California’s Canary in the Coal Mine: Public Pension Underfunding

Reprinted from Benefits Law Journal Autumn 2010, Volume 23, Number 3, with permission from Aspen Publishers, Inc., Wolters Kluwer Law & Business, New York, NY, www.aspenpublishers.com.

Life for a canary in a coal mine can perhaps best be described in three words—dirty, dark, and scary. Until the early 20th century, coal mines did not use ventilation systems, so miners would routinely bring a caged canary into a coal mine as a detector for deadly gases such as methane and carbon monoxide. As long as the canary kept singing, the miners knew the air supply was safe. If the canary died, it meant that the coal mine needed to be immediately evacuated.