- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 4, 2005

President Bush’s embrace of economist Robert Pozen’s Social Security financing plan last week achieved two strategic results that put his troubled proposal back on track.

First, by endorsing Mr. Pozen’s progressive solvency plan, Mr. Bush gave his personal retirement accounts proposal the aura of political bipartisanship it needs to counter the Democrats’ war against it. A longtime Democrat who taught at Harvard, Mr. Pozen supported John Kerry for president in 2004 and has contributed to many of his party’s candidates.

Mr. Pozen was a central member of the bipartisan presidential commission Mr. Bush appointed in 2001 to devise ways to carry out his reforms and was an ally of the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, New York Democrat, who co-chaired the panel and backed the administration’s proposal.

Second, by endorsing Mr. Pozen’s long-term financing recommendation at a news conference last Thursday, Mr. Bush put a well-thought-out and fully workable solvency solution on the table — the critical part of the Social Security fix he had left unaddressed in his initial proposal.

Mr. Pozen’s plan doesn’t just fix Social Security’s future financing troubles, it resolves them about as far as the eye can see. Who says so? The nonpartisan chief actuary of the Social Security Administration.

In a detailed memorandum written on Feb. 10, Chief Actuary Stephen C. Goss said he crunched the numbers on Mr. Pozen’s plan and found it would keep Social Security “solvent,” meeting all of “its benefit obligations through the long-range period 2004 through 2078.”

And if that is not enough to satisfy the fiercest deficit hawk, Mr. Goss added that Mr. Pozen’s plan “would be expected to restore sustainable solvency for the program, that is, the program would be expected to be financially solvent for the foreseeable future.” And it would do so without plunging the government and taxpayers deeper into debt, without hurting the most vulnerable lower-income Americans, without raising anyone’s taxes and without touching the benefits of retirees or those who retire in the next decade or so.

However, while Mr. Pozen’s plan retains Mr. Bush’s private investment accounts concept, he proposes starting out at 2 percent of a workers’ payroll taxes, half of Mr. Bush’s 4 percent proposal. But that difference could be narrowed with some modest alterations in the financing system.

There were questions whether Mr. Pozen’s plan would fly when he first presented his idea in a Wall Street Journal op-ed column. But it wasn’t long before Mr. Bush was talking up the idea and, finally, last week, said he fully embraced it. Mr. Bush’s core conservative supporters, after studying the fine print, endorsed it, too. “We very strongly support it,” Heritage Foundation analyst David John told me.

“This would do two things, both of which are critical. First, this brings Social Security’s promises close to what Social Security can afford to pay. Second, this focuses benefits on people who need it the most, the ones who are least likely to have other types of retirement plans,” he said.

Mr. Pozen’s plan would change how Social Security calculates each worker’s future benefits, helping lower-income workers more and higher-income workers a little less.

Currently, those calculations are based on a person’s wages over his or her working life. Under his plan, workers making $113,000 or more would have benefits figured on price increases, which tend to rise more slowly than wages.

Benefits for workers making $25,000 or less would continue to be calculated on wage growth. Workers in the middle-income ranges would see their benefits figures on a blending of wage and price increases.

In this way, as Mr. Pozen explains his plan, the Social Security benefits of lower-income workers, who make up 30 percent of the labor force, “would be preserved because they depend almost entirely on these benefits for retirement income. This group has minimal participation in retirement programs like 401(k)s and IRAs, whose tax advantages are enjoyed mainly by high- and medium-wage earners.”

“I like it,” said Michael Tanner, the Cato Institute’s chief Social Security analyst. “Something has to be done to restrain the growth of benefits. Personal accounts help solvency, but they don’t solve the entire problem. This seems to be the best of a lot of tough choices.”

Mr. Bush has made a very gutsy calculation of his own. In his battle with Democrats, he has embraced a very progressive formula that benefits poor and low-income Americans more — outflanking the Democrats at their own class warfare game.

Some conservatives fear Mr. Pozen’s plan will allow the Democrats to charge Mr. Bush would cut benefits for middle-income workers, but their participation in PRAs would more than offset any slower growth. They will still come out ahead, as will higher-income workers.

Even before Mr. Bush’s move last week, the idea was slowly appealing to wavering lawmakers. “There’s been a lot of talk about it among deficit hawks and moderates on both sides of the aisle,” Mr. Tanner told me.

So score a big point for President Bush. The ball is now in the Democrats’ court.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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