Archive for December, 2006

I Used to Have a Pension

Thursday, December 28th, 2006

Time was, you worked hard, really hard …for decades… maybe you bought a house, a car, and helped your kids go to school. You gave to others who needed help…and then you retired.

You wonder these days if that still is a part of “the American Dream.”

Hard work, providing for your family, paying taxes for the good of your country and humankind, and then…at the end…a regular, modest income from the retirement pension that was part of the package your employer promised. That was ‘the deal’ we came to expect as return for working and living a good life.

Sometimes that promise was in the form of a binding contract, negotiated by the union that stood up for you at your job. In other cases the pension was a well-reasoned assumption, based on years and years of evidence that saw fellow employees get a steady income after retirement.

Well, there’s lots of evidence these days that ‘the good life’ is only available to those with big bucks; because the news seems to be filled each week with a report that another company, ‘forced’ by ‘excessive costs,’ has decided to unilaterally fold-up their end of the bargain and shut down the company pension plan.

No warning. Not even a hint. And then, Boom! Sorry, sucker; we just canned your pension. Go take a hike.

Here’s how the PBS NewsHour, based in Shirlington, described the scene on January 9 of this year:

“IBM, long a leader in defining the relationship between companies and employees in American corporate life last week became part of a new trend, ending its traditional pension plan,” reporter Jeffrey Brown said. “…even well off companies are making the change. In recent months Verizon, Lockheed Martin and Motorola have all announced freezes on their pensions plans.”

It isn’t just that these monster companies are freezing pensions at a certain level. No, starting with United Airlines, which took an unprecedented 2005 move that stunned the nation, corporate America is flat-out terminating pension programs. Arlington-based US Airways made its assault on its employee pensions the same year.

Congress stepped into the fray some 30 years ago and created an agency that’s supposed to protect us, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) — ( — which is financed by the corporations whose pension plans they protect. But, according to another PBS investigation for the Frontline program, big business has defied its responsibilities to the extent that four years ago corporate America owed $50 billion to the PBGC. This year, the shortchanging is more than four times that amount: $450 billion.

How can business get away with that? I can’t just decide to stop paying my mortgage. Listen to how Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren described the situation to Frontline: “Let’s just be as blunt as we can. They got away with it because the regulators let them get away with it. In all those years in the ’90s, when we were doing well, when it was boom times, the big companies kept a sharp eye on what pleases the investors. … It did not please the investors to put money aside for the employees, and so the big corporations simply didn’t do it.”

“It did not please the investors”? Is that what this comes down to? Is our nation really just about making a buck? Is it true that the prevailing attitude is “What’s good for business is good for America”? Economist Martin Goldberg wrote last year, “The not too subtle message is leave corporate America alone.” And to whom would that warning be made? Why to those who ‘represent us’ across the river.

It’s no accident that business throws hundreds of millions of dollars into congressional and presidential campaign coffers. The pay the piper expects in response for his support is to be left alone, to deal with his workers however he sees fit.

This isn’t the America we grew up with, is it? America the Beautiful seems a pipedream, when you read words like those cited above. Is it all a big joke? Has Uncle Sam changed from a kindly gentleman into a cold, cynical and calculating relative?

P.T. Barnun said “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Is that what it’s about, in the end? Are we all suckers who will work until we die or until we get injured or get sick?

This is a far cry from, “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.”

Is there any way to turn this around? To stop the relentless pursuit of wealth at any cost? We can start with the folks who occupy that shining, marble, dome-topped building on the other side of the river. If enough of us make a fuss over this, maybe the word ‘retirement’ can come to mean what it has meant for our parents’ generation.

Let’s not let it happen that we became a bitter, ‘what’s in it for me’ nation. Let’s look out for each other and try, as hard as we might, to make this life a good one for each and every one of us.

Nick Penning is an Arlington, Va., freelance writer. His column, “Penning Thoughts,” appears in alternating editions of The Arlington Connection.

In Your Own Backyard?

Saturday, December 9th, 2006

As you read this, think for a moment: your nation is committing war, where hundreds kill and die in your name…right now and into this night. There is bravado, there is fear, and, I suspect, some doubt about why our nation’s flag and its tanks and planes and bombs are rolling the roads and roaring in the sky above a Middle Eastern desert.

Not many weeks ago we heard a similar screaming, ear-pounding cry over our heads, here in Arlington, as the new Air Force Memorial was dedicated near the Pentagon. Because the Air Force Thunderbirds were shooting hundreds of miles per hour overhead, their cries turned heads for miles around.

For a split second, if you’d not read the papers or had forgotten the announcement, you might have thought, “What was that!”, perhaps wondering if, in this age of White House-induced fear, we might be under some sort of attack.

Is it possible to imagine armored personnel carriers rolling down Arlington Boulevard, helicopters chopping the air, and rifle carrying soldiers walking the streets and posted at check points near, say, Glebe Road and George Mason? And that, as those planes careened through the air, muffled ‘booms,’ puffs of smoke could be seen in their wake?

Small countries and guerilla bands could never muster that kind of power….but, emerging powers such as China, and a recently rightward-drifting Japan, can bring shudders to our seemingly peaceful lives.

If we are not immune, why did we seek this war? Why did we stir up greater, worldwide hatred toward our beloved country?

Has our silence aided and abetted our elected leaders to continue forcing young men and women to stop their lives and carry armaments overseas, putting their families at great risk of losing the centers of their existence?

Now, weeks after the nerve-rattling spectacle of Air Force might, we hear talk of ‘pulling back’ or ‘pulling out,’ “as soon as they are ready to defend themselves.” You even hear the word “Iraqification” of the war, through which the reins of warfare are turned to those who live there.

If you’re in your late 50s or 60s, that word conjures up “Vietnamization,” the term then-President Nixon used as part of his ‘secret plan’ to end the war. That plan helped him win election in 1968. Yet seven more long years, and thousands of Vietnam Wall names later, it all came to a whimpering end as the last helicopter lifted the last evacuees from the top of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.

As I’ve heard others say, how many Gold Star mothers will be told of heartbreaking loss, while those who started this madness ‘wind down’ our presence in a nation we have destroyed? Now that we know the end is coming, how many widows, how many orphans will be created in these final months ahead?

It has been said before, but is worth saying again, How do we ask another soldier to be the last one to die for a mistake?

Because, at this point, Arlington is being opened for more and more graves, in defense of what?… one man’s refusal to admit the obvious? His pitiful and outrageous attempt to ‘save face,’ as more die, and our nation becomes ever more a target in response to what he has sown.

We can pray for peace, and ask our members of Congress to bring us quickly to that end.


Nick Penning is an Arlington, Virginia, freelance writer. His column, “Penning Thoughts,” appears in alternating editions of The Arlington Connection.