Political Hay

Too Great For Its Own Good

What the left fears most about Social Security reform.

By 4.13.05

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The only "crisis" facing Social Security, liberals argue, is that it's too darn successful.

"The problem with Social Security is that it isn't broken, which is precisely why the President is so eager to destroy it," wrote Robert Scheer in the Nation. "It is the continued success, rather than failure, of the program that irks him."

In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine about Social Security, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman said, "It's been highly successful, and it's extremely popular. It's one of the things that makes people feel somewhat good about government -- and so, therefore, it must go."

While liberals assert that President Bush has put Social Security in his cross hairs because he wants to destroy evidence that government works, the far more likely scenario is that liberals are frightened to death that personal accounts will thrive.

Liberals dismiss President Bush's drive for personal accounts as a kind of libertarian fantasy that doesn't have much support among Americans. "His Social Security plan is going down and down and down with less (polling) numbers," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said. "The American people are on our side, and this is bipartisan."

But if liberals believe that most Americans don't want the voluntary personal accounts, their savviest move would be to endorse President Bush's proposal. They should let all of us wacky free marketers invest part of our payroll taxes in the stock market. Since there are so few of us, the transition costs ought to be pretty low.

Decades from now, having gambled our retirement away, we will subsist on macaroni and cheese, envious of our government-loving brethren who indulge in pan-seared filet mignon. The shame will be too much to bear. Sheepishly, we will crawl back to politicians on our hands and knees, begging government to take care of us. It will be the ultimate triumph of liberalism.

But liberals would never accept this wager. While they may be skeptical of personal accounts, they also fear that maybe, just maybe, the accounts will be a smashing success.

Take the case of Chile, where in 1981 the country moved to a system of investment accounts similar to the one proposed by President Bush. Since its inception, the personal accounts have averaged returns of 10 percent a year above inflation.

"When the system was inaugurated, one-fourth of the eligible work force signed up in the first month," wrote Jose Pinera, the architect of Chile's privatization who works on Cato's Project on Social Security Choice. "Today 95 percent of covered workers participate."

Critics cite the U.S. stock market's performance in the early part of this decade as evidence of the risks associated with personal accounts. It is true that if you invested in the broader market five years ago, before the Internet bubble burst and corporate scandals shook Wall Street, you would have lost money. That is why it would be less advisable for a 60-year-old to be heavily concentrated in stocks.

But over, say, a 40-year time frame, short-term market fluctuations are rendered irrelevant. Since 1965, the Standard and Poor's 500 Index has enjoyed average annual returns, including dividends, of nearly 12 percent. And this is a 40-year period that included Vietnam, Watergate, two oil crises, two wars in Iraq, the Sept. 11 attacks, five recessions and seven bear markets.

This is not meant as an absolute prediction of what returns would look like if today's 25 year-olds were able to take advantage of personal accounts, but it merely demonstrates the potential to improve upon the pathetic 1.4 percent rate of return that can be expected under the nation's current "successful" retirement system.

Critics may counter that there's no guarantee that the U.S. stock market will do as well in the next 40 years as it has in the past. This is true. However, were the market to do significantly worse, it would suggest that the nation's economic problems are severe. It would be impossible for the current Social Security system to survive anyway.

People support personal accounts not because the Security System works too well, but because free markets work better.

Liberals who say otherwise are engaging in projection. It is they who stand in the way of reform out of fear that the accounts will succeed, that their favorite New Deal program will be exposed as a sham and that younger Americans will grow up less dependent on government.

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About the Author

Philip Klein is The American Spectator's Washington correspondent. You can follow him on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/Philipaklein