Memo to Obama: No Rush to "Fix" Social Security


Despite the defeat of President Bush's attempt to partially privatize Social Security, the mass misunderstanding of America's largest and most successful anti-poverty program persists. This was evident on Sunday's Meet the Press with Tim Russert, which was devoted to an interview with Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama.

Obama is no enemy of Social Security. But like most of the country, he is misinformed on this issue. So he is going after his opponent, Hillary Clinton, for saying "if we just get our fiscal house in order that we can solve the problem of Social Security."

Obama told Russert: "Now, we've got 78 million baby boomers that are going to be retiring, and every expert that looks at this problem says 'There's going to be a gap, and we're going to have more money going out than we have coming in unless we make some adjustments now.'"

In fact, there is not the least bit of urgency regarding Social Security, and it would be best to take the issue off the table entirely until we have at least a few years of public education. Some of that public education took place during the grass-roots campaign that defeated President Bush's attempt to partially privatize the program in 2005. The President was forced within weeks to stop using the word "crisis" to describe Social Security's finances. But it was not nearly enough. Many journalists and editors remain confused, and therefore so is the citizenry.

In fact, the first cohort of baby boomers (those born in 1946) will begin retiring in just a couple of months, since many people take their Social Security at age 62 (with a correspondingly reduced benefit). Our Y2K moment is upon us, and nothing will happen - because the baby boomers' retirement has already been financed.

Back in 1983, when Social Security really was running out of money, with just a few months of payments on hand, Congress raised the payroll tax substantially. This was done deliberately in order to pile up a surplus to finance the baby boomers' retirement. And so it did: that accumulated surplus stands at more than two trillion dollars today, and is increasing at a rate of $190 billion annually.

As a result of this surplus, all the baby boomers' will have retired before Social Security runs into a projected shortfall in 2041. That is according to the Social Security's (mostly Republican-appointed) Trustees. According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, Social Security can pay all promised benefits even longer, until 2046. By either date, most baby boomers will be dead, and almost all of the rest retired, before there is a problem.

Of course, there are some who maintain that the surplus "has been spent," that the Social Security Trust Fund "doesn't exist," and so on. These stories should be given all the credibility of reports about "Bat Boy" sightings in the Weekly World News. But unfortunately they are often taken seriously in the major media.

To say that Social Security's surplus "has been spent," is like saying that when you buy a U.S. government bond, your money "has been spent." Whatever has been done with the money, you are still holding a bond, and you will get your interest and principal so long as there is a US government. If there is no US government when you retire, well then you will have other things to worry about than Social Security, including your private savings.

Even accepting that there could be a shortfall after 2046, it is not much to lose sleep about. The projected shortfall over Social Security's whole 75-year planning period is less than what we fixed in each of the decades of the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

In fact, even if nothing were ever done to close the projected gap - and that is a wildly implausible scenario - Social Security would, after 2046 still have enough money to pay, indefinitely, a bigger benefit than it does today. That's in real terms, adjusted for inflation. Of course, this benefit would be less than what seniors in the distant future would be entitled to, so we will eventually make some adjustments. But there's no hurry.

The fact that a major Democratic presidential candidate could attack the front-runner in 2007, for not proposing a solution to a problem that is so relatively small and uncertain and nearly four decades away, is testimony to the power and durability of well-financed right-wing propaganda -- especially when there is no matching effort on the other side. The right spent more than two decades, and millions of dollars, discrediting Social Security with nothing more than verbal and accounting tricks - they never even bothered to make their own projections to compete with Social Security's Trustees. Some of the money that altered public opinion came straight from Wall Street financial firms who stood to make a fortune from privatization.

These efforts should be regarded as one of the most successful disinformation campaigns in modern history. These people managed to convince tens of millions of Americans that they are never going to see their Social Security benefits, an event about as probable as the United States disappearing from the political map. This is especially impressive, given that Social Security is not like some country halfway around the world that most Americans could not find on a map. Social Security is an immensely popular program, and one that delivers a check each month to about one-sixth of the population.

Hopefully this non-issue will soon disappear from the presidential campaign. We can revisit it a few years from now, after everyone has had a chance to look at the numbers.

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