Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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November 19, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

MORE SOCIAL SECURITY FOLLIES....From the Washington Post's campaign blog:

Clinton, without naming Obama, also continued to blast him for proposing to the lift the cap on the taxing of Social Security benefits, which are currently taxed at 6 percent, but only on the first $97,000 of a person's income.

"We don't need more Republican scare tactics about a 'Social Security crisis,'" Clinton said. "And we don't need a trillion-dollar tax increase that will hit families already facing higher energy, health care and college costs.

God almighty, is this the most dispiriting "controversy" ever between two Democrats? Obama was wrong to buy into the "crisis" language and wrong to try and make Social Security into a campaign issue in the first place. It's been dead since 2005, it's not a point of serious contention in the Democratic Party, and bringing it up seems like more of a pander to Tim Russert and the rest of the DC press corps than anything else.

On the other hand, lifting the cap on the payroll tax is hardly the devil's snare Hillary is making it out to be, especially if it's phased in over a period of years. In fact, it may be the most thoroughly mainstream liberal approach to extending the solvency of Social Security there is. It would make the payroll tax less regressive, it would close a big chunk of the future funding gap, and its biggest hit would be concentrated on the richest two or three percent of individuals in the country. As for the "trillion dollar" number, that must be over ten years, right? In other words, it's nowhere near as big a tax increase as Hillary implies.

I really can't believe that the two leading candidates for the Democratic nomination are squabbling over Social Security minutiae of all things. It's insane. Find something else to smack each other around about, OK?

Kevin Drum 11:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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Comments

lifting the cap on the payroll tax is hardly the devil's snare Hillary is making it out to be

Unless you consider committing political suicide a snare. Clearly, she's heading off the "Hillary will raise your taxes" attack from the GOP.

Posted by: Mithras on November 19, 2007 at 11:10 PM | PERMALINK

Mithras: Sure, but I'm not suggesting that Hillary endorse the idea. Hell, I'm against it myself. But that doesn't mean she should be denouncing it as a huge, evil tax increase. That kind of attack should be left to the Republicans.

Posted by: Kevin Drum on November 19, 2007 at 11:17 PM | PERMALINK

Hillary has said she wants a "commision" to work it out

Which will, of course, make lower and middle income americans pay higher taxes, and benes will be cut.

Another transfer of wealth up!

Dispiriting all around.

Posted by: blather on November 19, 2007 at 11:22 PM | PERMALINK

A small quibble: Kevin wrote: its biggest hit would be concentrated on the richest two or three percent of individuals in the country.

Actually, the biggest hit would be concentrated on the 2 or 3 per cent of individuals with the largest wage or self-employment income. Those who are already worth billions of dollars would not be hit hard, Neither would wealthy investors who have enormous income via dividends, interest and capital gains.

In particular, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet would not be hard hit. Neither would the fund managers who unfairly get their enormous income classified as capital gains.

Posted by: ex-liberal on November 19, 2007 at 11:23 PM | PERMALINK

Obama is losing whatever chance he ever had of getting my vote.

Posted by: POed Lib on November 19, 2007 at 11:34 PM | PERMALINK

Obama is probably making a mistake here, I agree.

On the other hand, Clinton's position is worthy of nothing but the deepest contempt, I think. Implying, as she has, that lifting this cap will hit middle and working class families is nothing short of an outright lie. What's more, Obama called her on this in the last debate (specifically pointing out that that $97,000/year is around the 94th percentile of the income distribution) and still she persists, which is pretty shameless.

More infuriating still is how comfortable she seems adopting what is basically a right-wing debating trick (referring to the upper/upper-middle class as middle/working class). For example, the Bush adminstration pulled this exact nonsense when they were pitching their tax cuts.

Hillary Clinton: she's not on your side.

Posted by: bob on November 19, 2007 at 11:37 PM | PERMALINK

it would close a big chunk of the future funding gap

We did that in '83, and we've just been through a round of Republicans trying to convince people that those bonds are meaningless. Why should payroll taxes subsidize the general fund even more than they are now? We can just raise income taxes to eliminate the deficit now, so that in a decade, when the government has to start paying back Social Security, it's not such a problem.

And the funding gap? You're talking about a (fairly conservative) projection thirty five years off. It's as ridiculous to adjust for it as it was planning to spend the $6 trillion budget surplus projected in 1999 for this decade.

I say, lift the cap and lower the rate, making it a revenue-neutral shift toward progressivity. Even if the idea doesn't fly, at least we're staking out a position on the left to negotiate from. (If negotiation ever becomes necessary, that is.)

Posted by: Royko on November 19, 2007 at 11:49 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin - thanks for this! But they are fighting over something else. Some hacktacular POS written by Robert Novak. Novak has all but admitted that his "story" was BS. And yet the two leading candidates fell for Novak's bait. Someone help me!

Posted by: pgl on November 19, 2007 at 11:51 PM | PERMALINK

Hillary Clinton errs on the side of reckless abandon here, which may be calculated on her part but is still dumb. She could have just said there's a case for raising the cap so that it again covers 90% of all wages as it did in the 1980s (an increase from 97K to 140K), which could be part of a solution. But, NOTHING would be put on the table of that sort until the rest of the federal budget deficit was dealt with first, starting with an end to Bush's ill-advised tax cuts in 2001.

Posted by: David W. on November 19, 2007 at 11:52 PM | PERMALINK

To anyone in favor of lifting the cap:

1. How high do you want to make the cap?

2. Since Social Security benefits are proportional to the amount you pay in, this would also make the amount you have to pay out larger. So how would this reduce a possible future Social Security deficit?

Posted by: alex on November 19, 2007 at 11:55 PM | PERMALINK

"Since Social Security benefits are proportional to the amount you pay in"

Not true.

Posted by: bob on November 19, 2007 at 11:59 PM | PERMALINK

bob: Not true.

Please elaborate.

Posted by: alex on November 20, 2007 at 12:01 AM | PERMALINK

Find something else to smack each other around about.

Ignoring the trailing interrogative, that's two prepositions at the end. Not bad, but I think you can do better.

(What am I getting worked up over "around about" for? No good reason. It's late.)

Posted by: editer on November 20, 2007 at 12:06 AM | PERMALINK

In fact, it may be the most thoroughly mainstream liberal approach to extending the solvency of Social Security there is.

Please, Kevin, when discussing this DON'T buy into the bamboozlement.

Raising payroll taxes NOW, so that in 20 years the payroll tax will cover SS benefits doesn't "extend the solvency of Social Security." There is nothing to extend the solvency of. There is no "system." There is no "program." The last time we "extended the solvency" of SS the result was a reduction of benefits and an increase in the regressivity of the Federal tax system.

There is nothing to make "solvent." SS is pay as you go, funded out of general federal revenues. the difference between payroll tax revenues and SS payouts goes to other programs.

Yes, it would be an improvement to lift the cap. But, please, do not advance the idea that there is some SS system to keep solvent. That's, quite simply, not so.

Enjoyed the puzzle. Too bad it didn't make its way to a YKos program of some sort.

Posted by: Jayackroyd on November 20, 2007 at 12:09 AM | PERMALINK

SS benefits are a function of covered earnings. The function is not proportional (it is a decreasing percentage of earnings), and it is not a function of taxes paid in.

You could change the tax base without changing the formula determining SS benefits, which is what I presume that Obama is proposing.

So you would bring in more money, without increasing the generosity of benefits.

Posted by: bob on November 20, 2007 at 12:12 AM | PERMALINK

alex: graphical explanation here:

http://www.truthaboutsocialsecurity.com/definitions/bendpoints.html

Posted by: bob on November 20, 2007 at 12:23 AM | PERMALINK

bob: graphical explanation here

Excellent graph (damn guvmint bureaucrats actually explain themselves).

Confession: I was playing a bit of a game, as many people don't understand the bendpoints.

Rationale for the game: people always debate whether SocSec is an earned benefit paid from mandatory contributions, or "welfare" paid for by FICA taxes. The truth is that it's a bit of both.

I have no problem with the bendpoints as otherwise people who never earned much money and retire on SocSec could only afford cold oatmeal once a day, instead of the thoroughly nourishing twice a day that they can now afford.

However, it does mean that people earning above the second bendpoint are both paying a mandatory contribution for themselves and paying a "poor tax" to subsidize the people below the 1st bendpoint (I don't know if the people between the 1st and 2nd bendpoints are being subsidized, subsidizing, or are neutral).

I'm ok with a "poor tax" paid by people earning at least $45k/yr (2nd bendpoint), but what annoys me is that the tax isn't flat - it's regressive. You don't pay it on any earned income above the SocSec cap, and you don't pay it at all on unearned income (mostly capital gains). How fair is that?

And raising the cap wouldn't fix that - it would just mean the middle to upper middle class would pay out more, while the high rollers wouldn't even feel it. You know, the same folks that keep moving closer to the AMT, while the absurd capital gains rates remain sacred.

Worse, overfunding SocSec would be a big endless "loan" from the trust fund to the general fund. Since that loan may never need to be paid back, it's basically another middle class tax so we can have more tax breaks for the wealthy.

Obama's plan is bogus pandering to the "Social Security crisis" nonsense - just leave SocSec alone for at least another decade, and remind folks that there is no crisis. If all other government finance were in as good a shape as SocSec, everything would be peachy.

If you want to talk financial crisis, talk health care.

Posted by: alex on November 20, 2007 at 12:54 AM | PERMALINK

I think Clinton and Obama look very strained trying to point out their differences because the differences are not that great.

Posted by: Ogre Mage on November 20, 2007 at 1:29 AM | PERMALINK

and then if you really wanted to hear some nonsense, you could have tuned into today's npr, where the interviewer and the idiot interviewee parroted the nonsense notion that social security, medicare, etc were going to be the agencies bankrupting the united states of amerika.

at no time in this bit of fol-de-rol was the usg's military expenditures discussed.

the real bankrupter is/was/will always be the looting disquised as "defense" expenditures.

this, of course, is never discussed. why is that do you think? do the militarists[aka fascist bastids] control every aspect of amerika? well, you know the answer. it is YES!.

Posted by: albertchampion on November 20, 2007 at 1:29 AM | PERMALINK

On the other hand, lifting the cap on the payroll tax is hardly the devil's snare Hillary is making it out to be, especially if it's phased in over a period of years. In fact, it may be the most thoroughly mainstream liberal approach to extending the solvency of Social Security there is.

Then, by all means, we should do it -- sometime approaching the year 2046, when it may actually become necessary (and preferably during an interval when mortgage foreclosure is not the prevailing "national pastime").

In the meanwhile, regarding that putative "devil's snare", a great many Americans are in NO shape financially to take on any additional tax burdens. As a far better alternative, why not levy the hypothetically required increase against the corporations -- many of which are currently enjoying record profits -- whose penny-pinching "streamlining" (i.e., benefits slashing) efforts are making Americans ever more dependent on Social Security and other "entitlement" programs? (Oh, I forgot -- this is America, land of unflinching deference to the maintenance of "corporate welfare".)

Bottom line: Clinton is absolutely correct on this particular issue. Obame is way out in left field. And Kevin Drum seemingly lives on a "island" far removed from the present-day realities of life in America. End of story.:

The Social Security Scare Squad: Reason to Hate the Media No. 567,945
By Dean Baker

Halloween has come and gone, but the Social Security Scare Squad (SSSS) refuses to take off their masks. This group of ghouls will not stop until they have substantially dismantled and/or privatized the nation's most important social program.

In their latest foray, the SSSS enlisted Sen. Barack Obama in their effort to convince the public the program is on its last legs and in desperate need of an overhaul. Obama suggested raising the income cap on the payroll tax as a way to increase the program's revenue, and then chided Senator Clinton for not having a plan for addressing the program's projected shortfall.

Senator Clinton rightly brushed off the attack, pointing out the projected problems with Social Security are distant and relatively minor. There is no reason she needs to develop a plan for plugging a hole that is not projected to arise until 2046, almost thirty years after the latest date she can leave the White House. ...
.

Posted by: Poilu on November 20, 2007 at 2:13 AM | PERMALINK

ABC/Washington Post poll today shows Obama leading Hillary in Iowa for the first time, 30% to 26%, with Edwards at 22%.

Posted by: nepeta on November 20, 2007 at 3:39 AM | PERMALINK

Raising additional FICA/SECA on relatively high individuals now is not a solution for the level of taxation necessary beginning in 2017. Raising payroll taxes now will just encourage keeping the Bush tax cut for the truly wealthy. The real problem is not the long term short fall, but the near term loss of the subsidy for the wealthy as the trust fund surplus swings to a short fall in 2017. The wealthy of America are trying to renege.

Strange as it sounds, raising the ceiling for FICA and SECA is a regressive tax in practice.

My simple solution to the situation: pass legislation now that states the obvious. All future short falls in social security payments will be covered by the general fund. Forever. Period. Call it the 'Keeping a Promise Act of 2007'. This was the essence of the deal in 1983 and the promise truly should be kept.

Out at the horizon where the trust fund is depleted, 2041 or 2046, depending on your source, what is at issue is a tax cut in 2042 or 2047 respectively. Since this date seems to be drifing farther away as time passes, there is a very good chance the fund will never be depleted and my legislative proposal will never touch a penny that Greenspan didn't intend.

Posted by: Nat on November 20, 2007 at 6:50 AM | PERMALINK

Someone kind of said but it bears repeating. KD, you are for increasing taxes on the 100k to 200k bracket (by 12.4 % including employer or self employed tax)-so the 200K+ set can re-raid the treasury? Are you nuts?

Posted by: Raoul on November 20, 2007 at 9:29 AM | PERMALINK

When I was working in finance, my check got bigger in November one year. I asked what changed. I had reached the cap for SS tax, which was a little lower then. I remember thinking that was stupid since it was a tiny amount of money that I would not miss if it went to SS.

I know I am an idiot liberal who does not resent paying taxes to support a country I (used to) love. Still, this is such an easy and painless way to solve this small problem.

Posted by: lilybart on November 20, 2007 at 9:31 AM | PERMALINK

Someone kind of said it but it bears repeating. KD, you are for increasing taxes on the 100k to 200k bracket (by 12.4 % including employer or self employed tax)-so the 200K+ set can re-raid the treasury? Are you nuts?

Posted by: Raoul on November 20, 2007 at 9:33 AM | PERMALINK

"But that doesn't mean she should be denouncing it as a huge, evil tax increase."

It is a huge, evil tax increase. Additionally, it's a huge, evil employment tax increase. It may only hit a particular class of employers, but in doing so it arguably could reduce the number of working class, pink collar, and even IT jobs in certain industries. Law firms, to name just one example. Corporate IT, which is already pretty pared down.

Any company that has highly paid income-producing vs. overhead employees will, in a short period of time, boot out their overhead employees. So not only will it hit upper income employees, but it will probably hit the overhead employees (lower paid) even more severely to offset the valuable employees' increased costs.

That's not the worst thing about the increase, but it certainly is a predictable negative.

Posted by: Cal on November 20, 2007 at 9:33 AM | PERMALINK

"The payroll tax is only regressive if you regard Social Security as a government program like any other, as if it were in fact a welfare plan that should be funded by wealth transfers. But the fundamental strength of Social Security is that it is worker funded insurance that benefits workers. It draws nothing from capital and so owes nothing to capital, particularly nothing in the form of direct political control. The cap serves as political insulation, it is almost the only thing that prevents Social Security being relegated to the 'spending we cannot afford' category (think SCIPS) as opposed to the 'spending we can't NOT afford (anything military). Leave the cap alone, the cap is our friend."
http://bruceweb.blogspot.com/2007/11/comment-to-washington-monthly.html

Posted by: freejack on November 20, 2007 at 9:40 AM | PERMALINK

I'm a good progressive but I generally don't support raising the cap to fix the funding problem. At some point there is a fairness issue here in the sense that there is a ceiling on the benefits you can receive regardless of how much you pay in.

If you raise the cap from $97,500 to cover all earnings but you don't correspondingly increase the payouts for those higher earners then it's just a tax on the wealthy to pay a middle class benefit. If that's your take then fine, but I think that's where Hillary is coming from on this. If you raise the cap and offer nothing in return then it's just a tax hike.

Posted by: David68 on November 20, 2007 at 10:00 AM | PERMALINK

"Find something else to smack each other around about FOR."

There -- fixed.

Posted by: theAmericanist's editer on November 20, 2007 at 10:45 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin, if you want to argue for HRC's position, argue for what she said, which I agree with. She is first and foremost arguing that we need for the government to return to fiscal sanity. First, deal with the massive deficits, which are masked by the SS receipts exceeding benefits. This sanity addresses the costs of the Iraq war, and the defense budget that is the present cause of the problem.

Once there is a semblance of fiscal sanity as a baseline, there will be plenty of time to fix the Medicare/medicaid issue and once that's doen, then and only then do we talk about SS. Sometime in, say, the middle of her second term.

Posted by: TJM on November 20, 2007 at 10:52 AM | PERMALINK

While I agree with removing the cap on SS wages as not progressive, I would be concerned with gathering even more SS tax revenue now that simply goes to the general fund. So we would need to index or lower the overal tax rate to make the change tax revenue neutral.

Posted by: George on November 20, 2007 at 10:58 AM | PERMALINK

The social security tax is not 6% of payroll, it's 12% of payroll. The employer picks up the other 6%.

Posted by: Jack Stout on November 20, 2007 at 11:05 AM | PERMALINK

jack: Your employer "picks up" the other 6.2% after reducing your wages accordingly. Most empirical work suggests that employees bear nearly the entire 12.4% of the payroll tax.

Posted by: bob on November 20, 2007 at 11:07 AM | PERMALINK

"It would make the payroll tax less regressive."

I have a better suggestion. Eliminate the payroll tax entirely. No more FICA or Medicare taxes. Instead, have one flat rate income tax that everyone pays, with no deductions or credits of any kind. That way, everyone pays the same percentage of their income to support the government; we're all in this together and all bear the same proportional burden.

Posted by: DBL on November 20, 2007 at 11:32 AM | PERMALINK

Yes, but this actually works for Obama - in getting independent/GOP voters who believe in this crisis. Not that many of them would ever vote for HRC, but it makes them feel better about Obama who might otherwise be too liberal for them...

Posted by: greebs on November 20, 2007 at 11:44 AM | PERMALINK

Call me naive, but couldn't we just change the definition of payroll to reduce the regressivity of a tax increase. That is to say, any malefactor of great wealth who is living on trust/dividend/cap gains/other unearned income is in effect self-employed--managing the moolah is his job. So why not classify the loot as payment for work, subject it to an SS tax with no cap, and reap a ton of bucks?

Posted by: Dano on November 20, 2007 at 12:21 PM | PERMALINK

"Clinton, without naming Obama, also continued to blast him for proposing to the lift the cap on the taxing of Social Security benefits, which are currently taxed at 6 percent, but only on the first $97,000 of a person's income."

Isn't this, you know, wrong? Obama isn't proposing to lift the cap on the taxing of Social Security benefits, he's proposing to lift the cap on the amount of regular income on which Social Security taxes of 6% are paid, well before any benefits are even received.

Posted by: Swift Loris on November 20, 2007 at 12:23 PM | PERMALINK

It really does irritate me to read a bunch of self described liberals and progressives justify a source of regressive taxation with all the same bullshit republicans are usually spouting.

Consider whether your real reason for support of this cap is that, like me, you are benefiting from it currently.

Posted by: jefff on November 20, 2007 at 1:13 PM | PERMALINK

The Democratic candidates should take a break this Thanksgiving weekend and re-think.

What I'd like to see in the next debate is the lot of them competing to describe how each of them would go about undoing the damage done by Bush/Cheney. No slams at the others, just what each would do.

Secondarily, hit on the Republican candidates-WHO ARE GETTING A FREE PASS from just about everybody.

Hit on Giuliani, for God's sake, if they want to bring up "character"!

And let the best hitter win!

Posted by: wobbly on November 20, 2007 at 5:07 PM | PERMALINK

:;ABC/Washington Post poll today shows Obama leading Hillary in Iowa for the first time, 30% to 26%, with Edwards at 22%.::

I heard that was an outlier poll with a big plus/minus factor (around 5). Other polls show Clinton, Obama and Edwards neck-and-neck.

But look at New Hampshire... Clinton is pulling away there. I tlooks like she's planning on repeating her husband's "Comeback Kid" strategy...

Posted by: tam1MI on November 20, 2007 at 5:09 PM | PERMALINK

Swift Loris -- Bingo! Disquieting that they wrote that, and disquieting that Kevin and the first few dozen commenters missed it.

Posted by: RonK, Seattle on November 20, 2007 at 5:37 PM | PERMALINK

Funny that FDR and Democrats since then, despite being strongly in favor of progressive taxation in most respects, decided that it should not apply to Social Security. Could it be that they thought there was a very good reason for capping both withholding and benefits, instead of capping benefits but not withholding to make it more "progressive"? Could it be that they thought it would be a good idea to maintain a fairly close relationship between amounts withheld and benefits, and, accordingly, for 99% of the population to get some real benefit out of the program, as opposed to say, 85% where the remaining 15% happens to control all the media (and where progressive taxation as a concept is poorly accepted by the affluent)? Is it possible they saw support eroding if those selfish affluent were asked to pay in more for the same benefits as those paying less -- i.e., if Social Security were turned into a welfare program? Just asking. It's worth thinking about stuff like this.

Unfortunately, because I generally like him a lot, Obama is 100% wrong on this and Hillary is 100% right. If you don't understand that, then you don't understand the program, as apparently Obama does not. True, Democrats should not be debating this, because Obama should never have raised it, but once brought out it needs to be shot down. I fear Obama's soul has been captured by Lieberman-style DLC zombies who think you prove your centrism by adopting right wing talking points. In most respects -- not 100%, but pretty much so on domestic matters -- Hillary is maintaining her liberalism intact.

To those who think Social Security is not a good financial deal, they need to first answer this question: where can I get an annuity that guarantees I get paid for life upon retirement; and that guarantees my spouse will get paid for the rest of his or her life; and that guarantees my payment will be adjusted for inflation every year once I retire without any cap on that adjustment; and -- here's the real kicker -- from the time I open it until the time I retire, is guaranteed to be adjusted upwards for CHANGES IN THE STANDARD OF LIVING? I'd like to see that one, and see how much it costs. Of course, no one offers it because they could not accept such uncertain exposure. Which, if you think about it, means it's an extraordinarily good deal that can only be done through a government that does not have to worry as much about the risk of losses exceeding revenues.

Posted by: urbanlegend on November 20, 2007 at 6:05 PM | PERMALINK
I'm a good progressive but I generally don't support raising the cap to fix the funding problem. At some point there is a fairness issue here in the sense that there is a ceiling on the benefits you can receive regardless of how much you pay in.

So, lift the cap on benefits, too. And, while you are at it, include capital income in both the income taxed for SS and the income considered in computing benefits.

Of course, beyond a certain total income, SS benefits themselves are subject to regular income (but not SS) taxes. You get a big flush into the system now, and keep that spigot on. Sure, you increase the total number of beneficiaries down the road, but you do it in a way which eases the contributor:beneficiary ratio problem. And no one is asked to pay more without getting something for it.

(Ideally, I'd combine this with eliminating the preferential income tax treatment of capital income, but this can stand on its own.)

Posted by: cmdicely on November 20, 2007 at 6:53 PM | PERMALINK

I didn't notice it in the comments, but I think Obama was talking about raising the cap, but with a "donut hole." Not sure of the details, but basically something like capping at the current level, then kicking in at say $200,000 (or higher).

The reason I like this is that those who are very rich get all kinds of tax breaks now, through capital gains or whatever. Tacking on an additional payroll tax in their bracket would help make the overall tax code a little more progrssive.

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