Social Security Reprised: Where Did All The Money Go?

This is the second in a series of posts I wrote on Social Security in 2007. Updates are in italics.

As the previous essay shows, despite collecting far more in payroll taxes than was required to pay Social Security benefits over the past 24 years, the federal government was deeper in debt in 2005 than it had been in 1980. All the additional Social Security taxes, and then some, were spent, meaning that despite the $1.86 trillion in the Social Security Trust Fund, the retirement of the Baby Boomers, and those after, will either have to be cut back or paid for a second time.

To determine where the money went, the subject of this post, the entire federal budget in 1980, before the Social Security Amendments of 1983 and the Reagan Administration that authored them, and in 2005, the most recent year, must be compared. I have tabulated federal revenues and expenditures, by category, per $100,000 of GDP to show how large a part of the economy each category was then, and is now. Some of the results are not a surprise. Higher payroll taxes, which fall hardest on the middle class and poor, have been used to offset lower income taxes, which fall hardest on the affluent, and soaring health care spending has also soaked up a larger and larger share of federal funds, as is has for the State of New York. And some of the results are a surprise, at least to me, at least in their extent if not their direction. Federal spending has fallen as a share of GDP in virtually every other category aside from health care – and overall.

Note: the trends identified above have accelerated since the Great Recession, and not just at the federal level. Services provided by state and local governments have been gutted to pay for public employee pensions that Generation Greed either failed to properly fund in the past, to keep taxes low, or retroactively increased in the past. “Social Security” is not the issue. Neither are Medicare, or public employee pensions, or taxes, or infrastructure.   The values of Generation Greed and its leaders, which cut across all these and affect them the same way, are the issue.

For updated data, you can find a spreadsheet of long-term trends in federal revenues and expenditures at the bottom of the “The Latest Public Finance Spreadsheets” page on “Saying the Unsaid in New York.” I only update the federal budget spreadsheet in federal election years.

The data shows (showed back in 2007) that federal payroll tax revenues rose from $4,890 per $100,000 of GDP (4.9%) in 1980 to $5,955 per $100,000 of GDP (5.9%) in 2005, mostly as a result of the 1983 payroll tax increase, described at the time as the largest tax increase in U.S. history. That increase, however, followed the Reagan income tax cuts of 1981, described at the time as the largest tax cut in U.S. history. That tax cut had caused the federal budget deficit to soar, and the call for higher payroll taxes and lower Social Security benefits came soon after. The budget deficit fell in the 1990s after income tax increases under the first President Bush and President Clinton. But after the income tax cuts proposed by President George W. Bush in 2001, the budget deficit again soared. All told, federal income tax revenues fell from $8,750 per $100,000 of GDP (8.8%) in 1980 to just $7,425 per $100,000 of GDP (7.4%) in 2005, more than offsetting the higher payroll tax collections.

Excise tax revenues also fell as a share of GDP, not so much in trust fund categories such as the federal gas tax, but in general revenue categories such as alcohol, tobacco and telephone taxes. Alcohol taxes fell by two-thirds as a share of GDP, telephone taxes by 80%. Taking all federal revenue sources together, the total fell from 18.5% of GDP to 17.2% of GDP, despite the payroll tax increases. As a share of the economy, therefore, federal government is taking less in.

Meanwhile, federal health care expenditures (except for veterans) soared from $1,817 per $100,000 of GDP in 1980 to $4,319 per $100,000 of GDP in 2005, more than doubling as a share of the economy. Much of this spending is on today’s seniors, through Medicare and Medicaid. This doesn’t even count the soaring amount of federal income tax revenue foregone as a result of the exclusion of employer-provided health insurance from taxable income. Moreover, after 2005, the recently passed Medicare prescription drug benefit increased federal health care spending on today’s seniors even more. We have gotten some health care for our health care spending. Some of our relatives are alive today despite illnesses that would have killed them a generation earlier. But other developed nations have received as much or more health care benefit at a lower cost. In the long run, health care, and custodial care for very old and frail seniors, are bigger issues than Social Security.

Note: today’s seniors are outraged by Obamacare, which provides increased federal health care funding for someone other than themselves. The result is the Tea Party.

Also rising, but by a smaller amount, is spending in Administration of Justice categories, from $169 per $100,000 in 1980 to $321 per $100,000 in 2005. All this extra effort, one may assume, has been expended on the War on Drugs and, later, the domestic portion of the War on Terror. The effect of this change, however, is small compared with rising health care expenditures and falling income tax revenues.

Surprisingly, however, despite the huge increase in federal health care spending, and the big increase in spending during the current Bush Administration, overall federal spending was actually lower as a share of GDP in 2005 (19.8%) than in 1980 (21.2%)! That is because federal spending on just about everything else has been shrinking relative to the economy, in some cases by substantial amounts.

In 1980, defense spending was at a low level in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and before the Reagan build-up, while in 2005 the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were well underway. Even so, national defense spending totaled $4,804 per $100,000 of GDP in 1980, but just $3,967 per $100,000 in 2005, a 17.4% decline relative to the size of the economy. The number of Americans who served in our recent wars is tiny compared with World War II, and as the “Greatest Generation” passes on veteran’s benefits and services are getting cheaper, falling from $759 per $100,000 of GDP in 1980 to $562 per $100,000 in 2005, a 26% decline. Clearly neither the wars nor the military industrial complex spent the Social Security money. Equally clearly, there was no excuse for not sending enough troops to Iraq early on, and there is no excuse for not doing right by our returning injured soldiers. Don’t blame “foreign aid” either: international affairs spending is by down 39% as a share of the economy.

Don’t blame the poor, either. Federal spending on means tested programs other than Medicaid, and on CETA (a federal jobs program now extinct) and social services, was about the same share of the economy in 2005 as in 1980. There were massive changes in the composition of the spending, particularly within the “public assistance and related programs” category, which deserve their own post at a later date. Although I’ve mixed and matched two tables in this compilation, you can see the details in the spreadsheet and see what has gone on.

Some people in the suburbs used to complain about the poor cities sucking up all the money (erroneously and unfairly in the case of NYC as discussed elsewhere), and now also complain about the rednecks sucking up money (when they aren’t serving in Iraq). But in reality, farm income stabilization payments are down by one-third as a share of the economy.

Some people blame “pork,” but federal spending on infrastructure, education, natural resources, and research and development is collectively down by 36% relative to the size of the economy. This doesn’t mean total government spending fell in these categories; state and local revenues might have taken up the slack. I’ll talk about this, as well, in a future post. But if state and local governments are paying more for infrastructure and natural resources, they are doing so without general federal revenue sharing, which is has virtually disappeared.

Note: state and local governments adjusted to the reduction in federal infrastructure assistance by borrowing. Those debts are now due. Most of the taxes paid into the New York State “Transportation Trust Fund,” and all of the taxes paid into the New Jersey “Transportation Trust Fund,” now go to debts, leaving nothing for transportation. Our politicians are doing all they can to avoid facing this. The (last?) MTA Capital Plan expired a week ago.

Here is a real shocker. Even though the total federal debt held by the public increased by 44.1% as a share of GDP from 1980 to 2005, the “on budget” interest on that debt increased only 12.3%. Meanwhile, federal spending on unemployment insurance payments, which kick in during deep recessions when state benefits run out, fell by more than half. This shows the enormous fiscal cost of the terrible high interest rate, high-unemployment economy of 1980, and the fiscal benefits of the amazingly low interest rate, amazingly low unemployment rate economy of today.

It also shows the enormous risk we face. The federal deficit as a share of GDP, not including debt theoretically owed to Social Security, was only slightly lower in 2005 than in 1980. Despite the good economy. Despite spending money promised to Social Security. Despite not giving the troops all the support they needed in the wars. Despite all those reductions in federal spending in all those categories. Despite something close to the best of all possible fiscal worlds, with a booming economy and the most educated and productive generations in American history, augmented by the best and brightest from all over the world, on the job, and the rest of the world lending us trillions of dollars to spend even more than we produce.

In this situation, the federal government should be running huge surpluses. If interest rates rise because foreigners tire of lending us money we may not be able to pay back, if a recession hits, if the Baby Boomers retire, we could face a fiscal catastrophe. What are the odds of these happening at some point? I would say 100%, at least about the retirement part. Ask someone from Argentina what the results of such a fiscal meltdown could be like.

Guess what happened? Check out the trend in federal debt in this chart.

no 4

For our purposes, however, the bottom line is this. The extra money collected in payroll taxes, and promised to future Social Security benefits, was already used in the past to offset lower taxes in other categories, notably the progressive income tax, and higher health care spending (mostly on today’s seniors). Given that, what is the federal government likely to do now? That is the subject of my next post.

The income tax has since been increased again, but that doesn’t mean that all those revenues that weren’t collected in the past can be regained. And all those debts run up to offset the Bush II and Reagan income tax cuts have to be repaid.