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Dueling proposals vie for political advantage

THE BALTIMORE SUN

At 65, the traditional age of retirement when it's time to start taking it easy, Social Security finds itself in the midst of the presidential campaign debate.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush favors allowing workers to divert an unspecified percentage of Social Security payroll taxes into an individual account that they could invest in the stock market.

Vice President Al Gore has countered with a type of 401(k) account outside the Social Security program in which the government would provide a generous match to low- and middle-income workers.

Although economists and pension experts find favor with aspects of both, they are widely critical of the two plans.

The plans lack vital details and rely on a continued strong economy. And both candidates dodge Social Security's long-term financial problem of the baby boomers' retirement, experts said. By 2015, the trust fund will be paying out more than it collects in payroll taxes. By 2037, the system is expected to be insolvent.

"They don't care about the next generation. They care about the next election," said Lawrence Kotlikoff, an economics professor at Boston University.

Some say the solution requires hard choices such as higher taxes, lower benefits or a hike in the retirement age, none of which is politically popular.

Indeed, the candidates' plans are geared to attract core voters, although some come out better than others.

Bush calls for a bipartisan commission to reform Social Security in a way that wouldn't cut benefits for current retirees or near retirees, wouldn't raise payroll taxes and would preserve disability and survivor benefits. The individual accounts, he said, would be voluntary and could be passed onto heirs.

The lack of specifics leaves experts looking at other privatization proposals for clues on how the Bush plan might work. Many assume it would allow 2 percentage points of the 12.4 percent Social Security payroll tax to be routed into individual accounts. Workers likely would invest in funds with a mix of stocks and bonds.

For the plan to work, experts said, guaranteed benefits would have to be cut, although the assumption is that market returns in the accounts would more than make up the difference.

Those likely to benefit are medium- to higher-income workers with steady employment, which means their accounts would grow and compound over many years, said Stephen Kellison, a senior vice president for American General Retirement Services in Houston and a former Republican public trustee for Social Security. It also favors those more savvy about investing.

The individual accounts may turn out to be less lucrative, at least initially, to those with lower incomes, who might see their returns eaten up by administrative and management fees, said Ron Gebhardtsbauer, a senior pension fellow at the American Academy of Actuaries in Washington. "Until you have a bigger pile of money for 10 or 15 years, your money will go down instead of going up," he said.

There are risks, some warn. What happens if the country undergoes another decade like the 1970s? From January 1973 through September 1974, the Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 42.6 percent, according to Ibbotson Associates Inc. in Chicago. It took the broad index another 21 months to get back to the point before its long slide.

Would taxpayers have to bail out those near retirement whose accounts suddenly shrink? "Unless politics has changed a lot in 30 years, why not? They vote," said Jonathan Gruber, an economics professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.

However, Sylvester Schieber, with the benefits consulting firm of Watson Wyatt Worldwide in Bethesda, said the market risks to older workers is exaggerated because they tend to be conservative investors.

Some experts favor Gore's stock market alternative, Retirement Savings Plus, because it wouldn't draw money away from Social Security but would be in addition to it. Others like that it would encourage saving.

The plan recognizes "the truth that low- and middle-income families save almost nothing for retirement today. And for those not in an employer-sponsored retirement plan, they often end up with nothing except Social Security benefits and the value of their house," said Robert Reischauer, president of the Urban Institute in Washington.

Under the Gore plan, the federal government would match, on a sliding scale, workers' contributions to privately managed accounts that could be invested in broad-based funds of stocks, bonds and government securities.

Couples making below $30,000 would get $3 for every $1 they contribute; couples earning $30,000 to $60,000 would get a dollar-for-dollar match; and those with incomes of $60,000 to $100,000 would get $1 for every $3 they put in.

The income limits would be cut in half for single workers. The accounts would be limited to $2,000 annually per person.

The winners here would be low- and middle-income households, more probably the latter, who have extra dollars to salt away and get the match, experts said.

Some predict the plan wouldn't attract many of the poor it targets.

"It's not so much incentives as it is a matter of income. They lack the money in which to invest," said Michael Tanner, a Social Security expert at the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, which favors privatization.

Another concern is that the plan would allow workers to withdraw the money in their account to pay for college, a first home or catastrophic health care. "That's nice, but ... you may not have it for retirement," said Marilyn Moon, a former Democratic public trustee for Social Security now at the Urban Institute.

Of course, winners under both proposals would be investment firms and companies that comprise the investment choices in the plans, experts said. Not all investment firms, however, would be eager to handle millions of tiny, high-maintenance accounts, Gebhardtsbauer said.

"The plan that will eventually emerge will not look like what's being talked about today," said Walter Cadette, a senior scholar at the Jerome Levy Economics Institute.

Still, the climate is ripe for talk about privatizing Social Security because the country is in its longest economic expansion ever and many investors have never experienced a bear market. Confidence in the market has grown as faith in Social Security has fallen.

But support for privatization may also be fleeting.

"All of this talk about privatization will collapse as soon as the stock market collapses," Cadette said. "And that's coming."

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