Dean Baker and colleague Mark Weisbrot have been making a steady case since their publication of the aptly named Social Security: the Phony Crisis back in 1999. In short Social Security does not face a structural demographic problem, instead it has encountered a contingent economic one, marked mostly by a failure of wages to grow with productivity in the ways it did in past decades. The ‘Phony Crisis’ link goes to the Introduction to the book, if you haven’t read it you should. And equally worth reading is the Press Release linked above published last Wednesday. I just want to isolate and emphasize two paragraphs from the Press Release.
Wage growth is the key to the program’s solvency for two reasons. The first is that the upward redistribution of wage income over the last three decades has played a large role in the projected shortfall. As income has been transferred from ordinary workers to those at the top of the wage distribution, a larger share of wage income has escaped taxation. When the Greenspan Commission set the cap for taxable wages in 1983, it covered 90 percent of wage income. Currently the cap only covers around 82 percent of wage income. If the cap had continued to cover 90 percent of wage income, the projected shortfall would be roughly 40 percent less than it is now.
“The other reason why broadly based wage growth is key to the program’s continuing solvency is that the burden of possible future tax increases would be much less consequential if most workers will share in the gains of economic growth. The Social Security trustees project that real wages will rise by more than 34 percent over the next two decades. (They are projected to rise by another 30 percent over the following two decades.) Even if the payroll tax is increased by three percentage points, it would take back less than one-tenth of the projected rise in before-tax wages if wage growth is evenly shared. On the other hand, if most of the gains from growth continue to go to those at the top end of the distribution, any tax increase will be a major burden.
On my reading Dean is calling for a dual approach: one that emphasizes wage growth in increasing revenue to Social Security but which also envisions accompanying tax increases. Whose affordability is that much more eased by the wage boosts. It doesn’t have to be either or, it can be MJ.ABW and NW.
More Jobs. At Better Wages. plus the Northwest Plan.