Alexander's Column

What Social Security Crisis?

Mark Alexander · Feb. 11, 2005

In 1935, wealthy liberal do-gooder Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the most notorious violator of Constitutional federalism in the 20th Century (see Emergency Powers Act of 1933), found a clause in our venerable founding document authorizing the central government to provide retirement benefits for all Americans. Apparently, 100 years earlier, that clause did not exist. So claimed another Democrat, Tennessee’s Davy Crockett, who rose on the floor of Congress and chastised his colleagues for their proposal to appropriate benefits for the widow of a distinguished naval officer.

Crockett protested: “I will not go into an argument to prove that Congress has no power to appropriate this money as an act of charity. Every member upon this floor knows it. We have the right, as individuals, to give away as much of our own money as we please in charity; but as members of Congress we…have not the semblance of authority to appropriate it as a charity.”

Crockett was echoing the words of our Constitution’s author, James Madison, who said, most eloquently, “I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents….” Madison further noted, “If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the General Welfare, the Government is no longer a limited one, possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one, subject to particular exceptions.”

However, those words were long lost on FDR, who eviscerated federalism in his relentless endeavor to make the central government the agent of salvation for depression-era ills. FDR funded his political dynasty by redistributing wealth. After all, as noted by George Bernard Shaw, “A government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend upon the support of Paul.” FDR’s plan, like all unbridled populist-entitlement programs, was popular with the democratic majority – and helped ensure his re-election to office three times.

In June of 1934, he announced to Congress a perpetual example of that endeavor – his intent to create a nationalized Social Security program, ushering the United States into the ranks of Europe’s welfare democracies. In all fairness, even FDR anticipated that “For perhaps 30 years to come funds will have to be provided by the States and the Federal Government to meet these pensions.” But after that, he explained, it would be necessary to move to what he called “voluntary contributory annuities by which individual initiative can increase the annual amounts received in old age.” That is precisely the reform agenda proposed by the Bush administration – however late.

Social Security’s first beneficiary was Ernest Ackerman of Cleveland, Ohio, who retired one day after the Social Security Act was signed into law 14 August 1935. A nickel was withheld from Ackerman’s final paycheck, but he received his one-time lump-sum Social Security payment … 17 cents. That 12-cent return was the beginning of unforeseen things to come.

The first lifetime beneficiary of Social Security was Ida May Fuller of Ludlow, Vermont. She retired in 1940 after having contributed a total of $44 to the Social Security Trust. At the time of her death in 1975, her $44 premium had returned $20,933.52 in benefits.

Soon, congressional amendments added benefits for spouses, minor children and survivors, and by 1950 the program assured virtually universal coverage. The Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program (AKA “welfare”) was added in 1972, and by 1975 the addition of annual Cost of Living Adjustments (COLAs) assured the SS juggernaut’s exponential growth. In 1977, Medicare became an independent entitlement, spun off from the Social Security system. Today, despite its humble beginnings, the Social Security system confronts our young people with the grim prospect of paying for unfunded promises made to past generations.

At inception, there was an assurance that the maximum combined employer/employee taxes for SS would not exceed three percent on the first $3,000 of income ($90 per year). Adjusted for inflation, that would be three percent of $22,000 in 2005 ($660). But the combined taxes now amount to 12.4% of the first $90,000 ($11,160). Astoundingly, 80% of Americans now pay more for SS than we pay as income tax. As for the illusion that employers pay half of that SS tax, the fact is, the half is also withheld from wages, meaning the full 12.4 percent is part of employee wages.

Notwithstanding the “welfare reform” acts of the 1990s, when Social Security turned 65 in the year 2000, SSI benefits covered 6,688,489 Americans at a cost of $32,165,856,000, while Social Security itself disbursed some $431,949,000,000 to 45,877,506 beneficiaries. However, those staggering numbers are mere chump change compared to what lies ahead.

President George W. Bush’s modest proposal to reform Social Security appears to be a good start at diverting this behemoth from its collision course with insolvency. Predictably, though, the latest retort from the Left is, “What insolvency? What crisis?” Indeed, these do-nothing Demos claim the Fed’s IOUs in Social Security’s so-called “trust fund,” combined with minor tweaks to the system, will keep it solvent for generations.

Well, not exactly. Unless Democrats plan to “tweak” the system by increasing both the retirement age and the current 12.4% SS tax, adding more government debt and reducing benefits, Social Security will not have the revenues to refund current IOUs and meet the SS revenue shortfall. IOUs? For generations, every dime forcibly taken from worker paychecks – ostensibly to finance the non-existent SS “trust fund” – has been taken from that fund and applied to other massive entitlement programs.

Social Security outlays now consume 4.28 percent of GDP but will exceed 6 percent in 20 years. There are two reasons for this growth: demographics and benefit increases.

The demographic implications are staggering. In 1940, there were nine million people over the age of 65. There are 48 million Social Security beneficiaries today, and in 2030 there will be 84 million. In 1950, there were 16 SS taxpayers for every recipient. Now there are only 3.3 taxpayers for every recipient, and that will be reduced 30 percent by 2030. Additionally, while the life expectancy beyond age 65 for those attaining age 21 was up almost 30% between 1940 and 1990.

The second reason for the SSI balloon is that benefits have not been indexed to inflation. Future retirees are being guaranteed retirement increases that grow substantially faster than inflation.

Social Security, as currently managed, will incur an estimated unfunded liability of 27 trillion 2003 dollars over the next 75 years. To offset this jaw-slackening shortfall, President Bush has proposed the incremental privatization of some SSI taxes by allowing individuals under age 55 to invest in personal retirement accounts (PRAs). Additionally, Congress must resolve to index benefits to inflation.

The President’s three-year PRA opt-in for SSI taxpayers born after 1950 would allow them to put up to four percent of their wages in their PRAs. At retirement, those invested in PRAs would be guaranteed to receive at least what their payout would be if they only had SSI income. But those beneficiaries whose PRAs have a higher return can share in that return, which reduces the burden on the SSI fund, and the principal balance is fully inheritable. (If you think you have any rights to the principle you are forced to pay into the non-existent SS trust fund. Let your spouse or heirs try to claim some of that principle at your death – the Supreme Court has already ruled it’s not really yours.)

The PRA plan would “cost” about $664 billion in “lost” SSI revenue over the next ten years. Of course, this lost SSI revenue is merely revenue that’s been moved to PRAs, and thus isn’t available to “borrow” from the SSI trust fund for other entitlement programs – and that’s why the Demos are hopping mad. Still, all Americans need to understand that the PRA plan does not fully address the revenue shortfall crisis looming on the horizon. That crisis can be resolved only when Congress commits to bringing SSI benefits in line with SSI revenues.

And a final note to those who are concerned about so-called “national identification cards” – you already have one. Social Security cards once specified “For Social Security Purposes – Not For Identification,” but in 1961, Congress authorized the IRS to use SS numbers for identification purposes, and by 1972 that notice was removed from the cards. Currently, SS numbers are required for credit information, academic records, medical records, and on just about any application for anything – making it the key identification, authentication, and tracking number for all Americans. Unfortunately, this centralization of information using SS numbers has also promoted the identity theft of more than seven million Americans annually.

Quote of the week…

“Personal retirement accounts should be familiar to [members of Congress], because you already have something similar, called the Thrift Savings Plan, which lets [you] deposit a portion of [your] paychecks into any of five different broadly-based investment funds. It’s time to extend the same security, and choice, and ownership to young Americans.” –President George W. Bush

On cross-examination…

“Social Security is simply a tax. Like all taxes, the money collected is spent immediately as general revenues to fund the federal government. The Social Security trust fund does not exist, and Social Security ‘surpluses’ are nothing more than an accounting ledger showing that contributions exceeded benefits paid for a given calendar year – not that the excess was put aside. … Allowing people to opt out of Social Security would force the federal government to admit it has been stealing money from Social Security for decades. … No matter what politicians promise, Social Security reform will not change the fact that your money is taken from your paycheck and sent to Washington, where it will be spent.” –Rep. Ron Paul

Open query…

“My financial adviser Ric Edelman…thinks the time to start educating people about money is when they are children. He’s set up a retirement plan called the RIC-E-Trust that can provide retirement security. A $5,000 one-time tax-deferred investment at birth, with an average interest rate of ten percent compounded, means that a child would have $2.4 million when he or she is 65 years old. Who needs Social Security with that kind of nest egg?” –Cal Thomas