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“A Manufactured Crises”: Republicans Want You To Think Social Security Has A Funding Problem. Don’t Believe Them

The ongoing Republican plot to cut Social Security is shaping up to be a major story. As Dylan Scott has documented at Talking Points Memo, through a totally unnecessary change in accounting rules, Republicans are trying to ensure Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) runs short of money in less than two years, which would require a one-fifth cut in benefits.

Most recently, there are hints that Republicans may top up the SSDI fund by merely a little bit, similar to what they have done with the debt ceiling. The point is to create a series of manufactured crises, and each time the SSDI program runs short of money, they can use their leverage to ratchet down Social Security as a whole.

The way Republicans spin all this will be critical. Social Security is very popular, so conservatives will have to avoid the perception that they want to cut it, even though they clearly do. Dispelling their squid-ink nonsense will be crucial in protecting the program.

At National Review, Veronique de Rugy gives us a taste of how conservatives will frame their argument for cuts. “We’re broke,” says the headline. The SSDI fund “will be empty in a year” (no mention why), and “we can’t ignore the issue for much longer.” Regular Social Security “is also on an unsustainable path.”

She links to a report by Chuck Blahous, an argument against patching up the SSDI fund with money from general Social Security funds. Regular Social Security “now faces a bigger shortfall in both absolute and relative terms than [SSDI]” over the next 75 years, he says, concluding it would be irresponsible to transfer money to the less-solvent program.

What he doesn’t mention is that the regular Social Security fund won’t come up short until 2034. Plugging the holes in SSDI would advance that date by only about one year, since SSDI is only a small fraction of the overall program. In this country, having some 18 years of breathing space for a government program counts as nearly miraculous.

This complicated talk of actuarial shortfalls and inescapable accounting burdens is meant to obscure the fact that this is a question of ideology, nothing more. Social Security, in contrast to the dread Big Government bureaucracies, is a very simple program that takes in money and kicks it back out again. If the revenue source is insufficient, we could find money someplace else.

The actual worry here, just like any spending program, is whether the cost of the program is getting out of line with the productive capacity of the rest of the economy. All retirement programs take from the currently working and give to the non-working, so we might worry that the elderly and disabled are getting more claims on stuff than the economy can churn out.

Fortunately, as Dean Baker always points out, continuing economic growth keeps expanding our capacity to provide benefits. We can easily “afford” to maintain or expand Social Security, if we want to.

It would be easy to find such money. Indeed, we don’t even have to leave the world of retirement policy! We could simply scrap the 401(k) tax credit, which does not work as advertised to increase savings and sends the vast majority of its benefits to the rich. We could then plow the savings into Social Security. The 401(k) credit and similar programs cost something like $100 billion yearly, as compared to the total cost of Social Security of about $820 billion. Hey presto, we’re done.

The underlying reality is that opinions on any spending program inescapably rest on a judgment about whether that spending is worthwhile. I believe Social Security is excellent policy and its benefits should be increased. Conservatives like de Rugy and Blahous believe benefits are too high and should be reduced. It’s as simple as that.


By: Ryan Cooper, The Week, January 26, 2015

January 27, 2015 Posted by | Republicans, Social Security, Social Security Disability Fund | , , , , | Leave a comment

Social Security Hysteria Rebutted, Yet again

The WaPo editorial board apparently despises old people as much as Alan Simpson, given what they’re willing to put on their op-ed pages. Unfortunately, though, Charles Krauthammer doesn’t disintegrate into quite the degree of gibberish as Simpson, though he’s a liar. He particularly attacks OMB director Jacob Lew, and Lew’s assertion that Social Security is solvent until 2037 and doesn’t add to the deficit. Krauthammer’s argument: the Treasury bonds Social Security funds are invested in are “worthless” and Lew’s arguing otherwise is “a breathtaking fraud” because the “Social Security trust fund is a fiction.”

Dean Baker refutes.

It’s nice that Mr. Krauthammer thinks that government bonds are worthless…. While he is welcome to believe anything he wants, the bonds held by the Social Security trust fund are backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government. Krauthammer may want to default on bonds that belong to the nation’s workers, but his desires are not the same as reality.Selling these bonds to fund Social Security no more raises the deficit than the decision of a rich person to sell bonds to finance their consumption raises the deficit. The deficit was incurred when the money was lent to the Social Security trust fund in the first place.

The size of the deficit, including the money borrowed from Social Security — the on-budget deficit — is reported in every budget document put out by the government (e.g. here and here). Krauthammer might try to learn a bit about how the budget works before he goes off ranting about Jack Lew and Social Security….

In reality, the projected shortfall in the program is relatively distant and minor. The country has far more urgent concerns, like putting 25 million unemployed or under-employed people back to work. This should be the focus of our political leaders right now.

And Jacob Lew defends his, and Social Security’s honor:

Krauthammer is correct when he writes that there is no “lockbox” that keeps the money sent in by workers for until they retire. By design, when more taxes are collected than are needed to pay benefits, funds are invested in Treasury bonds and are held in reserve for when revenue collected is not enough to pay the benefits due. Yet these Treasury bonds are backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government in the same way that all other U.S. Treasury bonds are, making them anything but ”worthless IOUs” as Krauthammer suggests. The government has just as much obligation to pay back the bonds in the Social Security trust fund as we do to any other bondholders.Responsibly honoring that obligation – one that we planned for and always knew was there –entails undertaking fiscal policies that would make it easier, not harder, to meet these obligations. When I last was OMB Director at the end of the Clinton Administration, the Congressional Budget Office estimated $5.6 trillion in budget surpluses over the next decade because of fiscally responsible measures that Democrats and Republicans, working together, had taken….

This is the most important point: the problem is not with Social Security, but in the near term the mismatch between what we take in and what we spend in the rest of the budget. Working people had payroll taxes taken from their salaries to pay for future benefits, and instead the money was used to pay for tax cuts and other initiatives. It is hardly fair now to say that those working people caused the problem just when they are ready to collect benefits.

Krauthammer’s argument is inside out. We should not blame Social Security for our current fiscal problems when it is the irresponsible fiscal behavior of the past that has presented the country with future challenges to fund our commitments, including Social Security over the next two decades.

That irresponsible fiscal behavior was unfortunately extended by the tax-cut deal and intensifed by the payroll tax holiday, making it even easier for Social Security to be the target of deficit peacocks and the Very Serious People who believe “shared sacrifice” means everybody but the rich and corporations sacrifice. That aside, Lew is absolutely correct. Social Security is not the problem. Massive tax cuts for the rich and two unsustainable wars are the problem.

By: Joan McCarter, Daily Kos, March 12, 2011

March 13, 2011 Posted by | Budget, Deficits, Economy, Federal Budget, Social Security | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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