Feature

The Road From Serfdom

Let workers choose: the New Deal, or a better deal?

By and From the May 2012 issue

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ALSO IN CHOICE SYMPOSIUM
James Piereson
A Time for Choosing


Rep. Paul Ryan
Empowering Individuals or Bureaucrats?


David N. Bass
The Millennial Perspective

Conservative leaders—from Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich, to Tea Party Republicans who stormed the House in 2010—have been trying to reform and transform failed government programs for nearly two generations now, with only limited and frustrating progress. Republicans argue that the recipients of social spending will be better off under a conservative approach, but the public remains skeptical. Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, public schools, and welfare programs might be run poorly, but they are a security blanket nonetheless. Voters don't want to trade a devil they know for a devil they don't.

Perhaps compulsion is the problem. The argument conservatives too often make seems to be: "Trust us; we know what's best for you." Yet when was the last time that voters trusted politicians of either party to make wise decisions on their behalf? With congressional approval now hovering in the teens, there is little likelihood the public will back fundamental reform of the $1 trillion entitlement system. But there is another way: Give individual citizens the freedom to either stick with the government-run plan, or choose a market-based option. Those who like Social Security and Medicare could keep them as they are. Those who think otherwise would have alternatives.

Just look at what happened when House Republicans proposed to fundamentally change Medicare and give seniors private insurance instead. Democrats ran TV ads—the campaign was dubbed "Mediscare"—telling seniors the GOP was trying to destroy Medicare. One commercial shows a man in a suit pushing the wheelchair of an elderly woman. The man leads her to the edge of a cliff and throws her off, while "America the Beautiful" plays in the background. Scary stuff.

But if Republicans gave seniors the choice, between the new Medicare and the old, could Democrats block that approach? Ultimately, we don't think so. And political benefits are just the hors d'oeuvre. We also believe that choice-driven programs would achieve social-welfare goals more effectively, serve seniors and the poor far better, and cost just a fraction of what taxpayers pay for current programs.

Let's examine how this model might apply. Baby boomers are now beginning to retire; eventually more than 75 million boomers will move onto Social Security and Medicare. For decades, the federal government's own reports have shown that Social Security will be unable to pay boomers all promised benefits without dramatic, unsustainable tax increases. Medicare's prospects are even worse.

Last year, Social Security ran an annual deficit for the first time since President Reagan and Congress raised the payroll tax back in 1983. Under government actuaries' middling projections for economic and demographic growth, those deficits will continue until the Social Security trust funds run dry by 2037. After that, paying all the promised Social Security and Medicare benefits that are financed by the payroll tax will require almost doubling the tax from 15.3 percent today to nearly 30 percent.

Under more pessimistic growth projections, the Social Security trust funds will run out of money by 2029. In that case, paying all promised benefits to today's young workers would eventually require a total payroll tax rate of 44 percent, three times current levels.

Social Security operates as a pure tax-and-spend system, so it has no real savings or investments anywhere. Even when it was running annual surpluses, close to 90 percent of the revenue that came in was paid out within the year. Remaining annual surpluses were lent to the federal government and spent on other programs, from foreign aid to bridges to nowhere. The Social Security trust funds received only internal federal IOUs, which promise the money will be paid back when it is needed for benefits. But those federal IOUs represent not savings, but actual additional liabilities for federal taxpayers.

Such a tax and redistribution scheme does not earn real market returns, as a fully-funded savings and investment system would. Consequently, over the long run the "trust fund" can pay only low, below-market benefits. Studies show that for most young workers today, even if Social Security does somehow pay all it has promised, those benefits would represent a real rate of return of around 1 to 1.5 percent, or less. For many, the effective return might even be negative. That's like putting your money in a savings account, but instead of earning interest on it, you end up paying the bank for the pleasure of keeping your deposit there.

There is a better way. Workers could be empowered to save and invest the money they and their employers would otherwise pay into Social Security. Studies show that an average-income, two-earner couple would, over the course of their careers, accumulate close to a million dollars or more, given standard, long-term, market returns, and depending on what fraction of their Social Security contributions they are allowed to invest. Lower-income workers could regularly accumulate half a million dollars over their careers.

Those accumulated funds would pay all workers of all income levels and family combinations much higher benefits than Social Security even promises, let alone what it might pay. That includes one-earner couples with stay-at-home moms caring for the children. Retirees would be free to leave any portion of these funds to their children at death, further strengthening the family. Under Social Security, if you die, your heirs get a small death benefit, and Uncle Sam keeps the rest.

In retirement, benefits payable from a worker's personal account would substitute for a portion of his regular Social Security benefits, based on the degree to which he exercised the account option over his career. This results in enormous reductions in government spending over time. The personal accounts wouldn't just reduce the growth of government spending. They would shift vast realms of such spending from public sector taxes to private sector savings, investment, and insurance.

Workers could also freely choose what age to retire, since they finance their own benefits. The longer they wait, the more money the accounts accumulate, and the higher benefits those accounts can pay. Millions of workers with less physically taxing jobs could choose on their own to delay their retirements well into their 70s, a result that could never be imposed politically. Other workers whose jobs require heavy physical labor could choose to retire in their early 60s.

With stocks or bonds in their portfolios, workers would also look at the world differently. As capitalists and owners of American companies through their investments, workers would become advocates of pro-growth, free-market policies that make U.S. companies more profitable. The traditional friction between owners of capital and laborers would be diminished, because workers would have a stake in growth.

Personal accounts aren't just a theory, either. About 30 years ago, workers in Chile won just such freedom for their pension contributions. In the first month, 25 percent of workers chose to switch to the new personal account system. After 18 months, 93 percent of workers had switched. Within a few years, annual economic growth soared to 7 percent, double the country's historic rate, while unemployment fell to 5 percent. After 20 years, the enormous savings in the personal accounts totaled 70 percent of GDP. Today, workers pay into the personal accounts half the taxes required under the old system, yet they earn twice the benefits. Chile's reform has been recognized as such a success, that seven other nations in Latin America have adopted similar plans. Other such reforms have now flowered in Great Britain, Australia, Hungary, and Poland.

But we don't have to travel the world to find models for personal accounts. In 1981, local government workers in and around Galveston, Texas, voted to opt out of Social Security and into a private savings and investment plan. The Thrift Savings Plan for federal employees has also been popular and successful.

In 2005, Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senator John Sununu (R-NH) introduced comprehensive model legislation to provide a personal account option for each American. The chief actuary of Social Security officially scored this legislation as achieving full solvency for the program, completely eliminating its deficits over time without any benefit cuts or tax hikes. In fact, the chief actuary recognized that future retirees with personal accounts would earn higher benefits than under Social Security. He concluded that 100 percent of American workers would choose the personal accounts.

It's true that George W. Bush fought to reform Social Security in just such a manner, and was blown out of the water politically. But that Bush plan was poorly formulated and executed. Further, one of the talking points that sunk his proposal—the idea that stock market volatility makes personal accounts unsafe—has now been contradicted by real-world evidence. The 2008 financial meltdown was about the worst imaginable scenario for those worried about market volatility. But workers who retired in its immediate aftermath still would have done much better with personal portfolios than with Social Security. Even with the stock market crash, workers of all income levels and all races would have gained financially from private accounts and 40 years of compound interest, according to a study by Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute.

Of course, that doesn't mean the left will oppose this plan with any less ferocity. After all, what we propose is a frontal assault against the modern-day entitlement system. Retired Americans would no longer be wards of the state, waiting eagerly for their checks each month, but would be instead financially self-sufficient. The political hurdle is to convince seniors and those near retirement that their benefits will not be cut, and that reform will offer young workers a better deal and keep the retirement system solvent for generations. We suspect that over time, most workers would freely choose to own their retirement income and remove it from the clutches of government control. What better way to break the back of the modern welfare state?

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About the Author

Stephen Moore is a member of the Wall Street Journal editorial board.

About the Author
Peter Ferrara is Director of Entitlement and Budget Policy at the Heartland Institute, General Counsel of the American Civil Rights Union, Senior Fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis, and Senior Policy Advisor on Entitlements and Budget Policy at the National Tax Limitation Foundation. He served in the White House Office of Policy Development under President Reagan, and as Associate Deputy Attorney General of the United States under President George H.W. Bush.