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Friday, November 22, 2013

Social Security: The Most Successful Ponzi Scheme in History

Mises Daily: Friday, November 22, 2013 by Gary Galles
“We paid our Social Security and Medicare taxes; we earned our benefits.” It is that belief among senior citizens that President Obama was pandering to when, in his second inaugural address, he claimed that those programs “strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers.” 

If Social Security and Medicare both involved people voluntarily financing their own benefits, an argument could be made for seniors’ “earned benefits” view. But they have not. They have redistributed tens of trillions of dollars of wealth to themselves from those younger.

Social Security and Medicare have transferred those trillions because they have been partial Ponzi schemes.

After Social Security’s creation, those in or near retirement got benefits far exceeding their costs (Ida Mae Fuller, the first Social Security recipient, got 462 times what she and her employer together paid in “contributions”). Those benefits in excess of their taxes paid inherently forced future Americans to pick up the tab for the difference. And the program’s almost unthinkable unfunded liabilities are no less a burden on later generations because earlier generations financed some of their own benefits, or because the government has consistently lied that they have paid their own way.

Since its creation, Social Security has been expanded multiple times. Each expansion meant those already retired paid no added taxes, and those near retirement paid more for only a few years. But both groups received increased benefits throughout retirement, increasing the unfunded benefits whose burdens had to be borne by later generations. Thus, each such expansion started another Ponzi cycle benefiting older Americans at others’ expense.

Social Security benefits have been dramatically increased. They doubled between 1950 and 1952. They were raised 15 percent in 1970, 10 percent in 1971, and 20 percent in 1972, in a heated competition to buy the elderly vote. Benefits were tied to a measure that effectively double-counted inflation and even now, benefits are over-indexed to inflation, raising real benefit levels over time.

Disability and dependents’ benefits were added by 1960. Medicare was added in 1966, and benefits have been expanded (e.g., Medicare Part B, only one-quarter funded by recipients, and Part D’s prescription drug benefit, only one-eighth funded by recipients).
The massive expansion of Social Security is evident from the growing tax burden since its $60 per year initial maximum (for employees and employers combined). Tax rates have risen and been applied to more earnings, with Social Security now taking a combined 12.4 percent of earnings up to $113,700 (and Medicare’s 2.9 percent combined rate applies to all earnings, plus a 0.9 percent surtax beyond $200,000 of earnings).

Those multiple Ponzi giveaways to earlier recipients created Social Security’s 13-digit unfunded liability and Medicare’s far larger hole. And despite politicians’ repeated, heated denials, many studies have confirmed the results.
One recent study of lifetime payroll taxes and benefits comes from the Urban Institute. For Medicare, they calculated that (in 2012 dollars) an average-wage-earning male would get $180,000 in benefits, but pay only $61,000 in taxes — “earning” only about one-third of benefits received. A similarly situated female does even better. The cumulative “excess” benefits equal $105 trillion, with net benefits increasing over time.

The Urban Institute’s calculations revealed a different situation for Social Security. An average-earning male who retired in 2010 will receive $277,000 in lifetime benefits, $23,000 less than his lifetime taxes, while for females, their $302,000 in lifetime benefits approximates their lifetime taxes. And things are getting worse. By 2030, that man will be “shorted” 16 cents (10 cents for women) of every lifetime tax dollar paid. Read more -->