STUMP » Articles » Words Have Meaning: Neither Kale Nor 80 Percent Funded Public Pensions are "Healthy" » 31 January 2016, 10:49

Where Stu & MP spout off about everything.

Words Have Meaning: Neither Kale Nor 80 Percent Funded Public Pensions are "Healthy"  


31 January 2016, 10:49

People who know me well will tell you I can be quite the pedant re: English usage and precision in terminology. I usually don’t provide unsolicited editing of others’ work though, because: 1. I teach a writing course and get a lot of practice with poorly-written English there and 2. the beta blockers have made me more mellow (no, not really).

As a result, I fully agree with this piece at the Washington Post:

No food is healthy. Not even kale.
By Michael Ruhlman January 17

I submit to you that our beloved kale salads are not “healthy.” And we are confusing ourselves by believing that they are. They are not healthy; they are nutritious. They may be delicious when prepared well, and the kale itself, while in the ground, may have been a healthy crop. But the kale on your plate is not healthy, and to describe it as such obscures what is most important about that kale salad: that it’s packed with nutrients your body needs. But this is not strictly about nomenclature. If all you ate was kale, you would become sick. Nomenclature rather shows us where to begin.

“* ‘Healthy’ is a bankrupt word*,” Roxanne Sukol, preventive medicine specialist at the Cleveland Clinic, medical director of its Wellness Enterprise and a nutrition autodidact (“They didn’t teach us anything about nutrition in medical school”), told me as we strolled the aisles of a grocery store. “Our food isn’t healthy. We are healthy. Our food is nutritious. I’m all about the words. Words are the key to giving people the tools they need to figure out what to eat. Everyone’s so confused.”

Funny you should mention “bankrupt”…..


I will do the January 2016 80% funding myth hall of shame roundup later, but I want to note that the way the 80% “benchmark “ is referred to is like this:

Generally, funded ratios above 80 percent are considered healthy.

Don’t worry about which of my 77 stories so far included that line. I did a search on “health” in the quoted excerpts and found 46 of the 77 entries had referred to “health” in some way.

While I understand the metaphor being used, just like kale isn’t “healthy”, pensions plans aren’t “healthy”.

So what term or terms should be used?

Might I propose the same words used for insurers, who make similar promises in annuities: solvent and insolvent.


Of course, the problem is that if we use the terms solvent and insolvent, we get the clarity that most public pensions are insolvent, meaning they do not have enough assets to cover their liabilities.

The usual rebuttal to this is some bullshit about:

1. that would be true if everybody retired right now (no, that’s not what the current pension liability means)

2. Government doesn’t go out of business, so the money will come into being in the future.



The pension plan there was “healthy”. Supposedly.

Current retirees got their benefits cut as part of the Detroit bankruptcy. And you know what? They could get cut again.

I could be nasty and use the hoary old joke of Jim Fixx’s death giving lie to his supposedly healthy lifestyle, but that’s for extension in a later post, when we look at using the word “fault”… as in, whose fault this mess is.

But let’s go back to “health”. It’s difficult for a pension plan to be healthy when its sponsor isn’t (and there’s future benefits yet to come).

Plenty of governments are under crunches right now, and I will be looking at the perennial Illinois along with Connecticut’s pensions this upcoming week for specific examples… if we don’t hear from Puerto Rico first.

In the meantime, eat your healthy nutritious vegetables.

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At the Half: Updating the 80 Percent Funding Hall of Shame
The End of an Era: Where are the 80% funding myths of yesteryear?
80% Fundedness: An Excellent Example and The Usual Disappointments