Andrew Biggs, FTW.
Andrew Biggs, FTW.
Social Security benefits are indexed for inflation, but because inflation has been roughly zero for the past year, the adjustment formula implies no increase in benefits this year. Nevertheless,
President Obama on Wednesday attempted to preempt the announcement that Social Security recipients will not get an increase in their benefit checks for the first time in three decades, encouraging Congress to provide a one-time payment of $250 to help seniors and disabled Americans weather the recession.
Obama endorsed the idea, which is expected to cost at least $13 billion, as the administration gropes for ways to sustain an apparent economic rebound without the kind of massive spending package that critics could label a second stimulus act.
This is outrageous on four levels:
1. If the president thinks the economy needs more stimulus, he should say that explicitly and have an honest debate.
2. This is the wrong kind of stimulus. Any further stimulus should consist of reductions in marginal tax rates, such as a cut in the corporate income tax (or better yet, repeal).
3. All Social Security recipients already have a moderate guaranteed income, and many have significant income beyond their Social Security benefits. This kind of transfer has no plausible justification as redistribution for the needy.
4. Sending checks to seniors is a blatant attempt to buy their support for Obamacare, which promises to cut Medicare spending substantially.
This week, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) blocked an attempt by Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) to move — without a recorded vote or CBO score – H.R. 3631, legislation to freeze Medicare Part B premiums. These premiums are automatically deducted from the Social Security checks of seniors, almost all of whom are enrolled in the Medicare Part B (Supplemental Medical Insurance) program.
Social Security recipients will not receive a COLA increase in their monthly checks beginning January 2010 because inflation between October 2008 and September 2009 was negative. But if Part B premiums increase, the dollar amount of their Social Security checks will decrease beginning in January 2010.
What would happen if the Part B premium were frozen for 2010? Seniors would get a double benefit. First they are gaining from a zero reduction in their Social Security checks even though inflation in 2008-2009 was negative. That means the purchasing power of their Social Security checks will be larger (assuming inflation remains low during the 4th quarter of this year).
On top of that, a frozen Part B premium would provide them with more generous Part B coverage because health care prices became more expensive during 2009 relative to other goods and services.
Senator Coburn’s action in blocking the premium freeze is courageous and correct. In a small but important way, it combats the busting of the federal budget by already generous Medicare Part B benefits that seniors receive — three-quarters of which are funded out of federal general revenues (that is, financed out of taxes paid by younger workers).
Note that the fiscal gimmickry this action prevents is not limited to seniors’ Medicare benefits. Some lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are intent on raiding the Medicare Improvement Fund (MIF) established in 2008 to offset cuts in future physician reimbursements. That fund is actually empty right now — it is not scheduled to receive monies until 2014. But an “advance funding” provision in its legislation would allow lawmakers to make transfers from the Treasury’s general fund as a stop-gap mechanism until MIF’s revenues become available.
Of course, when it comes time to deal with the issue of physician payment cuts, there will be zero dollars left in the MIF. They will have been used up to finance the 2010 Part B premium freeze — and Congress will turn to taxpayers and demand more money to bail out physicians.
An independent audit—the first ever—of Costa Rica’s social security system has found that the system will start eating up its reserves in just 6 years, and will see its finances “compromised” (read “go bust”) in only 14 years [story in Spanish here].
Just as in the United States, Costa Rica has a government-run Ponzi scheme called social security that sooner or later was going to become unsustainable due to demographic changes. However, the seriousness of the situation was hidden throughout the years by Enron-like accountability tricks that have been exposed by the external audit. For example, official records reported income to the system from public enterprises that never took place. It also estimated the sustainability of the pension fund based on unrealistic salary projections.
The consequences for Costa Rican workers are all too grave. This not only compromises the retirement of young workers, but also of those who are a few years from retiring. If we had only followed the example of countries like Chile or El Salvador that privatized their social security systems years ago….
With so much money being squandered in Washington, $700,000 does not even rise to the level of an asterisk. But when that much money is being wasted so that senior bureaucrats from the Social Security Administration can enjoy a party (oops, a training session) at a four-star resort in Arizona, it becomes a symbol of Washington profligacy. Kudos to ABC News for running a story on this travesty. Make sure to watch the embedded video of bureaucrats “reducing stress” at your expense:
… nearly 700 executives from the Social Security Administration (SSA) gathered for a lavish three-day conference in Phoenix, AZ last week, costing taxpayers about $700,000… . The conference, which included a performance by a motivational dance company that was captured on tape by Phoenix affiliate ABC15, was held at the Arizona Biltmore, a hotel described as the “Jewel of the Desert” with an oasis of 39 acres of lush gardens, swimming pools and a golf course. SSA executives were invited to join in the dancing.
Over at Salon, Michael Lind takes me to task for raising the alarm about the latest Social Security Trustees report showing that a) Social Security’s insolvency date is growing closer, and b) the system’s unfunded liabilities have increased dramatically since last year’s report.
Like most of those who resist having an honest debate about Social security’s finances, Lind relies on a combination of economic flim-flam and political sophistry to obscure the true problem. For example, Lind points out that when I quote the Trustee’s assertion that the system’s unfunded liabilities currently top $17.5 trillion, that “assumes there are no changes made between now and eternity.” Well, duh! All estimates of US budget deficits assume that spending won’t be cut or taxes raised enough to eliminate the deficit. In fact, when I get my Visa bill and it shows how much I owe, it doesn’t tell me anything about whether I will or can pay that bill in the future. Obviously, if we raise Social Security taxes, cut Social Security benefits (or create personal accounts), we can reduce or even eliminate the program’s unfunded liabilities.
Lind then returns to the hoary idea of the Trust Fund. He objects to my characterization of the Trust fund “contains no actual assets. Instead, it contains government bonds that are simply IOUs, a measure of how much the government owes the system.” This, he says, is the same as saying “government bonds backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government, a government that has never defaulted on its obligations in its entire existence since 1776, are not actual assets?” He points out that millions of Americans invest in government bonds through their retirement programs and consider them assets. “Are U.S. government bonds “actual assets” when they are part of IRAs but not “actual assets” when they are owed to the Social Security system?” he asks.
That’s right. If I write you an IOU, you have an asset and I have a debt. If I write an IOU to myself, the asset and debt cancel each other out. I haven’t gained anything, else it would be a whole lot easier to pay my bills. When Lind invests in a government bond, he has an asset and the government has a liability. But when the government issues a bond to itself (ie. Social Security), the asset and liability cancel each other out. There’s no net increase in assets.
But don’t take my word for it. This is what Bill Clinton’s budget had to say about the Trust Fund in FY2000:
These Trust Fund balances are available to finance future benefit payments…but only in a bookkeeping sense….They do not consist of real economic assets that can be drawn down in the future to fund benefits. Instead, they are claims on the Treasury that, when redeemed, will have to be financed by raising taxes, borrowing from the public, or reducing benefits or other expenditures. The existence of Trust Fund balances, therefore, does not by itself have any impact on the government’s ability to pay benefits.
Lind then switches course and says, ok, forget about the Trust Fund. Think about Social Security like we do about defense spending. “Why do we never hear of the “unfunded liabilities” of Pentagon spending – the third of the big three spending programs (Social Security, Medicare, defense) that take up most of the federal budget? Defense spending comes out of general revenues, not a dedicated tax.”
Actually, that is a valid comparison. Both defense and Social Security spending for any given year are ultimately paid for out of that year’s tax revenue. The composition of the tax revenue is largely irrelevant. And, when taxes don’t equal expenditures, we get budget deficits. Those deficits will eventually have to be paid for by raising taxes or cutting spending.
Current projections by the Congressional Budget Office suggest that unless we reform entitlements programs, government spending will reach 40 percent of GDP by mid-century. Paying for all that government will be a crushing burden of debt and taxes for our children and grandchildren.
No amount of obfuscation by defenders of the status quo can obscure that fact.
Editors’ Note: The post below is an expanded version of Tanner’s initial post at this URL.
The Social Security system’s trustees have released their annual report on the system’s finances and announced that – surprise – the program’s looming financial crisis hasn’t gone away.
Social Security will begin running a deficit by 2016, meaning that just seven years from now the program will begin spending more money on benefits than it takes in through taxes. That’s a year sooner than last year’s report.
Of course, in theory, the Social Security Trust Fund will pay benefits until 2037. But even that figure is misleading, because the Trust Fund contains no actual assets. Instead, it contains government bonds that are simply IOUs, a measure of how much money the government owes the system.
Even if Congress can find a way to redeem the bonds, the Trust Fund surplus will be completely exhausted by 2037. At that point, Social Security will have to rely solely on revenue from the payroll tax – and that revenue will not be sufficient to pay all promised benefits. Overall, the system’s unfunded liabilities – the amount it has promised beyond what it can actually pay – now total $17.5 trillion. Yes, that’s trillion with a ‘T.’ That’s $1.7 trillion worse than last year.
Critics of personal accounts for Social Security have pointed to the decline in the stock market over the last few years as an argument against allowing younger workers to privately invest a portion of their Social Security taxes. Yet studies [more here and here] have shown that long-term investment remains remarkably safe. If workers retiring today had been allowed to start privately investing their taxes 40 years ago, they would obviously have less money than those who retired a couple of years ago.But they would still have more than Social Security promises. And, as the Trustee’s Report shows, a poor economy hurts Social Security’s ability to pay benefits just as it hurts the stock market.
In the end, there are only three possible solutions to Social Security’s problems: raise taxes (and the Social Security payroll tax would have to be nearly doubled to keep the program afloat), cut benefits, or allow younger workers to invest privately.
We can have an honest debate about which of those options is the best choice. But, as the Trustee’s Report makes clear, Congress and the Obama administration cannot continue to duck the issue.
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