Cross posted from The Stars Hollow Gazette
Paul Krugman summed it up best:
Jared Bernstein and Dean Baker are both mad, understandably, at Robert Samuelson, who pulls out, for the 7 millionth time, the old Social Security bait and switch. Here’s how it works: to make the quite mild financial shortfall of Social Security seem apocalyptic, the writer starts out by talking about Social Security, then starts using numbers that combine SS with the health care programs – programs that are very different in conception, financing, and solutions.
And then the writer ends by demanding that we cut Social Security, as opposed to addressing health care costs. [..]
Let us reason together*: the dire fate we’re supposed to fear is that future benefits won’t be as high as scheduled; and in order to avert that fate we must, um, guarantee through immediate action that future benefits won’t be as high as scheduled. Yay! Wait, what?
Dean Baker slices and dices the factless Mr. Samuelson who apparently hates anything that helps keep people out of poverty which both Social Security and Medicare have done. Mr. Baker gives us the straight facts:
Mr. Samuelson’s first point was to tell the readers that Social Security is “welfare” and that payroll taxes are not segregated into a special fund. And as usual he is complexly wrong, from Mr. Baker:
Payroll taxes have been segregated. That is the point of the Social Security trust fund and the Social Security trustees report. These institutions would make no sense if the funds were not segregated.
Samuelson is welcome to not like the way in which the funds were segregated, in the same way that I don’t like the Yankees, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Yankees have a very good baseball team. Since its beginnings, the government has maintained a separate Social Security account. Under the law, no money can be paid out in Social Security benefits unless the Trust Fund has the money to pay for them.
Another falsehood from Mr. Samuelson that was highlighted by Mr. Baker was this gem:
In 1960, there were five workers per recipient; today, there are three, and by 2025 the ratio will approach two. Roosevelt’s fear has materialized. Paying all benefits requires higher taxes, cuts in other programs or large deficits.
But as Mr. Baker says:
On average we were much richer in the 90s than in the sixties, in spite of the fall in the ratio of workers to retirees. The same will be true in 2030, even assuming that we see the projected decline in the ratio of workers to retirees.
A small fact that Samuelson never mentions in this piece is that the Congressional Budget Office projects the program to be fully funded through 2038, with no changes whatsoever (i.e. no new taxes, contra Samuelson). If we want to make the program fully solvent for the rest of the century, a tax increase that is equal to 5 percent of projected wage growth over the next three decades should be roughly sufficient to do the trick. Are you scared yet?
Finally Mr. Samuels ends with this nonsense:
Although new recipients have paid payroll taxes higher and longer than their predecessors, their benefits still exceed taxes paid even assuming (again, fictitiously) that they had been invested. A two-earner couple with average wages retiring in 2010 would receive lifetime Social Security and Medicare benefits worth $906,000 compared with taxes of $704,000, estimate Steuerle and Rennane.
Sounds serious, but it isn’t. From Mr. Baker:
Remember we were talking about Social Security? Note that Samuelson refers to “lifetime Social Security and Medicare benefits.” It wasn’t an accident that he brought Medicare into this discussion. That is because Steuerle and Rennane’s calculations show that this average earning couple would get back less in Social Security benefits than what they paid in taxes. That would not fit well with Samuelson’s story, so he brings in Medicare (remember this is the Washington Post).
Mr. Baker points out that the reason Medicare costs are so high “is due to the fact that we pay our doctors, our drug companies, and our medical equipment suppliers way more than do people in any other country, and we have no better outcomes.”
And Jared Bernstein further debunks Mr. Samuel’s falsehoods with facts from the CBPP (pdf):
– The trustees estimate that the combined Social Security trust funds will be exhausted in 2036 -a year earlier than they forecast in last year’s report.
– After 2036, Social Security could pay three-fourths of scheduled benefits using its annual tax income [Samuelson implies all benefits expire in three years!]. Those who fear that Social Security won’t be around when today’s young workers retire misunderstand the trustees’ projections.
– The program’s shortfall is relatively modest, amounting to 0.8 percent of GDP over the next 75 years (and 1.45 percent of GDP in 2085). A mix of tax increases and benefit modifications – carefully crafted to shield recipients of limited means and to give ample notice to all participants – could put the program on a sound footing indefinitely.
– The 75-year Social Security shortfall is only slightly larger than the cost, over that period, of extending the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts for the richest 2 percent of Americans (those with incomes above $250,000 a year).
And Mr. Baker has noted that the projected shortfall for the Medicare program “over the program’s 75-year planning horizon is less than 0.4 percent of GDP. This is less than one quarter of the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Strange country this USA that elects politicians who want to fund wars and cut taxes for the wealthy but not provide health care or the pension (Social Security) that has been fully funded by the recipients. Very strange