The PJ Tatler

Personally, I Prefer Clarity on the Social Security 'Trust Fund'


It is important we stop thinking of the securities in the SS “Trust Fund” as real. Its only meaning is it measures the amount of money the government has already spent from our SS taxes on items not related to Social Security. That is all it is. This number is recorded as an intergovernmental ledger transfer that simply cancels out to zero. It does not exist. Same with the Medicare Trust Fund. The fact that Treasury could theoretically “sell” an intergovernmental transfer is meaningless in an economic sense; in fact it would be simply selling new debt.

Therefore, our “$14 trillion” of debt is actually an overstatement.  We really currently owe about “only” $9-10 trillion (unsecured debt that is—not counting our guarantees to Fannie and Freddie). There is no meaningful way an entity can owe money to itself. That extra $5 trillion or so of debt in the “Trust Fund” does not exist — not yet at least. This is why there is still hope. Also, the very large present value numbers we often see presented as our “true debt” (I have seen present value numbers as large as $50-100 trillion depending on how many years out one goes) is also not real — again not yet at least. Rather, these numbers are simply representations of the present value the Federal Government would owe in the future if no changes were made (ignoring unexpected revenue increases due to higher growth and productivity increases) in our current entitlement programs. But we do not owe it now. That is a real and important distinction even as it is a politically difficult nut to crack. In reality, it is far from hopeless.

Language is important. I believe one of the biggest obstacles to change is the general confusion in our political and economic language. People are smart enough to understand all of this, as they deal with these exact issues in their daily lives. Maybe I am stating the obvious, but most people I know easily see the difference between actually owing money and potentially owing money. Lack of precision in our public discourse is a big part of the problem we face. Laws can change. This does not mean the political fight won’t remain intractable for a while, but that is a far cry from being already dead and buried as a country.

But we do have to start soon — like yesterday.