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Encore: Back off, guys: President Biden made a good choice


I was recently forwarded an article “Senate Urged to Block Biden’s Pro-Privatization Nominee from Social Security Board.” One critic cited in the article characterized it as a “terrible nomination.”

Who, you may ask, is this nominee? And what is the Social Security board? 

Let’s start with the board in question. The Social Security Advisory Board is a bipartisan independent agency established in 1994 to advise the president, the Congress, and the commissioner of Social Security on issues of Social Security policy or administration. The SSAB hosts expert panels, commissions papers, and makes recommendations so that the Social Security program functions as fairly and efficiently as possible. It is worth underscoring that the board — as its name suggests — is advisory only. It does not make Social Security policy.

The Board consists of seven members, appointed by the president, the House, and the Senate. The current open seat on the SSAB is by tradition assigned to a Republican. In May, President Biden proposed his candidate for the Republican slot. 

And who is this terrifying candidate? The economist Andrew Biggs. Before I sing his praises, let me be clear. On many issues, Andrew Biggs is my opponent.   

Andrew supported President Bush’s proposal for partial privatization of Social Security. I think privatization would undermine the security of future retirees.

Andrew looks at the data on coverage and income in 401(k)s and concludes that we need minor reforms. I think that a system where only about half of private sector employees have a workplace retirement plan, at any given time, needs major changes. 

Andrew argues that the Social Security program is extremely generous because of how he calculates replacement rates. I think his approach is incorrect and that current benefits provide an appropriate level of protection. 

Andrew contends that state and local employees are significantly overpaid. Our work shows that when considering wages and benefits, public sector workers’ total compensation is roughly the same as their private sector counterparts. 

I could go on, but the important point is that he and I do not agree on many important policy issues. 

Read more: Social Security news and trend on MarketWatch

That said, I like and respect Andrew immensely. He is smart, thoughtful, and charming. He has first-rate technical skills and writes beautifully. He also is not afraid to rethink his own views when presented with new information. In addition, he understands how government works as a result of high-level stints at the Social Security Administration and at President Bush’s National Economic Council. The downside is that Andrew is an exhausting adversary because he turns out an enormous volume of quality stuff.

In the last few years, my colleague Angie Chen and I have co-authored three research papers with Andrew. The topics include why 401(k) balances are below potential, whether the adjustments for early or delayed Social Security claiming are appropriate, and whether households increase their savings when kids leave home. Because we approach each topic with different priors, we have to work hard to get a final product that is mutually acceptable. But Angie and I were just saying the other day that each of these papers is better because of Andrew’s involvement. 

In short, members of the Social Security Advisory Board would be lucky to have Andrew Biggs as their colleague. 

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