Social Security, Trust Funds and Promises

April 9, 2015 5:23 PM

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Social Security, Trust Funds and Promises

Now, I don't want to get mired in the tired old arguments about whether the trust fund is "real" -- whether it's a stupid accounting abstraction or a profound moral promise on the part of the U.S. government -- because this obscures the actual point we need to be concerned with: If we want to pay Social Security beneficiaries more money than we are collecting in payroll taxes, the money has to come from somewhere, and ultimately, that "somewhere" is the United States taxpayer. It is supremely irrelevant whether that money flows through the "trust fund" or Uncle Sam holds an annual ceremony in which the trustees are handed one of those giant checks they present to lottery winners; we still need to find the money to make good on that check.

In the case of the Social Security trust fund, the tired old argument stems from the legal structure of the program whereby it is financed exclusively by its designated tax, including the surpluses from taxes in prior years. McArdle tells us that bonds purchased with prior years' surpluses don't mat...

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