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Public pensions got their start with various 'promises', informal and legislated, made to veterans of the Revolutionary War and, more extensively, the Civil War. They were expanded greatly, and began to be offered by a number of state and local governments during the early Progressive Era in the late nineteenth century.

Federal civilian pensions were offered under the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS), formed in 1920. CSRS provided retirement, disability and survivor benefits for most civilian employees in the US Federal government, until the creation of a new Federal agency, the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS), in 1987.

Pension plans became popular in the United States during World War II, when wage freezes prohibited outright increases in workers' pay. The defined benefit plan had been the most popular and common type of retirement plan in the United States through the 1980s. Since that time, defined contribution plans have become the more common type of retirement plan in the United States and many other western countries.


The US pension system was an accident waiting to happen. “Yes”, the welfare state could be extended, as the Europeans have done. But the sure bet here in the US is that the “golden rule” will prevail. (“Them that have the gold, rule.”) Thus, you can be assured that our ruling elite will continue to retire well. So an average US worker has the same choice he or she has always had. They can depend on chance or charity to provide for them in their old age, or they can do what former generations did, which is to work until they die, which is not a bad thing.

How many hours of work a week does it take to gain enough money so that one can support oneself? Possibly, as few as 10. More probably, no more than 20. In other words, the “average” worker should forget about the silly dream of “retiring” by living off of the labor of someone else. Instead, they should figure out what interests them enough to do the rest of their life and then get really, really good at it.

I “retired” 8 years ago in excellent health with house, cars, and toys paid for. So I could live off my Social Security alone if I chose to. I could easily live off my pension alone if I chose to. But I knew both of those income-streams were fragile. So I did the equivalent of going back to work, and I got serious about investing, so much so, that my income-stream from investments is more than twice what I need. Thus, I like to joke, “I didn’t retire. I merely changed jobs.” The boss is nicer, and the hours are more flexible. But I’m as fully engaged and as fully productive as I ever was when I was working for someone else.

I am my own pension plan, and that, I’d suggest, is how most workers themselves are going to fix the pension system, by bypassing it. If they are fortunate enough to pick an employer who makes good on its pension promises, well and good. But those are promises they shouldn’t count on, and they need to create backups (and backups to those backups) if they don’t want to find themselves in the breadlines when their job gets shipped overseas or when they find themselves to be too old or sick to be productive. What is playing out in Detroit will be playing out nationwide soon enough, because those running this country are focused on power and empire, not on the nurture and care of the expendable domestic populace.

A dozen years ago, when the US was proposing to invade Iraq, I argued in this forum that the costs would bankrupt this country. Predictably, I was booed for being unpatriotic. But ask yourself how those trillions of dollars spent in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, and now Syria helped to fix the US pension system or America’s infrastructure. “Guns, or butter?” That’s the real choice the underlies the under-funded pension problems. Too many people, both politicians and a voting public, wanted both the prestige of empire and the perks of socialism. About three weeks of what the US is spending on its various wars would pay for Detroit’s deficits.

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