"What am I gonna do? Am I gonna eat cat food? Am I gonna move in with my kids? Am I gonna commit suicide?"
These complaints come not from a laid-off auto worker or a victim of foreclosure, but from longtime New York Times reporter Donald McNeil. His alarming quote expresses his fears that the New York Times Co. will freeze its defined-benefit employee pension plan and make the transition to a defined-contribution system. The Newspaper Guild, the union, which represents McNeil and other Times journalists, released his complaints and others in an Internet video as a protest against the 401(k) plans used by nearly every new worker in America who has retirement benefits.
We'll leave it to the Times, its employees and its shareholders to settle the dispute. As spectators, we find it mind-boggling that journalists from a leading national newspaper would vigorously resist a trend they have been chronicling for years. What's good for the rest of us is evidently not good enough for toplofty Timesmen.
In the real world of the private sector, defined-benefit pension plans have been going the way of the dinosaurs for decades. The Social Security Administration reports that between 1980 and 2008, the share of private sector workers in defined-benefit pension plans fell from 38 percent to 20 percent. By some estimates it stands at just 15 percent today. In 1985, 89 of the companies in the Fortune 100 offered traditional defined benefit plans. In 2011, only 13 did so. In the same period, the number of Fortune 100 companies offering only defined-contribution plans increased from just 10 to 70.
Defined-benefit pension plans sound generous, but they are increasingly unrealistic and crippling for companies that are trying to turn a profit. In the last three years, defined-benefit pensions have come under challenge even in state and local governments, their last major redoubt. The burden that these traditional plans place on taxpayers and the unfunded liabilities they have accrued are great enough that politicians from both parties have braved public-employee union opposition in an attempt to implement reforms.
This is not only true in Republican-governed Wisconsin. California's liberal Democratic governor, Jerry Brown, is fighting his own party to raise the retirement age to 67 and put all new employees into a hybrid pension system that includes 401(k) investments. In New York, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo angered union allies with a plan that merely shifts some new non-union workers to defined-contribution plans.
The scribes at the Times seem blissfully oblivious to the consequences of their stance. As the American Interest's Walter Russell Mead pointed out this week, not one of the Times employees in the Guild video "talks about the prospect of future significant staff cuts if costs can't be contained. None of them discuss the incongruity between their own naive sense of entitlement and what is going on in the cities, companies and countries they cover."
At a time of fiscal stringency at the Times and other newspapers, journalists are making sacrifices to keep their publications alive. Guild activists at the self-important Times must not be reading their own newspaper.
Editor's note: This editorial has been corrected. An earlier version misstated Mr. Mead's affiliation.