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Making Social Security less generous isn't the answer

By Ezra Klein
Washington Post staff writer
Sunday, September 5, 2010; G01

There are a lot of things Congress doesn't know right now. What to do about jobs, for instance. Who'll be running the House come January. How to balance the budget. But there is one thing that both parties increasingly seem to agree on: You should work longer.

Raising the Social Security retirement age has become as close to a consensus position as exists in American politics. House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) supports it. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) has said that "we could and should consider a higher retirement age." And for a while, I agreed with them, too. It seemed obvious: People live longer today, and so they should work later into life. But as I've looked at the issue, I've decided that I was wrong. So let me be the skunk at the party. We should leave the retirement age alone. In fact, we should leave Social Security alone -- unless we're making it more, rather than less, generous.

Social Security provides disability insurance and survivor's benefits, but when people talk about it, they tend to be referring to its role as a program that provides income support to retirees. The average monthly benefit of $1,170 replaces about 39 percent of the person's pre-retirement earnings. Over the next two decades, the "replacement rate" is slated to drop to 31 percent. That is less than in most developed countries -- the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ranks it 25 out of 30 member nations.

The system, in other words, is not that generous, and it's becoming less so every year. The age at which you can begin collecting full Social Security benefits is moving from 65 to 67, as part of a deal struck in the 1980s to ensure the system's solvency. And all this at a time when employers are getting rid of defined-benefit pensions, which means that most workers will have no guaranteed retirement income except for Social Security.

Which brings us to Social Security's financial "crisis." The issue isn't that Social Security is spending too much or that we're living too long. It's that we're not having enough children (or letting in enough immigrants). As Stephen C. Goss, the system's chief actuary, has written, Social Security projects an imbalance "because birth rates dropped from three to two children per woman." That means there are relatively fewer young people paying for the old people. "Importantly," Goss continues, "this shortfall is basically stable after 2035." In other words, we only have to fix Social Security once.

The size of that fix is significant, but not astonishing. Over the next 75 years, the shortfall will be equal to about 0.7 percent of gross domestic product. How much is 0.7 percent of GDP? To put that in perspective, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities calculates that it's about as much as George W. Bush's tax cuts for the rich will cost over the same period. Saying we can afford those cuts -- which is the consensus Republican position -- but not Social Security's outlay is nonsensical. Coming up with 0.7 percent of GDP isn't a crisis. It's a question of priorities.

That doesn't mean that Social Security shouldn't be on the table when we look at how to balance the budget. Everything should be on the table. And Social Security is our single largest program -- though Medicare is projected to overtake it in the next couple of years. But if you really put everything on the table -- the health-care system, the tax code, military spending, farm subsidies, etc. -- then raising the retirement age or otherwise cutting Social Security stops looking so good.

Start with the basic rationale for raising the retirement age. As Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) has argued, when Social Security was signed into law, the retirement age was 65 and life expectancy was 63. "The numbers added up pretty well back then," he said on Fox News. But that's misleading. That figure was driven by high infant mortality. If you were a white male who'd made it to age 60 in 1935, you could expect 15 more years going forward. If you're a white male who lives to 60 today, you can expect 20 more years going forward.

Moreover, those averages conceal a lot of inequality. In 1972, a 60-year-old male worker who made less than the median income had a life expectancy of 78 years. By 2001, he had a life expectancy of 80 years. Meanwhile, workers in the top half of the income distribution shot to 85 years from 79. Insofar as the argument for raising the retirement age is that "Social Security beneficiaries live a lot longer today than they did in 1935," it should be restated as: "Social Security beneficiaries tend to live somewhat longer today than they did in 1935, and that's much more true of rich beneficiaries than poor beneficiaries."

And so what? Lurking beneath this conversation is an unquestioned assumption: We live longer, so we should work longer. That's pretty intuitive to members of Congress, who seem to like their jobs and don't seem to like the idea of retiring. It's also pretty intuitive to blogger/columnists, who spend their time in air-conditioned rooms opining about pension programs. But most people don't work in Congress or in the media. They work on their feet. They strain their backs. They're bored silly at the end of the day. By the time they're in their 60s, they want to retire.

You see that reflected in Social Security. Age 66 is when you get full benefits. But most people begin taking Social Security at age 62. They get less, but they can retire earlier. To them, the trade-off is worth it. And remember, the country is much richer than it was in 1935. Adjusting for inflation, our gross domestic product in 1935 was $865 billion. In 2009, it was more than $12 trillion. We have more than enough money to buy ourselves some leisure time at the end of our lives. At least if that's one of our priorities.

Polling suggests that it is. An August survey from Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research tested reactions to a variety of Social Security fixes. One of the options was raising the retirement age to 70. Two-thirds of respondents opposed it. Another option was eliminating the cap on payroll taxes so that well-off workers pay the tax on their full income, just as middle-income workers do now. A solid 61 percent supported it.

That's almost the reverse of the conversation in Washington, where affluent people who like their jobs propose cutting benefits for the poor (which is, after all, what raising the retirement age would do) rather than lowering benefits or increasing the payroll tax on, well, themselves. Which is not to say that we should be raising taxes or cutting benefits on the better-off, either.

The universally unpleasant options for reform are a testament to Social Security's efficiency. It's a simple transfer program, with administrative costs that amount to less than 0.9 percent of total spending. There's not much fat to cut.

That can't be said for much else in American public policy. Our health-care system costs twice as much as the German system and doesn't deliver better results. Our defense sector is wasteful and bloated. Our tax code could raise more money and do less to harm growth if we cleaned it out. Our home prices are driven upward by the mortgage interest tax deduction. Our health insurance premiums are goosed by the exclusion of employer-sponsored insurance from taxable income.

Reforming any of those sectors (or, in the case of health care, reforming it more) would be politically difficult, but would mean better policy. Reforming Social Security will be politically difficult and result in worse policy. That's the good thing about putting everything on the table. It allows you to think more clearly about what should be taken off.

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