Faulty thinking on Social Security
The Washington Post really doesn’t like the Social Security program for some reason, and they constantly run opinion pieces on how the program should be cut. Dean Baker points out the (abysmal) quality of reasoning displayed in one such column:
How Much Money Do You Need to Get an Op-ed in the Washington Post?
That’s what readers of Jim Roumell’s column on wealth-testing Social Security must be asking. The column, “the rich can save Social Security by giving up their checks,” gets almost all its facts wrong, and suffers from huge problems of logic.
The basic idea is that we have some very rich people who don’t need Social Security, therefore there shouldn’t get it. Of course these people did pay for their Social Security. While Roumell is certainly right that the very rich don’t need the money, they generally wouldn’t need the interest on the government bonds they own. We could also deny them the interest on these bonds, that would make as much sense as Roumell’s proposal on Social Security, but let’s not get bogged down in such moral considerations.
Roumell sees large savings if we deny Social Security to the rich:
“According to the Wall Street Journal, the top 1 percent of the United States’ 115 million households have a net worth of $6.8 million or greater. The top 5 percent have a net worth of $1.9 million or greater. If just the top 1 percent of wealthiest households gave up their Social Security income, assuming two-thirds of these households are of retirement age and will receive benefits averaging $30,000 a year, more than $200 billion would be saved in the first 10 years. That would contribute greatly to resolving the projected funding gap. If Social Security is gradually phased out for the wealthiest 5 percent of households, beginning with just a 10 percent benefit reduction, the savings climbs to nearly $500 billion over 10 years.”
Let’s see, two-thirds of the top 1.0 percent are over age 65? Where exactly did Roumell get this one? Has the Washington Post heard of fact checking?
If we eliminate Social Security for the wealthiest 5 percent, then we would be eliminating benefits for household with incomes of around $80,000 in their retirement. That’s a new definition of “rich.” It was $400,000 a year when we talked about small increases in tax rates.
But the best part of the story is trying to envision what Roumell’s wealth test even would look like. People tend to accumulate wealth during their working lifetime and spend it down as they approach retirement. How do we monitor people’s wealth? Do we do annual assessments of the value of their stock portfolios, their home and vacation properties, personal items like expensive paintings and jewelry? Then if they cross the magic $1.9 million threshold at any point in their lives we put a permanent hold on their Social Security benefits?
The long and short is that Roumell’s proposal is completely unworkable as anyone who has given it a moment’s thought would recognize. But hey, he wants to go after Social Security and he has a lot of money, why not give him a column in the Washington Post?