March 4, 2004 | Commentary on Social Security
The TV commercials used to say, "When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen." Well, E.F. isn't saying much these days, but the financial world has a new sage - Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. Markets, traders, even lawmakers hang on his every word.
Recently, the world's most respected living central banker offered a prescription to save the struggling Social Security program. In congressional testimony, Greenspan urged Congress to make the president's 2001 tax cuts permanent and asked them to slash government spending as much as possible. But he also told lawmakers they should cut the Social Security benefits they're promising to future retirees.
Greenspan is certainly correct about the first two policy prescriptions but is off on the third. We do need the tax cuts, and lawmakers should trim spending. But cutting benefits isn't the way to save Social Security. We can put the program on solid ground by simply setting up a Personal Retirement Account for anyone who wants one.
The problem with Social Security - for now - isn't a lack of income. There's more money coming in today in taxes than is going out in benefits. The problem is that in the near future - about 2018, only four presidential elections from today - we'll owe more in benefits than we collect in taxes. And there's nothing in the so-called Social Security trust fund except IOUs.
The answer is to provide a better return on our investment in Social Security. That means doing what President Bush has talked about - making the program a source of ownership for Americans.
This does not mean letting the federal government buy stocks. Imagine Washington as the majority stockholder in I.B.M., Microsoft or General Electric. We'd kill off the very innovation we need to encourage and damage the very companies we're counting on to provide 21st century jobs.
This does mean allowing individuals to make decisions about their own money. Everyone should have the ability to invest at least a portion of his or her Social Security taxes, in order to build a secure retirement fund. That's what PRAs do.
Americans are comfortable with this concept. Most of us already have IRAs or 401(k) accounts. We set aside real money and invest it in stocks. And we understand that, over the long haul, the market will go up, providing a good return on investment.
There's no reason not to allow us to direct a portion of our Social Security taxes into a similar Personal Retirement Account.
However, we should also respect the wishes of those who are nervous about investing. That means providing individuals the chance to opt-out and stay with the current Social Security system.
Of course, that means they'll be locked into Social Security's miniscule returns. For example, according to the calculator on our heritage.org Web site, my 1-year-old granddaughter can expect to get back only about a 1 percent return on her Social Security investment (and that's a best-case scenario). She'd be better off putting her payroll taxes into old fashioned U.S. Savings Bonds.
For a boy born today, the news is even worse. His rate of return is negative 2.9 percent. He'll pay in more than half a million dollars during his life, and collect less than that in benefits. Simple fairness requires us to create PRAs, so today's children can become tomorrow's investors and owners.
Social Security can be saved, and we won't have to reduce benefits to do so. But we will need strong presidential leadership in order to get Personal Retirement Accounts through congress and into law.
In his State of the Union address, President Bush called for fundamental reform in the over committed Social Security program. But he didn't detail what that reform should look like. That makes it possible for others to drive the debate.
The future of Social Security is in our hands. Let's make sure we protect it.