A mathematician analyzes the bad news about pensions

I went back to Tim Gowers’s blog to prepare my last two posts about the Elsevier boycott, and discovered that his most recent post is about how the university pension scheme in Britain has announced a unilateral change in the way final pensions are calculated.  Gowers does the math and discovers that the planned changes are highly unfavorable to many if not most British academics.  The whole article is well worth reading, whether or not you’re a British academic; as always, Gowers’s writing is a model of clarity and precision.  One passage is particularly relevant to me.

But even if it turns out that it is not illegal for USS to interpret “the pension rights you have already earned” in this way, it is quite clearly immoral: it is a straightforward breaking of the terms of the agreement I had with them when I decided to take out a USS pension and make additional voluntary contributions. And of course I am far from alone in this respect.

Most public transportation in France was shut down 1995 by a wave of strikes reacting to the Juppé government plan to change the way pensions were calculated in the public sector.  The strikes had massive popular support, Juppé backed down, and Chirac’s party lost its parliamentary majority in early elections in 1997.  But the plan came back, and eventually a new system was instituted that increased the number of years of contributions needed to obtain a full pension.  The changes were much less draconian than in Britain — probably because strikes are so much more common in France, and occasionally (increasingly rarely) are even successful.  Nevertheless, because I arrived in France mid-career, the changes meant a cut in my maximum pension.

Pensions and retirement savings were much on my mind when I wrote Chapter 3 — not my own, which remain relatively safe (at least until the next round of reductions in France), but the mass of savings that evaporated as a result of the 2008 crash.  I conclude with a few comments from H. A. Rowland’s 1883 Plea for Pure Science already quoted in an earlier post and available online, curiously enough, from Elsevier:

…it is not an uncommon thing, especially in American newspapers, to have the applications of science confounded with pure science;   and some obscure American who steals the idea of some great mind of the past and enriches himself by the application of the same to domestic uses, is often lauded above the great originator of the idea, who might have worked out hundreds of such applications had his mind possessed the necessary element of vulgarity.

Young men, looking forward into the world for something to do, see before them this high and noble life, and they see that there is something more honourable than the accumulation of wealth.


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