Thursday, April 14, 2011

Your Retirement Ex-Social Security

Bring up Social Security to just about any American, Boomers included and you will get one reaction or the other. And it doesn't really matter whether you are young or old. You feel something is bound to happen to the program and although you may have no idea how it works, you believe that the way it currently does can't go on. Now opinions differ on the health of the program and the long-term sustainability of it but few argue that there aren't problems looming in the future. Is there?

The first reaction most feel is that the program can't continue on the way it has for decades to come. Bankruptcy, running out of funds, too many Baby Boomers, all get the blame for the demise of this important program. Whomever lit the match to this topic (someone on Wall Street I suspect with a keen eye on the potential windfall privatization would provide his/her business) has got to be pleased. A simple tinder of an idea has caught the public's attention and now we have a full-on brush fire.

So here's the rub: I'm not going to argue with those who have their mind's set on the end of the Social Security program as we know it. Let them think that it will not be around.

Let them believe that what is essentially a program to provide insurance that poverty won't grip those less fortunate, the disabled, the children who have lost parents or spouses who have lost loved ones, and those who did not have access to any additional cash to invest or save for retirement won't be penniless is worth tossing to the curb. Lawmakers seem to think that their suggestion that by simply telling the average American to save and invest more, work harder and longer, and in the process, feed their fear of not being able to retire in a lifestyle that is not sustainable on a single dollar less than they are currently making, that they are moving the country into a more prosperous future. They are not.

The bottom line is that the program will continue to exist. And so will the talk of its end. Why that conversation persists is puzzling. Even as fewer people contribute into the plan, those few actually contribute almost more than eight times as much as the post-WWII generation did. As Merton C. Bernstein, the Walter D. Coles Professor Emeritus at Washington University in St. Louis School of Law recently suggested, it is because of production. Workers are not only producing more output than previous generations, the work they are doing is better compensated. And that increased compensation according to Bernstein has closed the gap sufficiently. Is that simple equation likely to improve in the coming generations? Without a doubt. Yet little consideration is focused on that economic anomaly.

That's not to say that the program couldn't use a few additional tweaks. But preparing for the worst is not worth considering. And recent attempts by the GOP would actually create more debt not less should they try and change the program. It's a complicated and sort of odd way to think about it. The reality of what some of these proposed changes would bring about point to a flaw that cannot be overlooked: changing Social Security in the name of dealing with some future debt obligation we would leave our children would actually increase the debt limit we leave those kids.

Without getting into the vitriolic debate about the cost of government, the ridiculous ideas for reining in costs while two, possibly three wars are under way (and no talk of slowing spending down there) all while a recovery is under way, seems absurd. The bottom line still falls back on your ability to have enough to feel comfortable in retirement. If you exclude Social Security from your retirement calculations, then the onus of financing your retirement is on you. While I do not like the idea of a back-up plan (it suggests that the original plan has the potential to fail), Social Security not only acts as one, it is one that cannot be touched.

And surprisingly, despite all of the talk about its end, it will still be there for my grandchildren. Perhaps snot as robust. But doing the same thing it does now: providing insurance against poverty.

Paul Petillo is the Managing Editor of and a fellow Boomer


Roberta Warshaw said...

I hope you are right. I have started turning off the news whenever the right wingnuts come on to spew their rhetoric.

Adam said...

Social security and medicare are a growing part of the larger political budget debate. I don't see how we can continue to on the path of allowing the national debt to increase, with the rising demand for benefits. We're on an unfortunate collision course and the bigger challenge will be for our society to solve this without burdening our children and grandchildren with such an immense debt.