Topic: General

Sometimes, Governments Lie

Year after year, federal officials speak of the Social Security and Medicare trust funds as if they were real.  Yesterday, the government announced that the Social Security trust fund will be exhausted in 2040 and that the Medicare hospital insurance trust fund will be exhausted in 2018 – projections that the media dutifully reported

But those dates are meaningless, because there are no assets for these “trust funds” to exhaust.  The Bush administration wrote in its FY2007 budget proposal:

These balances are available to finance future benefit payments and other trust fund expenditures—but only in a bookkeeping sense. These funds…are not assets…that can be drawn down in the future to fund benefits…When trust fund holdings are redeemed to pay benefits, Treasury will have to finance the expenditure in the same way as any other Federal expenditure: out of current receipts, by borrowing from the public, or by reducing benefits or other expenditures. The existence of large trust fund balances, therefore, does not, by itself, increase the Government’s ability to pay benefits.

This is similar to language in the Clinton administration’s FY2000 budget, which noted that the size of the trust fund “does not…have any impact on the Government’s ability to pay benefits” (emphasis added).

I offer the following proposition:

  • If the government knows that there are no assets in the Social Security and Medicare “trust funds,” and yet projects the interest earned on those non-assets and the date on which those non-assets will be exhausted, then the government is lying. 

If that’s the case, then these annual trustees reports constitute an institutionalized, ritualistic lie.  Also ritualistic is the media’s uncritical repetition of the lie.

Florida Senate Ties its Own Straightjacket

The Florida Senate yesterday killed, by one vote, a proposed state constitutional amendment that would have allowed it to pass school choice legislation. Back in January, the state supreme court fitted the legislature with an education policy straightjacket. It claimed, simply because the state constitution requires the existence of a uniform public school system, that legislators are forbidden to create alternative systems – including, but not necessarily limited to, school choice programs. 

Rather than undoing this bit of judicial overreach, the Senate decided to tie the straightjacket snugly on itself – killing constitutional amendment language that would have allowed it to once again do its job on education policy. 

This leaves Florida’s lawmakers – and more importantly its students – stuck with the “uniform” public school system that has been failing them for decades. The state has one of the lowest graduation rates in the country, according to two independent assessments, and both its mathematics and verbal SAT scores are below the national average. In fact, even Floridian students whose first language is English score 15 points below the national average for such students on the verbal portion of the SAT. 

That’s the system to which the Senate and the judiciary have consigned Sunshine State schoolchildren. 

It’s a sad day for Florida. 

Fourteen other states have public school “uniformity clauses” much like Florida’s so stay tuned to this issue. 

For more on the run-up to this vote, see The American Spectator.

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May Day: Two Directions for Latin America

Bolivian president Evo Morales has nationalized his country’s natural gas industry. He sent soldiers to occupy the gas fields on May 1, celebrated by socialists worldwide as May Day. This May Day was also the 25th anniversary of  Chile’s Social Security privatization. As Jose Pinera wrote in the New York Times:

Since the system started on May 1, 1981, the average real return on the personal accounts has been 10 percent a year. The pension funds have now accumulated resources equivalent to 70 percent of gross domestic product, a pool of savings that has helped finance economic growth and spurred the development of liquid long-term domestic capital market. By increasing savings and improving the functioning of both the capital and labor markets, the reform contributed to the doubling of the growth rate of the economy from 1985 to 1997 (from the historic 3 percent to 7.2 percent a year) until the slowdown caused by the government’s erroneous response to the Asian crisis.

Perhaps 50 years from now, we will know whether Chile’s privatization or Bolivia’s nationalization brought a higher standard of living to citizens.

It might also be noted that Pinera is sometimes criticized for having engineered the privatization as part of a military government (although such critics rarely acknowledge that successive Social Democratic governments have not abolished the pension reform). But  how free is a country in which a president, just back from a summit with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, can unilaterally send soldiers to seize an industry from its legal owners? Morales is taking very little time to earn the attribution “increasingly authoritarian.”

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The High Cost of Obstructionism

Michael’s posts below looked at the Medicare Trustees Report. The 2006 Report issued by the Social Security Trustees isn’t any better. With another year of inaction, Social Security’s problems have grown worse. The program will begin running a deficit in just 11 years. In theory, the Social Security Trust Fund will pay benefits until 2040, a year earlier than predicted last year. 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 doesn’t contain any 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 actually pay those IOUs.

Overall, the system’s unfunded liabilities—the amount it has promised more than it can actually pay—now totals $15.3 trillion.

That’s “trillion.” With a T.

Setting aside some technical changes in how future obligations are calculated, that’s also $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.

How long will Congress continue to duck this issue?