Pensions and Justice

The broken promises of corporate pension
programs raises more than economic questions. They raise fundamental questions
of justice and they expose the weakness of an ideology that is popular right
now–the ideology of individualism.

The forfeiture of United Airline’s pension program leads me to think about a pension fund The United Methodist Church is attempting to start for retirees in countries outside the United States where there are neither effective pension funds nor social security. I’m sure the employees of United are deeply concerned about the future of their benefits, as well they should be. The broken promise represented by this default not only betrays trust, it also calls into question time-honored values that say if you work hard and play by the rules you will get your just dues in this society. Defaults like this add the phrase, “Well, maybe.”

Thinking of this insecurity in our society where there is a social service system in place leads me to consider retirees in a place where there is no system, or a very limited one. That’s the situation with most workers in Africa, much of eastern and central Europe, parts of southern Asia and most of South America. They simply must continue working until they can’t physically work any longer. Then it falls to family or some other informal system to care for them.

It’s a pretty bleak prospect.

What the church is attempting has never been done before, to my knowledge. That is to create a sustainable pension fund in developing nations where the social support systems are informal and family-based because rampant poverty hampers governments from doing more than rudimentary services.

One component of the pension initiative is to explore how the funds can be self-supporting through investment in the countries where they are being implemented. It’s a huge challenge and one that is being undertaken with caution and due diligence. But it speaks to a much different ethic than the corporate ethic that is most prevalent today.

It’s an ethic that seeks to make the whole community stronger by enabling economic development for the benefit of the whole society. It’s being considered with caution and considerable analysis. The people doing this know that humanitarian impulse must be connected to economic realities, so this isn’t a pie-in-the-sky idea that will crash on the rocks of reality, at least it won’t crash for lack of careful planning and cautious implementation.

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