Advancing a Free Society

How are the presidential contenders doing on Social Security?

Monday, November 28, 2011

Today e21 published my piece tracking how the Social Security issue is faring on the campaign trail this year.  Excerpts:

Election season is always a high-stakes time for Social Security policy, because how well the issue can be addressed in legislation is partly a function of developments during campaign season. Important variables include but are not limited to:

  1. How accurately the relevant facts are presented by aspiring candidates and by the press; 
  2. The policy positions taken by the candidates who receive the support of voters; 
  3. The flexibility retained by victorious candidates to participate constructively in negotiations over Social Security’s future without betraying their election mandates.

Below I’ll describe the good, the truly impressive, the bad, and the ugly from the current primary season (see the link for additional details).

First, the good. As a group the candidates have generally recognized Social Security’s challenges and have left open most policy options for dealing with them.

The truly impressive: Perhaps the most impressive thing that has emerged from the campaigns so far is that more than one has put forward specific proposals that would actually solve the shortfall. Specifically, these proposals would gradually change eligibility ages and slow the growth of benefits on the higher-income end. These policies could in fact do the job if sufficient numbers of future beneficiaries were at least somewhat affected.

The bad: Some promising reform proposals have been combined with other suggestions that would make repairing the shortfall more difficult. Others have focused too narrowly on personal accounts as the sole answer to Social Security’s problems. The candidates have also missed opportunities to criticize an obvious target: the current misguided policy of temporarily cutting payroll taxes as a stimulus measure, while financing Social Security instead with general revenues (income taxes).

The ugly: In every campaign season some statements miss the mark entirely, such as one from a recent debate wrongly implying that the main problem with Social Security is that politicians are reluctant to repay what has been deposited by workers into its Trust Fund.

Overall, though, the Social Security issue is holding up quite well during the primary season. The candidates have generally acknowledged the problem in a realistic way, some have even put forward specific credible solutions, and most relevant policy options have remained on the table. None of this guarantees that the positions taken by the candidates in the primary season will hold up equally well in the general election. But at least through November 2011, the prospect of responsible Social Security policy remains alive.

Read Charles Blahous’ full post…