Cook: It's not really about entitlements

Cook: It's not really about entitlements

January 5th, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

The following ideas are possible solutions to our retirement crisis, cobbled together from different sources: Forbes, bar stool conversations with a financial planner, the news out of Australia, an email from an anarchist.

See if you can guess which idea is the best.

• Make employee retirement savings mandatory. You work? Then you're also required to save in a retirement account. It's pulled out of every paycheck. And no early withdrawals allowed.

Make employer retirement contributions mandatory, too. All employers -- those with five employees to five thousand -- must contribute a percentage (start at 5 percent, move toward 10) of earnings to their employees' retirement accounts.

However, implicit in such contributions is the understanding that employees would receive less salary and fewer raises. Employers would not be saddled with both.

The federal government ups its retirement benefits to everyone. The benefits are means-tested and paid on a sliding scale; those with less receive the maximum amount each year (say, $25,000) and those with more receive less than their poor neighbors, kind of like the lines bookies put on games to equal things out.

Here, everybody plays, everybody pays. Each player -- government, employee, employer -- is both alleviated of responsibilities and also put on the hook for more.

• Implement a basic income.

Each year, everyone receives a guaranteed $10,000. Doesn't matter how old or young you are. Doesn't matter how rich or poor, how lazy or hard working. An unconditional 10 grand each January, just like passing Go in Monopoly.

The idea is being debated in Switzerland and has become an increasingly

popular alternative to the host of payments a federal government may make. A basic income check would free up the middle class to explore entrepreneurial opportunities, buy a second car or take a big vacation. The $10,000 also would supplement those on the bottom, helping stabilize the already fragile poor.

"Even better, conservatives think, such a program could significantly reduce the size of our federal bureaucracy," writes Annie Lowrey in The New York Times. "It could take the place of welfare, food stamps, housing vouchers and hundreds of other programs."

She then quotes conservative Charles Murray, who once wrote: "Give the money to the people."

"He suggested guaranteeing $10,000 a year to anyone meeting the following conditions: be American; be over 21; stay out of jail; and -- as he once quipped -- 'have a pulse.'"

• Raise the retirement age. Slowly.

To glue the retirement age to its current spot is to ignore the coming world; science, specifically nanotechnology, promises to increase life expectancy in unbelievable ways. People won't just live longer, they'll live healthier. One hundred will be the new 70.

"Nanotech could make humans immortal by 2040," a ComputerWorld headline reads.

The retirement age should reflect our current world, not a 20th-century one.

• Expand Social Security.

There is a huge savings gap between households. Those with means are able to save more; those with less aren't.

"Near-retirement households with annual incomes over $200,000 had saved an average of $885,000 in 2010, compared with just $49,600 for households with incomes ranging from $30,000 to $45,000," claims Reuters, citing data from the Investment Company Institute.

Safe and secure retirement shouldn't be reserved just for the wealthy; Social Security can be a beautiful system, a sort of financial democracy that promises the pursuit of happiness long after work ends. How, you ask, can we afford to expand it?

• Put an end to corporate theft.

All this talk of retirement crisis and entitlements and pension cuts? It's a hoax, a smokescreen that keeps our attention distracted and helps us buy into the myth that ordinary America must continue to dilute itself: more work and fewer benefits. We have internalized "The Shining": All work and no play makes us crazy.

This retirement crisis? Not everybody's suffering.

"Although the U.S. economy is still recovering from the economic collapse of 2008, corporations are recording record profits," states a 2012 Public Citizen report. "Corporate profits as a share of the gross domestic product have risen to an all-time high. But corporate income tax payments have fallen to near historic lows."

The richest people in the history of the world bed down each night in this country, overseeing corporate operations that garner annual profits worth trillions and trillions while the rest of us argue over minimum wage and the retirement age and whether to expand Medicaid in Tennessee.

We're being played and conned. Social Security isn't broken. The corporate tax code is.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.