Mike the Mad Biologist links to a piece arguing that Social Security is fine thank you very much. Rumor to the contrary is pure political propaganda, and the fact that many young people think they’ll never see a dime is a result of simple fearmongering.
I am sorry to say that they’re not right. They’re not even wrong, having missed the point entirely. Indeed as a factual matter their understanding of the way Social Security and its trust fund operate is fine. It’s simply that “there is no crisis” does not follow from the premise that we can always borrow more.
First, consider the Social Security Trust Fund. It consists of a tremendously huge pile of treasury bonds. These are simply promises that the government makes to pay a specified sum at a specified time. As such it’s effectively a bureaucratic fiction. If I take $100 of my grad student salary and put it in self-issued “Built on Facts Bonds”, and use the “revenue” I get from the sale of those bonds to myself to buy $100 worth of pizza then I’m in great shape: I have lots of pizza and $100 saved in my bond fund. Right?
Well sure, if I have a source of actual income to pay myself back when it’s time to actually use those bonds. It would of course be simpler to simply forgo the whole bond middleman entirely and be honest that I simply spent $100 on pizza.
Which is exactly the situation with Social Security… and every other government program. Social Security takes in money and spends money. The fact that there’s treasury bonds involved means exactly zero when it comes to adding up the income and subtracting the expenses each year. Indeed there’s no point in treating Social Security any differently in terms of calculating the budget because its outflow of cash comes from the general fund, and its revenues in the form of Social Security payroll deductions go into the general fund. So let’s take a look at the numbers. The graph comes from Wikipedia, but the underlying numbers come from the GAO.
Social Security currently makes more in the form of payroll taxes than it puts out in the form of benefits. In 2007, Social Security pulled in $784.9 billion and paid out $594.5 billion. The difference was spent in the general fund through the previously described intermediary of treasury bonds. According to government estimates in 2017 the outflow will exceed the income. That’s not going to end Social Security by any stretch – obviously government programs don’t have to fund themselves. I doubt NOAA has ever had a net positive cash flow but they operate just fine with general revenue money. So will Social Security.
That is, of course, until the federal government as a whole runs out of money. Consider the national debt as a percentage of GDP (again straight from GAO data):
Government debt, like pretty much any debt, requires interest payments. This is another expense added to the federal budget. More debt, more debt interest. More debt interest, more expenses. More expenses, more debt. It’s a vicious cycle, made more vicious by the fact that the shakier the federal government’s fiscal position is, the higher interest it will have to offer to entice investors to buy the debt. It’s a dynamic at work in the corporate bond world – a sound company can sell its debt at a lower interest rate than a company in possible trouble.
Keep in mind that both of the above charts were made with pre-crisis 2007 data. What do the numbers look like now? I don’t know, but we can get a hint by looking at deficit projections:
Ouch. Well, we can always cover that deficit with more debt issues. Just ask China, as Mike suggested. Ok, let’s. Turns out they might not be so eager to keep buying debt that looks less and less likely to be repaid over the long term. And this will feed into the cycle described above, and at some point along that exponentially increasing debt/GDP curve the US will no longer be able to meet interest payments, resulting in a deficit that can’t be covered by selling debt. Bankruptcy, in a word. It is not merely a possibility, it is a certainty if the upward curve isn’t arrested at some point. It won’t be – neither of the major political parties even pretends that they have a plan to do it.
And if the federal government actually goes bankrupt – ie, it can’t cover its tax shortfall with debt issue – then Social Security really is toast. Along with Medicare, Medicaid, and pretty much everything else. At that point there’s three options:
1) Default on debt. This would end the financial world as we know it, certainly including Social Security.
2) Pay the debt back with hyperinflated currency. This would end the financial world as we know it, certainly including Social Security.
3) Massive spending cuts. In which case I do not in fact get Social Security.
A commenter at Mike’s suggests a solution:
It’s quite simple really. Rollback the George W. Bush tax cuts on the rich, then rollback the Ronald Reagan tax cuts on the rich, reduce our insanely high military spending and SS is just fine.
Is it? Let’s look at the numbers. The GWB tax cuts expire shortly and this is taken into account in the budget projections above. The effect is manifestly inadequate. As for increasing taxes to pre-Reagan levels, keep in mind that the combined total income of everyone making more than $200k is $2.5 trillion. More than half a trillion of that is already being taxed, not counting the expiration of the Bush cuts. In fact, the entire current after-tax income of every $200k+ household combined would just barely cover this year’s deficit ($1.96T versus $1.85T). And not even the most ardent critic of Art Laffer would argue that there isn’t at least some level of diminishing returns with increasing tax rates. God knows the pre-Reagan economy is not something we’d like to see repeated anyway, but let’s concede for the sake of argument that high taxes on the rich aren’t going to hurt growth much. There’s good reason to believe that in fact you simply can’t budge revenue upward all that much no matter how much you soak the rich:
Defense cuts? I don’t support them, but we should consider all possibilities again for the sake of argument. Even so, there’s only so much you can do. The entire DoD is only 18% of Obama’s ’10 budget. DoD spending is currently $663.7 billion for the fiscal year. Iraq and Afghanistan add to that, but they are (supposedly) being wound down anyway and their end is assumed in the above budget forecasts. In the wildly unrealistic scenario of slashing remaining defense spending in half, the ~$330 billion reduction doesn’t even dent the ’09 or ’10 deficits. Assuming the CBO is right it would nicely reduce the next few years worth of deficits (or at least bring them back down to the merely horrific levels of the last decade) before being swamped again a few years later.
Keep in mind that if you support something along the lines of universal health care or anything approaching serious CO2 emission reductions then some large fraction of the money you make in defense cuts and higher taxes is going to have to go to that and not deficit reduction. Add to that the fact that people in the US are living longer and having fewer children. We haven’t even considered possible external economic pressures like the swan dive into senescence in major trading partners like Europe and China, the increasing scarcity of oil, or the possibility of global hot spots (China/Taiwan, India/Pakistan, Israel/Iran, North Korea/South Korea/Japan, etc) flaring into war…
The numbers speak for themselves even in the best case scenario. I’m not going to see a dime of Social Security. Nor Medicare or Medicaid, for that matter. There is no way in the world the system will stay afloat until I retire in the vicinity of 2050.
What to do about it? I heard a wag suggest gold for the optimists; canned goods and ammo for everyone else. I’m not quite that alarmed. But I am preparing my savings and my future such that I’m not reliant on federal largess. To do otherwise in the teeth of the data is beyond foolhardy.