Along with Jeff Liebman of Harvard University and Maya MacGuineas of the New America Foundation, I am pleased to announce the "Nonpartisan Social Security Reform Plan." Jeff was a Special Assistant to President Clinton's National Economic Council, where he worked on Social Security, and Maya was a Social Security adviser to Senator McCain's 2000 presidential campaign. Combined with my experience on the staff of the CEA in the Bush administration, we cover the political spectrum of recent years.
We've all spent plenty of time worrying about the looming fiscal crisis associated with the demographic shift toward an aging population, of which Social Security is the tip of the iceberg. Push finally came to shove, and we bound ourselves together via months of conference calls, and this is the plan that emerged. It's not what any one of us would have come up with on our own, but those sorts of plans never become legislation anyway.
What is unique about the plan is that it is designed around the broad areas of likely compromise across the political landscape on how to restore solvency to the system. What makes the plan important is that the Office of the Chief Actuary has evaluated it and certified that it would "easily satisfy the criteria for attaining sustainable solvency."
The plan contains four primary elements: a gradual reduction in future benefits; an increase in the payroll tax cap; an increase in the retirement age; and the establishment of personal retirement accounts. The plan puts great emphasis on fiscal responsibility – there are no transfers from general revenues to achieve sustainable solvency. Specifically:
1) Pay-as-you-go benefits would be gradually reduced to keep the costs of the traditional system to what can be afforded by the 12.4 percent payroll tax. The cuts are structured such that cuts are larger for high earners than for low earners.
2) The plan would establish mandatory personal retirement accounts (PRA) in the amount of 3 percent of taxable payroll. The accounts would be funded by a combination of diverting 1.5 percent of taxable payroll from the Social Security trust fund and requiring workers to contribute an additional 1.5 percent of payroll into their PRAs.
3) The funds diverted from the trust fund would be replaced, once the Social Security surplus was not adequate, by raising the cap on earnings subject to the Social Security payroll tax so that 90 percent of earnings were taxed. Workers would receive no incremental benefits for paying these additional taxes.
4) The plan would gradually increase the normal retirement age (currently scheduled to reach 67 in 2017) to 68 and the earliest age at which retirees could collect Social Security benefits from its current 62 to 65. People would be able to tap into their PRA assets beginning at age 62.
5) In order to minimize risks and administrative costs, accounts would be tightly regulated and full annuitization of account balances would be required.
6) Total replacement rates from the remaining traditional benefits and the new PRAs are comparable for most workers to those promised but currently underfunded in present law.
I invite your comments and questions on the plan, and I will be blogging more about the plan in the days and weeks to come. It was a fascinating experiment--we were trying to walk the very thin line between compromising our principles, which serves no one, and the principle of compromise, which is essential to moving public policy forward. It is a plan that respects political differences but not entrenched political interests. We believe that we have staked out the center of the political spectrum--the challenge now is to capture enough of the people just left and right of center to build the necessary coalition to see it through.