Michael Cohen joined CalPERS as chief financial officer in 2018. Prior to that, he served for five years as director of the state Department of Finance and chief financial policy advisor to Governor Jerry Brown.
Where did you go to college?
I went to Stanford, but I had no idea what I wanted to do. I knew two things: I wanted to take interesting classes and I wanted to graduate on time. I stumbled on an intro to urban studies class. It traced the history of cities over the last 5,000 to 10,000 years. It was fantastic, and I loved it. From there I pieced together an urban studies major that included economics, sociology, urban planning and design, architecture, environmental engineering, political science, public policy, everything I was interested in.
First professional job?
My first job after graduate school was a position at the Legislative Analyst’s Office. I was involved with local government finance, housing policy, and redevelopment. I became more of a generalist when I moved to the Department of Finance and worked with the Legislature on the state budget.
What made you want to work in government?
I always knew how powerful government could be in changing people’s lives. Taking a program that may not be using its money in the best way possible and finding ways to help more people is very rewarding for me. When we can put dollars into the pocket of someone who clearly is struggling to make ends meet, that’s government at its best.
What keeps you in government?
People take less money to work for government. That’s always been the case, yet we make up for it with deferred compensation. There’s a lot of critics of public pensions who don’t think we’re going to succeed and don’t want us to succeed. I took this job at CalPERS to prove that public pensions are sustainable, that we can make the system work if we think about it thoughtfully.
Best thing about working for Jerry Brown?
He’s innately curious about things, and so good at asking questions that he pushes you to your limits.
Many times, I would brief him on an issue, forgetting that he was the one who signed the bill that created the program in the first place. Or that he has decades of experience on an issue. I would always kick myself for not remembering to look up the history of a program because years later he still remembered all the decisions about that program and why the decisions were made and who was in the room at the time. Oftentimes, the competing forces then are the same competing forces today.
“Save some biscuits for a rainy day.” —Sutter Brown
Sutter Brown was the governor’s corgi. We were in the middle of the worst of the budget deficits. The governor had these playing cards that had a chart on one side showing the history of the state’s finances, reinforcing the notion that, hey, even though things are good at times, they can get bad very quickly. On the back side they had quotes from Sutter. He was a great dog.
What do you hope to accomplish at CalPERS?
It’s a challenging time for pensions. Costs are squeezing local government budgets. I want to provide more tools to employers to plan for future expenses. I’m confident we can succeed and provide the retirement security our members have earned. We have some of the best and brightest leaders at CalPERS, and I’m glad to be part of the team.