How’s Your Pension Doing?

A favorite question to ask a Democrat in Iowa right now is: “What candidate are you supporting in the 2020 Iowa Caucuses?” 

I don’t have an answer, yet.  I don’t watch debates.  Debates, which is a misnomer today, have turned into ratings wars for the media, where the candidates yell at each other and never get to the meat of an issue.  How could anyone, with fewer than 3 minutes explain a complex subject.  It was much better when the League of Women Voters facilitated the events.  The candidates and the questions were civil.

So, I read newspapers, talk to a few followers of certain candidates, and attend an event where a candidate is speaking – rarely.  Candidates will tell us what they will do, won’t do, or think they can do.  Do any of them listen?  Sure, just ask them.  Each will tell you what they have heard from Americans.

As far as I know, none of them have listened to me.

I’m a Baby Boomer. I live on my Social Security “entitlement” benefits, and two pensions – one is very tiny, the other is moderate, it’s about half of what Social Security provides, but I couldn’t live without it.  Yes, Social Security benefits are very important.  Just ask any politician.  Some will tell you the Social Security well is going to run dry in about 20 to 30 years. Some will tell you it’s solvent far beyond that estimate.  This issue is an ongoing debatable issue.  I may not be around when something changes (like having Congress pay back what it borrowed – HA!).  But my pensions are the focus of my questions to candidates.

Not many Americans are lucky enough to have a “defined benefit” pension. 

Defined benefit plans provide a fixed, pre-established benefit for employees at retirement. Employees often value the fixed benefit provided by this type of plan. On the employer side, businesses can generally contribute (and therefore deduct) more each year than in defined contribution plans. However, defined benefit plans are often more complex and, thus, more costly to establish and maintain than other types of plans.

I have never contributed to a defined benefit plan in which I have participated.  With most defined benefit plans, the employer makes the contribution.  It is possible that an employee may contribute, but that’s not the norm.

Defined benefit plans are the costliest plans for a business, non-profit or other entity to maintain.  About 20-30 years ago, many companies were keeping their defined benefit plans, but began placing new employees on a 401k plan.  Those employees with a defined benefit plan were grandfathered in, while those hired after a certain date were offered the alternative 401k.  A 401k plan, described as a defined contribution plan, is less costly for an employer, more costly for the employee, but as any company human resources department will tell you, gives the employee more control over investments, etc.  Usually, an employer will match an employee’s contribution into the plan, often up to a maximum 7% of the weekly/monthly salary.  “In 1975, 62 percent of private-sector workers participated solely in a defined-benefit plan; in 2009, only 7 percent did, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute.” 

My question to presidential candidates, U.S. Senatorial candidates, and Congressional candidates is this:  ‘Once elected, other than relying on ERISA (Employment Retirement Income Security Act) or the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) what is and should be your ideas to keep private pension plans and the PBGC solvent?’  (ERISA and PGBC do not cover most government-run pension plans).

Economists are projecting a recession for the near future[1].  When companies cannot sell their products, when non-profits cannot solicit necessary funding, and when service vendors cannot meet sales goals, layoffs occur.  But one thing former employees never worry about is the pension check coming in every month.  A financial hit on a business or non-profit with a defined pension program may affect the pension plan’s solvency, while you hear only about the layoffs.

You can lose your pension benefits overnight.  Several companies have filed for bankruptcy in the past year, including Sears, Toys R Us, ShopCo, and Payless.  Granted, it’s not likely these companies had defined benefit plans for their employees, but if they did, the employees are probably not going to see any financial recovery.  Not that many years ago, Dahl’s Food Stores in the Des Moines Metro area experienced a bankruptcy in which all employees lost their so-called “guaranteed” pensions.  It affects more than employees; it affects the community, as well.

In 1998, CIGNA Corp. changed its defined benefit plan to a cash balance plan.  The employees and the plan administrator sued.  The U.S. Supreme Court, in CIGNA v. Amara, remanded the case back to “District Court to revisit its determination of an appropriate remedy for the violations of ERISA it identified.  . . .  Because the District Court has not determined if an appropriate remedy may be imposed under § 502(a)(3), we must vacate the judgment below and remand this case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”  This case was ongoing in 2014, 16 years after the initial change in the CIGNA pension plan.  The complexity of the case, and the numerous side issues that had to be settled, created costs to the litigants that could not be retrieved.  The end result was not a total win for the employees.  The cash balance plan was an actuarial distortion that gave former employees a cash settlement, far less than what they would have received in monthly payments over the years.  It’s sad that the courts determined that there needed to be “an appropriate remedy” for a situation that was not caused by employees, but by the multinational corporation.

If you depend upon a defined pension plan, you should read this: Especially if you have a government-funded pension.

Some unscrupulous companies have been known to raid the employee pension plan to offset a huge salary for corporate management at the highest levels.  This usually comes before the company files for bankruptcy, merges with another unscrupulous company, or closes down without notice.  ERISA is intended to provide oversight to pension plans.  By the time a company or nonprofit has closed, merged, or filed bankruptcy, ERISA can no longer be of much use.  It is the PBGC that helps employees when a company’s pension plan fails. 

Unfortunately, the PBGC is not funded by tax dollars.  The funding for this program comes from “insurance premiums, investment income, and, for the Single-Employer Program, assets and recoveries from failed single-employer plans.”  It is estimated that the PBGC’s “Multiemployer Insurance Program continues on the path to running out of money by the end of fiscal year 2025.”  The Multiemployer Insurance Program covers those pension programs in which more than one employer joins with others to sponsor a plan covered by collective bargaining agreements.

Single-Employer Programs are doing a little better.  These programs are sponsored and maintained by one employer.  However, the “Single-Employer Program remains exposed to a considerable amount of underfunding in plans sponsored by financially weak employers. Plans whose sponsors’ credit quality is below investment grade have unfunded liabilities of approximately $175 billion.”

All of this news is scary for pension plan participants. If your plan fails, you may receive some relief from the PBGC, but it may be pennies on the dollar.  For example, if you currently receive a monthly pension of $1200, and your company’s pension plan fails, you may receive a continuing pension check of $500 a month.  If nothing happens in the next few years, there may be no money left in the funds to pay you a penny on the dollar.

Ask all the questions you want about teachers’ pay, minimum wage, and equality in the workplace, but don’t let the candidates sway you into believing those are the only workplace issues.  Baby Boomer or not, if you depend upon a pension, you should get to know a little more about it.  Learn about high actuarial assumptions, signs that a plan may be underfunded.  Even an overfunded plan can lead to dangerous raiding by corporate sponsors.

Think of the potential economic catastrophe if you and your neighbors worked for the same employer for years, retired, and suddenly lose most of your benefits.

If you don’t have a pension, you still have a lot to consider.  Your friends, neighbors, and relatives may be adversely affected if this country enters a period of recession and companies fail.  Because of Internet shopping, a loss of local small businesses, and the effect of tariffs, we all have something to think about besides the current situation of those less fortunate.  We may be one of them.

Be ready to ask the tough question: 

“Once elected, other than relying on ERISA (Employment Retirement Income Security Act) or the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) what are your ideas to keep private pension plans and the PBGC solvent to ensure retirees, neighborhoods, and whole communities are not placed in an economic tailspin?”


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Bear With Me

He’s back at it.  That damned bear I encountered as a young boy is still putting a responsibility on me that triggers shame and guilt.  It started out when I was a child.  “Only YOU can prevent forest fires!”  Me?  I’m the only one that can prevent a massive fire consuming acres and sometimes square miles of wooded land?  I didn’t even live close to a forest.

Smokey the Bear hasn’t aged that much.  However, he’s still placing blame on me as he’s expanded his message to go beyond forest fires.  Now, I have to prevent wildfires.  That could be right-of-way land along the railroad tracks where grass burns.  It could be a fire in your backyard.  It also includes prairie fires that get out of hand.  I don’t even have to be present when the burning occurs.  I’m still responsible. 

Growing up along the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad (now the Union Pacific), the town firetrucks were often called out to extinguish a grass fire by the tracks.  When the fire fighters came back to town, I would hear them talk.  They would often say that the cause of the fire was a “hot box”.  It took some time before I received an honest answer from a fire fighter about what that meant.  A hot box is a railroad car in which the axle bearing overheats, starting a fire.  It doesn’t occur as often as it did when I was kid. 

Railroad companies now have detectors inlaid within the tracks that help determine if a passing railcar has conditions that will identify a hot box.  Also, the use of “ball, roller, or tapered” bearings instead of the old-time journal bearings has cut down on the number of fires caused by hot boxes.  A modern bearing can still ignite a fire when it fails, and it can cause a significant fire if the railcar is hauling grain, coal, sawdust, or other pseudo-combustive material.  The responsibility for these fires belongs to the railroad companies.

What about lightning?  Am I still to blame because the lightning caused a fire?  According to The National Fire Protection Association, “the average number of acres burned per fire is much higher in lightning fires than in fires caused by humans.” Based upon this information, I question the Bear’s statement that “only YOU” can prevent wildfires.  Clearly, the responsibility falls on Mother Nature.

Finally, the deadliest and most costly wildfire in California history was the 2018 Camp Fire, which burnt the city of Paradise into nonexistence.  This fire was started by the failure of a major corporation trying to divert maintenance funds into profit for company shareholders.  Corporate culpability continues.

California’s largest utility company, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), admits that it was its equipment that started the Camp Fire in November or 2018. 

Long before the failure suspected in the Paradise fire, a company email had noted that some of PG&E’s structures in the area, known for fierce winds, were at risk of collapse. It reported corrosion of one tower so severe that it endangered crews trying to repair the tower. The company’s own guidelines put Tower 27/222 a quarter-century beyond its useful life — but the tower remained.

A hot wire broke loose from Tower 27/222 and started a fire moving very fast and so intense it killed 88 people.  It could have been prevented.  But the cost of maintenance would have cut company’s profits.  “The state’s Public Utilities Commission, which regulates PG&E, concluded that the company was more concerned with profit than with safety.”  The PG&E’s answer to this entire mess – file for bankruptcy. 

“State officials also blamed PG&E equipment for starting 17 of 21 major fires in 2017 that ripped through Northern California, including wine-growing Napa and Sonoma Counties.”

The railroads have worked hard at trying to prevent fires.  No one can do anything about lightning strikes, but massive money-making corporations can file bankruptcy and continue to operate with impunity.

Railroads, lightning, and company greed have more to do with wildfires than human error.  Oh, sure, fires have been started by careless campers, hikers, homeowners, and other human sources, but I don’t see that damned bear pointing at them. 

I think I’m old enough now to realize that the bear was not pointing at me specifically, yet for some reason, I don’t think anyone is pointing a finger at corporations who seek profit over safety: safety for employees; safety for the environment; and safety for those of us who depend upon the services many corporations provide. 

Greed!  It’s one of the Seven Deadly Sins[1].  It’s my sin to bear since a pension plan I rely on may have invested in some of these greedy companies.  Greed, guilt, gullibility.  Gee, guess I’m the bear(er) of bad news.


Quotes in regards to the Camp Fire and PG&E are taken from: How PG&E Ignored Fire Risks in Favor of Profits. NY Times Business Section. Penn, Ivan; Eavis, Peter; & Glanz, James.  MARCH 18, 2019

[1] Pride is excessive belief in one’s own abilities, that interferes with the individual’s recognition of the grace of God. It has been called the sin from which all others arise. Pride is also known as Vanity.

Envy is the desire for others’ traits, status, abilities, or situation.

Gluttony is an inordinate desire to consume more than that which one requires.

Lust is an inordinate craving for the pleasures of the body.

Anger is manifested in the individual who spurns love and opts instead for fury. It is also known as Wrath.

Greed is the desire for material wealth or gain, ignoring the realm of the spiritual. It is also called Avarice or Covetousness.

Sloth is the avoidance of physical or spiritual work.

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Go Away, Sunshine

Each time I feel like I’ve written about every hare-brained thing I did in basic training, and that there is no more to write about, something comes up that reminds me of one more thing.

I was halfway through basic training and I evidently forgot to lock my locker when we were called out for evening MESS (that means Meals Essential to a Soldier’s Sustenance – or something like that).  I ate everything, all the time.  I was in the best shape of my life, and I was feeling pretty good.

I came back from the MESS hall and a few people were looking at clothing on the ground outside the barracks.  I casually walked over and saw that it was all my clothing and a few other items I owned.  I picked stuff up as quickly as I could and brought it in and threw it on my bunk.  I was angry.  “Who’s the son-of-a-bitch that threw all my shit out the window?”  I yelled.  Sgt. Greene came out of nowhere and, with his arms folded and a stern look on his face, said, “I did, Ryan.  Now, what was that you called me?”  I didn’t know what to say or what to do.  Sgt. Greene made it easy.  He began getting in my face about leaving my locker unlocked; about how I couldn’t be trusted with things that the enemy would want, and blah, blah, blah.  Chalk up this incident as one more reason to keep me out of Vietnam. 

My punishment was to go down to the low-crawl pit when I cleaned everything up and was required to make something like 5 rounds back and forth.  I did 6 just to make sure.  I knew he would be watching. 

Who’s your best man?

There were several other drill instructors besides Sgt. Greene but he was the one assigned to our platoon.  One of the other platoons had a drill instructor who claimed he had never been beaten in a 100-yard dash.  He came to our platoon when we were mixing with three other platoons in Charly Company and told us about his sprinting prowess.  “Put up your best man,” he said.  Everyone in Platoon 1 (my platoon) was calling for me to race him.  I tried and tried to tell my fellow draftees that I was not good at sprinting.  I wanted another guy to race him – Materas might have been his name.  The dude had glasses that became sunglasses in the sun.  I had never seen that before.  He was criticized for those prescription glasses by the staff.  He got about as much of a break as I did.  But he could run fast.

The rest of my comrades insisted that I be the representative from our platoon.  I was honored, but I could readily see that they had no idea about the difference between sprinting and cross country running.  I reluctantly agreed.  There were four of us trying to beat this character, one from each platoon.  No one came close.  What did surprise me is that I didn’t come in last. 

I look back on this event and shake my head.  What were we thinking?  We were running a sprint on loose white rock.  Had someone been injured it would have been the runner’s fault.  That would have called for disciplinary action.  I should have checked things out.  If it meant immediate discharge, I might have considered falling down. 

“How much does it cost?  I’ll buy it.  The time is all we’ve lost.  I’ll try it.  And he can’t even run his own life, I’ll be damned if he’ll run mine.”  That song didn’t come out until a year later but it was definitely about Sgt. Greene.  [Lyrics from Sunshine by Jonathan Edwards.]

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The United States Military is at its best when indoctrinating troops.  You’ll only make a mistake once.  I had more shit placed in my brain during nine weeks of basic training than in four years of high school.  Of course, if you look at a previous blog (I Went to School – Sometimes)  you’ll see that it shouldn’t be surprising, considering how little I attended.

You learn cadence.  “Hup, two, three, faw!”  Several recruits could not get that down.  So, we had a poem we recited as we marched along to accommodate those who couldn’t march without a beat.  The drill sergeant [DS} would recite the first line and we would repeat it, except for the last line:

DS: “A yellow bird,” PLATOON: “A yellow bird,”

DS: “With a yellow bill,” PLATOON: “With a yellow bill,”

DS: “Landed on” PLATOON: “Landed on”

DS: “My windowsill.” PLATOON: “My windowsill.”

DS: “I lured it in” PLATOON: “I lured it in”

DS: “With a piece of bread,” PLATOON: “With a piece of bread,”

PLATOON: “And then I smashed its FUCKING HEAD!”

Cruel, huh?  The Subliminal message is that killing can be fun.  Of course, they were teaching us to kill, not write poetry.

One day we were out in the woods, pretending we were in a war zone with lots of green and brown stuff – like Vietnam.  We were told to be on the lookout for snipers.  Suddenly, we heard what sounded like a machine gun firing at us.  “Take cover!” someone yelled.  The only cover near me was a giant ant hill.  This photo is the size of the ant hills in the forest.

Nope, I’m gonna die.  I told myself, ‘I am not going to jump behind or in that ant hill.’  If the machine gun bullets are real, the idiot responsible for my death will have to answer to my mom and her congressman.  I did know that Iowa’s former governor Harold E. Hughes was our U.S. Senator.  Everyone in Vail knew that he was a former drunk, and they all had a personal relationship with him at one time or another.  I hoped he would have been on my side.  I can’t remember what I did, but I do remember that I did not get near that ant hill.

What about smoking?  I entered the U.S. Army smoking cigarettes.  Throughout the first few weeks we came to a halt going somewhere and the DS would say, “Smoke ‘em if ya got ‘em.”  By the time you got a cigarette out of your pocket, lit it, and took a puff, you could hear the DS yell “put ‘em out.”  Let me tell you, you don’t toss the butt on the ground.  Do I have to tell you what humiliation you have to endure by being so stupid as to litter?  It never happened to me.  After a couple weeks I switched to chewing tobacco instead of cigarettes.  Red Man Chewing Tobacco was my preference.  I went back to cigarettes upon leaving camp.  I didn’t think it would be a good thing to spit on the plane.

Another day I was summoned to the captain’s office.  “What the hell did I do now?” was all I could think.  I had a telephone call.  My first thought, someone must have died.  Second thought: they’re going to free me!  No, as the captain handed me the phone, he said to be sure to say “sir”. 

It was a captain from another unit.  I knew him from when he lived across the street from us growing up in Vail.  The conversation was rather stiff, since the captain and two sergeants were listening in on our banter.  He invited me to have dinner with him and his wife in their quarters the following Saturday.  “Yes, sir!  I would like that.”  When I told my comrades in the barracks, after they incorrectly asked what trouble I caused, they devised a plan.  I can’t say that I approved, but I obviously had little choice.  When Saturday arrived, I was instructed to wear my khakis – brown suits, not dress blues.  Supposedly, Saturday was a dress down day.  I had a long list of shit to buy at the PX and a pocketful of cash.

I went outside at the appointed time and stood on the curb.  Lenny drove up and began to get into the car.  Oh, shit.  I was told I had to get back out and salute.  I should have known that.  Hindsight tells me that his instruction to me to salute was not his arrogance or ego, but that I was most likely being watched from the captain’s quarters.

We had grilled hamburgers at his house.  I was about as uncomfortable as you can get.  I’m not sure what caused my anxiety, but I was also told that my platoon was originally scheduled to be in his company.  It was an obvious explanation.  He was the captain in charge of Echo Company and I was in Charlie Company.  Our badges over the pocket opposite our name had sewn in E-2-1.  That would have been Lenny’s company.  We were actually in C-1-2.  It was confusing until I was told about the whole mess. 

The captain asked me if I wanted a ride home.  I declined and told him I would really like to take the bus.  I explained that I wanted to get a few things at the PX, and he understood.  You know, I needed to get some more Red Man Tobacco.  I got a lecture on chewing. 

I purchased so many items I was beginning to wonder if I might need a cab – or a deuce and a half (that’s slang for a 2 ½ ton Army truck – but actually, there are no trucks on the base except for the one on top of the flag pole.  Long story[1]).  I rode the bus with a huge plastic bag of items sitting in the seat in front of me.  I had to defend it with my life.  One guy wanted me to buy a radio, another wanted a camera.  Most of it was junk.

The last time I saw Lenny, I made a snide remark.  I need to lighten up.  It wasn’t his fault I had to salute him.  It was indoctrination. 

[1] ‘Truck’ is the term for the finial — or ball — on top of the base headquarters’ flagpole. It’s kind of a trick question because every other ‘truck‘ is either a militaryor privately-owned vehicle.

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The Grammar Policeman

After a few conversations this week between me and others, I had to check into my grammar usage.  I’m not a professional writer – yet, but I always seem to think I know enough to write some decent articles and essays.  I researched some controversial grammatical errors to see if I might be wrong and I’m not sure I like what I found.

Split Infinitives

I have always tried my best to possibly avoid split infinitives.  Did you catch it?  I just split an infinitive.  The phrase “to possibly avoid” is a split infinitive.  I placed an adverb in between the infinitive “to avoid”.  I found out this week that sometimes, split infinitives are okay to use. 

How can a split infinitive be okay?  When is it okay?  Rephrasing that phrase above is clumsy.  I could have written “to avoid possibly using split infinitives”, but that doesn’t sound right, does it?  The rephrase actually changes the meaning of the sentence.  Or, I could have written “tried my best possibly to avoid split infinitives”.  That sounds worse and doesn’t seem to make any sense.  Even the way it is written, “to possibly avoid”, is awkward. 

The reason why spilt infinitives are considered to be inappropriate grammar is that you cannot split an infinitive in Latin.  I didn’t know that, and I took Latin I in high school.  Sister Isiah gave me a “D”.  The only thing I remember from my Latin days is “tempus fugit” – time flies.  However, I did understand Latin enough to know about root words and how to easily figure out the meaning of a word by working around the root word (I slipped another one in).  Latin also helped me as a paralegal.  A significant amount of legalese is based in Latin.

The most famous split infinitive is the notorious “T