Time was, you worked hard, really hard â€¦for decadesâ€¦ maybe you bought a house, a car, and helped your kids go to school. You gave to others who needed helpâ€¦and then you retired.
You wonder these days if that still is a part of â€œthe American Dream.â€
Hard work, providing for your family, paying taxes for the good of your country and humankind, and thenâ€¦at the endâ€¦a regular, modest income from the retirement pension that was part of the package your employer promised. That was â€˜the dealâ€™ 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, thereâ€™s lots of evidence these days that â€˜the good lifeâ€™ is only available to those with big bucks; because the news seems to be filled each week with a report that another company, â€˜forcedâ€™ by â€˜excessive costs,â€™ 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.
Hereâ€™s how the PBS NewsHour, based in Shirlington, described the scene on January 9 of this year:
â€œIBM, 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,â€ reporter Jeffrey Brown said. â€œâ€¦even well off companies are making the change. In recent months Verizon, Lockheed Martin and Motorola have all announced freezes on their pensions plans.â€
It isnâ€™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 thatâ€™s supposed to protect us, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) â€” (http://www.pbgc.gov/index.html) â€” 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 canâ€™t just decide to stop paying my mortgage. Listen to how Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren described the situation to Frontline: â€œLetâ€™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 â€™90s, when we were doing well, when it was boom times, the big companies kept a sharp eye on what pleases the investors. â€¦ It did not please the investors to put money aside for the employees, and so the big corporations simply didnâ€™t do it.â€
â€œIt did not please the investorsâ€? Is that what this comes down to? Is our nation really just about making a buck? Is it true that the prevailing attitude is â€œWhatâ€™s good for business is good for Americaâ€? Economist Martin Goldberg wrote last year, â€œThe not too subtle message is leave corporate America alone.â€ And to whom would that warning be made? Why to those who â€˜represent usâ€™ across the river.
Itâ€™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 isnâ€™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 â€œThereâ€™s a sucker born every minute.â€ Is that what itâ€™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, â€œDo unto others what you would have them do unto you.â€
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 â€˜retirementâ€™ can come to mean what it has meant for our parentsâ€™ generation.
Letâ€™s not let it happen that we became a bitter, â€˜whatâ€™s in it for meâ€™ nation. Letâ€™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, â€œPenning Thoughts,â€ appears in alternating editions of The Arlington Connection.