Time to Privatize? The Economics of Social Security

Government spending reform is not an option. It’s a necessity. Reforming Social Security goes a long way here. The most sensible reform would be to privatize it. To see why, one needs to understand the economics of Social Security.

First: What is saving? When we buy stocks, bonds, and CDs with our money, we call it “saving.” In the economics sense, when we save, we abstain from consuming resources today. Businesses use the saved resources to produce more for tomorrow.

Suppose an economy produces a stock of corn. We can either consume it or save it. The saved corn is planted and makes more corn next year. This is saving and investment, in the economics sense. Here’s the link between “saving” and saving: I decide not to spend all my money consuming corn. Rather, I buy a bond from a farmer. I am “saving.” In doing so, I also leave corn on the shelf of the supermarket. This is saving.

The farmer buys the leftover corn using the money from the bond I bought. He invests by planting the corn. In a year, it becomes more corn. He sells it to the supermarket for money which he uses to repay me for the bond, with interest. Now I have the money, and I can consume more corn or save again.

This corny story is an analogy for gross domestic product (GDP), the measure of all final goods and services produced within a nation in a year. It includes all the corn, cars, soda, etc. produced by a nation. The saved portion of GDP becomes investment. Investment creates more GDP in the future.

So is Social Security saving? No. Those paying in today don’t consume it or save it. The government receives the money, but they don’t leave it in a personal account; they transfer it someone else who uses it to consume resources. In other words, the government takes corn from you and gives it to your grandma. Now she can consume it. There’s no real saving because no corn gets planted to make more corn tomorrow.

If there’s extra money in Social Security, government takes it and buys corn to consume itself, e.g., to build corny missiles. It gets replaced with a government IOU, Treasury bonds (aka higher future taxes). Not only is this not saving, but the corn missiles mean there is even less corn for individuals and businesses to consume and invest too.

Identically, imagine you “save” $1,000 of your income, but buy a new TV instead of depositing it with a bank. Since you’re “saving” and not a scheming politician, you write an IOU to yourself, promising to repay yourself $1,000 with interest. Is this “saving” plan stupid? It is. This is Social Security.

If Social Security were privatized, people would deposit their income with a bank. People actually save resources that businesses can invest. We, as true savers, get more resources in the future.

“Lockbox” proposals are equally flawed. In this instance, government doesn’t reach its hand into the cookie jar. It keeps the extra cash stowed aside. This is like putting money under your mattress. Once it’s out of circulation, it serves no purpose. Less money in circulation relative to real GDP means the average price level goes down (deflation). The Federal Reserve would just print more money to offset this.

Remember, the purpose of actual saving is to allow you to consume more in the future — not today. Social Security retards this process whereas privatized Social Security means actual saving. If people defer consuming some corn (GDP) today with a bank that lends it to someone to invest, then there will be more corn (GDP) tomorrow. This is the economics of Social Security.