May 24, 2000

May 24, 2000 | Commentary on Social Security

A Better Legacy: Social Security Reform

In his quest for a "legacy," President Clinton has been hoping for some foreign-policy breakthrough to trumpet, such as a new arms-control deal with the Russians. But the renewed debate over Social Security reform shows the president has a better opportunity within his grasp: to be the president who finally "saves" Social Security.

For starters, he can spurn the high-decibel scare tactics used by opponents of reform. He needs to calm the fears of current retirees by promising their benefits will be guaranteed - or reform is dead on arrival.

In other words, the president can assure senior citizens that the debate over Social Security reform isn't about them; it's about their children and grandchildren. That way, the AARP can leave the discussion to those who have the biggest stake in making reform work: the baby boomers and their children who are now themselves entering the work force.

President Clinton should also tell the American people that Social Security is not what most of them think it is: a set of individual, funded retirement accounts that are part of a larger trust fund from which they will draw benefits when they retire. No, Social Security is a "pay-as-you-go" program, with the taxes paid by today's workers used to pay benefits to current retirees. When the 77 million baby boomers begin retiring in another 10 years, their benefits will be paid by younger workers. The only trouble is, when the president's fellow boomers retire, the number of workers to support them will start dropping, leading to either big tax increases or benefit cuts in the current program.

And as critics deride any serious reform as inherently "risky," the president should explain something else few Americans realize - that other Western democracies, including Great Britain and Australia, already have privatized or partially privatized their pension systems.

Under the British system, workers can remain entirely in the government-run pension program or they can elect to take part of their required payroll tax and put that money into an employer's retirement program or a personal pension plan, similar to an individual retirement account or a 401(k) plan. Pensioners who invest in private plans are still covered by Britain's basic pension system. More than two-thirds of all eligible workers have taken advantage of the private investment option.

As a result of their reforms, British retirees today are among the most financially comfortable in the world. The British work force, meanwhile, has accumulated a stunning 830 billion pounds - nearly $1.4 trillion - in private pension funds, an amount larger than the private pension funds of all other European countries combined.

On an individual basis, British workers are now accumulating more than twice as much money for retirement as they would have under the old system. Their investments have been earning an average of about 10 percent per year above inflation. By contrast, Chelsea Clinton and the other children of U.S. baby boomers will actually get back less from Social Security than they pay in taxes during their working years.

The British system has not been perfect. But Britain's overall success has encouraged Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair to ask his Social Security experts to work out the wrinkles, "think the unthinkable" and expand privatization so British workers can enjoy even larger retirement incomes.

President Clinton should be encouraging Americans to similarly "think the unthinkable," since Social Security's financial troubles make the status quo a far worse choice than any privatization option. Short of private accounts, the only reform choices are raising payroll taxes, cutting benefits, or some combination of the two - any one of which would make a bad deal even worse.

The next generation of American retirees deserves a prosperous retirement, without imposing a crushing tax burden on their children. Mr. Clinton can accomplish that, and secure his place in history, by making Social Security reform the No. 1 domestic priority of his final months in office.

History will remember such leadership. After all, there's only one truly "risky" option - and that's doing nothing.

Robert Moffit is Director of Domestic Dolicy studies at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Robert E. Moffit, Ph.D. Senior Fellow
Center for Health Policy Studies

Related Issues: Social Security

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