By George P. Brockway, originally published February 5, 1990
TRYING TO UPSTAGE New York’s Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who wants to stop using the Social Security Trust Fund to reduce the budget deficit, the Bush Administration has concocted something it calls the “Social Security Integrity and Debt Reduction Fund.” This is supposed to do part of what the Senator is urging, but in 1993 instead of now. The Senator, of course, had a pithy comment: “It is well known that the Federal budget is always in balance three years from now. Never, however, now.” It is equally well known that the Administration’s sudden action is motivated by fear that Moynihan’s proposal of a tax cut for everyone will show up President George Bush’s proposed cut in capital gains taxes as the rich man’s scam it is.
Among the many things wrong with the Social Security tax, the two principal ones are, first, that it is regressive; second, that it is a tax on employment and both adversely affect the distribution of income. The regressiveness is generally recognized, except by those who have come to believe that all taxes must be regressive. Budget Director Richard G. Darman, for instance, claims the Moynihan tax cut would have to be replaced by some new tax that would fall on the same people and therefore be just as regressive. But that is nonsense.
Not very long ago the Federal income tax had a progressive schedule that exempted the lowest incomes and then ran from 11 per cent to 70 per cent. The top brackets were knocked off under Presidents
Richard M. Nixon and Jimmy Carter, with a 50 per cent maxitax substituted. For a brief period, a 35 percent bracket was added to the capital gains tax, making it somewhat progressive. This was soon dropped, unfortunately, and opportunities for tax shelters were so expanded that when they were largely eliminated by the current tax law it could be claimed that lowering the top bracket to 28 per cent or 33 per cent was revenue neutral. (“Revenue neutral” was Ronald Reagan’s educated way of saying “Read my lips.”)
Some argue that while the Social Security tax is regressive as it is collected, it is progressive as it is paid out. The examples usually given are not encouraging. They show people who evidently lived in constant poverty, paid a high percentage of their minuscule incomes in taxes, and retired to receive benefits exceeding the taxes they had paid. But they were below the poverty level all their lives nothing to cheer about. Anyway, there is no reason on earth why Social Security should not be progressive when it collects as well as when it pays out.
Furthermore, from the point of view of the Social Security system, there is no reason to replace the Moynihan tax cut. When Bush says, “The last thing we need to do is mess around with Social Securiity,” he implies that the Moynihan tax cut would reduce benefits either now or in the future. I’m sorry to say that Senator Moynihan allows us to make the same inference when he quotes a newspaper’s opinion that using the Social Security surplus to balance the budget is “thievery.” I’ll grant that it is skulduggery, that it is intellectually dishonest and economically counterproductive and unjust. People are conned into paying an unfair tax and liking it. Still, it is not thievery. No one gets away with anything, except politically. Neither present nor future benefits are at risk-at any rate, no more at risk than they will be no matter what happens.
Budget Director Darman suggests that the Moynihan tax cut would make it necessary to raise taxes a couple of decades down the road to pay the baby boomers’ benefits as they reach the golden years. Yet taxes will have to be raised for that purpose then whether they are cut now or not. What is the Social Security surplus anyhow? It is not a bank vault stuffed with crisp Federal Reserve notes. It is simply some entries in a ledger showing that the Social Security Trust Fund owns some Treasury bonds.
Once the boomers’ benefits have to be paid, the Treasury will be asked to redeem the bonds for cash. The Treasury doesn’t have a bank vault full of Federal Reserve notes, either. To get the money, it will have to ask the President and Congress to use some of that year’s taxes to make good on the bonds. This will happen regardless of the size of the surplus, just as the benefits I am now receiving come out of current taxes, regardless of what and when I paid in.
People talk about Social Security as a sacred trust, and it’s pretty close to that. There is no doubt that millions of citizens depend on the benefits and are scared whenever they hear talk of changing them. Actually, changes are made every year as the cost-of-living allowance is adjusted, and there have been changes several times for other reasons. The present growing surplus is a consequence of comprehensive revisions made in 1983. Because I own some municipal bonds, half of my benefits are now subject to income tax. I didn’t agree to that; the President and Congress just hauled off and did it, and it costs me over $2,000 a year. I don’t object in principle, because I think all Social Security benefits should be taxable, and I think all municipal bond interest should be taxable. (But I do feel it is a mite unreasonable not to tax everyone who has one or the other. Why me?)
Besides being regressive, the Social Security tax is a tax on employment. It taxes workers for working, and it taxes employers for hiring them. In addition, because production is achieved solely as a result of work, the Social Security tax is a tax on production.
Yet the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers and the Business Roundtable have not rallied around Senator Moynihan. That’s rather remarkable. Half of the Social Security taxes are paid by businesses, from the smallest to the largest. And the half paid by employees is a drag on business, too, because it contributes to costs. Moreover, the paperwork involved is bothersome and expensive (or so they used to complain).
It would appear that business associations are more interested in the capital gains tax, which is paid by their members as individuals, than in the Social Security tax, which is paid by the businesses they supposedly are acting for. Well, we shouldn’t be surprised. Very little of what is reported as business news has anything to do with producing goods or services. Takeovers, buyouts and the like make big headlines – and big changes (usually unpleasant) in the lives of workers and the cities they live in. If there is evidence of these shenanigans having a positive effect on the production of goods and services, it is a well-kept secret. Nevertheless, that is the sort of activity the President is eager to encourage by reducing the capital gains tax.
IRONICALLY, the same sort of activity would be encouraged should Senator Moynihan succeed in the second half of his ambition: to use the Social Security surplus to buy up all the public debt. The private funds released would, he reasons, be saved. Since it is a widely propagandized faith that our troubles are caused by our failure to save, the Senator imagines that prosperity would be around the corner.
I have previously discussed John Maynard Keynes‘ theorem that saving equals investment (see “Much Ado about Saving,” NL July 13-27, 1987). What I overlooked in my discussion (and what Keynes overlooked in his) is that “investment” covers many noble works and a multitude of sins. If you have saved some money and want to invest it, you can buy a factory (fixed capital), goods to sell (working capital), some common stock (claims on future profits), bonds (which will pay fees for the use of your money). You can also put your money where your mouth is in Las Vegas or Atlantic City or any of several state-run lotteries. You can buy land or a collection of beer cans or rare stamps or a painting by some pseudo-Monet. That is not all, but it gives the idea.
When you come right down to it, only the first two items (fixed capital and working capital) are investments certainly intended to result in production of additional goods and services. A company issuing stock gets its money from the first sale; no subsequent sales have any effect on production. In some instances, even the proceeds from the first sale may be intended merely to finance the purchase of another company, whose takeover may not in any way expand total production. As for the other kinds of investments, it is plain that they are speculations and have nothing whatever to do with production.
Consequently, although saving may equal investment, as Keynes argued and as most economists today agree, and although production requires investment, it by no means follows that all investments are productive of goods and services. In the present state of our economy, there are not enough sound productive investments for the money already available. The lack of attractive investment opportunities is frequently cited as the reason banks became involved in the Campeau fiasco. When productive investments are scarce, money runs to speculation, as it has been doing in a turbulent stream for the past decade.
In spite of the irrelevance of any hoped-for encouragement of saving, Senator Moynihan’s proposal offers a big step toward solving the fundamental problem of the maldistribution of income. If the Senator’s Democratic colleagues were as wise in statesmanship as he (and as astute politically), they would rally to his standard instead of sulking on the sidelines pretending to be “responsible.”
After all, a very strong case can be made for the proposition that the Reaganomic shift of the tax burden from the rich to the poor is largely to blame for the stagnation of the economy and (if you want to fuss about it) the escalation of the deficit. This case is, indeed, far stronger than that for the Bush myth that cutting the capital gains tax would stimulate productive investment and increase tax collections (see “George Bush’s New Trojan Horse,” NL, September 19, 1988). If the Democrats were not determined to self-destruct still another time, they might combine the Moynihan and Bush proposals in a single bill, and let the President worry about being “responsible” for a change.
The New Leader