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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

4.0 out of 5 stars 44 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)
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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 (44 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #175,623 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Maxim Masiutin on May 16, 2008
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: Paperback
Only a few decades ago, most American families looked forward to having pensions when they retired. In the interim, that anticipated security has greatly evaporated, just in time for the big increase in retirees due to the Baby Boomers. This book describes how pensions came into being, and how private and public pensions accrued hundreds of billions of dollars in unfunded liability.

Roger Lowenstein tells the fascinating story via three case studies: of the United Auto Workers (UAW), the New York Transport Workers Union (TWU), and the San Diego city pensions. Lowenstein writes that the lesson from all three is "those who mortgage the future come to rue the day."

There were some different causes for the pension crisis between the private and public sectors. But one common explanation is the human tendency to delay that which we find unpleasant . "Pensions are the perfect vehicle for procrastination." The benefits are among the most long-enduring promises that exist. It's easy to overpromise when keeping it will be someone else's obligation.

Private sector pensions gradually became established during the WWII wage freeze, when companies could help workers by giving them pensions; ergo the number of workers with pensions tripled. During the 1940s, GM and Ford started pensions for executives only. UAW President Walter Reuther said UAW wouldn't tolerate a double standard of pensions for execs but not hourly workers. In 1950, GM agreed to a pension of $125 a month, minus Social Security, funded by the company. In return, GM got a five-year contract, which meant labor peace. An initial problem was that pensions covered all existing workers for whom no money had been set aside, so firms faced an unfunded liability from the gitgo.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
You might recognize Roger Lowenstein's name. He is the author of When Genius Failed, the definitive history of the 1998 Long-Term Capital Management collapse. While America Aged is a good history of the pension crisis and would be a good compliment to Dora L. Costa'sThe Evolution of Retirement.

The root of the problem is that the pension and health bills are paid by future generations but the benefits are enjoyed today by the current workers who receive payment, the current tax payers who temporarily dodge payment, and the current politicians that can take credit. This is a classic example of moral hazard in action.

One of Lowenstein's key themes is that "retirement" is a relatively new concept. It was never considered a guaranteed "right" that all Americans are entitled to until very recently. Is his historical recap, Lowenstein writes,

"But in the United States, until very late in the nineteenth century, pensions were almost unheard of... Most people worked on farms on in small shops or mills. As they got older they didn't stop working, they simply worked a little less. If old age did catch up with them, they turned to their families for food and shelter. The `problem' of old age was in any case not widespread.... Retirement was less one of life's standard passages, like adolescence or middle age, than it was an infrequent and brief preamble to the grave."

So what was the impetus for the creation of "retirement"?

"The man who tended a farm could gracefully age on the job; the factory worker couldn't.
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