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Forum Post: robert samuelson and social security by dean baker

Posted 2 years ago on April 23, 2012, 1:20 p.m. EST by flip (7101)
This content is user submitted and not an official statement

Social Security and Medicare are hugely important for the security of the non-rich population of the United States. For this reason, Robert Samuelson and the Washington Post hate them.

As we know, this is a question of basic political philosophy. In the view of Samuelson and the Post, a dollar that is in the pocket of low or middle class people is a dollar that could be in the pocket of the rich. And Medicare and Social Security are keeping many dollars in the pockets of low and middle class people.

Today's column by Robert Samuelson tries to tell us that Franklin Roosevelt would be appalled by the current state of the Social Security program. Of course, he produces not a single iota of evidence to support this position, although it is very clear that Samuelson doesn't like Social Security.

Samuelson begins by telling us that:

"It [Social Security] has become what was then called 'the dole' and is now known as 'welfare.' This forgotten history clarifies why America’s budget problems are so intractable."

He later adds:

"Millions of Americans believe (falsely) that their payroll taxes have been segregated to pay for their benefits and that, therefore, they 'earned' these benefits. To reduce them would be to take something that is rightfully theirs."

Of course Samuelson is 100 percent wrong here. 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.

In this sense, the funds are absolutely segregated. Samuelson doesn't like this, but why should any of the rest of us care? The rest of the piece shows the same dishonesty and lack of respect for facts.

Samuelson later tells readers:

"But now, demographics are unfriendly. 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."

Okay, let's think about this for a minute. We went from five workers per retiree in the 1960s to roughly three workers for each retiree in the 90s. This ratio is projected to fall to roughly two workers per retiree by 2030 (not 2025, as readers of the Trustees report know).

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?

There is an issue that most workers have not shared in the economy's growth over the last three decades. This is indeed a problem. If recent trends in inequality persist then any increase in Social Security taxes will be a burden, but the problem here are the policies that have brought about this upward redistribution of income, not Social Security.

Then Samuelson gives us his coup de grace:

"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."

Okay, this is a really nice trick. 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).

And, the high cost of Medicare benefits is not due to their great generosity. The high cost 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. If our per person costs for health care were comparable to costs in Germany, Canada, the UK or any other wealthy country, then workers would be paying far more for their Medicare benefits than the cost of what they are getting in care.

The story here is that Samuelson wants to punish ordinary workers for the fact that we pay doctors and the other big winners in this story too much. That may not make sense, but they don't call this paper "Fox on 15th Street" for nothing.

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