Pensions as a Moral Issue, and the Role ERISA Can Play

When you approach the Moakley federal courthouse in Boston from the direction of Boston proper, your eye is invariably drawn to a series of quotes engraved on the courthouse wall. I have walked to that courthouse an untold number of times, and still, each time, I read the quotes as I go by as though I have never seen them before. One of the quotes is Holmes’ famous comment that law is the “witness and external deposit of our moral life.” I thought of this after reading this Washington Post article which tries to give a moral dimension to a fact of which ERISA lawyers – both those who represent plans and those who represent participants – are well aware, which is that retirement funding is woefully inadequate in comparison to most people’s retirement goals. As most of us know and as I have discussed in this blog numerous times, pension funding is a substantial problem, to the extent that pensions are the dinosaurs of the retirement plan world, while underfunding of defined contribution plans by participants is the new normal.

For most ERISA lawyers, including myself, the response to this typically falls in the category of yup, what else is new, followed by a shrug and an assertion that plan requirements, funding issues, age limitations and other retirement plan issues have to be managed in a way that recognizes and accepts this reality. The Washington Post article, however, points out that there is a moral element to this evaluation, which is that a correlation exists (or appears to exist, as I am always skeptical of any statistical claims unless and until I am satisfied about the underlying data, as per my discussion here) between wealth at retirement age and life expectancy. I highly doubt that there is much that ERISA really has to say or can do about this phenomenon: the reality is that plans are only required to provide what the plans say they are required to provide, and ERISA basically (and very generally speaking) requires only that. But to the extent this correlation truly exists, then perhaps ERISA, and how it is interpreted and applied by courts, has a role to play, at least at the margins, when it comes to this problem, in the sense that it warrants courts holding plans and their authors to high standards of excellence and competence. This is probably the least, and may well be the most, that ERISA can bring to the table in addressing this issue.