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Misdirection: Rampell Views Entitlements Through the Generational War Lens

9:28 am in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

Some of the favored children of the economic elite who have a public presence, work hard in their writing and speaking to divert attention from inequality and oligarchy issues by raising the issue of competition between seniors and millennials for “scarce” Federal funds. That’s understandable. If millennials develop full consciousness of who, exactly, has been flushing their prospects for a decent life down the toilet, their anger and activism might bring down the system of wealth and economic and social privilege that benefits both their families and the favored themselves in the new America of oligarchy and plutocracy.

Catherine Rampell sets forth the position that seniors haven’t paid for their Social Security and Medicare because they “generally receive” more in benefits out of these programs than they pay into them.

Here and here, I evaluated Abby Huntsman’s arguments for entitlement “reform,” and, of course, Pete Peterson’s son, Michael fights a continuing generational war against seniors in pushing the austerian line of the Peterson Foundation. Now comes Catherine Rampell, who, in a recent column, sets forth the position that seniors haven’t paid for their Social Security and Medicare because they “generally receive” more in benefits out of these programs than they pay into them. I’ll reply to all of the main points in Rampell’s argument, by quoting liberally and then replying to the points she makes in each quote. She says:

Yes, seniors paid into Social Security and Medicare during the years they worked, if they worked. But they generally receive much more out of the entitlement system than they paid into it.

She continues by citing an Urban Institute study and pointing out that earlier age cohorts received much more in benefits from Social Security than they paid in, and also says:

But let’s consider the average worker who turned 65 in 2010. Generally speaking, the people in this cohort will, more or less, break even on Social Security, according to Eugene Steuerle, an Urban Institute fellow who co-authors the annual report. (Earlier generations made out like bandits; for example, members of an average one-earner couple who turned 65 in 1990 receive twice as much in Social Security benefits as they paid in taxes.)

Medicare, on the other hand, is pretty much a steal no matter when you turned 65.”

After citing some details documenting “what a steal” Medicare is, Rampell concludes the first part of her argument with this:

”It boils down to this: Despite all the “we already paid for it” rhetoric popular among seniors, seniors did not pre-pay for their entitlements. If anything, they paid for their parents’ entitlements, which were more modest than the benefits today’s retirees receive.

This argument of Rampell’s is disingenuous, because it takes the claim that seniors have already paid for their entitlements as saying that they’ve paid dollar-for-dollar, more or less, for what they’re getting in benefits. But seniors who know how SS and medicare works certainly don’t mean this when they say they’ve already paid for it. What they surely mean instead, is that Congress has legislated the SS and Medicare safety nets, and the benefits that currently exist, for the purpose of seeing to it that seniors have a minimum of economic insecurity during the period of their lives when a large proportion of them no longer have the capability to earn a decent living due to illness, other infirmities, or an extreme reluctance of private sector employers to hire them even when they are very skilled.

To draw on the benefits of these programs seniors were required to pay FICA contributions during their working lives. These payments, according to the law, give them the right, in other words, entitle them, to receive the benefits of SS and Medicare that were mandated by Congress.

No one ever said to today’s seniors that there was some rule in the SS and Medicare programs requiring that their payments needed to, or ought to, correspond to the amount of their total benefits, since that was never the deal legislated by Congress. No, the deal was: “You pay your FICA contributions, and you get your benefits at retirement.” Simple as that!

So, people who followed the SS and Medicare rules and made their payments over the years rightly view themselves as having paid for their entitlement benefits, regardless of whether their cumulative FICA payments fall short of or exceed the cumulative sum of those benefits. Why shouldn’t they, and why is Rampell implying that the deal implicit in our major entitlement programs is anything different?

Additionally, I’m afraid that Rampell is also wrong when she says that today’s seniors “paid for” their parents’ entitlements. They certainly paid FICA and Medicare-related contributions, of course; but it is not true that these revenues paid for anything, in spite of Federal reports that appear to link the two, or the accounting that shows that the Social Security Administration has built up a $2.8 Trillion credit against future expenditures, and that Medicare has a much smaller volume of credit to be used for such expenditures. Read the rest of this entry →

The Village Still Ignores the Most Important Point

8:48 am in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

In recent posts I reviewed two commentaries by Abby Huntsman on Social Security and other entitlements, also noting points made in other critiques of her narratives. Abby’s commentaries are here, and here, and my critiques are here and here. The most important point I emphasized in my two rebuttals is that there are no fiscal solvency or sustainability issues related to Social Security, or other parts of the safety net, but that the issues involve only the willingness of Congress to appropriate entitlement spending, and either the removal of current constraints on Treasury to spend appropriations such as the debt limit, or the willingness of the Executive Branch to use its current legislative authority either to a) generate sufficient seigniorage from platinum coins to spend such appropriations; or b) use a type of debt instrument, such as consols, which aren’t counted toward the debt limit.

The day before I posted my second reply to Abby Huntsman, Richard J. Eskow and WeActRadio posted this video clip from Eskow’s radio broadcast. In his critique, Richard shows that Abby Huntsman’s treatment of Social Security and entitlements is full of misleading information and hews closely to the narrative offered by Alan Simpson, Pete Peterson, and organizations supported by Peterson funding, and he calls for the MSNBC producers of “The Cycle” to issue statements correcting the facts, and to give Abby’s co-hosts on The Cycle a chance to reply to her about social security. Read the rest of this entry →

When You Really Look, Financial Quicksand Turns Into Oligarchical BS

9:09 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

Why do you say that the Government will have a solvency problem?

Abby Huntsman’s first rant about entitlements soliciting generational warfare got a lot of pushback from defenders. I reviewed the main points made in defense of entitlements, and then added “the most important point of all” as well. Abby made a second try, however, this time singling out Michael Hiltzik’s reply to her to respond to and adding a few more points, while withdrawing a bit from her claim that life expectancy has changed very much for seniors since the New Deal period. Hiltzik took issue with that one too. Let’s review Huntsman’s reply to Hiltzik by analyzing the MSNBC transcript of her second rant against entitlements.

Abby Huntsman:

. . . the need for entitlement reform. there was a firestorm of reaction. an article in the ” l.a. times” went as far as to say i want to lead my generation into poverty. come on, man. this isn’t about me. it’s about the major problem.

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The Most Important Point of All Was Ignored

8:43 am in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

On Abby Hunstman’s right wing Petersonian “Fix the Debt” rant

MSNBC’s right wing representative on The Cycle, Abby Huntsman, got a lot of pushback from Social Security defenders after her rant last week. They made points similar to the following in countering Huntsman:

– SS is not bankrupt now, it has $2.6 Trillion in Treasury IOUs in the SS “trust fund” accumulated because Treasury has used FICA collections to “pay for” other Federal spending since 1983, when the Government began to collect more from workers and employers than was paid out to beneficiaries. The accumulated IOUs, projected interest on them, and future FICA collections are projected as being enough to “cover” 100% of SS benefits until 2033, and then 75% of benefits thereafter. 100% of benefits could be “covered” from 2033 on, if the payroll tax cap on Social Security were to be removed.

– Huntsman’s claim that seniors have longer life expectancies than when SS first was enacted is greatly exaggerated, because life expectancies at birth have improved due to improvements in infant mortality rates. But they haven’t improved nearly as much at age 65 and older, and apart from that, the improvement that exists after age 65 is reached is primarily concentrated among certain social groups, and that the poorest and most needy groups in our population, who need SS the most, have either seen little improvement in life expectancy, or even a decline in life expectancy in recent years.

– Savings of seniors now average very little more than is needed for them to cover Medical expenses due to aging and there is precious little left over for living expenses beyond what SS spending will cover.

– Huntsman is conflating the SS “Trust Fund” running out of money in 2033, with SS running out of money. The first is happening as it was always planned to happen when the Reagan Administration and Congress agreed to raise FICA payments to almost double the amount previously paid, for the boomer generation to cover its retirement benefits; but the second depends on what Congress will do in the future to close the gap between current projected FICA revenues and projected benefits.

These two are different because the Government can do various things to close that gap. Huntsman mentions only cutting benefits or moving the SS retirement age to either 70 or even 75, so that enough will be left in the fund to close the revenue/benefits gap. But there are other ways of doing this easily; most notably removing the payroll tax cap so that the well-off, or those who are prospering, will pay the same share of their income into Social Security as most of the rest of us, and/or there can also be gradual small increases in the employee and employer contributions that will close the projected gaps indefinitely.Other points of less importance, and moral arguments, which from my point of view are among the most important, about the right to a decent secure retirement for the elderly are made, as well.

But, there is one point, the most important one of all, which is not made in all these “progressive” push back arguments against Abby Hunstman’s right wing Petersonian “Fix the Debt” rant. That is the point that there is no entitlement crisis and no emergency, and neither an increase in payroll taxes, nor robbing from “future generations” is necessary to close the projected gap after 2033 because Congress can pass legislation providing for annual automatic funding of expected costs for all SS and Medicare trust funds.

That’s done now for Supplementary Medical Insurance (Medicare Part B), and Prescription Drug Benefits (Medicare Part D), and the same practice using similar legislative language can be extended to the SS Old Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) and Disability Insurance (DI) trust funds. End of story. Once that is done, no gaps between SS revenue and benefits can be projected by institutions, such as CBO, under current law.

You may doubt this solution by pointing out that legislation like this just pushes off Huntsman’s Social Security solvency problem to the Treasury at large, rather than its being SS’s problem, but it doesn’t solve the real insolvency problem. Only it does, because the Government as a whole has no fiscal solvency problem, since it can always use its authority to create the reserves in the Treasury spending accounts to pay all its bills including all those exceeding its revenues.

The customary way of creating such reserves is to sell Treasury debt instruments, destroying reserves in the private sector, and getting the Fed to place an equal amount of reserves in its accounts. But, there is another way it can be done under current law, and still other ways open to Congress, if they want to pay all the SS benefits they would have guaranteed by the proposed change in the law that would solve this faux problem.

The way any gap appropriated by Congress can be closed under current law, is to use Platinum Coin Seigniorage (PCS) to do it. As many of my readers know, I’ve explained how this would work in my e-book. But, the basic idea is that coin seigniorage can be used by the Treasury to require the Fed to use its reserve creation authority to place reserves in Treasury accounts, without Treasury engaging in any additional taxing or borrowing.

So, this capability coupled with Congress providing for annual automatic funding would end the Huntsman, Peterson, Bowles, Simpson, Ryan, and Obama revenue gap problems with Social Security and all other entitlements, for that matter, without these poor folks having to worry about taxing the rich, like them. And, if Congress doesn’t like that alternative way of placing reserves in Treasury’s accounts so it can spend Congressional appropriations, then it can always just go ahead and place the Fed within the Treasury Department, giving the Secretary the direct authority to order the Fed to fill its accounts with enough reserves to cover any revenue shortfalls, without either raising taxes or issuing more debt instruments.

So, these are the easy ways to end the faux crisis which won’t befall us anyway until 2033. Why won’t the “progressives” pushing back against Abby Huntsman mention solutions like these? Why do they, instead, always propose solutions that will raise taxes on the wealthy? Are they afraid to let the people know that the Government isn’t like a household and doesn’t have the same financial problems they have, just written large? Are they so insistent on solutions that will tax higher income and wealthy people, because they must kill the two birds of full employment and greater equality through taxing with a single stone?

Moving toward greater economic equality is a focus we ought to prioritize very highly, but getting that done is a separate issue from defeating deficit terrorism by taking the deficit reduction and faux entitlement crises off the table so full resources can be devoted to strengthening the safety net and legislating programs essential for getting millions of Americans on their feet again and contemplating the future with hope. That, in itself, will lessen inequality.

And after that is done, we can then turn our attention to programs primarily focused on creating greater economic equality. But until it is done, let us focus on stopping the bleeding of working and middle class Americans and restoring them to the economic health and sense of economic opportunity, that we’ve always thought was so important to American life.

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)

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