FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

What Does the Fed Have to do With Social Security? Plenty

by

Most of the people who closely follow the Federal Reserve Board’s decisions on monetary policy are investors trying to get a jump on any moves that will affect financial markets. Very few of the people involved in the debate over the future of Social Security pay much attention to the Fed. That’s unfortunate because the connections are much more direct than is generally recognized.

The basic story of Social Security’s finances is that, while the program is entirely sound for the near future, the program is projected to face a shortfall in the decade of the thirties. Under current law, at that point it would be necessary to reduce benefits from their scheduled level, unless additional revenue can be raised.

Of course the answer from those on the right is to cut benefits, and the sooner the better. Progressives, along with most of the public, would like to see the current benefit level maintained and possibly increased. Most workers are approaching retirement with little other than Social Security to support them, which means that cuts from currently scheduled benefit levels will mean serious hardship for many.

The Fed figures in this picture both directly and indirectly. The Fed is not always able to provide as much of a boost to the economy as it might like. Following the Great Recession of 2008 the Fed wanted to promote growth and employment. It did so by lowering short-term interest rates to zero and initiating its quantitative-easing policy of buying long-term bonds.

These policies helped stimulate demand by making it easier for people to buy homes or refinance mortgages and for businesses to invest. But by themselves, they did not come close to restoring the economy to full employment.

Although the Fed cannot always boost the economy as much as it would like, there is little doubt that it can slow the economy. Higher interest rates would dampen the housing market and discourage other forms of consumption. They would also slow investment. By raising interest rates, the Fed can slow the rate of growth, thereby keeping people from getting jobs, and propping up the unemployment rate higher than it would otherwise be.

If fewer people are employed, fewer people are paying into the Social Security system. This trend, therefore, directly weakens its finances. (The system will pay out less in benefits, but this result will not be close to offsetting.) In addition, lower rates of unemployment strengthen workers’ bargaining position. At low rates of unemployment, workers at the middle and bottom of the wage distribution have the bargaining power to secure themselves a share of the gains from economic growth.

This affects Social Security directly, since one of the main reasons that the program is now projected to face a shortfall in the decades of the thirties is that so much wage income has been redistributed above the cap on the Social Security tax, which currently stands at $117,000. Back in 1983, the last time major changes to the system were instituted, only 10 percent of wage income was above the cap. Because of the massive upward redistribution of the last three decades, 18 percent of wage income is now above the cap.

If the Fed allowed the unemployment rate to fall back to the levels of the late 1990s (@4.0 percent to 5.0 percent) and stay there, the share of wage income going to workers earning above the cap would fall, increasing the revenue going to Social Security.

In addition to the direct Fed policy can affect Social Security’s finances, there is also an important indirect channel. Over the long-term it will likely be necessary to raise tax rates to maintain scheduled benefit levels.  Any substantial increase in taxes would impose a hardship on low and moderate income workers in the current context of stagnant wages. However if wages were rising in step with productivity, workers would be able to pay a somewhat higher tax rate and still have higher after-tax wages.

According to the most recent projections from the Social Security trustees, average hourly compensation in thirty years will be more than 60 percent higher (after adjusting for inflation) than it is today.  If the tax rate were increased by 1-2 percentage points in order to prevent cuts to scheduled benefits, workers would still pocket close to 60 percent more for each hour of work in 2044 than they do today, assuming the gains from growth are evenly shared.

Whether most workers share in the gains from economic growth, or we continue to see the massive upward redistribution of income of the last three decades, will depend largely on the policies of the Fed. If the Fed allows the unemployment rate to fall back to the levels we saw in the late 1990s, then workers could anticipate substantial wage gains in the decades ahead. Covering the cost of Social Security will pose little problem.

On the other hand, if those pushing for higher interest rates now get their way, then most workers will not see their wages rise by much. In that case, paying for Social Security through the current payroll tax can be a problem.

People who are concerned about the future of Social Security, then, should be paying a great deal of attention to what the Fed does. Raising interest rates will not only affect the economy today, but it will also affect Social Security tomorrow.

Dean Baker is a macroeconomist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC. He previously worked as a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute and an assistant professor at Bucknell University.

This article originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

 

Dean Baker is a macroeconomist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC. He previously worked as a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute and an assistant professor at Bucknell University.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
May 26, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Anthony DiMaggio
Swamp Politics, Trump Style: “Russiagate” Diverts From the Real White House Scandals
Paul Street
It’s Not Gonna Be Okay: the Nauseating Nothingness of Neoliberal Capitalist and Professional Class Politics
Jeffrey St. Clair
The ICEmen Cometh
Ron Jacobs
The Deep State is the State
Pete Dolack
Why Pence Might be Even Worse Than Trump
Patrick Cockburn
We Know What Inspired the Manchester Attack, We Just Won’t Admit It
Thomas Powell
The Dirty Secret of the Korean War
Mark Ashwill
The Fat Lady Finally Sings: Bob Kerrey Quietly Resigns from Fulbright University Vietnam Leadership Position
John Davis
Beyond Hope
Uri Avnery
The Visitation: Trump in Israel
Ralph Nader
The Left/Right Challenge to the Failed “War on Drugs”
Traci Yoder
Free Speech on Campus: a Critical Analysis
Dave Lindorff
Beware the Supporter Scorned: Upstate New York Trump Voters Hit Hard in President’s Proposed 2018 Budget
Daniel Read
“Sickening Cowardice”: Now More Than Ever, Britain’s Theresa May Must be Held to Account on the Plight of Yemen’s Children
Ana Portnoy
Before the Gates: Puerto Rico’s First Bankruptcy Trial
M. Reza Behnam
Rethinking Iran’s Terrorism Designation
Brian Cloughley
Ukraine and the NATO Military Alliance
Josh Hoxie
Pain as a Policy Choice
David Macaray
Stephen Hawking Needs to Keep His Mouth Shut
Ramzy Baroud
Fear as an Obstacle to Peace: Why Are Israelis So Afraid?
Kathleen Wallace
The Bilious Incongruity of Trump’s Toilet
Seth Sandronsky
Temping Now
Alan Barber – Dean Baker
Blue Collar Blues: Manufacturing Falls in Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania in April
Jill Richardson
Saving America’s Great Places
Richard Lawless
Are Credit Rating Agencies America’s Secret Fifth Column?
Louis Proyect
Venezuela Reconsidered
Murray Dobbin
The NDP’s Singh and Ashton: Flash Versus Vision
Ron Leighton
Endarkenment: Postmodernism, Identity Politics, and the Attack on Free Speech
Anthony Papa
Drug War Victim: Oklahoma’s Larry Yarbrough to be Freed after 23 Years in Prison
Rev. John Dear
A Call to Mobilize the Nation Over the Next 18 Months
Yves Engler
Why Anti-Zionism and Anti-Jewish Prejudice Have to Do With Each Other
Ish Mishra
Political Underworld and Adventure Journalism
Binoy Kampmark
Roger Moore in Bondage
Rob Seimetz
Measuring Manhoods
Edward Curtin
Sorry, You’re Not Invited
Vern Loomis
Winning the Lottery is a State of Mind
Charles R. Larson
Review: Mary V. Dearborn’s “Ernest Hemingway”
David Yearsley
The Ethos of Mayfest
May 25, 2017
Jennifer Matsui
The Rise of the Alt-Center
Michael Hudson
Another Housing Bubble?
Robert Fisk
Trump Meets the New Leader of the Secular World, Pope Francis
John Laforge
Draft Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapons Unveiled
Benjamin Dangl
Trump’s Budget Expands War on the Backs of America’s Poor
Alice Donovan
US-Led Air Strikes Killed Record Number of Civilians in Syria
Andrew Moss
The Meaning of Trump’s Wall
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail