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VIDEO: The Most Hated Man In Pensionland

Via Governing magazine:

John Arnold wasn’t a pension guy.

The billionaire financier, who made a fortune in the stock market before retiring at 38, hadn’t ever really been interested in public retirement plans. But in early 2009, just months into the global financial crisis, Arnold began seeing a flurry of news articles about public pension funds collectively losing billions in the stock market crash. Assets had plummeted, causing unfunded liabilities to shoot up. Cash-strapped governments couldn’t afford to fix the shortfall, and the longer they delayed putting more money in their pensions, the worse the problem would get. In short, it was a policy nightmare.

Arnold became intrigued. “The fact that you could go in one year from having a system that was well-funded to having a major gap — that affected me,” he says. He started digging and found a book called Plunder: How Public Employee Unions Are Raiding Treasuries, Controlling Our Lives and Bankrupting the Nation, by conservative writer Steven Greenhut. As the title suggests, the book is an anti-union take on public pensions that details the misdeeds of the system’s bad actors — public employees who game the system and wind up with pensions that are equal to or better than what their working salaries had been. Reading that book, says the now-43-year-old Arnold, “just made me mad.”

Plenty of other people have gotten mad over the same thing. But Arnold, whose net worth is pegged somewhere near $3 billion, realized there was something he could do about it. He and his wife had just started a foundation they hoped would help governments make decisions based on evidence and data to produce concrete, measurable and lasting improvements to society. Over the nine years since it was started, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation has supported a range of initiatives, from education and criminal justice policy research to programs that bolster scientific research integrity by trying to replicate the findings of studies. He and Laura have signed on to the Giving Pledge, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates’ challenge to wealthy individuals to give away the majority of their money to philanthropic causes. To date, the Arnold Foundation has given away nearly $700 million.

As he learned more about the challenges plaguing public pensions, Arnold started donating money to help study possible reforms. Initially, his foundation doled out relatively small grants of less than $200,000 to think tanks and nonprofits. Then in 2012, it awarded nearly $5 million over three years to the Pew Charitable Trusts to support its Public Sector Retirement Systems project. In total, the foundation has given $9.7 million to Pew to study pensions through 2019. All told, the Arnold Foundation has now directed nearly $28 million to fund pension policy research. John and Laura have also personally donated millions more to pro-reform political candidates and ballot initiatives, such as a failed 2014 measure in Phoenix that would have moved city workers to 401(k)-style plans. The measure was backed by $1 million from the Action Now Initiative, which is bankrolled by Arnold.

All of that has made Arnold public enemy No. 1 among lots of government workers and union leaders, many of whom see any threat to change pensions — no matter how small — as something to be feared and fought. “When people hear of an effort to get rid of pensions,” says Bailey Childers of the National Public Pension Coalition (NPPC), which is supported by unions, “the source is almost always John Arnold.”

All of that has made Arnold public enemy No. 1 among lots of government workers and union leaders, many of whom see any threat to change pensions — no matter how small — as something to be feared and fought. “When people hear of an effort to get rid of pensions,” says Bailey Childers of the National Public Pension Coalition (NPPC), which is supported by unions, “the source is almost always John Arnold.”

For those who despise Arnold, it’s easy to paint him in an unflattering light. He made his first billions as a trader for the energy firm Enron. After the company imploded in bankruptcy and scandal in 2002, Arnold walked away unscathed. (He himself was never accused of any wrongdoing.) He then started a hedge fund that became one of the most successful energy trading funds in history, even as America was plunging toward the Great Recession. Along the way, Arnold, who lives in Houston, bought a place in the city’s tony River Oaks neighborhood, a three-acre plot that included a turreted red brick home built in the 1920s by two famous Houston architects — a rare cultural and architectural gem in a sprawling city with few historic preservation protections. It soon became clear Arnold intended to raze the home and replace it with a sleek modern house. Residents protested in front of the property; preservationists met with Arnold but say he was indifferent and condescending. He ultimately tore the house down.

Sometimes the vilification of Arnold can get personal. A recent video produced by the NPPC shows a man sitting poolside, sipping a tropical drink. “John Arnold may have retired in his 30s,” the announcer quips. “But the rest of us can’t. And we won’t be able to retire at all unless we fight back against his efforts.” In 2013, the progressive-leaning Institute for America’s Future released a report called The Plot Against Pensions: The Pew–Arnold campaign to undermine America’s retirement security — and leave taxpayers with the bill. It accused the Arnold Foundation of being “run by conservative political operatives and funded by an Enron billionaire.” The same year, Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi described Arnold as “a dickishly ubiquitous young right-wing kingmaker” and “a lipless, eager little jerk with the jug-eared face of a Division III women’s basketball coach.”

Arnold may be a lot of the things his enemies say he is. But at a time when many people believe the public retirement crisis has become untenable, Arnold also might just represent governments’ best shot at ensuring their public pensions can endure.

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Posted in: The Enemy

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