Mitt Romney's selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate was unexpected for a number of reasons, not least because the Wisconsin representative is an outspoken advocate of Medicare privatization, a major “third rail” in American politics. It is therefore revealing that we now know Romney chose the Wisconsin Congressman over the objections of his advisers, who worried that Ryan's zealous opposition to such a popular program would make him a liability. (Indeed, the latest polling data from TCF Fellow Ruy Teixeira shows Americans overwhelmingly support preserving Medicare in its current form, even if it raises the deficit.) But in the latest of a dozen “etch-a-sketch” moments, Romney apparently decided a hard tack to the right would pay dividends with the Republican faithful.
With Ryan on the ticket, it is safe to assume Medicare (and Medicaid) wouldn't be the only entitlements a Romney administration would try to reform. Although neither of them speak openly about it on the campaign trail, both Romney and Ryan supported George W. Bush's wildly unpopular 2005 plan to privatize Social Security, which Republicans temporarily abandoned after the 2008 financial crash proved that betting on the stock market wasn't a particular rational way to give Americans retirement security.
At the time, however, Ryan was so enthusiastic about the idea that he co-sponsored a bill (with then-Senator John Sununu, whose father is a senior adviser to the Romney campaign) that would have allowed workers to divert about half their payroll taxes into private investment accounts with no benefit cuts. The Social Security actuaries found the plan would cost $2.4 trillion in new debt over the first decade alone, which the Bush administration called “irresponsible” and withdrew their support. (Strangely, a 2005 analysis of the Ryan-Sununu plan suggests that private investment of this magnitude would result in every stock and bond in the country being owned by a private Social Security account by 2050, giving SSA portfolio managers near-complete control of every joint-stock company and bond market in the United States.)
Despite bipartisan opposition (including remarks by then House Minority Leader John Boehner meant to distance the Republican leadership from Ryan's politically toxic proposal), Ryan never gave up on the “partial privatization” model, even including a watered-down version of the plan in his 2010 “Roadmap for America's Future” after the financial system collapsed in 2008.
Mitt Romney also has been a consistent advocate of Social Security privatization, as Think Progress has extensively documented. Although his campaign website currently promises “no change in benefits for those at or near retirement,” Romney voiced support for private Social Security accounts throughout 2007 while trying characteristically to have it both ways. (“You call it privatization. I call it a private account.”) In his 2010 book No Apology Romney again expressed interest in privatization, this time after the financial crisis that destroyed millions of Americans' savings and 401(k)s:
Individual retirement accounts offer a fourth option, one that would allow today’s wage earners to direct a portion of their Social Security tax to a private account rather than go entirely to pay the benefits of current retirees, as is the case today. . . . Owners of these individual accounts would invest in a combination of stocks and bonds and—presuming these investments paid a higher rate of return than new treasuries—the return on these investments would boost the payments to seniors.
To Romney's credit, he also writes “Given the volatility of investment values that we have just experienced, I would prefer that individual accounts were added to Social Security, not diverted from it, and that they were voluntary.” But he doesn't go into any detail about how such a plan would work. Under the 2004 Ryan-Sununu plan, the federal government would have been required to guarantee that individuals received payment at least equal to the full benefits provided by Social Security, regardless of how the stock market performed. If the economy collapsed, wiping out trillions of dollars in market value, Uncle Sam would be on the hook, no questions asked.
CBO Director Peter Orszag testified in 2008 that private and public pension funds lost roughly $1 trillion from the second quarter of 2007 to the second quarter of 2008 alone. According to the Center for American Progress, a person with a private Social Security account similar to what George W. Bush and Paul Ryan proposed would have lost $26,000 if he or she had retired on October 1, 2008 after saving for 35 years: an effective -0.6 percent net annual real rate of return. If the Ryan-Sununu bill had been in place in 2008, those losses would have been paid straight out of the budget deficit, increasing the national debt by trillions and terrifying global bond markets.
Unfortunately, it is not a stretch to imagine such legislation being resurrected under a Romney-Ryan administration. What a Frankenstein monster of Republican policy that would be—”too big to fail” meets “privatize profits and socialize losses,” animated by pure ideological will. How does that story end?