What If Social Security Was Like a 401(k)?

Forecasts & Strategies
Personal Snapshots
December 2000

by Mark Skousen

“Of all social institutions, business is the only one created for the express purpose of making and managing change…. Government is a poor manager.” -Peter F. Drucker, “The Sickness of Government,” The Age of Discontinuity (1969)

In the ongoing debate over the privatization of Social Security, one story has been overlooked: The private sector in the United States has already solved its own pension fund crisis by converting their old “defined benefit” plans into individualized 401(k)s.

Here’s the story: After World War II, major U.S. companies added generous pension plans to their employee benefit programs. These “defined benefit” plans largely imitated the federal government’s Social Security plan. Companies placed funds into a large investment pool based on employees’ salaries, the trust fund was managed by company officials, and a monthly retirement income was projected for all employees when they retired at age 65.

The Old Pension Plan System Fails

But over the years, corporate executives recognized serious difficulties with their traditional pension plans, similar to the problems Social Security faces today. Corporations confronted huge unfunded liabilities as retirees lived longer and managers invested too conservatively in government bonds and blue-chip “old economy” stocks. Newer employees were also angered when they changed jobs or were laid off and didn’t have the required “vested” years to receive benefits from the company pension plan. Unlike Social Security, most corporate plans were not transferable. The Employment Retirement Income Security ACT (ERISA), passed in 1974, imposed regulations on the industry in an attempt to protect pension rights, but the headaches, red tape and lawsuits grew during an era of downsizing, job mobility and longer life expectancies.

The New Individualized Solution

The new corporate solution was a spin-off of another legislative invention-the Individual Retirement Account (IRA). The 401(k) rapidly became the business pension of choice, and there is no turning back. These “defined contribution” plans solve all the headaches facing traditional corporate “defined benefit” plans. Under 401(k) plans, employees, not company officials, control their own investments (by choosing among a variety of no-load mutual funds). Corporations no longer face unfunded liabilities because there is no guaranteed projected benefit. And workers and executives have complete mobility; they can move that, 401k savings to a new employer or roll it over into an IRA.

According to recent Labor Department statistics, there are about nine times more defined-contribution plans than defined-benefit plans. Almost all of the major Fortune 500 companies have switched to 401(k) plans or hybrid “cashbalance” plans. Companies that still operate old plans include General Motors, Procter & Gamble, Delta Airlines and The New York Times Company. IBM, a company that once guaranteed lifetime employment, switched to a “cashbalance” plan two years ago, giving its 100,000 employees an individual retirement account that they can take with them in a lump sum if they leave the company before retirement (long-service workers are still eligible for IBM’s old defined-benefit plan). But virtually all “new economy” companies, such as Microsoft, AOL and Home Depot, offer 401(k) plans only.

Congress could learn a great deal studying the changes corporate America has made in pension fund reform. Converting Social Security into personal investment accounts is a step in the right direction, a policy change already achieved in Chile and other nations. Unfortunately, government – unlike business – is not prone to innovation. As Peter Drucker notes, “Government can gain greater girth and more weight, but it cannot gain strength or intelligence.” Hopefully, Bush will prove me wrong.

UPDATES

Death of Leader, Communist Party USA: Two months ago, Gus Hall, 90, longtime leader of the Communist Party USA died. In reading Hall’s life story in The New York Times, I was reminded of my father’s own story as an FBI agent in the 1940s, when he was an undercover agent and spied on Gus Hall in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1948, Hall was convicted of espionage under the Smith Act and spent eight years in prison. My father, Leroy Skousen, lived a fascinating life as a missionary, FBI agent, lawyer, and anticommunist speaker. His life has been written up in a book titled Thunder Broke the Heavens, available from Skousen Publishing Co., P.O. Box 2488, Winter Park, Florida 32790, $20 postpaid (checks/cash only).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *