Category Archives: Obama Administration

Obama’s Tax Deal and the Future of Social Security

It’s worth pointing out once again that  last week’s  tax deal is hardly the victory for the American people it is made out to be. One of the biggest chunks —thirteen percent of the total monies — come from Social Security and Medicare in the form of a one-year cut in payroll taxes. The government promises to pay back what it is taking from the Social Security trust fund by borrowing the money, then floating bonds to guarantee  repayment.

This one year abeyance might not seem like much. But with the coming of a right-wing  Republican House, under pressure from the further fringes in the Tea Party, it does not augur well for the future of the program. From its inception under FDR, the Republicans have dreamed of getting rid of Social Security, along with such other things as the Federal Reserve, the income tax, the Department of Education and the UN.

“Social Security’s dedicated funding base is jeopardized by this deal in an unprecedented way and there is a grave risk now that the retirement benefits of America’s workers will have to compete with our other priorities for a share of the general budget,” said Texas Congressman Loyd Doggett at a press conference cheld by the National Committee to preserve Social Security and Medicare. “It would result in Social Security being as dependent on annual Congressional action as public television or our National parks.”

“If the recent debate on the Bush tax cuts has taught us anything, it is that taxes are easy to cut but hard to restore, said Florida Congressman Ted Deutch at the same press conference. “If this provision is made permanent, it will double Social Security’s long term funding gap and open a door that Democrats have long fought to keep closed – budgetary attacks on Social Security.’’ 

Cutting social welfare programs will be very much in vogue with the new Congress, especially as it ramps up for a showdown on raising debt limits this coming spring. Because the right wingers are out to get social programs and because all spending measures must start in the House, it is highly likely that Social Security and Medicare will occupy center stage in this debate, and that the proposals of various fiscal commissions will come into play. First, the suspension of a cost of living increase for Social Security recipients could well be extended. Second, the age at which one can begin to collect Social Security will most likely be raised from 67 to 69. And finally, the Bush tax cut deal digging into the Social Security trust fund certainly will be an opening for the right to further a  borrowing spree–ironically, all in the name of reducing the deficit.

However, there is a potential remedy. In 2012, the economy should be stronger than it is today, argues Robert Greenstein, executive director of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. 

 In addition, Congress likely will have enacted some significant budget cuts, and the nation likely will be debating the sort of further cuts that various commissions have recently proposed, including cuts in Social Security and Medicare benefits for elderly widows and seriously disabled people with incomes as low as $20,000. At that point, the President will need to make clear that he will veto any legislation extending the high-end tax cuts or the weakening of the estate tax beyond its 2009 parameters, and he should use the bully pulpit to take this case to the country.

If only we could count on our president to do something like this at all, much less in an election year.

Obama’s Fiscal Commission Prepares to Carve Its Turkey

The dread report of the White House’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform is due out this week.  One of the Commission’s co-chairs, the putative Democrat and consummate wheeler-dealer Erskine Bowles, has been up on the Hill flogging their plan to reduce the debt by cutting the country’s already skimpy programs for the old, the sick, and the poor. His partner, motor-mouth Republican Alan Simpson, continues his ranting and ravings against the greedy geezers who want to sink the entitlement-cutting ship before it’s launched. Both of them have taken to boo-hooing because no one appreciates all the work they are doing to save the nation from certain fiscal doom, and nobody is willing to pitch in to meet this noble goal.

Fiscal Commission's Plan: Starve the Old to Stuff the Rich

Personally, I’m still waiting to hear how Wall Street is going to pitch in and do its part–or the people with high six-figure incomes who claim they still aren’t rich enough to give up their tax cuts. Or, for that matter, Bowles and Simpson themselves, who retired on fat  pensions and don’t have a financial care in the world.  Since none of this is likely to happen any time soon, we’d better take a good hard look at what these sanctimonious old coots have come up with.

We already know a lot about what to expect from the Fiscal Commission Plan, since the co-chairs released their own preliminary proposals (as yet unapproved by the 18-member Commission) earlier this month. According to people with access to the Commission’s thinking, they seem to think their best bet is to achieve consensus on a proposal to change the way Social Security’s annual cost of living increases (COLAs) are calculated. What seems like a mere accounting adjustment would, in reality, severely affect benefits over time. The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare explains the impact of this scheme:

This proposal will affect current and future beneficiaries uniformly.  The impact would occur after benefits are initiated, with each COLA, as the yearly increase in benefits would be slightly lower than would have been the case without the change.  The impact would be greater with each successive COLA.  For example, the Social Security benefits paid to someone collecting benefits for 10 years would be about 3 percent lower, on average, if the chained-CPI was used for the COLA instead of the current CPI-W.  After 20 years this reduction would reach 6 percent and 9 percent after 30 years.

This is is bad enough–especially since old people’s cost of living increases faster than the national average because of exploding health care costs. But of course, there’s more, in the form of a plan that would raise the retirement age to 67 and eventually 69. Working until you drop dead or  literally are forced out of the labor market is utilitarian nineteenth-century thinking. But at that time, at least there was an expanding need for workers in a burgeoning industrial capitalist economy. The one big profitable industry surviving in America today is so-called financial services, which consists of a small number of overpaid people passing money back and forth amongst themselves. They certainly don’t need any more workers, and if they do, they’ll get them in India. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders said of the idea that it was not only “reprehensible,” but “also totally impractical. As they compete for jobs with 25-year-olds, many older workers will go unemployed and have virtually no income.”

There was no such ringing takedown of the plan, of course, from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, whose mealy-mouthed statement tells us what we can expect from our Democratic Senate. “I thank the leaders of the bipartisan debt commission for their work,” Reid said. “While I don’t agree with every one of their recommendations, what they have provided is a starting point for this important discussion. I look forward to the full commission’s recommendations and to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to address this important issue.”

Nancy Pelosi had somewhat stronger words, calling the preliminary proposals “simply unacceptable”–but then, she’s nothing but the soon-to-be-ex-Speaker of the House. In fact, co-chair Simpson has been predicting, with something close to glee, the “bloodbath” that’s likely to ensue next spring, when the new Republican House refuses to extend the debt limit and threatens to send the nation into default “unless we give ’em a piece of meat, real meat, off of this package.”

When all is said and done, there’s pretty much no way this so-called debate will end up without most of us, old and young alike, getting screwed. An already stingy program that ought to be expanded to cover elders as their numbers grow instead  is going  to be reduced, and the only question is how and by how much. It makes no sense, but it may well have political traction because the pols can sell it as an attack on rich grannies–“the greediest generation” as Simpson calls the old–while the young are hoodwinked into thinking it’s good for them. And since its full effect will take  years to be felt, the current crop of opportunistic politicians will be long gone into splendid retirement by the time these young people realize how wrong they are. Alan Simpson was frank about this fact in the Washington Post on Friday, using another one of his nauseatingly folksy metaphors:

 It takes six to eight years to pass a major piece of legislation. . . . On a piece of legislation that you know is going to go somewhere someday, you want to get a horse on the track. That might be not much. Then the next session you want to put a blanket on the horse. Nobody’s paying attention then. Then you put some silks on the horse. Then you clean the outfield and the infield. And then you put a jockey on the horse in the sixth year, and you can win it. Because the toughest part is to do the initial thing, and so it’s usually so watered down, it’s just gum, you could gum it. Then you begin to build it the next year, the next year and then you get it done. That’s what I see.

And just in case you thought it couldn’t get any worse, consider this warning from Allan Sloan, Fortune’s senior editor, who wrote an op-ed in the the Washington Post on Thanksgiving day:

[P]rivatizing Social Security, slaughtered when George W. Bush proposed it five years ago, seems about to rear its foul head again. You’d think that the stock market’s stomach-churning gyrations – two 50 percent-plus drops in just over a decade – would have shown conclusively the folly of retirees’ having to bet their eating money on the market. But you’d be wrong. Stocks have been rising the past 18 months, and you can bet that we’ll see a privatization push from newly elected congressmen and senators who made it a campaign issue.

Why is privatizing Social Security such a turkey? Because retirees shouldn’t have to depend on the market’s vagaries for survival money. More than half of married couples older than 65 and 72 percent of singles get more than half of their income from Social Security, according to the Social Security Administration. For 20 percent of 65-and-older couples and 41 percent of singles, Social Security is 90 percent or more of their income. That isn’t projected to change.

Arrayed against these grim prospects are a small group in Congress, led in the Senate by Bernie Sanders and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, and in the House by Jan Schakowsky of Illinois. Says Shakowsky

Social Security has nothing to do with the deficit. Addressing the Social Security issue as part of the deficit question is like attacking Iraq to retaliate for the 9/11 attacks – there is simply no relationship between the two and attempting to conflate them does a grave disservice to America’s seniors. Taking money from Social Security retirees whose average total income is $18,000 per year and average benefit is $14,000 ($12,000 for women) is simply wrong. It places them at fiscal risk and hurts the economy because they will be unable to purchase the goods they need.  Americans in poll after poll have indicated their opposition to benefit cuts – particularly at a time when Wall Street bankers are making record bonuses.’

Schakwosky has her own plan, which will be an antidote to whatever the Fiscal Commission comes up with. But her ideas are unlikely to make any headway in the lame duck Congress or with the Democratic leadership, as they wait, already on bended knee, for the coming of the Republicans.

Behind the Battle Over Social Security

As the midterm elections near, the future of the Social Security system has become a hot-button issue–and a confusing one. A number of Republican politicians have hit on it as yet another way to undermine Obama and the Democratic leadership, by criticizing their supposed fiscal irresponsibility. Some must also see victory at hand in the conservatives’ longstanding battle to destroy one of the most hated remnants of the New Deal. These include the GOP’s chief architect of change Paul Ryan,who wants to turn Medicare into a voucher program and privatize Social Security. He is backed up by House minority leader John Boehner, who, if the Republicans take the House, could become the next speaker. 

Some Democrats have risen to defend the best–and most solvent–anti-poverty program the nation has ever known. But for other Democrats–including those in the White House–the response is more triangulation. It was Obama who set in motion the Fiscal Commission, supposedly to study the deficit but in fact, as just about everyone in Washington knows, to pare entitlements, cutting Medicare and Social Security. Originally, this commission was thought ready to propose lifting the limit at which one could draw Social Security from 62 to 67. Now scuttlebutt  is that the entry age should be 70. Our supposedly “socialist” president has placed the country’s premier social program in the hands of Alan Simpson, a Republican crank who views old people as the new welfare queens. 

It’s not surprising, then, that a lot of older voters don’t know what to make of it. A piece in Sunday’s New York Times reported on “tales of political burnout and withdrawal among older voters” in one swing county in Colorado. Many in this consituency, which can usually be counted upon to vote in large numbers, seemed to be withdrawing altogether from the fray. Others were preparing to shoot themselves in the foot:

Bill Benton, 79, a lifelong Colorado resident who described himself as an Eisenhower Republican, supports Mr. Buck and believes that his comments suggesting that the private sector could perhaps do a better job with Social Security were “just talk.” Mr. Buck has said that despite his comments, he would not support privatizing the retirement program. “I like him, but he says some dumb things,” Mr. Benton said.

With all the rhetoric flying out of Washington, it’s likely that some older people have come to view the whole topic of Social Security as the centerpiece in a Washington charade of boasts and lies, another turn in the game of smoke and mirrors, much in the manner of the shouting match over health care. It turns the stomach, feeds the hate against Washington, and sends people fleeing to escape a nightmare they can’t understand–sometimes, it appears, right into the arms of the Tea Party.

And in fact, people who suspect a smoke-and-mirrors game are pretty much on the money. Social Security’s elevation to a central political debate is tied to another hot-button issue: The future of the Bush tax cuts. Those tax cuts, which benefit the very rich—the people who pump cash into a candidate’s campaign—are set to expire next year. “In 2010, when all the Bush tax cuts are finally phased in, a staggering 52.5 percent of the benefits will go to the richest 5 percent of taxpayers,” according to Citizens for Tax Justice, the Washington-based  public interest group that follows and analyzes tax policy.

The impact of these cuts on the national treasury–and the deficit–cannot be overestimated: “The tax legislation enacted under President George W. Bush from 2001 through 2006 will cost $2.48 trillion over the 2001-2010 period,” Citizens for Tax Justice reports. “This includes the revenue loss of $2.11 trillion that resultsdirectly from the Bush tax cuts as well as the $379 billion in additional interest.’’

Obama has declared his opposition to extending the tax cuts for the highest income brackets. But some conservative Democrats will have other ideas. And if the White House’s resolve fails, as it often does, there’s another deficit-cutting alternative at hand in Medicare and Social Security. It’s a lot easier for politicians to talk about paring down entitlements than it is to attack the rich on whose largesse they depend.

Republican Right Offers Reagan Redux

The Republican right’s Pledge to America is widely being compared with Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America. But for those of us with long enough memories, it more clearly harkens back a decade further, to the early days of the Reagan Administration. Now, as then, the Republican agenda has two major political thrusts.

First, the Republicans are advancing a Reaganesque program based around defense Keynesianism, an economic pump-prime through military spending. It signals a victory for the Pentagon generals who have been fighting Obama to further expand what certainly appears to be a futile war in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan–one that can go on and on indefinitely. Moreover, the Republicans want to fund an expensive missile defense system. Just as with Reagan, once this kind of spending gets going, they will be congratulating themselves on new jobs making armaments. At the same time, they can talk of shrinking the deficit by reducing or eliminating domestic programs.

That’s the nub of the pledge, with one adroit addition. This document makes no mention of reducing or eliminating Social Security. This is good politics before the election, and it’s bound to undercut the Obama administration, which has created the fiscal commission to reduce deficits, and is widely assumed to have Medicare and Social Security in its sights. Reagan did his best to cut domestic programs of the New Deal sort. But in the end, he could never have entirely eliminated them because he always swore to maintain a basic safety net for the old and the poor–and such public pronouncements helped to undermine Democratic challenges.

The pledge provides a focus for Republican ambitions, but most importantly it removes any thought that the Tea Party people have or could ever have any real sway in Republican policy matters. During Reagan’s early forays into the countryside, there were plenty of what now would pass for Tea Party types, but they were largely excluded from the party’s overall direction. Gingrich and his New Right colleagues in Congress occupied the back benches of the House at the time, and they moved within the overall Republican party apparatus. There was–and is–no chance of a popular takeover from the fringes of the party. Instead, Reagan claimed the center, and then pushed that center further and further to the right, where it remains to this day.

As Numbers of Uninsured Soar, Health Insurance Companies Plan Rate Hikes

The latest report from the Census Bureau, which shows a significant rise in the number of Americans living in poverty in 2009, is making news today. Less widely reported are the figures for those living without health insurance, which indicate that in 2009 there were 50.7 million uninsured or 16 .7% of population, up from 46.3 million and 15.4% in 2008. Kaiser Health News has a roundup of stories on the sharp rise in the uninsured. The details from the Census Bureau report are as follows.

  • The number of people with health insurance decreased from 255.1 million in 2008 to 253.6 million in 2009. Since 1987, the first year that comparable health insurance data were collected, this is the first year that the number of people with health insurance has decreased.
  • Between 2008 and 2009, the number of people covered by private health insurance decreased from 201.0 million to 194.5 million, while the number covered by government health insurance climbed from 87.4 million to 93.2 million. The number covered by employment-based health insurance declined from 176.3 million to 169.7 million. The number with Medicaid coverage increased from 42.6 million to 47.8 million.
  • Comparable health insurance data were first collected in 1987. The percentage of people covered by private insurance (63.9 percent) is the lowest since that year, as is the percentage of people covered by employment-based insurance (55.8 percent). In contrast, the percentage of people covered by government health insurance programs (30.6 percent) is the highest since 1987, as is the percentage covered by Medicaid (15.7 percent).
  • In 2009, 10.0 percent (7.5 million) of children under 18 were without health insurance. Neither estimate is significantly different from the corresponding 2008 estimate.
  • The uninsured rate for children in poverty (15.1 percent) was greater than the rate for all children.
  • In 2009, the uninsured rates decreased as household income increased: from 26.6 percent for those in households with annual incomes less than $25,000 to 9.1 percent in households with incomes of $75,000 or more.
  • These figures are sure to reignite the health care squabbling in Congress, and add to the Tea Party shrieks that Obamacare won’t cure the health care mess, which is now more of a disaster than ever. While their analysis is flawed, the Tea Partisans’ conclusion is, sadly, pretty much on the mark. 

    In the wake of health care reform, insurance companies are raising their rates–apparently, in preparation for the tepid new rules that won’t go into effect for years, and thus give the industry plenty of time to jack up their prices and protect their profits.  The Wall Street Journal reports that premiums for individuals and small businesses will go up in 2011, in some cases by as much as 20 percent. 

    Once the reform measures do go into full effect, the government is supposed to turn the 50 million uninsured into new customers for the price-gouging private insurance companies, which will enjoy no competition from a public option. As I have been arguing since this so-called debate over the future of health care began, it all looks like a sham exercise by Congress that will only end up extending the grip of the insurance and pharmaceutical industries in the health care market. 

    Any serious economic recovery will be stopped in its tracks by these numbers. And with more price hikes in store, God only knows what the 2011 figures will look like.

    Triangulating Social Security

    While on vacation for the past two weeks, I didn’t read the papers or look at TV, so I was mercifully unaware of the latest bon mot from one of the leading politcal pricks of the summer, former Senator Alan Simpson, who co-chairs Obama’s entitlement-cutting “deficit commission.” Just in case you haven’t heard about it, here’s an account from CBS:

    In a letter responding to criticisms against him from a group representing older women, former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson wrote that he has “spent many years in public life trying to stabilize” Social Security. However, he wrote, “Yes, I’ve made some plenty smart cracks about people on Social Security who milk it to the last degree. You know ’em too. It’s the same with any system in America. We’ve reached a point now where it’s like a milk cow with 310 million tits!”

    Simpson made his reply in response to an article on the Huffington Post penned by Ashley Carson, executive director of the National Older Women’s League (OWL). Carson had said, “Mr. Simpson continues to paint the picture that everyone receiving Social Security benefits is living the high life–driving luxury cars, dining out and living in gated communities.” She pointed out the average Social Security beneficiary gets $13,900 annually, relegating many older women to poverty–or, to put it more bluntly, throwing them into the proverbial poor house to rot out the rest of their lives.

    Simpson is simply spouting right-wing crap. And I can understand the Clintonesque Democratic Leadership Council types, led by Erskine Bowles, the other co-chair of Obama’s deficit commission, wanting to play games with the right-wingers as they try to get their usual triangulation model set up. But how Obama thinks he can win votes out of the deficit commission charade is way over my head.

    Up to now, the general idea has been obvious: Set up a show commission that spends billions of dollars going through the motions of investigation and study–LOL–while busily cutting deals among Republicans and conservative Dems to pare down Social Security and Medicare. These clever people then plan to announce that they can solve the deficit problem by slightly trimming Social Security and rearranging Medicare, but not so much as to hurt today’s “seniors.” God forbid! The deal is, however, to start making serious cuts as time goes on, after the current crop of do-nothing pols have long ago retired with their great pensions, splendid medical care, into profitable jobs lobbying the Congress for more cuts.

    Now, nobody ever said the politicians in Washington are very swift. But you’d think that just by reading the basic demographic swing in the nation, they could see that with the tide greatly changing so that older people–not younger people–have the voting power to run the country. What they are actually doing is to doom their successors to a ruinous economics, not to mention a nowhere political future. But then, I always forget, the single greatest motivating force among the members of Congress–and I guess, sad to say, the Obama crowd, is a matter of simple greed in their own endless quest to stay in power.

    This time, though, they may have miscalculated, especially by appointing an a-hole like Simpson, whose colorful pronouncements expose the deficit commission scam for the stealth attack that it is. Social Security is known as the third rail of politics, and we can at least hope that it’s lost none of its juice.

    The End of Retirement

    American workers have little to celebrate on this Labor Day. That’s especially true for older workers, who face the end of any possibility of a secure retirement, so hard-won during the 20th century. In my recent Mother Jones piece on the subject, I wrote:

    I contemplate my future at a time of deep recession with no pension and a depleted 401(k). And it occurs to me that the very notion of a comfortable, paid retirement may turn out to have been a temporary phenomenon, with a life span almost precisely the same as my own…And I have to wonder if someday the tale of a foolish generation of Americans, who imagined that a lifetime of work would be rewarded with a comfortable and secure old age, will become just another footnote in the annals of the market.

    One commentary on the subject came earlier this year from AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, speaking at the National Institute on Retirement Security. His conclusions regarding the possibility of change may be overly optimistic, but his analysis is sound. Here’s an excerpt:

    Today’s retirement security crisis is just one of the many painful consequences of the failed economic policies of the past 30 years—policies of radical deregulation and corporate empowerment.  

    They’ve culminated in the worst economic decade in living memory—job loss, wage loss, collapse of the housing and financial markets, enormous growth in inequality and the massive destruction of wealth.  

    These policies allowed — and even encouraged — employers to walk away from what had been a system of shared responsibility.  The result?  Today, fewer than 20 percent of private-sector workers have real, defined-benefit pensions. 

    As a country, our challenge now is to build a new economy on a solid foundation of good jobs, opportunity, a return to shared responsibility and a level playing field that allows both workers and business to thrive.

    Keeping the promise of retirement security must be part of this great transformation in American life…part of the legacy we seek to build and the future we envision. 

    Today only 13 percent of workers say they are very confident about having enough money for a comfortable retirement—that’s the lowest level in 16 years.  And this lack of confidence is justified.  The majority of America’s workers will face retirement with far less security than their parents.

    That’s especially painful to me—because it was our union movement that created retirement in the United States.  Before the rise of the labor movement in the 1930s and 40s, elderly Americans were the most impoverished age group in our society, and only a privileged few received government or employer pensions.

    With the enactment of Social Security and the growth of union-negotiated pensions, elderly Americans became the least impoverished age group.

    After the New Deal, it was collective bargaining that set the pattern for labor markets—and not just for workers covered by union contracts.

    These were the years that produced the three-tiered American retirement system:  Government provided a foundation with Social Security, employers provided defined-benefit pensions and individuals saved for their retirement. 

    With this system, our parents could retire after a career of hard work, confident of a stable income they would not outlive.  They could sleep at night knowing that, should they die, their spouse would continue to have a dependable income. 

    For millions of Americans—teachers and bus drivers, factory workers and flight attendants, construction workers and nurses—reliable, employer-funded pensions made their lives immeasurably better.

    That was a legacy.  That was the world I grew up in back in Nemacolin, Pennsylvania.  A world where working people had real pensions they had won at the bargaining table and on the picket line…

    …A world where retirement, which had been a dream realized only by bosses, had become a reality for tens of millions thanks to Social Security and collective bargaining. 

    Today, all three tiers of that retirement system we built are in danger.  Employers are increasingly abandoning their pension plans.  Workers with lost jobs and stagnant incomes are unable to save.

    In this bleak landscape, Social Security stands out as the one feature of what passes for our retirement system that works for all Americans.  But too many in Washington seem bent on perpetuating the Bush administration’s attacks on Social Security. 

    The labor movement took on those people and beat them in the Bush era — and we will do the same in the Obama era.

    When people lump together Social Security attacks with deficit reduction efforts, we have to remind the public of this basic fact: Social Security is NOT contributing to our budget deficit—in fact, the buildup of the Social Security Trust Fund is financing our budget deficit. 

    And while the program faces a funding shortfall over the next 75 years, in pension plan terms, Social Security is 88 percent funded over that 75 year period of time and by any measure would be considered a healthy pension plan.  Relatively modest adjustments—WITHOUT benefit cuts—can address even this long-term issue. 

    Social Security is the most important family income protection program and the most effective anti-poverty program ever enacted in the United States.  One-third of Social Security beneficiaries receive more than 90 percent of their income from Social Security.  Two out of three depend on it for more than half of their income. 

    Social Security is the sole source of income for nearly one in five seniors.  The average Social Security benefit is just little more than a minimum wage income—meaning a typical retiree needs almost twice the average monthly Social Security benefit for a reasonable standard of living.

    And if that’s not bad enough, growing Medicare cost-sharing means our seniors will need higher benefits just to maintain the replacement rate of the past 25 years.

    Social Security benefits must remain at least as robust as they are today…quite frankly, INCREASING Social Security benefits would be a massive boost for our economy right now and for our long-term ability to provide all Americans financial security in retirement.

    Social Security is the ONLY reliable and guaranteed benefit for the growing number of people without pensions.  But Social Security by itself cannot provide retirement security for most Americans.

    And despite all the flashy new investment products the financial services industry markets, traditional defined-benefit pension plans remain the soundest vehicles for building and safeguarding retirement income security. 

    If you are lucky enough to have a union, there is still a good chance that you have a pension plan.  Sixty-six percent of union workers have pensions, compared with only 15 percent of nonunion workers.  But unions are under increasing pressure at the bargaining table to allow employers to cut or eliminate real pensions. 

    In the private sector, the funding rules for single employer pension plans in the Pension Protection Act of 2006, coupled with new accounting standards, have contributed to an environment in which even healthy companies are freezing their pension plans entirely or closing them to new hires.

    Our current economic downturn has made this much worse.  In many parts of this country, public-sector workers have the right to form unions.  Not surprisingly, state and local government workers are four times more likely than private-sector workers to have defined-benefit plan coverage.  But public-sector plans are under attack through legislation and ballot initiatives.

    In the private sector, over the past decade, many employers have abandoned their real pensions for 401(k) plans—plans with little or no employer money … plans with no protection for workers against market risk or outliving your money … and plans with high investment management fees.

    We hear different reasons for this, but here’s the bottom-line problem:  Our current system lets employers off the hook.  They can refuse to provide any benefits at all.   If there ever was an implicit social contract, it has eroded.  My friends, that is NOT the vision I have for America. 

    Unfortunately, the vision put forth by policy makers in both political parties and the White House is for tepid reforms that address only the shortcomings of the 401(k) system.  I think we were all glad that the president included retirement security as a national issue in his State of the Union address last week. But his remedies fall short.

    Tinkering with 401(k)s by adding automatic enrollments as a plan feature will not bring about the change we need.  And what good is individual annuitization if you don’t have any money in your account and you are at the mercy of the insurance industry on pricing?

    At best, I’m afraid, these proposals will marginally increase retirement savings for those who already can afford to contribute, and will do nothing to make employers take some responsibility in this crisis.

    In this crisis economy workers can barely meet day-to-day expenses.  How much then can they save on their own for retirement?  Plainly put: There is no way that 401(k) plans can adequately substitute for the loss of a guaranteed lifetime benefit.

    Look at the data: The median account balance in 401(k) type plans for 62-year-old workers is worth an annuity payout of about $400 a month.  $400 a month.  That just doesn’t cut it.  And most workers will outlive their savings.

    A Time magazine cover story last fall on the failure of 401(k) plans about summed it up:  “This isn’t how retirement was supposed to be.”   After a lifetime of hard work, workers deserve to retire with dignity—with the economic security they have earned. 

    It is imperative to strengthen and preserve what remains of the current private-sector pension system by working on two tracks—through collective bargaining and through legislation…