The Social Security Side-Step

In describing the contents of the Social Security Trustees’ latest annual report, most reporters have described the changes as “minor.” That impression rests, however, on a comparison of a large number with a gigantic number—the present value of Social Security’s financial shortfall over 75 years to the present value of total payrolls, also projected over the next 75 years.

Note that according to the report, an additional 2 percentage points must be added to payroll tax rates immediately and must be kept in place permanently. That’s unlikely, and precisely because we are describing the shortfall as “no big deal.”

Problem is, the cost escalates the longer we wait. How long would we wait? When it becomes as large as four percentage points? Six? No, if it becomes that large, chances are taxpayers would revolt and the system would have to face benefit cuts.

Benefit cuts? At a time when beneficiaries are more numerous and politically powerful? Unlikely. Then what?

Buried inside the report are other, larger estimates of the system’s shortfall—the “actuarial deficit” calculated without a time limit is reported to be $13.3 trillion. Including the outstanding Treasury liabilities to Social Security that must be paid for out of higher income or other non-payroll taxes, the total financial shortfall compared to benefits is a whopping $15.2 trillion. And compared to total future payrolls, this amount equals 3.7 percentage points.

Most reports attached some variant of “let’s not panic, these numbers are very uncertain” to the perpetuity estimates of Social Security’s shortfall.

Not panic? OK. But ignore? That’s effectively the message. If we don’t like the outlook, we should just ignore it. It’s not going to affect us. We’ll collect our benefits well before then, so why bother?

That’s not the advice financial planners would give to an individual or family facing uncertainty in personal finances. Rather, they would recommend purchasing insurance or hedging their portfolios by diversifying assets.

But prudence with personal assets and profligacy with public ones imply a collision course—one that’s unlikely to deliver “social security.”

Someone recently asked: Even if God told us these numbers were correct, what can we do today? After all, we can only distribute future outputs to meet future needs. This reminded me of Jacob and the Pharaohs. In that story, Jacob suggested filling the granaries well before the famines arrived—in other words, saving and investing more today.

Existing institutions—Social Security Trust Funds and such—haven’t worked in that regard. Indeed, the evidence points to the exact opposite outcome: Today’s entitlement programs are inducing us to spend more, work less, and retire earlier than ever before.
Rather than give up on a structural reform of Social Security, our efforts need redoubling.