The Optimal Design of Social Security Benefits

The United States Social Security system is fairly unique in that it explicitly allows for a progressive formulation of retirement benefits by assigning a larger replacement rate to workers with small pre-retirement wages. In contrast, the public pension systems in other countries often replace a constant fraction of pre-retirement wages, although the length of the "averaging period" is typically shorter relative to the U.S. This paper examines the ex-ante optimal U.S. Social Security benefit structure using the model developed in Nishiyama and Smetters (2007). On one hand, progressivity in the benefit structure provides risk sharing against shocks that are difficult to insure privately. On the other hand, progressivity introduces various marginal tax rates that distort labor supply. Rather surprisingly, we find that the ex-ante best U.S. Social Security replacement rate structure is fairly "flat." Intuitively, the relatively long averaging period used in the U.S. system formulation already provides some insurance against negative idiosyncratic shocks, but in a manner that is more efficient than explicit redistribution.

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Kent Smetters is a visiting scholar at AEI. Shinichi Nishiyama is an assistant professor at Georgia State University.

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About the Author

 

Kent
Smetters
  • Kent Smetters is the Boettner Chair Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and a faculty research fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research. He previously served as deputy assistant secretary for economic policy at the U.S. Treasury. He coauthored Fiscal and Generational Imbalances: New Budget Measures for New Budget Priorities (AEI Press, 2003) and coedited The Pension Challenge: Risk Transfers and Retirement Income Security (Oxford University Press, 2004). He has published academic articles in leading journals, including the American Economic Review, the Journal of Political Economy, and The Quarterly Journal of Economics. He is often cited in major media outlets.
  • Phone: 215-898-9811
    Email: ksmetters@aei.org

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