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December 08, 2004

Social Security is NOT BANKRUPT!

Here is some compelling evidence that the right wing doesn't want you to know: Grover Norquist and his ilk want to kill Social Securtiy because it is a fedral program that works - and they want to ruin it. The fact is that Social Security is in pretty good shape, and should be for a long time. Read the following and tell all your friends, and remember, they had everyone believing that invading Iraq was a good idea too. Well, it wasn't - and neither is "privatizing" Social Security. Here is Paul Krugman's take:

Inventing a Crisis By PAUL KRUGMAN

Published: December 7, 2004

Privatizing Social Security - replacing the current system, in whole or in part, with personal investment accounts - won't do anything to strengthen the system's finances. If anything, it will make things worse. Nonetheless, the politics of privatization depend crucially on convincing the public that the system is in imminent danger of collapse, that we must destroy Social Security in order to save it.

I'll have a lot to say about all this when I return to my regular schedule in January. But right now it seems important to take a break from my break, and debunk the hype about a Social Security crisis.

There's nothing strange or mysterious about how Social Security works: it's just a government program supported by a dedicated tax on payroll earnings, just as highway maintenance is supported by a dedicated tax on gasoline.

Right now the revenues from the payroll tax exceed the amount paid out in benefits. This is deliberate, the result of a payroll tax increase - recommended by none other than Alan Greenspan - two decades ago. His justification at the time for raising a tax that falls mainly on lower- and middle-income families, even though Ronald Reagan had just cut the taxes that fall mainly on the very well-off, was that the extra revenue was needed to build up a trust fund. This could be drawn on to pay benefits once the baby boomers began to retire.

The grain of truth in claims of a Social Security crisis is that this tax increase wasn't quite big enough. Projections in a recent report by the Congressional Budget Office (which are probably more realistic than the very cautious projections of the Social Security Administration) say that the trust fund will run out in 2052. The system won't become "bankrupt" at that point; even after the trust fund is gone, Social Security revenues will cover 81 percent of the promised benefits. Still, there is a long-run financing problem.

But it's a problem of modest size. The report finds that extending the life of the trust fund into the 22nd century, with no change in benefits, would require additional revenues equal to only 0.54 percent of G.D.P. That's less than 3 percent of federal spending - less than we're currently spending in Iraq. And it's only about one-quarter of the revenue lost each year because of President Bush's tax cuts - roughly equal to the fraction of those cuts that goes to people with incomes over $500,000 a year.

Given these numbers, it's not at all hard to come up with fiscal packages that would secure the retirement program, with no major changes, for generations to come.

It's true that the federal government as a whole faces a very large financial shortfall. That shortfall, however, has much more to do with tax cuts - cuts that Mr. Bush nonetheless insists on making permanent - than it does with Social Security.

But since the politics of privatization depend on convincing the public that there is a Social Security crisis, the privatizers have done their best to invent one.

My favorite example of their three-card-monte logic goes like this: first, they insist that the Social Security system's current surplus and the trust fund it has been accumulating with that surplus are meaningless. Social Security, they say, isn't really an independent entity - it's just part of the federal government.

If the trust fund is meaningless, by the way, that Greenspan-sponsored tax increase in the 1980's was nothing but an exercise in class warfare: taxes on working-class Americans went up, taxes on the affluent went down, and the workers have nothing to show for their sacrifice.

But never mind: the same people who claim that Social Security isn't an independent entity when it runs surpluses also insist that late next decade, when the benefit payments start to exceed the payroll tax receipts, this will represent a crisis - you see, Social Security has its own dedicated financing, and therefore must stand on its own.

There's no honest way anyone can hold both these positions, but very little about the privatizers' position is honest. They come to bury Social Security, not to save it. They aren't sincerely concerned about the possibility that the system will someday fail; they're disturbed by the system's historic success.

For Social Security is a government program that works, a demonstration that a modest amount of taxing and spending can make people's lives better and more secure. And that's why the right wants to destroy it.

And this from Kevin Drum:

SMOKE AND MIRRORS, PART 2....In my previous post I mentioned in passing that it's hard to come up with future projections in which (a) economic growth is bad enough that Social Security goes bust in 2042 but (b) economic growth is good enough that private accounts have investment returns of 7% annually — and thus are lucrative enough to save Social Security. This point is worth expanding on a bit.

Every year the Social Security trustees produce a 75-year financial estimate. To do this, they make estimates of population growth, life expectancy, economic performance, and so forth, and then add them all up into an overall estimate of long-term solvency. In fact, they make three estimates (see chart on right), and the one you hear about in the news is the middle one, or "intermediate projection." In that projection, Social Security starts running a deficit in 2042. The key assumptions in the intermediate projection from 2015 forward are the following:

Labor force growth: 0.2% per year.

Productivity growth: 1.6% per year.

Average hours worked: no change.

Which leads to the following overall estimate:

GDP growth: 1.8% per year.

This growth is lower than we're used to, but that's because GDP growth = population growth + productivity growth. Since population growth is slowing down, so will GDP growth.

Still, what if you assume that things will be a little more robust than this? If you project GDP growth of around 2.6% per year, you end up with Estimate I, and in that scenario Social Security never runs out of money. In fact, if you project GDP growth just a few tenths higher than 1.8%, Social Security stays solvent for the next century.

In other words, if GDP growth averages, say, 2.2% over the next 75 years, Social Security is in fine shape and we don't have to do anything. We only need to "fix" it with private accounts if GDP growth is less than that.

So here's the puzzler: for private accounts to be worthwhile, they need to have long-term annual returns of at least 5%, and 6-7% is the number most advocates use. But are there any plausible scenarios in which long-term real GDP growth is less than 2% but long-term real returns (capital gains plus dividends) on stock portfolios are well over 5%?

Update - there is even a whole book on this subject: Social Security: The Phony Crisis

Is it true that the Social Security system is in serious trouble and must be repaired? As baby boomers begin to retire, will they inevitably, by force of their sheer numbers, bankrupt the system? Is Social Security a big Ponzi scheme that will leave future generations with little to show for their lifetime of contributions? Is the only way to solve the Social Security crisis through radical changes like privatization or bolstering it with massive new taxes?

According to the authors of this important new study, the answer to these questions is a resounding no. In Social Security: The Phony Crisis, economists Dean Baker and Mark Weisbrot argue that there is no economic, demographic, or actuarial basis for the widespread belief that the program needs to be fixed.

As the authors emphasize, there is virtually no disagreement about the facts of Social Security's finances, or even the projections for its future. Rather, the Social Security debate has been foundering on misconceptions, confusion, and lack of agreement on the meaning of crucial terms.

The authors also take on related issues: that privatization would help save Social Security, that America has a pressing need to increase its national savings, and that future generations will suffer from the costs--especially for health care--of supporting a growing elderly population.

As New York Times columnist Fred Brock recently wrote, "So-called reform of the Social Security system is looking more and more like a solution in search of a problem." In this accessible and insightful work, Baker and Weisbrot seek to cut through some of the myths and fallacies surrounding this crucial policy issue.

"The authors challenge basic assumptions with vigor and intelligence. . . . An absolutely relevant and important analysis, presented with force and clarity, that asks, basically, what kind of a nation we really are."--Kirkus Reviews

"[P]roponents-like George W. Bush-of Social Security privatization . . . typically ignore prospects for a stagnant or falling stock market. In Social Security: The Phony Crisis, [Baker and Weisbrot] show how a falling stock market could place pressure on both future Social Security payments and privatization schemes because earnings from the trust fund could actually fall."-Jeff Madrick, New York Review of Books