Friday, February 04, 2005

The Ugly Truth

George Orwell once said that if democracy means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear, i.e., the truth. Bush is a liar on a monumental scale, and never more so when he opens his mouth and starts flapping about social security. From Paul Krugman, the truth:

Here's the money quote: "In return for the opportunity to get the benefits from the personal account, the person forgoes a certain amount of benefits from the traditional system. Now, the way that election is structured, the person comes out ahead if their personal account exceeds a 3 percent rate of return" - after inflation - "which is the rate of return that the trust fund bonds receive. So, basically, the net effect on an individual's benefits would be zero if his personal account earned a 3 percent rate of return."

Translation: If you put part of your payroll taxes into a personal account, your future benefits will be reduced by an amount equivalent to the amount you would have had to repay if you had borrowed the money at a real interest rate of 3 percent.

Peter Orszag of the Brookings Institution got it exactly right: "It's not a nest egg. It's a loan."

Hell, even your average 401k isn't as big a ripoff. It gets worse:

The only way to get ahead would be to invest in risky assets like stocks, and hope for higher yields. But if the investment went wrong and you earned less than 3 percent after inflation, your benefit cuts would leave you poorer than if you had never opened that private account.

So people are expected to take a loan from the government and use it to buy stocks, and if that turns out to have been a mistake - well, too bad.

Experts usually tell people to plan for their retirement by investing in a mix of stocks and bonds. They disapprove strongly of speculation on margin: borrowing to buy stocks. Yet Mr. Bush wants tens of millions of Americans to do exactly that.

What indeed happens the next time the stock market crashes and takes millions of retirees' accounts with it? Let them eat cake! - or dog food.

Here's the senior official again: "In a long-term sense, the personal accounts would have a net neutral effect on the fiscal situation of Social Security." The government would have to borrow huge sums up front to create the personal accounts - $4.5 trillion in the first two decades - but it would supposedly make up for all that borrowing with offsetting cuts in account holders' benefits many decades later.

Color me skeptical: will retirees with private accounts that performed badly really be forced to repay their loans in full? Even if they are, private accounts will at best have a "net neutral effect" - that is, they will do nothing to improve Social Security's finances. Mr. Bush says the system faces a crisis; what does he propose to do about it?

The answer, presumably, is that his plan will also involve major benefit cuts over and above those associated with private accounts. And it's true that you can improve Social Security's finances with privatization, as long as you also slash benefits - just as you can kill a flock of sheep with witchcraft, provided you also feed them arsenic. (Thanks, M. Voltaire.)

Any Democrat who does not oppose this is not a Democrat. Anyone who does not oppose this is either a monster or a fool.

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