Saturday, June 13, 2009

'Value' Judgments

Way before we had “reality” shows where we could watch people make fools of themselves in prime time, there was “Let’s Make a Deal.” The concept was simple – get contestants to show up in odd costumes, and give them a chance to trade in something (of no value) that they brought with them for something of undetermined value that was hidden in a box, or behind a curtain. That first trade was easy – where things got more interesting was once the contestant had obtained something of value – and was then given a chance to trade it for something that might be of higher value – or not. Sometimes it worked out – and, of course – sometimes the contestant got “zonked.”

IMHO, there’s something of that going on in the current debate over workplace benefits. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t think that Americans should have access to basic needs such as health care, or a secure (if not comfortable) retirement. Certainly we’re all striving to help ensure the latter, and we all know that the former (or, more precisely, the lack thereof) can have a huge impact on those efforts.

The question that, IMHO, is looming just over the horizon is—how much are you willing to give up to make that happen?

Let’s start with health care. On the campaign trail, then-candidate Barack Obama said repeatedly that, if you liked the health care you currently had, you’d get to keep it—oh, and it would cost less. Moreover, he was harshly critical of then-candidate John McCain’s proposal that health-care benefits be taxed, albeit offset by a tax credit.

However, in recent days, President Obama has been willing to reconsider the notion of taxing those workplace benefits (not his preference, but keeping his options open) in the interest of securing health-care reform. Now, with several competing notions of health-care reform emerging, we don’t yet know what the final result will be, but I think that workers who currently enjoy those workplace benefits tax-free could see some—or all—of that benefit disappear—albeit ostensibly for the greater good of ensuring that everyone has access to health care. How will workers feel about that? Will they feel that the value of broadening coverage is worth giving up that benefit? What if they have to pay more—and they get “less”?

Retirement Plans

Now, on retirement plans, the current Administration proposal—the automatic workplace IRA—purports to leave our current private-sector solutions in place. Indeed, officials go out of their way to emphasize that intent, and with more than half the nation’s workers currently without a workplace retirement plan, we clearly need something to fill that gap. On the other hand, the drumbeat that workers can’t (or won’t) save enough to provide an adequate retirement continues loud and strong. Some voices have already taken to task the “disproportionate” benefits of the 401(k) (that is, a plan that allows you to defer taxes is most prized by workers who actually pay taxes)-—while others are, for the moment, anyway, content to simply challenge its vitality.

The stridency of these arguments has, IMHO, strengthened in the aftermath of the extraordinary market decline, and I’m reasonably sure that the spotlight being cast on target-date offerings (which had, until recently, been a remarkably strong counter-point to the claim that participants were incapable of, and/or unwilling to, make solid investment choices) will do nothing to quell
those concerns. Meanwhile, the widely publicized announcements about 401(k) match suspensions are, for some, a reminder of just how tenuous that commitment can be.

Indeed, once you take away the promise of a defined benefit pension (admittedly an elusive fantasy at best for most in the private sector) and undermine the viability of the 401(k) as an effective retirement income generator, those looking to ensure broad-based retirement income coverage are left with little in the way of resources beyond Social Security and personal savings to fund those retirement paychecks. The former has well-documented fiscal challenges of its own, of course, and the latter—well, let’s just say that if you aren’t saving in a 401(k) or like vehicle these days, you probably aren’t saving.

All of which is leading what seems to be a growing number to suggest that the best solution to the challenge of ensuring adequate retirement income for all lies in a system that doesn’t depend on the responsibility and prudence of individuals, but rather one that, like Social Security, is the result of a government mandate. One that is based on a premise where the financial resources of the nation’s workers are “pooled” and ultimately redistributed, ostensibly in a way that provides a more certain result for all, but one that may well be distributed disproportionately to one’s individual contribution. Said another way, like Social Security, one in which what you put in and what you eventually get back are, shall we say, “unrelated.”

Now, as I said earlier, I think many—perhaps most—would agree with the proposition that we should look for solutions that provide the means for adequate retirement income for all. The question in my mind is—how much would you be willing to give up to provide that? Would you be willing to pay higher FICA taxes to prop up the current system, to give up the tax benefits of your 401(k) to help fund a broader initiative? Indeed, would you be willing to give up your 401(k)? Would you be willing to “make a deal?”

These are questions that we may be asked to answer in the coming months, though they may not be presented that plainly. But, IMHO, the answers – the decision to keep what you already have, or to take a chance on “what's behind door #2” - will determine not only the future of the 401(k), but that of the American retiree as well.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

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