'Sustainable solvency' is a new buzz phrase floating around with 'intergenerational equity' and 'unfunded liability'. But before exposing how the term blurs the real issue we need to examine the concepts of what I call 'hard solvency' vs 'soft solvency'.
'Hard solvency' is used here to describe a Social Security system that can pay 100% of all scheduled benefits over the seventy-five year actuarial window with no changes to current law in the form of tax increases or increases in retirement age. If and when we ever achieve it supporters of Social Security can clearly call 'game over, and we won'. But we are not there, instead the most recent Report would have us being able to pay out full benefits until 2041 and 78% after that. These numbers are subject to change and on balance have been improving (the 2007 Report had a 75% payout at Trust Fund depletion). Still as long as the numbers continue to improve supporters have a good case for pushing a plan consisting of 'Nothing'.
Now 'soft solvency' is conceptually a little more difficult. The current schedule of benefits is set up so that future generations of retirees get a fair share of real wage increases over their working lives, that is it provides improvements in standard of living equivalent to those of people still in the work force. Per Prof. Rosser of JMU this improvement means a benefit in real terms of 160% of what similarly situated retirees get today. And if we use what I call Rosser's Equation we see that 78% of 160% = 125%. Which is to say that after TF depletion future retirees will be able to buy a basket of goods 25% better on average than my mom can today. Now it might be that the future basket will pale somewhat when compared to people still in the workforce or to the basket that retiree was collecting in 2040 but it can hardly be described as some huge crisis. By this standard any time Rosser's equation delivers a result of 100% or better we can say that the overall system is in 'soft solvency'. Another way of describing this would be in terms of 'intergenerational equity'. If the Gen-X retiree of 2041 is still getting a real benefit as good or better than his grandmother did in 2008 there can hardly be any equity issues to resolve.
If we establish soft solvency as a floor and hard solvency as a goal we can say that currently we are 40% of our way home. Whether we really need to take positive steps in the short run to boost the result of Rosser's Equation is a question of policy preference and a balance between current utility of dollars for workers today against future utility for retirees thirty years down the road. And by the way not forgetting that these two populations largely overlap. That is it may be more efficient to hope to close the gap between 125% and 160% by mechanisms outside of Social Security itself.
But in any event both hard and soft solvency look at the outlook from the standpoint of the beneficiary for whom results closer to hard are on balance better than results closer to soft, but not necessarily so much so as to simply accept higher payroll taxes to achieve 'hard', 'soft-plus' might be perfectly acceptable if need be.
When critics of Social Security use language like 'dead broke' and 'bankrupt' all they are really saying is that Social Security is not currently passing the test of hard solvency. Which is fair enough, but it also suggests that any fixes should move the needle away from current levels of soft solvency towards hard, that is getting that 78% number up. Instead they pivot and invoke the concept of 'sustainable solvency'.
'Sustainable solvency' in practice means eliminating 'unfunded liability' which in our terms is the difference between the current projections of soft solvency (78% of 160% = 125%) and hard solvency (100% of 160%), that is it is a gap in benefits. But in their terms 'unfunded liability' is a pure burden on future taxpayers and so seen as a gap in future income vs cost. From that perspective it doesn't matter whether you address the gap on the income side or the cost side, instead the focus is on eliminating it one way or another. What this implicitly does is to kick hard solvency to the curb. Even though in a real sense 'crisis' starts out as a failure to achieve hard solvency, the solutions simply accept that some version of soft solvency is in fact good enough, if that is if it can be used to introduce a system based on Personal Retirement Accounts (PRAs).
So the task for supporters of Social Security as currently configured is to put the privatizers' feet to the fire. Does their solution give a better result then the current level of soft solvency projected? If not why should current workers and near retirees buy in? The system as currently configured is projected to deliver a minimum of soft solvency plus and is trending more and more towards hard solvency. Why should we accept a result that doesn't deliver more solvency at equivalent cost?