The Pyramid Scheme Myth

To continue with the theme of Social Security’s admirable structure as an approach to funding middle class retirements, it’s important to tie this in with the pyramid scheme allegation.

Imagine a society with no Social Security, and also no imprudent or short-sighted people. Everyone puts a healthy share of their annual income away in a savings vehicle, and everyone manages to retire on a decent income. Thanks to the ups and downs of the financial markets, there’s a certain inefficiently noisy quality to the income of retired people, but due to the magic of infinite prudence the problem is very manageable. Now imagine that demographers are predicting a one-time demographic adjustment in the ratio of old people to non-old people in the population. This will lead to a decline in the rate of economic growth, and therefore to the expected return on investment. Either workers will need to start increasing their savings rate, or else they’ll need to accept lower living standards when retired. In other words, they’ll face the exact same choice we currently face in the form of higher taxes or lower benefits. Of course people could try to compensate for lower expected returns by engaging in riskier investment strategies, but we’re talking about a perfectly prudent population.

Under the circumstances, I don’t think anyone would be saying “saving for your retirement is a pyramid scheme—it depends on the assumption of future economic growth!” Future growth is a prudent assumption. But I also don’t think people would just be saying “well, we need to make some tough choices.” I think they’d be saying that we shouldn’t meekly accept the premise of slower economic growth. They’d be calling for more immigration, especially of high-skill people.