Social Security isn’t the only cause of America’s fiscal problems, but it is Exhibit A in why it is so hard to fix them. No serious solution to our debt can ignore a program that will tax and spend about 4.8 percent of GDP this year and account for about 20 percent of all federal spending — and that within a few decades will count almost a third of the population as beneficiaries. But it’s maddeningly difficult to have a reasoned conversation about Social Security when policymakers — let alone taxpayers and recipients — can’t agree on the program’s effect on the budget.
A handful of misconceptions tend to crop up repeatedly — often having to do with that fiscal fun-house mirror, the Social Security trust fund. And despite the efforts of writers like Allan Sloan and experts like the Urban Institute’s Eugene Steuerle, the myths won’t die. This column won’t kill them either, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take a whack. Here goes:
Myth: Social Security didn’t create the deficit — and shouldn’t be cut to close it
This is a much-loved progressive slogan. “Blaming Social Security for the deficit is like blaming Iraq for 9/11,” writes Dave Johnson of OurFuture.org in one of the cleverer examples of the genre.
Technically, the first part of the myth is true — or rather, used to be true. From 1983 until last year, Social Security revenues actually lowered the Treasury’s need to borrow in the public markets because the excess payroll taxes collected for the retirement system helped fund other government programs.
The surplus years are over, however. In 2010, payroll taxes fell short of sums paid out to beneficiaries, due largely to the recession. And while there may be small surpluses over the next few years, the deficits will resume permanently in 2015, as baby boomers begin to retire in droves. In other words, from here on out, year after year, Social Security only makes the deficit larger.
Myth: Social Security benefits are earned; reducing them amounts to confiscation
It’s not hard to see why this illusion exists, since Social Security’s own website refers to “earned credits” and implies that people “vest” in their benefits at a certain age. Taxpayers involuntarily pay into what appears to be a dedicated Social Security fund, much like a defined pension plan. But despite Social Security’s fetish for language that echoes private pensions, no one ever “vests” in the system. You don’t own your benefits until you cash the check. And the taxes you pay aren’t actually earmarked for Social Security, since the government has spent the surpluses since 1983 on anything it liked.
It’s more accurate to say your benefits are an entitlement granted by act of Congress (just like Medicare) and subject to change at any time by another act of Congress. As long as voters consider benefits inviolate, they will be. But when voters decide fiscal responsibility is more important, then Social Security benefits — “earned” or not — will be up for review.
Myth: Social Security is funded until 2037
The Social Security trust fund is large enough that the program need not ask for extra money to pay benefits until 2037, the year that the trust fund “runs dry” if nothing changes. But that’s not the same as being funded — at least not in a way that has any economic meaning.
As you might know, the trust fund consists of IOUs from the Treasury to the Social Security system. When Social Security needs money beyond what it expects to collect in payroll taxes, it can redeem some of these IOUs. But it’s not as if the trust fund is like having a giant 401(k). It’s more like having daddy’s credit card.
What that means is that Social Security can get what it needs from Treasury without having to ask permission from Congress. But when it redeems one of these IOUs, the Treasury has to come up the money the old-fashioned way, by raising taxes or, more likely, borrowing from the public.