First, we must identify the problem with Social Security.
The problem is that we are currently promising future retirees whose numbers will grow by rather a lot over the next several decades that their real benefits will keep on increasing forever, and delivering on these promises will impose an ever-increasing burden on younger generations.
That’s it. We’ve made foolish promises, and it wouldn’t be right to overburden those future younger workers by keeping them. The question is, how do we unmake those foolish promises?
One idea that I like (but haven’t heard suggested by anyone else) is to hold constant the percentage of the population collecting benefits – then let the “retirement age” fall where it may. Another one that I like is to switch to price indexing rather than wage indexing – the current standard of living of retirees is such that I wouldn’t have a moral problem with the amount we provide them remaining (in real terms) the same regardless of what gains those who continue to work earn for themselves. I think we’re meeting all conceivable moral obligations to the elderly, and I don’t see any reason to suppose those obligations increase without limit just because we earn more money.
One idea that I most emphatically do not like is the idea of adding in a “personal” account. First, it’s not really yours if it can be used only at the sufferance of the Social Security administration. Second, having the government direct the flow of that large quantity of investment capital, however indirectly, is just asking for trouble. The reason that our investment system works is that people attract investment by convincing people not only that their investment will make money, but that their investment is the best possible use of the investor’s money, better not only than “approved investments”, better not only than any other investment, but better than any other possible present use of that money including consumption. Let bureaucrats who won’t even be gaining or losing their own money have a say, and (much more) money will start flowing to enterprises based on pull rather than merit and profitability, and a lot of the money that would otherwise have gone to fund growth and technological advancement will instead go to waste.
And third, any way you slice it, it will represent an increased burden on those younger workers. They’ll have to keep sending checks to current retirees, and they’ll have to forego even more money to invest whether they have a better use for that money or not. That’s a burden, almost as if they were being taxed, and never mind that they’ll get it back in 40 years if they live that long. If they thought investing in a company on the approved list was the best use of their money, they’d do it without prodding. If not, that means they had something better in mind, perhaps having an additional child, perhaps investing in medical research that could help remove the necessity for retirement in the first place, perhaps an activity that they won’t be able to enjoy at all when they’re retired and their health is failing. Believe it or not, there are more important things than retirement, and continuing to work is not the worst thing in the world. (In fact, there are indications that retiring can itself be detrimental to your health)
Right now the burden of Social Security and Medicare is somewhat less that 15% of one’s income, the balance going into the general fund to pay for other government expenditures. If things don’t change, that burden will in the foreseeable future exceed 15% of your income, by rather a lot when all is said and done. That’s significantly more than 15% of your income being used for no other purpose than to send checks to retired people – that’s before anyone’s paid to defend you, before any roads are built, before any public research is done, before any MRE’s or bombs or bullets are even bought, much less shipped to the field, before any thwarting of the evil plans of the rapacious capitalists can be done, before anyone can be punished for putting dangerous things in their mouths…
Okay, so it’s not all downside :) But isn’t that too much? If not, how much would be too much? And why do retirees have a right to eternally increasing support anyway, and why do workers have an ever-increasing obligation to them? And shouldn’t we cut back on those extravagant promises now, before the people given those promises have come to depend on them and have no good way to adjust?