Could the Traditional Pension Plan Make a Comeback?

Common Dreams
March 2, 2024

Pension plans never really went away—despite beliefs to the contrary that they are fatally flawed, with 401(k)s being the only sustainable retirement plans. The reality is that there are still 50,000 financially healthy pension plans in the United States. Most public sector workers, for sure a minority of all workers, still have pension plans. The other reality, though, is that progressively fewer workers since the early 1980s have had access to traditional pensions plans.

The general experience in American workplaces has been that once gone, pension plans do not come back. Here and there the trend has been bucked with pension plans returning to replace 401(k)s. In 2008, West Virgina public teachers voted to return their pension plan that had been taken away by the state legislature in 1991. The 401(k)-like plan that replaced it had produced such poor returns that participants were facing poverty in retirement. In 2012, after a long campaign, Connecticut state employees were allowed on a voluntary basis to switch out of a 401(k)-like plan into the state’s traditional pension plan. Click here to read more.

UAW Fails to Win Back Pension Plans for Newer Workers

Common Dreams
November 16, 2023

The UAW strike against Big Auto succeeded in winning impressive wage gains, but it failed to obtain a little-reported demand: that the auto companies reinstate defined benefit pension plans for new employees that had been suspended as a concession during the 2008 Great Recession.

Instead, as a consolation prize the auto companies offered and the unions took larger company payments to employee 401(k) plans.

This was a significant loss for newer workers who were not grandfathered into the preexisting pension plans. They will receive employer contributions that will rise to ten percent of salary. While that is significantly higher than what most 401(k) plan participants receive from their employers, it will fall far short of what would be needed to provide retirement income equivalent to that of a pension plan. That would require contributions of twenty-five to thirty percent of salary. Put differently, they will receive one-third to one-half of what workers with equivalent careers received from pension plans. Click here to read more.

Standing Cycles: Three Experiences

By Jim Russell

Standing cycles, as the name indicates, are cycles–bicycles, tricycles, scooters–that do not have seats. Riders propel them exclusively in standing positions. Why would anyone want to ride such a vehicle? There are a number of reasons.

  • Seats can be uncomfortable for men and women.
  • Men may have prostate issues that seats aggravate.
  • Men and women may have back issues that hunched over positions while seated aggravate.
  • Many believe that sitting for long periods of time is not good for health.
  • The standing position may be more pleasurable than the hunched over seated position.

I began experimenting with standing cycles in 2013. This is my experience with three cycles.

The Kickbike

Kickbikes, also called footbikes, are essentially scooters with larger bicycle tires. You can also think of them as scooters for adults. They were invented in Finland. Like kids’ scooters, there are no seats or pedals. They do, however, like bicycles, have front and rear handbrakes. There are now competing models from a number of other countries, including the Czech Republic and the United States. So far, they have not caught on as much in the United States as in Europe, where there are organized races. Kickbike is the commercial name for the Finnish version. Footbike is the generic name.

 Because of their bicycle-sized tires, they go a lot faster and further than scooters with small wheels. At least one person has ridden a kickbike across the United States. I think it took him about a month.

I bought a used Sport Max model for $200 in 2013. The new price would have been around $450. At the time I was in my 60s and had been riding bicycles for almost all my life. I commuted to work daily on one, had ridden centuries (100-mile rides in one day), and had taken multiday camping trips.

There’s virtually no learning curve. Riding one is intuitive. The number one question I got from people who asked about this strange contraption I was riding was whether I switched legs to push it forward. Yes, you switch kickoff legs. Otherwise, you would build up enormous muscles in one leg and not in the other. You’re supposed to switch every seven to ten strokes. At first, I slavishly counted strokes before switching. Now, I switch when I feel like it.

As a longtime bicyclist, my first question was how well the kickbike experience would compare. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it had advantages over the bike. They are safer because they are more stable. In seven years of riding mine, I never had any kind of accident. They are safer in part because they are slower. If you are ever about to go down, they are much easier to jump off than a bicycle.

They are a joy to ride. There is the full cycling experience without the negatives of bicycles. I used mine for exercise, pleasure, and commuting four miles to work up and down hills.

Going up hills is the same as with a bicycle. It just depends on how much effort you want to put into it before getting off and pushing. There is also the factor that it is much easier to get off a kickbike and start pushing than doing the same with a bicycle. It’s very easy to shift between riding and walking, and you don’t have the sense of being a wimp if you decide to shift to walking it up a hill.

The only disadvantage is speed. There is no question that they are slower than bicycles. They’re much faster than walking but half to two-thirds as fast as a bike. They can be as fast, however, going down hills.

My longest distance was 26 miles in about four hours on organized bike rides. I could have gone much further if I had wanted to as they are not at all strenuous to ride.

The Half Bike

Much as I loved my Kickbike, I was frustrated by its slow speed. I wanted to go on the Seattle to Portland organized 180-mile ride. But I knew that my Kickbike would be way too slow to keep up.

After searching through standing cycles on the internet, I discovered the Halfbike, a Bulgarian invention from around 2014. It has a bicycle-sized tire on the front and two small tires on the rear. Unlike the Kickbike, it has pedals and a chain to propel it. Like the Kickbike, it has a handbrake but no seat. It is like a seatless unicyle with training wheels.

I bought one in 2019 for $550 via a Kickstarter sale.

Unlike the Kickbike, it has a steep learning curve—a least a month. It took me about two months to be mostly comfortable riding it. It was faster than the Kickbike though still slower than a regular bike. However, it was much more strenuous to ride than the Kickbike. I could not imagine riding 180 miles on it. Some younger and more fit people might be able to do it. I don’t suspect we’ll hear of anyone riding one across the United States.

Half-bikes can be fun to ride. But their main disadvantage, as far as I was concerned, was their lack of stability. I had two nasty accidents with scraped hands and knees, and was always fearful of them, especially when anywhere near car traffic. I would not have used mine to commute to work for multiple reasons, including that there’s no place to carry loads other than your back.

Converted Bicycle

After a year with the Half-bike, I began looking again for the holy grail of a standing cycle: one that would be fast, comfortable, stable, and economically-priced. I looked at the Elliptigo but rejected it as too expensive at $2199 and too big to carry in a car.  Recently, the people that make the Elliptigo brought out a new model, the SUB, that was closer to what I was seeking. It has a bicycle pedaling motion and is smaller than the original Elliptigo. It sells for $799.

Then I began thinking about an earlier idea I had had. When I first began toying with the idea of a standing cycle, I tried simply standing all the time on my TREK 750 hybrid bike that I used for commuting. That quickly became uncomfortable and I abandoned the idea and began searching for a dedicated standing cycle. That led to the Kickbike.

But maybe there would be a way to convert the hybrid into a standing cycle that was comfortable to ride. I found an article on the internet about Frank Cavaluzzi, who had converted his bike into a standing cycle and went on rides for hundreds of miles with camping gear. The article didn’t say, though, how he had converted the bike. After a lot of searching, I discovered that he had simply raised or replaced the handlebars so that they were about six inches higher. That allowed him to ride in a full standing position without having to hunch over.

I took my hybid to my local bike shop and had them put on a six-inch handlebar riser and then, of necessity, install longer brake and gear cables.  Voila! I had a perfect standing cycle for the couple of hundred dollars charged by the bike shop.

I’ve been riding it every day for several months and love it. It has the speed I want with a comfortable standing position. I’ve come full circle and am back to my commuter hybrid bike, albeit converted to a standing cycle. The Kickbike and Halfbike stand unused in my garage. If I had known back in 2013 what I know now, I would have gone straight to the conversion option and avoided buying the other cycles. I don’t, though, regret those eccentric cycling experiences that drew a lot of attention.  

Table. Comparing Standing Cycles

 Converted BikeKickbikeHalfbike
SpeedFastestSlowestIn between
StabilityIn betweenMostLeast
SafetyIn betweenMostLeast
Pleasure ridingTieTieLeast
Cost$650+ new including additional cost of conversion; $200 converting existing bike$400$700
OverallBestIn betweenLeast

Jim Russell lives in Portland, Oregon. When not riding a standing cycle, he writes about retirement plans and other social policy issues. He is the author of Social Insecurity: 401(k)s and the Retirement Crisis and, forthcoming from Monthly Review Press, The Labor Guide to Retirement Plans.

OECD’s Misleading Retirement Replacement Income Statistic for the United States

National Academy of Social Insurance

December 7, 2020

According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s influential Pensions at a Glance, the United States has a gross retirement income replacement rate for average-income workers of 70.3 percent (see table 5.3). On the face of it, a 70.3 percent replacement rate is impressive. It matches the 70 percent replacement rate that most financial advisors consider to be the goal of retirement planning strategies. That will surprise those who believe there is a growing retirement crisis in this country. Given the prestige of the OECD, it would seem to be prima face evidence that the retirement crisis is a myth.

But is that statistic valid? Will typical workers receive 70.3 percent of their preretirement income when they leave work?

[To read more, click here.]

Left-Wing Agents of Trump

Left-Wing Agents of Trump

Trump is sinking fast in the polls. He hopes to save his reelection by convincing swing voters that they need him to reestablish law and order in streets, which are supposedly filled with violent anarchists, arsonists, looters, and rioters. Don’t fall into his trap. We want our good motives to produce justice, not support for his reelection.

Helping Trump, intentionally or not, are:

The Provocateur—who wants to expose police violence, thinking that this will destabilize the system. The provocateur wants to show the true colors of the police by egging them on—by throwing things–to attack the crowd, even if the majority in the demonstration want it to stay peaceful. There’s a reason why police agents have often played this role.

The Street Fighter—who, like the provocateur, believes that destabilizing demonstrations will expose the flaws of the system and that people need to fight back against police violence. This might feel good, but it neglects the fact that this is a situation in which the police have all the advantages. The street fighter doesn’t think about public reaction or electoral consequences.

The Purist: This is the person who refuses to vote or will only vote for a third-party candidate because Biden is an undeniable Cold War corporate Democrat. The consequence will be to aid Trump’s reelection. Some purists prefer Trump: to make the struggle against “fascism” and capitalism more clear. The history of dictatorship tells us it is much better to continue our struggle after January 20 against a corporate Democrat than a proto-fascist.

Ponder these words from a longtime trainer of community organizers: “There is a distinction between those who see participation in political activity as a matter of strategy and those who see it as a form of self-expression. The current demonstrations against federal military presence are basically self-expression. They are a tactic without a strategy. On the other hand, provoking violence in these demonstrations is clearly a reelection strategy by Trump. We are seeing asymmetrical warfare. It is a trap.”

Consolidating Public Support for Medicare for All

Beacon Broadside, March 2, 2020

If the Bernie Sanders momentum continues, his signature Medicare for All proposal will become an even more intense subject of national debate than it already is.

Attaining universal health insurance has never been a technical problem in the United States. We know that because every other major country and a number of minor ones have attained it at much lower cost and with better health outcomes than the private health insurance system that we have. If they can do it, so too could the United States.

It is rather a political problem that has two sides: opposition from the private health insurance industry that profits excessively from the existing system and opposition from members of the public who fear losing their existing private insurance.

Click Here to Read More

What’s Missing from the Social Security Expansion Proposals

Democrats, looking forward to possible Congressional and White House victories in 2020, have embraced expanding Social Security after years of defensively fending off privatization and cutback threats. The Social Security 2100 Act, with 209 co-sponsors, is waiting in the wings. It would make needed revenue increases, including raising the cap on labor income taxed, to stabilize Social Security’s finances for seventy-five years. It would also mildly expand benefits.

On the campaign trail, all of the Democratic Party candidates have addressed Social Security. Elizabeth Warren has proposed going beyond the Social Security 2100 bill by adding a tax to investment income, which is a bigger portion of the income of the rich than labor income.

What’s missing, though, from the Democratic proposals is a way for people to use their 401(k), IRA, and other retirement savings to increase their Social Security benefits.

To continue reading, click here.

Review of Burns/Novick, The Vietnam War (PBS)

I recently watched the 18-hour Burns/Novick PBS documentary, The Vietnam War, over a ten-day period, one episode a night.  I had previously read many of the criticisms of the film from veterans of the antiwar movement.  I had also returned in March from a two-week tour of Vietnam as part of a delegation led by John McAuliff of activists from the antiwar movement to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the My Lai massacre. We participated in the commemoration with a delegation from Veterans for Peace.

My overall impression of the film was that it was well made, engrossing, and fundamentally wrong in key respects.  Just as a well written article is not necessarily right, a technically well-made documentary is not necessarily right, especially in its overall interpretation.

Three of the fundamental problems of the film, as I see it, are:

Interpretation of the U.S. soldiers:  The main message is that the U.S. troops fought valiantly a mistaken losing war and they are to be thanked for their sacrifices.  I’m sure the German Army fought valiantly and sacrificed heavily in World War II.  But there would be huge protests if a Burns/Novick-like film was made about that losing army.  A better interpretation would have been that significant numbers of soldiers turned against the war when they realized that the U.S. invasion was unjust and their leaders had duped them. The film does cover the antiwar movement of soldiers but in a more confused manner where the motives are mixed.  While the pilot and other prowar POWs are celebrated, no mention is made of the pilot and other POWs who became opposed to the war.

Anti-intellectualism: No academic experts were interviewed on the meaning of the war.  Rather, the “expert” commentators were from the State Department, CIA, and military.  The only academic interviewed was a graduate student who became an assistant professor.  But he was not interviewed as an expert on the war but rather as expressing the point of view of a protester.

Attitude toward the antiwar movement:  Antiwar protesters come off as having suspect motives. Burns/Novick present as fact the right-wing narrative of antiwar demonstrators attacking returning solders at Travis Air Force base, which did not happen according to recent scholarship. The most egregious attack on the antiwar movement occurs in the last episode when a former antiwar demonstrator states that she is ashamed of calling soldiers “baby killers.” That is the parting interpretation of the antiwar movement, leaving the impression of it as being at least mildly unpatriotic and anti-soldier.  A soldier who deserted to Canada states that he regrets renouncing his U.S. citizenship—presented as now a man without a country. No mention is made of prominent historians and other scholars who actively opposed the war.  Nor is there mention of the impact of the war on a whole generation of young scholars and the influence it had on their subsequent work.

The roles that a number of individuals play directly or indirectly in the film are problematic.

Peter Coyote (the narrator):  He was with the San Francisco Mime Troupe which was radically antiwar and pro-NLF.  I’d love to know if he agreed with all of the script that he read.  He was at Wisconsin when R.G. Davis, the director of the Mime Troup, stated to a show audience that they should go the Dow demonstration the next day.  “We believe this is your university.  If you can’t control it, you ought to destroy it.”  The university was allowing Dow to recruit future employees.  Antiwar students were demonstrating against the recruiters because of Dow’s production of napalm for the war. The Madison police violently broke up the sit-in with clubs and tear gas.  It was the first time in the country that police attacked rather than carried off antiwar sit-in protesters.

Jane Fonda:  The film repeats as fact the right-wing narrative on Jane Fonda having been a traitor who went to North Vietnam.  (I’d be curious to know if Peter Coyote had any qualms reading that narration.) No mention is made that Telford Taylor, the chief U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremberg War Crimes trial, also went to North Vietnam and spoke out against the U.S. bombing.

John McCain:  The McCain myth of the innocent pilot shot down and tortured goes unchallenged, whereas John Kerry’s Senate committee testimony of U.S. war crimes is immediately challenged with a military figure getting the last word that any abuses were isolated aberrations.

John Negroponte:  Burns/Novick present him several times as a sage commentator on the war.  No mention is made that he is one of the most controversial figures of the recent U.S. diplomatic corps.  He started his career in Vietnam, served in Honduras as ambassador facilitating the Contra war, served as ambassador to Mexico overseeing adoption of Nafta, served as ambassador to Iraq after the invasion, and, in his last position, served as Director of National Intelligence.  His name is especially controversial in Latin America.

Bob Kerrey:  He is mentioned positively as a veteran of the war, along with John McCain and John Kerry, who has worked for reconciliation of the U.S. and Vietnam.  No mention is made of his background as a war criminal who led and participated in a massacre of civilians in Ben Tre province.  His role leading the massacre is highlighted in the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City and on a memorial at the site of the massacre.

Despite all of the problems with the film, I agree with John McAuliff that its overall impact on American consciousness about the war is more positive than negative.  Burns/Novick present the war as a well-intentioned mistake by American policy makers. It was, in their words, “begun in good faith by good men.”  While there is plenty to object to in the notion that the war was begun by good men with good intentions, the overall impression remains that it was a mistake.  And it was a mistake that kept getting worse with more and more soldiers being sacrificed to it in horrific fighting, and of course many more Vietnamese (though that does not seem to have been a prominent concern in the film).  That’s, I think, the main impression that the film leaves with viewers.  It certainly doesn’t leave any impression of the war as having been glorious.

While a much better film could/should have been made, I suppose Burns/Novick are to be thanked at least for not publicizing the current revisionist view on the right that the war could/should have been won with better leadership.

July 2018

Autopsy of a Retirement Plan

AAUP Academe
May-June 2018

As I approached age sixty-five after thirty-seven years of university teaching, I took stock of what my retirement income would look like. Many retirement experts claim that at least 70 percent of preretirement income is necessary to maintain one’s standard of living. For example, someone whose final annual income will be $100,000 should have as a goal an income of $70,000 in retirement.

I ran the numbers for my Social Security and my employer’s defined-contribution plan, in which I had participated for thirty-one years. This 401(a) plan, which functions in the same way as a 401(k), had been administered at various times by TIAA, ING, and Prudential.

Together, my projected Social Security and employee retirement plan would amount to just 43.5 percent of my final income. The monthly Social Security check accounted for 19.5 percent; the annuity income option for my defined-contribution plan, 24 percent.

Something had gone terribly wrong. Despite having accumulated almost a half-million dollars, which is much more than the $125,000 average for people approaching retirement, I did not have enough to finance a retirement that would allow me and my family to maintain the middle-class standard of living that my $117,615 final salary as a university professor afforded.

Click to continue reading “Autopsy of a Retirement Plan.”


EU: Creciente Crisis en Pensiones [The Growing Retirement Crisis in the United States]

La Jornada (Ciudad de México)
14 de octubre de 2017

Como en México, Chile y otros países latinoamericanos, en Estados Unidos existe una creciente crisis en los sistemas para el retiro. Ello porque las cuentas individuales han remplazado las pensiones seguras.

Para planificar la jubilación, la analogía más recurrente alude al taburete de tres patas. El ingreso de la pensión individual derivaría de tres fuentes: el Sistema Nacional de la Seguridad Social (SNSS existente desde 1935); una pensión tradicional de beneficio definido (patrocinada por el empleador) y ahorros e inversiones individuales. Según los expertos, todas ellas deben sumar, al menos, 70 por ciento de los ingresos previos a la jubilación. El objetivo es mantener el nivel de vida que se tenía antes de la jubilación.

(Para continuar leyendo EU: Crisis en Pensiones, cliquee aquí


English version:

The Growing Retirement Crisis in the United States

As in Mexico, Chile, and other Latin American countries, there is a growing retirement crisis in the United States as individual investment accounts have replaced secure pensions.

The analogy for U.S. retirement planning most often used is that of a three-legged stool.  One’s retirement income will come from three sources—the three legs:  the national Social Security system, in existence since 1935; a traditional employer-sponsored defined benefit pension; and individual savings and investments.

All sources of retirement income should add up to at least 70 percent of preretirement income according to experts. The goal is to be able to maintain a preretirement standard of living in retirement.

The three-legged stool was never a perfect analogy since one assumes that for a stool to be stable, the legs should be of equal length.  The amounts of retirement income from the three different sources have been very different.

For those with the most secure retirement incomes, the largest sources comes from a traditional employer-sponsored defined benefit pension plan, followed by Social Security and savings in that order.  These include most public sector workers, who make up a small minority of the labor force.

For most of the rest, including most private sector workers, Social Security makes up the largest source of retirement income, followed by incomes from an employer-sponsored plan and savings.

Let’s look at the sources of retirement income in depth.

Ninety-four percent of workers in the U.S. labor force contribute 6.2 percent of their wages to Social Security. Their employers match that with another 6.2 percent. Those contributions go into a collective fund out of which benefits are paid, including retirement income, payments for disability, and payments for children and other dependent survivors of participants who die early.  Social Security is a classic social insurance plan in which people pay premiums to protect themselves from risks.  The risks being protected against are income loss in retirement and disability, and being unable to support dependents.

Social Security works remarkably well.  Nearly one out of every four households receives some form of Social Security income.  It is the largest component of the minimalist U.S. welfare state.

According to studies, without Social Security, 40.5 percent of the over age 65 population would be poor. But because of the income it provides, the over 65 poverty rate is 8.8 percent, which is actually less than that of the general population.

Social Security enjoys tremendous public support.  Majorities of all major demographic groups, including Republicans, support it.  It is however deeply opposed by neoliberal think tanks, such as the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation, and by some parts of the financial services industry for economic reasons.  They don’t like trillions of dollars of the country’s retirement savings being tied up in government accounts rather than going through Wall Street from which they can profit.

There is thus a continuing battle over maintenance of the Social Security program as it is or to privatize it as was done with IMSS in Mexico, following the Chilean model imposed under the Pinochet military dictatorship.

So far, the advocates of Social Security have been able to resist all privatization attempts due to the deep public support for the program.

Employer-sponsored retirement plans cover nearly all public sector workers but only about half of private sector ones.  For those who are covered, there are two types:  defined benefit and defined contribution.

Up until 1984, most private sector worker who had retirement plans had defined benefit plans.  As with Social Security, they and their employers paid contributions into a collective fund out of which their guaranteed retirement incomes were paid.  Starting in 1981, however, employers began to increasing replace the traditional pension plans with defined contribution individual savings and investment accounts, which produce much less retirement income.

In 1981, 61.4 percent of private sector workers who had employer-sponsored retirement plans had traditional pension defined benefit ones.  Today, only 16.1 percent still have those types of plans.

The most widely known of those plans, which has become a metaphor for the approach, is the 401(k), named after a provision of the Internal Revenue Service code.

Individual savings occupy a very distant third place, except for the rich, as a source of retirement income.

Essentially what has occurred since 1981 with the retirement system of the United States is that Social Security has remained steady while employer-sponsored plans have increasingly shifted from being the form of guaranteed traditional pensions where employers bore the risks of investing to individual savings and investment schemes in which employees now bear the risks.  And these individual accounts, while very profitable for the financial services industry, produce much less retirement income than the pension plans they replaced.  Therein lies the major cause of the growing retirement crisis in the United States.

From a hemispheric perspective, U.S. workers have suffered the same transformations of their former collective and solidarity-based traditional pension plans to individual investing accounts that render much less income as have about half of Latin American workers, including those in Chile and Mexico, but in a different way.  While their national retirement system has yet to be privatized, their employer-sponsored plans have been transformed into the same types of systems as the privatized national systems of Latin America.