The Republican Party has staged a mind-numbing 18 presidential debates this year, and more questions and answers lie ahead as the primaries and general election get into high gear in the new year.
The future of Social Security and Medicare will be central issues in the 2012 election. The ongoing debate about income inequality also is tied to retirement policy, since the erosion in middle class wages affects 401(k) savings, pension benefits and the ability to retire at all.
Yet these issues have yet to receive a serious airing in the debates, aside from accusations about Social Security Ponzi schemes and general threats to replace Medicare with vouchers.
In hopes of lifting the level of debate, I asked top retirement and aging policy experts this question: "If you could pose one question in a presidential debate to the Republican and Democratic nominees, what would it be?"'
Their questions follow; debate moderators and panelists -- feel free to plagiarize at will. I can promise you that none of these folks will mind a bit.
RETIREMENT INVESTING AND SAVING
Q: In the last 10 years, the percentage of workers over age 55 who say they are "very confident that they will have enough money to live comfortably throughout their retirement years" is now half of what is was in 2001, according to the 2011 Retirement Confidence Survey sponsored by EBRI.
What do you recommend should be done to increase the ability of millions more to retire in dignity? - Dan Weeks, founder and chief operating officer, Brightscope
Q: More than 70 percent of middle income workers making $30,000 to $50,000 save for retirement when offered a 401(k) at work, but less than 5 percent save on their own in an IRA.
The President's deficit reduction commission recommended capping combined employee/employer pre-tax contributions to 401(k)s at $20,000 or 20 percent of income, whichever is lower.
The nonpartisan Employee Benefits Research Institute (EBRI) projected this would cut retirement savings for all income groups. It is also likely that employers, particularly small businesses, would reduce contributions or even terminate plans, making it harder for American workers to save.
Do you oppose the 20/20 proposal, and other proposals that would cut 401(k) limits making it harder to save at work? -- Brian H. Graff, CEO and Executive Director, The American Society of Pension Professionals & Actuaries
Q: Over the past year, there have been many Medicare proposals that may be described using different terms, including privatization, vouchers, premium support and defined contribution, but they all would significantly change the Medicare program.
Would you support a proposal that would privatize or partially privatize the Medicare program or change Medicare into a voucher, premium support, or defined contribution plan? Why or why not? -- Joe Baker, president, Medicare Rights Center
Q: Social Security's benefits are modest, averaging just $13,000 a year and replacing a small fraction of the pre-retirement wages of the highest wage workers, yet they are vitally important for virtually all Americans as a replacement of wages in the event of death, disability or old age.
Social Security will become even more important in the future, in light of the decline of traditional employer-provided pensions and the inadequacy of 401(k)s.
Notwithstanding these facts, are you open to cutting Social Security's modest benefits -- including by raising Social Security's retirement age -- or will you promise to veto any legislation that includes current or future cuts, including further increases in Social Security's retirement age? -- Nancy Altman, co-director, Strengthen Social Security Coalition
Q: There's a lot of hand-wringing about the problems that come with an aging society, but not much discussion of the assets Americans in the second half of life can bring to help solve some of our most pressing social problems.
What would you do to encourage more people to launch encore careers for the greater good before they leave the workforce? --Marc Freedman, CEO, Civic Ventures/Encore Careers campaign
Q: Polls show that retirement security is the No. 1 financial concern of working Americans.
President Obama supports creation of an automatic IRA, which would require most employers that don't have a retirement plan already to automatically enroll its workers in an IRA.
Republican candidates have been largely silent on the subject of retirement income, other than to discuss Social Security.
What other changes to the nation's private retirement system would you support to ensure that more retirees receive an adequate supplement to their Social Security benefits? --Karen Ferguson, director, Pension Rights Center
Q: Do you feel that all retail investors receiving financial advice from a professional advisor have the right to expect that their best interests come first -- ahead of the advisor's interest?
If yes, will you support section 913 of the Dodd-Frank Act requiring the extension of the fiduciary duty currently required of Registered Investment Advisors to also be applied to all those who render personalized advice for compensation?
If no, how do you explain to the individual investor that one advisor is required to put their best interests first and another one doesn't? --Sheryl Garrett, founder of Garrett Planning Network of fee-only financial advisers
The author is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
(Editing by Lauren Young and Beth Gladstone)