Reagan's vision for Social Security reform

It has been over sixteen years since President Ronald Reagan saluted us from the steps of Marine One and left the world stage. Yet the power of his vision is still being felt. While it was not the centerpiece of his Presidency, Ronald Reagan was an early advocate of personal accounts for Social Security.

Through his leadership he was able to achieve what many believed was unthinkable: defeating the Soviet Union, revitalizing the economy and pulling the spirit of the American people out of the malaise inflicted by the Carter presidency. 

His critics, of course, believed that his ideas and philosophy were not only extreme, but unworkable or even dangerous.  Reagan himself was deemed an 'amiable dunce' by those who did not share his views.   However, these insults mattered not a whit; through his leadership and political courage his vision was made reality.
 
The future of the Social Security system was hotly debated both before the Reagan Presidency as well as during it.   In the 1964 Presidential campaign, Reagan gave his famous speech, A Time for Choosing, in support of Republican nominee, Senator Barry Goldwater.  This speech, broadcast before a national television audience, catapulted Reagan an actor whose career had stalled and who had not yet held a political office, into the national spotlight.  

Since it outlined his vision for the country, A Time for Choosing is often referred to as 'The Speech.'   In The Speech, Reagan said that the already—evident Social Security system fiscal difficulties and poor returns suggested the system should have 'voluntary features that would permit a citizen to do better on his own.'  Both Goldwater's and Reagan's views on Social Security and many other issues were soundly rejected by the voters of 1964, and President Lyndon Johnson was re—elected by a landslide.

After two successful terms as Governor of California, Reagan challenged incumbent President Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination in 1976.  While campaigning in the primary, he suggested, just as he had twelve years earlier in The Speech, that aspects of the Social Security system should be made voluntary through personal accounts.  This created a firestorm of opposition among those who feared that this reform would cost them their Social Security benefits.  As a result, Reagan lost the Florida primary and ultimately the 1976 Republican nomination.

In his successful bid for the Presidency in 1980 he was continually attacked for his long term vision of personal Social Security accounts.  Throughout the campaign opponents and the press laid various traps for him, trying to get him to attack this popular and entrenched program.  During the campaign Reagan advocated reforms for keeping the system on sound financial footing, but refrained from advocating voluntary personal accounts. During the only debate during that campaign, President Carter attacked Reagan on his support of personal accounts, but these attacks were unsuccessful. Reagan soundly won the debate and the election.

Once in the White House, Reagan's advisors feared the potential negative political fallout from sweeping reforms of the Social Security system, and tried to keep him away from the issue.  They feared a divisive fight would derail his ambitious domestic and international agenda.  According to Reagan's Budget Director, David Stockman, his Chief of Staff, James Baker 'thought of Social Security as Ronald Reagan's Achilles heel and was determined to keep the President as far away as possible.'  

President Reagan ultimately endorsed the recommendation of the bipartistian Commission lead by current Federal Reserve Chairman.  This led to reforms which 'saved' Social Security through a combination of tax increases and rising the retirement age.  The notion of voluntary personal accounts was reviewed by the Commission, but was never considered as possible solution since it was impossible to garner enough political support.  Due to the difficult challenges for politicians on both sides of aisle in getting these reforms through Congress then—Speaker of the House, Tip O'Neill dubbed Social Security 'the third rail' of politics: touch it and you die.

The price of not implementing voluntary accounts in the 1983 reform of Social Security had been tremendous.   It has been estimated that over seven trillion dollars of additional wealth would have be created if personal accounts had been established then.  Much of this wealth would have been accumulated by those who were early in their careers in the 1980s — those nearing retirement age now.  In addition, the Social Security System would now currently be on a much sounder foundation.

Great leaders and visionaries are often seen as extremists during their times. Yet with the passage of time the powers of their vision are realized.  President Reagan's ideas on defeating the Soviet Union, ending the Cold War and creating economic growth by reducing taxes and government are now seen as visionary, despite the furious opposition to them during his Presidency.  As in these other areas, President Reagan was ahead of this time in his support of voluntary accounts personal accounts for Social Security.

President George W. Bush has seized upon Reagan's vision for voluntary personal accounts as the centerpiece of his plans to restore Social Security's soundness and give people, rather than the government, control over their futures.   

By grabbing the 'third rail' and encouraging debate on this issue, President Bush is moving us a step closer to realizing Ronald Reagan's vision for America, 'the shining city on the hill.'

James A. Leggette, Ph.D.  is an economist and talk radio host.  Michael W. Funk is an executive in the telecommunications industry.  He was a Brookings Institution Fellow and served was a Senate staff member.  They are collaborating on a book on Ronald Reagan's economic legacy.

It has been over sixteen years since President Ronald Reagan saluted us from the steps of Marine One and left the world stage. Yet the power of his vision is still being felt. While it was not the centerpiece of his Presidency, Ronald Reagan was an early advocate of personal accounts for Social Security.

Through his leadership he was able to achieve what many believed was unthinkable: defeating the Soviet Union, revitalizing the economy and pulling the spirit of the American people out of the malaise inflicted by the Carter presidency. 

His critics, of course, believed that his ideas and philosophy were not only extreme, but unworkable or even dangerous.  Reagan himself was deemed an 'amiable dunce' by those who did not share his views.   However, these insults mattered not a whit; through his leadership and political courage his vision was made reality.
 
The future of the Social Security system was hotly debated both before the Reagan Presidency as well as during it.   In the 1964 Presidential campaign, Reagan gave his famous speech, A Time for Choosing, in support of Republican nominee, Senator Barry Goldwater.  This speech, broadcast before a national television audience, catapulted Reagan an actor whose career had stalled and who had not yet held a political office, into the national spotlight.  

Since it outlined his vision for the country, A Time for Choosing is often referred to as 'The Speech.'   In The Speech, Reagan said that the already—evident Social Security system fiscal difficulties and poor returns suggested the system should have 'voluntary features that would permit a citizen to do better on his own.'  Both Goldwater's and Reagan's views on Social Security and many other issues were soundly rejected by the voters of 1964, and President Lyndon Johnson was re—elected by a landslide.

After two successful terms as Governor of California, Reagan challenged incumbent President Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination in 1976.  While campaigning in the primary, he suggested, just as he had twelve years earlier in The Speech, that aspects of the Social Security system should be made voluntary through personal accounts.  This created a firestorm of opposition among those who feared that this reform would cost them their Social Security benefits.  As a result, Reagan lost the Florida primary and ultimately the 1976 Republican nomination.

In his successful bid for the Presidency in 1980 he was continually attacked for his long term vision of personal Social Security accounts.  Throughout the campaign opponents and the press laid various traps for him, trying to get him to attack this popular and entrenched program.  During the campaign Reagan advocated reforms for keeping the system on sound financial footing, but refrained from advocating voluntary personal accounts. During the only debate during that campaign, President Carter attacked Reagan on his support of personal accounts, but these attacks were unsuccessful. Reagan soundly won the debate and the election.

Once in the White House, Reagan's advisors feared the potential negative political fallout from sweeping reforms of the Social Security system, and tried to keep him away from the issue.  They feared a divisive fight would derail his ambitious domestic and international agenda.  According to Reagan's Budget Director, David Stockman, his Chief of Staff, James Baker 'thought of Social Security as Ronald Reagan's Achilles heel and was determined to keep the President as far away as possible.'  

President Reagan ultimately endorsed the recommendation of the bipartistian Commission lead by current Federal Reserve Chairman.  This led to reforms which 'saved' Social Security through a combination of tax increases and rising the retirement age.  The notion of voluntary personal accounts was reviewed by the Commission, but was never considered as possible solution since it was impossible to garner enough political support.  Due to the difficult challenges for politicians on both sides of aisle in getting these reforms through Congress then—Speaker of the House, Tip O'Neill dubbed Social Security 'the third rail' of politics: touch it and you die.

The price of not implementing voluntary accounts in the 1983 reform of Social Security had been tremendous.   It has been estimated that over seven trillion dollars of additional wealth would have be created if personal accounts had been established then.  Much of this wealth would have been accumulated by those who were early in their careers in the 1980s — those nearing retirement age now.  In addition, the Social Security System would now currently be on a much sounder foundation.

Great leaders and visionaries are often seen as extremists during their times. Yet with the passage of time the powers of their vision are realized.  President Reagan's ideas on defeating the Soviet Union, ending the Cold War and creating economic growth by reducing taxes and government are now seen as visionary, despite the furious opposition to them during his Presidency.  As in these other areas, President Reagan was ahead of this time in his support of voluntary accounts personal accounts for Social Security.

President George W. Bush has seized upon Reagan's vision for voluntary personal accounts as the centerpiece of his plans to restore Social Security's soundness and give people, rather than the government, control over their futures.   

By grabbing the 'third rail' and encouraging debate on this issue, President Bush is moving us a step closer to realizing Ronald Reagan's vision for America, 'the shining city on the hill.'

James A. Leggette, Ph.D.  is an economist and talk radio host.  Michael W. Funk is an executive in the telecommunications industry.  He was a Brookings Institution Fellow and served was a Senate staff member.  They are collaborating on a book on Ronald Reagan's economic legacy.