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While America Aged: How Pension Debts Ruined General Motors, Stopped the NYC Subways, Bankrupted San Diego, and Loom as the Next Financial Crisis Hardcover – May 1, 2008

4 out of 5 stars 42 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. America's impending pension problem is brutally simple: private companies and governments have pledged to provide retirement income and health care for workers, but have not set aside the money to make good on their promises. Typical accounts of the crisis tend to obfuscate the issue and fixate on laying blame, but Lowenstein (Origins of the Crash) has a refreshing perspective—he tells three fascinating stories in American economic history and situates the current pension problems in the struggle for dignity for workers. Lowenstein regards fixing pensions as a worthy culmination to a century's struggle for justice rather than a painful chore unfairly foisted on the present by the past. Unfortunately, after this incisive and inspiring history lesson, the 10 pages at the end devoted to solutions are too abstract and unoriginal. The book gives the reader lively stories and historical insight, but may disappoint those looking for policy recommendations. (May 5)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Lowenstein has previously written best-sellers on Warren Buffet, the 2000 stock market crash, and the demise of bond-trading firm Long-Term Capital Management. Here he tackles what could be the next looming crisis: the severe underfunding of pensions in both the private and public sectors. Although the implications are far-reaching for cities, states, and corporations across America, Lowenstein narrowed his focus on three massive pension failures: General Motors, the New York transit system, and the city of San Diego. In each case, underfunding, underestimation of promises made to retired workers, borrowing from the pension, and reliance on all-too-rosy predictions of stock-market gains were the causes of massive failure of the system. Lowenstein goes into great detail establishing the history and politics that went into the creation of these pension systems and further expounds on how their mismanagement brought down the whole system. Many businesses and governments will soon need to face up to the facts of their pension obligations and make some tough choices. --David Siegfried
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press; First edition. edition (May 1, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594201676
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594201677
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.5 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (42 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,061,192 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Roger Lowenstein is the author of my favorite books "Buffett" and "When Genius Failed". His ability to collect the historical facts is amazing: the author gives 575 references to other sources throughout the book. I like this approach very much. This book is also timely and accurate: it is not only a spell-binding economic and political history, the origin and the problems of IRAs, 401(k) and other mechanisms - it is an urgent call to action and a prescription for reform. You will also find what do the precedential candidates of 2008 campaign think about this issue. Besides that, Lowenstein, a regular contributor to many financial periodicals, proposes his own solution. The author recognizes that the workers are entitled to decent security in their retirement - a critical issue as the country ages. He warns that the pension wars that erupted in Detroit, New York and San Diego are only the first. Government and corporations across the country used pensions as a seemingly easy way to curry favor with unions (easy because the expense would be deferred until a later generation). But now, with cumulative retirement deficits approaching $1 trillion, the day of reckoning has arrived.

The author declares that pensions are perfect vehicle for procrastination; in the financial world, they are the most long-enduring promises that exist. The only rival is the federal Social Security system - but there, surprisingly, the commitment is no so airtight. Congress, if it chose, could reduce or cancel Social Security benefits tomorrow. Pensions are forever.
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Format: Hardcover
Although Lowenstein is a talented writer and the topic of retirement in America is an important one, the narrow focus of this book makes it hard to recommend. Lowenstein skillfully recounts in detail the pension plan difficulties faced by General Motors, the New York City subway system and San Diego.

However, these three stories seem to exist in isolation. He doesn't spend enough time putting them in the context of other government and private pension and 401(k) plans. Lowenstein seems to have focused on making sure the three stories are easy to read and in this he has succeeded. But in doing so, he has not provided the hard data that a reader needs to really understand the issue. There is not a single chart of table in the book. There are virtually no benchmarks in the book - it's hard to judge the appropriateness of the pay and pensions described in the book without details of the payroll and benefit costs of other American workers.

Although the stories were good, after reading 230 pages I didn't feel that I had learned anything significant that I did not know before.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I am glad to see the inadequacy of public pension plan funding getting more attention. The book is extremely well written and easy to read. It provides valuable insight into the pension plan decision-making process, and shows the danger in trading benefit improvements for inadequate contributions. As Roger Lowenstein points out, public pension plans themselves are not the problem, the problem is that they are so often underfunded. Contributions to public defined benefit plans calculated under traditional actuarial methods are not necessarily sufficient to make a plan actuarially sound. There is a need to establish rules for funding contribution calculations to strengthen the actuarial soundness of public plans. The current rules allow payments to be made on the unfunded liabilities that are less than the interest on the liability. At least for mature plans that are poorly funded, the payments made on the unfunded pension liabilities should be accelerated. Consideration should be given to requiring minimum contributions to public pension plans.
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Format: Hardcover
The nation's pension system is collapsing at the same time its population is aging. In the late 1960s, 60% of Americans were covered by a pension plan; today it is under 20% of those in private employment. Pension funds in the private sector are $350 billion in deficit, and many employers (IBM, Sears, etc.) are freezing their plans to keep obligations from growing further. Similarly, states and localities are hundreds of billions behind on funding, and Lowenstein declines to even get into Social Security's status or obligations for health care to retired public employees. (In another source Lowenstein estimates a $1 trillion deficit for retired public employees - presumably this also includes health care.)

"While America Aged" covers how we went from almost no pensions in the early 1900s (most worked on farms, and 'retirement' consisted of working less while relying more on family members), to a high proportion of coverage (more workers were in industry), to unsustainable benefit levels, using three case studies (G.M., the New York City subway system, and San Diego municipal employees).

In each case, management officials were lulled (and sometimes forced through long strikes) into acceptance by the delayed impact involved. At first few, if any workers were retired, and they were supported by a very large employee base.

In G.M.'s case, the firm also benefited by being the dominant force in the industry - 50%+ market share. Then autoworkers aged, Japanese autos reduced G.M.'s market share, cheap money to encourage home ownership and consumer spending undermined G.M.'s ability to attain adequate pension-fund earnings, and G.M. dug itself in even deeper with unrealistic assumptions on fund earnings and further benefit increases.
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