A “Gettysburg Address” on pension promises

A “Gettysburg Address” on pension promises


Last week, I spoke to an auditorium full of economics and public policy students at Gettysburg College, as part of the Economics Department’s Finance Symposium. This year’s topic: “Re-Defined Benefits: The Past, Present, and Future of Defined Benefit Pensions in the United States.” You can read my speech here or watch the entire symposium on the Economics Department’s Facebook page.

Also on the panel were Diane Oakley, executive director of the National Institute on Retirement Security; Michael Rae, acting deputy chief policy officer at the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC); and Pennsylvania State Representative Will Tallman. We discussed the importance of pensions and challenges to both the public and private systems.

In essence, I gave my own “Gettysburg Address” — on the need to protect pension promises to retirees, preserve and strengthen Social Security, and build a new movement for retirement security for all. My speech began, “Two score and seven years from now, every person in this room will either be retired or nearing retirement age, so you need to start thinking about these issues now.”

I then set up the challenge for the day:

This debate isn’t just about retirement. It’s about core values. What kind of country do we want to be? And what kind of country do we want to become? Do we have a society where we’re all in this together, with collective approaches that provide secure income efficiently? Are we simply abandoning plans that provide secure and adequate income in favor of do-it-yourself savings plans?

I implored students to get involved in helping shape the solutions to this debate, because this issue affects “you, your parents, grandparents, and the community at large.”

Representative Tallman argued that there was a need to cut benefits in the Pennsylvania state plan. Diane Oakley countered with a strong defense of defined benefit plans and a recognition that it is the legislators’ responsibility to fund this plan to ensure that workers and retirees get their hard-earned benefits. Michael Rae talked about the important role of the PBGC in protecting the pensioners in bankrupt corporate plans, and he explained some of the challenges that the agency faces going forward.

We all were delighted to be talking to the next generation of academics and activists who are going to carry this issue forward. 

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