Looting Social Security
Is Social Security threatened by entitlement reformers? David M. Walker, president and CEO of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation responds to William Greider's essay here. Read William Greider's answer to Peterson's criticism here.
Governing elites in Washington and Wall Street have devised a fiendishly clever "grand bargain" they want President Obama to embrace in the name of "fiscal responsibility." The government, they argue, having spent billions on bailing out the banks, can recover its costs by looting the Social Security system. They are also targeting Medicare and Medicaid. The pitch sounds preposterous to millions of ordinary working people anxious about their economic security and worried about their retirement years. But an impressive armada is lined up to push the idea--Washington's leading think tanks, the prestige media, tax-exempt foundations, skillful propagandists posing as economic experts and a self-righteous billionaire spending his fortune to save the nation from the elderly.
These players are promoting a tricky way to whack Social Security benefits, but to do it behind closed doors so the public cannot see what's happening or figure out which politicians to blame. The essential transaction would amount to misappropriating the trillions in Social Security taxes that workers have paid to finance their retirement benefits. This swindle is portrayed as "fiscal reform." In fact, it's the political equivalent of bait-and-switch fraud.
Defending Social Security sounds like yesterday's issue--the fight people won when they defeated George W. Bush's attempt to privatize the system in 2005. But the financial establishment has pushed it back on the table, claiming that the current crisis requires "responsible" leaders to take action. Will Obama take the bait? Surely not. The new president has been clear and consistent about Social Security, as a candidate and since his election. The program's financing is basically sound, he has explained, and can be assured far into the future by making only modest adjustments.
But Obama is also playing footsie with the conservative advocates of "entitlement reform" (their euphemism for cutting benefits). The president wants the corporate establishment's support on many other important matters, and he recently promised to hold a "fiscal responsibility summit" to examine the long-term costs of entitlements. That forum could set the trap for a "bipartisan compromise" that may become difficult for Obama to resist, given the burgeoning deficit. If he resists, he will be denounced as an old-fashioned free-spending liberal. The advocates are urging both parties to hold hands and take the leap together, authorizing big benefits cuts in a circuitous way that allows them to dodge the public's blame. In my new book, Come Home, America, I make the point: "When official America talks of 'bipartisan compromise,' it usually means the people are about to get screwed."
The Social Security fight could become a defining test for "new politics" in the Obama era. Will Americans at large step up and make themselves heard, not to attack Obama but to protect his presidency from the political forces aligned with Wall Street interests? This fight can be won if people everywhere raise a mighty din--hands off our Social Security money!--and do it now, before the deal gains momentum. Popular outrage can overwhelm the insiders and put members of Congress on notice: a vote to gut Social Security will kill your career. By organizing and agitating, people blocked Bush's attempt to privatize Social Security. Imagine if he had succeeded--their retirement money would have disappeared in the collapsing stock market.
To understand the mechanics of this attempted swindle, you have to roll back twenty-five years, to the time the game of bait and switch began, under Ronald Reagan. The Gipper's great legislative victory in 1981--enacting massive tax cuts for corporations and upper-income ranks--launched the era of swollen federal budget deficits. But their economic impact was offset by the huge tax increase that Congress imposed on working people in 1983: the payroll tax rate supporting Social Security--the weekly FICA deduction--was raised substantially, supposedly to create a nest egg for when the baby boom generation reached retirement age. A blue-ribbon commission chaired by Alan Greenspan worked out the terms, then both parties signed on. Since there was no partisan fight, the press portrayed the massive tax increase as a noncontroversial "good government" reform.
Ever since, working Americans have paid higher taxes on their labor wages--12.4 percent, split between employees and employers. As a result, the Social Security system has accumulated a vast surplus--now around $2.5 trillion and growing. This is the money pot the establishment wants to grab, claiming the government can no longer afford to keep the promise it made to workers twenty-five years ago.
Actually, the government has already spent their money. Every year the Treasury has borrowed the surplus revenue collected by Social Security and spent the money on other purposes--whatever presidents and Congress decide, including more tax cuts for monied interests. The Social Security surplus thus makes the federal deficits seem smaller than they are--around $200 billion a year smaller. Each time the government dipped into the Social Security trust fund this way, it issued a legal obligation to pay back the money with interest whenever Social Security needed it to pay benefits.
That moment of reckoning is approaching. Uncle Sam owes these trillions to Social Security retirees and has to pay it back or look like just another deadbeat. That risk is the only "crisis" facing Social Security. It is the real reason powerful interests are so anxious to cut benefits. Social Security is not broke--not even close. It can sustain its obligations for roughly forty years, according to the Congressional Budget Office, even if nothing is changed. Even reports by the system's conservative trustees say it has no problem until 2041 (that report is signed by former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, the guy who bailed out the bankers). During the coming decade, however, the system will need to start drawing on its reserve surpluses to pay for benefits as boomers retire in greater numbers.
But if the government cuts the benefits first, it can push off repayment far into the future, and possibly forever. Otherwise, government has to borrow the money by selling government bonds or extend the Social Security tax to cover incomes above the current $107,000 ceiling. Obama endorses the latter option.