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The Social Security Fraud

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Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill upset some people recently simply by telling the truth. He had the temerity to say that the Social Security Trust Fund has no tangible assets. It’s empty.

Such candor is not rewarded in Washington, D.C., the balderdash capital of the world. One of those who got upset was Rep. Charles Rangel, ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee. Of course the Trust Fund has tangible assets, Rangel said. It’s full of government bonds. What could be more tangible than that?

Rangel was either showing his penchant for demagoguery or his ignorance. Tough call.

O’Neill is right. The Trust Fund is a figment of our collective imagination. There’s no “there” there. It doesn’t exist.

Every cent that the American people pay in FICA payroll taxes is immediately spent. Anything left over after the current retirees are paid off goes into the general treasury where it is used, first, to make up any operating shortfall, and then to pay the government’s creditors. The Social Security Trust Fund is credited for that money in the form of nonnegotiable bonds that purportedly earn interest.

What if there was no trust fund at all? When FICA revenues fell short of retiree benefits, as they will in about 15 years, the government would have four options: cut benefits, cut other spending, raise taxes, or borrow.

But under the current system, when revenues fall short the government will still have to cut benefits, cut other spending, raise taxes, or borrow.

In other words, there’s no difference between having the trust fund and not having it.

It’s worse than a fiction. It’s a lie. Rangel may believe Social Security holds tangible assets, but no one else who has taken a close look could possibly think that. From the start, Social Security propagandists, led by Franklin Roosevelt, have tried to make the American people believe the system was like any private-sector pension program. They called taxes — i.e., forced exactions under threat of imprisonment — “contributions” and conjured up the phony-baloney trust fund. They wanted us to think that the money we “contribute” is put away for us individually, somehow invested so that when we retire we can draw a return on our money.

Nonsense! There can’t be a return: our money is consumed and gone forever. All the politicians really promise is that when we retire they will tax someone else and give that money to us.

I guess you could say that Social Security really does hold tangible assets: the taxpayers. But that sounds more like a hostage-taking or slavery than a pension program.

They also made Americans believe that employers contributed to the system. What a crock! It only appears that workers “contribute” about 6 percent of their wages, matched by a like amount from their employers. In reality there is no way that employers can make a contribution. Anything they pay is simply another form of compensation to their workers. If there were no Social Security, that cash would go directly to employees. The employer contribution is another illusion in a thoroughly dishonest system.

It is true that the system “worked” for a long time. That is, retirees for many years collected more in benefits than they ever paid in while working. That’s because the postwar baby boom supplied many more workers than there were retirees and politicians strove to buy votes from senior citizens by taxing workers ever more and raising benefits ever higher. But that party is about to end. Before long there will be about two workers for each retiree. Something will have to give. Will the working generation put up with dramatically higher payroll or income taxes to support the retired boomers? Or will they demand that other government spending be cut? As the government consumes more and more scarce resources, how will Americans respond to the resulting slower economic growth or even stagnation?

These vexing questions are what FDR and his New Deal bequeathed to us. Maybe that new monument on the Washington Mall should have been dedicated to Charles Ponzi.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.