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Confronting The Entitlement Conundrum – Why Social Security May Be America’s Financial Weapon of Mass Destruction

April 18, 2010 67 comments

By Marquis Codjia

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Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor and long-time Chairman of conglomerate colossus Berkshire Hathaway, emphatically stated in 2002 that derivatives were “time bombs, both for the parties that deal in them and the economic system”. Given the deleterious role these securities had in the recent economic crisis, the “Oracle of Omaha” certainly evinces prescience in addition to his mythic business acumen.

Yet, what will likely choke off economic growth in the U.S., and by percolation, usher in global economic disequilibria, is managing mammoth entitlement benefits due to – or rather, promised to – millions of Americans over not only a year or two, but decades in their lifetimes, once they face thorny existential episodes such as illness, old age, disability, or loss of employment.

Of all government-steered social schemes, Social Security – the federal Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI) program – is the largest, claiming 20% of the national budget in 2009 or $678 billion, right after defense (23%). Other known schemes are unemployment benefits, Medicare and Medicaid.

A conceptual understanding of Social Security is helpful to gauge the dynamics at work in the entitlement debate. Simply explained, Social Security allows retirees to earn pension income from contributions made by current workers – via specific payroll taxes. Understandably, the system remains balanced if contributions made exceed benefits paid – as is currently the case.

However, current projections posit a funding gap starting in 2016 – in other words, expenses will outrun revenues, thus coercing the country into seeking external funds (from new loans or cuts in other programs). Worse, successive governments have borrowed and used up over the years cumulative surpluses held in the Social Security Trust Fund.

The funding deficit is caused by a panoply of factors, the most important of which are the increase in life expectancy, the lowering birth rate, and aging baby-boomers (resulting in fewer workers paying for more retirees).

What’s flummoxing is that the current political elite – like their forerunners in both parties – seem to be voluntarily embroiled in partisan ramblings, and gladly enjoying esoteric rhetoric that renders the populace obtuse, and discredits the urgency and criticality of the social security debate. Consequently, our most intellectually dynamic citizens do not give this topic the socio-economic import it deserves.

The ensuing status quo threatens to turn a tractable conundrum into a veritable crisis – a “time bomb” into a “financial weapon of mass destruction” against America’s social fabric. Former and current Fed chairmen, fortunately, fathom the essence of the matter; thus, Alan Greenspan advocates a mix of measures to bring entitlement programs under control and ensure long-term economic prosperity, while Ben Bernanke warns that “Americans may have to accept higher taxes or changes in entitlements… to avoid staggering budget deficits.”

Several elements form the disquieting body of thoughts that justifies the hyperbolic, or apocalyptic, formulation used in this analysis.

First, the absence of a real, serious forum to gauge the merits of viewpoints engaged in the Social Security overhaul disputation. As noted earlier, this status quo seems to be furthered, at the very least, by consecutive administrations for the past three decades, because either the issue is thorny and politically unpalatable to constituents or elected officials deem it of lower priority. In sum, they dare not venture topics that may derail re-election prospects.

To fill the rhetorical void, snippets of partisan parlance are interjected here and there, mainly to polarize citizens and eschew a thorough debate. One such snippet is the notion that Social Security should be privatized and entrusted with professional portfolio managers because the government should let free-market decide and any form of public management of the behemoth fund is a type of communist intervention intolerable in capitalist America. In this article, the pros and cons of this argument cannot be evaluated with granularity but factual observations reveal the latter’s practical limits. It’s easy to wonder what financial devastation the country would have suffered had the Fund been invested in the stock market before the recent mini-crash. It’s also easy to observe how effective a manager the government can be by analyzing operational results at the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS), the Army Medical Department, Medicare, and Medicaid, all of which remain sound programs.

Second, the much needed overhaul of the IRS and the country’s tax collection scheme is taking longer to occur, and this delay, coupled to the ongoing government waste at the federal, state, and legislative levels, annihilates any serious endeavour to cut budget deficits.

Next, the systemic spectre of a vicious cycle looms. If the ratio of retirees to active workers grows excessively, there will be fewer contributions to pay pension benefits, and such a reduced purchasing power will yield lower private consumption. Companies will then be forced to cut their workforce if sales are lethargic, and the smaller remaining workforce will contribute even less to the Social Security Fund, and so forth.

Fourth, the Fed – as the lender of last resort – can lend to the U.S. Treasury should public finances deteriorate but it can’t sustainably keep printing money via its quantitative easing tactic lest the dollar tumble on defiance from capital markets and heightened inflation.

Fifth, the country’s incapacity to lower its trade deficits will likely not be solved in the near future because the American industrial complex is currently unable or disinclined to produce superior goods affordably, and opening up U.S. markets to foreign suppliers serve as geostrategic levers in international discussions.

In the end, entitlement specialists and those well-versed in the Social Security issue ask the following: why aren’t authorities implementing the Social Security Trust Fund’s proposal (2009 Report) to marginally raise the tax rate or the salary cap on payroll tax in order to fix the funding gap? For example, raising the payroll tax rate to 14.4% in 2009 (from 12.4%) or cutting benefits by 13.3% would fix the program’s gap indefinitely, while these amounts increase to ca.16% and 24% if no changes are made until 2037.

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