Keeping Promises in an Era of Uncertainty
PBGC was just getting started when Vietnam was winding down, President Nixon resigned, the NFL granted a franchise to Seattle, and Americans preferred avocado green kitchen appliances over anything that color on four wheels.
When we started, we churned out plans and memos and reports from typewriters and could smoke on the job, and pensions still seemed to be almost as solidly American as basketball, jazz, and poker.
In the distance, however, the sunrise of change was already hinting at dusk.
Events and crises, economic disruptions and volatility triggered a shift in how pensions were viewed — morphing from promises and pledges that were "solid" to being cast as liabilities on balance sheets. During 40 years our creativity and resourcefulness have been challenged, keyed on what tools we can use to protect Americans.
As we look at our 40 years to see where we came from and how our mission has been steadfast in changing dynamics, here is what part of our world was like when PBGC — as well as 21 of our current employees — was born.
The nation had never seen anything like us: an agency dedicated to saving pensions and protecting those about to lose pensions.
We were then, and we still are.
There were 200 cases waiting for us when we opened for business in September. We quickly learned that the promises once made to workers and retirees were not always going to be kept. Ideas would be offered to dazzle as replacements, such as lump-sum payments and 401(k) funds. Yet they all smacked to a similar tone along the lines of the 1974 launch of one of the most popular marking slogans for a beer, Miller Lite — "Tastes Great, Less Filling."
And, perhaps apt, the 1974 Academy Awards named the best picture of the year "The Sting," a movie about a giant, successful con.
That was what we often seemed to be facing. Even in our first year, it was clear that some workers and pensioners were not getting what they felt they had been promised — and it became our mission to honor others' promises as best we could.
With that let's take a look back at the state of the world during our first year in business.
First, some basics to make us groan: The average cost of a new house was $34,900; for a gallon of gas, 55 cents; a new car, $3,750; and monthly rent, $185. Average yearly income was $13,900. A Super Bowl ad that year cost $103,000. The postage stamp price rose to 10 cents from 8 cents.
This was the year that pocket calculators first appeared in stores, the MRI scanner was developed in the U.S., a primitive word processor that looked like a typewriter appeared in offices, and there was first use of a Universal Product Code (UPC) bar code, to buy a pack of Wrigley's chewing gum in Marshes Supermarket, in Troy, Ohio.
Politically, Richard Nixon became the first president to resign from office, and Gerald Ford became the first person to become president who was not elected on a presidential ticket. George W. Bush was honorably discharged from the Air Force Reserve, and a young man named Bill Clinton sought a congressional seat in Arkansas and lost.
The VW "Thing Car" tried out a new color, avocado. It was not popular, even as the color spread through kitchen appliances across America. Disco dancing and pet rocks were fads. Post-it notes were invented by Arthur Fry in the U.S., and liposuction by Giorgio Fischer in Rome, Italy.
Bestseller books included All The President's Men about Washington corruption and the White House, Jaws, which prompted thinking twice about going into the water, and The Joy of Sex, which raised some eyebrows. Daredevil Evel Knievel rode his motorcycle to new heights. The game Dungeons and Dragons was deemed satanic. Screaming Lord Sutch somehow became popular. And streaking and string bikinis were the rage — or as J.J. Walker said on the popular TV show Good Times, "Dy-No-Mite!"
The U.S. government filed an anti-trust suit to break up AT&T. Congress passed the Freedom of Information Act over President Ford's veto.
Elizabeth Taylor divorced Richard Burton — again. Cher announced she was splitting up with Sonny, ending the "I-Got-You-Babe" romance. The Captain and Tennille were married (this added only because they announced their divorce this year).
In music, Patti Smith recorded "Hey Joe," her debut single that arguably became the first punk rock single when released in August. Paul McCartney formed the group "Wings" and released the album Band on the Run. John Lennon, with number-one song "Whatever Gets You Through The Night," seemed to get into a lot of trouble and was actually ordered to leave the U.S. On Nov. 28, he joined Elton John on stage at Madison Square Garden for three songs; it would be Lennon's last stage performance before he was murdered. K.C and the Sunshine Band was formed and LaDonna Adrian Gaines, better known as Donna Summer, started her career. "Love to Love You Baby" quickly ran up the music charts.
From the Civil War, the Monitor war ship was raised off of Cape Hatteras, N.C. From World War II, the last Japanese soldier, Pvt. Teruo Nakamura, finally surrendered, 29 years after the war formally ended, on the Indonesian island of Morota.
The World Trade Center opened and was the tallest building in the world at the time. Soon after that another daredevil, Philippe Petit, walked a tightrope strung across the two towers. Later in the year, construction on the Sears Tower in Chicago ended, making it the tallest building in the world at the time.
The world record for team trampoline bouncing was set as catching air went on for 52 days, one of the more special moments sports had to offer in 1974.
Hank Aaron tied, and then broke, Babe Ruth's all-time home run record of 714. He also homered on the last day of the season for number 733. Aaron was then traded to the Brewers of Milwaukee, the same city in which he started his career. Never-to-be-repeated 10-cent beer night in Cleveland causes the Indians to forfeit the game to the Rangers with the score tied 5-5. After that season Frank Robinson became Major League Baseball's first African-American manager with the Indians.
Pele retired from soccer, while the NFL granted a franchise to the Seattle Seahawks. The NFL also made it tougher for kickers by moving the goal posts closer, and the league adopted sudden-death playoffs.
George Foreman TKO'd Ken Norton in two rounds to win the heavyweight boxing title. A few months later, the Rumble in the Jungle took place in Kinshasa, Zaire, where Muhammad Ali knocked out Foreman in eight rounds to regain the heavyweight title, which had been stripped from him seven years earlier.
Notre Dame beat UCLA, ending the Bruins' record 88-game winning streak in NCAA basketball.
The Philadelphia Flyers won the Stanley Cup to become the first team from the 1967 expansion to win the title. The Washington Capitals played their first NHL game, losing 6-3 to the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden and beginning a 37-game losing streak on the road. They earned their first home victory on Oct. 17, defeating the Chicago Blackhawks, 4-3.
Dean Martin aired his last show on NBC. Happy Days started an 11-year run on ABC. And the Ayatollah Khomeini called for an Islamic republic in Iran.
Now as PBGC celebrates 40 years of changes, the work and mission remains the same even as the costs rise and populations shift. We push on. Or, as Marty Feldman's Igor said in Young Frankenstein — "My grandfather used to work for your grandfather. Of course the rates have gone up."