If Fixing Social Security Were Easy, It Would Already Be Done

by JoeTheEconomist May 7, 2013 5:48 AM

If fixing Social Security were easy, it would already be done.  Politicians are paid to hide problems, not solutions from the electorate. 

Nonetheless, the mainstream media continues to say that Social Security is an easy fix.  Typically the line runs something like “Social Security has become the focal point of entitlement debate because it's so easy to find different ways to address its funding problems.”  Basically, the hardest part of fixing Social Security is choosing from so many different options. 

A lot of the ease comes from changing the meaning of words.  The first word to lose its meaning is the word ‘fixed’.  Normally, the word ‘fixed’ means that there is no problem. In the Social Security debate, the word fixed means solvent, or the cost to make our problem a problem for our children.  Solvent and fixed are about 12 trillion dollars apart.  So, saying that fixing Social Security is easy, essentially is comparable to saying it is easy to run a 4 minute mile without telling anyone that the mile is actually only a 100 yards long.

The debate about fixing Social Security isn’t about fixing the system.  It is about paying for it.  The discussion is entirely about increasing revenue or decreasing expense.  The best example of this false dichotomy is the discussion of the COLA change to Chain-CPI.  Social Security is intended to be old-age insurance.  Yet, we are looking at a ‘fix’ which progressively reduces benefits as one gets older.  In all honesty, this is no different than fixing a broken refrigerator by calling it a doorstop.

If we are going to increase revenue, we have to understand that there are three kinds of revenue in Social Security.  The Social Security Trust Fund is funded money.  Contributions are revenue financed with the promise of future benefits.  Finally there are taxes, or the part of the part of payroll taxes on which there is no economic return.  In terms of a house, the word ‘funded’ means that you own the house.  Financed revenue is the loan from the bank.  Tax revenue means that the bank bought the house for you out of the goodness of its heart.

None of these revenue sources provides a stable solution.  Today, the Trust Fund provides about a nickel or a dime per dollar of benefits, but that contribution will go away as the Trust Fund is depleted.  Increasing the level of contributions - say immigration reform - only creates the promise of larger benefits in the future.  This enables us to postpone our problem, but creates an even larger problem for our children. 

The only other type of money in the system is taxes which is a dangerous game for old-age insurance because taxes are a political priority.  FDR rejected this model.  In 1941, he said that the contributions were vital as a means to ensure workers ‘a legal, moral, and political’ right to benefits.  He understood that taxes are dependent upon shifting political priorities.  FDR saw that contributions were the only way to make sure that ‘no damn politician could ever scrap' his program.[1] 

The other problem with increasing tax revenue for Social Security is that it makes it more difficult to raising taxes to control the debt.  We aren't raising taxes as much as we are shifting the taxbase away from debt control to Social Security.  This strategy preserves the debt load for the future generations on whom Social Security depends.

Decreasing benefits is possible, but it is difficult to sell.  The reality of decreasing benefits is that politicians would have to explain to voters that they never made a contribution on which they can expect to collect benefits.  They actually paid a tax on which they collect nothing.  This alternative is very difficult because these same politicians are the ones who have said for years that there is no problem in Social Security.

Every easy solution has a loser, and trying to convince that person that losing is winning is never easy.  So how does the media get back to easy.  We cut the benefits of future generations, and raise taxes on future generations.  It is easy to say that future generations will pay taxes that we will not.  It is easy to say future generations will accept benefit cuts that we will not.  In that context, it is very easy to say that Social Security is easy to fix. 

1 :  The exact quote is : "(Contributions) are politics all the way through. We put those pay roll contributions there so as to give the contributors a legal, moral, and political right to collect their pensions and their unemployment benefits. With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program. Those taxes aren’t a matter of economics, they’re straight politics.” (source)

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