Question What You Think You Know
Most of what people “know” about Social Security is simply wrong. That’s dangerous because it could lead them to accept “reforms” that would wreck a vital program that has become part of the American way of life – a program that works beautifully.
When it comes to Social Security, what Will Rogers once said is right on target: “It ain’t what people don’t know that’s so dangerous. It’s what people know – that just ain’t so!”
What people need to learn is that neither the deficit nor the debt is killing the country. Investors still lend money to the government. The interest we pay on the national debt is as low a percentage of the GDP as it has been since World War II. There is little or no inflation in the system. After the war, our national debt was a far higher percentage of the GDP than it is now. We grew our way out of it. We literally did tax and spend our way to prosperity. Instead of “belt-tightening,” in the 15 or so years following the war, under President Truman we paid full expenses for returning service men and women to get college degrees, we expanded “entitlements” by making Social Security nearly universal. Under President Eisenhower we added disability benefits to Social Security and created history’s greatest public works project, the interstate highway system. All the while we were pouring huge amounts of money abroad to rebuild areas that the war had shattered.
People “know” government is inefficient. Social Security, though, pays more than 99 cents in benefits for every dollar it takes in. That makes it far more efficient than any private program.
People “know” that the system is going bankrupt. But what they “know” is based on pessimistic projections that are unlikely to materialize. What they do not know, is that the trustees who issue projections for Social Security also issue an “Alternative One,” or “Low-Cost” projection that says the trust funds will be secure through the full 75-year projection. The only projection that receives any publicity, though, is the “Alternative Two,” or “Intermediate” projection. Most people, even the “pundits” (or maybe especially the pundits), are unaware that there is any other projection. In any case, even if the trust funds were to be exhausted completely, there would be no bankruptcy. U.S. government programs cannot go bankrupt.
People “know” that “personal accounts” would bring better returns. The privatizers “cook the books,” adopting the most favorable assumptions regarding return projections.
People “know” that the economy cannot sustain the current system without “reform” because benefits have to be cut to reduce the deficit. This is totally wrong. Social Security does not affect the deficit.
The only way that reducing Social Security benefits could reduce the deficit would be to change the law to make the workers continue to pay Social Security taxes without getting anything in return. It should be equally obvious that Social Security is not contributing to the deficit by lending its surplus to the government.