As a CPA, it is frustrating to hear Social Security repeatedly being described as a pay-as-you-go (“PAYGO”) system, which gives credence to something that is terribly incorrect. PAYGO is not a system at all; rather it is a method of reporting that hides earned realities, making it totally unacceptable to accounting professions, the SEC, and virtually everybody outside the government.
The fallacy of calling it PAYGO is that, in reality, the cash includes everything we are getting in, while the cash out doesn’t include the responsibilities due to come. The cash out formula specifically excludes the trillions promised to existing workers in the future, (while their Social Security tax is being collected today). It doesn’t really describe, as part of the expenses being incurred this year, the amount of future retirement benefits being earned and promised.
In contrast, if you give an insurance company today $100,000 to pay you a retirement pension beginning when you retired at the age of 65, the insurance company (logically and legally), the insurance company would report this as an asset offset by a liability to provide $100,000 of payments in the future. The Social Security system, however, reports that as $100,000 of profits in the year received, while the obligation to account for and provide future benefits is incredibly ignored.
When the cash in is received, that money egregiously goes into the government’s general tax revenue account and not in any Social Security Fund (anymore). The Social Security Administration merely collects and records the gross Social Security tax receipts, while the net amount, after deductions, is sent to the IRS. Yet the gross amount recorded is the amount spent by the government, resulting in the staggering deficit we face today. Therefore, it is outrageous for anyone to say that accounting for the system can be done simply by looking at the cash in-cash out.
The biggest problem with this arrangement is that it puts the burden on the wrong people. We have a growing population of retiring taxpayers and the current generation is paying off the obligation the older generation never paid for. It is a Ponzi scheme in which, depending on how you play it, you manipulate who is paying whose obligation. Therefore, the PAYGO method doesn’t work because the government takes 100% of the money they receive and they do not put away; they need it to pay today’s debt to another taxpayer, while today’s payee is stuck holding the bag.
For several years now, the Social Security trustees reports have noted Social Securities unfunded liabilities – those promises made to individuals solely in exchange for amounts they have already paid for – to be trillions in deficit. Social Security in its present form is unsustainable.
The term PAYGO is used for the lay person; cute semantics – but misleading at best, willfully dishonest at worst. It mischaracterizes the program for the political purpose of allowing politicians to declare that Social Security does not contribute to the deficit, and therefore, should not be overhauled in any major way. But until we agree to start recording Social Security (and Medicare) in budgets in actuarially sound way, we will never be able to honestly and effectively deal with their fiscal crises.
How we talk about and understand Social Security and its funds needs acute attention because we face another looming crisis of funding: Social Security’s Disability Insurance (SSDI). SSDI benefits are slated to be cut by 20 percent near the end of 2016, at the same time that SSDI has seen a massive increase of recipients in the last few years. This is certain to be a major issue for the Presidential elections.
Already the Democrats are stirring up the base on this issue. Last week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren claimed that “The GOP is inventing a Social Security crisis that will threaten benefits for millions & put our most vulnerable at risk”. Obviously this is patently false. The entire Social Security program needs massive reform instead of incrementally kicking the can further down the road to avoid making difficult, but necessary changes for the long haul.