Big airport restrooms get messy fast. So, the management at Schiphol International Airport in Amsterdam came up with a clever solution: The airport etched an image of a black fly near the drain in the airports’ urinals. According to their measures, cleanliness increased by 80 percent. As New Republic put it, “It turns out that, if you give men a target, they can’t help but aim at it.”
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Incentivizing individuals—in this case men—to make slight changes saved millions of dollars in the janitorial budget. This approach, known as “better design” or “choice architecture” came into vogue when social welfare policy took a wide swing into psychology and behavioral finance in the early 2000s. The basic idea—that it’s cheaper to solve large social problems by tweaking public behavior than by changing public policy—is appealing, and it’s seen some success in specific contexts.
Take health care. Many health problems can be solved with lifestyle changes and a second opinion from another doctor. And so, in an attempt to make people healthier with lower costs, employers paid for their employees to access wellness programs and second opinions. But, behavior barely changed. However, when they changed the reward into a penalty for individuals who didn’t participate, many employers saw a surge—up to a 73 percent increase—in wellness programs sign-ups and second opinions.
Now proponents of choice architecture, otherwise known as “nudge economists,” are trying to apply this model to our upcoming retirement crisis. One thousand people are reaching age 65 every day, and at least one-third of Americans have nothing saved. For those who do have retirement accounts, the average amount is about $110,000, which amounts to roughly $250 a month for the rest of their lives. Choice architects are hoping to fill this massive savings gap with auto enrollment pension plans that require individuals to opt-out, rather than have to take the affirmative step to decide and actively opt-in.
However, behavioral nudges alone aren’t enough to solve this issue. Auto enrollment in retirement programs will bring more workers into 401(k) plans, but it likely won’t increase overall retirement savings. What’s more, the nudges to encourage participation are expensive. For example, we currently provide $140 billion worth of tax deductions to incentivize (mostly high paid) employees to voluntarily participate in retirement plans. Given the high cost, it’s troubling that there is little evidence that these deductions actually encourage people to save more—in fact, a tax credit may have a much larger effect on savings. As a result, this nudge is largely wasted.
What’s worse, focusing on individual behavior in lieu of providing a needed form of social insurance ultimately blames individuals for their lack of retirement savings. Individuals can be blamed for not choosing employers with retirement account plans, for having to take low paying jobs in their late sixties and seventies, and for being poor or near poor in old age. It is not possible to nudge someone who is encountering these kinds of barriers into saving for retirement.
Instead, we should be looking at large system changes that are designed to meet the needs of all Americans. Just as the Affordable Care Act provides universal health insurance to supplement free clinics and the hospital emergency room, we need universal pensions to supplement Social Security.
The guaranteed retirement plan is a pragmatic solution to ensure that all workers can save enough to retire. The plan creates personal savings accounts for all workers using existing government infrastructure, such as the Social Security Administration account management systems and any large state or federal pension fund system that wants to bid for the job of managing money.
Here’s how it works: Workers will be required to save 5 percent of their pay in their Guaranteed Retirement Account (GRA). To ease the burden, every worker who contributes to their account will receive a $600 tax credit and households earning up to $40,000 per year—nearly 50 percent of workers—will have their yearly retirement savings fully reimbursed by the government. Workers would be able to choose how much they will save beyond the minimum, and which manager will invest their money. At retirement the accounts would be paid out as a lifelong retirement security, with annuitized returns that ensure a consistent standard of living for as long as retirees live.
The GRA would be cost-neutral for all Americans earning less than the median salary, because it would draw funding by reducing the regressivity of our current tax system. That starts with closing expensive tax loopholes—such as tax breaks for the highest earners to contribute to retirement plans (which they would contribute to anyway) or mortgages for large houses (which people would live in anyway)—and increasing the tax burden on the wealthiest Americans.
A significant majority of Americans—including those most at risk of retirement insolvency—would benefit from this plan. And, since retirement worries pervade all segments of American society (a stunning 86 percent of Americans believe America faces a retirement crisis), this type of broad change would likely have significant support.
America’s retirement crisis will become a huge political issue if not addressed—and the American people need a real retirement solution, not just a clever new design.