Many American corporations, acting more like welfare organizations than entities that seek to maximize profits, are, or will be, overwhelmed by the looming pension crisis.
That's the thesis of the business writer Roger Lowenstein. He warns that today's 401(k) system won't adequately fund the average retirement. The average 401(k) participant has a balance of only $31,000, he notes, saying that measly amount isn't nearly enough, along with Social Security income, to ensure a decent retirement.
"America now faces a crisis of epidemic proportions," he writes in the introduction of his book While America Aged, as he points to the many businesses with underfunded retirement funds. "The fabric of the nation's pension system is collapsing," he writes, "at the very moment when the population is rapidly aging."
Corporations, as well as numerous public entities such as the state of New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority have made pension and health insurance promises that are unsustainable. The results of these pie-in-the-sky pension policies are all around us: Corporations file for bankruptcy protection. Subway fares rise in a system that is ancient, breaking down and starving for cash for long-delayed improvements. And General Motors may be headed for the ash heap of history.
How did the once mighty GM come to this lowly state? Because of an uncompetitive position is due to giant pension and health costs. So the automaker has lost huge amounts of market share over the past half century.
Although Lowenstein spotlights GM's woes in this book, all the American automakers are straining under huge labor costs, which have been driven sky high by pensions and health-care costs.
"Largely thanks to cheaper labor," Lowenstein writes on Page 46, "Japanese carmakers could manufacture a car and ship it to the United States for $1,650 less than the Big Three could produce one here."
The problem, Lowenstein argues, is that big American corporations offering defined benefit programs and/or health insurance are taking on a role that in other nations is the government's responsibility. Those extra costs mean U.S. corporations are often at a disadvantage.
By the end of this short but engaging book, Lowenstein is making a pitch for some form of expanded government health care and a government 401(k) plan that would presumably get Americans to save more. He praises such a 401(k) plan offered by Sen. Hillary Clinton.
Even though it's easy to take issue with most of Lowenstein's solutions, he should be commended for calling attention to problems confronting numerous public and private entities. Because this is a critical issue that the average pol promising limitless pension benefits and tax cuts doesn't discuss.