WE CAN'T READ THEIR MINDS, of course, but the hoary defenders of the Social Security status quo would have had to be superhuman not to cheer as the stock market slid through the last week of August and then crashed on the 31st. For years they have endured the complaints of young taxpayers that Social Security is a cheat: While private retirement accounts have sometimes grown at annual rates of 30 to 40 percent during the nineties, Social Security will pay out zero percent returns to today's thirty-somethings and sub-zero percent to today's twenty-some-things. So for rear-guard defenders of Social Security, a good old-fashioned Wall Street panic must have seemed the answer to a prayer: A cataclysmic collapse of their 401k plans will teach these greedy youngsters that there are worse things than the slow and steady evaporation of one's Social Security contributions.
Alas for the mossbacks, the Dow quickly stabilized at 15 percent or so below its peak, leaving almost all of the fantastic gains of the mid-'90s bull market intact. But sooner or later the mossbacks will have their day. Like all bull markets, the great bull market of the 1990s will end, either in a terrific crash or simply by petering out. Advocates of Social Security privatization had better factor that into their plans.
It's true that the end of the bull will make no difference to the economic case for privatization. Whatever happens on Wall Street, the plight of Social Security is unchanged: Around 2010, the federal government will no longer be able to afford the current level of benefits at the current level of taxation. But the end of the bull may very well weaken the political case for privatization. In 1997, it was obvious why it would be better to put 12 percent of your pay into the market than into the palsied hands of the Social Security Administration. In 1999, it may be less obvious.
Over the past decade, advocates of privatization have acted on the belief that time is on their side. Every year, high schools and colleges graduate a fresh class of Social Security losers, and funeral homes bury another cohort of Social Security winners. Why struggle and toil now for reform when in a decade or two it will be politically riskless? Privatizers have tended to believe too that Social Security reform ought to wait for the election of a Republican president.
The August '98 stock-market collapse should prompt recognition that there are indeed risks in delay. Political opportunities are rare and fleeting things, and when they vanish they do not always reappear. For privatizers, the mid-'90s have been just such an opportunity. The planets are aligned: The stock market is booming (dramatizing the superiority of private markets over government insurance), the budget is in surplus (which means that there is cash on hand to pay the costs of the transition from a pay-as-you-go pension system to a fully funded system), and the Democratic party is in one of its business-oriented moments. Who knows how long those conditions will last?
Yes, it's true that the political clamor for doing something about Social Security will grow louder as the crisis nears. But it's also true that the nearer the crisis grows, the more costly and painful that "something" will have to be. Worse, the nearer the crisis grows, the less time there will be for the money that will be put into the market to compound. The first baby-boomer retirement is now only 13 years away.
The clock is ticking in another sense, too. Unlike President Clinton's Democrats, the party of Dick Morris's multitudes of mini-ideas, the Republicans are the party of a few big ideas. The party is now wrestling with the question of what its next big idea should be. Ought it to be radical tax reform and big tax cuts? If so, there will be little time and energy left over for Social Security reform -- especially since one of the favorite arguments of the radical tax reformers is that their low, flat income tax will so boost the U.S. economy that the old unreformed Social Security system will suddenly seem affordable. (Which is why Steve Forbes's 1996 tax plan, which so dramatically pledged to eliminate income taxes for lower-income families, quietly left in place the much more onerous payroll tax on those families.) If, on the other hand, the Republicans choose to make an issue of Social Security, tax reform will inevitably sink into second place. That's why the tax reformers get so grouchy when anyone gets too earnest about fixing the Social Security system: Recently, the Wall Street Journal's Paul Gigot used his column to administer a stinging rebuke to Sen. Phil Gramm for just this offense. And since the tax-reform option is the one most appealing to risk-averse Republicans -- Who ever saw his poll numbers drop for proposing to cut taxes? -- sheer inertia suggests that the longer Social Security reform is postponed, the less appealing it will become to Republicans.
In other words, time may not in fact be on the reformers' side. Reform may be most feasible when memories of the bull are still fresh and hopes for its return are strong. This question of timing becomes all the more urgent if the tax reformers are wrong and it is indeed Social Security that is the most important economic issue for conservatives. Make no mistake: Low tax rates are wonderful things. But Social Security privatization is the American equivalent of Mrs. Thatcher's sale of council housing -- a social reform that will transform millions of voters from dependents into owners. The partisans of the Social Security status quo understand this: Increasingly they defend the rattle-trap old system not in economic terms but as the last bulwark of collectivist ideals.
Proponents of reform should be at least as openeyed -- should understand that this is the one reform that will install self-reliance at the very center of the American economic constitution. Tax rates fluctuate. But Social Security reform will create a permanent political majority in favor of sound money, corporate profitability, and a free economy. The fact that such a majority happens to be in place now should not blind us to the possibility that it could very well vanish. And last week's market turmoil is a warning that it could vanish with stunning rapidity. If Republicans miss the opportunity to reform Social Security now, they may never get the chance again.
David Frum is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.