Thomas Sowell

Social Security worked fine when the small generation from the 1930s received pensions from the money being paid in by the larger and more prosperous "baby boom" generation that followed. It worked fine when the average life expectancy of the first generation was not long enough for most of them to collect Social Security checks for more than a few years -- if at all.

Declining birth rates and greatly increasing lifespans have created havoc with Social Security's finances, which are based on having the first generation's pensions paid with money collected from the second generation -- and the second generation's pensions paid by the next generation, etc.

Any private financial scheme set up in a similar way would be illegal. That is why Charles Ponzi went to prison.

The politically expedient way of dealing with the situation is to "save Social Security" with short-term fixes that kick the ever-growing shortfall down the road for some later Congress to deal with -- or to be overwhelmed by, when voters refuse to pay ruinous tax increases to keep the system going.

Another way to deal with the problem is to give younger workers the option to set up privately-owned retirement accounts instead. These accounts would be beyond the reach of politicians, and based on each generation setting aside money for its own retirement. Studies have shown that private accounts would pay retirees far better than Social Security.

Meanwhile, people currently depending on Social Security can continue to get what they were promised, even if that requires taxpayer subsidies for the current generation of retirees -- as distinguished from subsidizing unending generations to come.

These are the kinds of options that need serious discussions, instead of "gotcha" sound bites. Sound bites are usually not very sound, and they are an irresponsible way to discuss serious issues.


Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

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