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Mentions of the "Social Security Trust Fund" Like It is A Real Thing Make Me Crazy

Posted by on | June 7, 2018 | Comments Off

From Market Watch, but you see the same article everywhere:

This year, like last year, Social Security’s trustees said the program’s two trust funds would be depleted in 2034.

For the first time since 1982, Social Security has to dip into the trust fund to pay for the program this year.

This is like sticking a knitting needle in my eye every time I read it.  Repeat after me:  There is no trust fund.  If it ever existed, it is gone.

OK, I will admit that it does technically exist — there is a government account for it.  But the trust fund is full of just one asset:  government IOU’s to itself.  When Social Security was collecting more money in taxes than it spent on benefits, the extra cash flowed into the trust fund.  Then Congress immediately took the cash out and spent it on… whatever, and left behind an IOU.   I suppose the government pays interest to itself on this debt, but this interest just goes back around in a circle to cover the interest that was just paid out.

Imagine you had a piggy bank where you collected money for a rainy day.  Then one day you wanted a new TV and you took $1000 out of the piggy bank to pay for it, leaving an IOU in the piggy bank for $1000.  I guess you could technically say to yourself that you still had $1000 in assets in the bank, but what good is an IOU to yourself?  I suppose you could even pay yourself interest.  You could take $20 out and then put it back in as interest.  Wouldn’t that feel like progress!

This is what the government has done.  You can read numerous articles online that will say that in the case of the trust fund these IOU’s are somehow different and really have value.  Here is the simplest way to think about it:  Imagine to cover benefits in a particular year the Social Security Administration needs $1 billion above and beyond Social Security taxes.  If the trust fund exists, the government takes a billion dollars of government bonds out and sells them to private buyers on the open market.  If the trust fund didn’t exist, the government would …. issue a billion dollars in bonds and sell them to private buyers on the open market.  In either case, the government’s indebtedness to the outside world goes up by a billion dollars.  I will confess there are some technical issues that might differ in the two cases — perhaps there are different implications for the two approaches on the government debt limit.  But that is just a procedural issue — in reality there is no economic difference between the two cases.  If there is no economic difference between the trust fund existing and not existing, then in my mind is effectively does not exist.

 Mentions of the "Social Security Trust Fund" Like It is A Real Thing Make Me Crazy  Mentions of the "Social Security Trust Fund" Like It is A Real Thing Make Me Crazy  Mentions of the "Social Security Trust Fund" Like It is A Real Thing Make Me Crazy

 Mentions of the "Social Security Trust Fund" Like It is A Real Thing Make Me Crazy

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