Walter E. Williams

President Bush's call to allow Americans to take a portion of the money they pay as Social Security taxes to set up private retirement accounts has to be a good idea. Why? The more of what a person earns that's in his pocket and under his control, the better off he will be. At a later date, when the details of the president's plans are known, I'll address the various reform plans under debate. For now, let's look at some of the gross political deceit, lies and unkept promises that have become a part of Social Security.

 Here's what a 1936 government Social Security pamphlet said: "After the first 3 years -- that is to say, beginning in 1940 -- you will pay, and your employer will pay, 1.5 cents for each dollar you earn, up to $3,000 a year. ... Beginning in 1943, you will pay 2 cents, and so will your employer, for every dollar you earn for the next 3 years. ... And finally, beginning in 1949, twelve years from now, you and your employer will each pay 3 cents on each dollar you earn, up to $3,000 a year. ... That is the most you will ever pay."

 Had Congress lived up to those promises, where $3,000 was the maximum earnings subject to Social Security tax, controlling for inflation, today's $50,000-a-year wage earner would pay about $700 in Social Security taxes, as opposed to the more than $3,000 that he pays today.

 The next big lie is from the same Social Security pamphlet: "Beginning November 24, 1936, the United States government will set up a Social Security account for you. ... The checks will come to you as a right." First, there's no Social Security account containing your money, but more importantly, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on two occasions that Americans have no legal right to Social Security payments.

 In Helvering v. Davis (1937), the court held that Social Security was not an insurance program, saying, "The proceeds of both (employee and employer) taxes are to be paid into the Treasury like internal-revenue taxes generally, and are not earmarked in any way."

 In a later decision, Flemming v. Nestor (1960), the court said, "To engraft upon Social Security system a concept of 'accrued property rights' would deprive it of the flexibility and boldness in adjustment to ever-changing conditions which it demands ... " That flexibility and boldness mean Congress can constitutionally cut benefits, raise retirement age, raise Social Security taxes and do anything it wishes, including eliminating payments.

 If a private retirement company reneged on its promises, we could take it to court. If Congress reneges on its promises, there's no judicial course of action whatsoever.


Walter E. Williams

Dr. Williams serves on the faculty of George Mason University as John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics and is the author of 'Race and Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination?' and 'Up from the Projects: An Autobiography.'
 
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