Moynihan’s Social Security Hocus Pocus

By George P. Brockway, originally published March 23, 1998

1998-3-23 Moynihan's Social Security Hocus Pocus titleON MARCH 16 Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan delivered a speech titled “Social Security Saved!” at Harvard’s John Kennedy School of Government. Said to be the Senate’s authority on the subject, he has addressed it many times over the years.

This time he referred to “the magic of compound interest” and presented some figures that surely seem magical at first glance. At second glance, they seem more than magical.

The Senator would cut the Social Security tax rate 1 percentage point and cut the employers’ tax (officially called “contribution”) likewise in order to “get the system back on a pay-as-you-go basis.” That is a worthy objective; unfortunately, the Senator does not say anything more about it.

According to the Moynihan plan, workers would be given a choice: They could take their 1 per cent cut and spend it on riotous living, or they could take both their own tax cut and their employers’ and put them in “voluntary personal savings accounts.” This is where the compound interest comes in, and it comes in with a roar. A table accompanying the text of the Senator’s speech shows that a worker who earns the “average wage” of $30,000 and stashes an amount equal to 2 per cent of it away every year for 45 years in a voluntary savings account compounding at 3 per cent, will wind up with a nest egg of $275,000 at retirement. And that will be on top of his or her Social Security benefits.

It sounds great, but anyone can do better. The present Social Security tax (employee plus employer) is 12.4 per cent. Suppose the whole caboodle were put in the magical voluntary savings account and compounded at 3 per cent. Then the nest egg would be $1,685,000. If the interest were compounded at 5 per cent (a rate sufficiently close to credibility for the Senator to include it in his table), in 45 years the $30,000-a-year average worker would be worth $2,790,000. At age 65 or thereabouts, he or she could retire and, leaving this lordly sum in the magical account, live on the annual interest of $139,500[1].

With astute quasi-legal advice of the sort advertised in many journals, the principal, or most of it, could be sheltered from the inheritance tax and passed along to the worker’s heirs or assigns, who could live comfortably without working at all. Indeed, since on these assumptions even the $12,000-a-year minimum-wage worker would have $1,085,000, we can safely say that after at most another generation, no one would ever have to work again. It might take somewhat longer in Bangladesh.

Now, I am enough of a Yankee to believe that honest labor never hurt anyone and is good for the soul; so I find this outcome appalling, and I would be sorry I brought it up if it didn’t reduce Senator Moynihan’s scheme to the absurd. Why does the scheme wind up in absurdity? Do you remember how, when lRAs were first peddled, banks advertised that they would make us all millionaires? There was and is nothing wrong with the mathematics. Bankers have books of tables that contain such calculations, and I assume the Senator has consulted one.

The trouble here, however, is that there are not enough ways to invest the bags full of money that would theoretically accumulate. The bags of money will therefore not exist, no matter what the mathematics says. They will not be sitting in bank vaults, waiting for a good deal to turn up, or available for some jolly use. They will not exist, tout court. They will never have existed.

If the Senator’s average worker deposits $600 a year every year for 45 years in the bank of his or her choice, and the bank can’t find people willing and able to pay interest for the use of it, the worker will reach retirement with $27,000, which ain’t hay, but is a long way from the $275,000-or $350,000 at 4 percent, or $450,000 at 5 per cent-the Moynihan table promises. Compound interest is truly magical, but the magic won’t work if there is no interest to compound.

We have now reached a point in the argument where John Maynard Keynes parts from Classical and Neoclassical economics. All three agree that saving equals investment. The conventional schools hold that saving creates investment, and they nag us about it every chance they get. In contrast, Keynes observed that entrepreneurs borrow and invest, not for the fun of it (though it may be fun), but to make money by producing things people are willing and able to buy. Accordingly, he wrote, “The propensity to consume will … take the place of the propensity or disposition to save.”

In any case, three current events teach us that there is now no use for the tremendous savings the Senator’s scheme would generate. (I) Major corporations daily announce plans to buy back sizable blocks of their own stock, thus confessing that they don’t know how to put all the money they already have to work producing goods and services. (2) Corporations of every size and shape raise and spend vast sums of money to buy and sell each other. The rash of mergers and takeovers may keep Wall Street busy scratching but ordinarily is intended to result in a contraction, rather than an expansion, of productive activity. (3) The stock market boom, again, mostly concerns Wall Street. The earnings of the companies on the Dow or the Standard and Poor’s 500 are now less than 1.5 percent of their stocks’ market value. Profits, while growing, cannot grow as fast as the market. Many actively traded stocks on the NASDAQ have never earned a profit at all.

As I have remarked before, the law of supply and demand works if, and only if, supply is restricted. The supply of stocks is indeed limited; consequently, as long as-but only as long as-Baby Boomers worried about looming retirement keep pouring their savings into the market, the market will keep rising. That is why Wall Street is eager for the commissions to be earned (“the old-fashioned way”) from handling the Senator’s voluntary personal savings accounts.

The economic sterility of capital gains, it needs to be recalled in the present context, is that they increase the price but not the productiveness of capital assets. The risk with capital gains is that when large numbers of people try to cash in their gains all at once, the market can crash very far and fast. Some day – at the latest when Boomers start cashing in their gains in order to live on them – the music will stop, and many people will find themselves without a chair to sit on.

In the meantime, conservatives hail Senator Moynihan’s scheme and urge him on. James K. Glassman of the American Enterprise Institute proposes, in the Washington Post, cutting “another few points off the payroll tax” as a step toward the happy hunting ground of complete privatization.

Complete privatization is of course what we had before we had Social Security, and it was not pretty[2]. The inadequacy of the unregulated free market was taught to all who had eyes to see in the months following October 29,1929. It was not until August 14,1935, when the Great Depression was almost six years old, that the heart-rending inadequacy of private charity was ground into the public consciousness. Then the New Deal was finally able to break through the barriers to the general welfare that had been thrown up by Republicans, Dixiecrats and a states’-rights-minded Supreme Court.

THE RESULTING Social Security Act was-thanks to the long years of wrangling and compromising-pretty much like the proverbial horse designed by a committee. It was not, and is not, ideally suited to any of its several functions. Nevertheless, it was, and remains, one of the most useful and successful and necessary public laws of the century. It was enacted because there are, in fact, limits-actual limits that we have tested more than once-to the assuredly great capabilities of private enterprise and private charity.

Despite this record, conservatives are likely to push for complete privatization of Social Security benefits. They are not likely to want to eliminate the system, though, and especially not the tax that supports it. Since Social Security accounts for almost a quarter of what makes ours a big government (which conservatives pretend to be scared by), and since the Social Security tax, including the employers'”contribution,” is indubitably a tax (which in principle conservatives object to), it may seem surprising that they wouldn’t want to abolish the whole shebang.

The reason for this inconsistency is simple. The various flat tax schemes that Congressional Republicans are busy devising have for them the charm of being resolutely regressive. Anatole France observed that rich men, as well as poor, could sleep under the bridges of Paris. Flat-taxers boast that they will give poor men the honor of being taxed at the same rate as the rich. Yet regressive as the flat tax is, it is nowhere near as regressive as the Social Security tax.

The two systems are similar in that each taxes only earned income. Malcolm Forbes probably pays himself and his office boy a fair salary. The two of them pay Social Security taxes at the same rate, and they would both be flat-taxed at the same rate, but they wouldn’t pay any tax on their incomes from the fortunes they inherited, no matter how large or small. David Rockefeller and I, being retired, now pay no Social Security tax (except as employers of servants, if any) and would pay no flat tax at all.

But the Social Security tax is more regressive than the flat tax on two counts: (I) The Social Security tax is levied on the first dollar you earn, while the flat tax proposals, like the present income tax, exempt the first few thousand dollars you get your hands on. (2) The Social Security tax does not tax at all earnings over $68,400, while the flat tax goes to the last dollar. (Moynihan proposes to increase the “cap” to $97,500 by 2003, still leaving the top 13 per cent of wages untaxed.) In short, the Social Security tax is a flat tax that is extra hard on the poor and extra easy on the rich.

At least since the Social Security system was “reformed” in 1983 by Senator Moynihan and others, it has been running a surplus that has been used to bring the “unified budget” closer to a balance. Even in this alleged near-balance year for the budget and near-crisis year for Social Security, the near-balance depends on an actual Social Security surplus of about $40 billion.

For reasons I advanced in this space last September 22, I contend that “A zero deficit means failure,” and for reasons I have advanced here many times, I contend that the Social Security Trust Fund is a serious error. Putting these two mistakes together, we have compounded them, for we have been using the proceeds of a most regressive tax to avoid increasing the income tax, which is moderately progressive, to achieve an unnecessary and wasteful balance.

Senator Moynihan’s scheme continues these injustices, as well as his erroneous attack on the Consumer Price Index. Reactionaries will rejoice.

The New Leader

[1] Ed:  I have tried and tried using the financial functions in Excel, and have asked others to do so.  We cannot replicate these numbers.  We’d be happy to see how they are calculated.

[2] Editor’s emphasis


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