Another Year Older and Deeper in Debt

Social Security turns 71 today. One can argue about whether or not the program was a good idea in 1935, but there should be no question about its inadequacies today. And its flaws just get worse with each passing year.

Social Security will begin running a deficit in just 11 years. Of course, in theory, the Social Security Trust Fund will pay benefits until 2040. That’s not much comfort to today’s 33-year-olds, who will face an automatic 26 percent cut in benefits unless the program is reformed before they retire. But even that is misleading, because the Trust Fund contains no actual assets. The government bonds it holds are simply a form of IOU, a measure of how much money the government owes the system. It says nothing about where the government will get the money to pay back those IOUs.

Overall, the system’s unfunded liabilities—the amount it has promised more than it can actually pay—now totals $15.3 trillion. Yes, that’s trillion with a “T.” Setting aside some technical changes in how future obligations are calculated, that’s $550 billion worse than last year. In other words, because Congress failed to act last year, our children and grandchildren were handed a bill for another $550 billion.

Moreover, Social Security taxes are already so high, relative to benefits, that Social Security has quite simply become a bad deal for younger workers, providing a low, below-market rate-of-return. In fact, many young workers will end up paying more in taxes than they receive in benefits. They will actually lose money under the program.

But the single most important problem with the current Social Security system is that workers have no ownership of their benefits. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled, in the case of Flemming v. Nestor, that workers have no legally binding contractual or property right to their Social Security benefits, and those benefits can be changed, cut, or even taken away at any time. This means that workers completely dependent on the goodwill of 535 politicians when it comes to what they’ll receive in retirement. And because workers don’t own their benefits, those benefits are not inheritable. This particularly disadvantages those groups in our society with shorter life expectancies, such as African-Americans.

Social Security reform was once a bipartisan issue. Democrats like Senators Bob Kerrey and Daniel Patrick Moynihan were outspoken in warning about the program’s looming insolvency, and in calling for innovative approaches to fixing it. The Democratic Leadership Council and its think tank arm, the Progressive Policy Institute, explored many approaches to reform, including personal accounts. Congressmen like Charlie Stenholm reached across the aisle in search of compromise. Even President Clinton led a national debate to “Save Social Security First.”

But since President Bush called for reforming the nation’s troubled retirement program, congressional Democrats have had only one answer: “No.” No to personal accounts. “No” to changes in benefits. “No” to offering a real reform plan of their own. “No” to any discussion or negotiation.

At the same time, Republicans—apparently terrified of offending AARP and other special interests—have scurried for cover, running from positions they should know are correct. Republicans seem to believe that if the just stick their heads far enough in the sand for long enough, Democrats won’t attack them. The result is a choice between Democratic obstructionism and Republican cowardice.

And we wonder why so many young people are turned off to politics?