Saturday, July 16, 2005

How to reach a consensus on Social Security

One of the most vexing issues we are now dealing with is proposed legislation to overhaul the Social Security system. Most of the proposals involve putting Social Security funds into private accounts-- whether through the mechanism of diverting payroll taxes that would otherwise create the surplus, or through the mechanism of taking them back out of the surplus after they have already been put into it, the process is the same.

While much has been written about the pros and cons of these proposals (and I may in a future post discuss the specifics of them if it looks like they might actually see the light of day), the purpose of this post is to suggest how we could reach a national consensus and be able to take meaningful action.

The first thing to realize is that this is not a situation where we have to push the panic button and do something-- even if it is the wrong thing-- in a few weeks or months. We are still paying in Iraq for the last time we as a nation panicked and rushed into something (even if you support the Iraqi war, it is clear that we rushed in with little or no planning or study about exactly what we were supposed to do after the fall of Baghdad and the overthrow of the Baathist regime, instead playing it like some kind of a board game that ends when you reach the square marked 'home.') With even the Bush administration projecting that the program will run a surplus until 2017 and remain solvent until 2042 under current conditions, it is clear that there is time to formulate a plan which is both grounded in sound fiscal numbers, and is acceptable to a majority of Americans (unlike the proposed privatization schemes which consistently draw the support of less than a third of the public, and barely half the support even of registered Republicans in polls). The recent failure of pension plans by United Airlines and other employers has caused many people who may have considered Social Security as something that we could gamble with, to rethink their positions.

The second thing to realize is that such a plan has been formulated already. The Clinton plan put forward on April 7, 2000, proposed using the then Federal budget surplus to ensure the solvency of the system (as well as not penalizing people who were past retirement age and wanted to earn as much as they could by cutting their Social Security checks; with people living longer and staying healthier, this provision in the Clinton plan made a great deal of sense). Of course, the Bush administration chose to use the surplus on tax cuts (and replaced it with a record deficit) so this option is no longer available, but it certainly suggests that the problem is not beyond finding a solution.

My proposal is this: create a task force, similar to the 9/11 commission to study the problem in depth (but probably with in the range of 50-80 members), hold hearings and make recommendations to Congress. I know what you are thinking, another government panel to study the problem to death (either behind closed doors or in terms no one can understand) and do nothing beyond window dressing. Well, that is not what I am thinking. First, all meetings of this commission should be out in the open, and be televised on C-SPAN, and the procedings published on the internet. Second, it should not be a bunch of government experts. It is fine to include a few experts on the commission, and perhaps others in an advisory role, but most of its members should be ordinary people (and from the length and breadth of America, not just from Washington). Include people who are now receiving Social Security, as well as people of different ages who have been paying into the system for various amounts of time and will eventually retire on it. Make sure the commission is balanced by age, race, gender, occupation, and -- most importantly, tax bracket. Let them hold public meetings to discuss it (in contrast to President Bush's 'town halls' in which only staunch supporters are given tickets to get in to the event). Perhaps, even, they should listen to the public in an even more direct manner. When proposals are floated, let people vote online about whether they like them or not (the success of 'American Idol' shows that voting online and maintaining the integrity of the election is possible). These votes would not be binding but would give the commission an idea of what the public thinks, and the real benefit would be that people would actually feel that they were able to participate in the procedings of the commission. To ensure partisan balance, select equal numbers of registered Democrats, Republicans and proportional numbers of registered independents for the commission. People with an interest in the problem could apply by writing in why they want to be on the commission and then a Democratic panel picked by the Democratic party could pick the Democratic members of the commission based on their submissions and the same for the Republicans on the commission (although anyone currently holding an elected office or with a personal stake in the outcome beyond simply being in the system would be excluded). Or alternatively, the board of trustees of Social Security could pick members of the commission.

It is true that President Bush has a commission on Social Security, but it includes five members from the 250 member Cato Institute, an anti-government thinktank in Washington that has been pushing privatization of Social Security for years). This panel was selected with a specific goal in mind, and met behind closed doors in order to draw up a plan which was recommended to the President first and the American people second (and by the President). That is exactly the opposite of my proposal. Individual members may have an agenda (for example, I suppose that I would have no problem if there is one member from the Cato Institute, as well as representation from a few thinktanks with competing ideas) but the commission as a whole should start with no agenda, should have only a minority of people who have studied the issue before (and those people only because of their base of knowledge) and an effort should be made to ensure that the members of the commission DON'T know each other before the commission gets started.

I believe that an open and frank discussion of the issues would result, and that a consensus could emerge.

We have time to solve this problem. Let's take that time, and do it right.

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