Taking a Second Look at Social Security

Recently Cousin Ron Lamont re-posted a Facebook “Like” quote by someone alleging that as early as 1967, liberal economists were calling Social Security a “Ponzi scheme.” This irritated me enough that I removed it with the “hide this post” tool. I’m still considering whether Facebook, a family-friendly safe space, is even the proper forum for hard-core political commentary and opinion.

So to be honest, It’s fair to say I started it all when I re-posted my personal website article “Social Security Not a Ponzi Scheme” on Facebook. Even though PolitiFact [1] rates Perry’s 2011 “Ponzi” statement as “False,” I’d have to rate the 1967 “Ponzi” allegation, far from being a “Pants On Fire” item, as “Half True.”

My cousin’s post was a fair turnaround. Now then, what’s the story about Social Security?

In 1967 Newsweek reportedly ran a column by noted liberal economist Paul Samuelson (of college Economics textbook fame). Samuelson in fact did compare Social Security to a Ponzi scheme [2]. This source cites numerous other early references to the same opinion, including the Wall Street Journal. The source notes that Samuelson was “actually drawing on the Ponzi analogy to defend Social Security”, a back-handed way for an academic to illustrate a point if ever I heard one. There’s a long history of groups that tried to pin Social Security to the mat before. You should read the PolitiFact assessment [1] of the whole issue.

In my first article I showed that Social Security is NOT a Ponzi scheme by definition, but an account that is actually but not physically held in each contributor’s name. Despite all the rhetoric about what Congress is doing or has done with those funds, the account is still due and payable according to the terms of the social contract. The obvious cause for concern is: how long will the Social Security trust fund remain solvent and be able to pay out on its obligations?

Over the years a major defense of Social Security has been that it is deemed “actuarially sound,” meaning that a statistical analysis of FICA and Employer Contributions, charting pay-in and pay-out amounts against actuarial table life expectancies shows that Social Security is paying its own way, or is at least solvent. Well, it probably would be solvent if its funds were securely invested at going interest rates like any other form of pension fund.

I recently read a cynical charge somewhere that when FDR and the New Deal Congress inaugurated Social Security in 1935, the actuarial life expectancy of the current generation of retirees was about three years. I couldn’t verify that. Social Security Online [3] presents a quite different accounting: “men attaining 65 in 1990 can expect to live for 15.3 years compared to 12.7 years for men attaining 65 back in 1940.” 1940 was the first year Americans could collect Social Security.

One study I can and did do is an analysis of my own SSI account. I started drawing on it at age 65 in 2009. Raw data includes all of my contributions from 1960 to 2009 (49 years), matching Employer contributions in like amounts, and even a withholding rate adjustment recalculation for a five-year period where I was mostly self-employed. Given the taxable income data posted to everyone’s annual SSA statements, and the withholding rate for each year [4], it is a simple matter to calculate annual withholding amounts without trying to locate 49 years of W2’s or Form 1040’s. My 49-year figures came within $186 of the government-reported withholdings. And I know exactly what my SSI income is.

I assumed those funds must be adjusted or amortized for the value of interest they should earn in any interest-bearing account, making no assumption about what the Congress and Treasury may actually be doing with our money. I chose a 5% APR. Some may object that the government doesn’t credit interest accruals to our account. I am calculating the value of the account, not just the portion allocated to us.

But what is the difference between the principal and principle plus accruals? My own contribution’s cash flow plus assumed accrual worked out to 148.47% of principal. (That’s so low because the early years contributed the least). I calculated what the future value [6] of each year’s total adjusted contribution would be by year 2009. Adding the sum of those payments plus interest equaled just under 12% of my lifetime earnings.

Obviously I won’t be publishing personal financial data out of privacy concerns, but you could run the same calculations on your own account using the source links I’ve provided in “References” below. If you do not yet have a retirement year and estimated SSI monthly income, use your SSA annual statements to make some assumptions. You need to know the effect of different retirement ages on SSI income anyway.

My own work experience may not be entirely representative. I probably worked somewhat longer than the average of all wage-earners. On the one hand, my wages include three years in the military, part-time income in college, and five years of exquisitely marginal self-employment income. On the other, I finally “capped out” on SSI contributions in my last years in the workforce. The difference is what those early years might have contributed to personal savings growth had my income curve been more even. That makes a big difference to my old age, but doesn’t materially affect the amount of my monthly social security payment.

We noted how low my wages were in those early years (even if adjusted for inflation, which we should not do here). My experience would be different from someone who went straight from college into a lifelong professional career. Those earners would “cap out” early, and the Social Security Administration fund would probably never “go into the red” for individuals least likely to depend on it. Conversely, my contributions would be proportionally greater than those of someone who, for example, left the workplace to raise a family, or on account of illness or disability. All I can conclude is that it sounds reasonable that a substantial proportion of the workforce probably survives to receive social security payments well in excess of that ever put into the fund. Perhaps people who complain that is not fair forget that’s the security benefit of a social security insurance plan. Private insurance plans of all types depend on the very same mathematical certainty of pooling of risk.

The reason we can’t add an inflation factor to our calculations is off-topic but worth examining. Savings and other interest-bearing accounts don’t take inflation into account either. There, a dollar is only a dollar whether deposited in 1960 or 2009. I ran the “Inflation Calculator” [5] on my yearly payments anyway, even though I could not fairly use them for my bottom-line calculations. It’s instructive to note that the same $36.13 worth of groceries in 1962 (my FICA contribution for that year) would cost $256.66 in 2009 dollars. Younger readers would not remember the late 1970’s, when so many of us consumed with plastic credit cards bearing an 18.99% APR, since we could more cheaply repay later with devalued dollars. It isn’t just the stodgy classic University of Chicago economic conservatives who call inflation the “hidden tax.” It is. Today we call it “Quantitative Easement.”

In my early years I argued that I would probably live to regret paying into the Social Security fund (as if I had a choice). My spreadsheet proves me wrong. Actuarially speaking, in my case, I should expect to get out of it almost exactly the value of what I put into it. The spreadsheet calculations revealed that my own account will hit “break-even” when I turn age 80.25, and my statistical life expectancy right now in 2011 is age 82.77 years.

Unfortunately, even considering my low-earning early years, the purchasing power of my Social Security “nest egg” would have been worth 91% more (almost double the real purchasing power) if we did not live in an inflation-addicted economy. Our “hidden tax” benefits the government in the short run, because it repays debt with cheaper dollars just like we did with the plastic 1970 credit cards. As you can see, in the long run inflation hurts all of us, including our government.

Unsurprisingly, conservatives and upper-income wage earners will argue that Social Security is inefficient and of limited value. Liberals, seniors and lower-income workers will argue that the vast majority of Americans need a safety net. Despite all the rhetoric on both sides, I’d like to know what is going to be done to save a program that has worked for generations of American retirees so far.

If Congress can’t or won’t fix the program we have now, it would be foolhardy to put our faith and trust in a poor substitute that takes the “insurance” out of Social Security insurance, or, even worse, in some scheme that’ll be shunted off to the same private sector that brought us toxic assets, job offshoring and an imperiled middle class. That’s just my opinion, but whether the polls prove that to be in the 51% majority or 49% minority, it can’t and won’t be ignored.

©Alex Forbes 2011


[1] PolitiFact, “Shacking up: Social Security & Ponzi schemes
[2] Liberally Conservative, “Perry Wasn’t the First
[3] Life Expectancy for Social Security, SSA
[4] Social Security Administration Trust Fund Data
[5] Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI Inflation Calculator
[6] Future Value: I couldn’t get the built-in Excel function to work properly in my spreadsheet. Just use the formula FV = PV ( 1 + i )^ t (see NetMBA Future Value) which, in the Excel cell, would look like this: =D5*1.05^G5 if cell D5 contains the principal and G5 contains the number of periods. 1.05 is the assumed interest factor compounded annually.

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