Social Security Works (or not?)

You tell 'em, tea-bagger.  Source: Google Images.

You tell ’em, tea-bagger. Source: Google Images.

This morning I read a Huffington Post article by Nancy Altman, which piqued my interest.  It advocates shifting away from privatising Social Security, or indeed advocating 401(k)s or IRAs, and applying additional taxation towards extra funding and benefits from the existing Social Security system.

I see that Ms Altman has a book out, as well as a lobbying group named Social Security Works.  In lieu of buying the book – which I may yet do, given the thesis is far from my understanding of the status quo – I read a few of the lobbying group’s memos.  My thoughts:

  • Isn’t Social Security going broke?  Well, yes and no.
    • Social Security’s income comes from (source: the lobbying group)
      • Current taxation: around 85%
      • Investment returns: around 15%.  FYI, ‘investments’ are 100% US Treasury notes and bonds.
    • So what?  Well, lower yields for Treasuries means lower future returns for Social Security.  So that item will need to be supplemented by additional tax, or else benefits will come down.  Also, the large cohort of (working) baby boomers leaving behind a smaller workforce will lower the current taxation component.
    • And… that leads to projected deficits, and loss of benefits, beginning around 2033 under status quo.  Technically, the loss of any benefit would be a default – therefore bankruptcy or ‘going broke’.  The group claims this isn’t the case, as taxation will still be coming in.  If only personal bankruptcy worked that way, right?
    • How to fix this?  The group suggests abolishing the cap on income subject to Social Security tax – right now income over $117k isn’t subject to SS tax.  No mention of removing the cap on SS benefits however – those remain.  The progressive in me thinks this is generally OK: maybe the US can follow the UK National Insurance scheme, and tax the extra income by a lesser rate, like 2%.
  • Why not privatise and/or encourage IRAs and 401(k)s?  
    • Cost differential?  Your run of the mill IRA + fund management charge is probably around 1-2% of assets in the retirement account, per year.  Social Security spends about 0.5% of trust fund assets in Administration costs, per year.  So one can plausibly argue that Social Security is a more cost-efficient way to save for retirement – though I wonder what is the administrative cost of collecting SS taxes.
    • Return differential?  I’ve written before about how good a deal Social Security can be for current retirees, particularly against expectations for future generations.  So here’s a thought, keeping in mind where the money for SS payments comes from (see above): given a slowdown in demography (i.e. fewer workers paying in) and investment returns explicitly limited to US Treasury returns, how can there be enough money to go around in future?
      • For example, 30-year Treasury bonds currently yield 2.63% per year.  That means $100 of Bonds purchased today will be worth around $220 in 30 years.  If we assume the Fed can achieve 2% long-term inflation, and SS benefits continue to rise in line with inflation, that’s hardly any real return at all.  And that’s the maximum investment return allowed by Social Security.
  • How to fix it?  
    • Sadly, the mathematics just don’t add up unless taxes are raised – hence I absolutely see why the group wants to remove the cap on earnings subject to SS tax.
    • I suppose the amounts sent to ‘auto-enrolled’ 401(k) plans could just be reframed as additional SS tax to help keep up the program, and possibly increase benefits?
    • The only other method I can think of would be to massively increase population through either more lax immigration policy or through discouraging the use of contraception.

In sum: I was absolutely intrigued by the idea that, instead of thinking of Social Security as a slowly fading institution of old-time, New Deal America, we should consider the program as a better option for our future pensions.  The cold mathematics, however, means pretty unpalatable choices to make this happen.  But, as I’ve written before, the millennial generation faces stark mathematics regardless of how pensions are handled – there just isn’t enough money to go around.

The retirement crisis in America: an online film worth viewing

I stumbled across the Broken Eggs website from Marketwatch today, and immediately accessed the (free) online film.  The trailer looks very promising: a good mix of statistics and personal stories to make the issues surrounding retirement in the US a bit more understandable.  Though not mentioned (as far as I’m aware….I’m about to sit for the film), we can practically replace the US in the film with any other developed country (aside, maybe, Norway); the issues are the same.