Looting Social Security
The real crisis, in any case, is not Social Security but the colossal failure of the private pension system. Most people know this, either because their 401(k) account is pitifully inadequate, or their company dumped its pension plan, or the plummeting stock market devoured their savings. Obama can protect himself with the public by speaking candidly about this reality and proposing a forceful, long-term solution. He should expand the guarantees that ordinary people need to get their families through these adverse times. Instead of taking away old promises to people, the president should make some new ones. Healthcare reform is obviously an important imperative, but so is retirement security.
The solution to retirement insecurity is the creation of a national pension, alongside Social Security, that would be the bedrock social insurance. Improving Social Security benefits is one step, but it cannot possibly restore what so many middle-class families have lost. Tinkering with the 401(k) would be doomed, because it is basically a tax subsidy for the middle and upper classes, another way to avoid taxes that failed utterly to produce real savings [see Greider, "Riding Into the Sunset," June 27, 2005].
The new universal pension would be mainly self-financing--that is, funded by mandatory savings--but the system would operate as a government-supervised nonprofit, not manipulated by corporate executives or Wall Street firms. A national pension would combine the best qualities of defined-benefit plans and individual accounts. Each worker's pension would be individualized and portable, moving with job changes, but the savings would be pooled with others for diversified investment.
There is nothing radical about this approach. It follows the form of the government's thrift savings plan for civil servants and members of Congress, TIAA-CREF for college professors or other union pension plans jointly managed by labor and management trustees. The crucial difference is that since the new universal pension would be nonprofit, nobody would get to play self-interested games with the money that employees are storing in it for retirement. People could check their accumulated balance at any time.
Washington would set the performance standards and enforce proper behavior, but the operations of retirement programs could be widely decentralized among many private organizations or sector by sector. Other nations, like Australia, have proved this can be both democratic and reliable. Economist Teresa Ghilarducci of the New School has designed a promising and plausible plan (available at the Economic Policy Institute's website, epi.org, or in her book When I'm Sixty-Four: The Plot Against Pensions and the Plan to Save Them). With payroll savings of 5 percent and government-guaranteed returns on investment, average workers could count on pensions that would replace 70 percent of pre-retirement earnings when combined with Social Security. Low-wage earners could be subsidized by government to make up for inadequate pay. Private retirement plans that collect a higher percentage of pay and provide higher benefits could continue, so long as they exceed the federal standard. One great virtue of this approach is that nobody gets left behind, dependent on charity, the predatory instincts of the financial system or the magic of the marketplace.
Another great virtue is that a national pension would confront the country's glaring economic weakness--the collapse of national savings. As the economy digs out of its hole, restoring household savings will be crucial for ultimate recovery and for reduction of our dangerous dependence on foreign capital. Obviously, any system that adds a new payroll tax cannot be introduced at the depth of a recession, but the work of constructing it can begin right now, with the new system phased in gradually, as economic conditions permit. Instead of second-guessing the past and destroying its accomplishments, this reform would look forward and create conditions for a more promising future. Nobody gets a free lunch, and everybody has to take personal responsibility. But unlike what the governing elites are attempting, nobody gets thrown over the side.