The Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI), known as Social Security, has since its formation in 1935 been the cornerstone of the American welfare state. Benefits from Social Security ensure economic security for 65 million beneficiaries. However, Social Security faces fiscal challenges unprecedented in the program’s 80-years history. In 2033, Social Security’s Trust Fund will be depleted and immediately the program will only be able to meet 75% of its obligation. These shortfalls endanger the prospect of a worthy retirement for coming generations and it risks undermining the stability of the American economy. At the root of this funding deficiency is America’s aging population driven by lower birth rates and increased life expectancy. Mandatory entitlement spending over the next decades will, moreover, worsen the federal debt levels. To preserve Social Security, the US will have to severely raise payroll taxes, cut benefits, or further its heavy lending policies. These options are economically detrimental and politically improbable. Accordingly, this paper examines the policy option of privatizing Social Security – a solution proposed in various forms by economists, scholars and politicians in order to repair Social Security’s fiscal condition, as well as boosting senior’s benefits.
Social Security reform is a political minefield because of the program’s popularity, which largely derives from the program’s benefit and funding structure. When Congress passed the Social Security Act amidst the Great Depression, it established the compulsory payroll tax to cultivate an entitlement sense to one’s accumulated benefits. After its formation the program steadily became more universal. Ensuing concern over long-term fiscal instability led to bipartisan adjustments in the 1980s that established the Social Security’s Trust Fund that covers current deficits. Partisan dynamics have, more recently, constrained various policy adjustments pursued by the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations. Reforming Social Security remains a deeply polarizing political issue. The program’s current structure is nonetheless unsustainable. Delaying though adjustments may be politically advantageous because of its public favorability, however, postponing necessary reforms merely worsens the expenses on future generations.
Social Security has been reformed several times since it emerged in conjunction with a wave of progressive New Deal legislations. Yet the program’s transfer structure and its creed to guarantee an income to seniors and unemployed have been relatively unchanged since its formation. The historical magnitude of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s affirming, in the midst of the Great Depression, “we have tried to frame a law which will give some measure of protection to the average citizen and to his family against the loss of a job and against poverty-ridden old age,” cannot be lightly belittled. The program was predominantly created as a pension plan for persons over 65, although the 1935 Social Security Act also contained the first national unemployment compensation plan paid for by employers, aid to the states and general welfare assistance.
Foregoing demand for social insurance was indeed present when Social Security was introduced; Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor from 1932-1945, later said of the law she helped passed, “nothing else would have bumped the American people into a social security system except something so shocking, so terrifying, as that depression.” Prior to 1929, US public welfare spending amounted to less than 0.2% of GDP, which was almost exclusively provided for by state and local governments. Private philanthropy, through wealthy individuals and religious institutions, accounted for a substantially larger portion than the public sector in aiding the poor of all ages. A noteworthy point to bear in mind, when historically examining Social Security through modern lenses, is that the concept of retirement is largely a modern phenomenon arising from increased life expectancy. In 1935, the average US life expectancy was 60 years for males and 63 years for females, up from 46 and 48 years respectively in 1900. Responsibility for the elderly largely relied on seniors themselves and on the extended family, and it was common to work to the end of one’s lives. Chances that a 21-year old lived beyond the age of 65 surpassed 50 % in 1930, for the first time in US history, and need for insurance policies simultaneously grew. Before Social Security more than 35 % of seniors lived below the poverty line. Yet, the widely conveyed narrative that Social Security essentially emerged as a result of a popular mass movement is inadequate at best. In fact, the origins of Social Security, as observed by Arthur Larson, Secretary of Labor under Dwight Eisenhower, “did not come in on a great wave of popular demand from the mass of people. It came largely because of the efforts of farsighted individuals.” These “farsighted individuals” – including political leaders, academics and social activists – had unsuccessfully mobilized for federal social insurance since the Progressive Era of the early 1900s.
Faith in traditional American individualism and in the free enterprise system declined during the Great Depression. This provided a favorable climate to market Social Security as a rapid response to bottom-up appeals instead of a top-down system imposed by the intellectual class, who have generally been more prone to socialism and an activist role of government. The payroll tax which funds the program functioned as a perquisite to sell Social Security as a model comparable to private insurance – where taxpayer accumulate premiums and earn individually adjusted benefits – instead of a general welfare program. However, Social Security is fundamentally dissimilar to private retirement insurance, as it is a pay-as-you-go system that merely transfers wealth from workers to seniors instead of relying on personal savings. The payroll taxes are, nonetheless, a contributing factor to the program’s enduring popular support. Every taxpayer will have a strong interest in preserving the program because they have specifically paid into it, and thus justly developed a sense of benefit entitlement. President Roosevelt understood that the payroll taxes were the foundation of Social Security’s durability; six years after the program was enacted he admitted that the payroll taxes were not primarily about efficient financing, but rather “politics all the way through”:
“We put those pay roll contributions there so as to give the contributors a legal, moral, and political right to collect their pensions and their unemployment benefits. With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program.”
The welfare ideals following the Second World War, often referred to as the post-war consensus, upheld that humanism must be advanced through collective planning and state interventionism. Social Security’s expansion in the post-war decades – alongside with the size of the overall American welfare state – can conceivably be attributed to this ideological framework. In 1956, Congress incorporated disability insurance (DI) into Social Security and broadened coverage for disabled workers. President Richard Nixon signed the pivotal Social Security Amendments of 1972, which authorized automatic cost-of-living adjusted benefit growth. This was enacted after a period where Congress had repeatedly boosted benefits and following President Johnson’s Great Society, the largest welfare enlargement since the New Deal, which established Medicare and Medicaid. Nixon was terribly correct when he championed the 1972 amendment as “landmark legislation.” In fact, the amendment’s generosity instigated the departure from the program’s incessant growth to a period of tough Social Security reforms – and rising political turmoil. In 1975, Social Security’s long-term financial stability tottered. Estimations suggested that disability and pension payments alike would become depleted by early 1980s because obligations exceeded annual revenues. Thus, in 1977 Congress raised payroll taxes and reduced growth in future benefits. This proved to be a highly temporarily repair, however, and in 1983 President Ronald Reagan and Congress announced a bipartisan legislation that, in short, cut benefits and raised taxes substantially and increased the retirement age to the current age of 66. The plan sought to prepare for the retirement of baby boomers by ensuring accumulated surpluses in the Trust Fund, which have covered the annual shortfalls in revenues that began in 2010.
The surplus established in 1983 would soon prove to be insufficient in financing Social Security over the long haul. Hence, Presidents Clinton and W. Bush both aimed to profoundly change Social Security. The Obama administration has correspondingly sought to address looming financial issues by sponsoring modest Social Security reform. Predictably, their attempted and realized reforms prompted widespread resistance. President Clinton believed that severe reform was indispensable, and he even leaned toward letting people save parts of their payroll taxes in personal accounts to ensure higher rate of returns on their future benefits. Yet, his nationwide “Open Forums” generated broad hostility toward his assumed “privatization measures”. Thus, he changed his bold attempts to an empty “Save Social Security First” plan, which essentially only entailed opposition to payroll tax cuts. President Bush ran on fundamental Social Security reform in 2000 and 2004, but he had to drop his 2005 proposal to partially privatize social security when all Congressional Democrats, alongside several Republican legislators, opposed the reform. Even though Bush’s plan was largely financed through “progressive indexation” – benefit reductions for upper-income Americans – members of the left marked it as “merciless”. After the financial crisis of 2008 popular support for retirement investments in stocks and bonds has plummeted, and the climate for long-term reform has been dreary. President Obama’s modest change in the annual increase of Social Security benefits from the Consumer Price Index to a different measurement called chained CPI, which calculates lower overall inflation rates by accounting for the prices of subsidiary products, caused fury among many progressive Democrats. The left-oriented news outlet Mother Jones even described this opposition to proposed reduction in annual benefit growth as a “liberal civil war”.
Voter’s sentiments can largely explain the political nuisance of implementing Social Security reform. President Roosevelt would indeed be pleased to know that the Social Security’s funding plan succeeded in creating a strong sense of entitlement. Public opposition to government spending cuts is, to be sure, rampant when individual programs are accentuated, and Social Security is among the most disapproved program to cut. Only 10% were willing to cut Social Security, making it the second least accepted program to cut among 19 federal programs in a 2013 study. 56% of Americans, moreover, did not want to either raise taxes or cut Social Security benefits even “if cost of major entitlement programs does create major economic problems for the US,” a 2014 poll found. Social Security reform is a political minefield, and the unfortunate political dynamics in democracies breeds the current political incentives to carry the program further down the unsustainable road to serfdom. The program currently faces severe shortfalls; the Liberal Urban Institute assess that essentially everyone retiring later than 2010 will receive less benefits than they paid into Social Security through obligatory payroll taxes.
Social Security’s senior and disability benefits covered 65 million beneficiaries and constituted a quarter of the federal budget in fiscal year 2015. Yet the American demographics are rapidly shifting; the US will experience considerable growth in its older population, which will have deep impact on Social Security. The current transfer system demand that workers finance retirees, while the next generation finances their retirement. Social Security indeed professes high returns for their taxpayers at the pretense of being a secure financial program. Yet, critics have compared it to a Ponzi scheme because the returns do not derive from profits on investments or savings, but merely from the influx of new people paying in to the system. The development of fewer people paying in to the system and more people collecting benefits has been an ongoing trend that numerically resembles a financial pyramid scheme. The portion of the population older than 65 was 8% in 1950; it reached 12% in 2005; and it is estimated that 23% is over 65 by 2080. Accordingly, the worker-per-beneficiary ratio has steadily declined. In 1950, 16 workers paid for every beneficiary, while only 3.3 workers paid for every senior in 2005. Crucially, the current retirement of baby boomers – the largest generation in American history – amplifies the increased financial burden imposed on workers. 75 million people were born in the two decades following World War 2.  The oldest of these boomers will turn 67 in 2013, and the youngest boomers will reach 67 by 2030. In 2033, Social Security Administration projects that there will be only two workers per beneficiary – the same year that Social Security’s Trust Fond will become depleted, and the program will just be able to pay 75% of its benefit obligations.
Social Security’s expenditures have exceeded its tax revenues since 2010.  The shortfall has been covered by the Trust Fund, at about $2.8 trillion, which was caused by surpluses from 1983. Social Security estimates that the combined revenues from payroll taxes and interests from the Trust Fund will cover the program’s liabilities until 2020. When the Fund is exhausted by around 2033, taxes must likely be increased and benefits must likely be cut significantly. However, this will not be enough to cover the deep financial imbalances. Over the next 75 years, Social Security’s unfunded liabilities amount to $10.6 trillion. Contrary to popular claims the fiscal gap will not stabilize after Boomers retire; Social Security’s debt levels will continue to increase exponentially, and the estimated shortfall over an infinite horizon is $24.9 trillion.
Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has examined the effect of several potential policy options within Social Security’s current operating structure, including payroll tax increases, reductions in people’s initial benefits, increases in the retirement age and reductions in cost of living adjustments. CBO finds that some of the more vigorous options, such as immediately cutting all benefits by 15% or eliminating the maximum income subject to pay roll tax ($118.000 in 2015), would indeed eliminate future deficits. However, in addition to being politically implausible, such drastic measures would have shattering economic effects. Most options for reforming Social Security, of course, embrace a combination of these policy alternatives. The shortfalls will continue indefinitely without reforms, however, the chosen reforms will inevitably be severely painful under the current system due to the necessity of either deep benefit cuts, excessive tax hikes or continued unfathomable public borrowing.
Moreover, Social Security’s unfunded liabilities cannot be examined in isolation; it is fundamentally connected to the overall economy. Arguably, Social Security’s shortfalls could have been manageable if the overall federal finances and future obligations were economically sound. However, US national debt is presently at $18.150 trillion, or approximately 100% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). These historic debt levels incessantly grow due to US’ budget deficits – the amount of annual public spending exceeding revenues. In recent years deficits have fallen somewhat, currently amounting to $474 billion in the 2015 budget. Starting in 2018, deficits will increase significantly, largely driven by a surge in entitlement spending. The aging US population does not only squeeze benefits, but also health care costs. Particularly Medicare, federal health insurance for seniors, is widely regarded as being in deeper crisis than Social Security. In fact, the program’s projected unfunded liabilities amount to between $28 and $35 trillion over the next 75 years, which is around three times more than the shortfall of Social Security over the same period.
This grim fiscal picture fuels the debate over whether a gradual dismantling and privatization of Social Security is preferable to fixing the current system. Privatization measures seek to gradually move from transferring wealth from workers to seniors to personal saving accounts. Proponents argue that this model is a safeguard from the transfer system’s fiscal shortfall and would provide higher benefits, while opponent argue that this would undermine federally guaranteed retirement benefits and that the transition period is too costly. Politicians, several think thanks, researchers and public intellectuals are highly devoted to this debate. Libertarian think thank Cato Institute and the conservative Heritage Foundation are at the forefront of privatization measures. The Bush administration’s endeavored Social Security reform revolved around the premise proposed by these organizations; to allow workers under a certain age, ordinarily 55, to save a portion of their payroll taxes for long-term investments and simultaneously reduce their future Social Security benefits. Cato Institute particularly focuses on letting young workers “opt out” of Social Security and instead retain private insurance. Bush’s proposals sought private accounts as a supplement to Social Security benefits, whereas the mentioned think tanks pursue a dismantling of public retirement insurance within a generation. The policy suggestions from Cato Institute and Heritage Foundation are, however, not principally free markets approach to retirement in the sense that individual are free to keep and invest their money as they choose. Rather, they emphasize letting workers save half of their payroll tax, 6.2%, in privately managed index funds that seek to maximize interest over the long run by highly diversified and low-risk investment,[lvi] which is essentially the investment strategy of the publicly managed Norwegian Pension Fund.
The American Association for Retired Persons (AARP), America’s largest interest group for seniors, is among most categorical advocate for maintaining Social Security as a federal transfer system. In addition, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicaid (NCPSSM), founded by Congressman James Roosevelt (son of FDR) in 1982, is at the forefront of mobilizing seniors and progressives against essentially all proposals to reform Social Security except for benefit increases. Whereas AARP is a senior interest organization that works closely with most members of Congress, NCPSSM is an activist organization affiliated with a range of policies frequently proposed by Democratic Party members, and they were central in obstructing the Bush reform plan through grassroots outreach and advertisement. Both AARP and NCPSSM strongly opposes Social Security privatization, and instead emphasize increased revenue – primarily through raising taxes on high-income earners – to solve Social Security’s insolvency. NCPSSM even denies that there is a Social Security fiscal crisis, and holds that turning retirement over to Wall Street would leave seniors vulnerable.
At the root of privatization proposals is Social Security’s insolvency; proponents argue that individual long-term saving ultimately protects seniors from the fiscal instability of the current transfer system. Significantly, critics of Social Security, including Cato Institute’s Michael Tanner, regard Social Security as a highly inferior deal regardless of its fiscal insolvency, and he asserts that privatization would significantly boost people’s benefits. US average income earners born after 1964 cannot expect interests on their lifelong social security payments. Interests from private index funds for retirees born after 1964, by comparison, are between 6.4% and 9.4%. Moreover, advocates of private pension plans argue that it would greatly benefit US economic growth in the long run by drastically increasing the saving rate and thus directing resources toward large-scale investments projects. The main concerns over private saving accounts are the stock markets’ inherent volatility. Drawing from history, however, even the 20 years following the Great Depression, the stock market yielded a 3% average return. The returns for an average 20-year period are 7%, while the return over an average 40-year period is even higher. Scaremongering that retirement benefits are gambled away in index funds is in other words historically unfounded.
This pension model is not a theoretical blueprint pending in various think tanks and Congressional Offices; it has been endeavored on a national level in Chile and on local level in the US. Two decades after Chile in 1980 replaced their bankrupt pay-as-you go pension system with individual accounts managed by the private sector, the average return after two decades had been 11.3%. Thus, Chileans seniors in general do not have to substantially reduce their income as they do in most Western societies where governments determine pensions grounded on taxation. In 1981, government employees in Galveston, Brazoria and Matagorda Counties in Texas opted out of Social Security in favor of private plans. The National Center for Policy Analysis concluded that ”annual rates of return of 6.5 percent averaged over 24 years, plus substantially better benefits in three Social Security pay-out categories: retirement, survivorship and disability.”
The biggest challenge with directing payroll taxes into private accounts, however, is financing the obligations to seniors who have paid into the system their whole working life, while letting workers keep parts of their money to invest for their retirement. Shortfalls would naturally increase in the short run. This huge transition cost, estimated to be between $2 and $5 trillion over a generation, is pivotal to the argument by AARP that privatization in fact is fiscally irresponsible. AARP, NCPSSM and many Democratic legislators argue that this shortfall arising from personal savings inevitable will result in benefits cuts for senior. Proposals for eliminating or increasing the cap subject for payroll tax is instead frequently avowed. AARP’s Victoria Reno proposes that increasing the tax cap to $215.000 will prevent large benefits cuts, are economically sound and would cover 36% of the shortfalls. Moreover, another huge social challenge would be to guarantee insurance for disabled, which is also covered by the payroll taxes. However, DI account for 12% of Social Security’s outlays, and can be ensured through general budget spending.[lxxii] Market volatility that might cause financial losses is nonetheless unpreventable, as evidenced by the recent financial crisis; even low-risk investments are not risk-free.
This debate is about more than rate of returns, economic effect or even deficits; it revolves around central ideological principles associated with the American Left and Right. Progressives often affiliated with the Democratic Party deem redistribution to be just on a collectivist basis and often regards Social Security to be a moral right. Democratic legislators almost unanimously believe in preserving Social Security in its current form, and Obama recently stated that he “strongly opposes privatization.” Fiscal conservatives conversely emphasize individualism, and thus favors personal ownership and choices. Conservative Republicans have for decades sought increased personal pension savings and investments decisions. Pundit George Will, for instance, remarked on Bush’s partial privatization proposal that “the sober truth is that the philosophic reasons for reforming Social Security are more compelling than the fiscal reasons.” The Left often depicts Social Security reforms as fixing the deficits on the backs of the most vulnerable. Correspondingly, persons associated with the American Right usually emphasize the unethical aspects of leaving future generations entrapped in a destructive debt burden. Ultimately, these opposing ideologies will be measured up against fiscal realities.
America’s political and intellectual elite sought to implement a public retirement system since the progressive movement begun in the early 20th century. The Depression offered a favorable climate to pass Social Security as the cornerstone of the New Deal. President Roosevelt believed that the system’s endurance lied in its funding model; workers pay into the system through a specific payroll tax and thus earned rights to retirement benefits. Indeed, Social Security is a popular federal program. Yet the funding structure that creates a claim to future workers’ tax money may be the source of the program’s demise. The political difficulty of reforming the program – which was particularly evident during the last three presidential administrations – stems largely from voters’ opposition. Democrats usually oppose benefit cuts and Republicans oppose tax increases, and most legislators regardless of party seek to preserve the current system. Without significant reform, however, Social Security endangers the soundness of the US economy and citizens’ retirement prospects. Social Security’s fiscal crisis is largely due to an aging population’s benefit growth and subsequent shortfalls in revenues.
Social Security has since 2010 spent more than its revenues and beginning in 2033 it will only be able to pay out 75% of its obligations. This can possibly be dealt with by imposing excessive payroll tax hikes, increase the debt burden, stark cut in benefits or a combination of these alternatives. Critics of Social Security argues that these solutions are demoralizing for workers, economically hazardous, and at best temporary fixes as the deficit increases exponentially. Dismantling and privatizing Social Security could over time fix the insolvency, in addition to ensuring higher benefits and economic growth. Nonetheless, changes in a democratic society can hardly be made without public support – which has been lacking for Social Security reform. However, this might promptly change as the public becomes personally affected by the fiscal disorder of America’s largest welfare program.
 This paper is about retirement benefits and saving, and not on other welfare benefits provided by Social Security.
There are naturally many divergent expert opinions on the fiscal state of this complex federal program. This paper mainly applies official estimates provided by the annual Social Security Trustee report.
In fiscal year 2015, Social Security pays out monthly benefits to 65 million persons at the cost of $951 billion. $744 billion (78%) of Social Security’s total expenditures goes to retirees. Social Security also pay $147 billion in Disability Insurance (DI) to 11 million disabled workers and their families and $60 billion in Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments. (Social Security Trustee Report, 2014)
 U.S. Social Security Administration, “The 2014 Annual Report of the Board of Trustees of the Federal Old-Age and Survivors Insurance and Federal Disability Insurance Trust Funds,” page 11, July 28, 2014. http://www.ssa.gov/oact/tr/2014/tr2014.pdf
 Brandon, Emily, “5 Potential Social Security Fixes”, US News: Money, November 14, 2014. http://money.usnews.com/money/blogs/planning-to-retire/2014/11/14/5-potential-social-security-fixes.
Notably, There are various ways of cutting benefits, for instance by means testing benefits or changing the automatic Cost-of-of-Living adjustments, and increasing taxations, for instance by eliminating or raising the cap subject to payroll tax (currently at $118.000). Other solutions that might contribute to reducing the deficit are raising the 66 year old retirement age.
 Although this paper is sympathetic to the idea of replacing the current transfer system with personal pension accounts, it does not fancy a methodological and comprehensive solution to Social Security’s unfunded liabilities. It is more historical and philosophical than arithmetical and technical.
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 Consider, for example, that Edward Bellamy’s 1888 book Looking Backwards was written to persuade the social elite, and the ensuing national success of the socialite Bellamy’s Clubs. Moreover, Friedrich A. Hayek’s essay ”The Intellectuals and Socialism” does a fine job in explaining why intellectuals are drawn to collectivist philosophies.
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[xli] Social Security Administration, 2014 OASDI Trustees Report Summary, 2014. (Accessed 10/03/2015) http://www.ssa.gov/oact/tr/2014/II_A_highlights.html
[xlii] U.S. Social Security Administration, “The 2014 Annual Report of the Board of Trustees of the Federal Old-Age and Survivors Insurance and Federal Disability Insurance Trust Funds,” page 10, July 28, 2014. (Accessed 08/04/2015) http://www.ssa.gov/oact/tr/2014/tr2014.pdf
[xliv] Social Security Administration, 2014 OASDI Trustees Report Summary, 2014. (Accessed 10/03/2015) http://www.ssa.gov/oact/tr/2014/II_A_highlights.html
[xlv] Social Security Administration, “INFINITE HORIZON PROJECTIONS”, 2014 OASDI Trustees Report. (Accessed 10/03/2015) http://www.ssa.gov/oact/tr/2014/VI_F_infinite.html
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[lxxii] U.S. Social Security Administration, “The 2014 Annual Report of the Board of Trustees of the Federal Old-Age and Survivors Insurance and Federal Disability Insurance Trust Funds,” July 28, 2014. (Accessed 12/04/2015) http://www.ssa.gov/oact/tr/2014/tr2014.pdf