The Washington Post

Further thoughts on Social Security reform

I got a bit pressed for space in my column on Social Security reform, so I wanted to spend a few minutes making some of the points and responding to some of the objections I didn’t get to include in the article.

1) The question is “now or later”: Over the next 75 years, the Social Security shortfall is a bit less than 1 percent of GDP. That equals out to trillions of dollars, but the jaw-dropping nature of that sum says more about the size of our economy than the size of the shortfall. One percent of GDP is very manageable. And, eventually, someone is going to manage it. So the question isn’t, as some would have it, whether Social Security should be reformed. The question is whether you think now is a better or worse time than later. The argument for now is that pro-Social Security Democrats control the Senate and the White House. That might not be true in a few years, and if Social Security reform is left until then, the outcome may be worse. The argument for later is that it might be better to attempt Social Security reform at a time when people aren’t thinking about everything in terms of deficits. I can see both sides of it.


2) How important is universality? In the column, I suggest lifting the cap on payroll taxes. I’m also open to things like reducing benefits for upper-income beneficiaries, particularly if the money is used to increase the minimum benefit, which is badly needed. But some of Social Security’s friends reject that approach as they worry that it’ll reduce the program’s support from high earners and thus its political viability. I just don’t think there’s much evidence for this. Even programs that are very narrowly targeted — think Medicaid, or food stamps — have grown over time. That growth has often been fitful, but it’s happened. That suggests to me that these social service programs are more popular than people give them credit for, and Social Security is so beloved, and targeted at such a sympathetic group, that I think it’s doubly true in that case.

3) Don’t be scared by editorials. One of the arguments I make in the piece is that Social Security’s defenders are unnecessarily afraid that any process of reform will lead to cuts. You see that pretty clearly in Roger Hickey’s response to me, and to some degree in Dean Baker’s reply, as well. I get where they’re coming from, but I think they overestimate the power of editorial boards and Pete Peterson and underestimate the power of Harry Reid and Max Baucus and seniors and polls. Cutting Social Security benefits has been popular in Washington circles for a long time, but it doesn’t make it into policy very often. And that’s because it’s really, truly, extremely unpopular in the country itself. I think that should serve as the baseline for evaluating the politics of this, as nobody gets elected by editorial boards.

To sum up, I think a lot of people agree that Social Security — and our retirement-security infrastructure more broadly — could be better designed. But I also think a lot of people see Social Security as an existing win that now needs to be defended, as opposed to a popular policy that can be perfected and even expanded. Increasingly, I’m not sure that’s the right way to look at it. Social Security is popular. The right solutions to Social Security are popular (indeed, lifting the payroll tax cap is the only popular solution). And my hunch is the right policies for expanding retirement savings will be popular, too.

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