WASHINGTON – As a case study in the workings of modern democracy, the handling of Social Security by successive U.S. presidents and Congress over recent decades is a deeply disturbing exercise. The facts are not in dispute. Congress and the White House have agreed to benefits for retirees and the disabled that are woefully underfunded. Rather than bring the programs into balance — with some combination of benefit cuts and tax increases — the bipartisan consensus is either to do nothing or to raise benefits.
The amounts are hardly trivial. According to the latest projections by Social Security’s actuaries, the uncovered gap between the program’s costs and revenues comes to $13.9 trillion over the next 75 years, or 2.78 percent of covered wages. The share of covered payroll may not sound daunting, but it would come atop the existing payroll tax of 12.4 percent. If the gap were entirely filled by taxes, the total tax would be roughly 15 percent of payroll.
Something must give, because under present law, the Social Security trust funds can pay benefits only from their dedicated taxes and the trust funds’ accumulated interest. By the actuaries’ estimates, the trust funds would be exhausted by 2035. To bring the trust funds back to balance would require some combination of the 20 percent tax increase or a benefit cut — unless the law is changed to allow for other revenues to be spent on Social Security.
All this is explained in great detail in a new study by Sylvester Schieber, a respected economist who was a member of the Social Security Advisory Board from 1998 to 2009 and its chairman from 2006 to 2009. The study is printed in The Journal of Retirement.
He writes: “While Social Security’s long-term financing imbalance has been well-known for more than a quarter-century, policymakers have generally managed to dodge the issue. What we have been doing is running up a bill that our children, their children and, in turn, their children are going to have to pay.”
I have echoed similar themes for decades. To my critics, I’m repetitious, boring and cold-blooded. To them, I’ve exaggerated how well off most of the elderly are and, if my proposals were adopted, there would be more misery. My rejoinder has been that, while many older people have financial and medical problems, millions more live comfortably and are not on the edge of poverty. There needs to be a better balancing of burden and benefits.
Schieber also sheds light on the elderly’s well-being. He cites a recent study by economists Adam Bee and Joshua Mitchell that finds that the incomes of the 65-and-over population have been significantly understated. The reason: Surveys on income often rely on respondents’ memories. People forget some of their income. Specifically, they tend to forget income from pensions and defined-contribution retirement plans.
When these amounts are counted, the elderly’s incomes rise noticeably. In 2012, the average household income for those elderly at the midpoint of the income distribution rose from $25,075 to $32,505. Among the elderly at the 90th percentile of income, incomes went from $76,667 to $92,249. Among the richest 10 percent, incomes jumped from $172,800 to $230,579. Meanwhile, Social Security’s share of the elderly’s income fell from 58 percent to 49 percent.
Unlike many social problems, we had time to prepare for the aging of America. Much was predictable. We knew, generally, how many elderly there would be and what their Social Security payments would total. We knew that life expectancies and health status were improving. We had time to prepare for an older society by gradually raising eligibility ages, increasing some taxes and decreasing some benefits.
No matter. As Schieber argues, we tragically missed this opportunity. Baby boomers welcomed the status quo. Millennials did little to challenge it. The disappointment with democracy is clear. It’s present-oriented. It has a hard time accepting pain today for gain tomorrow. It prefers what is popular and expedient to what is necessary and (at least in the present) difficult.
This is, of course, a dilemma that confronts all modern democracies — made more difficult by the reality that not all plans for the future are automatically beneficial. But in the case of Social Security, the logic of adjusting today for a largely predictable future seemed overwhelming.
It’s not only unfair to millennials and their children, who will pay higher taxes or receive fewer benefits. The combined weight of spending on Social Security and Medicare (government health insurance) is also inexorably crowding out spending on other important goals.
Still, the irony is that democracy worked in the sense that practical politicians did what they judged public opinion wanted them to do. You can criticize what they did or didn’t do. But you can’t say they were undemocratic.
Robert J. Samuelson writes an economics column for The Washington Post. © 2019, The Washington Post Writers Group
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