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Social Security Reform -  

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  1. 1. Are you in favor of Social Security reform even if it means higher taxes?

    • Yes.
    • No.

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1. Is there really a Social Security crisis?

Some people say Social Security's financing problems are just a function of pessimistic economic projections. If the economy grows faster, they say, Social Security won't go broke. And so they then ask, "Why make big changes now for a problem that may never occur?" Unfortunately, that view is wrong.

Two independent panels of experts examined the trustees' projections of how our workforce and economy will grow. The panels found the trustees' estimates to be reasonable or maybe even a little optimistic regarding the future of the Social Security system's financing. In other words, instead of a "phony crisis," we might actually have something even worse than expected.

Social Security is safe today but will run deficits in just 12 years. That's not a very long time to fix the world's biggest government program. Moreover, the longer we wait, the worse the problem will become. For every year that we wait, Social Security reform will cost an additional $600 billion.

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2. Wouldn't moving to a system of personal accounts cost too much? I've heard the transition costs would be enormous.

The transition period is by far the most serious concern about a personal retirement account system. Under the current Social Security pay-as-you-go system all of the money going into Social Security is being spent on retirees' benefits and other government programs. How then can we put some Social Security money in private accounts and keep paying retirees' benefits? The short answer is that Social Security is already $12.8 trillion in debt. By switching to a personal retirement account system and taking advantage of compound asset growth we will be able to reduce that debt. Social Security's costs are already there.

By switching to personally invested retirement accounts we can move some of those costs forward and reduce Social Security's debt and bring the system back into solvency. Tough decisions must be made about where to get the money to move those costs forward and pay them now so that we are not paying more later. While paying those costs now may seem expensive, it is much less expensive than continuing with the current system.

Think of your own credit card debts. Rather than making the minimum payments for the rest of your life, it would be much more fiscally responsible to pay them off today. And doing so would save you a lot of money in the long run. Of course, it is not always easy to find the extra money to pay those bills today. Tough choices may have to be made.

That's what we are asking of Congress. We're asking it to make tough choices and pay the transition cost today, so that our children and grandchildren won't face much bigger debts tomorrow. Yes, we will have to do some belt tightening in order to fund personal accounts in the next several years while reducing Social Security's debt over the long haul. Tough decisions will have to be made about where to reduce federal spending. Cato has made some recommendations about where federal spending should be reduced, such as cutting pork-barrel spending and corporate welfare. Remember, because Social Security is already $11.9 trillion in debt, those tough choices will have to be made even if we don't switch to personal retirement accounts.

Further, we must not overlook the benefits to the economy that come from increased savings and investment.

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3. Aren't personal accounts too risky?

Of course we all know that stocks can go down as well as up. But over the long term, investing is remarkably safe. Over the last 80 years, private investment in the United States has earned an average annual return of nearly 8 percent. That period included not only the market decline of the last few years but the Great Depression, World War II, several smaller wars, numerous recessions, the "stagflation" of the 1970s, and the bursting of the dot.com bubble as well. We need to remember that, with compound interest and stocks held over the working life of a typical U.S. worker, the money grows, even if the returns on that investment are lower in some years than in others.

Some people ask, "What if I had had a personal retirement account and had retired in 2002 when the tech bubble burst and the stock market lost so much money?" Good question. If you retired in 2002, most likely you would have been contributing to your personal retirement account for at least 25 years and probably longer. If you started investing in 1978, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was 742. At the low point of 2002, it was 7,286. Despite the crash, you would have received a far higher return than you would have seen from Social Security. The numbers are even more amazing for 40 years of investing. Retirement investments are long-term investments, and historically long-term investing in the American stock market is the best deal going.

In contrast, Social Security is becoming an increasingly bad deal for workers. We know that young workers can expect a return on their Social Security taxes of 1.5 percent or less. Furthermore, workers and retirees must keep in mind that Congress can change their benefits at any time. Thus workers and retirees must always consider the political risk of paying into the Social Security system when they have no legal right to benefits.

Beware of those who refer to Social Security as providing "guaranteed" benefits. Retirees have no legal right to benefits, and nothing prevents Congress from changing the benefit levels at any time. Thus the risk of being in the stock market must be weighed against the political risk of a program that provides no legal rights to participants.

Moreover, there will still be a safety net. Every personal retirement account proposal includes a safety net such that no one will fall below a certain level of retirement benefits. The Cato plan proposes a safety net so that no one will fall below the poverty line. That is a higher level than the current minimum benefit under Social Security.

And finally, keep in mind that personal retirement accounts are voluntary. If you are uncomfortable with the stock and bond market with all of its risks and you are more comfortable with the current Social Security system with all of its risks you can always choose to stay in the current Social Security system.

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4. Are there other ways to fix Social Security besides personal accounts?

Former president Bill Clinton laid out the very limited options for fixing the problem: raise taxes, cut benefits, or privately invest. Certainly, it is possible to raise taxes or cut benefits enough to prop up the existing system for a little while longer. But the Social Security payroll tax is already the biggest tax that the average American family pays. Do we really want our legacy to our children and grandchildren to be the largest tax increase in American history? Cutting benefits would be no better. Already, younger workers can expect a low, below-market return on their Social Security taxes. Benefit cuts would only make a bad deal worse.

Besides, raising taxes or cutting benefits would not do anything about Social Security's biggest problem: workers have no ownership of or control over their money. Only a system of personal accounts would give that ownership and control to workers.

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5. What about raising the tax cap?

Workers currently pay Social Security taxes on the first $90,000 of their wages. Some people have suggested that the cap be raised or even eliminated altogether. The result would be the largest tax increase in U.S. history, $541 billion in new taxes over the first five years alone. That tax increase would fall primarily, not on the superrich, but on many upper-middle-class families and small businesses. Many experts believe that such an enormous tax increase would hurt the U.S. economy and cost millions of jobs. Even worse, it would do relatively little to fix Social Security. Studies show that removing the tax cap altogether would extend the solvency of Social Security by only seven years.

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6. What about personal accounts in addition to Social Security?

There are two different types of personal accounts. Carve-out accounts would allow you to privately invest a portion of your current payroll taxes, "carving out" a portion of those taxes. Add-on accounts would require contributions over and above current payroll taxes. Some people have suggested "add-on" accounts as a way to give people the advantages of private savings and investment, without changing the basic structure of Social Security. However, there are two problems with add-on accounts. First, they do nothing to solve Social Security's financial problems. They would not change the program's pay-as-you-go structure or reduce Social Security's unfunded liabilities by a penny. Second, they would not give workers any more ownership of or control over their retirement funds. That is of particular importance to middle- and low-income workers who would not be able to afford the additional contributions.

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7. Would personal accounts cut benefits?

Under any reasonable projections, personal accounts would actually provide higher benefits than Social Security can pay. It is important to remember that Social Security cannot pay all the benefits that it has promised. Unless there are huge tax increases in the future, Social Security will have to cut benefits by 23 percent.

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8. If we move to personal accounts, will it hurt people on Social Security today?

No one age 55 or older will have his or her Social Security benefits changed in any way. Despite scare tactics by opponents of personal accounts, no one who is currently receiving Social Security benefits under the old system is going to have them taken away or reduced. This proposal is about making a better system for their children and grandchildren.

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9. The trust fund will keep Social Security solvent for decades. What's the hurry?

The trust fund will keep Social Security solvent-on paper. But it cannot delay the need for tax increases or spending cuts by a day or reduce them by a dollar. The reason: the trust fund holds special-issue government bonds (really just IOUs), and when Social Security redeems them the government will have to raise taxes or cut other spending to produce the needed cash.

For example, in 2027 Social Security will run a payroll tax deficit of $200 billion (in today's dollars). If we didn't have a trust fund, we'd need to raise taxes or cut other spending by $200 billion. But we do have a trust fund. Yet to repay the fund's bonds, we still need to raise taxes, borrow, or cut other spending by $200 billion.

Besides, the person who will retire in 2041 is a 31-year-old worker today. If we give young workers the choice of putting some of their taxes in personal accounts now, they will have the opportunity to begin accumulating money for their retirement. Those funds will mean that they will receive much better retirement benefits than Social Security would be able to pay them. Shame on us if we don't let younger workers begin saving and investing today and then when they retire shed a tear about their benefit cuts and say, "If only they had been allowed to invest privately back in 2005."

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