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“Completely Ridiculous Fear-Mongering”: Stop With The Zombie Lies: No, Social Security Is Not ‘Going Broke’

Even though last night’s Republican debate featured precious little discussion of the size of the candidates’ hands, there was plenty to be disappointed and angered by. The moment that perturbed me the most was when CNN’s Dana Bash, who ought to know better, said that “Social Security is projected to run out of money within 20 years.”

The discussion about America’s most successful and beloved social program had some interesting implications for the general election. But before we get to that, I need to say this slowly and clearly, so there’s no misunderstanding:

Social Security is not going to “run out of money.”

The idea that the program is going to “run out of money” or is “going broke” is a zombie lie, one that deserves to have its head lopped off with a quick slice of Michonne’s katana.

We’re going to have to get a little wonky for a bit, but I’ll try to make this as painless as possible. The short version: under the worst-case scenario, meaning that a poor economy in coming years deprives the system of money and no changes to the program’s financing are made, then Social Security recipients will find themselves getting smaller checks than they ought to. And that would be a bad thing — if you rely on Social Security as your main or only source of income, it would be terrible to get only 77 percent of what you should (I’ll reveal why I’m using that number in a moment).

But if the program were only able to deliver 77 percent of its benefits, it would not be “broke” or have “run out of money.” When the entitlement doomsayers use those words, they want everyone to believe that the program will be, well, broke, which would mean it would be able to pay nothing to the recipients. And that’s a lie.

Let’s remind ourselves how this program works. Workers pay Social Security taxes, which are then distributed to today’s recipients as benefits. But when the taxes (and the interest the program earns on the bonds it holds) exceed the benefits, what’s left over goes into a trust fund, commonly known as the “Social Security surplus.” According to the latest report from the Social Security Trustees, in 2014 the program took in $769 billion and paid out $714 billion. The extra $55 billion went into the trust fund, which at the end of that year contained $2.729 trillion.

We’re going to need the trust fund, because the very large Baby Boom generation has just started to retire, meaning more people are going to be drawing benefits. The Trustees’ projections say that starting in 2020, the program will take in less than it’s paying out, and the trust fund will be exhausted in 2035.

Now this is important: the whole point of the trust fund is to be there when that year’s taxes aren’t enough to pay that year’s benefits. When we take money out of the trust fund, it isn’t some kind of crisis, it’s the system working as it was intended.

But won’t the system be “broke” in 2035? No. Under these projections, in 2035 we’d only be paying out to recipients what we take in through taxes. At that point, recipients would get paid only 77 percent of their promised benefits.

As I said, this would be a very bad thing. But is it going to happen? It’s important to remember that the trustees make projections, so there’s a good deal of uncertainty around the numbers. It all depends on what kinds of assumptions you make about the future, particularly on what you think the economy will look like. If the economy is stronger, that means more tax revenue coming in, and the program can pay more benefits; if the economy is weaker, the program has more challenges.

Because of that uncertainty, the Trustees actually make three sets of projections, what they call high-cost, low-cost, and intermediate. It’s the intermediate one that everyone reports, and that’s where the date of 2035 and the figure of 77 percent of benefits come from. Without going too deeply into it, everything depends on how optimistic or pessimistic you want to be about America’s economic future, in terms of things like economic growth, productivity growth, and unemployment. Many people argue that the Trustees are unduly pessimistic about the future, and the most realistic projection is not the intermediate one but the one they call low-cost. And under that projection, the surplus never runs out, and we have plenty of funds to pay all benefits essentially forever, or at least for the next 75 years, which is how far out they attempt to project.

We aren’t going to settle that right now, but there’s an important piece of this to understand, which is that here in Washington, the opinion of Very Serious People is that Social Security is headed for disaster (along with Medicare, which is its own story), and the only thing to do is to either make people wait longer until they retire or cut their benefits. Indeed, proclaiming that you want to do one of those two things (or both) is in some circles how you demonstrate that you’re Very Serious about this issue. There is an entire mini-industry of think-tanks and advocates devoted to convincing lawmakers and the public that entitlements are a disaster in the making, so we need to cut them.

But there are other ways you could solve the problem, if it indeed turns out to be a problem. You could increase the cap on Social Security taxes — right now you only pay them on the first $118,500 of your income, which means that someone earning below that pays 6.2 percent of their income in Social Security taxes, while a hedge fund manager making $11.8 million pays only .062 percent of his income. You could also increase the tax itself, say by a tenth of a percent per year over ten years, which people would find imperceptible. In other words, you could maintain (or even increase) benefits by bringing in more money.

In last night’s debate, Marco Rubio said: “Social Security will go bankrupt and it will bankrupt the country with it.” This is the kind of completely ridiculous fear-mongering that gets you rounds of applause from those who want to cut the program. He then explained that he wants to raise the retirement age from 66 to 70 and reduce benefits (but of course, he says these things will happen in the future and not affect current retirees, who vote in such high numbers and are rather protective of their benefits). Ted Cruz said that he wants to slow the rate of growth in benefits (they’re adjusted for the cost of living) and convert some part of them to stock market accounts. But it’s what Donald Trump said that’s genuinely interesting:

“The Democrats are doing nothing with Social Security. They’re leaving it the way it is. In fact, they want to increase it. They want to actually give more. And that’s what we’re up against. And whether we like it or not, that is what we’re up against.

“I will do everything within my power not to touch Social Security, to leave it the way it is; to make this country rich again; to bring back our jobs; to get rid of deficits; to get rid of waste, fraud and abuse, which is rampant in this country, rampant, totally rampant. And it’s my absolute intention to leave Social Security the way it is. Not increase the age and to leave it as is.

“You have 22 years, you have a long time to go. It’s not long in terms of what we’re talking about, but it’s still a long time to go, and I want to leave Social Security as is, I want to make our country rich again so we can afford it.”

Strip away all the Trumpian bluster, and what you have is 1) a pledge not to cut benefits or raise the retirement age; and 2) the assurance that the program’s cost will be covered because the economy will perform well. Trump sounds an awful lot like…a liberal!

When Trump says, “that’s what we’re up against,” he seems to be saying that because the Democrats want to increase benefits, they’ll be able to present themselves as the program’s protectors and criticize Republicans for trying to undermine it (unless he’s the nominee). And about that, he’s right. Democrats will do that, because that’s what they almost always do. It’s usually an effective attack, both because Americans love Social Security, and because it’s true.

So how does Trump compare to the Democrats, and what is the debate on this issue in the general election going to look like? Bernie Sanders’ position is that benefits should be expanded, particularly since so many Americans lack retirement savings. He has proposed keeping the cap, but having the tax kick in again above $250,000, essentially inserting a “doughnut hole” in the tax; he has also suggested applying the tax to wealthy households’ investment income, and not just wages as it is now. Hillary Clinton has a similar, though less detailed, position: she rules out increasing the retirement age or cutting benefits, and wants to raise the cap to some unspecified level in order to increase some benefits.

Trump has broken with Republican orthodoxy in a few areas where Republican orthodoxy is deeply unpopular, and this is one of them. He probably has the political calculation right: it will be hard for Clinton or Sanders to go after him on Social Security when he’s pledging to protect it without any changes. They’re not going to move to his right on the issue, and while they’ve staked out a position somewhat to his left, he’ll be offering much the same result, without having to pay for it. A tax increase, he’ll say, won’t be necessary because when I’m president gold will practically fall from the sky.

Is that going to work? Frankly, I suspect it will, at least in taking Social Security off the table as an issue of contention between the two party nominees. But don’t worry — the Democrats will have plenty of other things to criticize him for.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Plum Line Blog, The Washington Post, March 11, 2016

March 14, 2016 Posted by | Democrats, General Election 2016, Social Security | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Crash Lies”: Washington Post Discards All Journalistic Standards In Attack On Social Security

News outlets generally like to claim a separation between their editorial pages and their news pages. The Washington Post has long ignored this distinction in pursuing its agenda for cutting Social Security, however it took a big step further in tearing down this barrier with a lead front page story that would have been excluded from most opinion pages because of all the inaccuracies it contained.

The basic premise of the story, as expressed in the headline (“the debt fallout: how Social Security went ‘cash negative’ earlier than expected”) and the first paragraph (“Last year, as a debate over the runaway national debt gathered steam in Washington, Social Security passed a treacherous milestone. It went ‘cash negative.'”) is that Social Security faces some sort of crisis because it is paying out more in benefits than it collects in taxes. [The “runaway national debt” is also a Washington Post invention. The deficits have soared in recent years because of the economic downturn following the collapse of the housing bubble. No responsible newspaper would discuss this as problem of the budget as opposed to a problem with a horribly underemployed economy.]

This “treacherous milestone” is entirely the Post’s invention, it has absolutely nothing to do with the law that governs Social Security benefit payments. Under the law, as long as there is money in the trust fund, then Social Security is able to pay full benefits. There is literally no other possible interpretation of the law.

As the article notes, the trust fund currently holds $2.6 trillion in government bonds, so it is nowhere close to being unable to pay benefits. The whole point of building up the trust fund was to help cover costs at a future date when taxes would not be sufficient to cover full benefits. Rather than posing any sort of crisis, this is exactly what had been planned when Congress last made major changes to the program in 1983 based on the recommendations of the Greenspan commission.

The article makes great efforts to confuse readers about the status of the trust fund. It tells readers:

“The $2.6 trillion Social Security trust fund will provide little relief. The government has borrowed every cent and now must raise taxes, cut spending or borrow more heavily from outside investors to keep benefit checks flowing.”

This is the same situation the government faces when Wall Street investment banker Peter Peterson or any other holder of government bonds decides to cash in their bonds when they become due. In such cases it “must raise taxes, cut spending or borrow more heavily from outside investors.” The Post’s reporters and editors should understand this fact.

The article then goes on to incorrectly accuse Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of misrepresenting the finances of Social Security:

“In an MSNBC interview, he [Senator Reid] added: ‘Social Security does not add a single penny, not a dime, a nickel, a dollar to the budget problems we have. Never has and, for the next 30 years, it won’t do that.’

“Such statements have not been true since at least 2009, when the cost of monthly checks regularly began to exceed payroll tax collections. A spokesman said Reid stands by his comments and his view that Social Security is entirely self-financed.”

Of course Senator Reid is exactly right. The system is self-financed under the law. In 2009 it began drawing on the interest on the government bonds it held. That is exactly what the law dictates, when Social Security needs more money than it collects in taxes, it is supposed to draw on the bonds that were purchased with Social Security taxes in the past. This means it is self-financing.

Again, this is like Peter Peterson selling his government bonds to finance one of his political ventures. Just like Social Security, he is drawing on his own money. The Post may have missed it, but there was a big debate last summer over raising the government’s $14.3 trillion debt ceiling. This $14.3 trillion figure included the $2.6 trillion borrowed from Social Security. If Social Security sells some of these bonds and this money is used to pay benefits, it does not raise the debt subject to the ceiling by a penny. This is very simple and very clear.

The article then turns to Morgan Stanley director Erskine Bowles who describes a plan he put forward along with former Senator Alan Simpson, his co-chair on a deficit commission appointed by President Obama [the article wrongly describes this plan as being the commission’s plan. That is not true, the commission did not approve any plan.]

“It would have hit upper-income workers while raising benefits for the most needy, those with average lifetime earnings of less than $11,000 a year. ‘By making these relatively small changes, you make it solvent and you make it be there for people who depend on it,’” Bowles said. ‘I thought that’s what we as Democrats were supposed to be for.'”

Actually the plan put forward by Bowles and Simpson would have implied large cuts for most low-income workers who would not have met the work requirements needed for the higher benefit. The cut would have taken the form of a 0.3 percentage point reduction in the annual cost of living adjustment. This cut would be cumulative, after 15 years of retirement a beneficiary would be seeing a benefit that is roughly 4.5 percent lower as a result of the Bowles-Simpson plan. The plan also phased in an increase in the age for receiving full benefits to 69, which is also a benefit cut for lower income retirees.

For lower income retirees Social Security is the overwhelming majority of their income. This means that the benefit cut advocated by Bowles and Simpson would imply the loss of a much larger share of their income than the end of the Bush tax cuts would for the wealthy. However, the Post has never described the ending of these tax cuts as a “modest” or “small” tax increase.

It is also worth noting that “upper-income workers” who would face benefit cuts under the Bowles-Simpson plan are people with average earnings of more than $40,000 a year. This is not ordinarily viewed as the cutoff for upper income. In reference to the ending of the Bush tax cuts, the Post once ran a front page story questioning whether people earning $500,000 a year were wealthy. Clearly they apply a different standard to Social Security beneficiaries.

To push its line of fat and happy seniors the Post misrepresented research by Gene Steuerle on returns from Social Security taxes. At one point it told readers:

“That return is diminishing, in part because people today have paid more into the system than previous generations. But a two-earner, middle-income couple retiring this year can expect to get $913,000 in Social Security and Medicare benefits over their lifetimes, in return for $717,000 in payroll taxes.”

The trick in this picture is that the return refers to Social Security and Medicare, not just Social Security which is the topic of the article. The Steuerle paper actually has the Social Security returns shown separately in the exact same chart. Steuerle calculated that the two-earner couple referred to in the article would pay a bit less than $600,000 in taxes into the system and collect around $560,000 in benefits.

[This couple will get more back in Medicare benefits than they paid in taxes, but this is primarily because our health care costs twice as much per person as in any other wealthy country. This is a good argument for reforming the U.S. health care system but has nothing to do with the topic of the article.]

This article also repeatedly refers to the debate over cutting benefits as being an “ideological battle.” There is no evidence presented in this piece that there is any ideological issue at stake. On the one hand are hundreds of millions of workers who want to see the benefits that they paid for. On the other hand are many wealthy people, exemplified by people like Peter Peterson and Erskine Bowles who would rather use Social Security money to keep their own taxes low or to serve other purposes.

This is a battle over who gets the money. The references to ideology just confuse the situation.

By: Dean Baker, Center For Economic and Policy Research, October 29, 2011

November 1, 2011 Posted by | Deficits, Federal Budget | , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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