In reality, however, a 401(k) plan is an icon of futility and the way in which the owners of capital extract rents from the owners of labor. Yves Smith is good on this, as is Matt Yglesias, although the real expert is Helaine Olen: the 401(k) is a way for both your government and your employer to disown you, and to leave your life savings to be raided by the financial-services industry and its plethora of hidden and invidious fees. The well-kept secret about old-fashioned pension funds is that, for the most part, they’re actually very good at generating decent returns for their beneficiaries. They tend to have extremely long time horizons, and are run by professionals who know what they’re doing and who have a fair amount of negotiating leverage when they deal with Wall Street. Savers are always strengthened by being united: disaggregating them and forcing them to take matters into their own hands is tantamount to feeding them directly to the Wall Street sharks.

Yglesias says that in a 401(k) world, “you’ve got to save a lot of money for retirement. More than you think.” This is true for five big reasons. Firstly, because wages are shrinking, any given level of savings will constitute a steadily-increasing proportion of any given worker’s GDP-adjusted paycheck. Secondly, because the employment-to-population ratio is shrinking, all workers need to save to support not only themselves in retirement, but also a number of dependents which is also growing over time. Thirdly, because 401(k) plans have lower returns than traditional pension plans, you need to save more in order to make up the difference. Fourthly, life happens: while the money in your 401(k) is nominally there for your retirement, in practice there’s a good chance that you’re going to tap it, at some point, to pay some kind of large and unexpected bill, whether that comes from unemployment or divorce or ill health. And finally, 401(k) plans don’t have the clever cross-subsidy that traditional pension plans have, where people who die early cross-subsidize people who live for a long time. With a pension plan, you get income when you need it — when you’re alive — and you don’t get money when you’re dead, and don’t need it any more. With a 401(k), by contrast, you have to save more than you really need, because there’s always a chance that you’re going to live to 102.

Add them all together, and to a first approximation you arrive at our current world, where pretty much no one relying on their 401(k) is actually saving enough for retirement. If you’re rich today, you’ll probably be fine when you retire. But if you’re someone who (in contrast to Tom Friedman) actually lives on your paycheck, then there’s almost no chance that your retirement savings will be enough, when the time comes. That’s not your fault: the reasons are deeply systemic. And as a result, the solutions cannot possibly be the kind of bottom-up schemes that Friedman is extolling. They have to come from the top: from real leaders, rather than jumped-up “thought leaders”.

If you'd like to get email from CJR writers and editors, add your email address to our newsletter roll and we'll be in touch.

Felix Salmon is an Audit contributor. He's also the finance blogger for Reuters; this post can also be found at