Is Your Pension Safe? Check this Map

Some states are in particularly bad shape, but it would be dangerous to assume that all is well with public-employee pensions anywhere in America.


If you are one of six or so million state or federal employees in the United States, recent events may be getting you a little worried about your retirement security. The potentially devastating fallout for pensioners in bankrupt Detroit is dominating the airwaves. Here is an excerpt from a New York Times article yesterday:

Vera Proctor, 63, who retired in 2010 after 39 years as a 911 operator and supervisor, said she worried that at her age and with her poor health, it would be difficult to find a new job to make up for any reductions to her pension payments.

“Where’s the nearest street corner where I can sell bottles of water?” Ms. Proctor asked wryly. “That’s what it’s going to come down to. We’re not going to have anything.”

Another:

Michael Wells, 65, retired in 2011 after working at the Detroit Public Library for 34 years. He said he still owed close to $100,000 on his house in Detroit, which was appraised recently at $25,000. “I’m totally underwater here,” said Mr. Wells, who is one of the plaintiffs in a union-backed lawsuit to stop the city from filing for bankruptcy and from reducing pension payments.

He said he viewed the pension as part of the overall pay he was promised. “It’s deferred income,” he said. “Had I not had a pension, perhaps I would have gotten several dollars an hour more and that would be O.K. I would have taken that money and invested it in some kind of mutual fund or stock.”

These are nightmarish scenarios for Detroit’s 21,000 pensioners, who stand to lose up to 90 percent of the pensions they were promised and have been expecting. Yesterday, I shared some of my personal pension anxiety in a post at the Economist. But how concerned you are should depend on the state in which you reside. According to this data, 21 states have worrisomely underfunded pension funds while 29 are in pretty good shape.   

This map gives you a quick snapshot of the states in particular trouble:


 

If you’re a public employee living in a melon or red-tinted state, you have strong reason for concern. But don’t feel smug, blue-staters: you’ll notice that Michigan seemed pretty safe when this data was compiled just two years ago. Given the apparently misguided math actuaries have been using to calculate the contributions states must contribute to pension funds in order to fulfill their obligations, it would be dangerous to assume that all is well with public-employee pensions anywhere in America.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.