The Fake Social Security Solvency Crisis Is Congress’s Fault!

By Joe Firestone

(Cross-posted at All Life Is Problem Solving and Fiscal Sustainability)

Ah…. my fellow Americans, be very, very, afraid of the terrible Social Security crisis that will sink us as a nation. According to Government projections, we won’t be able to pay full Social Security benefits, in 2037 and beyond, unless we cut benefits now, because the Social Security “Trust Fund” will be short of money.

So, say Paul Ryan, Peter Peterson and his minions, Mike Pence, Alice Rivlin, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, and also many other deficit hawks. In reply, the most liberal of the deficit doves say that even though there will be a solvency crisis in 2037; it’s really nothing to worry about because all we have to do to end it is to lift “the cap” on FICA contributions entirely, so that wealthier income earners are paying the same rate on their total earnings, as workers whose wages or salaries are below $106,800 per year.

So, both the hawks and the doves agree that there is “a solvency crisis;” they only disagree about what to do about it. However, the SS solvency crisis is a big fake, like so many of the issues that arise in Washington. It is a fake because the crisis is not due to powerful economic forces that no one can do anything about, and that no one has control over; but rather is due to a choice Congress made when they wrote the original Social Security Act; namely that it would be paid for by raising revenues to fund it through FICA contributions and placing those in a “trust fund,” rather than by paying for it from general revenues. All that Congress has to do to end the crisis is to decide sometime between now and 2037, to pay for SS benefits automatically, out of general revenues, in the same way it pays for that part of the Social Security program called Supplementary Medical Insurance (SMI). End of problem. End of story.

Here’s a link to a post by selise featuring a youtube clip of Stephanie Kelton at last year’s Fiscal Sustainability Teach-In Counter-Conference explaining why this simple move by Congress solves the problem. Audios, Videos, presentations, and transcripts from the Conference which provides the definitive counter-narrative to the deficit hysteria currently rending our nation is here. Professor Kelton summarizes her argument here.

“Funding Social Security is always and everywhere a political choice. The strongest evidence of this comes directly from the 2009 Annual Report of the Trustees. In that report, they predict gloom and doom for Social Security because “there is no provision in current law that would enable full payment of benefits, once the Trust Funds are exhausted”.

In contrast, the Supplementary Medical Insurance (SMI) Trust Funds are “both projected to remain adequately financed into the indefinite future because current law automatically provides financing each year to meet next year’s expected costs.”

It is that simple. The former is in ‘trouble’ because the government isn’t committed to making the payments, and the latter gets a clean bill of health because the government will always make the payments.”

I think this really underlines how arbitrary the projections of financial doom from the Peterson crowd, CBO, and other Government agencies are. Apart from the silly and unreliable projections as far out as 25-65 years from now, the predictions of doom are really based on provisions in law that Congress can change at any time. Which means that just like the fake national debt crisis, the fake Social Security solvency crisis is Congress’s fault.

It is more Washington kabuki politics at its finest.

Selise has this to say in her post on why this is kabuki:

Q: Why is there even a debate about “fixing” Social Security when it’s not broken?

A: Because the focus of the debate is on problems that are unreal.

Focusing on unreal problems makes no sense. Unreal problems are NOT REAL!

Let me explain what I mean here by real as opposed to unreal problems with an example of each:

  • Unreal = “We can’t afford to Social Security because the Trustee’s report says that costs will exceed payroll tax receipts”
  • Real = “We can’t produce the goods and services needed by our nation’s seniors to keep them fed and housed.”

The unreal problem is about the availability of dollars. Our federal government is the monopoly issuer of the nation’s currency. We’ve been off the gold standard for almost 40 years and we have floating exchange rates. Therefore, the availability of dollars is a political issue. Tax revenue is not required, borrowing is not required — unless Congress chooses to impose those constraints.

A main reason why this particular instance of kabuki politics still exists is because so-called “progressives,” are unwilling to give up the idea that to keep Social Security safe it is essential that people “pay into it,” so that the opponents of Social Security won’t dare say that it’s a welfare program paying benefits to people that they are not entitled to. Guess what? The problem with this theory is that the opponents do dare say it, and have been saying it for many years through “propaganda” that has made “entitlement” a dirty word.

They don’t care whether people have made FICA contributions or not. For them the only issue is whether the Government “can afford” to pay for SS retirement benefits, not whether people have earned and paid for them, and so “deserve their benefits.” And they say the Government can’t afford it because they’re both busily cutting away at Government tax revenues and also falsely claiming that Government money is limited by a non-existent solvency risk.

Giving up the argument that people have paid into Social Security and so are entitled to it, is what progressives fear. But, nevertheless, since that argument is clearly not working, and also because that argument is bought only at the price of maintaining a very regressive tax on working people, they badly need to give it up in favor of an argument that all Americans, whatever their station, contribute something to the development of American society over time, often in ways that can’t easily be measured by the money they’ve made, or the visible things they’ve accomplished; and that because of these contributions and their American citizenship, each is owed a decent and dignified old age by the nation in the form of Social Security and affordable health insurance (now provided by Medicare).

This is especially true, since the money needed to pay them isn’t directly funded by taxes but only needs to be issued by the Government according to its constitutional authority. It is not money that is taken from anyone, or that is re-distributed. It is not some quantity from a limited supply of gold that is coming out of other people’s pockets. This money gets its value ultimately from the real wealth American society produces, which, in turn, comes from the past and present productive efforts of everyone, and the productive capacity that all of us together have created over the years and still create.

There is no right to share in this wealth equally, and there is no right for the elderly to cause younger people to go without, or to sacrifice opportunity. But American society is wealthy enough to make choices like these unnecessary. It is wealthy enough to provide an old age for its citizens that is free from want and fear.

Roosevelt knew that and it’s part of what he included in his second bill of rights. But Roosevelt’s old enemies, the Hooverians, have come back. They go by different names now. Sometimes, they’re called neo-liberals, sometimes austerians, sometimes Petersons, sometimes deficit hawks or doves. But whatever they’re called, the message is always the same, and that message is that money is limited, and that when it is given to some, it must be taken from others.

If the Government wants to spend money, it must be taxed away from some, or borrowed away from others. And finally, because money is limited, there are always hard choices to make, choices that sometimes put money ahead of people, and that make it necessary for “courageous people,” like the wealthy neo-liberals who talk and write this way, to choose who will prosper and who will suffer, who will be eating caviar, and who will be subsisting on catfood or worse. That’s unfortunate, but it’s just the way of the world and we all must adjust to it.

The Austerity Doctrine is not, in the end, part of the American, or the progressive outlook. We are an optimistic people. We know that money isn’t really limited and that our constitution allows us to provide enough of it to make the economy we want. We also know that even though certain real resources are limited, resource limitations can be overcome using new human knowledge, by redefining the practical meaning and use of existing resources. We also know that real wealth, the stock of valuable goods and services, is increasing all the time as the mix of different kinds of capital, human knowledge, and human effort changes in accordance with the development of human society.

So, the truth is not Hooverian, it’s Rooseveltian, we know that Federal money isn’t limited, and we also know that real wealth can be increased through effort that in turn can be mobilized by nominal wealth (Federal money). We aren’t playing a zero-sum game in which some must win and some must lose. We are playing one in which everyone can win.

So, in the nature of things we don’t need to take anything away from retirees, because of some imaginary fiscal crisis. We can easily do what’s right and not only maintain Social Security and other entitlements, but even increase their benefits. All we need to do is to revise a few laws to say that all entitlements will be automatically paid for by the Government in perpetuity out of general funds, and that all entitlement trust funds are abolished. Let’s make Congress get off its high horse, show some real courage, and do it!

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