Don’t Mend it, End It

Take a look at your pay stub and you’ll see separate amounts withheld for income taxes and the payroll tax called FICA.

Listing them separately makes people think that the FICA tax must be something different from the income tax. And it is—in the sense that the size of each is determined by separate formulas.

But the money from both gets mixed into the same pot. Both taxes go to help pay for national defense and food stamps and social security. None of the payroll tax is “earmarked” or set aside for its alleged purpose of paying retirement benefits. None of it is put in an account with my name on it. There is no trust fund. There is no lock box. They are figments of accounting and political rhetoric.

Defenders of the current system tend to romanticize social security as a “compact between the generations.” Some compact. You submit gracefully to taxation today under the understanding that future generations will submit gracefully to pay for you. Forget the romance—Social Security is like most government programs—it takes money from one group of people and gives it to another.

What makes Social Security unusual is that unlike, say, the farm subsidy program, a vast number of Americans will eventually get something back from the system. Some people will get more out of the program than they put in. With Social Security, those tend to be people who live longer or who retired when the system was young and put little into it. I don’t know why we’d want to subsidize people who live long or who were born at the right time.

A more common criticism of the system is that we could do even better if we were allowed to invest our own money for ourselves. But asking if it’s a good deal or a bad deal is the wrong question.

Why would you want your retirement to be funded by younger workers, who need the money for their children’s education or a down payment for a house? Why would you want the amount you get when you retire to be independent of the risks you took or the ones you passed by? Why would you want your retirement income to be based on a political struggle between young and old and the tradeoff between the votes of the elderly and the pain of the payroll tax?

Why would you want the government to take responsibility for your retirement instead of you taking that responsibility for yourself? I think the world is a better place when adults are treated like adults.

Allowing individuals to be responsible for their own retirement isn’t a good idea because it’s profitable. It’s a good idea because it empowers us to make choices for ourselves and take responsibility for those choices.

I’d prefer a totally private system where people are free to save a lot or a little for their retirement. But replacing the current system with mandatory private retirement accounts are a step in the right direction and an improvement over the current system. The stock market is a risky place—that’s why private retirement accounts would be allowed to hold a wide range of assets to hedge that risk.

If private accounts replaced the current system, we may want government to augment low-income workers retirement funds with additional money. The current system has this welfare component built in already, but it’s hidden by the complexity of the system. Doing it out in the open would be a lot more honest. And it would have dramatically lower costs and enjoy much wider support than the current system.

Some critics of the current system call it bankrupt and beyond repair. I think they’re wrong. We can mend the current system with a mix of payroll tax increases, reductions in benefits and infusions from general tax revenue. But I’d prefer ending the system to mending it. Not because it will make us rich. But because it will reduce the political fight between generation and make us all a little more accountable for our actions.

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