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How to Argue for Social Security Reform

President Bush: I am one of the majority who disapproves of the way you're handling Social Security reform. Note that I disapprove of the way you're handling it. I'm strongly in favor of radical reform, and I would go so far as a lukewarm endorsement of your plan — but you're not handling the issue properly.

It's good that you're doing things slowly. It's good that you're asking for suggestions. It's good that you're attaching other peoples' names to various proposals. But there are two things you're not doing, and they're causing you problems.

First, make hay of the fact that former President Clinton suggested something strikingly similar to the fundamental idea of your plan in a 2002 speech to the Democratic Leadership Council:

If you don't like privatizing Social Security and I don't like it very much, but you want to do something to try to increase the rate of return, what are your options? Well one thing you could do is to give people one or two percent of the payroll tax, with the same options that Federal employees have with their retirement accounts [the Thrift Savings Plan]; where you have three mutual funds that almost always perform as well or better than the market and a fourth option to buy government bonds, so you get the guaranteed social security return and a hundred percent safety just like you have with Social Security. [source]

This simple step will dramatically undercut Democratic opposition to personal accounts.

Second, focus on the "voluntary" in "voluntary personal accounts." (Even though it's a lie because it's still a forced savings program.) You should stress that your plan for personal accounts gives people a choice. They can choose between Social Security as-is, or the modified system with personal accounts. Increasing the number of options available to people is a guaranteed political winner. The status quo is an option, so people who oppose personal accounts have nothing to complain about. If they try, respond with the (true) accusation that what they're actually opposing is giving people a choice.

"Surely you're not against choices, are you? Go ahead and tell people why they shouldn't choose personal accounts. Convince them with your arguments, but don't stand in the way of those who hear you and still disagree. It is arrogant and presumptuous to believe that you know what's best for them, but that they don't."

I particularly hope you take this second point to heart. People will quickly realize that the matter of giving people more choices applies to your reform plan just as much as it applies to the existing Social Security system. And they will ask you uncomfortable questions, such as why the whole system is mandatory in the first place. Wouldn't it be better if it were voluntary? If they believe it's a great deal, people will choose it without being forced. And if they (like me) don't, they'll be relieved to have an opportunity to escape the system.

Tiny Island