The news columns have have had a great deal to say recently about civil servants who retire on fat, tax-free "disability" pensions.
One who has not yet formed an opinion on the subject feels guilty -- like a shirker who hasn't done his duty.
This shirker finds it doubly difficult to make up his mind about pensions. The problem is complicated, and therefore uninviting. And it cannot be judged objectively. Inevitably, one must test his pension theories against the yardstick, "How would this affect me? How would it affect that loafer Jones, who has just applied for a pension, and how would it affect that fine fellow Smith, who served his community so well for 40 years?"
Pensions have been with us for a long time, but it was only in the last few decades that they began to proliferate. In my own early days as a breadwinner it was almost unheard of for a private employer to maintain a pension plan. When Social Security was introduced (my card is dated 1936), we were told the plan was needed because so few people were covered by pensions in private industry.
So as recently as 42 years ago, the majority of us thought of pensions as benefits available to a minority. We saw no problems. Surely the many could afford to "carry" the few who could no longer work.
However, in four short decades our population has grown older, and benefits have grown far more generous. Those still young enough to work must support millions of pensioners now, not thousands as before, and must provide a much higher standard of living for each of them. The burden on those who are still working has grown heavy. It may soon become intolerable.
And as if to underscore the problem, we must now cope with dozens of disabling diseases that suddenly strike down well-paid officials the day after they decide to retire. One day the man looks the picture of health on a handball court; the next he is too feeble to lift a two-page memo, and there is no cure for his ailment except to make his pension tax free.
In as much as even the doctors cannot agree on who is really disabled and who is not, you and I are not in a good position to judge which applications for tax-free pensions should be granted and which denied.
One thing is clear, however. There is need to re-evaluate our entire pension philosophy. "Disabilities" among high level officials draw the most attention, but the huge flow of pension dollars goes to ordinary peons. These are the people who have been "retiring" by the millions -- and then taking new jobs.
It is high time we began to ask ourselves. Do the men and women in the armed services enjoy an overly generous pension system? Do policemen and firemen? Reporters? Teachers? Municipal clerks? Would New York City be solvent if it didn't have to pay out so much money in retirement benefits? Should a person who "retires" on a pension be permitted to take another job thereafter, particularly at a time when millions of other people can't find jobs? What kinds of exceptions should we make for people with rare or unique skills when we must coax them out of genuine retirement in the national interest?
These questions produce many responses, but no final answers. One basic view is, "Look, I earned that pension. I put in my time. I'm entitled to the money. What I do afterward is my own business." A contrary philosophy is embodied in the Social Security law: Yes, you put in your time and you earned the pension, but it's yours in its entirely only if you get out of the job market. The more you earn after you tell us you have retired, the more were going to withhold from your pension.
Social Security's pension theory makes sense and is easy to defend. It tells us not to be pigs or connive to have two incomes when other people are pounding the pavement in search of one. But at the supermarket checkout register, reality is what counts, not theory. And the reality of the situation is that most pensions must be supplemented before the pensioner can maintain a decent standard of living.
The policy that eventually evolves as a national consensus may lie in the direction outlined for us in the Social Security concept: If you really want to retire, or are forced to retire, we'll give you a modest pension. But if you're going to continue to work, we'll either cur you benefits or defer them until you're really out of the job market. Pensions are for the needy, not the greedy.