Monday, November 24, 2008


(Week 16 - Monday, Nov. 24)

I would pose a question. Let us imagine that a young worker, say twenty-five years of age, wanted to find a prudent way to insure that he would have enough money when he retired forty years hence. Let's suppose further that he subtracted money out of his paycheck to provide for that eventuality, which would, of course, amount to a foregoing of the benefit of already earned purchasing power for those intervening decades. Would it be reasonable for this worker to hand this money over to a casino gambler based on the assurance that he could be trusted to gamble with it "prudently" and return these funds in due time, with interest, out of his winnings?

Would we not say that this worker was naïve at best, foolhardy at worst, to accept such terms for the supposed safekeeping and management of his heard-earned money? Yet, that is essentially the arrangement people agree to when they allow their money to be given over to retirement portfolio managers to hold in trust and, hopefully, grow the value of their accounts.

I am not saying that retirement portfolio managers are in their own minds willful gamblers with other people's funds, or necessarily dishonest. On the contrary, they may very well be honest brokers who take seriously their fiduciary responsibility to hold in trust and manage wisely their clients funds. The problem is that such pools of deferred earned income act essentially as slush funds out of which "investors" (financial interests looking for ways to earn money with money, as opposed to investing in actual economic enterprise) draw capital to use in speculative financial activity.

We have been through a period of some decades when this scheme seemed to work. After all, have there not been millions of people who have had money deducted from their paychecks or made voluntary contributions to retirement accounts and pension funds who have in due time drawn out the benefits promised? Indeed, this has happened (though not nearly in all cases, to be sure). It should be noted, however, that we have in recent decades lived through an unprecedented era in which real economic output has for many reasons multiplied many-fold. This is true especially since the 1930's, which saw the advent of Social Security and the beginning of the proliferation of privately funded retirement accounts, in large part due to the successes of organized labor at the bargaining table. This burgeoning economic activity has made it possible to keep up with paying benefits promised out of current cash flows. This could not have been done otherwise since, within a "debt"-based monetary system, there is no way that monies supposedly sequestered for decades could actually have been held out of the flows of the money supply without causing catastrophic economic contraction.

The possibilities for continuing in the pretense that income withheld decades ago is somehow the source of funds being drawn upon to maintain current retirees can no longer be maintained. The actual physical economy can no longer double and redouble on a regular basis to keep up with continually compounding promissory paper. That is why retirement accounts are presently losing massive amounts of supposed value, or going broke altogether.

The prerequisite for a solution to the retirement account crisis is to return the money-creation-and-issuance franchise to the public sector, after which it would be possible to maintain the quantity of money in circulation at any level desired as a matter of public policy.

The size of the monetary pool could be set such that a large portion of it could indeed be put away in retirement accounts without creating the need to borrow money into circulation at "interest" to make up for the amount so sequestered. Some of it could even be invested in bonafide economic activity. With the existence of an adequate money supply assured, opportunities for making "investments" that are essentially schemes to "earn" money with money would be greatly reduced, and those who would be inclined to invest their retirement savings would be obliged to seek their opportunities in the role of financial partners to productive enterprise. Thus the genuine activity that current "investment" strategies purport to be would become a reality.

This said, I would recommend that the putting away of monies for funding our "golden years" be deemphasized. Even if this arrangement is supportable within the context of a publicly-issued money supply, it is a bit of a ruse. This is because material wealth generation that is dedicated to supporting needs in any given period of time is actually financed by money flowing in that same time. Injecting funds that have been inactive for decades into that flow would introduce monetary distortions that would have to be compensated for with a great deal of extra "paperwork", both to manage payouts in present time, and to maintain such funds over the years. To be sure, the numbers could be made to work, but why accomplish the same end by a more laborious route?

A better way to handle the situation, I would suggest, is by the establishment of social contracts to manage the distribution of resources to meet real needs in real time. In effect, that is what we are doing anyway, the extra mental gymnastics required to maintain the illusions of money-put-away notwithstanding. A hybrid of the money-put-away and social-contract techniques would be to set up arrangements whereby abstract credits could accrue to work history, the ultimate value of which would be determined at the time benefits were drawn upon.

As a further evolution in our thinking, I would suggest a relatively lesser dependence on financial arrangements, and a greater emphasis on investments in the material and human realities, to provide for our later years. The idea of the myriad members and sectors of society mutually supporting each other across every stage of life, as opposed to each of us competing to have our needs covered individually through financial nest eggs, needs to be explored. One factor that would expedite this evolution would be the removal of the threat to the family homestead caused by property taxes. In my view, property taxes are unwarranted, illegal and anti-ethical liens against already paid-for personal property. Their elimination would be a major factor in enabling people to secure their personal estate in old age.

Finally, I would suggest that we think of the provision for those of advanced years, not so much in terms of special "retirement" benefits, but as an integral part of the securing of the material adequacy and personal dignity of every person. Such a social ethic would contribute to the regarding of our "retirement" years as a period ripe with life and the possibilities of elderhood, rather than a social institution for the presumed idleness and "pensioning off" of those no longer deemed "economically useful" in the labor force.

Richard Kotlarz

The complete set of columns from this series is posted at the following websites.