Social Security on Auto-Pilot: International Experience with Automatic Stabilizer Mechanisms

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As the baby boom generation enters retirement, a long-forecast funding crisis of the Social Security system is about to become a reality. Many other high-income countries are faced with similar financial problems with their public pension systems. Some of those countries have adopted legislative measures to reduce their funding deficits, and a few have included automatic adjustment mechanisms by which staged adjustments would be made in either benefits or revenues without the need for new legislation. We examine the cases of automatic stabilizer mechanisms (ASMs) in Canada, Sweden, Germany and Italy, with the former two being relatively successful examples, while the latter two are cases of ASMs that were more problematic. Drawing on these international examples, we examine various automatic mechanisms that could be implemented in the United States. We suggest three reforms: increase in the retirement age, adoption of a chained Consumer Price Index, and adjustment of the indexation of the taxable wage ceiling so as to stabilize the ratio of taxable to covered wages at its 1983 value of 90 percent. Together, these three reforms would reduce the 75-year actuarial deficit to about ½ percent of taxable wages. We conclude, though, that until the current deficit is fully eliminated, an ASM aimed at maintaining financial balance would not make sense for the Social Security program. However, the international experience does offer a number of lessons for future reforms of the U. S. retirement system.