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NYT and Matt Bai Falsely Call Social Security Trust Fund a “Lottery”

Matt Bai and the editors of the New York Times have printed an article ostensibly about Democratic Congressman Earl Blumenauer and his willingness to cut wasteful spending to reduce the deficit — as though eliminating unhelpful or harmful programs were an unheard of position for Democrats even though they just adopted legislation to cut unjustified payments to health care providers and private education lenders by hundreds of billions. But that misdirection isn’t even the main problem.

With no apparent oversight from the Times’ editors, Bai turns the “news analysis” article into a Republican talking point attacking Social Security and the US Government’s credit worthiness. You can see upcoming “corrections and retractions” written all over this one.

Here is how Matt Bai, who apparently gets his understanding of how Social Security works from Alan Simpson, describes how the Trust Fund works:

The liberal groups that are already speaking out against the debt panel’s unfinished work have chosen to start with Social Security because it is likely to be at the center of any budget compromise. “If there’s a place where it looks like Republicans and Democrats can reach agreement, we’re afraid it’s Social Security,” says Frank Clemente, the director of Strengthen Social Security. (In other words, the two parties might actually work together on something. They must be stopped!)

The coalition bases its case on the idea that Social Security is actually in fine fiscal shape, since it has amassed a pile of Treasury Bills — often referred to as i.o.u.’s — in a dedicated trust fund. This is true enough, except that the only way for the government to actually make good on these i.o.u.’s is to issue mountains of new debt or to take the money from elsewhere in the federal budget, or perhaps impose significant tax increases — none of which seem like especially practical options for the long term. So this is sort of like saying that you’re rich because your friend has promised to give you 10 million bucks just as soon as he wins the lottery.

So ignore Bai’s gratuitous insult that anyone concerned about protecting Social Security is merely worried about an outbreak of bipartisan agreement. Does the New York Times have editors? Surely someone there must know this entire framework is false, misstating how the Trust Fund works and even how bonds and debt are created.

More important, someone at the Times must surely know that a frequent canard of the Republican Party and Social Security opponents is to argue that the Social Security Trust Fund, which has a surplus of $2.5 trillion in US Treasury bonds built up since 1983 by higher payroll taxes paid by future retirees, is just worthless paper. And if it’s worthless paper, future beneficiaries will never be able to rely on the $2.5 trillion they paid into the system to help pay the Social Security benefits to which they’re entitled.

The canard was always designed to convince today’s and tomorrow’s elderly that they cannot rely on the US Government honoring its own Treasury bonds — in effect, arguing the US would be so irresponsible as to engage willy nilly in a sovereign debt default, not to mention breaking a sacred promise to its own people. The goal of the canard is to convince Americans they should not count on Social Security, or government in general, to help in their retirement. Give that money to Wall Street instead.

Social Security is “broke,” they claim; it’s “in crisis,” they continue, and if the Government were forced to pay off those bonds when the system needs to redeem them to pay benefits — just as the government planned — it would create a massive “debt crisis” for the United States. Everything about that story is false and malicious.

The Trust Fund’s bonds are just like other Treasury bonds except they aren’t traded. When the Trust Fund needs to “redeem” a bond to cover ongoing benefit payments, all that happens is that electronic entries reflecting the change appear on the respective governments accounts, and Social Security checks go out, as always, as scheduled. Calling this a “lottery” is stunningly false.

But the perpetrators of this falsehood don’t care about the facts. They hope to convince people that Social Security is in crisis, because the Trust Fund is illusory, and then use those lies to convince Congress and the public to accept cuts in Social Security benefits to “save it.” As Paul Krugman has characterized it, we had to cut future benefits to avoid cutting future benefits.

The hucksters have convinced enough fools or charlatans to believe the lies, and convinced the White House to pander to them, possibly the worst domestic policy blunder possible for a presumably Democratic President (along with not having a plan A or B to put 15 million people back to work). So now we have a phony “fiscal responsibility” commission that has no connection to fiscal responsibility, no regard for the truth, and no protection for Social Security or the public interest.

This is the big con, folks, maybe the biggest con in an era of big cons, and it’s all designed to take money paid by middle class and seniors and put aside for their retirements, and use it as a cover for tax cuts for the richest people in America. Matt Bai just told us he is a dupe in that con, but what excuse do the New York Times editors have?

Dean Baker has a similar reaction over at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

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John has been writing for Firedoglake since 2006 or so, on whatever interests him. He has a law degree, worked as legal counsel and energy policy adviser for a state energy agency for 20 years and then as a consultant on electricity systems and markets. He's now retired, living in Massachusetts.

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