Social Security cure: procrastination
You don't have to look hard for suggested solutions to Social Security. President Bush proposes private accounts. Liberals want a number of minor tweaks. One common proposal is to raise the maximum level of wages subject to payroll tax from its current $90,000 to, say, $150,000.
Here's another solution to the alleged crisis: Do nothing.
That's right. Ignore the doomsayers. Wait for a decade or two, and see if the gloomy predictions are coming true.
It's not as crazy as it sounds because of one simple fact: No one really knows whether the forecast of a solvency problem will come true or just gradually fade away.
Why? Because economists have great difficulty making accurate long-term projections. And 75-year economic forecasts - upon which all the current alarm is based - are about as reliable as the Farmers' Almanac.
A little history helps to clarify the picture. In 1995, the Social Security Trustees said the program would be unable to pay full benefits in 2030. Now, a decade later, the date is 2042.
But that is just an actuarial estimate based on various assumptions. Depending on which assumptions you make, the long-term outlook is rosy or grim. Using more detailed assumptions, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) says that date won't happen until 2052 - a decade later.
Why the difference? The CBO assumes women will be working longer, in effect paying their own way in terms of Social Security benefits, rather than relying on their husbands' benefits.
Other factors play an even bigger role in the outlook. Will the economy and productivity - factors crucial to the level of payroll-tax revenues - behave better or worse than assumed? Will immigration decline, as assumed, or increase?
Trying to predict that far out is like the Eisenhower administration imagining 2005 - without a clue about the Vietnam War, '70s-era inflation, the rise of Silicon Valley, the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the Internet.
In March, the trustees will issue a new annual report containing their latest projection for Social Security's crunch time. And who are these trustees? The majority are cabinet secretaries - political appointees - who select among a range of assumptions provided by civil servants.
Politics - those of the Bush administration - could play a role. Sophisticates will be looking to see whether the trustees have selected different assumptions. President Bush admits his private-account program will do nothing to make the Social Security system more solvent.
"The real motive is they don't like big-government programs," says Bernard Wasow, an opponent of partial privatization at the Century Foundation in New York. "If the alternatives are rushing to judgment now in panic or waiting to see how things work out, there is no question of what is the prudent decision."
Wait 20 years, he says.
"A perfectly sensible proposal," says Stephen Spear, an economist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "I don't see any rush."
The trustees project that the system will have to start drawing down a huge hoard of special Treasury bonds in 2018. And, privatization advocates say, Uncle Sam would then have to start raising taxes or cutting spending to pay off his IOUs.
Not so, notes Professor Spear. Washington could just refinance the federal debt, just as it has for decades.
After 20 years, it should be clearer whether some crucial assumptions have panned out. Has longevity increased a lot or a little? Will women have fewer or more babies than assumed?
For years, men were retiring earlier and earlier, drawing on Social Security at age 62. That pattern has reversed in the past year or two. Will that continue? If so, the system saves money.
In any case, a fix could be made later. Under the trustees' assumptions, paying full benefits would take 6.5 percent of gross domestic product in 75 years, up from 4.5 percent now. Not, in Mr. Wasow's view, a big deal.
The Social Security payroll tax would need to rise from 12.5 percent today to about 18 percent, presumably on far higher wages than those of today.
The last major reform of the Social Security system was done in 1983. It was within months of not being able to pay all promised benefits. Today, projections say it has 13 years (or 37 years) to reach that stage.