How We Got Out of a 401(k) and into a Real Pension

Labor Notes
February 21, 2017

After being trapped in an inferior 401(k)-style retirement plan, is it possible for a union to reverse the trend and switch back to a traditional defined-benefit pension?

Connecticut state employees did just that in 2012. Our little-known story, combined with similar victories in Massachusetts and West Virginia, shows it can be done. There’s a small but growing movement to follow suit in other states.

Those of us stuck in Connecticut’s 401(k)-like plan had been contributing more than twice as much as our co-workers who had pensions—yet it was estimated we’d receive less than half the retirement income. Without adequate information, we had chosen this plan when we were hired, thinking it was better than the pension.

Continue reading “How We Got Out of a 401(k) and into a Real Pension.”

How Trustworthy Are TIAA’s Predictions of Future Retirement Income?

Beacon Broadside
October 17, 2016

The ad from TIAA-CREF, the company that administers university and other retirement plans, which ran alongside my Yahoo inbox was too enticing to ignore. I clicked on the bait: “You could get 90% of your income and maintain your lifestyle in retirement.” The click brought me to another eye-catching claim: “On average, participants in TIAA-administered plans are on track to replace over 90% of their income in retirement.”

These were eye-catching claims because I had been in TIAA for over 35 years and would be replacing nowhere near 90% of my preretirement income. Nor would anyone else I knew who was in TIAA. They were also eye-catching because according to Federal Reserve data, the average family approaching retirement in 401(k)-like plans that TIAA and other financial service companies administer has only accumulated $104,000. That amount is only sufficient to generate an annual retirement income of $4,000 to $6,000, depending on how it is distributed–hardly enough to replace 90% of their preretirement income, that is, unless they were living on a sub poverty income of $7,000 or less.

How then could TIAA make such a claim? The advertisement included a footnote to its claim, literally in fine print. Being a researcher, I read the footnote.

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Is Trump a Clumsy Le Pen?

Huffington Post
October 10, 2016

What kind of political animal is Donald Trump? His campaign caught the Republican establishment, including the conservative think tanks, completely off guard. He may have caught himself off guard as well, never expecting to get this far, thinking of the campaign with an early exit as simply a way to burnish the Trump brand. In P.T. Barnum’s America, that is imaginable.

Trump, it is said, does not read deeply. He listens instead to television talk shows. He thinks he has a keen ear for the zeitgeist. It is also said, by his onetime ghostwriter, that he holds no ideological convictions. As a corporate huckster, he is the master of telling his target market what it wants to hear. Out of all that he cobbled together a message that resonated enough with voters to get him this far.

The message is three parts traditional Republicanism and two parts European populism. A strong nationalist appeal, opposition to immigration, and strong support for law and order fit comfortably within traditional Republicanism. But two parts are discordant:  opposition to free trade agreements and a hinted support for Social Security, the crown jewel of what exists of an American welfare state.

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Sanders Broke Debs’ 104 Year Old Record for Most Votes for a Socialist

Huffington Post
August 30, 2016

Unlike in Europe where socialist and communist parties have had sizeable voter support, historians have long noted and puzzled over their lack of electoral support in the United States, a part of the original meaning of the concept of American exceptionalism.

The highpoint of American socialist voting on a national level was the 1912 election, when Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist Party’s candidate, received 901,551 votes, 6% of the total. It was downhill from then on, that is, until 2016 when in the Democratic Party primary Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist, received 13,168,222 votes, nearly fifteen times Debs’ total.

The comparison is of course not exact. The 2016 electorate is a lot larger than that of 1912 since the national population is a lot larger. But even in proportionate terms, Sanders broke Debs’ record. If the November percentage turnout of registered voters is the same as that of 2012, Sanders 13 million plus votes will represent 9.8% of that total, which is greater than Debs’ 6%. We can also assume that had Sanders beaten Clinton and gone on to be the party’s candidate those 13 million plus votes would have expanded greatly.

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Connecticut Governor Malloy’s Changes Weaken New Retirement Program

CT Mirror
June 20, 2016

For private employees who don’t have workplace plans, Connecticut will now have a state-sponsored plan to save for retirement. Unfortunately, what could have been a useful program was severely weakened with changes required by Governor Dannel Malloy in the face of fierce financial services industry lobbying.

This is what happened.

In 2014 labor, senior, and progressive organizations lobbied the legislature to set up a state-sponsored retirement savings program to address the growing retirement crisis, a component of which was that half of the Connecticut’s private labor force lacked employer-sponsored plans.

Over financial services industry opposition the bill narrowly passed. The first step mandated by the bill was to establish the Connecticut Retirement Security Board, on which I served. Its task was to study the issue and design a program that would then be proposed as a new legislative bill.

Continue reading “Connecticut Governor Malloy’s Changes Weaken New Retirement Program.


Wrong Turn from Bernie, Ending Up at Trump

Huffington Post
May 27, 2016

The possibility of Bernie voters becoming Trump voters was first thought to be because of their common critical positions on free trade agreements which have hammered working people. Bill Clinton as president was responsible for the passage of the Republican-initiated North American Free Trade Agreement. Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State promoted free trade agreements with Colombia and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Hillary Clinton as candidate has reversed herself but is not trusted. Barack Obama after all ran against NAFTA in 2008 and then as president promoted free trade agreements.

Donald Trump as candidate seems to have learned from Obama that free trade agreements are unpopular with voters and has implied opposition. As president, though, I have no doubt that he would bend to the Republican orthodoxy and support them.

If there’s one thing the corporate elites are unified in wanting strongly, it’s more free trade agreements which they see as padding their bottom lines. And they expect presidents, whether Republican or Democrat, to get them for them.

Now it appears that there will also be Bernie voters who spurn Hillary for Trump simply because they like him more than her or dislike him less. For them voting is less an act of rational choice than a personality contest. Throw in a dose or more of misogyny and you see some of the problems confronting Clinton’s campaign staff as they transition from beating back an unexpectedly strong primary challenge to her left to confronting another unexpectedly strong challenge, this time to her right in the national election.

To continue, click Wrong Turn from Bernie, Ending Up at Trump

Retirement Savings Plan for Private Workers Only Partial Solution

Hartford Courant
April 30, 2016

The Connecticut House just passed a bill to mandate that employers who don’t have retirement plans for their workers participate in a new state-sponsored plan, essentially a public IRA, which gives workers the option of saving for retirement. The Senate should pass the bill and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy should sign it, but without illusions about what it will accomplish.

Opponents of the bill, including the Connecticut Business & Industry Association, say that the private sector provides sufficient retirement savings plans. The bill’s proponents counter with the undeniable statistic that half of Connecticut workers have no retirement plan and will be completely dependent on Social Security, which provides only a fraction of necessary retirement income. They imply that the new plan would make up the gap, solving the retirement crisis.

Neither side is right. We wouldn’t have a growing retirement crisis if private plans had been sufficient, and the public approach under this bill, HB 5591, while useful, will not be nearly enough to allow participants to retire with sufficient income.
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Free Trade and Immigration

Huffington Post
March 21, 2016

Immigration and free trade agreements remain potent issues in the primaries and no doubt will reemerge in full force in the November election.  But no one seems to be drawing the connection between the two.

The Republican candidates have been competing with each other over who is toughest in keeping illegal immigrants out. The Democratic candidates have been competing over who has a better, more humane, approach to comprehensive immigration reform and resolving the problems of undocumented workers and their families.

Twenty-one years after its enactment in 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement remains a dirty word in rust belt states, blamed for exporting living wage jobs and hollowing out communities.

Many Americans assume that Nafta gave away jobs to the benefit of Mexico. They would be surprised to know that the trade agreement remains as deeply controversial there as it is here.  The president, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who negotiated it is the most reviled in recent Mexican history.

I was working at a research institute in Mexico City when Nafta was being negotiated. Our task was to predict its likely impact—universally touted as favorable by corporate and political elites in the United States, Mexico and Canada.  A favorite formulation, repeated by President Salinas de Gortari, U.S. ambassador to Mexico John Negroponte, and U.S. presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton was that with Nafta Mexico would stop exporting workers and instead export products.

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How Good is TSP–the Federal Employee Retirement Plan?

Huffington Post
March 3, 2016

In a recent article, Helaine Olen found something good in Marco Rubio’s campaign: his advocacy that employees without workplace retirement plans be allowed to join the federal employees Thrift Savings Plan.

A former financial advice columnist, Olen in her wonderful book Pound Foolish revealingly exposed the hucksters of the financial self-help industry. They make their money, and lots of it, not from following their own financial advice but rather by telling others what to do. When the wary Olen is impressed by a financial plan, such as TSP, it says something.

What impressed her most was that TSP charged very low administrative fees of only .029 percent of account balances, much lower than other 401(k)-type plans like it which charge as much as 2% or 69 times more and thus take much more out of savings accumulations and future retirement income. It was, in her estimation, a model plan that should be accessible to more than federal employees.

The Rubio campaign, for its part, seems to have backed off on the proposal, probably because of opposition from the financial services industry’s Investment Company Institute and the Republican-affiliated Heritage Foundation.

But is TSP that good?

To continue reading, click How Good is TSP?