Los Angeles Times business columnist Michael Hiltzik has an essential piece today debunking what he calls “The Myth of the Social Security system’s financial shortfall.” It’s based on the newly-released 2010 report of the Social Security Trustees.
In fact, he argues, Social Security is doing fine, sort of. If there’s a problem, it’s the fact that it has been lending money to the general fund of the federal government for years to cover expenses that used to be covered by income taxes. The payroll tax has been steadily raised to keep Social Security solvent. The income taxes of the wealthiest Americans have been repeatedly, drastically lowered under Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush (Hiltzik leaves out Reagan, as I’ll show), leaving big holes in the general fund, which covers defense, national parks, highways, welfare and all the rest. The impoverished general fund has been borrowing from the flush Social Security trust fund to help cover the deficits.
Here’s the catch: The payroll tax is a regressive tax: the poorest Americans pay the same 7.65% as the richest Americans, and the rich don’t even pay a penny on earnings above $107,000 per year. Lowering income taxes on the rich, and then covering the shortfall by borrowing from a pot that’s mainly funded by the common folk (and mainly relied on by them) amounts to a massive redistribution of income from the poor to the rich. And that’s why the Social Security trust fund looks insolvent: It has been raided to cover money that used to be in the federal budget but is now in the pockets of the rich.
I know, I know: Letting the affluent keep their money (they’re basically the only ones who get to do that under these tax cuts) encourages investment and creates jobs. If anybody here still believes that, I’ve got a lovely oil well to sell you, conveniently located just south of historic New Orleans.
In recent years, during which conservatives have intensified their efforts to destroy one of the few U.S. government programs that actually works as intended, the report’s publication has become an occasion for hand-wringing and crocodile tears over the (supposedly) parlous state of the system’s finances. This year’s report, which came out Thursday, is no exception. Within minutes of its release, some analysts were claiming that it projected a “shortfall” for Social Security this year of $41 billion.
To understand how much money Social Security actually has saved up, you need to understand where it gets its money from. The best-known source is the payroll tax, the number that appears next to the federal income tax on your pay stub but isn’t part of the income tax. It’s a separate tax that goes into a separate fund, the Social Security Trust Fund. The second source is interest on Treasury bonds held by the Social Security trust fund. These are IOUs on money borrowed from the trust fund, which takes in more money than it needs each year, by the federal government’s general fund, which takes in less money than it needs each year.
That brings us back to this supposed $41-billion “shortfall,” which exists only if you decide not to count interest due of about $118 billion. And that, in turn, leads us to the convoluted subject of the trust fund, which for some two decades has been the prime target of the crowd trying to bamboozle Americans into thinking Social Security is insolvent, bankrupt, broke — pick any term you wish, because they’re all wrong. The trust fund is the mechanism by which baby boomers have pre-funded their own (OK, our own) retirements. When tax receipts fall short, its bonds are redeemed by the government to cover the gap. Despite what Social Security’s enemies love to claim, the trust fund is not a myth, it’s not mere paper. It’s real money, and it represents the savings of every worker paying into the system today. So I’m going to train a microscope on it. What trips up many people about the trust fund is the notion that redeeming the bonds in the fund to produce cash for Social Security is the equivalent of “the government” paying money to “the government.” Superficially, this resembles transferring a dollar from your brown pants to your gray pants — you’re no more or less flush than you were before changing pants.
Hiltzik leaves out two important historical events here, probably for reasons of space (columns have to fit on a page, whereas a blog can go on and on and on and on and…). First, Lyndon Johnson: He decided to combine the balance sheets of the Social Security trust fund and the general government operations into a single budget document, in order to mask the cost of the Vietnam war.
Second, Ronald Reagan: He lowered the top marginal income tax rate paid by the wealthiest Americans from the 70% cap under Nixon (which in turn was lower than the 91% under Eisenhower) to 50%, and then again to 38.5% in 1987. The tax cut blew a massive hole in the federal budget. Borrowing skyrocketed, and the accumulated national debt rose during Reagan’s eight years in office from $900 billion to $2.6 trillion. The growth of the debt slowed a bit under the first George Bush and was reversed under Clinton, but then skyrocketed under George W. Bush, who lowered taxes again while running two unfunded wars.
Most Americans pay more payroll tax than income tax. Not until you pull in $200,000 or more, which puts you among roughly the top 5% of income-earners, are you likely to pay more in income tax than payroll tax. One reason is that the income taxed for Social Security is capped — this year, at $106,800. … Since 1983, the money from all payroll taxpayers has been building up the Social Security surplus, swelling the trust fund. What’s happened to the money? It’s been borrowed by the federal government and spent on federal programs — housing, stimulus, war and a big income tax cut for the richest Americans, enacted under President George W. Bush in 2001. In other words, money from the taxpayers at the lower end of the income scale has been spent to help out those at the higher end. That transfer — that loan, to characterize it accurately — is represented by the Treasury bonds held by the trust fund. The interest on those bonds, and the eventual redemption of the principal, should have to be paid for by income taxpayers, who reaped the direct benefits from borrowing the money. So all the whining you hear about how redeeming the trust fund will require a tax hike we can’t afford is simply the sound of wealthy taxpayers trying to skip out on a bill about to come due. The next time someone tells you the trust fund is full of worthless IOUs, try to guess what tax bracket he’s in.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).