Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Abandoning the Working Class!

As of about three weeks ago I've been retired. True, I'm still on the College's payroll until September 1st, but that's because as a professor I get paid over the summer anyway. My work obligations are finished.

We moved into a new house--much more suitable for an older couple, and closer to the City where our daughter and her family live. I've spent my time settling in, tending our new (much smaller) garden, and assisting my wife in downsizing our possessions. My ambitions are to learn Python programming, to start baking bread, to take up gardening more seriously, and to write more (including this blog), perhaps even a book.

And to do more reading. So far I've read The Count of Monte Cristo, Tyler Cowen's The Complacent Class (which I reviewed here), and I'm halfway through Sebastian Mallaby's excellent biography of Alan Greenspan, The Man Who Knew. I guess this betrays my continued interest in economics.

But the key question--one of political import--is what happens to my class character? By abandoning the working class have I become declassed? Am I now a member of the lumpen proletariat, what not having to set an alarm clock anymore (one of the biggest unsung benefits of retirement)? Or do I retain my prior class affiliation, which is at least nominally working class?

And since one's political opinion is supposedly a function of class character, will my political views now shift in some way? Will I, for example, break down and join that bastion of liberal stupidity, the AARP? (God I hope not!)

I don't think Marx, Engels or Lenin had much to say about retirement. It wasn't much of a thing prior to the 1930s--life expectancy wasn't that long, and productivity wasn't high enough to support a life of leisure. People worked until they dropped dead.

By the 1970s nobody questioned retirement, but instead mandatory retirement became the issue. Should people be forced to retire at age 65? As best as I can gather from bits of this book available on-line, former Congressman Claude Pepper led the effort to abolish any mandatory retirement age for tenured college faculty. So I have colleagues who have kept working long past their sell-by date, much to the detriment of the institution and to the disadvantage of students. As a former college administrator and as a citizen I do think colleges should be allowed to revoke tenure at age 65 or 70, retaining the option to keep employees on via annual contracts. (Actually, I'm not in favor of tenure at all, which renders the question moot.)

As for my Trotskyist friends, they are astonishingly silent on the retirement question. This is odd given that their median age is probably over sixty, and may even be approaching 70. In a word, they're mostly retired.

The most forthcoming is Louis Proyect, who retired back in 2012. Given that he was born in 1945 (three years older than Prince Charles), he is six years older than me. He reports that he enjoyed his job, relished his colleagues, and especially respected his boss--odd things for an unrepentant Marxist to own up to. Though he admits he'd rather be retired. Beyond a discussion of benefits packages (and the shortcomings of Medicare), he has nothing political to say about his new status.

Like me, Mr. Proyect was at least nominally working class--he worked for a paycheck. That said, many (including me, mostly just to tease) have accused him of being petty bourgeois. Certainly our former comrades in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) would call him that, what with his interest in Syrian politics, philosophical disputation, and obscure histories.

Jeff Mackler, the leader of Socialist Action (SA), is (like me) a retired teacher. From this picture he looks to be about seventy years old. When I joined in 1969 (at age 18) I was among the youngest comrades. Mr. Mackler, already in the Movement, is certainly older than I am.

So California teachers can retire with a full (very generous) pension after 30 years of service. If he started teaching when he was 25, he retired at age 55, or fifteen years ago. No wonder he can spend full time proselytizing for SA.

Mr. Mackler almost certainly receives a state pension. I'm different in that I opted for a 401(K) instead, which puts us on different sides of an important issue--what I term the worker/parasite divide. Let's not make too big a deal out of this: Mr. Mackler and I were both public employees and lived off the taxpayers' nickel (though my institution also charged tuition). In that sense we were both parasites. But Jeff continues to receive a check from the State of California, drawing on their woefully underfunded pension system, which means he's depriving today's women and children of much needed social benefits.

I, on the other hand, have saved for my own retirement, albeit with considerable help from the state. But as of now the State of New York owes me not a penny. Were their pension plan to go broke (less likely than in California, but still possible) I will remain whole (or at least as whole as the economy). So unlike Mr. Mackler, I benefit from lower taxes and less money spent on public employees, whereas he's in the other camp. He's a parasite--I'm a "worker."

Mr. Mackler, as far as I know, has never commented on retirement--either his own or on the political status of retirees.

Dianne Feeley is an editor of Solidarity's paper Against the Current. I commented (favorably) on one of her articles here (the link to her article is dead). She describes herself as a retired auto worker, which I remarked was the best kind of auto worker to be. Ms. Feeley is definitely older than I am--she's a former partner of Barry Sheppard, who turns 80 this year.

If anybody is working class, it's Ms. Feeley. I don't know what the rules for retirement are through the UAW, but if it's longer than 30 years I'd be surprised. And that's deserved--auto workers have a physically demanding job. Ms. Feeley's pension is not publicly financed, but is instead a private plan. The problem is that very few private pensions are fully funded, which means her future benefits depend on the fortunes of today's workers, who will have to pony up money for her. So, as happened with mine workers' pensions, her plan could go belly-up. But most private pension plans are insured by the federal government, who promises to make good on any debt--we'll see if that happens. (I think, but am not sure, that my retirement savings are similarly insured.) In the event, Ms. Feeley and I are on the same side of the parasite/worker line--we both benefit from lower taxes and less spending on public employees.

That leaves Jack Barnes, National Secretary of the SWP, who hasn't retired yet, despite turning 77 this year. He became National Secretary in 45 years ago and has been living off his comrades' nickel ever since, sometimes quite luxuriously. (See here and here.) I guess that's fine as long as the comrades are willing to put up with that.

But this guy has never had a job (at least not since his twenties), and therefore has no real pension. Though who knows what he's saved up.

None of these people have said anything about the class nature of retirees.

Further Reading: