This is a short, but excellent column by Robert Samuelson, noted economist. The irony of the both the left and right (at least the man on the street), is that most polls show their support for program reduction to be minimal–when the programs impact them.
There has much that has been written about the distortions in health care costs caused by the current third-payer regime, which includes Medicare and our individual and group policies. They same is true on Social Security. The benefits generally far exceed an expected compound return rate for a pension. So, people are already receiving far more than was paid in.
More importantly, this statistic doesn’t really matter. The program was designed to prevent old-age poverty–principally for those who couldn’t save, didn’t have the behavioral capacity to save, or through catastrophe (widowed, etc.) were left without the ability to provide for their own retirement.
Our nation experienced two concurrent demographic/economic experiences in the post WWII period; a unipolar dominance in economic and military stature and a massive growth in a young population which drove productivity, and our gross production.
In my opinion, we did not simultaneously prepare for a “Post American Century,” and whether this comes to pass or not, we are not likely to enjoy either the demographics or the economic dominance of the past seven decades.
This means economic tension and adjustment–and this is the nexus of the entitlement debate.
In a recent column on the senior-citizen lobby, I noted that Social Security is often “middle-class welfare” that bleeds the country. This offended many readers. In an email, one snarled: “Social Security is not adding one penny to our national debt, you idiot.” Others were more dignified: “Let’s refrain from insulting individuals who have worked all their lives … by insinuating that [their] earned benefits are welfare.” Some argued that Social Security, with a $2.6 trillion trust fund, doesn’t contribute to our budgetary problem at all.
Wrong. As a rule, I don’t use one column to comment on another. But I’m making an exception because the issue is so important. Recall that Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, the main programs for the elderly, exceed 40 percent of federal spending. Exempting them from cuts—as polls indicate many Americans prefer—would ordain huge deficits, steep tax increases, or draconian reductions in other programs. That’s a disastrous formula for the future.
We don’t call Social Security “welfare” because it’s a pejorative term and politicians don’t want to offend. So they classify Social Security as something else, when it isn’t. Here’s how I define a welfare program: first, it taxes one group to support another group, meaning it’s pay-as-you-go and not a contributory scheme where people’s own savings pay their later benefits; and second, Congress can constantly alter benefits, reflecting changing needs, economic conditions, and politics. Social Security qualifies on both counts.
Similarly, Congress has repeatedly altered benefits. From 1950 to 1972, it increased them nine times, including a doubling in the early 1950s. In 1972, benefits were indexed to inflation. People didn’t complain when benefits rose, but possible cuts now trigger howls that a “contract” is being broken. Not so, according to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 1960 decision (Flemming v. Nestor), the court expressly rejected the argument that people have a contractual right to Social Security, citing the 1935 Social Security Act (“The right to alter, amend, or repeal any provision of this Act is hereby reserved to Congress”). Congress can change the program whenever it wants.
Contrary to the Obama administration, Social Security affects our larger budget problem. Annual benefits already exceed payroll taxes. The gap will grow. The trust fund holds Treasury bonds; when these are redeemed, the needed cash can be raised only by borrowing, taxing, or cutting other programs. The connection between Social Security and the rest of the budget is brutally direct. As important, how we treat Social Security will affect how we treat Medicare.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, House Speaker John Boehner indicated last week that Republicans may challenge popular attitudes on entitlements; President Obama should do likewise. It is because these programs are middle-class welfare that cuts can be made without inflicting widespread hardship. All the elderly aren’t poor. In 2008, a quarter of households headed by people 65 and over had incomes exceeding $75,000. No doubt people would feel misused. They paid their taxes, why can’t they get all their promised benefits? Because people have been misled, they’re legitimately disillusioned. But the alternative of imposing all the burdens on younger taxpayers and other government programs is much worse. Shared sacrifice is a meaningless concept if it excludes older Americans.
- Social Security and Pie! (angrybearblog.com)
- Major Reforms To Entitlements Can’t Be Put Off (investors.com)
- Is Alan Greenspan a Social Security Scapegoat? (businessinsider.com)
- You: Social Security Is Middle-Class Welfare (newsweek.com)
- Enough with the budget baloney! (salon.com)
- Privatizing Social Security: Haven’t We all Seen This particular Film Before? (wealthvest.com)
- Class And Social Security (krugman.blogs.nytimes.com)