Columns » Ernest Dumas

Bush’s bad math

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It must be hard for most people to believe the two international reports that show a big gap between the math concepts and skills of young Americans and those of much of the rest of the developed world, which continues for a third generation and is growing. But how can you avoid the evidence at President Bush’s press conference Monday, when he tried to explain how his “reforms” were going to save Social Security and not aggravate its long-term financial problem? That has perplexed people since he first said he was going to rescue Social Security by having workers direct part of their payroll taxes into the stock and bond markets. Now and for the next 15 years, Social Security will add to its vast surplus, and it will support full benefits to everyone until at least 2042 or 2052, depending on whether you believe the Social Security trustees or the Congressional Budget Office. If something isn’t done, like lifting the earnings cap on the payroll tax, benefits would be lowered then. Reporters asked Bush to explain how reducing the amount of payroll taxes that are invested in government bonds for Social Security at every pay period and transferring the money instead into private investment accounts that workers would manage themselves would keep Social Security flush far beyond 2042 or 2052. “Yeah, I will try to explain how without negotiating with myself,” Bush said with a chuckle. But he couldn’t do it. “I think what you all — people ought to do is to go look at the Moynihan commission report,” he suggested, referring to the President’s Commission to Strengthen Social Security. That helps us a little, that is if the president is going to choose Model 2 of the Moynihan report, which seems most like what he is proposing. Bush hints that benefits will be cut under his plan but not for people who are already retired or are approaching retirement. Every worker would see his or her benefits cut but Bush says those who put payroll taxes aside in a private account would earn so much from it that it would more than offset the reduction in regular Social Security. It would be voluntary but if you didn’t choose to play with the stocks your benefits would be cut anyway to make the system solvent. Not many current workers would be excited about it. Under the commission’s plan —and presumably Bush’s — a worker who is 37 today and retires in 2032 would receive 17 percent less in regular benefits. For young workers the reduction would grow to a third. Today’s babies would see cuts of more than 40 percent from currently expected benefits. A study of the commission’s plans at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2002 concluded that the role of Social Security in allowing the elderly to maintain their standard of living after retirement would decline “rather sharply” over time if the private investment option becomes law. But Bush says he’s sure that younger workers who invested in the markets would see such big gains that it would offset the reductions in pensions and that those retirees could enjoy perhaps an even better life than they would under the present Social Security system. That calls for some wildly rosy assumptions, starting with the notion that the stock market will perform the next 30 years as it has the past 30. The most bullish analyst, even Bush’s Treasury Department, will have trouble showing an array of stock returns and dividend yields that will add up. It also assumes low administrative costs, although obviously not as low as Social Security’s 1 percent, which is one reason that it is the most efficiently run government program in world history. The Moynihan commission — Bush wanted us to check it out, remember — figured that it would cost about 10 times as much to administer if a government office managed the investments. But Bush says every worker would manage his own investments, subject to some limits so he doesn’t squander money on lottery tickets or some wild scheme, because otherwise he would not have real ownership, which to the president is the real reason to do it. If Wall Street or local banks and brokerages get their hands on the money, which is why the investment industry has been cheerleading for the “reform,” all bets are off. But that seems to be the key to the Bush plan. Chile and England do it that way now, and the government is having to come to the rescue. But none of that answers the basic math question. How will the private accounts and the diminished payroll taxes solve the cash problems of Social Security when they do finally come to roost? The commission’s answer was to divert trillions of dollars from general revenues. But that was when we thought we would always have a surplus. Bush’s loyal treasury secretary said it was easy. Just pick a figure in the trillions and we’ll borrow it. If that’s the answer, who needs math at all?

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