Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Retirement Planning and Observation

You will always be able to find two views. One comes from industry insiders who will be willing to signal the end of an era and the glorious advent of another. The other comes from the observer’s point of view, which is never given a voice, or more often than not, simply misunderstood.

Percy Hutchison, the late poetry editor of The New York Times once offered the following criticism: ““From one end of the book to the other there is not an idea that can vitally affect the mind; there is not a word that can arouse emotion. Hence, unpleasant as it is to record such a conclusion, the very remarkable work of Wallace Stevens cannot endure.” The comment was made about Mr. Stevens book Harmonium and was added because of a quote that was used in the book to illustrate a point.

Mr. Stevens suggested that, “accuracy of observation is the equivalent of accuracy of thinking.” And while Mr. Hutchison described poetry as “"stunts" in which rhythms, vowels and consonants were substituted for musical notes”, his work has endured. But that is not why he was given quote space in the book.

Stevens is not often the poet that comes to mind when greatness is discussed. And I’ll admit, he is not among my favorites. But the following piece, ripped from the heart of his work titled “Of Modern Poetry” offers a suggestion about what we hear and how we should think about the message that is being delivered.

“And, like an insatiable actor, slowly and
With meditation, speak words that in the ear,
In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat,
Exactly, that which it wants to hear, at the sound
Of which, an invisible audience listens”

I offer harsh criticism for those who offer opinions about why pension plans (defined benefit plans) have fallen to the wayside in favor of the more corporate friendly defined contribution plan. I don’t believe that the majority of people who participate in them – and this may be a direct reflection on those that still do not – relish in the thought that making the kinds of decisions necessary so far in advance of actually having to use them.

And when folks like John Brennan, Vanguard chairman and CEO suggest that the “era of defined benefit plans is drawing to a close”, I wince. The original idea behind defined benefit plans was to encourage loyalty. And the fact that corporations rarely if ever, nurture the kind of commitment from their employees that pension plans once offered has made it easier to shift the burden of retirement to the worker.

That doesn’t make it better. It simply makes one believe that what is directly in front of you, what is presented to you as the best option, is not always as it seems.

J. Hillis Miller writes of Steven’s work Sunday Morning: “If the natural activity of the mind is to make unreal representations, these are still representations of the material world. So, in "Sunday Morning," the lady's experience of the dissolution of the gods leaves her living in a world of exquisite particulars, the physical realities of the new world: "Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail / Whistle about us their spontaneous cries; / Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness."

And as much as I am loath to admit it, the defined contribution plan is here to stay, a physical reality of the new world.

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