Clive Crook seems to want to both expand and privatize Social Security in part to address the real problem that retirees do not have enough money to have a decent standard of living. Before addressing his main policy proposal, it's worth addressing a few things that he gets wrong.
First, he complains that the program is adding to the deficit, telling readers to:
"Forget the 'trust fund' and its holdings of government debt. That’s money the government owes to itself: It nets out to zero."
Yes, I keep telling Peter Peterson to forget his holdings of government debt. That is simply money owed by the government.
Look, this is a real simple logical point. We keep a separate account for Social Security. Clive Crook and whoever else may not like that fact, but it happens to be reality.
That is why it is possible for Social Security to run out of money in a way that it is not possible for the Pentagon or State Department to run out of money. If Crook doesn't believe in the idea of Social Security being a separate account then his next sentence is nonsense:
"What counts is that the system is now adding to the budget deficit, and will add more with time."
If it's all one budget, then every spending program adds to the deficit all the time. What Crook wants to do is to ignore the $2.7 trillion in government bonds that Social Security built up over the last quarter century by taxing workers more than was needed to pay benefits. This is known as "stealing."
Crook then proposes two measures to eliminate projected shortfalls. One is to raise the retirement age. This proposal ignores the fact that many older workers, especially those with less education, work at physically demanding jobs where it will be difficult for them to work into their mid or late sixties.
His next proposal is means-testing. This one doesn't make much sense once you look at the data. While Peter Peterson may not need his Social Security, there are not many billionaires collecting benefits. To have any noticeable impact on the program's costs you would have to hit people with non-Social Security incomes of around $40k, and even then the gains would be limited.
However Crook is exactly right in saying that the current Social Security benefit is inadequate to support a decent retirement. To remedy this he proposes a mandatory contribution equal to 5 percent of wages to a new government-run retirement fund. (There would be subsidies for lower income workers, but Crook would probably leave many moderate-income workers hard hit with this 5 percent contribution.)
The idea of increasing the money put aside for retirement is fine, except he uses President Bush's proposal for individual accounts as his model. Of course President Bush did not want to have collectively invested money, he wanted people to have their own accounts where they could play around with their money. This would have added cost and increased risk compared to what Crook is suggesting.
As far as Crook's plan, it is not clear what the benefit is from having individuals get an investment return as opposed to a guaranteed benefit based on average returns. The difference is that the government need not worry about the timing of the market (it will survive through a down market), whereas individual workers have to worry a great deal about timing. If the government assumed this timing risk and paid workers an average return on their investment (e.g. 3.0 percent above the rate of inflation), then workers could avoid timing risk.
If there is a downside to going this route and upside to subjecting workers to the risk of market timing, it is hard to see what it is. Anyhow, Crook's plan clearly is not going anywhere any time soon, but it is good to at least see someone recognizing the need to increase, rather than decrease, retirement income.
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