THERE ARE A FEW possible ways to understand the miniaturized Social Security personal accounts proposal put forth by congressional Republicans last week: as a political inoculation against accusations that the GOP is trying to undermine the system, as a devious, camel's-nose-under-the-tent effort to peddle personal accounts to a balky public or as a laudable attempt to put some movement into the stalled campaign to fix Social Security. What the plan is not is a serious, stand-alone repair for Social Security. Indeed, its own sponsors don't claim it is.
The underlying concept of the proposals unveiled last week in the House and Senate is to use the Social Security surplus to finance personal accounts. Between 2006 and 2016, while payroll taxes going into the Social Security trust fund still exceed benefits being paid out, the excess would be parceled into small personal accounts invested in Treasury bonds. After a few years, account holders would be offered the choice of investing in other, riskier but perhaps higher-earning funds as well. When they retired, recipients would have their personal accounts, but other benefits would be reduced based on the amounts diverted to the accounts. Workers who died before retiring would be able to leave accounts to their heirs.
Taken at face value, this Mini-Me version makes little sense. It would require an enormous and costly administrative apparatus for accounts that would have only 11 years' worth of contributions. What's really taking place is a gamble that these accounts, once introduced, can be expanded and made permanent -- that the accounts would continue even after the Social Security system moves into deficit. But proponents of personal accounts carved out of payroll taxes ought to be able to sell that notion to the public on the merits. If they can't -- and right now it looks that way -- the program shouldn't be introduced through the back door.
An argument in favor of these accounts is that they would amount to the ultimate lockbox, forcing politicians to stop spending the Social Security surplus on other government programs. But it hasn't exactly been a secret that Social Security surpluses are being used to pay the government's current bills and to enable tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. Where's the evidence that preventing politicians from doing that and consequently raising the reported deficit by $90 billion a year or so would somehow summon up the discipline that's been lacking previously? Proposing a personal-account plan without any accompanying measure to improve Social Security's long-term solvency seems more like evidence of continuing lack of fiscal discipline.