By JAMES TARANTO, Wall Street Journal blogs
If you have a 401(k) or equivalent retirement plan, you've probably been watching nervously the past few weeks as your nest egg has shrunken owing to the current turmoil in the markets.
Well, it could be worse. But don't take heart, for what we mean is it could get worse. The market turmoil has some politicians on Capitol Hill eyeing the end of the 401(k) as we know it.
A plan by Teresa Ghilarducci, professor of economic-policy analysis at the New School for Social Research in New York, contains elements that are being considered. . . .
Under Ghilarducci's plan, all workers would receive a $600 annual inflation-adjusted subsidy from the U.S. government but would be required to invest 5 percent of their pay into a guaranteed retirement account administered by the Social Security Administration. The money in turn would be invested in special government bonds that would pay 3 percent a year, adjusted for inflation.
The current system of providing tax breaks on 401(k) contributions and earnings would be eliminated.
"I want to stop the federal subsidy of 401(k)s," Ghilarducci said in an interview. "401(k)s can continue to exist, but they won't have the benefit of the subsidy of the tax break."
Ghilarducci outlined her plan last year in a paper for the left-liberal
Sounds pretty unappealing, doesn't it? But in her congressional testimony, Ghilarducci offered a sweetener:
Short-term I propose . . . that the Congress allow workers to swap out their 401(k) assets, perhaps at August levels, for a guaranteed retirement account--just a one-time swap. . . .
How would this work? You go back to your districts and meet up with a 55-year-old who had had $50,000 in his account last month and now has $40,000 in the account. He can swap out that $50,000, valued in August, for that guarantee of what would become, if he retires at 62, a $500 a month addition to Social Security.
A 55-year-old who lost 20% of his 401(k) because of the recent stock market decline was investing more aggressively than he should have, given his age. Ghilarducci proposes to reward this imprudence in exchange for dramatically limiting everyone's ability to take risks (and enjoy the corresponding rewards) and for greatly increasing government control of Americans' retirement funds.
It is by no means a certainty that Congress or a President Obama would embrace such a proposal, but this is a direction in which things may move if the Democrats make big gains next month.