By Bob Cesca: The press and the Republican Party are almost equally driven to totally destroy Social Security as we know it. The 2012 Social Security Trustees Report was released this week and here are several headlines from three of the top newspapers in the country:
The Wall Street Journal: "Stress Rises on Social Security"
The Los Angeles Times: "Social Security is slipping closer to insolvency"
The New York Times: "Social Security's Financial Health Worsens"
And you know, come to think of it, it's not just Republicans and the press. Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) tweeted yesterday: "SocSec to run dry in 2033 - Medicare by 2024. Trustees: 'more options/time' if Congress acts 'sooner, not later.'"
All of these reactions would be acceptable if they even vaguely resembled what the Trustees reported.
Social Security does not "run dry" in 2033. It doesn't. "Run dry" and "insolvency" mean dead. Out of money. Nothing left. The trustees, in fact, reported that Social Security will run a surplus until 2033. 21 years. I can't emphasize this enough. Two decades! Can you imagine if any program in the federal government was projected to run a surplus for even half of that time? Budget hawks would crap their cages demanding immediate action to give back the taxpayers' money by slashing the program to the line. (To be fair, the date was adjusted back in time due to the Great Recession. Other years, however, the Trustees move the date forward in time. Either way, 2033 is barely on the horizon.)
And once 2033 rolls around, Social Security will be capable of paying 75 to 80 percent of total benefits in 2033 money, which, accounting for inflation, is more than Social Security recipients receive today. Furthermore, these are projections based on zero legislative action. In other words, if Congress does nothing by way of tweaking payroll taxes, Social Security will be perfect until 2033, then it'll still be capable of paying benefits after that.
But, naturally, something will happen to tighten the loose ends. It always does. Preferably that "something" will be low-key and non-disruptive. For example, lost somewhere in the American memory hole, President Reagan raised the payroll tax.
In 1983, for example, he signed off on Social Security reform legislation that, among other things, accelerated an increase in the payroll tax rate, required that higher-income beneficiaries pay income tax on part of their benefits, and required the self-employed to pay the full payroll tax rate, rather than just the portion normally paid by employees.
Without touching benefits or raising payroll taxes, Congress could follow suit by entirely eliminating the income cap on the payroll tax (the FICA tax found on your paycheck stub), forcing everyone who earns more than $110,000 per year to pay into the system based on their full income. That's around six percent of the population. According to experts, this would allow Social Security to pay full benefits until 2087. To put that date into perspective, in 2087, if they retire at age 65 and survive to their 100th birthdays, Tim Tebow, Bradley Manning, Hilary Duff, Ke$ha and every American born in 1987 could collect full Social Security benefits for 35 years each.
So why all the fuss and panic?
For starters, far-right Republicans have been trying to kill Social Security since it was established during the Depression. It's socialistic commie pinko welfare, they say in private. And so they act like the world's most duplicitous concern trolls by exploiting minor setbacks and lying about "bad news" in order to sell their unbelievably stupid privatization plan -- a massive giveaway to corporate America. They twist logic and pretend to "rescue" Social Security by disbanding it -- investing the trust fund in the totally safe and never unstable stock market.
They've been so good at framing and branding unmitigated fiction about this issue that they've successfully shoved the broader discussion well beyond reality into some kind of brutally dishonest phantom zone where "full benefits for 20 years, and much longer if we tweak the payroll tax" means, "OMFG! Social Security is DOOOOOMED! AAAAAAAHHH!" If they're not pitching their awful privatization scam, they're deliberately undermining the system by proposing things like raising the retirement age or cutting benefits. Both of these ideas only manage to hurt old people while simultaneously breeding disillusionment about the reliability of Social Security among younger people.
President Eisenhower once wrote:
"Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H. L. Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid."
Modern far-right Republicans are aware of Eisenhower's prediction and so instead of killing Social Security outright, they're trying to kill it by a thousand cuts and even more lies. Sadly, it seems like the rest of the D.C. establishment is going along with their framing in spite of the reality from the Trustees themselves, making the "insolvency" panic-mongering the biggest lie being foisted upon the American people today.