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Don't Cut Social Security -- Double It

Fiscal cliff chatter about slashing the venerable program ignores its fundamental potential and underlying strength.

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So the one-legged stool of the U.S. retirement system is looking like a rather odd piece of furniture, one that is increasingly unstable. For more and more Americans, the dream of a secure retirement is threatened. New solutions are needed to provide security to retiring Americans, both now and in the future.

The Solution: "Social Security Plus"-- Expanding Social Security

An expansion of the Social Security retirement system -- one of the most successful and popular social programs in American history -- that converts it into a more robust retirement system would build upon the most stable component of the current system. Social Security already provides the major means of support for two-thirds of America's retirees. Since its New Deal inception in the 1930s, and gradual expansion in subsequent decades, Social Security has become a mainstay of retirement security, firmly rooted in America's cultural and economic landscape (as leaders like President George W. Bush discovered when he tried to privatize it).

The real problem with Social Security is not, as its critics say, that it is underfunded. Contrary to gloomy predictions, the program is on solid financial footing, with the Congressional Budget Office projecting that Social Security can pay all scheduled benefits out of its own tax revenue stream through at least 2037. The bigger problem is that Social Security's payouts are so meager -- far too low for the program's new role as America's de facto national retirement system. It only replaces about 33 to 40 percent of a retiree's average final wage, which is simply not enough money to live on when it is your primary -- perhaps your only -- source of retirement income.

The gritty reality that the Obama administration and House Republicans must face is that the vast majority of America's retirees cannot afford to watch them hack off part of the only leg that remains of the three-legged stool. Quite the contrary, we should make that leg more robust by doubling the current Social Security payout, and turning it into a true national retirement system called "Social Security Plus." Doing so not only would be good for American retirees, but also would be good for the greater macro economy.

Doubling Social Security's individual payout would cost about $650 billion annually for the approximately 53 million Americans who receive benefits. Here's how to pay for it.

Step 1. Lift Social Security's payroll cap that favors the wealthy.

Currently Social Security only taxes wages up to $106,800 a year, and any income earned above that is not taxed. The net result is that poor, middle class, and even moderately upper middle class Americans are taxed 12.4 percent (split between employee and employer) on 100 percent of their income, but the wealthy pay a much lower percentage. Millionaire bankers effectively pay a paltry 1.2 percent.

Making all income levels pay the same percentage -- which is how Medicare works -- is popular with Americans according to opinion polls, and would raise about $377 billion toward the $650 billion needed to double the Social Security payout. As a candidate in 2008, Barack Obama stated that he supported raising the cap on the Social Security tax to help fund the program.

Step 2. Cut out the business deduction for employees' retirement plans.

With all Americans receiving Social Security Plus, employer-based pensions would be redundant, so businesses no longer would need the substantial federal deductions they currently receive for providing employees' retirement plans. These deductions total a substantial $126 billion annually.

These two steps alone would provide three-fourths of the revenue needed to double Social Security's payout.

 
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