Thursday, March 31, 2011
READ THIS PLEASE: Sacred or Sacred Cow?
In hopes of getting author Josh Hilgart a wider audience, I've excerpted the important stuff. I urge you to go back to the original to read Josh's commentary after you ingest the bit below.
Context: Both sides of the aisle are calling for cuts to social security benefits as a means of cutting the deficit, as though it's obviously a bright idea. Josh says we're not getting full information because, when both sides sing the same song, the media has problems fact-checking. In reality, reducing benefits simply increases the amount of debt the nation can incur, and penalizes those who make under $106,000 a year - those of us who need it most - by taking part of their paid-in benefits away to subsidize government spending.
Read below and then don't sit on this. Post this onto your facebook wall, email the link around. This is very, very, very important.
What would the debate look like if the media started at the beginning, exploring first the merits of cutting Social Security before getting into how the program might be cut?
We would probably first consider what Social Security is: a 75-year-old public insurance program that allows us all to save just enough to avoid working to the grave for food, or moving in with our adult children out of destitution. It works spectacularly well, solving a problem that has always dogged humankind. Social Security grants dignity to hundreds of millions of aging Americans who would otherwise confront the less pleasant world that existed before the program.
That’s not all. Social Security is arguably the most stable, well-run government program in the United States. While other programs, like military spending, require new votes of money every single year, Social Security is running a surplus and will be over a hundred years old before it starts falling short of its obligations. Moreover, it would be solvent for many more years with only minor adjustments. It’s government at its best...
Social Security’s resilience stems partly from the politically savvy way in which it was created. It can’t be dismissed as a simple welfare program because it’s not a direct handout; ultimate benefits are based on your lifetime contributions. Further insulating it from charges of “income redistribution,” Social Security imposes taxes only on income corresponding to those deriving the greatest benefits: The tax is applied to income below $106,800. This is limited government with an American twist — you will be asked to pay in only so much, and what you get in the end is based on what you put in.
A couple of other facts about Social Security’s payouts warrant note. Unlike regular retirement accounts, Social Security distributions to retirees are not the same dollars those retirees paid in; like insurance, current benefits are funded by current contributions and interest derived through loans made to other programs (more on loans below). Related to this, while benefits are tied to individual contributions over a working life, payouts also take into account projections of future standards of living.
To fund the payouts, an independent tax — the payroll or FICA tax — was established (later including taxes for Medicare). This kept retiree benefits separate from the regular pot of money used for discretionary spending, and facilitated Social Security’s regressive tax rate, aimed at the middle class and poor who depend on the program. To get an idea of just how much this tax is tilted towards those who most benefit from the program, consider the following: unlike regular income taxes, a billionaire doesn’t pay a similar percentage, but the same dollar amount into Social Security as someone who earns $106,800. Put another way, a top hedge fund manager pays about 0.003 percent of his income into Social Security, while anyone earning less than $106,800 pays 12.4 percent — a rate over 4,000 times greater than that of the much wealthier hedge fund manager.
How does the structure of Social Security and its tax rates relate to our debate?.... The general consensus among “serious” people is that benefits must be taken away from those paying in, so that we can make up shortfalls in other pots of government money.
But taking into account the way it is taxed, any diversion of Social Security benefits towards balancing the general budget is a tax increase on those earning under $106,800. If the middle and lower classes are the ones who have been paying the highest tax rate into this pool of money, using this pool to offset shortfalls in our general income tax, instead of paying out benefits, would represent a systemic shift in tax liability for general spending. For all practical purposes, it would be a tax on benefits going to the poor and middle class, used to offset recent cuts in income tax for the rich.
....In all likelihood, this inequity is ignored precisely because it would spark outrage. If the public was exposed to regular debates about the tax implications of using Social Security benefits for regular spending, it might take that option off the table entirely. Indeed, the best excuse available to politicians and pundits who studiously conceal this tax hike on the common classes — the only possible excuse — would be that deficit reduction is such a critical priority that the public can’t be trusted with knowing the side effects of treatment.
But even this paternalistic excuse is full of holes, in light of another fact: not only would balancing the budget with cuts to Social Security sock working people, it wouldn’t even work.
Social Security’s surpluses have been used towards general expenditures for years, and it’s true that cutting benefits will increase the amount of surplus available. But Social Security is a separate and independent financial entity, which can only loan money to the federal government to fund general budget items. For the purposes of our deficits, Social Security is essentially a credit union constituted by the retirement savings of the American people. By law, the government can’t just spend your retirement savings on something else.
In fact, when our government takes money from Social Security to use on general expenditures, it must, under law, issue Treasury bills to the Social Security Trust Fund in return. This is basically identical to the way in which we borrow money from China. And like China, the only way to renege upon this loan would be to fail to honor the Treasury bills, which would destroy the value of every Treasury bill and with it the dollar itself.
There is no connection between the level of benefits that Social Security pays out and the debt that the government incurs when it borrows money from Social Security. Regardless of whether Congress slashes Social Security benefits or preserves them, national debt still goes up a billion dollars for every billion the government borrows from the program, the same as if it borrowed that money from China or anyplace else. Put plainly, cutting Social Security benefits will have only one immediate effect: reduced benefits. While benefit cuts would have a long-term impact on when Social Security revenues fail to match outlays (decades away, even with no change), they will have no impact whatsoever on annual deficits. None. Nada. Zip."
And there you have it. Again, folks, I urge you to use the share button at the right to spread this information around. Reducing benefits for you and for me simply increases the amount of debt the nation can incur.