Friday, November 19, 2010

Reporters Should Not Be Allowed to Report Unless They Know the Difference Between the General Fund and the Unified Budget

This article makes the basic observation that raising the retirement age hurts the poor. This is a fair observation. Raising the retirement age is probably the most regressive means of putting SS into balance. It is probably also one of the most efficient (keeps people in the workforce longer + lower taxes). Anyhow, I don't think the Bowles-Simpson Commission's proposal of raising the retirerment age a whole 2 years over the next 65 years is all that draconian, but whatever. What really gets my goat about the article is this part:
"On its current path, Social Security is projected to run out of money by 2037, largely because of aging baby boomers reaching retirement. The longer action is delayed, the harder it will get to shore up the program."

Stephen Ohlemacher is probably blissfully unaware of his error. But he has mislead the public and this is typical of how the media treats discussions about social security, budget deficits, and our nation's finances more genearlly. In their ignorance the media has abbetted what would amount to accounting fraud in the private sector. Many will think I am crazy and will say, "but wait a minute, the author is right, there is the trust fund, we have prefunded Social Security to cover the gap between Revenues and Outlays that starts in 2018. That will take us till 2037." Here is the problem with that, every year, the federal government spends more than it takes in (except for a few years during the Clinton Administration).

Presently and since 1984 during the last go around of Social Security Reform, Social Security revenues have exceeded Social Security expenditures. What happens is that the government uses the surplus revenues to plug the gaps in its budget and then issues the Social Security Administration special issue bonds that bear interest (read: IOUs) for the money it borrows. This is where the general fund and the unified fund distinction comes into play. The General Fund does not look at Social Security outlays (but typically does count some of its revenues- to my mind the decoupling of revenues and expenditures in a pension fund is cooking the books). But to the extent it uses the surplus revenues it counts those as revenues. For example, just using some made up numbers, let's say in the current year for the US government to prefund social security it needs to collect $200 billion more than it spends in social security benefits. Now imagine that there is a general fund deficit of $200 billion. The government takes those $200 billion dollars and plugs it into the general fund. Instead of issuing debt to cover the general fund the government now has to issue debt to cover future expenditures to future social security recipients. Let's say that the size of the economy is $10 trillion dollars. Thus, in this scenario, the government by shfiting excess social security revenues away from prefunding the trust fund and into the general fund has not actually changed the fiscal picture. But what our moronic press corp would do is say that the government has balanced the budget deficit as there is no general fund deficit. However, there is a deficit, it has been shfited off the books, that is the unified deficit, and it is in my view the important number. In this scenario since the Social Security trust fund has been shortchanged by $200 billion (in a $10 trillion hypothetical economy) the unified budget defict would be 2% of GDP. The government is doing this even today**.

As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, when the government takes those excess social security revenues, it issues debt not assets to social security. Some say that Social Security trust fund possesses actual T-Bills. It doesn't though. Well, first, you can verify whether this is the case (click on this link), and it is not. Second, it wouldn't actually make a difference. A T-Bill is a form of debt that the government issues. You get a T-Bill in exchange for giving the government money. That T-Bill is backed by the taxpayer and at some point if you want to redeem it the government will have to raise revenues to pay you. So if the SSA were to in fact posess T-Bills it would be the functional equivalent of having an IOU as one part of the government would be issuing debt to another part of the government. The end result would be the same. The taxpayer would be asked to cover the debt.

Going back to the title of this post and how it relates to the earlier quote, my objection is the characterization of Social Security as being solvent until 2037 is essentially false. An accurate statement would be: 1. Social Security is solvent so long as social security revenues are equal to or greater than Social Security expenditures; 2. Social Security will continue to be solvent after social security revenues are less than social security expenditures if the taxpayer is willing to fund the difference. The second clause may or may not be true. So here would be my proposed revision:

"On its current path, Social Security is projected to run out of money by 2018, largely because of aging baby boomers reaching retirement and generations of fiscal mismanagement and creative accounting. We are past the point of no return, future benefits will be cut at the margins next decade and wholesale in the decades thereafter."

The health of social security is contingent on the ability to redeem the bonds in the Trust Fund. The ability to redeem the bonds in the trust fund is tied to the health of government's finances more generally. If publicly held debt were low, issuing new debt to fund social security wouldn't be an issue. However, the Government's finances are piss poor and deteroriating and we are just beginning to work our way through the baby boom. The media in pretending that there is some imaginary pot of gold out there that is gonna cover the next two decades of Social Security expenditures. They have been unwitting accessories in cooking the government's books.

* I am not entirely sure if this is accurate for 2009-10 as the social security revenues are depressed as a function of the recession.

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