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Social Secrity

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Progress or Surrender?

by Jagadeesh Gokhale

Jagadeesh Gokhale is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and former senior adviser to the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.

After losing Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, the Bush Administration is reportedly contemplating abandoning its long-held goal of introducing Social Security personal accounts. Now, chances are that changes to Social Security will include a collection of unrelated measures rather than coordinated structural reforms. The collection of measures being considered by newly elected Congressmen suggests an attempt to co-mingle the objectives of improving Social Security's finances and increasing national saving. But they are likely to perform poorly on both counts.

Reform discussions appear focused on three main elements. Social Security would undergo a progressive shift from wage- to price-indexing of past earnings when calculating benefits for middle and upper earners. Prices grow slower than wages, so this would result in slower benefit growth. Likely reforms would also increase revenue by raising the taxable maximum payroll ceiling, imposing additional costs on those in the top earnings quintile. The additional revenues would be safeguarded from spendthrift politicians by using them to fund a saving-subsidy for low-income taxpayers -- a matching contribution into 401(k)-type accounts whose coverage would be broadened to those currently without access via employment.

These measures might achieve a political compromise, but they are unlikely to achieve their economic objectives. They won't improve Social Security's financial health by much, and they probably won't increase national saving, either. Indeed, introducing personal accounts for one population group and financing them with taxes on another would worsen the link between work and its rewards, thereby adding to the program's structural shortcomings.

Consider the likely economic impact of such a combination of reforms: The reduction of benefit growth for middle and upper earners may induce them to work more each year and to retire later. In addition, such workers would be induced to save more to make up for reduced future Social Security benefits. But the second measure -- subjecting upper earners to the payroll tax -- would have a countervailing impact, inducing them to reduce work efforts, retire earlier, and save less for retirement as higher taxes reduce their sustainable consumption levels. Higher taxes would also increase incentives to redefine their earnings -- by deferring compensation via stock options and taking in-kind benefits not subject to payroll taxes.

Creating heavily subsidized retirement accounts for low earners and financing them out of the additional payroll taxes also means new revenues won't be available to pay future Social Security benefits. And progressive cuts in benefit growth alone are unlikely to bring overall benefit obligations within available Social Security revenues.

In addition, low earners would enjoy large net gains from such a combination of reform measures. They would be shielded from cuts in future benefit growth and from payroll tax increases but would receive generous subsidies against retirement contributions into tax-advantaged saving accounts. Such workers have larger consumption propensities but are generally considered less savvy in managing their finances. Chances are, however, that they would eventually learn how to exploit their new retirement accounts to increase current consumption.

One way would be to purchase larger homes with their newfound retirement accounts if those accounts allowed home-purchases as a legitimate reason for pre-retirement withdrawals or loans. And larger homes may trigger larger concomitant consumption expenditures. Alternatively, such accounts may enable their recipients to qualify for more generous credit card and consumer loans. In turn, that may trigger earlier personal

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