Commentary

Senator Moynihan’s Last Legacy

Former New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who died yesterday, will be remembered as an innovative thinker who was never afraid to challenge the conventional wisdom or the orthodoxy of his own party. As his successor, Sen. Hillary Clinton said in eulogizing him on the Senate floor, “He wanted us to keep looking beyond the short term, looking beyond the horizon, thinking about the next generation, understanding the big problems that confront us.” This was true on many issues, from national security to welfare reform. But perhaps on no issue was Moynihan’s vision as clearly demonstrated as in his support for reforming Social Security.

Only days before his death, the trustees of the Social Security system unveiled their annual report, showing that Social Security begins running a deficit in just 15 years, and faces cash shortfalls of more than $26 trillion. This would have come as no surprise to Moynihan. He had been on the Greenspan Commission that was responsible for the last major reform of the nation’s retirement system. More recently, he was often a lone voice warning that our current Social Security program is unsustainable. Moynihan understood that, without reform, the program is unable to pay promised benefits. And he knew that no amount of political wishful thinking could make this problem go away.

After leaving office, Moynihan agreed to serve as co-chairman of President Bush’s bipartisan Commission to Strengthen Social Security. This was also typical of Moynihan, who preferred to address problems rather than score partisan political points. It was also typical that Moynihan saw the commission’s work as an opportunity not just to focus on the dry numbers of Social Security solvency, but as a chance to help those at the bottom of the economic ladder.

Moynihan saw Social Security reform as an opportunity to give ordinary working Americans an opportunity to save and invest the same way that higher-income people can-“A measure of wealth,” as he called it. He understood that wealth in America no longer comes exclusively — or even primarily — from wages, but from investment. Roughly 52 percent of Americans now invest privately. But nearly half of Americans, mostly low- and middle-income workers, still are not able to participate in this route to financial wealth. This is not surprising. After paying for food, rent, medical care, and other expenses of daily living, many Americans simply don’t have much money left over to save and invest.

That is why Moynihan supported proposals to allow younger workers to privately invest a portion of their Social Security taxes through individual accounts. To Moynihan, this was not just reform of Social Security, but its logical completion. As he wrote in the New York Times two years ago: “In 1944 the British came up with the slogan of ‘cradle to grave’ protection. We propose something beyond: an estate! For doormen, as well as those living in the duplexes above.” Or, as the commission he chaired wrote: “For the first time, the program can become an active rather than a passive instrument of personal financial security. Rather than ending with the life of the beneficiary, it can be a means of wealth accumulation and long-range investment, giving families resources they never had before, and widening the circle of Americans fortunate enough to pass on the accumulated results of their investment and hard work.”

This was particularly true, Moynihan thought, for African-Americans, whose shorter life expectancies allow them fewer years of retirement. One-third of African-American men, Moynihan pointed out, do not even survive until age 65. Personal accounts would help build wealth for the African-American community, where it is needed most.

Over the coming days and weeks there will be many tributes to Sen. Moynihan, all richly deserved. But perhaps the greatest tribute would be for all those he left behind in Congress to embrace his legacy of bipartisanship and concern for future generations. Let’s reform Social Security now.

Michael Tanner is director of health and welfare studies at the Cato Institute.