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.

May 04, 2016
Kshama Sawant
It’s Not About Bernie: Why We Can’t Let Our Revolution Die in Philadelphia
Conn Hallinan
Baiting the Bear: Russia and NATO
Joshua Frank
Hanford’s Leaky Nuke Tanks and Sick Workers, A Never-Ending Saga
Paul Craig Roberts
TIPP: Advancing American Imperialism
Ted Rall
Hillary to Bernie Supporters: Don’t Vote for Me!
Eric Draitser
Hillary Clinton and Wall Street’s Neoliberal War on Latin America
Leslie Scott
The Story of Jill Stein: Putting People, Peace and the Planet Before Profits
Ann Garrison
Building the Greens Into a Mass Party: Interview with Bruce Dixon
Tom Clifford
Crying Rape: Trump’s China-Bashing
Lawrence Davidson
Getting Rid of Bad Examples: Andrew Jackson & Woodrow Wilson
Ellen Brown
Bank of North Dakota Soars Despite Oil Bust: A Blueprint for California?
Nelson Valdes
Is Fidel Castro Outside or Part of Mainstream Thinking? A Selection of Quotes
Jesse Jackson
Don’t Send Flint Down the Drain: Fix It!
Nathan Riley
Help Bernie Keep His Halo
Rivera Sun
Remembering Nonviolent History: Freedom Rides
Clancy Sigal
Rachel and the Isolationists: How Maddow Blew It
Laura Finley
Changing the Conversation About “The Woman Card”
CJ Hopkins
Coming this Summer … Revenge of the Bride of Sophie’s Choice
May 03, 2016
Gary Leupp
Hillary Clinton’s Foreign Policy Resumé: What the Record Shows
Michèle Brand – Arun Gupta
What is the “Nuit Debout”?
Chuck Churchill
The Failures of Capitalism, Donald Trump and Right Wing Terror
Dave Marsh
Bernie and the Greens
John Wight
Zionism Should be on Trial, Not Ken Livingstone
Rev. John Dear
A Dweller in Peace: the Life and Times of Daniel Berrigan
Patrick Cockburn
Saudi Arabia’s Great Leap Forward: What Would Mao Think?
Doug Johnson Hatlem
Electoral Votes Matter: Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders vs Donald Trump
Chris Gilbert
Venezuela Today: This Must Be Progress
Pepe Escobar
The Calm Before the Coming Global Storm
Ruth Fowler
Intersecting with the Identity Police (Or Why I Stopped Writing Op-Eds)
Victor Lasa
The Battle Rages on in Spain: the Country Prepares for Repeat Elections in June
Jack Rasmus
Is the US Economy Heading for Recession?
Dean Baker
Time for an Accountable Federal Reserve
Ted Rall
Working for US Gov Means Never Saying Sorry
Dave Welsh
Hunger Strikers at Mission Police Station: “Stop the execution of our people”
John Eskow
The Death of Prince and the Death of Lonnie Mack
May 02, 2016
Michael Hudson – Gordon Long
Wall Street Has Taken Over the Economy and is Draining It
Paul Street
The Bernie Fade Begins
Ron Jacobs
On the Frontlines of Peace: the Life of Daniel Berrigan
Louis Yako
Dubai Transit
Bill Quigley
Teacher, Union Leader, Labor Lawyer: Profile of Chris Williams Social Justice Advocate
Patrick Cockburn
Into the Green Zone: Iraq’s Disintegrating Political System
Lawrence Ware
Trump is the Presidential Candidate the Republicans Deserve
Ron Forthofer
Just Say No to Corporate Rule
Ralph Nader
The Long-Distance Rebound of Bernie Sanders
Ken Butigan
Remembering Daniel Berrigan, with Gratitude
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail