Social Security

Solidarity or Speculation?

by Paul Precht

Dollars and Sense magazine, September/October 1998


Those who would privatize Social Security ask us to give up a pension with guaranteed benefits for a chance to do better on the stock market. While the privatizers boast loudly of better returns, they whisper about benefit cuts and wink at mutual fund companies skimming off profits.

We're better off keeping a system that rewards work and guarantees a decent retirement.

All the privatization plans currently on offer have three things in common: they reduce the level of benefits; they take money out of the Social Security fund for those benefits, and they force you to use that money to play the stock market. With no guarantee of return.

If the market is on the upswing when you retire or fall off an I-beam, you can expect at least, maybe a little more, than what is currently your right. That's because stocks earn more than government bonds (where the Social Security Trust Fund invests its surplus). They are also riskier. If the stock market crashes on your retirement date and doesn't recoup its losses before you die, you are in serious trouble.

But Social Security aims to make retirement a matter of solidarity and rights, not luck. Society has a collective responsibility to take care of its old and infirm -that's the solidarity part. And we have a right to retire on a decent income once we've done our share of work. We fulfill our responsibility by paying into the system and by electing a government that guarantees our rights.

Because people are expected to live longer than in the past, and because baby boomers will expand the rolls of retirees, pessimistic projections have the system running a 23% deficit in about 30 years. To be prudent, we must come up with more money. That is a painful political decision, but the privatizers avoid that by promising a free lunch from the stock market.

There is no free lunch.

The privatizers' projections are based on a trick, as economist Dean Baker of the Economic Policy Institute has shown. To fuel the fear that Social Security is going broke, they predict slow economic growth-not enough people working or people working for lower wages means less money for Social Security. To present privatization as the solution, they forecast high returns from the stock market. However, the stock market usually provides high returns only during periods of fast growth when profits are high. For both slow growth and high returns to be possible, we would need a long-term speculative bubble, with overly optimistic investors continually bidding up stock prices. That's too risky for a system that provides 60% of retirees with half their retirement income.

The more extreme versions of "reform" reduce monthly payouts to about $400 per month, i.e. poverty level. Others are more subtle, cutting payouts by recalculating increases in the cost of living.

But does $700 - the average monthly retirement payment - seem like a windfall that needs trimming?

The stealth reformers would also raise the retirement age to 70. It's soon going up from 65 to 67 under a 1983 agreement, so what's the big deal? Well, the '83 agreement virtually eliminated the retirement of the average black man given his short life span. The hike from 65 to 70 would cut the average white man's retirement years nearly in half, since his median life span is 76.

The same politicians who are squeamish about raising the social security tax on the wealthy have no problem tacking a mandatory five years onto your working life.

That's because they have other agendas beyond shoring up Social Security. Number one: greed. Mutual fund companies stand to make millions managing the mandated individual retirement accounts. Number two: ideology. Switching to individual retirement accounts embeds in Social Security the principle that it is the individual's investment savvy and not their work that guarantees retirement or disability pay. It fosters the libertarian ideal that caring for the disabled and elderly is not society's responsibility but up to the individual. Good luck or bad, sickness or health, cushy inheritance or low wage job, your on your own.

Those of us who don't share that world view face a challenge: both to come up with practical solutions for Social Security and to combat the view that the stock market provides a painless solution. Why not increase social security taxes on the wealthy-only their first $68,400 of wage income is currently taxed. Or fund shortfalls out of general revenues by hiking corporate income taxes and cutting military spending?

A viable plan that spreads the pain among the classes will go a long way towards combating public cynicism. So will an energetic movement that makes social solidarity a real alternative to the anxious and isolated scramble to secure a decent retirement.

Paul Precht is a printer, freelance writer and D&S intern

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