Monday, January 20, 2014

Austerity's Strange Logic

I have had a few things to say about Social Security over the years (including here, and here). My prime concerns have focused on how mischaracterized it is as a drag on the federal debt, which it isn't, and how successful it has been, despite repeated and wildly inaccurate claims to the contrary.

A recent article by Marty Wolfson has helped put some perspective on how Social Security works, and why current attempts, by Republicans mostly, but also by some Democrats, to curtail it in the name of austerity is so wrong. When speaking of the federal debt, Wolfson reminds us that: 

Two quick points should be noted here: 1) Recall the long-standing theme presented mostly by Republicans who howl that social security will run out of money by (insert scary date here), and use that questionable assertion as evidence that social security does not work, and that the solution is to either privatize it or cut benefits immediately. The implication is that cutting benefits will reduce the Social Security payout and thus increase its viability. Two) Although supporters of social security like to point out, correctly, that the program pays for itself, by law, through contributions, I now think I see why conservatives believe the system adds to the federal debt. By law, paid-in Social Security contributions don't sit in a shoe box, nor are they invested in stocks, like Wall Street would like. The US government takes the $ billions in cash it receives each year and puts it in Treasury securities. As Wolfson puts it:

The $17 trillion (federal debt) figure is a measure of “gross debt,” which means that it includes debt owed by the U.S. Treasury to more than 230 other U.S. government agencies and trust funds. On the consolidated financial statements of the federal government, this intragovernmental debt is, in effect, canceled out. Basically, this is money the government owes itself. What is left is termed “debt held by the public.” It is this measure of debt that is relevant to a possible increase in interest rates due to competition for funding between the private and public sectors. It is also the category of government debt used by the Congressional Budget Office and other analysts. (Of course, the full economic significance of any debt measure needs to be considered in context, in relationship to the income available to service the debt.) The total debt held by the public is $12 trillion. 
The Social Security Trust Fund comprises $2.7 trillion of the total $5 trillion of various US Treasury debt instruments held in those myriad intragovernmental accounts. Not bad for a governmental agency that is supposedly going broke.
Social Security accumulated all these Treasury securities because of the way that its finances are organized. Social Security benefits to retirees (and to the disabled) are paid for by a payroll tax of 12.4 % on workers’ wages (with 6.2% paid by the worker and 6.2% paid by the employer), up to a limit, currently $113,700. If, in any year, Social Security revenue is greater than what is needed to pay current retiree benefits, the surplus must, by law, be invested in Treasury securities (most of which are “special obligation bonds” issued only to the Social Security Trust Fund).
So why are the calls for austerity so ill-advised?  And why is it so obvious to those of us who bother to research the issues (and have a coherent analytic framework, but I digress) see that "fixing" Social Security is not the true objective? The fact that the program is running up large surpluses which then must be parked in Treasury securities sounds good in a way; surpluses sound better than deficits, which would surely drive fiscal hawks crazy. I'm guessing that some congressional supporters in years past helped to ensure a surplus condition so that conservative critics would have less to bitch about. No such luck, for now the critics bemoan the large surplus the Social Security Trust Fund now maintains, though they invariably just call it debt, and then they still insist that the money will run out in, what?, 28 years? 75 years? As if suddenly there were no adjusting allowed, as we have successfully done in the past.

Here is the simple reality. The Social Security Trust Fund was not envisioned to have such large surpluses as it currently has. The fact that there is a meaningful surplus is a signal that contributions are unnecessarily high, or that the payout in benefits is needlessly low, or some combination of the two.

As Wolfson writes: 
Therefore the $2.7 trillion of Treasury securities held by the Trust Fund came about not because entitlements are out of control and the government has been forced to borrow to meet retiree benefits, but rather because future retirees have paid more taxes than necessary to meet benefit obligations. Workers have essentially been prepaying into the Trust Fund in order to provide for their future benefits.
The most pointedly ignorant response, the one that Congressional Republicans keep making, is to suggest that we cut benefits. Doing so will only serve to drive the imbalance further by decreasing the outflow of benefits and further increasing the need to issue or maintain Treasury securities for the inflow of money earmarked for future claims. It is precisely the opposite of what austerity proponents claim. A far more useful solution would be to increase benefits, and pump more money into the economy and at the same time reduce the need to buy ever more Treasury securities. 

A careful reading of Republican proposals and positions makes it clear that actually fixing most government institutions, programs, or issues, is no longer that party's objective, certainly not with this tea bagging crowd. The most jaw-droppingly obvious solutions, which have worked well in the past, are studiously avoided, and kept from the public, the media, and legislative consideration. And that is because the objective, not of all conservatives, but of true Tea Party devotees, is to emasculate the federal government. Those who actually read American history know this has always been the case.

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