Social Security Reform: The Clock is Ticking

August 13, 1997 • Commentary

In Washington, the motto often seems to be “Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow?” When it comes to reforming Social Security, though, the president and Congress should realize that any delay puts the security of every American’s retirement at risk.

In 2012, just 15 years from now, Social Security will begin running a deficit, spending more on benefits than it brings in through taxes. In theory, the Social Security system will then begin tapping the Social Security Trust Fund to pay benefits until 2029, when the trust fund will be exhausted. In reality, however, the trust fund is little more than an accounting gimmick. There is no money in the trust fund — only government bonds, a form of IOU. Redeeming the bonds to pay benefits after 2012 will require a huge tax increase on young workers.

Moreover, even this projection may easily prove unduly optimistic. A major economic downturn or a major medical breakthrough could speed Social Security’s collapse. Under some projections, Social Security could begin running a deficit as early as 2006.

Anyone sanguine about the future of Medicare and Social Security should take a look at a new report on the aging of America from two scholars at the University of Chicago. Charles Mullin and Tomas Philipson examined data from the annuity and life‐​insurance market to make projections about future increases in longevity. Their conclusion: Americans are likely to live much longer than previously predicted. Indeed, they suggest that longevity could increase as much as 5 percent faster than previously estimated.

While this is good news for those of us who can expect to live to a ripe old age, it is bad news for those who would delay Social Security reform. People who live longer will draw more Social Security checks and deplete the system faster. But the impact of delaying reform will hit young workers hardest. They could earn far higher retirement benefits if they could invest their Social Security taxes in private capital markets. Indeed, most young workers will actually receive a negative rate of return from Social Security — less money back in benefits than they pay in taxes. In contrast, private capital markets have produced average annual returns of nearly 10 percent over the past 60 years.

The rest of the world has woken up to the failures of the traditional pay‐​as‐​you go Social Security system.…the United States is being left behind.

Benjamin Franklin once noted that a man has three great friends: an old wife, an old dog, and compound interest. But it takes time for compound interest to accrue. Every day that passes without reform diminishes the potential retirement benefits of young workers. At the same time, every day tens of thousands of new workers enter a system that robs them of their hope for a secure and dignified retirement.

Furthermore, the longer we wait to reform Social Security, the more difficult the transition to a new system will be. Today, baby boomers are in their peak earning years. Once that generation retires, any transition plan will become much more politically painful.

The rest of the world has woken up to the failures of the traditional pay‐​as‐​you go Social Security system. Much of Latin America, Eastern Europe, Great Britain and even communist China are abandoning U.S.-style Social Security in favor of retirement systems based on individually‐​owned, privately‐​invested accounts. The United States is being left behind.

If politicians are reluctant to take up this debate, the American people are not. Public opinion polls show that Americans of all ages and political philosophies recognize the need to reform Social Security. The only thing lacking is leadership from Washington. How much longer will elected officials saddle the American people with a Social Security system devised by Germany in the 19th century?

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