Social Security – The 50 Year View

In the beginning of June, Social Security issued its annual Summary Report  noting that the primary trust fund for paying reserves will run out in 2034. Twelve years.

Sample Social Security Card
Whoops now I’ve doxxed Mr. Public

Also, I was reading this past week a book by Peter Ferrera published in 1980 called Social Security: The Inherent Contradiction.

In 1980, Ferrera forecast the trust fund would run out in 2030, to which I have two reactions. First – that’s some amazingly accurate forecasting of a complex actuarial system over the span of 50 years! Well done, actuaries. Second – you Boomers have had at least 42 years to fix this. Like, what the heck? I am first eligible for Social Security retirement payments in that same year, 2034. Coincidence? I’m a Gen X kid, I’m used to this kind of treatment by now. It’s fine. Really. I’m fine.

More seriously, the real thing we should understand about the trust fund is this: It’s a useful fiction. 

The trust fund isn’t particularly important. 

Benefits get paid from current Social Security payroll taxes. The government is not actually investing our dollars. Technically, yes, a partial and temporary surplus of payroll taxes gets parked in low-interest Treasurys, but by no means is this the real source of our Social Security payments.  It’s a pay-as-you-go system. Current workers pay for past workers.

In fact, understanding this is a fiction is the key to remaining calm about Social Security. Rather than panic, we should take comfort. The trust fund has never particularly mattered.

As Ferrera wrote in 1980, the idea itself of a trust fund is “a carefully contrived deception meant to mislead the public.”

Ferrera continued, “the entire purpose of this deception is to hide the welfare elements in the social security system and attempt to create the impression that social security is simply insurance without any welfare elements.” I agree. 

Whenever I write about Social Security I receive panicked (or conversely, overly certain) emails asking – or informing – me about the Ponzi scheme underlying our biggest government program. This is neither true nor helpful. Ponzi schemes are not backed by mandatory payroll taxes. Social Security is. 

I 100 percent do not worry about Social Security running out of money. It’s never been a true trust fund. Rather, it has always been primarily “pay as you go,” transferring tax dollars from current workers to current retirees.

Ferrara’s big idea from 1980 was that Social Security has two functions, insurance and welfare. Most Americans focus on the insurance aspect, in which they think they pay into the system during their working years and they think they get a return on investment back in retirement years. That insurance function is the fakery, and the trust fund a symbolic misdirection to assist in the legerdemain. The true function of Social Security is a welfare transfer.

Although I haven’t spoken with Ferrera, I’m certain we disagree on whether the welfare element is good. I think it is. He thinks it is not.

A not-sufficiently-understood aspect of Social Security benefits is that it deeply favors modest lifetime incomes over higher incomes, when it comes to benefits. This is partly accomplished through “bend points,” which mean Social Security pays based on 90 percent of an extremely modest lifetime salary, 32 percent of a medium lifetime salary, and only 15 percent of higher earnings. I’m simplifying the language around these “bend points,” but the idea is that the welfare benefit of Social Security favors the neediest. To match this focus on welfare, annual income above a certain amount ($147K in 2022) is not taxed for Social Security.

I am confident that in my own life, under reasonable assumptions, I would have achieved a greater net worth if I had never been taxed for Social Security and instead had invested those funds myself. The “welfare” part of Social Security will turn out to be a net loss for me, personally. 

For most of my fellow citizens however, the welfare benefit of Social Security is a net gain. And that’s fine by me. This is socialism and should be understood as such. 

I say that not as a diss of Social Security. In fact, ninety-six percent of adults polled consider Social Security an important government program. I mean to point out to a Texas readership with all of its preconceptions that a little bit of socialism can be pretty comfortable. Very popular and indeed, necessary. Not having elderly people die of starvation for example is a win in my book.

As for Social Security staying solvent, the real key is in understanding that this is solved with just a series of technocratic tax rule adjustments. The issue is not running out of money in the trust fund (again, the trust fund is largely irrelevant) but rather what small adjustments to delay and diminish benefits or boost taxes will be made to render the entire system solvent.

That was addressed in another 1980s throwback way this past week by former Senator Rudy Boschwitz (R-MN). 

While serving in the Senate (1978 to 1990), Boschwitz had written a key memo in 1982 with proposals for shoring up the program. Yes, it is clear folks were worried back in the 80s about the issue.

Last week, in the Wall Street Journal, he listed the various ways to do it again. 

Raise the “full” retirement age to beyond 67.

Raise the “early” retirement age to beyond 62.

Fiddle with the “bend points” so that payments are even less generous to higher earners.

Slow the rise in benefits by linking to a different, probably better, inflation index.

Slow the rise in benefits for higher earners.

Make inflation adjustments less frequently.

Tax Social Security income more heavily for higher earners.

Raise the payroll tax slightly to bring in more revenue.

This can all be phased in with many years’ lead time, in a boring, technocratic way. No need to panic. Which again is why I don’t worry about the so-called trust fund running out of money in 2034.

Big thanks to reader Steven Alexander who contributed data and analysis to Ferrera’s 1980 book, crunching numbers on computers back in the 1970s that accurately modeled things like return on investment and the end of the trust fund in the 2030s. I was reading his copy signed by the author.

A version of this ran in the San Antonio Express News and Houston Chronicle.

Please see related posts

My nerdy Social Security Spreadsheet, Part I

My nerdy Social Security Spreadsheet, Part 2

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Against Broad Student Loan Forgiveness

May 11, 2022 was a financial watershed for my friend Laura Davenport. A teacher at Alamo Colleges in San Antonio, on that day she received an email from the Department of Education informing her that her $155 thousand of student loan debt had been suddenly forgiven – from one day to the next – through a program called Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF.) She couldn’t believe it at first. 

She had been working for years to qualify for just this event. She described to me a Kafka-esque journey with her loan servicer and the Department of Education, in search of a way to take care of the loans she took out for her Master’s degree and PhD in creative writing. Between 2009 when she completed her degree and now – despite more than 10 years of payments – her loans had grown from $119,921 to $155,399. 

I bring this anecdote up in part to call attention to the PSLF. If you or someone you love has student loans and has or will accrue ten years in public service work or non-profit work, they may qualify for this massive debt relief. There’s an October 2022 deadline for getting your case for loan forgiveness reviewed by the Department of Education, with relaxed standards for qualifying, compared to the past. 

I also bring this up because  the Biden Administration has strongly implied that it will soon forgive $10,000 of debt (or more!) in a kind of blanket amnesty program for student loan borrowers. A progressive movement has grown to a crescendo in the past few years in favor of broad-based student loan forgiveness. 

I’m the kind of jerk that thinks this type of amnesty is a big mistake. I don’t really enjoy writing financial opinion pieces that I know will garner a lot of hate mail. Ah well, I’m still going to state my unpopular view. Regular student loan forgiveness currently contemplated by the Biden administration (of $10,000, or more!) is a bad idea. 

The pro-student loan forgiveness movement makes the following points.

  1. The cost of higher education has become outrageous. Tuition Inflation has run at an average of 6.2 percent for the past 20 years, well in excess of the rest of the economy, and certainly of wage increases.
  1. State universities used to be an affordable option, but no longer. Over the past 20 years the cost of public education has nearly tripled on average. The children of middle class families cannot afford public education. Despite robust public university systems, the average student borrower in Texas has over $31,000 in debt. The average!
  1. Unlike nearly every other type of personal debt, student loans are not dischargeable in bankruptcy, making it a harsher debt burden than credit cards, home, car, or business loans.
  1. Student loan debt balances are bigger than credit card debt balances, roughly $1.7 trillion compared to $840 billion. About 13 percent of Americans have student loan debt, making it a widespread burden.
  1. Wealthy countries in Europe do not make higher education unaffordable like we do. It’s typically free or very affordable there.

I agree with all of this. And yet, I still don’t think the Biden administration should offer $10,000 or more in student loan amnesty.

I oppose wide-scale debt forgiveness from two angles. First, student debt forgiveness is inequitable. 

In part because of the demographic of who enrolls in higher education, and in part because of high debt balances that accrue to high-income potential degrees like medicine, law, and business, academic studies all conclude that debt forgiveness plans are regressive. That means that the higher benefits of this public good goe to higher income populations, while the lowest income populations enjoy less benefit. Understood similar to a regressive tax policy, broad debt forgiveness doesn’t pass the fairness smell test.

Second, it’s bad politics. Here’s a partial list of people who have good reason to resent broad based higher education loan forgiveness:

  1. Americans who have not studied for a higher degree. (This is a majority of Americans, by the way. Only 48 percent of people 25 or older have completed an Associate’s, Bachelor’s or higher degree).
  2. Americans who took out higher education loans and who have paid their debts back one way or the other. They did the hard thing, and now they will feel like suckers.
  3. Americans who will take out higher education loans in the future but who will not receive loan forgiveness. When my girls go to college, by an accident of birth, they will most likely not get their debts forgiven.

This is a recipe for political resentment. Of course we may anecdotally know or be somebody “deserving” of debt forgiveness, but as a matter of policy it’s not a good idea.

So what kind of relief should we offer? I’m very pro debt forgiveness for people who have done public service. The military, government service, public education – these all seem like worthy ways to earn debt relief. You earned less with your degree than you could have in the private sector, but you contributed to society, and then society pays you back. A fair deal, and politically palatable.

As for Davenport, who qualified after working 10 years in public service, I’m thrilled for her. During the last administration, PSLF approvals dropped to nearly non-existent, to the point that the Government Accountability Office found that a mere 1 percent of applicants qualified by 2019.

A shift in policy in the past year however has suddenly opened up borrowers for massive relief. 

A second group that should get relief are people scammed by higher education. On June 1st the Education Department wiped out $5.8 billion owed by 560 thousand student borrowers to Corinthian College, which went bankrupt after 20 years of dubious promises and under-delivery. Seems right to me, but it would have been even more satisfying if the Corinthian College leadership had been prosecuted for costing the public billions of dollars.

The Biden administration’s plan to simply forgive loan debts – not linked to service – seems unfair and politically unwise.

A version of this post ran in the San Antonio Express-News and Houston Chronicle.

Please see related posts:

Past Student Loan Forgiveness Failures

Not Holding my breath on Student Loan Forgiveness

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