Designer Social Security lets people control their futures

President Bush has to answer the question all of America is asking: How are we going to pay for his privatization proposal and for the current expected deficit in the Social Security system? Until or unless he answers this key question, Democrats will be able to paint in their own scenarios, scaring America and terrifying the elderly. Only by filling in the dots can he stop the Democrats from selling the worst-case scenario to America.

President Bush has to answer the question all of America is asking: How are we going to pay for his privatization proposal and for the current expected deficit in the Social Security system?

Until or unless he answers this key question, Democrats will be able to paint in their own scenarios, scaring America and terrifying the elderly. Only by filling in the dots can he stop the Democrats from selling the worst-case scenario to America.
The key to cutting this knot is to let Americans make their own individual choices. We are adults. We know the system is in trouble. We realize that Social Security is short of money and have all heard that the passing of the baby-boomer generation into retirement will impose financial stresses on the system.

So level with us. Tell us the truth, and let us decide what we want to do.

Americans each make financial decisions that affect their futures. We are accustomed to balancing the costs and benefits of various options in our lives. Let us do it now.

Social Security — and our retirement — is a very intimate and private question. We have very precise ideas of our needs and estimates of our earning capacities. Any legislated solution will leave most people unsatisfied and many scared to death. The key is to leave the decision making to us. Legislate choices.

We need people to understand that the current 12.4 percent rate of taxes on the current base of $90,000 of income will not permit future retirees to enjoy the benefit levels now mandated under current law. So let people design their own packages based on their own wants and needs.

Bush should propose a series of options to the American people: When do you want to retire? Sixty-two or later? What year? Pick a year. And how much do you want in benefits when you do retire? Two thousand dollars per month? One thousand five hundred? Two thousand five hundred? Adjusted for inflation of course. Pick it out. Do you want the private investment option? For how much of your tax payments (up to the 4 percent ceiling).

Then we’ll figure out how much the program you designed will cost and what your taxes need to be. Too high? OK, choose a lower cost option. It’s up to you.

The principle of involuntary coverage by Social Security is necessary to spread the risk of social insurance among the entire population, to have a wide tax base and to assure that we will not have a lot of destitute elderly people on our hands in the future. But even within the confines of a mandatory system, there can be choices and options.

By giving us the power to make decisions about our Social Security benefit levels, tax payments and retirement ages, Bush does not incur the political wrath he would get if he tried to make those decisions for us. He will be treating us like adults who can make judgments rather than children who have to have the decisions made for them.

Bush has already recognized the need for choice by proposing to make private investment optional and to leave up to us how we want to invest the funds. Embedded in this principle is the key to surviving this debate and emerging with a good Social Security package.

A choice-laden option leaves the Democrats saying that we are not qualified to make our own decisions. It puts them in a politically impossible situation. Jamming a solution down our throats — or avoiding the hard decisions by talking only about privatization — gives the president’s opponents too many ways to attack his proposals and kill them.

Morris is the author of Rewriting History, a rebuttal of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) memoir, Living History.