A simple matter of math turns out to be a call for courage
Europe’s looming pension crisis is a warning to the United States
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In April, French President Emmanuel Macron demonstrated once again that, whatever his detractors may say about him, he has a political spine. In the face of nearly three months of protests and strikes in dozens of French cities and a narrowly survived no-confidence vote from the National Assembly, Macron signed into law a bill that will gradually raise the qualifying retirement age in France from 62 to 64.
The ferocious public opposition was no surprise to any student of French politics, for millions had similarly marched against President Nicholas Sarkozy’s decision to raise the age from 60 to 62 back in 2010. This time, however, pension reform proved so unpopular that Macron, realizing he would never get a legislative majority to pass it, was forced to invoke a special provision of the French constitution, Article 49.3, that allowed him to bypass the National Assembly altogether.
France’s troubles serve as a warning call to other Western democracies, including the United States. For decades Western governments have written large promissory checks to their workers, promising that once they hit their sixties, they could enjoy a quiet retirement funded at least in large part by government pensions (what we call Social Security in the United States). But since those promises were made, life expectancies have risen significantly, meaning that government pensions must pay out longer.
In France, for instance, the average worker could expect to live less than fifteen years in retirement when Francois Mitterand reduced the retirement age to 60 in 1983. Today, with the retirement age at 62, the figure is more than 21 years. Add to this the fact that plunging birth rates mean fewer young workers to fund such pensions, and you have a ticking time bomb.
In France’s case, there was precious little time left before the bomb would go off, and the country’s generous pension scheme was set to run a $14.8 billion annual deficit by 2030. Plainly, that is not sustainable. One would have thought such urgency would focus the minds of the electorate, but instead large majorities denounced Macron as a “president of the rich,” insisting that any pension reforms should take the form of higher taxes on high earners.
Here in the United States, we have a little longer to address the problem—we may have perhaps until 2033 before the trust fund runs short, according to a Congressional Budget Office estimate. With full retirement age already at 67 and life expectancy at only 79, however, raising the retirement age will be a hard sell. Indeed, though politicians have talked about Social Security reform for decades (remember Al Gore and his “lockbox”?), the last real reform was passed four decades ago, during the first Ronald Reagan administration. Since that time, a relatively young workforce kept the Trust Fund’s coffers flush, but they have now begun an inexorable decline. Demographics are a cruel taskmaster, and without significant policy changes, America will not be able to keep its promises even to today’s 55-year-old workers, much less their children.
Thankfully, there are any number of policy changes that could keep Social Security solvent. Indeed, with a relatively young workforce (and a relatively short life expectancy!), the United States is in better shape than most of Europe, and that’s just a matter of math. From a political standpoint, however, the prospect is not encouraging. It is never easy to get politicians who will face re-election in two years to tackle a problem that’s ten years off, and even less so if the electorate has come to feel that they are entitled to certain benefits.
Macron’s reforms in France may have been eminently rational, but in political terms they were all but impossible, and his decision to push them through by brute force may turn out to be an act of political suicide. With American politics already so deeply dysfunctional that neither party seems able to pass legislation that amounts to anything more than virtue-signaling, it is difficult to imagine any administration in the next decade enacting reforms that would take more money from the pockets of current workers or put less money in the pockets of future workers.
Still, as the saying goes, money doesn’t grow on trees, and if our political leaders don’t make hard choices soon, simple math will make the choice for them—like a sudden 25 percent reduction in current Social Security benefits in 2033. Without any “Article 49.3” allowing the President of the United States to bypass Congress, the only alternative path will require either a measure of common sense on the part of voters or a measure of courage on the part of our elected legislators. But neither Congress nor the voters has displayed that kind of courage in many years.
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