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Jacob Hacker and Teresa Ghilarducci:
An Email Exchange on Retirement
Part Two

Today we are proud to bring you Teresa Ghilarducci (who just published When I’m Sixty-Four) in conversation with Jacob Hacker (author of The Great Risk Shift). These two experts will be debating how to ensure retirement for future generations. This is part two of the which will we be publishing all week, so be sure to come back and check our exchange.

Teresa Ghilarducci taught economics for twenty-five years at the University of Notre Dame and now holds the Irene and Bernard L. Schwartz Chair of Economic Policy Analysis at the New School for Social Research. She is also the 2006-2008 Wurf Fellow at Harvard Law School. Her most recent book is When I’m Sixty-Four: The Plot against Pensions and the Plan to Save Them.

Jacob Hacker is a Professor of Political Science at Yale University and a Fellow at the New American Foundation. His most recent book is The Great Risk Shift: The Assault on American Jobs, Families, Health Care, and Retirement And How You Can Fight Back.

Dear Teresa,

I see these multiple perspectives on retirement every day, in my research and my own life. I visit my dear colleague Bob Dahl, who in his mid-90s continues to publish path breaking books on democracy and political equality. How can I talk with someone so intellectually vibrant and not want to be contributing in that way in my own old age?

And then I remember Elinor Sheridan, whom I wrote about in my book. In her seventies, she was trying to find a job because her 401(k), crushed by the stock-market decline of 2000, had already been depleted. Even with Social Security, the pension she receives from 17 years at a hospital provided a meager standard of living. Elinor had worked her whole life — as a mom and wife (divorced) and then, ironically, as a “risk manager” at the hospital — and now she was not because she wanted to but because she had to. So much for the golden years.

It is good to have someone celebrating retirement as a benefit to our society, rather than a burden on us and future generations. The labor movement may be the “folks who brought you the weekend,” but it was FDR and countless fellow campaigners for a guaranteed retirement income who who brought us retirement as we now know it. And the campaign is not over.

Retirement security is under attack. Corporations are jettisoning traditional guaranteed pensions, Congress is pouring money into tax breaks for individual benefit plans that exclude millions and mostly benefit the affluent, virtue in proposals for partial privatization of Social Security that will put the promise of secure retirement= further at risk.

But this exchange would be pretty uninteresting if all I said was “Amen,” and so let me continue in the vein of disagreement for at least a little while. I have two concerns about the Guaranteed Retirement Account (GRA) vision — the first more philosophical, the second more practical. (And I should note, as a fellow policy wonk, that GRA is a nice acronym, especially when compared with John McCain’s chosen shorthand for his health plan of last resort, GAP, or “Guaranteed Access Plan.” Note to the McCain candidacy: A plan that’s billed as filling gaps should probably have another moniker, though perhaps the McCain folks believe in truth in advertising.)

First, the more or less philosophical concern: Are GRAs the best immediate use of federal resources and the scarcely unlimited running room for new federal taxes — excuse me, “mandatory contributions”? I am not one to go in for the clash-of-generations view so common in official Washington and the news media. (After all, we all get old, and young and old alike support Social Security and say they want a secure retirement.) But I am not sure I am ready to man the barricades for a major new commitment to provide enhanced retirement income when so many needs go unmet for working age Americans and kids. For one, and I say this only half in jest, I would rather have the 5 percent of payroll proposed to fund GARs for my universal health plan
= (http://www.sharedprosperity.org/topics-health care.html). For another, Social Security provides a tattered but still crucial safety net that is sorely lacking in other areas of American economic life—most notably, health care (again, I really want that 5 percent!). My point is not that we don’t need a new campaign for retirement security — we do. It’s just that I”m not sure it should be the first priority of those seeking economic security. The aged look out for themselves pretty well in American politics. Not so the young, the disadvantaged, the cash-strapped working family — though, yes, they will all be old some day and, yes, our pension system fails them above all.

Now, the practical worry. We have a huge 401(k) complex on which millions of Americans rely. In my 2002 book, The Divided Welfare State, I described the slapdash way in which this system came into being (trust me; almost no one knew what they were getting into, though once the floodgates were opened, corporations figured it out pretty quick). But I also made the point that existing systems of social protection, however haphazardly created or inadequate in practice, are fiendishly difficult to supplant with new, more rational arrangements. I called this “path dependence.” But we could just as well call it “political reality.” And it seems to me that the political reality today is that it will be very, very hard to completely redirect existing tax breaks for 401(k) plans and create an entirely new supplementary pension system managed by the federal government.

If that judgment is correct (dispute away), then where does it leave those of us living in the reality-based policy community who recognize that the 401(k) defined contribution model is incapable of providing retirement security for all but those at the top? I argued in The Great Risk Shift thSocial Security, and (2) transform 401(k)s into something that looks like a guaranteed retirement benefit. Without going into the details, I called for making 401(k)-type accounts available to everyone, even if their employer failed to provide them; requiring automatic enrollment through the workplace; and offering progressive “matches” to supplement lower-income workers’ contributions, even if employers do not offer a standard match. And I said that all account balances should be automatically converted into annuities (a guaranteed income for the remainder of one’s life) at retirement unless someone could show they had sufficient wealth to protect themselves against outliving their assets. (providing such annuities through the post office back in the 1930s).

By the way, this would surely cost serious money – which puts it somewhat in tension with my first point about priorities. But it has the virtue that it could be done in stages, with the lowest-cost aspects (automatic enrollment; annuitization, which should be self-financing) coming \ first. Its more important virtue is that it might be possible to do at all.

Fire Away,



Thanks for reminding me of Robert Dahl and what was unspoken, our hope we are as incisive in our nineties and in control of our time.

Please know it was both — FDR’s Social Security and union pensions (e.g. those for the Ladies Garment Workers, bricklayers, coal miners, steel, auto workers etc.) that created the middle class and middle class retirement. But, as you point out, the campaign for “decent retirement for all” is not over. Except for the wealthiest men and women, people, now in their 40s and 50s, will likely be the first U.S. history to be more at risk than their parents of experiencing a sharp drop in living standards in old age.

I bristle a bit when accused of not being a reality-based policy wonk. There is not a pension economist on the planet that will defend our system of tax breaks for savings that only help the affluent move money from taxed accounts to tax-favored accounts, costing the Treasury over $80 billion per year. Thus, it is no surprise that the tax breaks – called tax expenditures – have soared while overall savings rates keep on going down. A full 50% of the tax expenditures for 401(k)-type accounts go to only 6% of workers; those at the top earning over $100,000 per year.
70% of the tax breaks go to the top 20%. The most head banging reality of it all is that these people would have saved without the help. The current system has no basis in logic.

Who did this? Who brought old age income security under attack? I used to think it was mostly corporations spending less on pensions because they could get away with it. The shift in market power to employers and away from workers is partly the reason, but a big part of the attack comes from Congress indulging the 401(k) industry. And a dedicated, ideologically-based campaign to transform Social Security into individual accounts (my Chapter 5 covers that intricate history and, as you rightly point out, continuing saga) is the other source of the plot against pensions.

My proposal for guaranteed supplements to Social Security is based in this reality. GRAs obtains pensions for all with no additional risk or federal spending. And, they restore savings rates to the higher rates before the “debt boom” that started in the 1980s.

Philosophically we are on the same page. You didn’t say it right out, but I guess you are just as terrified as I am that high payroll taxes would cause terrible things like widespread tax evasion and an underground economy. I’ve come to appreciate how lucky we are in America that we have almost 100% employer compliance (the stray restaurant and construction sites notwithstanding) in paying social security tax.

Keeping payroll taxes low is philosophical and practical. Nonetheless, I support your plan for an additional payroll tax to pay for health care and for a mandatory 5% contribution to a GRA. First, the government will offset the 5% GRA contribution with an indexed $600 annual contribution.

Second, the “mandatory contribution” is unlike a tax, it will go into an individual’s account under that individual’s name. Third, money for the old doesn’t take away money from the young. One of my best articles has the best title – Do the Old eat the Young? (I also teach a class on social policy with the same name). The ugly fear that supporters of Social Security and pensions compete with government support for working-age Americans and kids is not well founded. You know what? Nations that pay for the old also pay for kids. It is also a pattern in American history. When American families funded their pensions and paid ever increasing Social Security taxes, they voted for increases in property taxes to pay for schools.

Thus, we can plausibly argue for a bread and roses social policy. Your great book, The Great Risk Shift, put working class families’ insecurity front and center. The kids! The kids! Only African American kids have higher poverty rates than older single women. And, you are right, over the last 4 decades, we have drastically cut old age poverty rates while more kids face poverty risks. But did bread leave the mouths of babes to feed the grandmas? No. Tax expenditures – taxes not collected for special reasons, like for oil depletion and for profits of banks operating abroad — between 1974 – 2004 tripled. And the growth in tax breaks, mostly for businesses and the wealthy, far exceeds the growth in social spending. That is where much of the money for cash-strapped working families have gone.

I agree, thought the practical reality of checking the runaway 401(k) industrial complex might be difficult, it is not impossible don’t annihilate Wall Street firms, the government will contract with for-profit professional money managers just as we do for for investing pensions for Federal Reserve employees, Texas teachers, etc. Even Chuck (in the “Talk to Chuck” campaign for Charles Schwab brokerage accounts) and other broker dealers will have something to do. Employers can still keep their 401(k) plans, but their merits have to be r al, not based on the tax breaks going to the bosses. So, though it is difficult to implement policy as if we are “starting from scratch” because of “path dependence” this 401(k) path is fairly new – the tax breaks have soared only recently. And, if we can keep tax breaks for 401(k) contributions up to $5,000 per year – not up to, in some cases, $46,000 — we only spend $25 billion per year for GRAs for all, funded with $600 federal contributions for everyone.

So, don’t throw me out of the reality-based policy community. Guaranteed Retirement Accounts, with all due respect, is a more effective, straightforward plan than your plan that relies on clever psychological jujitsu with automatic this and thats. You aim to raise pension coverage rates by taking advantage of human laziness through auto enrolling, auto annuitizing and – you should add — auto investing. Fundamentally, relying on voluntary, commercial accounts does not address huge leakages from high retail fees, leakages from churning and scams, and leakages from early withdrawals and, the biggest leak of all, the fact most employers do not bother to sponsor a pension plan at all.

The best part about the GRAs is that it addresses the two Americas. The GRAs gives every American worker with a Social Security number what only some lucky workers have. Workers with government, corporate and union defined benefit plans, and college professors in TIAA -CREF have low cost, not-for-profit financial institutions handling our pensions. The other Americans have nothing, or pay retail fees for leaky 401(k) accounts. The GRAs close that access gap – everyone has access to a low fee, professional, quasi-governmental, financial institution that guarantees an inflation-protected competitive market return.

Jacob, we can get health and pension security. No?


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  1. […] to ensure retirement for future generations. This is the final part the exchange. Read part one and part two. Teresa Ghilarducci taught economics for twenty-five years at the University of Notre Dame and now […]

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