Pensions are the first thing to go

I’m pretty sure that’s been the plan all along:

He is an unlikely Jeremiah, a funds manager in a pinstripe suit with a résumé that includes a stint as chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank in Richmond, Va. Yet Thomas Mackell Jr. is warning of a future in which the homeless elderly live under bridges and the old and the young engage in “intergenerational warfare” over disappearing jobs.

Mackell, a graduate of Seton Hall and Rutgers, spoke last week to a convention of Bell System retirees in Atlantic City. He got up to speak at the same time the lawyer for the Christie administration, miles away in Trenton, rose to tell the state Supreme Court it should not bother itself with “minor” breaches of constitutional law involving schools.

There is a connection between the two events. Peter Verniero, the former court member and state attorney general hired by the governor to defend cuts in school aid, represented a strain of political thought that the rich cannot be taxed further to help the poor. His governor regularly bashes public employee unions as “selfish” and “greedy” and wants to reduce pension benefits.

Mackell takes opposite views. Unions protect the middle class, he says, pensions are essential, and, if the rich do not pay a greater share of their wealth, then the “nation faces a horrendous future.”

“If something doesn’t happen soon, this country will go the same way as every other empire,” said Mackell. Citing the growing income gap between rich and poor, the deterioration of infrastructure, and, most of all, the problems facing the 77 million aging members of the Baby Boom, the financial funds manager called America’s prospects “abysmal.”

“What he had to say was pretty frightening,” said Jack Brennan of Hillsdale, chairman of the Association of BellTel Retirees, a group with 112,000 members throughout the country.

“But his purpose wasn’t to scare us, but rather to energize us into taking action.”

The action — protecting pension benefits and health care for retirees. “We have to keep fighting for what we fought for years ago,” Brennan said.

What’s worrisome about Mackell is his ability to see the future. Years ago, he predicted unemployment would top 9 percent, states would take bargaining rights from public employee unions, and Congress would seriously consider cuts in Social Security and Medicare benefits — all ideas that seemed over the top then.

Now Mackell, son of a former Queens district attorney, travels the country warning of the consequences of the shift in pensions from defined benefits — in which retirees are guaranteed a set amount based on the number of years they worked — to defined contributions — in which retirees contribute to and manage their own pension funds, mostly through 401(k) plans.