Bernanke depicts dire future

Social Security must be changed, he says

October 05, 2006|By McClatchy-Tribune

WASHINGTON -- Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke called yesterday for urgent reform of Social Security and Medicare, warning that failure to do so soon could lead to dire economic consequences for future generations.

Speaking to the Economic Club of Washington, Bernanke said that projected funding shortfalls for Social Security and Medicare threaten "large and unavoidable" fiscal consequences.

Absent action soon, he warned, the nation could be forced to raise taxes sharply, trim retiree benefits, cut deeply into other government programs, and run up the national debt - or some combination of all.

Beginning in 2008, the first wave of baby boomers - 76 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964 - begin taking early retirement. Progressively, there will be a smaller number of active workers available to fund promised benefits to what will be a swelling number of retirees.

To meet promises made under Social Security and Medicare, Bernanke said, taxes would have to rise by about 33 percent. That would take taxes from their current level, 18 percent of the nation's total output, to about 24 percent of total output in 2030.

If politicians chose to spend less on other federal programs to channel the savings into covering promised retirement benefits, they would have to cut all other government spending in half, the Fed chairman said.

Bernanke's long-serving predecessor Alan Greenspan, who retired in January, frequently warned that a fiscal crisis loomed because of the impending flood of retirees. Bernanke offered new numbers yesterday to help frame the coming debate on an issue that politicians frequently dodge.

Citing an unpublished Fed research paper, Bernanke said that if today's savings rates remain constant, future generations of workers would be forced to consume 14 percent less than they do now because they'll have to shift their money to pay for boomers' retirement benefits.

But if today's Americans cut their current consumption by 4 percent and put that money into savings, that could expand the economic pie over time enough to stave off the 14 percent reduction in American consumption two decades from now.

"These numbers shouldn't be taken literally, but the basic lesson is surely right - that the decisions that we make over the next few decades will matter greatly for the living standards of our children and grandchildren," Bernanke said.

The Fed chief advocated reducing federal budget deficits and called for changes to Social Security and Medicare rules to ensure that baby boomers needed in the work force won't be penalized for working during their retirement.

In a question-and-answer session, Bernanke said a more liberal immigration policy would ease some of the burden of a shrinking work force. But, he cautioned, it would take annual flows close to 3.5 million immigrants, not today's 1 million, to adequately replace retiring baby boomers.

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