The best thing to not to have happen during the Bush administration is we did not privatize Social Security, as Bush wanted.
Had we done so, boomers facing retirement over the next few years would be even worse off than they are now. Now they're struggling with pension plans worth less than they counted on, and home values that are tanking.
At least they can rely on a monthly Social Security check.
But if we had privatized, prospective retirees would be totally reliant on the stock market. And look what's happened to the market. Comparing stock values now to what they were ten years ago adjusted for inflation, the S&P 500 has risen a little over 1 percent a year. Treasury bonds have done better. Go back nine years, and there's been no gain at all. Go back eight years and market has been off an average of 1.4 percent a year.
Yes, I know, it's been a rough time. First the tech bubble bursting, then 9/11, then Enron, then the housing bubble bursting, then the credit crunch. But that's my point. We can't necessarily rely on the stock market.
And anyone who thinks the market will shortly regain all the ground it's lost has been drinking Wall Street cool-aid. The Fed can only do so much. It's reluctant to cut rates much further because of inflationary forces. Meanwhile, the stimulus package is far too little. A few hundred dollars won't cause consumers to buy more. They're paying far more for fuel and food and health insurance, their paychecks are shrinking, they're deep in debt, and their home values are sinking. Consumer confidence is plummeting.
So imagine if boomer retirees didn't have Social Security.
Sure, the stock market has done well over the past half century. But there have been decades like the 1970s and this one so far, where it's been a disaster. That's why we have Social Security so that if your timing is bad and you get caught in a downdraft, you still have something to fall back on in retirement. If we had privatized, you'd have nothing to fall back on. You'd crash.
Robert Reich is Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. He has written ten books, including The Work of Nations, which has been translated into 22 languages; the best-sellers The Future of Success and Locked in the Cabinet, and his most recent book, Reason. His articles have appeared in the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. Mr. Reich is co-founding editor of The American Prospect magazine.