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Persfi

Memo to baby boomers and twentysomethings: It’s time to grow up and accept the truth about Social Security. The system won’t fail. It will be around when you retire.

It has to be changed, however, to accommodate the boomer bulge. Somewhere around the millennium, a deal will probably be worked out.

So you have to look carefully at the reform proposal released recently by the bipartisan National Commission on Retirement Policy. It will set a base from which the debate proceeds.

Unlike many other proposals, this one makes some creative compromises among the many different views on how Social Security should be changed. It’s currently being translated into legislation, to be introduced next year.

The commission’s co-chairs included politicians from both sides of the aisle Sens. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., and John Breaux, D-La., and Reps. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., and Charles Stenholm, D-Texas.

The public isn’t going to like some things in the NCRP plan. Polls show that most Social Security supporters are still living in a fantasy world.

You want no hikes in Social Security taxes and no increases in the retirement age. Many Americans also want private Social Security investment accounts.

It’s fiscally impossible to make that wish list work. If you won’t accept higher payroll taxes on at least some people (say, higher earners), you’ll have to accept a later retirement age.

The current full-retirement age is 65, gradually rising to 67 by 2022. Early retirees can claim a lower Social Security benefit at 62.

The NCRP plan contains no tax increases. Instead, it raises the full-retirement age to 70 by 2029 and the early-retirement age to 65 by 2017.

The full-retirement phase-in takes the most out of people born in the 1960s and later. They’d have to save more or work longer before retiring.

At retirement age, the plan takes care of lower-income beneficiaries. Their basic checks could be roughly the same or even higher than current law provides.

Workers with average or higher incomes, on the other hand, would get less than current law provides. The proposed reforms take the most from the people who need the program the least.

Every worker, however, would also have a private Social Security investment account. Two percentage points of your payroll tax would go into your account each year.

You could decide how to invest that money, choosing between a mutual fund invested in U.S. stocks and one invested in bonds. Eventually, other options would be added.

Payments from these accounts could be gravy on top of the Social Security checks received by lower-income people. Younger people could do better, too.

That’s not necessarily true, however, for average- to high-income workers who are now in early middle age. Their private accounts might not have enough time to grow, to make up for the benefits they’ll lose. The plan lets you fill in this gap yourself, by making voluntary, annual contributions of up to $2,000 to your private Social Security account.

Private accounts couldn’t realistically be proposed, if it weren’t for the federal budget surplus, which is projected to run for years.

Your entire Social Security tax is normally earmarked for future beneficiaries. If 2 percent is taken out for a personal account, something has to replace that money in the government’s accounts.

The budget surplus fills in for your 2 percent. If Congress uses up the surplus, by passing new spending programs or budget-busting tax cuts, private accounts might no longer fly.

The most controversial part of Social Security reform will probably be delaying the retirement age.

Other reform ideas

Competing Social Security reform plans to the NCRP’s abound. Gung-ho privatizers want to let you invest all of your Social Security contribution.

But their plans don’t have an acceptable way of paying for current beneficiaries, who depend on your payroll taxes for support. Nor have they a plan for supporting other clients of Social Security: widows and widowers, orphans, the disabled and the poor not to mention the people whose investment accounts do poorly.

A liberal alternative is being championed by Robert Ball, a former Social Security commissioner and author of the new Twentieth Century Fund report, “Straight Talk about Social Security.”

He’d invest half of the Social Security trust fund in stocks, for higher long-term returns. That’s the way private pension funds invest, with great success. With a couple of additional adjustments, Ball says, his plan brings Social Security close enough to solvency, with no extra taxes, no benefit cuts and no increases in the retirement age.

To reach true solvency, however, his plan requires a small benefit cut and a tax increase on the highest earners. Congress isn’t likely to buy this tax.

Ball doesn’t like using part of the Social Security tax for private investment accounts. This would vary Social Security benefits, based entirely on chance. Lucky people, retiring during a good market for stocks or bonds, would get a larger check. Unlucky people, retiring after a market drop, would get less. You couldn’t plan.

But the public might not care, as long as most beneficiaries did well. “The vast bulk of people will be winners,” says commission member Rudolph Penner, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute.

An NCRP proposal sure to provoke some bloody yells would cut the retirement benefit paid to one-earner couples. Instead of adding 50 percent for a spouse at home, the commission would add just 33 percent.

It’s a fairness issue. One-earner couples currently get much more out of Social Security than do two-earner couples who pay the same amount of tax. Dual earners think that isn’t fair, but single earners will fight to hang on to what they have.

Syndicated columnist Jane Bryant Quinn can be reached in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200.

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