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The Unraveling of the U.S. Retirement System

by Sylvester J. Schieber

Pub Date: March 1st, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-19-989095-8
Publisher: Oxford Univ.

A former chairman of the Social Security Advisory Board offers some straight talk about our tottering retirement system.

To add to our current economic anxieties, along comes Schieber (co-author: Fundamentals of Private Pensions, 2010, etc.), warning our children and grandchildren about their golden years turning to dross because of the reluctance of political leaders to grapple with a retirement system that cannot be sustained. He begins by identifying the components of the “system”—Social Security, employer-sponsored pensions (both public and private sector), personal savings, retiree health insurance and the part-time jobs people take as a bridge to retirement—and traces the history and development of each. He goes on to demonstrate how the system has been shaped by changing demographics and economics, the political response to the needs and desires of workers and the regulatory structure installed to administer and monitor private and public retiree programs. For more than 40 years the author has helped shape retirement policies, and he’s not bashful about inserting his own authoritative voice and considerable experiences into his history. The discussion necessarily gets deep into the weeds—analysts and policymakers will welcome the thoroughness—but general readers will appreciate Schieber’s efforts to warm the material with quotations from Sophocles, Confucius, Dickens, Churchill, Lewis Carroll and even Mae West, and to demystify the arcana with a plethora of table, charts and graphs, and a useful glossary. The author brings us up to 2010, surveys our precarious footing and makes recommendations for repairing our broken system. Even those who disagree with his prescriptions for reform—he forthrightly calls, for example, for immediate sacrifice by the boomers, would allow individual accounts as an element of Social Security, believes health-benefit plans should be taxable—will be forced to confront the dire facts. There’s time to fix our retirement system, he insists, but not much.

Precisely the sort of levelheaded, serious discussion our political leaders appear so unwilling to conduct.