Commentary

What Is Their Plan for Social Security?

This article appeared in the Newark Star-Ledger on July 27, 2006.

At a press conference with fellow Democrats at the Statehouse on Monday night, Senator Robert Menendez attacked his Republican opponent, Thomas Kean, Jr., for secretly supporting President Bush’s proposal for “privatizing” Social Security. Kean denied the charge and responded with a few of his own, but in swapping barbs, neither candidate gave us the slightest clue what they would do to solve the program’s looming problems.

The facts are simple: Social Security will begin running a deficit in just 11 years. Of course, in theory, the Social Security Trust Fund will pay benefits until 2040. That’s not much comfort to today’s 33-year olds, who will face an automatic 26 percent cut in benefits unless the program is reformed before they retire. But even that figure is misleading, because the Trust Fund contains no actual assets. The government bonds it holds are simply a form of IOU, a measure of how much money the government owes the system. It says nothing about where the government will get the money to pay back those IOUs.

Even if Congress can find a way to redeem the bonds, the Trust Fund surplus will be completely exhausted by 2040. At that point, Social Security will have to rely solely on revenue from the payroll tax-but that revenue will not be sufficient to pay all promised benefits. Overall, the system’s unfunded liabilities-the amount it has promised beyond what it can actually pay-now total $15.3 trillion. Yes, that’s trillion with a ‘T.’ Setting aside some technical changes in how future obligations are calculated, that’s $550 billion worse than the figures for 2005. In other words, by failing to act last year, Congress handed our children and grandchildren a bill for another $550 billion.

Moreover, Social Security taxes are already so high, relative to benefits, that Social Security has quite simply become a bad deal for younger workers, providing a low, below-market rate-of-return. In fact, many young workers will end up paying more in taxes than they receive in benefits. They will actually lose money under the program.

But the single most important problem with the current Social Security system is that workers have no ownership of their benefits. In Flemming v. Nestor, almost 50 years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that workers have no legally binding contractual or property rights to their Social Security benefits, and those benefits can be changed, cut, or even revoked at any time. This leaves workers totally dependent on the good will of 535 politicians to provide for their retirement needs. And, because workers don’t own their benefits, their benefits are not inheritable. This is particularly disadvantageous for African-Americans and other groups with shorter life expectancies.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Social Security reform was once a bipartisan issue. Democrats like Senators Bob Kerrey and Daniel Patrick Moynihan were outspoken in warning about the program’s looming insolvency and calling for innovative approaches to fix it. The Democratic Leadership Council and its think tank arm, the Progressive Policy Institute, explored ideas, including personal accounts. Congressmen like Charlie Stenholm reached across the aisle in search of compromise. Even President Clinton led a national debate to “Save Social Security First.”

But ever since President Bush called for reforming the nation’s troubled retirement program, congressional Democrats have had only one answer: No. No to personal accounts. No to changes in benefits. No to offering a reform plan of their own. No to any discussion or negotiation.

At the same time, Republicans have scurried for cover -apparently in fear of offending AARP and other special interests-running from positions they know are right. The result has been a choice between Democratic obstructionism and Republican cowardice.

The options available to fix Social Security are limited. In fact, it was President Clinton who pointed out the available options: raise taxes, cut benefits, or invest privately. When one opposes personal accounts, he is obligated to tell us exactly which benefits should be cut or which taxes should be raised.

Inaction is not an option. Social Security’s problems are not going to go away. The gap between its promises and what it can pay gets bigger with each passing year. The rate of return for younger workers continues to decline. And workers still have no ownership of their money.

Almost everyone agrees that Social Security reform is not going to happen this year. It’s an election year, after all-no time to rock the boat. But election years also allow people to have their say. No candidates, whether Republican or Democrat, should be able to avoid telling us exactly where they stand on Social Security. Do they favor raising taxes? Do they want to cut benefits? Are they willing to give workers more choice, ownership and control over their retirement funds?

Its time for voters to ask. And it’s time for candidates to answer.

Michael Tanner is director of health and welfare studies at the Cato Institute and editor of Social Security and Its Discontents (2005).