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


In this book, author Roger Lowenstein explores how and why corporations and governments made ruinous pension and health care promises to American workers. These promises are now coming due and they threaten to hit twenty-first-century America like a tsunami.
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In this book, author Roger Lowenstein explores how and why corporations and governments made ruinous pension and health care promises to American workers. These promises are now coming due and they threaten to hit twenty-first-century America like a tsunami.
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Editorial Reviews

Jeff Madrick
as Roger Lowenstein nicely illustrates in While America Aged, the country "is sitting on a retirement time bomb." He is not talking about Social Security, which, he writes, is among the more manageable of future concerns. He is addressing the large-scale failure of America's once-enviable private pension system. Lowenstein is one of the nation's most talented business writers, with a particular ability to make obscure financial issues clear as the morning light.
—The New York Times
Phillip Longman
Having struggled for years to make my own writing on pension issues interesting enough for anyone to want to read, I particularly appreciate Lowenstein's use of real people to illustrate the deeper financial issues involved. Even if they sometimes contain too much detail, there is a kind of gripping, slow-motion train wreck quality to the long, sad stories Lowenstein tells about people and institutions in deep denial. And those stories certainly have a clear moral. Boiling it down to its essence on the book's final page, he concludes, "The most effective remedy—in pensions, health care, and even in Social Security—is to banish the credit card. Benefits should not be charged to a future generation; they should be paid for now." Sadly, though, even if we can refrain from borrowing more from our children, we will still bear the dead weight of past borrowing that now falls to us.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

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.
Kirkus Reviews
Lowenstein (Origins of the Crash: The Great Bubble and Its Undoing, 2004, etc.) probes a dangerous miscalculation made by American private and public enterprise: laying off responsibility for workers' pensions and retirement health benefits on some unspecified future. As baby boomers move into the retirement mainstream, the former Wall Street Journal columnist warns, the worst is yet to come. Examining how such situations evolved at General Motors, one of capitalism's former crown jewels, and in two of the nation's largest cities, he argues that confrontation-averse executives and pension trustees allowed hardball labor unions threatening crippling strikes to leverage benefit packages that were unsustainable from the beginning. Competitive pressures on the GM side and electoral politics in New York and San Diego also played their part in getting the unions attractive early retirement deals that, when workers began opting for them, brought crushing "future costs" closer than anyone had imagined. The GM story is perhaps the most tragic. In the late '90s, the company found itself with some 180,000 hourly employees on its payroll-and 400,000 retirees. Unable competitively to raise prices, GM cuts its dividend; stockholders, the company's nominal owners, begin to pick up the bill for retirees. In the cases of New York's Transit System workers and San Diego city employees, the same syndrome was made more sordid by political infighting and backroom deals. Others simply buried their heads in the sand. Former New Jersey Governor Christine Whitman, for example, bet that pension-fund investments in a booming stock market would cover unfunded liabilities-then the market went down. Some form of paidnational healthcare is inevitable for the future, says Lowenstein: "Business is global, and U.S. companies compete against foreign-based firms whose home-countries do pick up the tab." Fixing pensions, he notes, will be even tougher, but at minimum Congress needs to regulate 401(k)s, which were "essentially developed in a social and legislative vacuum."A chilling anatomy of one bad decision followed by another-and another. Agent: Melanie Jackson/Melanie Jackson Agency
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781602834385
  • Publisher: Blackstone Audio, Inc.
  • Publication date: 5/6/2008
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged Edition
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 5.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Roger Lowenstein, author of the bestselling Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist and When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-term Capital Management, reported for the Wall Street Journal for more than a decade and wrote the Journal’s stock market column “Heard on the Street” and also its “Intrinsic Value” column. He now contributes articles and reviews to the Journal and the New York Times Magazine and is a columnist for SmartMoney Magazine. He lives in Westfield, New Jersey.

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Table of Contents

Pt. 1 Who Owns General Motors? 7

1 Walter Reuther and the Treaty of Detroit 9

2 The Anti-Reuther 39

Pt. 2 The Public Freight 81

3 An Entitled Class 83

4 On Strike! 117

Pt. 3 Debacle in San Diego 153

5 Finest City 155

6 Pension Plot 175

7 The Bill Comes Due 195

Conclusion: The Way Out 221

Acknowledgments 233

Notes 235

Index 267

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 4 of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 8, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    The Future of America Paying the Price for The Present . . .

    How did government spending get so outrageous? Well unsupportable pensions along with a hedonistic mentality certainly didn't hurt. In an effort to increase their campaign funds state congressional leaders have sold out their constituency to the elite few - the government worker. It's outrageous that the average taxpayer, foots the bill for the outstanding pensions that the government worker receives upon retirement. Although in no way begrudging the worker security in the future, they have taken advantage of government weakness. True labor negotiations demand fair worker rights that will not kill the employer. That is because without the employer there is no employment. In government, however, our congressional leaders don't feel the direct pain of giving in to every demand. Consequences are deferred and the money isn't being fully subsidized by them. Lowenstein does an excellent job of exposing the true cost of irresponsible pensions. <BR/><BR/>The first third of his book is dedicated to how exuberant pensions has accelerated GM's troubles. Although incredibly interesting, there is less outrage in that section simply because it's a private company that forgot its dedication to the shareholders. It was for the shareholders to hold the company accountable for its actions. The second and third part of the book are about government pensions - in the New York Transit System and San Diego County. These are more appalling because its an incredible eye opener as to how much debt and how many problems Americans are leaving to their future. In our effort to appease the worker today we have screwed over the worker of tomorrow. I truly do think that this book should be required reading for every taxpayer.

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  • Posted December 10, 2008

    If you want to understand how Detroit's Big 3 got to this point....

    This book is a real eye-opener. With a handful of true-life examples, it explains the longstanding penchant that unions have for demanding more and more, and management's acceding to union demands as long as the day of reckoning is pushed off well into the future. As someone who is not a union member, I was appalled at the absurdly generous retirement benefits that employers (both public and private) have agreed to over the years--benefits that anyone can see are unsupportable in the long run. See for yourself. This should be required reading for every single member of Congress.

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    Posted January 14, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 26, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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