The Blog of the Frances Perkins Center

The most interesting thing you don’t know about the deficit

In Legislation Today, Political world on April 14, 2011 at 2:41 pm

Washington scaremongers talking about the deficit have put the fear of China into the American psyche, but does China really “own” the U.S. deficit?

In a revealing article, former Senator Don Riegle and Social Security expert Lori Hansen Riegle let us in on a secret — the largest debt owed by the federal government to any one entity is to Social Security.

We owe it to ourselves. Literally.

Here’s how that works: when the federal government needs to borrow money, it issues Treasury bonds — a special form of IOU. Treasury bonds are considered a very safe investment; many Americans hold them in their retirement accounts. As Riegle and Riegle show with numbers from the U.S. Treasury Department, the largest single holder of Treasury bonds is Social Security. And Social Security is earning interest on those bonds, just like any other investor would. That’s the Social Security “trust fund” you’ve heard so much about.

So, what’s with all the talk about the “bankrupt” trust fund? And what does Social Security have to do with the deficit?

Imagine if you suddenly didn’t have to pay your house mortgage anymore. Wow, that would erase a large chunk of debt from your personal finances. It’s a lovely dream, but that’s all it is — wishful thinking. The bank is relying on you to make good on your loan, and as the foreclosure debacle has shown, you’ll face dire consequences if you don’t.

I can only assume that there are some politicians who are engaging in wishful thinking about the Treasury bonds held by Social Security. Gee, wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to make good on those loans… After all, no one less than Timothy Geithner pointed out that “that’s where the money is.”

Well, yes, that’s where it is and a good thing, too. The American workers have been paying into Social Security, their money was invested in Treasury bonds, and when it comes time to retire and rely on their Social Security benefits, that money will be there.

And the interesting thing is, while Social Security doesn’t contribute to the deficit — by law it can’t pay out more money that it has — it holds a large chunk of the debt owed by the federal government.

So, perhaps the deficit hawks are confused. Or maybe they want us to be confused.

Here’s what Riegle and Riegle have to say:

Another argument made by Social Security opponents to raise fear about the national debt is how much our government has borrowed from China. They never mention how much our government has borrowed from Social Security. In fact, the government has borrowed more from the Social Security surplus than it has from any other source in the world, including China. As a result, Social Security now “owns” nearly 18 percent of the federal debt, making it the largest single holder of US debt. The government owes almost twice as much to Social Security as it does to China and Hong Kong.

Why aren’t the opponents worried about paying back Social Security — why aren’t they talking about repaying this debt to the American people?

According to the U.S. Treasury Department’s “Monthly Statement of the Public Debt of the United States” (9.30.10), the total debt was $13.562 trillion and was held as follows:

US Holders of Debt

42.1 % — US Individuals and Institutions

17.9 % — Social Security Trust Fund

6.0 % — US Civil Service Retirement Fund

2.1 % — US Military Retirement Fund

Foreign Holders of Debt

11.7 % — Oil Exporting Countries

9.5 % — China and Hong Kong

6.3 % — Japan

1.4 % — United Kingdom

1.3 % — Brazil

1.6 % — All other foreign countries

The deficit is a concern. All U.S. debt must be covered. There’s no question about that. But let’s be clear. We can’t make China the bogeyman here.  The federal government has overspent in the last decade, thanks to two wars, a huge tax cut for the wealthy, and an unregulated banking industry that led to a global recession. The deficit came about because of a schism between two views of what the government’s (i.e. the people’s) responsibility is. As President Obama said in his speech yesterday:

Part of this American belief that we are all connected also expresses itself in a conviction that each one of us deserves some basic measure of security. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, hard times or bad luck, a crippling illness or a layoff, may strike any one of us. “There but for the grace of God go I,” we say to ourselves, and so we contribute to programs like Medicare and Social Security, which guarantee us health care and a measure of basic income after a lifetime of hard work; unemployment insurance, which protects us against unexpected job loss; and Medicaid, which provides care for millions of seniors in nursing homes, poor children, and those with disabilities. We are a better country because of these commitments. I’ll go further – we would not be a great country without those commitments.

Riegle and Riegle close their article with a view from the other side:

 House Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) provided some insight to their Social Security views in a recent NPR interview when he was talking about Social Security and said, “We are going to have to come to grips with the fact that these programs cannot exist if we want America to be what we want it to be.”

Luckily, poll after poll shows that Americans of all political persuasions do not want Social Security to fail. Let’s be vigilant and make sure that tax investments that each and every one of us pays at work into the Social Security system are well managed and cashed in for full value as mature U.S. Treasury bonds.

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