Josh at Talking Points Memo has a great post this morning that outlines why the “Social Security Crisis!” is really just the flipside of our huge national debt addiction–and how privatization is really a way of leaving the middle class and working poor with the bill for 25 years of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.
The United States has a bit over $7 trillion in accumulated national debt. You can say that’s been built up over the history of the country. But overwhelmingly it was borrowed over what happens to be the span of my lifetime — the last thirty-five years — and especially over the last twenty-five years.
After 1980 we started borrowing money big-time to finance our deficits — in large part because of tax cuts on high-income earners. However you want to slice it, we started spending substantially more than we were taking in in tax revenue.
So where’d we borrow the money?
This is from memory, so I may have the numbers a bit off. But I believe about $4 trillion of that debt was borrowed on the open market — individual Americans have them in their investment portfolios, or pension funds hold them, or the Chinese, Japanese and the Saudis and others have them in bonds.
But about $3 trillion of those dollars we needed to fund the 1980s and 1990s deficits we managed to borrow closer to home. We borrowed it from the Social Security (and a few other government) trust fund(s).
Almost the entirety of President Bush’s Social Security phase-out plan comes down to a simple proposition: finding out how not to pay it back.
Now, admittedly, this is an approach that the president is rather familiar with from his own business career at various failed energy companies. But it is, in so many words, a straight up con — one of vast scale, and one which virtually no one in the media ever frames in just these terms.
Before discussing that aspect of the question, consider a hypothetical. Let’s say there’d not been a Social Security — President Bush’s dreamworld. We’d still have had the same deficits. The difference would be that we’d have had to borrow from private borrowers in the US and abroad.
Think we’d just be able to decide not to pay them back? Not likely. The Joneses and the Smiths with their 401ks probably wouldn’t like that. And the Japanese and Saudis probably wouldn’t like it much either. Of course, defaulting on our entire national debt would also certainly trigger a seismic international financial crisis. So you can probably figure that no one would be a huge fan of it.
So why does the president figure he can get away without making good on the debt to the folks who pay Social Security taxes, who are overwhelmingly low and middle-income wage earners (since no one pays Social Security tax on investment income or wage and salary income over about $85,000 a year)?
Isn’t it obvious? Because he thinks they’re an easy mark.