The Social Security Fear Factor

Editorial

New York Times

January 4, 2005

If you've lent even one ear to the administration's recent comments on Social Security, you have no doubt heard President Bush and his aides asserting that a $10 trillion shortfall threatens the retirement system - and the economy itself. That $10 trillion hole is the basis of the president's claim last month that "the [Social Security] crisis is now." It's also the basis of the administration's claim that the cost of doing nothing to reform the system would be far greater than the cost of acting now.

Well, the $10 trillion figure is the closest you can get to pulling a number out of the air. Make that the ether. Starting last year, as the groundwork was being set for the emerging debate, the Social Security trustees took the liberty of projecting the system's solvency over infinity, rather than sticking to the traditional 75-year time horizon. That world-without-end assumption generates the scary $10 trillion estimate, and with it, Mr. Bush's putative rationale for dismantling Social Security in favor of a system centered on private savings accounts. The American Academy of Actuaries, the profession's premier trade association, objected to the change. In a letter to the trustees, the actuaries wrote that infinite projections provide "little if any useful information about the program's long-range finances and indeed are likely to mislead any [nonexpert] into believing that the program is in far worse financial condition than is actually indicated."

As it often does with dissenting professional opinion, the administration is ignoring the actuaries. But that doesn't alter the facts or common sense. If the $10 trillion figure is essentially bogus, so is the claim that Social Security is in crisis. The assertion that doing nothing would be costlier than enacting a privatization plan also turns out to be wrong, by the estimates of Congress's own budget agency.

Over a 75-year time frame, Social Security's shortfall is estimated by the Congressional Budget Office at $2 trillion and by the Social Security trustees at $3.7 trillion, a manageable sliver of the economy in each case. If the shortfall is on the low side, Social Security will be in the black until 2052, when it will be able to pay out 80 percent of the promised benefits. If it is on the high side, the system will pay full benefits until 2042, when it will cover 70 percent.

Contrary to Mr. Bush's frequent assertion that Social Security is constantly imperiled by political meddling, it has in fact been preserved and improved by political intervention throughout its 70-year history, most significantly in 1983. The system could - and should - be strengthened again by a modest package of benefit cuts and tax increases phased in over decades.

Instead, the administration wants workers to divert some of the payroll taxes that currently pay for Social Security into private investment accounts, in exchange for a much-reduced government benefit. To replace the taxes it would otherwise have collected - money it needs to pay benefits to current and near retirees - the government would borrow an estimated $2 trillion over the next 10 years or so and even more thereafter.

In effect, the administration's plan would get rid of the financial burden of Social Security by getting rid of Social Security. The plan shifts the financial risk of growing old onto each individual and off of the government - where it is dispersed among a very large population, as with any sensible insurance policy. In a privatized system, you may do fine, but your fellow retirees may not, or vice versa.

In any event, doing well under privatization is relative. Congress's budget agency analyzed the privatized plan that is widely regarded as the template for future legislation and found that total retirement benefits - including payouts from the private account plus the government subsidy - would be less than under the present system. The amount available from the privatized system was less even after midcentury, when the current system is projected to come up short.

It should come as no shock that individual investors might not do as well as hoped. The stock market's historical returns - some 7 percent a year - are predicated on a hypothetical investor who bought an array of stocks in the past, reinvested all dividends, never cashed in and never paid commissions or fees. That's not how investing works in the real world. An especially grave danger is that investors would withdraw their funds before retirement, a pattern that is pronounced in 401(k) plans. It would be politically very difficult to refuse people access to accounts that were sold to them on the premise that they - not the government - would own them.

The Congressional Budget Office analysis also likely understates the costs to individuals of privatizing Social Security. The borrowing that would be needed to establish private accounts could lead to higher interest rates, a weaker dollar and slower economic growth. It is also likely that future tax hikes would be required to cover the interest payments on the additional national debt.

The only hands-down winner would be Wall Street, as fees to manage millions of accounts poured in. (Those fees, not incidentally, would come out of your return.) Current stockholders would also stand to benefit, as increased demand pushed up stock prices, giving existing owners a gain at the expense of newcomers who would be forced to buy high. The affluent, who could afford professional investing advice, would also be advantaged, even though everyone would be taking the same risks.

The zeal over privatization is fueled by the belief of Mr. Bush and his supporters that free-market fixes are appropriate for virtually every problem. That faith is misguided. For a society to be functional and humane, it's not enough that some people have a chance to be rich in old age. Rather, all old people must have the dignity of financial security, and that requires universal coverage.

Social Security is the core tier of old-age support, replacing about a third of preretirement income for a typical retiree and providing inflation-proof income for life - a feature not available in private accounts. Its purpose is not to supplant other retirement investing, but to provide a crucial safety net. Anyone who wants to maintain his or her standard of living into old age must also amass substantial personal savings and investments. To introduce the same risk into the core tier of benefits that already exists for the bulk of one's retirement savings would be as unfair as it is unwise.

If Mr. Bush were not so serious about privatizing Social Security, his urgency would be silly. Compared with other challenges looming for the government, it's a non-problem. The shortfall in the Medicare hospital insurance fund is two to three times the size of the Social Security shortfall, and that fund is projected to be insolvent some two to three decades before Social Security. Taken together, the costs of the Medicare prescription benefit and of making the tax cuts permanent - Mr. Bush's two main domestic initiatives - are 5 to 8.5 times larger. And his hair is on fire over Social Security?

One of the most distressing aspects of the debate over Social Security privatization is that it distracts from more pressing issues and obscures better solutions to the problem of secure retirement. A future editorial will discuss new strategies to increase private savings outside of Social Security that draw on market theory and behavioral economics and are more promising than rehashing the same tired formula of tax-sheltered savings accounts. In the meantime, however, Mr. Bush and his supporters will be pursuing their idée fixe of privatization. It's bad policy. And it's bad politics, too, driven by reflex, ideology and special interests, and sustained by conformism that masquerades as party discipline. Lawmakers who still value their right and obligation to think for themselves - and to act in the best interest of their constituents - must champion solutions that will build on Social Security, not undermine it.