Dems Target Private Retirement Accounts
Wednesday, March 30, 2011 at 2:26PM
By Karen McMahan – Guest Contributor
RALEIGH, NC – Democrats in the U.S. House have been conducting hearings on proposals to confiscate workers personal retirement accounts including 401(k)s and IRAs and convert them to accounts managed by the Social Security Administration. ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME?
Triggered by the financial crisis the past two months, the hearings reportedly were meant to stem losses incurred by many workers and retirees whose 401(k) and IRA balances have been shrinking rapidly. The testimony of Teresa Ghilarducci, professor of economic policy analysis at the New School for Social Research in New York, in hearings Oct. 7 drew the most attention and criticism. Testifying for the House Committee on Education and Labor, Ghilarducci proposed that the government eliminate tax breaks for 401(k) and similar retirement accounts, such as IRAs, and confiscate workers retirement plan accounts and convert them to universal Guaranteed Retirement Accounts (GRAs) managed by the Social Security Administration.
Rep. George Miller, D- Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, in prepared remarks for the hearing on The Impact of the Financial Crisis on Workers Retirement Security, blamed Wall Street for the financial crisis and said his committee will strengthen and protect Americans 401(k)s, pensions, and other retirement plans and the Democratic Congress will continue to conduct this much- needed oversight on behalf of the American people.
Currently, 401(k) plans allow Americans to invest pretax money and their employers match up to a defined percentage, which not only increases workers retirement savings but also reduces their annual income tax. The balances are fully inheritable, subject to income tax, meaning workers pass on their wealth to their heirs, unlike Social Security. Even when they leave an employer and go to one that doesn’t offer a 401(k) or pension, workers can transfer their balances to a qualified IRA.
Mandating Equality Ghilarduccia’s plan first appeared in a paper for the Economic Policy Institute: Agenda for Shared Prosperity on Nov. 20, 2007, in which she said GRAs will rescue the flawed American retirement income system (www.sharedprosperity.org/bp204/bp204.pdf).
The current retirement system, Ghilarducci said, exacerbates income and wealth inequalities because tax breaks for voluntary retirement accounts are skewed to the wealthy because it is easier for them to save, and because they receive bigger tax breaks when they do.
Lauding GRAs as a way to effectively increase retirement savings, Ghilarducci wrote that savings incentives are unequal for rich and poor families because tax deferrals provide a much larger carrot to wealthy families than to middle-class families and none whatsoever for families too poor to owe taxes.
GRAs would guarantee a fixed 3 percent annual rate of return, although later in her article Ghilarducci explained that participants would not earn a 3% real return in perpetuity. In place of tax breaks workers now receive for contributions and thus a lower tax rate, workers would receive $600 annually from the government, inflation-adjusted. For low-income workers whose annual contributions are less than $600, the government would deposit whatever amount it would take to equal the minimum $600 for all participants.
In a radio interview with Kirby Wilbur in Seattle on Oct. 27, 2008, Ghilarducci explained that her proposal doesn’t eliminate the tax breaks, rather, than just rearranging the tax breaks that are available now for 401(k)s and spreading the wealth.
All workers would have 5 percent of their annual pay deducted from their paychecks and deposited to the GRA. They would still be paying Social Security and Medicare taxes, as would the employers. The GRA contribution would be shared equally by the worker and the employee. Employers no longer would be able to write off their contributions. Any capital gains would be taxable year-on-year. Analysts point to another disturbing part of the plan. With a GRA, workers could bequeath only half of their account balances to their heirs, unlike full balances from existing 401(k) and IRA accounts. For workers who die after retiring, they could bequeath just their own contributions plus the interest but minus any benefits received and minus the employer contributions.
Another justification for Ghilarduccia’s plan is to eliminate investment risk. In her testimony, Ghilarducci said, humans often lack the foresight, discipline, and investing skills required to sustain a savings plan. She cited the 2004 HSBC global survey on the Future of Retirement, in which she claimed that a third of Americans wanted the government to force them to save more for retirement.
What the survey actually reported was that 33 percent of Americans wanted the government to force additional private savings, a vastly different meaning than mandatory government-run savings. Of the four potential sources of retirement support, which were government, employer, family, and self, the majority of Americans said self was the most important contributor, followed by a government. When broken out by family income, low- income U.S. households said the government was the most important retirement support, whereas high-income families ranked a government last and self first (www.hsbc.com/ retirement).
On Oct. 22, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Argentinean government had seized all private pension and retirement accounts to fund government programs and to address a ballooning deficit. Fearing an economic collapse, foreign investors quickly pulled out, forcing the Argentinean stock market to shut down several times. More than 10 years ago, nationalization of private savings sent Argentina’s economy into a long-term downward spiral.
Income and Wealth Redistribution
The majority of witness testimony during recent hearings before the House Committee on Education and Labor showed that congressional Democrats intend to address income and wealth inequality through redistribution.
On July 31, 2008, Robert Greenstein, executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, testified before the subcommittee on workforce protections that from the standpoint of equal treatment of people with different incomes, there is a fundamental flaw in tax code incentives because they are provided in the form of deductions, exemptions, and exclusions rather than in the form of refundable tax credits. Even people who don’t pay!