August 5, 1999

August 5, 1999 | Commentary on Social Security

Tide Shifts on Social Security

Just when it seemed Social Security had shed its familiar role as the "third rail" of American politics-an issue only the most foolhardy candidate dared broach-the status quo struck back.

Sure, the fact that politicians are even willing to discuss reforming the program, which hits the near-retirement age of 64 on August 14, is progress. But talk of "saving" the program is awash in generalities. And when you actually look at what Congress and the administration are proposing, you start feeling like the victim of a classic "bait-and-switch" routine.

Consider the bill introduced by Reps. Bill Archer, R-Texas, and Clay Shaw, R-Fla., which drew plaudits because it would set up personal retirement accounts for workers-a key component in any serious reform of Social Security. But check the fine print: When workers retire, the government assumes control of their accounts. Then it uses the money to pay the Social Security benefits they were supposed to get anyway. It's almost impossible for workers to do better than they would under the current system, which is to say lousy.

The good news is that many candidates running for president have endorsed some form of Social Security privatization, which is the only reform designed to let Americans accumulate more for retirement than they'll get from the current system. Right now, most workers can expect paltry returns on the payroll taxes they "contribute." Some will even lose thousands of dollars. But if Social Security were updated to let workers invest a share of their payroll taxes in stocks and bonds, workers could retire with double or even triple what they'll get now.

If true reform is enacted, it will be because politicians finally admit the program will go bankrupt unless they act. As it stands, Social Security will start paying out more in benefits than it collects in taxes in the not-too-distant year of 2014, and faces total financial collapse in 2034. Yes, this scenario has long been predicted, but it takes impending disaster to focus a politician's mind.

For years, both parties took the Scarlet O'Hara approach to Social Security: Think about it tomorrow. But with tomorrow fast approaching, lawmakers need to privatizate now-to avoid a political catastrophe later.

Of course, privatization is more than a convenient escape hatch; it's the only solution that makes sense. Allowing workers to use their Social Security taxes for personal retirement accounts would shift responsibility for building retirement wealth to those with a financial interest in investing wisely. You and your investment manager have a real financial stake in maximizing your investment returns-the government doesn't.

Which helps explain why many presidential candidates are backing full or partial privatization. GOP front-runner George W. Bush has expressed support for the idea. So has former Vice President Dan Quayle. Steve Forbes wants to establish private accounts and guarantees no benefit cuts for current retirees and older workers. House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich, during his brief sojourn as a candidate, said workers under age 55 should be allowed to invest at least 25 percent of their payroll taxes in private accounts.

Waiting until 2014 to change Social Security makes about as much sense as waiting until December 31, 1999, to fix the Y2K problem. With the program about to hit retirement age, it's time Congress found a way to modernize it for the next generation.

Edwin Feulner 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
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