When we think about the next presidential election, a few issues come to mind for most voters:The War on Terror, the situation Iraq, maybe healthcare, energy policy and the environment. These are the issues that regularly make the news.
But today I’d like to urge all of you to consider a candidate’s position on entitlement reform–and Social Security reform in particularly–as one of the key criteria for earning your support.
This isn’t just because entitlement reform is an important issue, although it certainly is. Social Security alone consumes a fifth of the total federal budget. That’s on par with our spending on defense so it’s certainly worth knowing the prospective chief executive’s plans for this gargantuan program. It also isn’t because the next President is likely to be the first to see and have to budget for the coming entitlement budget crunch, although that’s true too.
The reason that I would urge you to consider carefully what any candidate says about entitlements and Social Security is that a candidate’s vision for Social Security says a lot about his or her vision of government. It helps you answer a simple question: Does this potential President want to prop up a system of big government dependency or does the next President want to create a new paradigm in which individuals own and control their money and future?
Social Security is one of the last great symbols of the big government New Deal era. Its system of financing is commonly called “pay-as-you-go” but can also properly be characterized as “tax and spend” since the government taxes individuals and uses that money immediately to pay current beneficiaries. Nothing is saved for the future. In the 21st Century, we know that this isn’t sound financial planning. No one, and I mean no one, not even the craziest, leftwinger who will fight any changes to Social Security tooth and nail, would use this system of financing if they were starting a retirement system today.
Today, everyone knows that the basis for sound financial planning begins with saving and investing. We know the transformative power of ownership. Overwhelmingly, Americans would prefer to have an account with their name on it with money safely in the bank than to have an IOU from a government program.
The next President will have the opportunity to transform Social Security into one of the most effective, transformative government program in history. By incorporating a system of personal retirement accounts into Social Security, we can become a nation of savers. All Americans would be invested in the economy and would watch their assets grow.
Not only would such a system improve individual’s financial prospects, it would also be a much fairer system.
Here might be a few questions to ask candidate Hillary Clinton. Does she truly think that women are best served by the current system that punishes some women’s life choices and rewards others? Does she really think that a system that gives women who are married less than ten years no right to their husbands’ future retirement benefits is fair to the millions of stay-at-home moms whose financial futures could be in serious jeopardy if they divorce? Does she think that the government is making the most of the money paid into Social Security by single moms, knowing that for many this may be their only chance to save for retirement?
The answer is clear. Of course Social Security isn’t living up to its promise. It’s unfair to working mothers; it’s unfair to women who stay at home. America can and should do better.
Now I know that most everyone in this room already knows this. The purpose of this panel isn’t to convince you of the need for Social Security reform or for the reform of other entitlement programs. It isn’t to sell you on the power and benefits of individual ownership and market competition. I know that you are already sold.
The question we have been asked to consider is can the entitlement programs be reformed?
And on one level, the answer is again very clear and obvious: of course they can. Congress and the President have the power to change these programs at any time. And, given that we do live in the greatest country in the history of the world, I have complete faith that one day we will move in the right direction on entitlement reform.
There is a lot of good news about the prospects for entitlement reform. First of all, the facts are clearly on our side. We have also seen around the globe that country’s can and do successfully transition from pure tax-and-spend pension system to systems that include personal retirement accounts. It can be done and indeed it will have to be done.
But the challenges to entitlement reform are very great. The key is going to be true leadership, which is again why I urge you to put this on the top of the list of considerations for our next President. We will need a President who has the vision of an ownership society and who is committed to bringing market forces into programs like Medicare.
We also will need Congress that’s equally committed to this vision. And to get either of those things we need people out there–people like everyone in this room–who are demanding that our policymakers take action now.
We need everyone in this room to become committed to talking honestly about the problems inherent in systems like Social Security. We should talk honestly about the legacy that this generation threatens to leave their children: and it is a legacy of debt.
So often you will hear defenders of the system talk about a so-called generational contract. I’m sorry to have to say it, but that concept is an utter and complete lie. What kind of contract is it when one generation can simply vote itself bigger and bigger benefits and demand that the younger generation foot the bill? I’m 33 years old. I didn’t sign up for such a contract. Certainly the child who is with me in my belly me today didn’t sign up for any such a deal. Yet by the time she enters the workforce some twenty years from now she’ll find that a grotesque and growing portion of her earnings will be dedicated to paying for the entitlement programs that her elders created for themselves and demand that she pay for.
Is that the legacy that people want to leave their grandchildren? Apparently it IS the legacy that the AARP wants to leave, which is why I’d argue that no true conservative or even generic Republican should ever be a member of the AARP. If you are, give up your membership now and tell them why. Whatever benefits you get from it aren’t worth the price that your children and grandchildren will have to pay for the destructive policies they promote.
The question presented to this panel–can entitlements be reformed–is really one that only you can answer. The answer lies only in how commitment people become to pushing policymakers in the right direction. We all need to ask our representatives their position on these issues. Ask them if they support personal retirement accounts. Demand that they talk honestly about the need to scale back all of the benefits for seniors and talk about seniors needing to bear some of the costs of these programs.
Entitlement reform can be done, but it won’t be easy. We will need commitment activists out there across the country pushing policymakers toward reform. We will need leadership from the next President. Let’s make both of those a priority in the year ahead.