Even though last night’s Republican debate featured precious little discussion of the size of the candidates’ hands, there was plenty to be disappointed and angered by. The moment that perturbed me the most was when CNN’s Dana Bash, who ought to know better, said that “Social Security is projected to run out of money within 20 years.”
The discussion about America’s most successful and beloved social program had some interesting implications for the general election. But before we get to that, I need to say this slowly and clearly, so there’s no misunderstanding:
Social Security is not going to “run out of money.”
The idea that the program is going to “run out of money” or is “going broke” is a zombie lie, one that deserves to have its head lopped off with a quick slice of Michonne’s katana.
We’re going to have to get a little wonky for a bit, but I’ll try to make this as painless as possible. The short version: under the worst-case scenario, meaning that a poor economy in coming years deprives the system of money and no changes to the program’s financing are made, then Social Security recipients will find themselves getting smaller checks than they ought to. And that would be a bad thing — if you rely on Social Security as your main or only source of income, it would be terrible to get only 77 percent of what you should (I’ll reveal why I’m using that number in a moment).
But if the program were only able to deliver 77 percent of its benefits, it would not be “broke” or have “run out of money.” When the entitlement doomsayers use those words, they want everyone to believe that the program will be, well, broke, which would mean it would be able to pay nothing to the recipients. And that’s a lie.
Let’s remind ourselves how this program works. Workers pay Social Security taxes, which are then distributed to today’s recipients as benefits. But when the taxes (and the interest the program earns on the bonds it holds) exceed the benefits, what’s left over goes into a trust fund, commonly known as the “Social Security surplus.” According to the latest report from the Social Security Trustees, in 2014 the program took in $769 billion and paid out $714 billion. The extra $55 billion went into the trust fund, which at the end of that year contained $2.729 trillion.
We’re going to need the trust fund, because the very large Baby Boom generation has just started to retire, meaning more people are going to be drawing benefits. The Trustees’ projections say that starting in 2020, the program will take in less than it’s paying out, and the trust fund will be exhausted in 2035.
Now this is important: the whole point of the trust fund is to be there when that year’s taxes aren’t enough to pay that year’s benefits. When we take money out of the trust fund, it isn’t some kind of crisis, it’s the system working as it was intended.
But won’t the system be “broke” in 2035? No. Under these projections, in 2035 we’d only be paying out to recipients what we take in through taxes. At that point, recipients would get paid only 77 percent of their promised benefits.
As I said, this would be a very bad thing. But is it going to happen? It’s important to remember that the trustees make projections, so there’s a good deal of uncertainty around the numbers. It all depends on what kinds of assumptions you make about the future, particularly on what you think the economy will look like. If the economy is stronger, that means more tax revenue coming in, and the program can pay more benefits; if the economy is weaker, the program has more challenges.
Because of that uncertainty, the Trustees actually make three sets of projections, what they call high-cost, low-cost, and intermediate. It’s the intermediate one that everyone reports, and that’s where the date of 2035 and the figure of 77 percent of benefits come from. Without going too deeply into it, everything depends on how optimistic or pessimistic you want to be about America’s economic future, in terms of things like economic growth, productivity growth, and unemployment. Many people argue that the Trustees are unduly pessimistic about the future, and the most realistic projection is not the intermediate one but the one they call low-cost. And under that projection, the surplus never runs out, and we have plenty of funds to pay all benefits essentially forever, or at least for the next 75 years, which is how far out they attempt to project.
We aren’t going to settle that right now, but there’s an important piece of this to understand, which is that here in Washington, the opinion of Very Serious People is that Social Security is headed for disaster (along with Medicare, which is its own story), and the only thing to do is to either make people wait longer until they retire or cut their benefits. Indeed, proclaiming that you want to do one of those two things (or both) is in some circles how you demonstrate that you’re Very Serious about this issue. There is an entire mini-industry of think-tanks and advocates devoted to convincing lawmakers and the public that entitlements are a disaster in the making, so we need to cut them.
But there are other ways you could solve the problem, if it indeed turns out to be a problem. You could increase the cap on Social Security taxes — right now you only pay them on the first $118,500 of your income, which means that someone earning below that pays 6.2 percent of their income in Social Security taxes, while a hedge fund manager making $11.8 million pays only .062 percent of his income. You could also increase the tax itself, say by a tenth of a percent per year over ten years, which people would find imperceptible. In other words, you could maintain (or even increase) benefits by bringing in more money.
In last night’s debate, Marco Rubio said: “Social Security will go bankrupt and it will bankrupt the country with it.” This is the kind of completely ridiculous fear-mongering that gets you rounds of applause from those who want to cut the program. He then explained that he wants to raise the retirement age from 66 to 70 and reduce benefits (but of course, he says these things will happen in the future and not affect current retirees, who vote in such high numbers and are rather protective of their benefits). Ted Cruz said that he wants to slow the rate of growth in benefits (they’re adjusted for the cost of living) and convert some part of them to stock market accounts. But it’s what Donald Trump said that’s genuinely interesting:
“The Democrats are doing nothing with Social Security. They’re leaving it the way it is. In fact, they want to increase it. They want to actually give more. And that’s what we’re up against. And whether we like it or not, that is what we’re up against.“I will do everything within my power not to touch Social Security, to leave it the way it is; to make this country rich again; to bring back our jobs; to get rid of deficits; to get rid of waste, fraud and abuse, which is rampant in this country, rampant, totally rampant. And it’s my absolute intention to leave Social Security the way it is. Not increase the age and to leave it as is.“You have 22 years, you have a long time to go. It’s not long in terms of what we’re talking about, but it’s still a long time to go, and I want to leave Social Security as is, I want to make our country rich again so we can afford it.”
Strip away all the Trumpian bluster, and what you have is 1) a pledge not to cut benefits or raise the retirement age; and 2) the assurance that the program’s cost will be covered because the economy will perform well. Trump sounds an awful lot like…a liberal!
When Trump says, “that’s what we’re up against,” he seems to be saying that because the Democrats want to increase benefits, they’ll be able to present themselves as the program’s protectors and criticize Republicans for trying to undermine it (unless he’s the nominee). And about that, he’s right. Democrats will do that, because that’s what they almost always do. It’s usually an effective attack, both because Americans love Social Security, and because it’s true.
So how does Trump compare to the Democrats, and what is the debate on this issue in the general election going to look like? Bernie Sanders’ position is that benefits should be expanded, particularly since so many Americans lack retirement savings. He has proposed keeping the cap, but having the tax kick in again above $250,000, essentially inserting a “doughnut hole” in the tax; he has also suggested applying the tax to wealthy households’ investment income, and not just wages as it is now. Hillary Clinton has a similar, though less detailed, position: she rules out increasing the retirement age or cutting benefits, and wants to raise the cap to some unspecified level in order to increase some benefits.
Trump has broken with Republican orthodoxy in a few areas where Republican orthodoxy is deeply unpopular, and this is one of them. He probably has the political calculation right: it will be hard for Clinton or Sanders to go after him on Social Security when he’s pledging to protect it without any changes. They’re not going to move to his right on the issue, and while they’ve staked out a position somewhat to his left, he’ll be offering much the same result, without having to pay for it. A tax increase, he’ll say, won’t be necessary because when I’m president gold will practically fall from the sky.
Is that going to work? Frankly, I suspect it will, at least in taking Social Security off the table as an issue of contention between the two party nominees. But don’t worry — the Democrats will have plenty of other things to criticize him for.