12/17/2004: Cui bono?
As the Bush administration tries to persuade America to convert Social Security into a giant 401(k), we can learn a lot from other countries that have already gone down that road.
Information about other countries' experience with privatization isn't hard to find. For example, the Century Foundation, at www.tcf.org, provides a wide range of links.
Yet, aside from giving the Cato Institute and other organizations promoting Social Security privatization the space to present upbeat tales from Chile, the U.S. news media have provided their readers and viewers with little information about international experience. In particular, the public hasn't been let in on two open secrets:
Privatization dissipates a large fraction of workers' contributions on fees to investment companies.
It leaves many retirees in poverty.
Decades of conservative marketing have convinced Americans that government programs always create bloated bureaucracies, while the private sector is always lean and efficient. But when it comes to retirement security, the opposite is true. More than 99 percent of Social Security's revenues go toward benefits, and less than 1 percent for overhead. In Chile's system, management fees are around 20 times as high. And that's a typical number for privatized systems.
These fees cut sharply into the returns individuals can expect on their accounts. In Britain, which has had a privatized system since the days of Margaret Thatcher, alarm over the large fees charged by some investment companies eventually led government regulators to impose a "charge cap." Even so, fees continue to take a large bite out of British retirement savings.
A reasonable prediction for the real rate of return on personal accounts in the U.S. is 4 percent or less. If we introduce a system with British-level management fees, net returns to workers will be reduced by more than a quarter. Add in deep cuts in guaranteed benefits and a big increase in risk, and we're looking at a "reform" that hurts everyone except the investment industry.
--Paul Krugman [emphasis supplied. --LRC]
If I'm lucky, I'll die before I can retire, so I don't have to find out how dog food tastes.
Len on 12.17.04 @ 11:41 AM CST