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Adult Conversation

by Ouida on November 17, 2010


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I finally got one! An iPad. As I write this, I am sitting in a Starbucks in San Francisco. This town should be called iTown. The woman sitting next to me on my right is typing into her Macbook Pro while listening to music on her iPad. The woman on my immediate left is using a Windows-based PC. On her lap is an iPhone.

What inspired this blog post? A Washington Post article of a few weeks ago called The Republicans Prepare Their Agenda of Less. In the article, a member of the Tea Party spoke of the need to address the looming issues of Social Security and Medicare and have an “adult conversation” with the American People.

Several months ago, I wrote a series of articles about why Medicare sucks. I am still getting comments about those articles. I wrote about the budget in those articles and that Medicare, in all its many parts, and Social Security represent represent tens of trillions of unmet obligations in the Federal budget. I also said that any attempts to address long term deficits would have to take into account those two programs and restructure them significantly if they are to remain solvent and if the American people are to continue to be able to afford them.

There are three things to remember about what I wrote:
1) Social Security and Medicare are paid for through payroll taxes. Every working individual, from the very old to the very young both rich and poor, pays into these programs. This is something that appeals to my sense of social justice, that is that everyone should pay for programs that everyone benefits from.
2) for the past 30 years the government has used receipts in excess of pay outs to fund general government operations. The excess receipts have been traded for government bonds. the interest payments alone are crippling. When people, ie, officials, talk about a trust fund, they are talking about money held in trust, except there isn’t money held in trust. There is money held in bonds, bonds that we don’t have the ability to repay, not at current income levels.
3) all discussions about Social Security are discussions about current income or current receipts, as example by the year 2037 to 2041 we will only take in enough income to pay out 75% of obligations. On the bright side this means that the government will stop misappropriating the people’s retirement funds to fund general government operations on the down side we will all wake up to the reality that that is what has been going on and there will likely be a significant public outcry.

The history of Social Security is outline well at http://www.ssa.gov/history It is worth a read fascinating, really. These documents hold the key to why we are in such trouble. Truthfully, everyone is to blame for the Social Security and Medicare mess. When the money was flowing and it wasn’t being borrowed against, it was too big a pile of cash not to spend. By 1950 cost of living adjustments and disability payments and survivor benefits were added. Health care was originally envisioned to be part of Social Security. It was not part of the original law, but along came Medicare in 1965. Politicians voted for the expansion of Social Security and Medicare at the urging of their constituents and no one thought about the long term consequences. Well, those consequences are here.

It is important to understand what Social Security was meant to do. It was originally called Social Insurance and it was intended to provide economic security against abject poverty. It was intended to keep people out of Alms or Poor Houses. The Great Depression was the third great economic dislocation this country experienced in about a century. It brought with it 25% unemployment and extreme poverty for many, savings were decimated and pensions were rare. Alms houses were funded by state governments to care for people in poverty, but state implementation of these programs was spotty, there was a significant stigma associated with accepting assistance from Alms houses, there was means testing and people were reluctant to receive help from what amounted to state-run welfare programs. When Social Security was enacted, it was not a popular program. The benefits, set at roughly 30 dollars, the amount intended to keep someone from becoming destitute, did not change for the first decade or so of the program. People felt that they could and would get more benefits from the state-run welfare programs. Social Security provided direct payments to states to bolster those programs. In the beginning, Social Security was simply another tax people paid that they perceived little benefit from. In order to increase the popularity of the program, payments began to increase and the retirement age was lowered from 65 in 1935 to 62 in 1950. Thirty dollars in 1935 has the same purchasing power of 470 dollars today, yet a recipient retiring at age 62 who has enough credits to qualify for full benefits will receive 1750 dollars, an amount more than 3 times greater than what Social Security was ever intended to pay our per individual. The machinations that took place in the 1950’s were successful; for a program that was intended to keep its eldest citizens from becoming destitute has become one of our largest entitlements. It is a program that has not kept pace with the realities of demography. In 1935 the life expectancy was 59 years today it is roughly 78. In 1935 people were only expected to spend a handful of years collecting Social Security. Today a recipient, retiring at age 62, may collect Social Security for 20 years or more.  The truth about the payroll tax is that it  has become a stealth income tax because income in excess of payments has been rolled into the general budget. Given that almost half of our citizenry pays no income taxes, yet everyone pays payroll tax, this is a form of tax justice I can live with.

What is the adult conversation our government needs to have with us? First we have to understand that it won’t be a conversation. This is what our government will have to say:
1) The party’s over
2) There is no trust fund and the trillions of dollars in IOUs the government has promised to pay Social Security will have to be forgiven.  What is a trust fund?  You can find the definition here.  I am sure you will agree when you read this that what is going on with Social Security does not meet the definition of “trust fund.” When I first wrote this, I went back to the Social Security site and went to the program solvency link FAQ’s.  When I read the FAQ section I was genuinely shocked.  See the solvency issue is really about what to do with stretching the current income being paid into Social Security.  No one wants to have the program redeem its bonds in large quantity to meet obligations because no one knows what would happen if Federal Bonds were redeemed.  Our government is already printing money at historic numbers to prop up the economy, how would it fare if investors showed up to say redeem 1 trillion dollars in bonds to fund Social Security obligations?  Where would the money come from to pay those bonds?  Right now the money that comes in is sufficient to allow the US government to roll over its debt as it relates to Social Security.
3) The retirement age will have to be between 70 and 72
4) Benefits will have to be reduced

I wonder if Americans are ready?

Please comment.

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