December 17, 2004

December 17, 2004 | Commentary on Social Security

Don't Delay Reform

Advocates of Social Security reform and their skeptical friends agree that the nation's primary retirement system needs structural reform. Soon there will be too many retirees and too few workers to make the pay-as-you-go system work. Many skeptics, however, are concerned about the leading proposal for making Social Security more secure: personal retirement accounts. They say these accounts will be buffeted by fluctuations in the stock and bond markets. And they worry about transition costs: If workers are directing a portion of their payroll taxes into personal accounts, they aren't making those funds available to current retirees. Some experts say that could create as much as a $2 trillion to $4 trillion hole in Social Security's ability to pay retirement benefits.

Concerns about market fluctuations are understandable. But ensuring financial security through retirement-grade investments is something top money managers do every day. We should follow the advice of retirement experts who urge workers to shift more of their investments to secure bonds as retirement approaches.

As for transition costs, skeptics should worry more about the price tag of the status quo. If we do nothing, Social Security will owe $27 trillion in promised benefits during the next several generations of retirees. Social Security's trustees say the system will have to cut promised benefits by about 25% in 2042 - and that's just for starters. Talk about risk: Workers now paying into the system will be speeding toward a financial cliff if the system isn't fixed.

A reformed system with personal accounts is far less risky. Borrowing the costs with a planned repayment system makes sense because it would slash that $27 trillion IOU and make it far more likely that we can pay adequate retirement benefits. The U.S. has nearly always borrowed to finance crucial changes to its economic infrastructure, and making Social Security more secure is one of the most important changes we could make. Indeed, it is fairer to secure working America's retirement by borrowing funds from wealthy Americans and foreign investors than by raising taxes on labor.

Social Security reform will be costly, but doing nothing is worse.

William W. Beach is director of the Center for Data Analysis at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

William W. Beach Director, Center for Data Analysis and Lazof Family Fellow
Center for Data Analysis

First appeared on USAToday.com