One of the most influential ideas in Washington these days is that Social Security and Medicare are on the verge of going bust. Earlier this month, Senator Lindsey Graham warned of the “imminent bankruptcy” of these insurance programs for the elderly, and Republican leaders are citing the threat of insolvency as a reason that entitlement reform must be part of any fiscal-cliff deal. The argument sounds reasonable enough, but it’s really a bid to turn the great political strength of these programs—the fact that they were designed to be self-supporting—into a weakness.Unlike most government programs, Social Security and, in part, Medicare are funded by payroll taxes dedicated specifically to them. Some of the tax revenue pays for current benefits; anything that’s left over goes into trust funds for the future. The programs were designed this way for political reasons. When F.D.R. introduced Social Security, he calculated that funding it through a payroll tax rather than out of general tax revenue would make people think of the program not as welfare but as an entitlement—as something that they had paid for and had a right to. Many liberals initially opposed the idea, because payroll tax rates aren’t progressive (everyone pays the same rate) and because they tax only labor income. But the system proved as resilient as F.D.R. had predicted, and when Lyndon Johnson introduced Medicare, in the nineteen-sixties, he adopted it, too. Over the years, Social Security and Medicare taxes have risen sharply, to the point where payroll taxes account for thirty-six per cent of all federal revenue. Today, most American households pay more in payroll taxes than in income tax. Yet there’s little public hostility to these taxes, and the programs they fund remain enormously popular.
But the trust-fund strategy has an Achilles’ heel: funds can run out of money. Projections show that, owing to an aging population and rising health-care costs, the Medicare Trust Fund will become insolvent in 2024 and Social Security in 2033. The image of empty coffers is a powerful one: half of all Americans aged between eighteen and twenty-nine don’t think that Social Security will exist when they retire. That’s a bizarre thing to believe about an important government program. No one ever says, “I don’t think the U.S. Army will be there when I get old” or talks about the Defense Department “going broke.” We assume that there will always be a need for the military, and that we’ll end up paying the taxes that are necessary to fund it. But, because Social Security and Medicare have always been self-supporting, it’s easy to believe that they’ll just vanish if the trust funds dry up. This isn’t the case. Relatively minor tweaks to Social Security will allow it to keep paying full benefits for many decades. And, if we wanted, we could supplement funding for both programs with general government revenue. That’s what most European countries do, and, indeed, parts of Medicare are already paid for out of general revenue. The only way that Social Security and Medicare can go “bankrupt” is if we let them.
Monday, December 17, 2012
James Surowiecki at The New Yorker: