Topic: Social Security

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.

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.

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?

Hey Buddy, Can You Spare $86 Trillion?

That’s how much Congress would have to put in an interest-bearing account today to cover the gap between the Social Security and Medicare benefits it has promised, and its ability to actually keep those promises.

The trustees of the Medicare and Social Security programs released their annual reports at 3pm today.

A brief rundown:

  • The unfunded liability of the Social Security program grew by 20 percent (from $12.8 trillion to $15.3 trillion) while Congress dithered over reform proposals.
  • But the Social Security gap is still smaller than the unfunded liability of just the Medicare prescription drug program, which weighs in at a robust $16.2 trillion.
  • The total unfunded liability of Medicare topped $70 trillion (It’s actually $70.8 trillion. Round up or down to suit your taste.)
  • The trustees’ estimate of the unfunded liability of the Medicare drug program actually shrank 11 percent from their 2005 estimate of $18.2 trillion. But that reduction was more than offset by a 2 percent increase in the unfunded liability of the physician insurance part of Medicare (from $25.8 trillion to $26.2 trillion) and a 16 percent surge in the unfunded liability of the hospital part of Medicare (from $24.4 trillion to $28.4 trillion).
  • All told, Medicare’s problems are over four times the size of Social Security’s.

    Medicare & Social Security Trustees Report to Be Released at Noon

    I expect to have more to say about the trustees report once I’ve had a chance to read it. My prediction is that the trustees will announce that Medicare’s unfunded liabilities have grown since last year’s estimate of $68.4 trillion.

    But no change in the trustees’ projections is likely to change the fact that Medicare is a ticking tax bomb — made worse by a GOP that keeps packing in the explosives.

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