The gritty reality that the Obama administration and House Republicans must face is that the vast majority of America's retirees cannot afford to watch them hack off part of the only leg that remains of the three-legged stool. Quite the contrary, we should make that leg more robust by doubling the current Social Security payout, and turning it into a true national retirement system called "Social Security Plus." Doing so not only would be good for American retirees, but also would be good for the greater macro economy.
Doubling Social Security's individual payout would cost about $650 billion annually for the approximately 53 million Americans who receive benefits. Here's how to pay for it.
Step 1. Lift Social Security's payroll cap that favors the wealthy.
Currently Social Security only taxes wages up to $106,800 a year, and any income earned above that is not taxed. The net result is that poor, middle class, and even moderately upper middle class Americans are taxed 12.4 percent (split between employee and employer) on 100 percent of their income, but the wealthy pay a much lower percentage. Millionaire bankers effectively pay a paltry 1.2 percent.
Making all income levels pay the same percentage -- which is how Medicare works -- is popular with Americans according to opinion polls, and would raise about $377 billion toward the $650 billion needed to double the Social Security payout. As a candidate in 2008, Barack Obama stated that he supported raising the cap on the Social Security tax to help fund the program.
Step 2. Cut out the business deduction for employees' retirement plans.
With all Americans receiving Social Security Plus, employer-based pensions would be redundant, so businesses no longer would need the substantial federal deductions they currently receive for providing employees' retirement plans. These deductions total a substantial $126 billion annually.
These two steps alone would provide three-fourths of the revenue needed to double Social Security's payout.
Step 3. Cut or reduce other deductions that disproportionately benefit top income earners.
Other possible revenue streams should include ones that would reduce or eliminate unfair deductions in the tax code which currently allow the top 20 percent of income earners to reap generous deductions that barely help most low and moderate income Americans. These include deductions for private retirement savings, health care, homeownership and education.
Only higher income individuals have enough earnings to divert for savings or investments that allow them the luxury of enjoying considerable tax deductions for their 401(k)s, IRAs and pensions. The poor and middle class rarely can take advantage of these sorts of deductions because they don't make enough income to benefit from itemizing deductions on their tax returns. As Josh Freedman pointed out recently in The Atlantic, in 2011 less than 30 percent of all filers itemized their taxes, and more than 80 percent of the benefits from itemized deductions went to individuals in the highest income quintile.