How is your pension doing?

Even if you are not one of the 44 million Americans lucky enough to be in a private-sector traditional pension plan, you should care because if enough fail, your tax dollars will be needed to clean up after them.

Defined benefit pensions, properly funded, are the most economically efficient way to finance old age. Congress has failed since it enacted ERISA, the 1974 Employee Retirement Income Security Act, to impose rules to get the most benefit with the least risk out of traditional pensions. Instead, campaign-donation-seeking lawmakers have enabled rules that encourage the private pension system to shrivel and weaken.

In July the 100 largest company pension plans had their worst recorded month and now owe $533 billion ( more than they have assets to pay, the Milliman benefits consultancy says. Other consultancies have issued similarly dire reports.

The core problem has been too little money put into pension plans. Putting in too little money, as noted economist Martin Feldstein pointed out more than three decades ago, inflates stock prices by obscuring corporate liabilities for future pension obligations. This distorts current investment decisions and creates future risks for investors and workers when these pension obligations come due.

Pension funds come from workers, who set aside what would otherwise be current cash wages to provide for their old age. Not putting that money into the pension plan is a subtle, but widespread form of wage theft. Companies argue that they make funding estimates based on what the law allows, which is true. But then it is usually what the law allows, not venality, that is the scandal.