The press coverage of Bill Clinton’s Social Security plan has tended to emphasize that it is complicated. It would be closer to the truth to say that it does not exist. If it is complicated, it is for the same reason Whitewater was complicated: It was designed that way, to obscure its fraudulence.
In his State of the Union speech this January, Clinton urged that about 60 percent of the federal budget surplus be devoted to replenishing the Social Security trust fund. Within the week, Republicans were charging Clinton with an accounting trick. Since most of the federal surplus comes from the trust fund in the first place-right now, Social Security brings in far more in payroll taxes than it pays out to retirees-the administration was double-counting by pretending to add money that was already there.
Caught in what appeared to be a lie, the administration and its defenders did what comes naturally: say that “everybody does it.” Republicans and Democrats alike had for years pretended that the trust fund was in fine shape while simultaneously using it to finance the government’s other operations.
The sophisticated liberal argument went like this: What the administration was really doing was using the surplus to retire debt and, at the same time, piling up the trust fund with IOUs from the rest of the government. Those IOUs meant that when the crunch comes for Social Security, it will have a claim on general federal revenues in addition to the money it raises through payroll taxes. All of the accounting rigmarole, the administration told liberal journalists, was designed to block Republican tax cuts-a cause so manifestly just, these journalists agreed, as to excuse a little deception.
Promising to fund Social Security through general revenues had long been a controversial idea among liberals. The program would become more redistributive, since the income tax is more progressive than the payroll tax, but, by the same token, also more vulnerable to attacks as a form of welfare. What the promise does not do is actually raise revenues. When the crunch comes, the government will have to raise taxes and cut benefits by exactly as much as it would have to do if it dispensed with the IOU scheme altogether.
Will retiring debt make this dilemma easier, as even some Republicans seem to think? It won’t make anything worse, but if the idea is that retiring the debt will make it easier for the government to borrow when it needs to cover the Social Security shortfall, this plan is misconceived. Future borrowing will still be immense and swamp the amount of debt that will have been retired. And feeding more money to Social Security will make the already-dismal return it offers today’s workers that much worse.
Clinton proposed to increase the return by having the government invest some of the trust fund in the private sector. An independent board would supposedly make sure that decisions weren’t made on a political basis, just as with the Federal Reserve. Right-the same Fed that goosed the economy for Nixon, the same Fed whose chairman, Alan Greenspan, has risked his reappointment by speaking out against this plan. With this much money to play with, the government could hardly fail to distort capital markets.
With all these flaws, it was easy for the Congressional Budget Office and General Accounting Office to pick apart Clinton’s plan. In the Senate, no Democrat introduced Clinton’s budget; that was left to Republican Kit Bond of Missouri, who embarrassed the administration by forcing a 97-2 vote against it. Then John Ashcroft, the other Missouri Republican, offered an amendment prohibiting government investment and prevailed, 99-0.
But Clinton’s unseriousness does have consequences. Republicans may well be able to get a solid privatization plan through the Senate Finance Committee, where Democrats John Breaux of Louisiana, Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, and probably Chuck Robb of Virginia are open to the idea. But beyond that, the prospects for privatization dim: The left wing of the Democratic party is opposed, the White House has plenty of practice in demagoguery on entitlements, and the usual Republicans are skittish.
The advocates of privatization should not let their remarkable success so far blind them to the political dangers. But that doesn’t mean privatizers should retreat.
Republican consultant Ralph Reed, noting polls that show the public would prefer individual investment to government investment, says that Republicans shouldn’t be shy about picking a fight: “You have to take some risks in politics in order to win big victories. The American people are with us.”
Well, not quite. As is often the case, the conservative policy position is popular until it is linked to the Republicans. The public trusts Democrats much more on the issue. This would seem to suggest that Republicans need to build up their credibility. They’ve taken a stab at it by proposing to take Social Security off budget. This is a substantively meaningless exercise, but it is a way of showing that the program’s funds will no longer be raided. For now, though, the primary Republican task should be to persuade, not legislate.
It would be best to start outside the Social Security system. And here Clinton has suggested an idea that could prove worthwhile. In his State of the Union speech, he advocated establishing “USA Accounts”-a kind of government-matched 401(k) for workers. Since then, the administration has indicated that this match would take the form of a non-refundable tax credit. Since the worker’s own contribution would also be tax-free, this looks an awful lot like a tax cut. Conservatives are wary of the accounts, not least because Clinton proposed them. But their objections are weak. Yes, Clinton will try to make the accounts redistributive. Republicans should simply resist him. It’s an entitlement, conservatives shudder. In terms of political psychology, however, the accounts may function less as an entitlement than some privatization schemes would. In such plans, workers’ investment choices are limited to picking who will manage their accounts. This sort of privately administered entitlement wouldn’t reduce the public’s sense of dependence on government. USA Accounts, on the other hand, would bring millions of Americans directly into the investing class. They would get experience monitoring fund prices, calculating rates of return, and planning a portfolio. In time-and not too long a time-they would become receptive to more robust forms of privatization.
If conservatives continue to balk at USA Accounts, they have other options. Various bills before Congress, many of them sponsored by Democrats, propose expanding IRAs. That, too, would build support for privatization.