One of the interesting things about this year's Social Security debate has been the relative honesty of the Administration's public position. I say relative honesty, even though I agree with what a lot of what the Krugman-DeLong-Joshua Micah Marshall camp says, in part because the baseline for comparison is so low, after, say, the Iraq war and the Medicare prescription drugs boondoggle. But still, the White House has admitted, and thus assisted the ignorantly pseudo-"objective" press corps (objective in the sense that it makes no distinction between true statements and demonstrable lies) in stating, that the private accounts idea does not address the fiscal gap.
An interesting question is why the Administration has been more forthright, when the other strategy seemed to be working so well for it in domestic politics. One theory is that in Social Security false or unsupportable statements are easier to unmask. By comparison, no one in the US outside the government really knew anything about WMD, or about the actual evidence (unlikely though it seemed) of Saddam's ties to Al Qaeda, etc. Whereas here the facts and forecasts are on the public record. But that would assume that one can't argue to reasonably good effect in public policy debate that 2 + 2 = 5, rather than 4. Hard to judge that one until it is tried.
An alternative theory is that internal Administration politics are responsible. Larry Lindsey and others now departed apparently used to tell President Bush that Social Security privatization was a complete free lunch. Greg Mankiw and others who are there today know better and tell him so, and apparently after being told enough times he has accepted it. (One would need to know a lot more than I do about the Administration's internal dynamics to explain why Karl Rove has permitted this, whether he himself listens to them, etc.)
For this I am willing to say that Mankiw, who has been taking some brutal hits lately, such as here), deserves some credit. On the other hand, his position on Social Security privatization is pretty silly, and, ignoring the constraints under which he operates, unworthy of a thoughtful leading economist. He has two main tenets. The first is that the White House plan costs nothing. Here he doesn't claim a free lunch, but rather that the plan ostensibly would offset the payroll tax diversion with future benefit cuts, permitting it to be a breakeven over time. This looks true on the face of things if you take a long-range view as I am inclined to do (ignoring the point made by Jason Furman that the loan-payback feature contemplated by the White House would require taking away more than 100% of some people's traditional benefits), but it ignores the political risk of reducing revenues now in exchange for merely promising to cut benefits in the distant future.
Mankiw's second tenet is that the White House plan increases consumer choice, ostensibly showing that it must be good given his first tenet. Now, I like choice as much as the next feller, and I certainly wouldn't want a government plan picking my car, breakfast cereal, etc. But how relevant is this point here? Consider first that the whole idea of Social Security is to reduce choice on paternalistic grounds because of (a) identifiable failures in people's planning (failure to engage in optimal lifetime consumption smoothing and/or to choose an optimal asset portfolio), and (b) a very powerful normative theory of how people should behave here if they want to maximize their own utility. Choices such as to blow it all before retirement or to blow it all on Enron stock do not advance people's subjective welfare in the same manner as picking cereal with or without dried cranberries.
If Mankiw thinks people's Social Security portfolios are sub-optimal unless they include a stock-bond mix, he is ignoring (a) the explicit portfolios people with other saving have, and (b) the implicit portfolios that all of us have as taxpayers and future benefits claimants. All of us are heavily subject, via this status, to risks concerning the US economy and stock market. So it is not clear that, say, a 60 year old with no assets other than her expected government retirement benefits is under-diversified. If anything, she is probably too heavily subject to US economy risks and, if she could add just one investment asset, ought to pick a fixed real-life annuity that is as independent of these risks as politics permits.
Investment choices would be heavily constrained under any reasonable private accounts plan anyway. About the only choices people would really have are (a) throwing darts at the wall regarding which funds to pick, with no real way of knowing which would be the right ones, and (b) a bit of choice, but not too much, concerning the risk versus return tradeoff. The big consumer choice they'd actually want - and very likely would end up getting even if today's proponents try to block it - would be the ability to borrow against the account and thus wipe out its retirement-saving value, thus undoing the fundamental goal of requiring at least a minimal level of rational retirement saving. Add in the administrative costs of all the asset-churning in small accounts, and the game is pretty much over
Choice, often good. Being knee-jerk about choice without reflecting on the context, bad.