Yesterday's Senate Finance Committee hearings on Social Security, the presentations from which are available here, had several interesting features. One was the hearing title, "Proposals To Achieve Sustainable Solvency, With and Without Personal Accounts."
The focus, in other words, is on the fiscal problem, not the Bush plan. "Sustainable solvency," by the way, is a phrase associated with the Diamond-Orszag (relatively Democratic-style) plan to restore Social Security's long-term solvency through a mix of tax increases and benefit cuts. It relates to the battle between 75-year and infinite horizon perspectives. As I have noted before, a 75-year fiscal perspective is inadequate since the out years predictably turn bad based on expected demographic trends, with the consequence that if we fixed the problem just for 75 years and there were absolutely no surprises in the next couple of decades, we would nonetheless face the financing problem all over again as soon as enough of the out years had moved inside the 75 year window. Diamond and Orszag propose 75-year sustainable solvency, i.e., at the 75 year point things are in good shape looking past a bit, and although this is less conceptually pure than the infinite horizon (which avoids arbitrary jumps in one's discount rate for the future as one moves from inside to outside the budget window), it is really good enough, for all practical purposes, if done right.
Senator Grassley, the Senate Finance Committee chair, is making it as clear as he possibly can that, as per the hearing title, the aim behind legislation he might report out is to address the fiscal gap, not to push the Bush plan.
Democrats have two reasons not to go along with this, however, one a bit crass but the other involving sensible prudence. The crass one is that they are hammering the Republicans to death on Social Security right now, so why help them out of the hole by choosing this moment for unpopular bipartisan compromise after all that the Bush-DeLay-Frist forces have been doing for years on everything else? The prudent reason for non-cooperation is that, no matter what Grassley says or indeed means, he absolutely cannot make any credible guarantee that, no matter what bill leaves the Committee and passes the Senate, it will not be amended in conference to be a pure Bush Social Security phase-out plan and nothing else. You reap what you sow, and the Republicans need a complete change in leadership before they can credibly offer good-faith compromise deals to the Democrats.
As for the hearing itself, four speakers. Michael Tanner of Cato and Peter Ferrara, formerly of Cato, simply offered the usual privatization line. Ferrara seems to think there is a free lunch via higher stock market returns, leaving aside risk, and ignoring the point that markets must be flawed, not working well as he generally tends to believe, if borrowing to hold stock (a net position that the financial markets value at zero) is actually a money machine. Tanner rightly points out that there really is a Social Security fiscal problem, whether one calls it a "crisis" or not, but condemns the current system as a one-size-fits-all cookie cutter approach to forced saving. The problem with this view, as noted by Peter Orszag in his remarks, is that anyone in his or her right mind would want a relatively secure fixed real life annuity as the bottom rung, in effect, of his or her retirement saving. The rest of one's saving, if one has the ability and the sense to save more, is where different risk-return preferences, betting preferences on the performance of different instruments, etc., have a reasonable place.
Speaker # 3 was Robert Pozen of MFS Investment Management, who has been involved in Social Security reform planning for some time. I am willing to give him two cents or so of credit for offering an idea that purports at least to increase Social Security progressivity in a manner that the Administration apparently finds acceptable. This is to continue indexing benefits to rising wage levels among low-earner beneficiaries, but gradually shift to mere price indexing (i.e., for inflation not real wage growth) as one moves up the scale towards the top. Pozen calls his proposal "progressive indexing."
The way Pozen proposes to do it has serious flaws, some of which Peter Orszag addresses in his role as Speaker # 4. For example, it hits the middle more than one might think from Pozen's description, and if done with Bush privatization endangers actual repayment of the effective loans to high earners. It also has the odd feature of cutting benefits more (relative to the current baseline) if our economy does better than expected, the contrary of what one might think makes sense. To be sure, measuring cuts relative to today's baseline is a dumb perspective, unduly privileging current law, unless one agrees that wage indexing actually makes sense. But I would say it does (in the sense that a stable, fiscally sound, and optimal program would have it), as illustrated by the considerations that (a) with just price indexing the value of retirement benefits in effect heads to zero, relative to the size of the economy, over the infinite horizon, and (b) if we think of Social Security as requiring a minimum level of forced retirement saving, on the ground that any less is likely to be irrational, we might want to think in terms of replacing some decent percentage of one's salary level just before retirement, albeit self-financed by the worker if we have no reason to make a net lifetime transfer to her through Social Security.
So I probably wouldn't include progressive indexing, even modified from the Pozen version, in my preferred Social Security fix. But, properly redesigned, it shouldn't be ruled out as part of a bipartisan compromise package down the road if Republicans find it easier to swallow than other progressive benefit adjustments.
Orszag's remarks, although in some respects I might nitpick or quibble with them, are so much more sophisticated than anything else that is being said prominently about Social Security that, as Brad DeLong puts it, "in a good world, [he] would be in the White House running Social Security reform." Compare, for example, Gregory Mankiw, loyally bleating on about the importance of "choice" in a setting where its relevance is much less than would usually be the case, and you would think Orszag had at least 50 more IQ points and a much better post-graduate education if you didn't give Mankiw credit for having to toe the Administration line (and possibly doing the nation some good by staying there, if he has helped influence the Bush Administration towards greater candor, such as in the decision to admit that private accounts are not a free lunch).