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And Now--Social Security | The Nation

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And Now--Social Security

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Social Security's future is the first, and gargantuan, legislative issue of the post-Monica era. Moreover--in stark contrast to the cigars, secret tapes, dress stains and related prurient detritus that have crippled the public conversation these past thirteen months--this issue deserves our deep, authentic and undivided attention.

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Without Social Security, half of all Americans over 65 today would live in poverty. In the next century, the issue of Social Security's health will grow even more important--and not just because baby boomers will soon join the ranks of the elderly. Thanks in part to the vaunted global economy, fewer than half of US workers currently retire with private pensions. And thanks to changes in federal pension regulations some years ago, most of those who do have private pensions now participate in "defined contribution" plans--plans that fix what is put into their retirement accounts but make no guarantee of what will come out in retirement, as older "defined benefit" plans once did.

In his State of the Union address in January, President Clinton outlined his three-point proposal for "saving" Social Security:

(1) Dedicate roughly three-fifths of projected federal budget surpluses to shoring up the system's reserves;

(2) Invest a limited portion of those reserves through the government in the stock market, for potentially higher gains;

(3) Create Universal Savings Accounts--the rough equivalent of IRA or 401(k) accounts--so that all working Americans can put aside some of their income tax-free and invest it for optimal growth, with the government chipping in for the lower paid.

The package revealed the Clinton whom The Economist once dubbed "the Exocet President of policy," a poll-guided, issues-tactical genius, stealing plans from allies and opponents alike and making them his own. Early polling by AARP and other groups found overwhelming public support for Clinton's proposals.

But as the past year has taught us, overwhelming public support bears but lightly on democracy as practiced in Versailles-on-the-Potomac. Within hours after the State of the Union, Republican leaders stumbled over one another to pronounce Clinton's Social Security package dead on arrival. As Henry Hyde and his fellow House managers must now ruefully know, however, Republicans may not control the fate of Social Security any more than they did impeachment, despite their solid Congressional majorities.

Where should progressives and liberals stand? Surely we're for preserving the shared pool--not just of funds but of trust and mutual obligation--that Social Security represents, and we're against radical privatization. But Clinton's plan makes the other choices more difficult, because it's more deeply rooted in the hard-edged practice of politics than in principle. Here, then, are some of the issues and questions we should be raising:

(1) Is Social Security really in jeopardy--and thus in need of major changes? Projections that show system shortfalls (not bankruptcy) starting thirty years from now are just that--actuarial projections that use very low economic and population growth rates, well below historical trends. Tweak those assumptions just slightly and the whole "crisis" disappears. But most Americans have been convinced by the press and the politicians that a crisis looms out there, so being dismissive may not be our best card.

(2) How likely is it that the surplus pledged to shore up Social Security will materialize? Politicians and the press talk about the Congressional Budget Office's projected $2.6 trillion surplus as if it were cash in hand. But official Washington was just as entranced by this catnip almost twenty years ago, when Ronald Reagan "guaranteed" that surpluses would follow from his "supply side" tax cuts. Reagan was wrong. Surplus projections, especially when spread over fifteen years, have a way of changing. Explaining why the public should be wary of projected surpluses to secure Social Security's future is, realistically and politically, a stronger card.

Progressives should underscore "lifting the cap" as the fairest and most secure alternative to relying on surpluses. What's "lifting the cap"? Individual wage earners with incomes over $72,600 make no additional contributions to Social Security (any dividends and interest they receive aren't even taxed) yet receive the same maximum benefit. Senators and Representatives, for example, who earn roughly twice that amount, thus pay an effective Social Security tax rate half that of someone earning $15,000 or $50,000. That's not fair.

The cap has already been lifted on Medicare contributions; it should be raised on Social Security retirement and disability as well. Lifting the cap would change the taxes of only the highest-earning 6 or 7 percent, yet if it were done (and if dividends and interest were also taxed) two-thirds of the officially projected Social Security shortfall would disappear.

(3) How should we feel about investing some of Social Security in the stock market? Right now, like many Americans, we're divided. Some progressives like this piece of the plan for the same reasons conservative Republicans hate it: It's an opportunity for public policy to affect capital markets on issues like tobacco, the environment, human and labor rights, etc. But others point out that the track record of state and local public employee--and even union--pension funds shows surprising resistance to such socially responsible investing. And as a potential wedge for privatizers to press their case later for further "flipping" Social Security toward purely individual accounts, opening up the existing system to stock market investment needs long and careful scrutiny.

(4) Universal Savings Accounts. Here the devil really is in the details: For the majority of Americans who don't have an IRA or 401(k), a tax-sheltered vehicle for retirement savings in addition to Social Security would be a plus. However, the explanation for why these Americans don't have an IRA or 401(k) is simple: They don't earn enough to save. Thus, the level of government contribution to low- and moderate-income accounts is crucial. We think it should be supplemented by a cut in Social Security tax rates for lower-wage workers, something not currently on the table. (And substantially raising the minimum wage and earned-income tax credit wouldn't hurt either.)

We also need to know more about how these accounts will be structured, what choices will be offered, what protections assured. Most Americans don't own stocks or bonds, and of those who do, a large majority lack even minimal sophistication about what they're doing, according to recent data from the SEC.

(5) Finally, political reality and Bill Clinton. To the surprise of many, the President's Social Security proposals weren't like his welfare and trade bills, which started well to the right of center. The question is where he goes from here--whether he caves to the right, as he has in the past, or turns his near-death impeachment experience at the hands of vindictive Republicans into a different politics, holding on to the upper hand and reaching out, as his State of the Union address did overall, to his long-abused and neglected Democratic base.

Whether Monicagate has taught Clinton something deeper about the merits of fidelity, political as well as marital, remains to be seen. But we need to keep defending Social Security and its principles of communal risk and responsibility--in the midst of our era's neo-social Darwinism--whatever the ol' Arkansas traveler has on his mind, or up his sleeve. This is a fight that really matters.

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