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It's Irrelevant to the Deficit

Take Your Hands Off Social Security

by DEAN BAKER

Millions of people are rightly outraged to hear that Social Security is in the gun-sights of both Speaker Boehner and President Obama in their budget negotiations. There is no reason that our political leaders should be discussing cuts to the country’s most successful social program.

While the promotion of budget hysteria is one of the largest industries in Washington, the most important and widely ignored fact about the budget situation is that we have large deficits today because the collapse of the housing bubble sank the economy. This is not a debatable point.

The budget deficit was just 1.2 percent of gross domestic product in 2007. Before the collapse of the housing bubble the deficit was projected to remain low for the next decade and the debt-to-GDP ratio was actually falling. This would have been the case even if the Bush tax cuts were allowed to continue.

When the bubble burst and the economy plummeted, tax collections fell. We also spent more on unemployment insurance and other benefits for unemployed workers. And we had further tax cuts and stimulus spending to try to boost the economy. The automatic and deliberate steps taken to counter the downturn fully explain the large deficits we have seen the last five years.

Record low interest rates on government bonds demonstrate that the current deficits are not a real problem. But even if they were, it is difficult to see how cutting Social Security could to be part of the solution. Under the law Social Security is not supposed to be part of the budget. It is an entirely separate program financed on its own.

This is not just a rhetorical point. We can talk about Social Security facing a financing shortfall in the future precisely because it is solely financed by its own revenue stream. One of the most widely discussed proposals to avert that shortfall is a revision in the cost-of-living calculation that would be the equivalent of a 3 percent cut in benefits over a typical retiree’s lifetime. (Perversely, the impact will be largest for the oldest and poorest retirees, since people who live the longest will accumulate the largest reduction in benefits.)

An overwhelming majority of the country strongly supports Social Security and does not want to see any benefit cuts. But because of the nature of this budget negotiation process, Americans are supposed to accept the cuts with no revenue increase whatsoever to shore up the program’s long-term financial position.

It is understandable that people who want to cut back or dismantle Social Security would argue for this position. It is difficult to see why anyone else would.

Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy and False Profits: Recoverying From the Bubble Economy.

This article originally appeared in Room for Debate.