February 26, 2009 3:54PM

New Mandatory Savings Plan?

I haven’t seen any media attention paid to it yet, and I don’t recall the president mentioning it in his speech Tuesday night. Regardless, p.37 of today’s budget blueprint calls for “Making Saving for Retirement Easier as the Economy Recovers.” Although it sounds innocuous, I believe the contents could be cause for alarm:

“Over the long‐​term families need personal savings, in addition to Social Security, to prepare for retirement and to fall back on during tough economic times like these. However, 75 million working Americans—roughly half the workforce—currently lack access to employer‐​based retirement plans. In addition, the existing incentives to save for retirement are weak or non‐​existent for the majority of middle and low‐​income households. The President’s 2010 Budget lays the groundwork for the future establishment of a system of automatic workplace pensions, on top of and clearly outside Social Security, that is expected to dramatically increase both the number of Americans who save for retirement and the overall amount of personal savings for individuals. research has shown that the key to saving is to make it automatic and simple. Under this proposal, employees will be automatically enrolled in workplace pension plans—and will be allowed to opt out if they choose. Employers who do not currently offer a retirement plan will be required to enroll their employees in a direct‐​deposit IRA account that is compatible with existing direct‐​deposit payroll systems. The result will be that workers will be automatically enrolled in some form of savings vehicle when they go to work—making it easy for them to save while also allowing them to opt out if their family or individual circumstances make it particularly difficult or unwise to save. Experts estimate that this program will dramatically increase the savings participation rate for low and middle‐​income workers to around 80 percent.”

Here are my concerns just off the top of my head:

Obviously, it represents yet another government encroachment upon individual liberty. While employees would be “allowed” to opt out, employers would not. More ominously, while there is no mention of government subsidization of individual plans or forced contributions by employers, how long will it take for activists and their congressional allies to go down those roads? I can already envision hordes of politicians bemoaning the inability of low‐ and moderate‐​income workers to direct any portion of their wages toward their accounts. And don’t just think this will be limited to leftist politicians. When I worked for the U.S. Senate a conservative senator once asked me to design a mandatory savings plan for all citizens in which the government and employers would “contribute.”

I guess the bright side here is that the administration is implicitly acknowledging that Social Security isn’t the wonderful retirement nest egg defenders have wanted us to believe. I also can’t help but chuckle at the political reintroduction of savings as being beneficial. Over the past year we’ve been repeatedly warned that savings is bad and spending is good. Anyhow, this issue is going to be one to watch going forward.