An open letter to the Republicans on Social Security

Posted: Mar 28, 2005 12:00 AM

The president has done a marvelous job of educating the public about the serious problems Social Security faces in the near future. More than 70 percent of the American people agree with him that Social Security's problems must be addressed soon. A mere 28 percent of the people agree with the Democrats that Social Security is in fine shape for years to come and nothing needs to be done to address its problems now.

Paradoxically, the more people come to agree on this point, the fewer of them seem to support personal retirement accounts. As a headline put it in Sunday's Washington Times: "Social Security puzzles voters, survey says." The Times article reported on a recent Pew Research Center survey that found support falling for what people perceive to be the president's plan to reform Social Security through personal accounts.

Support is falling particularly among young people ages 18 to 29, the group that in the past has been the most supportive of personal retirement accounts. A recent Rasmussen poll found that when given a straight-up choice between leaving Social Security unchanged and a proposal for personal retirement accounts (even assuring respondents that the accounts would be voluntary and there would be no benefit cuts for workers over 55), only 45 percent prefer personal retirement accounts while 37 percent say doing nothing would be the better path to follow.

The reason people are confused, I believe, is that they hear Republicans say personal retirement accounts won't solve the problem. That confuses them because for more than 30 years conservatives and free-market advocates have been saying, correctly, just the opposite. Properly designed, personal retirement accounts not only will achieve solvency, they are the only sustainable way to do so and at the same time provide workers higher retirement benefits without raising taxes or increasing the retirement age.

 The paradox at the heart of the Pew Center's survey illustrates why it's our message that's confusing people, not personal accounts per se. According to the Times article, when the Pew Center asked people who should own and control Social Security money supposedly going into the Social Security Trust Fund, 55 percent answered "me." Yet the survey also found support for personal retirement accounts falling.

I am afraid that by working so hard to convince people Social Security is unsustainable as currently structured, we have left the impression inadvertently that the costs and risks of personal accounts exceed their benefits for large numbers of people. That is a huge misconception, of course, but the disinformation campaign being waged by the Democrats and their allies, AARP and, seems to be reinforcing our own message and making it a reality in the minds of a growing number of people.

  That puts us in a solvency trap requiring tax increases and benefit cuts because as sure as the sun rises in the east, Democrats will never agree to a "fix" that cuts benefits without also raising taxes. Indeed, even some Republicans have fallen into this trap.

People perceive a fundamental inconsistency at the center of our argument, which is creating confusion in their minds and leading them to tell pollsters they don't support what the president is trying to do on Social Security. That inconsistency results from the fundamentally false premise upon which our approach seems to be built, namely that the nation cannot "afford" personal retirement accounts large enough to solve Social Security solvency's problem.

The reason so many conservatives seem to believe this is that they ignore the fundamental flaw of the current Social Security system: It is built on a huge mountain of debt.
Workers' payroll taxes are not saved in a trust fund or anywhere else; they are, in effect, borrowed from current workers to spend on current Social Security benefits for seniors. This means any payroll taxes workers would be allowed to save and invest through personal retirement accounts is less debt the government would have to pay back to workers in the future.

In other words, personal accounts reduce government indebtedness. Therefore, if we let workers keep part of their payroll taxes and simply turn around and reborrow (i.e., refinance) from the public to pay all currently promised benefits without raising taxes, we won't have incurred a new dollar of debt; we would simply refinance an old debt by another means and amortize it over at least 30 years just like a home, a highway or an aircraft carrier.

The Chief Actuary of Social Security has scored four separate personal retirement account plans that achieve solvency without raising taxes or cutting benefits. One of those plans, the Ryan/Sununu proposal, is so clean, so unambiguous that it dispels any confusion in people's minds about the efficacy of personal retirement accounts to fix Social Security and make it solvent permanently. As workers shift their payroll taxes into the accounts, the responsibility for paying their future promised benefits also shifts to the accounts under a specific formula in the bill, which results in the reductions in Social Security expenditures each year. After all workers are fully invested in personal accounts, 95 percent of the retirement benefits paid under the Social Security program will be coming from the accounts, and those benefits are guaranteed to equal or significantly exceed what workers are promised by Social Security currently.

Republicans have a great opportunity to help President Bush democratize our capitalistic economy and make every worker an owner by getting behind a personal accounts proposal, such as Ryan/Sununu, that achieves full solvency without raising taxes or cutting benefits.