Political Hay

Social Security Psychology

A risk-averse, math-challenged polity isn't a good bet to support the Bush plan.

By 5.12.05

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It's becoming clear now that the Bush/Rove Social Security strategy just isn't going to payoff. To no surprise, all reports coming out are that compromise has been exhausted and stalemate has set in. Some poll numbers supporting personal accounts have been dropping and Democrats still win the "trust" polls on the issue. One can only wonder what would have happened had Bush picked a less controversial battle to kickoff his second term campaign. As it stands, Bush blew almost all of his 2004 election capital in one place, an investment that probably won't pay dividends.

But it's really not fair to blame Bush. Just weeks ago, a Fox News Opinion/Dynamics poll found that 79% of respondents believed that "people under age 55 should have the right to choose between keeping all of their contributions in the current system and investing a portion of their contributions." Great! The only problem is that only 53% of the same sample would "want the choice" for themselves.

In other words, only about half the country wants a choice that it overwhelmingly agrees we deserve! Why this disconnect? Are we simply incapable of executing simple math, the basic cost/benefit analysis? In a study released by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) last year, the U.S. ranked 24th out of 29 developed countries in comprehension of basic math concepts. Has this pathetic performance severely stunted our public policy discourse? I'm beginning to think so.

For instance, a friend of mine (who's in the arts by the way) argued with several colleagues for hours over dinner about Social Security reform. He was astounded by the impenetrable fog that clouded their understanding of the issue. When the check came he watched the same group spend ten minutes trying to figure out a simple tip only to undershoot it by thirty bucks. Is this indicative of the whole country or just the emot-o-centric left? I can't say, but it's an interesting picture nonetheless.

A similar story ... I had the honor of being involved with Secretary Mike Leavitt's appearance at a forum in Chicago. He was there speaking to law students about Social Security. Though it's been my experience that law students are a pretty smart crowd, the questions they asked betrayed a remarkable ignorance of basic economics and finance.

I particularly loved the questions about risk, the issue being the higher risk involved with personal accounts. On paper it appears there's a higher risk in any sort of defined contribution retirement plan. No one is going to promise you a 6% return. The return is going to be dictated instead by the performance of your investment. However, in reality there are many investments which are pretty darned safe, index funds and government bonds for instance. Despite the fact that panelists in the forum continually stressed these avenues for investment, the students still had concerns about losing money. If you lose money with diversified index funds or government bonds over 30 years, or even just 10 years, chances are you have bigger worries than your retirement (like civil war, revolution, famine ...) Moreover, there's plenty of risk involved in leaving the system the way it is. You're betting that some future generation is going to be able to fix it without instigating some disastrous tax increase or benefit reduction.

At any rate, I grew up thinking I was bad at math ... and I was!!! But then again I didn't have a TI-81 to bail me out. Perhaps we need to talk to Texas Instruments about getting a cost/benefit analysis button added to their calculators. Or even better still, we could get them to add a Social Security graphing function that would map the red ink in real time!

As we administer last rites to Social Security reform, we should pause and reflect on what its passing says about us. How can we as nation continue on with the knowledge that this brave idea died such a horrible death at the hands of apathy, affluence, and arithmetic dyslexia? What horrors does it speak that so many of us are not willing to participate in our own retirement? And is this trend irreversible?

Or ... perhaps (let's hope) I'm being a bit dramatic.

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