.

We're auctioning the one and only "Inappropriate Elephant" costume off, with all proceeds going to the American Diabetes Association.  Click here to go to eBay and view the auction.

The costume is hand-made by our costume designer, Sandy Ziebarth, and can fit most people.  This is your chance to own a piece of history, have the best costume at the party, and give to charity.  What could be better?

The one caveat is that whoever wins has to send me pictures of them wearing it.  I want to see this costume in action and share it with the other fans of the movie.


"Standards of Ethical Conduct" on iTunes!

For those who like to watch movies on your iPhone or iPod, you can now get the full movie and the trailer through iTunes. Click this link to open iTunes and download it. Or you can go to the download page and do the same.

Beware Firefox users, there is a known bug with iTunes links that causes a browser crash, so you might just want to type "Standards of Ethical Conduct" in the iTunes search. 

Let me know if you have any problems and be on the lookout for more clips soon!


Public Employee Unions - Don't read if you pay taxes in California!

It's been a while since my last post, I wanted to update you on what I've been working on.  Last semester I one of my assignments was a research paper.  For a couple of reasons, I decided to dive into public sector unions.  First, there is a looming budget crisis at the state and local levels due to union-negotiated employee benefits (such as pensions) and second, there are some fascinating aspects of how public unions negotiate with public bureaucrats.  Fascinating if you're not paying the bill that is.

When I think of unions, I have memories from school of ruthless factory owners negotiating with unions, who were fighting for the little guy.  Or I think of the baseball or football player unions fighting with ownership over how much each party gets of the pie.  Either way, you have hardball negotiating sessions in smoke-filled rooms lasting deep into the night to pound out an agreement.  The owners are fighting to keep their profits and the unions are fighting for better pay, benefits and working conditions.

The story changes when you look at public sector unions.  The unions aren't negotiating with an owner, but a bureaucrat or an elected official.  That official isn't fighting to keep his profits; there are no profits or owners in the public sector. 

What are that official's motivations when negotiating?  Obviously he doesn't want to give away the farm or blow out the budget, as he'll be publicly flogged.  But there's another factor at play.  That union leader across the table can deliver him a lot of votes and dollars to keep him in office.  So he's got forces pulling both ways, one to limit pay to keep taxpayers happy, but another, to give the union what they want in exchange for their support.  Unlike an owner, who gets richer by limiting employee costs, the official can get re-elected by expanding employee costs, as long as he can keep the general taxpayer unaware (which isn't that hard to do). 

However, the role public unions play vary from state to state.  Some states mandate collective bargaining with public sector unions, meaning that pay and benefits are always negotiated by the union.  Other states ban collective bargaining, meaning that pay and benefits are decided individually, just as they are for most private, non-unionized, employees.

The purpose of my research was to compare how these laws affect public employee pay.  I chose two states on opposite ends of the spectrum, California and North Carolina, and compared how much their employees get paid.  California mandates collective bargaining and has high unionization rates among public employees.  North Carolina bans collective bargaining and has low unionization. 

Here are the highlights of my research.  You can read the full paper here

  • Holy Sunshine State!  I should've been a firefighter in California!  I'd be making $200k in salary, and looking at retirement at 50 years old with a yearly pension of $180k per year!  Plus full health coverage.  Alas, I'm not the first person to realize this, and people literally camp out at the fire station for a chance to just file an application for a firefighter job.  Oakland recently opened up 23 positions in their fire department and had a measly 2,000 applicants.  Pushing and shoving ensued by those jockeying for position in line to get an application in.  Too bad for them, the line didn't matter, what did was whether you were a friend or relative of a current firefighter.  Details here.
  • 401k?  What was I thinking?  I want a pension!  Over 12,000 public service retirees in California receive over $100k/year in pension payments.  On the high end you see pension payments in the $200s, and even one at over $500k.  Not bad, considering the retirement age is as early as 50.  How can that be?  Digging into the details reveals some fascinating machinations at play.  For one, state and local governments completely under-account for the costs of these pensions, meaning that the taxpayer bill doesn't look that high for current employees.  And even with that under-accounting, governments still don't fully fund the pension plans.  What does that mean?  There is a big bill coming down the pipe, i.e. there isn't nearly enough money in the pension funds to pay for the pension promises that have been made.  Also, public employees are good at rigging the pension calculation in their favor (called "pension spiking") - see this story on a California fire chief boosting his pension by $96k/year with some creative vacation buybacks.  You can see all 12,000 pension earners and how much they get here
  • Wonder why you pay so much tax and get so little in return?  California overpays their public employees to the tune of $49 billion per year, or almost $4k for every individual taxpayer in the state.  After accounting for general pay differences between California and North Carolina, state employees are overpaid by about 9%, but local government employees are overpaid by over 42%! 
  • Remember the town of Vallejo.  They recently filed bankruptcy due to their out of control public employee costs.  Not sure why, they're only paying $270k in compensation costs for each firefighter they have.  Seems reasonable to me.  Oh wait, you said firefighter?  I thought you said brain surgeon.  Vallejo is the canary in the coal mine.  More towns are in the same situation they are.  
  • Public sector unions are uberpowerful.  The American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees has been the second largest political donor in the U.S. since 1989.  The head of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) was the most frequent visitor to President Obama during the first half of 2009, and was recently named to the Deficit Commission.  These and other unions are backing a bill in Congress to change the legal environments for all states similar to what California has.
  • What to do?  Even if California remedied their overpayment today, they are still facing years of budgetary crunch.  Pension promises are guaranteed, either through state constitutions or contract law.  The best that governments can do is change the pension plans going forward - they are still on the hook for all the promises they've made to their current employees.  Even with an immediate fix, they probably won't see any budget relief for many years as current employees retire, collect their benefits and eventually pass away. 
  • Is your state overpaying?  That would be the next step in this research, to examine more states.  However, union density is a good indicator of strong union laws which likely means overpayment of public employees.  Table 1 below lists all the states in the order of union density.  If you're in the Northeast, North Central or West, you're likely having money sucked out of your wallet by union interests.  If you're in the Southeast, Southwest or Central states, you're doing better. 

Table 1 – Estimated Union Shares of State/Local Government Employment, Ordered by Union Share, Grouped by Bargaining Rights, 2008
Collective Bargaining for All Public Employees
Collective Bargaining for Select Groups
No Guaranteed Collective Bargaining
Collective Bargaining Prohibited
New York 75.5%

Rhode Island 68.8%

Hawaii 68.1%

New Jersey 67.3%

Connecticut 66.7%

Alaska 66.4%

Massachusetts 65.9%

Oregon 65.1%

California 61.9%

Michigan 61.4%

Pennsylvania 58.5%

Minnesota 58.2%

Washington 55.9%

Illinois 53.8%

New Hampshire 51.4%

Wisconsin 49.8%

Maine 48.2%

Vermont 42.5%

Montana 42.3%

Ohio 42.2%

Delaware 40.2%


Nevada 37.9%


Maryland 33.0%

Iowa 31.6%


Alabama 30.2%

Florida 27.9%


Indiana 27.3%

Nebraska 27.2%


West Virginia 24.8%


Missouri 22.1%


Colorado 20.7%


Arizona 17.3%


Oklahoma 15.5%


Kansas 14.6%


Idaho 14.3%


Kentucky 14.2%


Arkansas 14.1%


North Dakota 13.9%


Tennessee 13.4%

South Dakota 13.4%


Texas 12.6%


New Mexico 12.5%

Utah 12.3%


Wyoming 10.8%


Louisiana 10.8%


North Carolina 8.2%

South Carolina 8.2%


Mississippi 6.0%


Virginia 5.2%

Georgia 4.2%

Source: Chris Edwards, based on BLS data compiled by www.unionstats.org [4]. Legal information provided by the GAO and Washington Post [18] [19]. 


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