The Wall Street Journal

  • SEPTEMBER 12, 2011

Neither candidate is helping the cause of reform.

  • Republicans have been more frustrated than usual with their Presidential candidates, and last Tuesday’s debate exchange on Social Security between Rick Perry and Mitt Romney shows why. One candidate seemed to taunt his critics by showing disdain for anyone who supports the entitlement for seniors, while the other candidate sounded like a Democrat defending it.

Mr. Perry was asked about a passage from his recent book in which he called Social Security a Ponzi scheme. The question was inevitable, yet the Texas Governor gave the impression he hadn’t given it more than a few moments of thought.

“Anybody that’s for the status quo with Social Security today,” he said, “is involved with a monstrous lie to our kids, and it’s not right.” Young people who “expect that program to be sound, and for them to receive benefits when they research retirement age” should be disabused of that notion, Mr. Perry added, repeating the “lie” bit as if he had little more to say.

Give Mr. Perry credit for addressing one of the third rails of American politics, but that doesn’t mean he has to invite electrocution. The problem with his hot rhetoric is that it can turn off many voters before they even get a chance to listen to his reform proposals, assuming he eventually offers some.

He’s even technically right that Social Security is a species of Ponzi scheme (if not a criminal enterprise) in the sense that young people today are putting more into the system than they can possibly get out in retirement.


Associated PressMitt Romney and Rick Perry.

Part of the problem is that current seniors get more than they put in thanks to the formula for increasing benefits over time. Eugene Steuerle and Stephanie Rennane of the Urban Institute estimate that a two-earner couple both earning an average wage who retire in 2010 will get $906,000 in benefits having paid $588,000 in payroll taxes. The same couple who retires in 2030 will get $1.23 million (in constant dollars) while having paid $796,000.

Even a pyramid system such as this could be solvent if it took advantage of compound interest. But the overriding problem is that not a dime of the payroll contributions the government collects over a lifetime is saved and invested for a worker’s retirement. Social Security’s pay-as-you-go financing model means that 12.4% of all wages are transferred to current beneficiaries, the surplus dollars are spent by Congress on other things, and Social Security gets an IOU from the Treasury.

In other words, the program is building up debt even as benefits become less sustainable as the baby boomers begin to retire and the ratio of workers to seniors shrinks. The feds will then have to pay out of other tax revenue to meet Social Security’s obligations. This is the long-range problem Mr. Perry should attempt to explain, and the danger is that his rhetoric will scare the elderly rather than reassure them that reform is necessary for the sake of their grandchildren. He’s now running to represent Republicans as their Presidential nominee, not hawking a book on conservative talk radio.

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Editorial board members Mary O’Grady and James Taranto on last night’s GOP debate.

As for Mr. Romney, he seems to be taking Social Security assaults a notch or two beyond even the Democratic playbook. At the debate he implied Mr. Perry was “committed to abolishing Social Security,” and he has since made this a major campaign theme.

His press shop followed up with a memo claiming Mr. Perry “Believes Social Security Should Not Exist,” and Mr. Romney told a talk radio show that “If we nominate someone who the Democrats can correctly characterize as being opposed to Social Security, we would be obliterated as a party.”

We’d give Mr. Romney more credit for his professed political prudence if he were at least proposing some Social Security reforms of his own. But his recent 160-page economic platform avoids anything controversial on the subject. If Mr. Romney rides to the nomination by sounding like President Obama on Social Security, he will make any reform he would eventually need to attempt that much harder to accomplish.

The key point is that, unlike a Ponzi scheme, Social Security can be reformed and it will have to be if current workers are to receive any return on their current taxes. Everyone serious knows what the reform options areā€”from changing the benefits schedule, to “progressive indexing,” to raising the retirement age. We’d prefer private accounts so that young people could build wealth as a property right and not depend on the promises of politicians, while the money would be put to productive economic use in the meantime. Herman Cain mentioned it in last week’s debate. But if that’s too politically adventurous for the two Governors, maybe they can meet somewhere in between their rhetorical positions.


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