Opinion Editorial on Private Participation in Public Pensions
Misguided Social Security ‘Reform’Editorial
At the end of last year, just shy of the 11th hour in the fiscal cliff negotiations, President Obama made an offer that included a Republican-backed idea to cut spending by lowering the cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security benefits. The move shocked Congressional Democrats and dismayed Mr. Obama’s liberal base.
The offer, however, was rejected by House Republicans who could not stomach the tax increases and other concessions that Mr. Obama demanded as part of the deal. The talks moved on, and when all was said and done, Republicans did not get the lower cost-of-living adjustments (known as COLAs) and Mr. Obama did not get the concessions he had sought.
But that is not the end of the story. As the next round of deficit reduction talks gets under way, the administration seems determined to include the COLA cut in any new package of spending reductions. Rather than using the issue as a bargaining ploy, the administration appears to have embraced it as a worthy end in itself.
Is it? In a word, no.
That is not to say that Social Security should be off the table. There are reforms that are eminently sensible, if only the political will could be found to enact them. But reducing the COLA is not a sound idea now and may never be.
At issue is the way inflation is calculated. The administration’s offer in the fiscal cliff talks — and the approach long advocated by Republicans — calls for using a new measure of inflation, called the “chained” Consumer Price Index, to calculate the COLA.
Unlike the gauge of inflation currently in use, the chained index captures the ability of consumers to adjust their spending across categories as relative prices change — for instance, spending less on fuel as gas prices go up and more on groceries as food prices go down. Such substitution causes the chained C.P.I. to rise more slowly than the current measure, which would result in a lower annual COLA and huge budget savings. The move to a chained C.P.I. would reduce benefits by some $135 billion over 10 years, and far more in later decades because of compounding.
The administration and other proponents of switching to a chained C.P.I. contend that it is a technical fix in the interest of greater accuracy, not a benefit cut per se.
But that claim does not stand up to scrutiny. The chained index is in many ways a better method of tracking price changes for the broad working population, but there is no compelling evidence that it is better for computing the Social Security COLA.
What is known is that elderly households tend to have lower incomes and lower expenditures than younger households, and that more of their purchases are for needs that cannot be met by switching to products and services in unrelated categories. That indicates that they do not have the same flexibility as younger households to respond to price changes while still maintaining their standards of living. And because of the way it is calculated, the chained C.P.I. would also result in delayed upward adjustments in the COLA in times of accelerating inflation. Such delays would translate into real benefit cuts, leaving retirees worse off.
If, as the administration says, the aim is to set the COLA in the most accurate way possible, then the obvious approach is to have the Bureau of Labor Statistics develop a statistically rigorous index to track inflation as experienced by retirees. A more informal index from the bureau that looks at the effects of inflation on the elderly shows that the COLA is too low, not too high, in part because of medical costs. But the number of households sampled is too small to be sure.
A rigorous index would settle the issue of whether the current COLA adjustments are high, low or about right. The fact that some policy makers are willing, even eager, to move ahead with changing the COLA without having developed a more reliable gauge only feeds the impression that they are trying to get away with an unjustified benefit cut.
In the meantime, there are other, well-researched reforms to Social Security that the administration and other policy makers could pursue. For instance, it is well understood that upper-income people live longer than the less affluent. The formula for determining Social Security benefits could be gradually and modestly adjusted to reflect those longer lives, while making the system more progressive and cutting spending. Another sensible reform would be to raise the level of wages currently subject to the Social Security payroll tax, so that it better reflects the income gains of top earners over the past several decades.
But prematurely forcing through a COLA cut would be unnecessary and unwise.