Charles Krauthammer Doesn't Understand How Bonds Work

Print
Friday, 11 March 2011 08:15

Charles Krauthammer is very upset that Jack Lew, President Obama's budget director, is saying true things about Social Security and the budget. Krauthammer is troubled by the fact that Lew said that Social Security does not add to the deficit.

Lew based his claim on the law governing Social Security's operations, it can only spend money that has in its trust fund. This money comes either from the designated Social Security tax or from the bonds and interest on the bonds that were bought using the surplus from prior years. No money can come from general revenue.

This seems pretty simple, but not to Krauthammer:

"When your FICA tax is taken out of your paycheck, it does not get squirreled away in some lockbox in West Virginia where it's kept until you and your contemporaries retire. Most goes out immediately to pay current retirees, and the rest (say, $100) goes to the U.S. Treasury - and is spent. On roads, bridges, national defense, public television, whatever - spent, gone.

In return for that $100, the Treasury sends the Social Security Administration a piece of paper that says: IOU $100. There are countless such pieces of paper in the lockbox. They are called "special issue" bonds.

Special they are: They are worthless."

It's nice that Mr. Krauthammer thinks that government bonds are worthless. (I have a standing request that he, or anyone else, pass along any government bonds that he considers worthless. We will use them to support CEPR.) While he is welcome to believe anything he wants, the bonds held by the Social Security trust fund are backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government. Krauthammer may want to default on bonds that belong to the nation's workers, but his desires are not the same as reality.

Selling these bonds to fund Social Security no more raises the deficit than the decision of a rich person to sell bonds to finance their consumption raises the deficit. The deficit was incurred when the money was lent to the Social Security trust fund in the first place. 

The size of the deficit, including the money borrowed from Social Security -- the on-budget deficit -- is reported in every budget document put out by the government (e.g. here and here). Krauthammer might try to learning a bit about how the budget works before he goes off ranting about Jack Lew and Social Security [Corrected -- thanks WTF].

He also might do a little homework about his proposed fixes for Social Security. Two of his fixes, changing the indexing formula and raising the retirement age would hit elderly people who are barely scraping by as it stands. However, his third idea -- taking away benefits for rich people like Warren Buffett -- would not even save the program any money.

While Krauthammer may know lots of rich people like Buffett, in reality they comprise a tiny portion of the population and the benefits they receive are a trivial share of what Social Security pays out each year. As a result, a means test that was designed to take away benefits from the country's Warren Buffetts would likely cost more to administer than it would save the program in benefit payments.

In reality, the projected shortfall in the program is relatively distant and minor. The country has far more urgent concerns, like putting 25 million unemployed or under-employed people back to work. This should be the focus of our political leaders right now.