Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Government Based Upon Natural Law - (Part 13) - Retirement and Social Security

The History and Future of Social Security

Social Security is a poorly planned system that is not economically sound, and is unfunded.  The current Social Security tax rate is 12.5% and this money is used to pay current retirees; thus none of the Social Security taxes paid by an individual are actually invested for that individual.  This is why it is considered unfunded.  Because of this and because of the aging population that is occurring all over the world, Social Security benefits are becoming an increasingly large inhibitor of economic growth, and are taking up a larger and larger share of federal spending. In 2009, it has been estimated that Social Security and Medicare are underfunded by around $50 trillion.  This means that if the benefits remain the same, and the FICA (Social Security and Medicare) tax rate remains the same, an additional $50 trillion would still be needed.  Any company that had such a retirement program would rightly be prosecuted.

To show how badly out-of-balance these programs have become, between 1966 and 2006, Medicare and Social Security grew from 16% of the federal budget to 40%. (Defense spending declined from 43% to 20% of the budget during that period.)  By 2050, spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid is estimated to take up the entire federal budget, if the budget were to remain the same proportion of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as it is today.  (This does not even include the interest on the federal debt, which is increasing even more rapidly; it is projected to be three times the entire GDP by 2050.)  Obviously something will have to be done, and it will not be pretty.

Even worse, as of 2010 or so, people are paying more into Social Security than they, on average, will get out of it.  For instance, if a person turned 65 in 2010, they will have paid into Social Security about $588,000 and will only get $555,000 in benefits.  And these figures get worse every year.   Thus, people are getting a negative return on their 'investment'.

Most people are not aware that when Roosevelt and Congress started Social Security, the FICA tax rate was only 2%, and even then only those who earned over the median income paid into it.  Also, it was only intended to supplement one’s retirement.  Now, virtually everyone who works pays into Social Security at a rate of about 12% of income, and it still is only intended to supplement to one’s retirement.  This is truly pitiful and unbecoming of a great country. 

Retirement Planning

In a system based upon personal responsibility, individuals are responsible for their own retirement funds.  It would be wise to invest at least 10% of one’s income into a retirement plan.  I would recommend that children be taught in school the importance of saving for retirement from their very first paycheck.

To make the transition from our current system, we might require individuals to invest this money, although this would still slightly violate the premise of personal responsibility.

(As an aside, another 5% or so should be used to purchase long-term care insurance, and to purchase disability insurance as well.  Surprisingly often, many people will at some point become disabled, and/or need long-term care).

This 10% of one’s income would be invested in one of a number of government-approved investment companies.  Such companies would have to meet certain strict standards, as determined by the government.  These funds would be held in a segregated account in the individual’s name, so that such savings are immune from the solvency of an employer or the investment company.  This is similar to many retirement plans many States use for State employees.

To get an idea of how much money a person could have at retirement, let’s assume that the person works for 40 years, and has a starting salary of $36,000.  Let’s also assume that the person only gets a raise equal to the rate of inflation, so that they are essentially making $36,000 in today’s dollars for their entire working life.  This is a rather conservative assumption, since the median income of men who worked full time in the U.S. in 2007 was about $45,000.  The final assumption is that the entire amount is invested in a stock-index fund that mirrors that entire stock market.  Over any 40-year period since the modern stock market began in 1920, the stock market averaged a gain of at least 10% annually.

Whipping out my financial calculator, and investing $300 monthly (10% of the $3,000 monthly salary) for 40 years, earning 10% per year, gives almost $2 million in today’s dollars.  (The actual amount would be the value of $2 million of today’s dollars 40 years into the future, a much larger figure.)

Once you retire, you can safely take out 5% of this $2 million each year without reducing the principle, so this would give an income of $100,000 per year for the rest of your life!  And you would never have to worry about running out of money.  When you die, the $2 million could be willed to one’s spouse, children, charity, etc.

Imagine how much better this is than the current Social Security system, which takes over 12% of your income, and gives you about $25,000 per year for life at retirement.  This is what happens when government takes charge of your life.

Even better, we would no longer need to save additional money for retirement as we do now.  For instance, I work at the University of Texas at Dallas.  I pay 12.5% of my income (between me and my employer) into Social Security.  In addition, I am required to pay 15.5% into my retirement plan.  Under the plan I gave above, it would only cost 15% of one’s income (which includes long-term care and disability insurance as well as retirement).  That means I’d have an immediate additional 13% of income to spend.  Would you like a 13% raise?

Conclusion

We need to immediately implement a retirement program as described above.  At the same time, we need to phase out the fiscally irresponsible and damaging Social Security program.  But this needs to be done without harming those retired or near retirement.  This will be expensive to do, but will only get more expensive the longer we wait.  It is likely that the best way to make the transition is to require individuals to put 15% of their income into their own retirement/disability program, and yet still pay FICA taxes until almost everyone has their own well-funded retirement program.  This will take decades, but it took us decades to get to where we are now.  As usual, the piper must always be paid.

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Tim Farage is a Senior Lecturer in the Computer Science Department at The University of Texas at Dallas. You are welcome to comment upon this blog entry and/or to contact him at tfarage@hotmail.com.
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