There’s a lot of tongue wagging about Republican efforts to fold, spindle, or mutilate federal entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. From the opposite side of the aisle, Democrats insist that the programs must be preserved in total or even expanded.
Having the conversation doesn’t feel unreasonable. In or around 2035, the Social Security trust fund will be exhausted. That will automatically trigger an estimated 24% reduction in benefits as the system will only be able to pay out as much money as it has coming in.
If the system is going to be preserved in its current form, the solution is going to have to be some combination of raising the age of eligibility, decreasing benefits, and increasing payroll taxes. Just the hint of an honest discussion on those terms won’t make anyone in Congress the next winner of the most popular person in Washington contest.
All of this, of course, is based on assuming we should preserve the system as it’s currently put together. I’m not entirely of the opinion that should be our goal. If my records are right (and they are), I’ve paid just north of $110,000 in Social Security payroll tax since I started working. If Uncle Sam were to give me the choice of accepting his pinky promise of some undefined benefit at an undefined time in the future or to cut me a check for that amount today to invest in the manner of my choice, I’d sign a quit claim on all future social security benefits and never look back.
Letting it sit in a low-cost index fund until I turn 65 would give me a far better return than anything the future U.S. Congress will want for me. This alternate future looks even rosier if I were allowed to regularly contribute an amount equal to my current social security taxes into that account. Over a span of 20 years that would end up being real money and more importantly, not in any way reliant on the largess of whatever bunch of crackpots and shysters happens to be running Congress in that distant future.
That won’t be an option, of course. The second President Bush brushed lightly against the idea of privatized accounts way back in 2004 and was roundly shouted down. The U.S. Government simply won’t want to give up direct control of a pot of money as big as Social Security. By the time I’m age eligible – in 2040 if the earliest age to claim isn’t raised – I fully expect Social Security will be yet another one of those government programs I’ve paid for my entire working life from which I won’t be qualified to draw any benefit.