August 14, 1998

August 14, 1998 | Commentary on Social Security

Dodging Social Security's

Like the "unsinkable" Titanic, America's Social Security system is heading toward an iceberg. Unless lawmakers do something to change its course, the program will crash and sink like a rock.

The iceberg, of course, is the retirement of the baby boom generation-40 million strong. In less than 15 years, the boomers will start retiring in waves, driving Social Security into the red. By 2031, when today's 34-year-olds are scheduled to retire, the system will go flat broke.

Most liberals think the solution to Social Security's impending financial crunch is the traditional double-whammy of raising taxes and cutting benefits. A few-Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., for example-have come out in favor of the partial "privatization" of the system, allowing workers to put a small portion of their required tax into personal investment accounts.

I think we should do something even bolder, not because it will help those of us born before 1950, but for the sake of our children and grandchildren.

Right now, a typical American family earning $50,000 must pay $6,200 a year to Social Security. Moynihan and others want that family to continue paying most of its 12.4 percent Social Security tax to the government, allowing it to invest no more than 2 percentage points, or $1,000, in private retirement accounts. That's not good enough.

Americans should be allowed to invest far more than the proposed 2 percent. In other countries with privatized Social Security systems, workers can invest considerably more. In Chile, it's 10 percent. In Australia, it's 9 percent. And in England, it's nearly 5 percent.

Just imagine if our typical family could invest 10 percent of it's income-$5,000 a year-in private investments with far higher returns than Social Security. Instead of $150,000 in Social Security benefits, that family could amass more than $700,000 if they split their money evenly between stocks and safe U.S. Treasury bonds. Even a portfolio of Treasury bonds alone-the safest investment in the world-would yield that family about $350,000. That's more than twice what Social Security would pay!

Obviously, if workers are allowed to invest only 2 percent, they'll retire with much less. They'll also remain much more dependent on government benefit checks. That's why even the World Bank, hardly a bastion of free-market thought, encourages countries to let their citizens privately invest at least 5 percent of their income.

I know, I know-what about the "risk" of private investing? Let me just make two points. First, if you think Social Security is without risk, you're dreaming. As I've noted, the program is going broke. Its long-term deficit, adjusted for inflation, comes to $20 trillion-yes, trillion with a "t," a sum so large it defies description. Second, Social Security privatization can be done in risk-free way.

Here's how it works. You simply say to the private investment companies that would manage retirement funds on behalf of the American people: You must, by law, provide people with at least as much retirement income as they would have received from Social Security. That's what they did in England, and it can work here too.

It can work because almost any private investment outperforms Social Security. Right now, the "returns" on Social Security are so low that a monkey throwing darts at a stock table could pick better investments. Professional investment managers can beat Social Security's paltry returns without even trying.

If lawmakers are serious about tossing a life preserver to the passengers of the doomed USS Social Security, they will reform the program to let Americans invest as much of their payroll taxes as possible.

The worst that could happen? Americans might retire wealthy.

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. is president of The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office

Related Issues: Social Security