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December 19, 2004
David Warsh, Proprietor


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Second Time Farce?

Social Security in the United States is a program against old-age poverty. It provides insurance benefits to others, too: workers who become disabled, survivors of workers who die.

But mostly, by guaranteeing something between $12,000 and $20,000 a year to every participant, depending on their lifetime earnings, it’s a way of insuring that no elderly American citizen ever is completely poor, no matter how long he or she lives, however little he or she may have saved. Over seven decades, the program has been a great success, producing neither high administrative costs nor a hint of scandal.

So how disappointing is it to see George W. Bush preparing to attempt to dismantle it at the beginning of his second term?  Plenty, even though he had spoken about the possibility in glib terms all along.

At least the decision to go to war in Iraq was the result of a personal transformation in response to an unexpected and shocking attack. The authorization for the assault on Social Security is no more substantial than a series of arguments by neoconservative economists that Social Security diminishes personal thrift and a gleam in the eye of Newt Gingrich. (Gingrich is readying another “Contract with America” for January.)

Were the president to succeed in persuading Congress to go along with his “reform,” there is every reason to think that, in his hands, the measure would turn out the same way as has the campaign to bring democracy to Iraq. It would be an enormously costly misadventure in which a lot of people would get hurt — this time carried out in the name of “responsibility” and “the independence of ownership.”

There was, for a brief moment after the American election, some reason to hope that things could be different. To begin, Bush could have announced that he was going to do what Ronald Reagan had done in 1983:  ask Alan Greenspan to tweak the system with a combination of base-broadening, small tax increases and modest benefit cuts, just enough to restore long-term balance.

That would have begun a dialogue with Democrats about whether additional money could be found to establish the “personal” accounts that Bush favors. It might even have opened a door to one of those surprise “grand bargains” — like the one that produced the tax simplification act of 1986 (two brackets, no loopholes).

Alas, there are apparently no rabbits in the hat after all.

Those personal accounts by themselves would do nothing to redress the imbalance. They can be had in one of only three ways. With a massive tax increase. With a dramatic reduction in future retirees’ benefits, no way to pay for them. So he has been talking about borrowing the money — the third option — several trillion dollars.

It was no accident that Bush reached out to Bill Clinton in a speech last week in an attempt to attract bipartisan support. It was Clinton who first publicly addressed the need to rebalance the system — perhaps by investing up to 15 percent of its tax revenues in the stock market, in pursuit of higher returns. But Bush has grossly misrepresented the extent of the difficulty with Social Security by describing it as a “crisis.”

With no changes at all, the system will remain solvent until around 2050. Even then, when the surplus that is currently being laid up has been spent, its revenues will cover about 80 percent of its obligations. Half a percent of GDP would render it solvent well into the 22nd century. So while it is a problem, it is an entirely manageable one.

Besides, the Clinton with the most to say about the president’s plan is Mrs. Clinton, who has begun her campaign for re-election to the Senate in 2006 — probably a preface to a run for the presidency in 2008. The likelihood that she will help President Bush break up the Social Security system is nil.

More likely she will associate herself with “the Democrats’ plan,” a well-formulated and carefully documented book-length proposal for a combination of modest tax increases (1 percent on either side of the payroll tax), benefit cuts and base-broadening by Peter Diamond of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Peter Orzag of the Brookings Institution.

Maybe, in exchange for putting the overall system back in trim, she will offer the president her vote for a small opening to universal personal accounts, instead of the current system of voluntary individual retirement accounts.

Without a concrete proposal from the president, it is impossible to reach a conclusion about the political appeal of his system of “Personal Security,” with its individual accounts. But the political capital that the president has to spend may amount to far less than he thinks.

The war has been far more expensive and less successful than most Americans ever imagined it might be. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld increasingly is under fire from members of his own party. The president’s appointments are a mess.

Nor is it just the fiasco of putative Homeland Security chief Bernard Kerik’s withdrawn nomination. Treasury Secretary John Snow’s retention demonstrates the difficulty the administration is having recruiting top talent — a problem that extends to all the senior economic advisory positions.

Audacity may have reached its limits. Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first re-elect.

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