It’s been pretty well documented that a big slice of the population spends more time planning their vacation than they do retirement. For that matter, they probably spend more time anticipating the next episode of “Desperate Housewives” than they do wondering how they’re going to make ends meet when they walk into the sunshine as retirees.

This reluctance to face the future is not a secret, so it continually amazes me that the powers that be in the federal government keep seeking to push more and more responsibility for the golden years on to the unwilling shoulders of Mr. and Mrs. America.

I think there is a fundamental misreading here–and, of course, it is driven by principle. In other words, people should be entirely responsible for themselves, whatever the vicissitudes, and the government should have to deal only with highways and wars.

A recent cover article in Business Week (May 16) got it exactly right, I believe. The article was titled “Safety Net Nation” and the subhead was “Why so many Americans aren’t buying into Bush’s Ownership Society.”

One of the points is that many people like the idea of investing/ownership (especially when the market is bullish) but, as the article puts it, “They believe in more, not fewer, safeguards against downward mobility in a world that’s already pulsing with economic uncertainty.”

Now, the market-as-salvation mavens will tell you that economic uncertainty is part and parcel of the vibrancy of markets and indeed is what allows some people–those who can stand it and play it to their advantage–to harvest huge gains through their investments. This is true, but it is a stretch–actually a leap of faith–to say that the markets can and will and should make everything right.

The majority of people are correct in having their doubts about this. And not just because they have been burned by the downside of economic uncertainty.

They are also right about it because the market is skewed in favor of large institutional investors. They are right because the market can be manipulated, as we have seen over and over again.

And they are right because even things that seem solid can turn out to be as flimsy as thistledown. I refer you to those pensioners in the defined benefit plans of United Airlines, who on May 10 were handed a nasty surprise by a Federal Bankruptcy Court judge who ruled that United could terminate its pension plans and hand over the responsibility for them to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.

Sure, these United employees living in retirement or planning to do so based on what was a defined benefit will get something but not nearly what they expected and were promised. Most will take big hits to their pensions.

It used to mean that a defined benefit plan defined the benefit you were going to get. It’s really hard to get more definitive than that.

The market mavens will say, ‘Tough noogies, but you picked the wrong company to work for. It’s all part of the wonderful world of economic uncertainty.’

Most of the rest of us would say that ‘tough noogies’ is not the appropriate response. Putting ourselves in the United employees’ shoes, it’s not what we would want to hear.

Until the market mavens understand this, it’s ‘Safety Net Nation’ we’re going to remain.

Steve Piontek

Editor-in-Chief

It continually amazes me that the powers that be in the federal government keep seeking to push more and more responsibility for the golden years on to the unwilling shoulders of Mr. and Mrs. America.”