Category Archives: myths about Social Security

Social Security Dialogue VI – Not a Ponzi Scheme

This is the final post from the Social Security series from Mark Thoma on the Economist’s View Typepad and it does not really give us any guidance on saving social security, but it does refute the charge that Social Security is a Ponzi Scheme made by those who favor dismantling the system.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

As a follow-up to this:
Ponzi Schemes vs. Social Security, SSA, January 2009: …The Logic of Pay-As-You-Go Systems In contrast to a Ponzi scheme, dependent upon an unsustainable progression, a common financial arrangement is the so-called “pay-as-you-go” system. Some private pension systems, as well as Social Security, have used this design. A pay-as-you-go system can be visualized as a pipeline, with money from current contributors coming in the front end and money to current beneficiaries paid out the back end.
There is a superficial analogy between pyramid or Ponzi schemes and pay-as-you-go programs in that in both money from later participants goes to pay the benefits of earlier participants. But that is where the similarity ends. A pay-as-you-go system can be visualized as a simple pipeline, with money from current contributors coming in the front end and money to current beneficiaries paid out the back end.

So we could image that at any given time there might be, say, 40 million people receiving benefits at the back end of the pipeline; and as long as we had 40 million people paying taxes in the front end of the pipe, the program could be sustained forever. It does not require a doubling of participants every time a payment is made to a current beneficiary, or a geometric increase in the number of participants. (There does not have to be precisely the same number of workers and beneficiaries at a given time–there just needs to be a fairly stable relationship between the two.) As long as the amount of money coming in the front end of the pipe maintains a rough balance with the money paid out, the system can continue forever. There is no unsustainable progression driving the mechanism of a pay-as-you-go pension system and so it is not a pyramid or Ponzi scheme.

In this context, it would be most accurate to describe Social Security as a transfer payment–transferring income from the generation of workers to the generation of retirees–with the promise that when current workers retiree, there will be another generation of workers behind them who will be the source of their Social Security retirement payments. So you could say that Social Security is a transfer payment, but it is not a pyramid scheme. There is a huge difference between the two, and only a superficial similarity.

If the demographics of the population were stable, then a pay-as-you-go system would not have demographically-driven financing ups and downs and no thoughtful person would be tempted to compare it to a Ponzi arrangement. However, since population demographics tend to rise and fall, the balance in pay-as-you-go systems tends to rise and fall as well. During periods when more new participants are entering the system than are receiving benefits there tends to be a surplus in funding (as in the early years of Social Security). During periods when beneficiaries are growing faster than new entrants (as will happen when the baby boomers retire), there tends to be a deficit. This vulnerability to demographic ups and downs is one of the problems with pay-as-you-go financing. But this problem has nothing to do with Ponzi schemes, or any other fraudulent form of financing, it is simply the nature of pay-as-you-go systems. …

Social Security Dialogue V

I’m still mining Mark Thoma’s pithy series. Here economist Dean Baker is myth-busting:

Tuesday, November 15, 2011
Dean Baker:
The Myth of the Wealthy Elderly, by Dean Baker: The austerity gang seeking cuts to Social Security and Medicare has been vigorously promoting the myth that the elderly are an especially affluent and privileged group. Their argument is that because of their relative affluence, cuts to the programs upon which they depend is a simple matter of fairness. There were two reports released last week that call this view into question.
The first was a report from the Census Bureau that used a new experimental poverty index. This index differed from the official measure in several ways; most importantly it includes the value of government non-cash benefits, like food stamps. It also adjusts for differences in costs by area and takes account of differences in health spending by age.
While this new measures showed a slightly higher overall poverty rate the most striking difference between the new measure and the official measure was the rise in the poverty rate among the elderly. Using the official measure, the poverty rate for the elderly is somewhat lower than for the adult population as a whole, 9 percent for the elderly compared with 14 percent for the non-elderly adult population. However with the new measure, the poverty rate for the elderly jumps to 14 percent, compared with 13 percent for non-elderly adults.
By this higher measure, we have not been nearly as successful in reducing poverty among the elderly as we had believed. While Social Security has done much to ensure retirees an income above the poverty line, the rising cost of health care expenses not covered by Medicare has been an important force operating in the opposite direction. …
It is also worth remembering that the Medicare premium is projected to rise considerably more than the cost of living each year. This means that as retirees age, rising Medicare premiums will be reducing the buying power of their Social Security check each year.  And this is the median; half of all seniors will have less income than this to support themselves.
This is the group that the Very Serious People in Washington want to target for their deficit reduction. While the Very Serious People debate whether people who earn $250,000 a year are actually rich when it comes to restoring the tax rates of the 1990s, they somehow think that seniors with incomes under $30,000 a year must sacrifice to balance the budget. There is a logic here, but it ain’t pretty.
Raising the payroll tax limit for Social Security would provide needed revenues in a way that is skewed heavily toward the wealthy. However, it would also be a tax increase and we can’t have that. But cutting benefits and putting more of the elderly in jeopardy of living in poverty? Apparently that’s not a problem.

Posted by Mark Thoma on Tuesday, November 15, 2011 at 01:17 AM in Budget Deficit, Economics, Social Insurance, Social Security |

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