The St. Petersburg Times today covers the brouhaha over Social Security reform between the Senate campaigns of Florida governor Charlie Crist and Speaker Marco Rubio. In their March 28 Fox News debate, Rubio said we need to look at things like raising the retirement age for younger people. Crist declared changes to Social Security off-limits, arguing we should instead focus on the usual bugaboos of waste, fraud, and abuse.
The reporter quoted me saying:
“Any expert from any political spectrum will tell you that Rubio was right,” said Andrew Biggs, former No. 2 at the Social Security Administration and now with the conservative American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.
By which I meant not merely raising the retirement age, but the broader need for significant changes, be it changing the formula for Cost of Living Adjustments (COLAs), reducing benefits, raising taxes, etc.
The problem with Crist’s claim, which he surely knows now if he didn’t know it then, is that Social Security is a very efficient program, by government standards at least. Social Security knows your age and it knows your earnings, so when you show up at the SSA office — or, my former colleagues there will scream at me to point out, do it online — the program simply calculates a benefit and cuts you a check. You’re not going to fill a $15 trillion gap by cutting waste in this process.
There is room to cut waste in the disability program, where an alarming number of applicants have ailments — particularly back pain and depression — that are notoriously difficult to prove or disprove. Tightening eligibility standards, which were loosened by Congress in the 1980s, would improve solvency while maintaining benefits for the truly disabled. But somehow I suspect Crist won’t be targeting the disability program, either.
The core issue is whether, as entitlements grow and debt rises, candidates for public office will have the courage to speak to us as adults about the difficult choices we face. Rubio showed that courage, while Crist did not.
– Andrew G. Biggs is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.