Social Security Not a Ponzi Scheme

Many Americans were surprised to hear any frontrunner candidate for President, even Texas Gov. Rick Perry, say recently in the GOP candidate debates that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme. As quoted by the Washington Post on August 29, [1] Perry claimed:

It is a Ponzi scheme for these young people. The idea that they’re working and paying into Social Security today, that the current program is going to be there for them, is a lie,” Perry said. “It is a monstrous lie on this generation, and we can’t do that to them.”

It’s a lie only if and when Congress reneges on a solemn US government promise and obligation. Seniors who have paid into the Social Security fund all their working lives should be outraged. The young and those who are only beginning working careers might well find cause for alarm in those words. I believe we can set the record straight here while still bypassing 95% of the partisan rhetoric. The status of Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme” begins and ends with the intent of Congress.

Merriam-Webster defines ‘Ponzi scheme’ as:

an investment swindle in which some early investors are paid off with money put up by later ones in order to encourage more and bigger risks.

For more information on Ponzi scheme, see Wikipedia [2]. It is true that the money you’re depositing into your SSI account goes into the Social Security Trust Fund. It’s true that the money credited to “your account” goes not into the purchasing of equities to build a nest egg for your own eventual retirement, but to pay off obligations to the current generation of retirees. Just like most private pension funds, Social Security obligations pose a long and growing debt “tail” of outgo which is micro-managed by Congress in periodic fits of oversight.

According to OMB, the Office of Management and Budget as quoted in Wikipedia [3]:

These [Trust Fund] balances are available to finance future benefit payments and other Trust Fund expenditures – but only in a bookkeeping sense…. They do not consist of real economic assets that can be drawn down in the future to fund benefits. Instead, they are claims on the Treasury that, when redeemed, will have to be financed by raising taxes, borrowing from the public, or reducing benefits or other expenditures. The existence of large Trust Fund balances, therefore, does not, by itself, have any impact on the Government’s ability to pay benefits. (from FY 2000 Budget, Analytical Perspectives, p. 337)

The Wiki article quoted Dr. Alan Greenspan as saying: “The crucial question: Are they ultimate claims on real resources? And the answer is yes.”

The devil’s in the details. All the worrisome arguments about how those dollar bill notes paid to you out of the fund come from the current cycle of depositors, and are not “your” dollar bills, could equally well be applied to any checking or savings bank account you own. This out-of-context argument makes no sense. The thing to remember is that it’s YOUR account, and the source of the physical greenbacks is an irrelevant distraction. The obligation to make good on your account is indeed YOUR asset, and morally it should certainly not be subject to the discretion of Congress, any more than your bank can legally decide whether your savings withdrawals coincide with the bank’s current priorities.

It’s a well know fact that the Baby Boomers are putting a heavy strain on the Social Security system. We’ve known that was coming for half a century. As we face a looming cash flow problem with Social Security, I think Congress and not individual Americans deserve full blame and responsibility for that.

Personally, I was trained in classical laissez-faire economics, and I’m very conversant with all the theoretical arguments why Social Security was a mistake in the first place. They’re just another political case of “that may work in practice, but it won’t hold up in theory.”  In my twenties I resented Social Security bitterly. After a lifetime paying into the fund, and a lifetime observing corporate practice in the American workplace where I worked for over forty years, I saw I’d be a fool to trust any “privatized” solution. Neither am I amused when I hear my account dismissively called an “entitlement.”

Reasonable people will conclude that Social Security is NOT a Ponzi scheme because, among other things, it is NOT a get-rich investment scheme and, for better or for worse, the “real resources” backing the fund are United States Treasury bonds. One could, if one wished, even argue that Perry was really calling into question the full faith and credit of the United States government. After all, it was his party that shook world confidence in our national will to pay our just debts and obligations in the first place.

© Alex Forbes 2011

Further Reading

[1] Washington Post, “Perry’s Ponzi scheme rhetoric” by Jonathan Bernstein
[2] Wikipedia, Ponzi scheme
[3] Wikipedia, Social Security Trust Fund

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