Bachmann statements on Social Security: false, contradictory and bizarre

Tarryl Clark
Tarryl Clark

Tarryl Clark’s ad attacking Michele Bachmann for wanting to “wean everybody off” of Social Security has now been fact-checked by KSTP’s Tom Hauser, who gave it an F, and by WCCO’s Pat Kessler, who doesn’t assign simplistic grades but who rated the ad’s main claim an “exaggeration.”

Me, I don’t see how Hauser gives an F to an ad that doesn’t contain a factual statement that is explicitly false.  I’m with Kessler. The ad is not honest and seems designed to make you think (without saying so directly) at least one thing about Bachmann’s current position on Social Security that isn’t true. Bachmann has never suggested that seniors already receiving Social Security should be cut off, nor even that their benefits be cut.

And Clark’s own position on Social Security, which is to do nothing because the latest trustees report projects that SocSec can pay all promised benefits until 2037, is short-sighted and simplistic, since it ignores the impact of the drawdown of the SocSec Trust Fund. Clark says economic growth and job creation are the best things the government can do to help Social Security. In my view, tax hikes and/or benefit cuts, however disguised, will be necessary. U.S. life expectancy keeps rising, which is a good thing, but a threat to SocSec’s balance sheet. When the program was created, life expectancy was 65.

On the other hand, Bachmann has said a lot of false, contradictory and bizarre things about Social Security. Certainly the Clark ad was not wrong to imply that those who want to preserve SocSec in its traditional form have plenty to fear from Bachmannism (which, one might say, is the real message of Clark’s ad). But — as in so many issue areas — Bachmann won’t level about what she supports for Social Security (hint: it’s privatization), won’t retract the inaccurate things she has said about Social Security and won’t respond to simple requests from journalists for her position on the issue.

Bachmann hopes to get away with saying in front of righty groups, on Fox News or in front of her base supporters things like:

  • that Social Security is some kind of colossal fraud (yes, she used the word “fraud”);
  • that it is it “broke” (not troubling to acknowledge that SocSec is running a surplus of $77 billion this year, is projected to continue running surpluses until 2024, and is projected to pay full benefits until 2037);
  •  that SocSec would be unable to pay any benefits at all to workers born since 1970 (she said that on the day she first announced for Congress in 2006; in reality, under the worst-case projections in which  Social Security exhausts the trust fund, the system would still pay benefits of about 78 percent of promised benefits);
  • that any private company that engaged in similar fraud would be “thrown in jail,” (this has become a common righty talking point, but it is based on the ludicrous notion that SocSec is – legally or otherwise – the equivalent of a private, for-profit investment company).

But, when speaking to a wider public audience or to groups that value Social Security in its traditional form, Bachmann tends to say that she just wants the big senior entitlement programs fixed.

Privatization and the big Bachmann whopper
In truth, Bachmann favors the privatization or at least partial privatization of Social Security. She was very clear about that in 2006, and she ran as an advocate of the plan that President Bush was promoting at that time.

The basic idea was to allow younger workers the option of diverting a portion of their future Social Security taxes into a private investment account, which could be invested in stocks and bonds (or maybe limit the options to a small range of conservative mutual funds). In exchange, the younger workers would give up a portion of the fixed lifetime benefit that is promised by the Social Security formula, but they would own the mutual fund shares instead, draw on them in retirement or leave them to their kids.

Rep. Michele Bachmann
MinnPost/Raoul Benavides
Rep. Michele Bachmann

(Unlike many liberals, I personally am not unalterably opposed to all such ideas, but I don’t see how they can be introduced without trillions of dollars in transition costs to keep the old system going until the new version is ready to take over.)

This idea, with various differences of detail, has been on the table for decades and was always called Social Security “privatization.” The Cato Institute, which provided much of the intellectual muscle behind the idea, publicly called its operation “The Cato Project on Social Security Privatization.”

At some point, the language and spin geniuses who decide such things decided that “privatization” was not the best word for selling the idea. You will now note that Dems throw “privatization” around all the time (it’s not an idea they are selling) and Repubs avoid it, using terms like “individual investment accounts” or ‘Social Security choice” and other focus-group tested word choices.

Bachmann seems to have a particular favorite phrase, which revolves around the word “own,” as in: “Who should own our retirement?” If you listen for it, I predict you’ll hear a version of that phrase from her. But mostly, when away from her base, she avoids even hinting at privatization.

Still, in one of her most brazen falsehoods, Bachmann answered a 2006 AARP questionnaire about whether she favored private accounts thus:

“Whatever reforms we adopt, we must find a way to strengthen and protect Social Security without raising payroll taxes, without reducing benefits, without raising the retirement age, and without privatizing the system.

In my own practice as a fact-checker, I avoid the use of the world “lie,” because to call something a “lie” you have to see into the intentions of the person making the statement. Many of Bachmann’s erroneous statements seem to stem from a reckless willingness to publicly repeat something that she has heard without checking its accuracy or grasping the details. But it is impossible to believe that her claim to reject privatization is anything less than a willful attempt to deceive.

Such blatant prevarication ought to come with a political price, but apparently not so.

At the time, I highlighted the sleight-of-word in my old Strib blog. Back then, Bachmann would sometimes return my calls and I worked hard to pin her down. 

Bachmann’s official current SocSec position
After the Clark ad started airing, Bachmann’s campaign spokester Serio Gor put out this statement, headlined “Another distortion from Tarryl Clark:”

“Congresswoman Michele Bachmann has been clear she does not support ending Social Security.  Michele has stated both Medicare and Social Security need to be fixed.  Under their current conditions these programs can’t be maintained for our future generations because of liberal spending by politicians like President Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Tarryl Clark. Michele remains committed to maintaining benefits for those who are receiving benefits as well as protecting the money future recipients have paid into the system.”

There are two problems with this. First, if one were to take Bachmann’s original “weaning” statement seriously and literally, it would lead to the end of Social Security. Even if you were to grandfather in all the seniors now on SocSec, while “weaning off” everyone else, you would eventually do away with the program when the current grandfathers (and mothers) died off.

The second problem is that Bachmann wants us to believe that her real goal is to fix Social Security, but she won’t tell us how. A week ago, after receiving the statement above as a press release, I sent a simple query to spokester Gor asking to know what measures Bachmann embraces to fix Social Security. My query said:

What are Rep. Bachmann’s ideas for fixing the long-term Social Security financing problem? Does she supporting raising FICA taxes or raising the cap? Does she support any benefit cuts? In the past, she has favored the partial privatization ideas, such as those promoted by Pres. Bush. Does she still? Does she have other ideas for reducing or eliminating the long-term projected shortfall in Social Security’s balance sheet? If so, please specify?

I agree that when Rep. Bachmann made her “wean everybody off” remark, she excluded those seniors who are now receiving benefits. But after current beneficiaries die off, and the rest have been weaned off, what would be left of the program?

I never received a reply. Perhaps that doesn’t surprise you. I’m only a MinnPoster now, and the congresswoman and I have developed a contentious history. But Kessler, a notoriously fair reporter from mighty ‘CCO, ended his “Reality Check” piece thus:

“Despite repeated requests, Bachmann would not provide us with her detailed position on Social Security, and there’s nothing about it on her campaign website.”

I feel the need to emphasize that Bachmann is far from alone in creative vagueness about Social Security. Clark, as I mentioned, doesn’t favor any changes to the program. Bachmann’s “change-is-vitally-needed-but_won’t-say-what-change” positions if very common on both sides of the aisle. When the House Repubs released their big Pledge to America program, it included the pledge that republicans “will make the decisions that are necessary to protect our entitlement programs for today’s seniors and future generations.”It didn’t specify anything about the content of those decisions.

House Repub leader John Boehner was asked why not. He said that such decisions would have to be preceded by “an adult conversation” with America about the depth of the problem and the range of solutions. On Fox News, Chris Wallace asked whether Americans weren’t entitled to have that conversation before an election with control of the House at stake. Boehner replied:

“Chris, this is what happens here in Washington. When you start down that path, you just invite all kinds of problems. I know. I’ve been there. I think we need to do this in a more systemic way and have this conversation first. Let’s not get to the potential solutions. Let’s make sure Americans understand how big the problem is. Then we can begin to talk about possible solutions and then work ourselves into those solutions that are doable.”

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Comments (44)

  1. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 10/05/2010 - 10:32 am.

    There’s an important side issue here, which is that the trade-off of higher Social Security taxes and lower income taxes shifted the tax burden from the rich onto the poor. The benefits of income-tax cuts largely go to wealthier Americans, since income-tax cuts run right up the scale to the top. Meanwhile, the burden of over-paying payroll taxes falls disproportionately on the middle and lower class, since payroll taxes don’t apply to income over a certain level. So middle- and lower-class boomers have paid more tax than they otherwise would have over the past 25 years, and rich boomers have paid less. But the main point here is simply that if we now think Social Security is unaffordable, it’s because, having done their payroll-tax-raise workout in 1983, the baby boomers then treated themselves to the ice cream of income-tax cuts. Now the boomers are retiring, and the bill is coming due.

  2. Submitted by John E Iacono on 10/05/2010 - 11:07 am.

    Politicians on both sides of this “hot wire” issue tend to avoid specific proposals on it.


  3. Submitted by Fritz Dahmus on 10/05/2010 - 11:30 am.

    Get rid of SS any way you can! Cut it in half and charge ALL income levels in order to pay for the next government attempt at making us secure (National Healthcare). The remaining portion can be invested by us, the personal taxpayer, in large company blue chip stocks (11% historical returns), oil and gas royalties/stock (record profits….always it seems), gold (hedge against bad economies), or long term CDs (5%??). If we are responsible enough…..we can all be worth hundreds of thousands…if not a million by age 65-75. This is FAR less the our SS benefits (I believe by 5 to 10 times). That is Bachmann’s long term goal…..I for one support it!

  4. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/05/2010 - 11:34 am.

    “under the worst-case projections in which Social Security exhausts the trust fund, the system would still pay benefits of about 78 percent of promised benefits”

    Eric, if I had an investment plan that I was selling with a brochure promising you’d make $10 for every dollar you invested, but never returned more than 78% of the promised amount, what would you call that?

    And, although when setting leftist propaganda to rights, I avoid the use of the world “lie”, I have noted the lie of omission in your “fact checking”; things are not as rosy as you’d have us believe.

    Social Security outlays are expected to exceed income by 2016. And in 2008, analysts were predicting the fund would to run dry by 2041…now it’s 2037.

    Bachmann is walking a fine line that is consistently being set on fire by scheming leftist manipulators who are motivated by any one of a dozen self-serving reasons to keep the truth from the public.

    I don’t count on receiving 25% of my forced “investment” in Social Security..hell, I’ll be pleased to see anything. And I really appreciate Rep. Bachmann’s willingness to take up the subject at all, given the punching bag the left has made of her.

    I have yet to see one Democrat make even a half-hearted attempt to do the same.

  5. Submitted by Ginny Martin on 10/05/2010 - 11:48 am.

    Bachman is indeed disingenuous, to be charitable about it. I heard the ad and I did not hear except for those currently enrolled. (How can you “wean” someone off something they are not currently getting?) Despite her lies and contradictions, Bachman does want to move Social Security toward privatization–which would be a disaster and clearly expensive. And it would hollow out SS, which is what is intended, I believe, because SS’s success (and it is, despite the opinions to the contrary) is based on the idea of everybody in the pool. That means the rich, as well. And, of course, risky as we have all seen in the last 2 years.
    Ask someone older who has some investments how much they lost.
    I do not trust Tom Hauser’s evaluations. I responded to one of his comments challenging me to find a single inaccuracy in his rating, and I did. Didn’t hear back though.
    It’s a shame when someone who purports to set the record straight further skews it and comes up with a conclusion opposite of what is really true.

  6. Submitted by Dan Landherr on 10/05/2010 - 11:55 am.

    This seems to be typical of politics. Don’t take a principled stand on anything controversial. Be outspokenly against obvious problems but don’t offer solutions. Be outspokenly in favor of vague, emotional ideals but don’t bother with the details of how to ensure those ideals are put into practice.

  7. Submitted by Arvonne Fraser on 10/05/2010 - 12:05 pm.

    Eric Black, Tarryl Clark and Michelle Bachman should all know that Social Security is not just a retirement program–it’s an insurance program covering disabled people and children of dead or disabled parents. It would be nice if someone would just Google social security disability payments and see how much is paid to Minnesotans and how many Minnesota children receive Social Security benefits–or their parents on behalf of the children. We would have far more families on general assistance or Medicaid if it weren’t for Social Security. Wise up, folks.

  8. Submitted by Michael Hunt on 10/05/2010 - 12:05 pm.

    I’m always shocked that I’ve heard nothing from the “privitizers” since roughly around, oh, say the end of 2008?

  9. Submitted by Gary Greenberg on 10/05/2010 - 12:12 pm.

    I’m no supporter of current political debate (if one can actually call it a debate) on Social Security, but I would like to comment on some misconceptions that are contained in the above article.

    Is Social Security some type of fraud? No, not if one understands that it is a “pay as you go” retirement benefit system where current benefits are paid by current workers or borrowed by the U.S. Government.

    Allan Sloan wrote a very effective piece for the Washington Post in August of this year where he explained that the Social Security Trust Fund contains “funny money.” His definition was that because the Treasury must borrow $41 billion to pay for benefits, the so-called assets in the trust fund are really funny money.

    This concept may sound strange, but it was explained rather convincingly in a year-end double issue of the Economist in 1989 (or 1990). The writer compared the trust fund (which holds non-marketable direct obligations of the U.S. Treasury) to a cigar box a father has to pay for his child’s college education. Each year, the family spends all of their money and he puts an IOU in the cigar box (payable with interest). When the child is ready for college, he goes to the cigar box and there are only IOUs in it. Either dad is able to borrow the money at that time, or there is nothing for college.

    Conceptually, that is the Social Security Trust Fund.

    2. Is the fund broke? If one concedes that the Trust Fund does not own anything other than an IOU from the U.S. Treasury, then there is nothing to actually sell to raise cash. The Treasury must go into the market and sell more Treasury securities. As Sloan states, Social Security needs to tap the fund for $41 billion this year. Is there $41 billion in cash or marketable securities such as stocks? No. That means the Treasury must redeem the IOUs by borrowing the money.

    That explanation does not quite support a statement that the fund is “broke.” Instead, the solvency of the fund depends upon the ability of Uncle Sam to find the money it needs to redeem the IOUs, just as the dad needs to borrow to pay the cigar box IOUs.

    3. What about that $77 billion surplus? Once again, a surplus that is created from accounting assumptions isn’t really a surplus when the cash withdrawal needs are $41 billion and the Treasury has to increase total borrowing by that amount to pay the benefits.

    Finally, I’ll close with a quote from the Sloan article that really says it all:

    “Let me show you in two different ways how useless the fund is. The first is a quote from the introduction to the 2009 Social Security trustees report, the second is the graphic by my Fortune colleague Robert Dominguez that accompanies this article.

    Allen Smith, economics professor emeritus at Eastern Illinois University and author of “The Big Lie: How Our Government Hoodwinked the Public, Emptied the S.S. Trust Fund, and caused The Great Economic Collapse,” spotted the 2009 quote, and it is telling.

    It says: , “Neither the redemption of trust fund bonds, nor interest paid on those bonds, provides any new net income to the Treasury, which must finance redemptions and interest payments through some combination of increased taxation, reductions in other government spending, or additional borrowing from the public.”

    In other words, the trust fund is of no economic value.

    This sentence wasn’t in the 2010 introduction, released last week. Treasury says that it stands by the statement but that the Social Security trustees decided not to include it this year because it reiterates the obvious.”

    An intelligent discussion of the Social Security issue requires some common ground. That common ground is found in the statements Sloan reported from the trustees of the fund and the U.S. Treasury.

  10. Submitted by John Reinan on 10/05/2010 - 12:17 pm.

    Eric, let me correct one small but important item. Early on, you mention that the life expectancy when SS was created was 65.

    That’s true, but it’s deceptive — the 1930s life expectancy number is skewed by the many deaths from childhood diseases that have been largely eradicated.

    For people in the 1930s who *lived to age 65*, their life expectancy beyond that age was only about four years less than for someone who lives to age 65 today.

    An increase in life expectancy for us today, yes — but not nearly as dramatic as is often suggested.

    The meme that people in the 1930s died at age 65, while we today live into our 80s, is a key point of anti-Social Security propaganda. I hate to see you spreading it.

  11. Submitted by Brian Simon on 10/05/2010 - 12:30 pm.

    Richard, without getting into who bears the burden, the larger issue is that our politicians & candidates for political office are unwilling to have the ‘adult conversation’ that Rep Boehner calls for. As Eric reports, both Bachmann and Clark are arguing for no change to the system; both seem to admit that the system does require fixing, but neither makes any concrete proposals – or even guidelines describing how they’d approach the problem – while running for office. I’ll even go so far as to admit that’s a somewhat sensible election strategy, given that candidates don’t want to alienate voters. So the question needs to be: why do we as voters put up with this?

  12. Submitted by chuck holtman on 10/05/2010 - 12:47 pm.

    My understanding is that Soc Sec is fully solvent to pay full benefits thru 2037, and that raising the cap would make it fully solvent until forever. For what other budget item would this level of fiscal health constitute a “crisis”? Certainly attending to the program’s long-term status is good governance, it is fair, and it does not in fact require lowering benefits or raising taxes (except by removing special treatment for the better-off). For the finance industry, which gets fat by pulling out a plum from every pie that passes under its nose, Soc Sec privatization is (to mix a metaphor, I suppose) the Big Kahuna. But other than carrying water for that industry, I’ve not heard anyone justify why Soc Sec is a “crisis” or why it merits more than a simple, uncontroversial, administrative raising of the cap over time.

  13. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/05/2010 - 01:03 pm.

    Within a generation, young people will be demanding that the government phase out this Ponzi scheme and implement a retirement plan similar to a 401k plan that most people now have.

    Democrats who defend the current system, which is actuarily unsustainable, will do so at their own peril.

  14. Submitted by James Hamilton on 10/05/2010 - 01:04 pm.

    I’m a long way from a Bachmann supporter, but a headline that focuses on Bachmann when the story leads with ratings of Clark’s attack ad gets a pretty low score with me.

  15. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 10/05/2010 - 01:07 pm.

    Social Security is NOT a fraud. Anyone who’s been paying attention knows the future problems likely to arise, to which there are workable and acceptable solutions to those problems; acceptable, that is to the vast majority of the public (except those whose only source of information is the the GOP Propaganda Ministry, administered by Frank Luntz and using weasel news, numerous blogs and untold numbers of email producers and forwarders as the outlets for its pro-big business, pro-big money, pro-fossil fuel, anti-environment propaganda).

    The demographic bubble that is the Baby Boomers, is, of course, unavoidably going to cause huge bumps in the costs of social security as well as the costs of all government healthcare programs. Any politician who promises to reduce the cost of healthcare anytime in the next thirty years is lying through their teeth, unless, of course, their version of dealing with the upcoming abundance of the elderly and infirm is that they should, “die quickly.”

    The REAL fraud is contained in the information put out by the Propaganda Ministry and repeated (and frequently added to) by Ms. Bachmann, herself, as she, behind the scenes and under the table, prepares, together with her Republican colleagues, to force younger folks to invest their Social Security in, and ride the combination roller coaster/Ponzi scheme that is Wall Street (there would be no other option), thereby enriching, beyond imagination, the same people who so recently crashed the world’s economy and, in the end, completing what their real agenda has been since the days of FDR: stripping the poor and middle class of all their remaining assets until the rich have everything and the vast majority of citizens of this country have NOTHING.

    The BIG LIE of modern Republicanism (unlike the pre-Raygun variety) is that Republicans share the concerns of middle class conservatives and hope for the betterment of the United States, in general.

    The FRAUD they constantly perpetrate is that the things they SO want to do are designed to help regular people, when the ONLY things they ever want to do are designed to pad the pockets of themselves and their friends: the others at the very top of the income scale while they do their very best to destroy any and every way new people, no matter how intelligent, no matter how creative, no matter how hard working, can rise to that level of wealth.

  16. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 10/05/2010 - 01:29 pm.

    Wait a minute Eric, you’re using a blatantly false ad from Clark as a hook to talk about Bachmann’s lack of a well defined plan? Weren’t you just writing about the importance of keeping politicians honest? Do you have any word from the Clark campaign about the claims they’ve made in this ad?
    And after we’ve been told repeatedly that the Reps were out of bounds for criticizing Obama’s healthcare initiatives without a an alternative (which itself isn’t true), can I ask where the Dem plan is to fix social security? Is there a reason that we’re only asking fiscal conservatives that question? Presumably the Dems that are elected will make some attempt to govern. Can we figure out what stands they’ll make?
    I’m not a big fan of Bachmann but the ad that this post is based on is asking for more inspection of Clark.

  17. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/05/2010 - 01:36 pm.

    “under the worst-case projections in which Social Security exhausts the trust fund, the system would still pay benefits of about 78 percent of promised benefits”

    Eric, if I had an investment plan that I was selling with a brochure promising you’d make $10 for every dollar you invested, but never returned more than 78% of the promised amount, what would you call that?

    And, although when setting leftist propaganda to rights, I avoid the use of the world “lie”, I have noted the lie of omission in your “fact checking”; things are not as rosy as you’d have us believe.

    Social Security outlays are expected to exceed income by 2016. And in 2008, analysts were predicting the fund would to run dry by 2041…now it’s 2037.

    Bachmann is walking a fine line that is consistently being set on fire by leftist manipulators who are motivated by any one of a dozen self-serving reasons to keep the truth from the public.

    I don’t count on receiving 25% of my forced “investment” in Social Security..heck, I’ll be pleased to see anything. And I really appreciate Rep. Bachmann’s willingness to take up the subject at all, given the punching bag the left has made of her.

    I have yet to see one Democrat make even a half-hearted attempt to do the same.

    Oh, and BTW. You titled a piece about Terryl Clark’s poor relationship with the truth “Bachmann statements on Social Security: false, contradictory and bizarre”…and you say Bachmann’s people don’t return your calls?

    Do tell, Eric. Do tell.

  18. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 10/05/2010 - 03:10 pm.

    I agree Brian…

    Most of the problems facing America will require solutions — whether it be increasing the retirement age, cutting Medicare, or raising taxes — that cause real pain. Eventually, one of the parties will have to inflict it. And I’m okay with that conversation, it’s long overdue….

  19. Submitted by Ed Stych on 10/05/2010 - 03:27 pm.

    Wow. Bait and switch with that headline.

    By the way, Eric, when are you going to write about the Oberstar race? You guys are missing a good story as you remain hellbent on bringing down Bachmann. Oberstar just might be in trouble. And if Oberstar is in trouble, then what Dem isn’t in trouble?

  20. Submitted by Henry Fischer on 10/05/2010 - 03:30 pm.

    Clark’s ad is correct. Bachmann wants to take everbody under a certain age off of the SS system. As the article noted it would take trillions of dollars to transition of which non is likely to be supported by Bachmann. Senior’s should be fearful of Bachmann. She is not a supporter of SS for anybody.

  21. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/05/2010 - 04:06 pm.

    The more I consider this piece, the more it occurs to me that the left is in complete meltdown mode.

    And today has been especially bad for the local left.

    The first person reviews I’ve been receiving of Biden’s appearance at Macalister College read like descriptions of a wake.

    Ed (#19), I suspect that Eric is fully aware of the developing situation in the 8th CD…he may, in fact, have been holding a crumpled print out of that story in his clenched fist while he banged out this desperately flawed piece.

  22. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/05/2010 - 04:37 pm.

    I’m not even close to melting. I have, however, enjoyed spending every dime of Mr. Swift’s ongoing contributions to my luxurious retirement lifestyle, and I look forward to many more years of the same. If Mr. Tester’s 401(k) performs as well as most have in the past couple years, he’ll be living under a bridge in a dotage of abject poverty, still babbling about how much better off he is for entrusting his money to Wall Street thieves instead of relying on the dull trustworthiness of a limited benefit through a pay-as-you-go retirement system with minimal overhead costs.

    The “trust fund” is an IOU. As such, it has no cash value. It does, however, represent a commitment on the part of the national government to its citizens. As long as the promise is kept, whether the IOU is for $5 I owe to Mr. Swift, or many millions of dollars to millions of citizens, it doesn’t matter that the IOU itself has no cash value. If the promise is kept, the IOU is good for the figure it’s supposed to be good for. The only people I see threatening to renege on the promise are people who misrepresent themselves as “conservative.”

    Some reforms are necessary, largely because so many of us are living past age 65 nowadays, and also because Social Security involves a lot more than just a retirement plan, but so far, neither political party has had the courage to address what needs to be done, which likely includes raising the income cap, or removing it altogether, so that it’s not just the lower half of income-earners who are paying into it, possibly raising the retirement age from the current 62 and 65 to something like 65 and 67, or, as a last resort, reducing benefits. That last one is tricky, however, because, as Arvonne Fraser pointed out (#7), it’s not just a retirement program, it also provides help to the disabled and the children of dead or disabled parents.

    It might actually BE a trust fund to finance retirement benefits, but the law is written loosely enough that it has allowed Congress – under both Democratic and Republican administrations – to repeatedly loot the “fund” to pay for other budget items “under the table” and off-budget. The current military fiascoes in the Middle East are merely the most recent recipients of that mostly unreported funding. The only way The Shrub and his corporate cohorts could pretend to try to balance the federal budget was to keep the various wars in the Middle East off the books by using Social Security contributions (which are “fungible,” meaning the money can be used for any purpose) to pay for rifle ammunition, F-15 flights and generals’ salaries.

    John Boehner – one of those who worked hard to keep paying for that rifle ammunition and F-15 activity in the Middle East by way of Social Security contributions – is among those who isn’t serious about wanting that “adult” conversation he mentioned, and that’s largely because Mr. Boehner is in the pocket of the same Wall Street thieves who created the current “recession,” something that might be part of that conversation. It’s a conflict of interest that even Bachmann supporters might recognize. He will have a hard time being reelected – as will any political figure of any, or no, political party – by promising to lessen the benefits of his constituents while simultaneously exposing those benefits to the risks of a “market” that many citizens understand is rigged to reward a select few at the expense of the many.

    Bachmann has been a liar about so many things already, whether on purpose or through amazing ignorance is hard to tell, that I expect a few more about Social Security won’t really make much difference. Her supporters don’t care if she knows what she’s talking about, and her detractors likely tune her out before the end of her first sentence. Clark should be smarter than to try to pretend that all is well with a program that millions rely on, but that is slated to start running short of money in a generation – even sooner under worse-case scenarios. It’s about this time of an election year when I start to yearn for a non-partisan (or all-major-partisan) fact-checking organization that political ads would have to clear BEFORE they could appear in print or on TV or radio.

    However, Eric, I have to agree with the critics about one thing. The headline ought to say something to the effect that “Congressional Candidate statements on Social Security are false, contradictory and bizarre” rather than implying an article about Bachmann, then leading with a discussion of Clark. I don’t mind them both being in there, but the headline should reflect that.

  23. Submitted by Bernie Hesse on 10/05/2010 - 05:02 pm.

    Rep. Bachmann and others have been quite creative on spinning where Social Security is going. For us working people not only have they attacked Social Security but they have jumped on the bandwagon to wipe out our defined benefit plans and have sung the marvels of the free market. How was the working for your 401 plan in 2008? The joke is that my 401 is now a 201. We need to prioritize our spending and quite simply running two wars with no way to pay for it is one of the reason our economy is hurting.

  24. Submitted by James Hamilton on 10/05/2010 - 05:48 pm.

    Perhaps one of the less math-challenged than I among the readers will do us the favor of running a present value calculation on their own SS contributions, a summary of which is provided annually to each of us. Please use a rock solid, low risk interest rate, rather than an historical market rate. We can then see exactly what kind of lifetime annuity one could purchase for that amount with today’s magnanimous interest rates.

  25. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 10/05/2010 - 07:51 pm.

    You don’t see how KSTP’s Tom Hauser gave Tarryl Clakr’s ad an “F”? How about the fact KSTP is owned by a billionaire reactionary who is a fanatic supporter of Bachmann? Does anyone believe anything that comes out of KSTP?

    But you’re right, Eric, “on the other hand” Bachmann has said a lot of false, contradictory and bizarre things about Social Security. And everything else, except the fact that she is anti-abortion and wants women who get abortions in prison. Or dead. And why does she pay no political price? Because her supporters are shameless, fanatical cult followers and don’t care.

  26. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 10/05/2010 - 09:42 pm.

    #12 Any links to the simple cap raising fixes all?

    #24 I just signed on for a 6% lifetime annuity but I’m not sure if the amount of money mattered. A couple of years ago I got 5% but the products are changing as the companies figure out how much they’ll be paying. I think my latest I-bond purchase makes less than 2% but that will change over time unlike the annuities.

    General: The literature at our door today included all of the Social Security attacks, and a claim that while in the Legislature, Senator Clark “cut billions in spending” and as our Representative will “cut wasteful government spending”. I thought T-Paw cut the spending and wasn’t aware of any government waste at the federal level (at least the Czar hasn’t found any yet).

  27. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 10/05/2010 - 11:09 pm.

    #26: Any links to the simple cap raising fixes all?

    A couple:

  28. Submitted by William Pappas on 10/06/2010 - 05:57 am.

    Why all the hand wringing? Do what the system has intended to all along. Raise the income threshold to which the social security tax applies. That way people who are not poor are paying a little extra to make the system solvent and everyone will receive full benefits. End of discussion.

  29. Submitted by Steve Rose on 10/06/2010 - 07:32 am.


    You are killing us with irony. You grade the truthfulness of the ad graders after deceptively leading into a Clark story, with complementary photo, disguised as a Bachmann story.

    So, there is a $77 billion SS surplus? I was considering how take the veneer off of that deception, when I read comment #9 by Gary Greenberg. Thank you Gary; you explained it better than I would have. As Gary said, “In other words, the trust fund is of no economic value.” Eric, I think you knew this.

  30. Submitted by donald maxwell on 10/06/2010 - 08:35 am.

    Comment #9 tries to claim the Social Security fund is “funny money” or some kind of fraud. First, look at the source of that “wisdom”: Washington Post, owned by whom?

    In fact the Social Security Trust Fund is a valid construct. Congress after Congress, unwilling to tax the people for the wars they demand, has borrowed the Fund’s money. Just how is that a fault of Social Security? It’s not Social Security that’s broke, buster, it’s the federal government. If Dad has borrowed the college money from the piggy bank for vacations because he doesn’t have the guts to tell the kids he can’t afford the vacation, is that the fault of the piggy bank?

  31. Submitted by Dave Kopesky on 10/06/2010 - 09:35 am.

    Talk about the “Funny Money Trust Fund” further illustrates the implausibility of what Bachmann and others like her propose. Much of the public is not aware that this so-called Trust Fund is nothing more than a stack of IOU’s and the money has been spent to fund government operations.

    If you have persons under 50 or 55 (or whatever age) divert their contributions (and their employer’s) to some kind of 401(k) where are you going to find the money to pay benefits to the many millions of older folks still getting traditional social security benefits? Since the Tea-Partyers are absolutely against any tax increases how are they going to replace the money now going into the system and in reality being used to pay benefits?

    It sure looks like after 2012 the right-wing will have control of both the Executive and Legislative branches in Washington to rubber stamp their will for a couple years. Then we will see how much easier it is to make sound bytes and slogans than to really deal with the economic problems in this country. By 2014 I expect the pendulum will be headed back in the other direction when people realize solving complex problems is not as simple as Rush, Sarah, Michelle and the other right-wingers would have you believe.

    Is there no hope for electing reasonable people who can reach across the aisle and work to solve difficult long-term problems rather than ideologues of the right and left? In the short term I know the answer and don’t like it. Our Governor’s race is the perfect example – the one guy, imperfect as he is, who seems willing to do this has no chance.

  32. Submitted by John Reinan on 10/06/2010 - 09:37 am.

    Here’s an economist who says it better than I can. Find the entire column here:

    “Here are the facts. Social Security is a well-run, fiscally responsible program. People earn retirement, survivors, and disability benefits by making payroll tax contributions during their working years. Those taxes and other revenues are deposited in the Social Security trust funds, and all benefits and administrative expenses are paid out of the trust funds. The amount that Social Security can spend is limited by its payroll tax income plus the balance in the trust funds.

    “The Social Security trustees — the official body charged with evaluating the program’s long-term finances — project that Social Security can pay 100 percent of promised benefits through 2037 and about three-quarters of scheduled benefits after that, even if Congress makes no changes in the program. Relatively modest changes would put the program on a sound financial footing for 75 years and beyond.

    “Nonetheless, some critics are attempting to undermine confidence in Social Security with wild and blatantly false accusations. They allege that the trust funds have been “raided” or disparage the trust funds as “funny money” or mere “IOUs.” Some even label Social Security a “Ponzi scheme” after the notorious 1920s swindler Charles Ponzi. All of these claims are nonsense.

    “Every year since 1984, Social Security has collected more in payroll taxes and other income than it pays in benefits and other expenses. (The authors of the 1983 Social Security reform law did this on purpose in order to help pre-fund some of the costs of the baby boomers’ retirement.)

    “These surpluses are invested in U.S. Treasury securities that are every bit as sound as the U.S. government securities held by investors around the globe; investors regard these securities as among the world’s very safest investments.”

    Do yourself a favor — read the rest of it.

  33. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 10/06/2010 - 10:42 am.

    How much would Minnesota lose (Arvonne Fraser, #7)?

    1) Social Security Administration figures for December 2008 ( show how much the state’s economy received in that one month —
    $40,135,000 to 80,645 recipients of retirement payments, plus payments to support the surviving spouses and children, and disabled workers.

    2) I urge everyone who wants straight talk to visit the web site of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare ( The point out that annuity payments received by those who are forced to place all or part of their monthly SS payroll deductions into private accounts could end up losing all or part of their money in a bad stock-market year. They will, in addition, have to pay as much as 15% to Wall Street money-people who will be given the task of managing the accounts by a Republican Congress.

    May Providence protect us in our old age or if we are disabled and can no longer contribute to our accounts in that event, because the government surely won’t.

    3) In 1983, the Congress, with the help of folks like Alan Greenspan, prepared Social Security for the retirement of baby boomers by raising the withholding rate slightly and the cap on the income from which it is held.

    We could now, as others point out above, easily prepare for what the right-wing is calling “bankruptcy” to scare both seniors and younger workers, by emulating the solution implemented in 1983. THERE IS NO CRISIS EXCEPT THE ONE REPUBLICANS ARE TRYING TO CREATE IN PEOPLE’S MINDS.

  34. Submitted by John E Iacono on 10/06/2010 - 10:45 am.

    Just a thought…

    If we were to make citizens of fifteen million illegals so that they could become employees instead of “independent contractors” paid under the table,

    might not these young and healthy new contributors go a long way toward improving the outlook for social security AND medicare?

  35. Submitted by Steve Rose on 10/06/2010 - 12:24 pm.


    Regarding your statement, “THERE IS NO CRISIS EXCEPT THE ONE REPUBLICANS ARE TRYING TO CREATE IN PEOPLE’S MINDS”, I would like to make you aware that we are engaging in deficit spending and our growing debt has surpassed $13 trillion. Do we have a fiscal year 2011 budget yet, or are we still operating under a continuing resolution (no budget)?

    The Social Security trust fund is an inert rock. Even after our federal government collapses under the enormous load of debt and deficit, Social Security will be just fine.

  36. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 10/07/2010 - 08:53 am.

    Mr. Rose: The Social Security trust fund has nothing to do with deficit spending for budgeted items.

    It is an insurance policy that protect Americans from poverty in old age, from a family’s destitution should its main breadwinner die, or a worker become disabled before retirement.

    The fund is made up of the contributions almost all of us have made, via payroll deductions, since we were teenagers. It is the government’s responsibility to safeguard the fund and therefore the program.

    Every year, Social Security’s financial people analyze income and expenditures for 75 years into the future. Congress can then EASILY adjust the amount of income to avoid shortfalls that will not occur for decades. I repeat. There is no crisis.

  37. Submitted by John E Iacono on 10/07/2010 - 10:05 am.


    Apparently you have not been listening as it has been pointed out that the “trust fund” is not really THERE. All it has it Treasurey Bonds. The collected money has been SPENT by our beloved Congress, conveniently “off books”.

    When it needs to cash some in to cover receipts shortfalls, the government will either have to borrow elsewhere (thus adding to the debt owed to China or some other source outside of government), or raise taxes to cover it, or cut other spending, or go into default. Thus the worrisome deficit changes and threatens our ability to borrow further funds.

    IMHO, this IS a problem.

  38. Submitted by Steve Rose on 10/07/2010 - 10:52 am.

    Senator Harry Reid, back in 1990, took exception to the use of the trust fund as a slush fund. However, it continues under his leadership today.

    Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) Speech on Senate Floor, October 9, 1990:

    “…on that chart in emblazoned red letters is what has been taking place here, embezzlement. During the period of growth we have had during the past 10 years, the growth has been from two sources. One, a large credit card with no limits on it, and two, we have been stealing money from the Social Security recipients of this country.”

  39. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/07/2010 - 02:39 pm.

    Bachmann wants to fix Social Security like you ‘fix’ a dog.

  40. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/07/2010 - 04:18 pm.

    Any of you people have savings invested in a T-bill ladder?
    That’s considered a safe and conservative investment. Social Security’s funding is just as conservative.

  41. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 10/08/2010 - 06:43 am.

    The trouble with insisting on “on budget” numbers is just like the problem with banning “off balance sheet” subsidiaries. It makes it harder to fudge the numbers to get the results you would like people to believe. Can’t have reality intruding on us like that, after all!

    There are so many ways to call taxes fair or unfair that I really can’t buy a moral argument about who pays what, other than we can probably all agree that the poorer among us shouldn’t pay more in absolute dollars. But the fair share idea is kind of aesthetic more than anything.

    The best solution I can think of is Logan’s Run. We need to put everyone down at 30, although in fairness we should grandfather clause anyone already over 30. 😉

  42. Submitted by Shirley Gallagher on 10/08/2010 - 06:29 pm.

    The first article i read about privatizing Social Security was when Prez. Obama was talking about a Billionaires funding Tea Party called PFA. When i researched the name i found Charles and David Koch article which mention privatizing Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid would lower the Deficit, the next person was John Boehner in an article with the Koch’s. Now all Republicans are on board with doing this, except Rubio Mario in Florida. All the TEA PARTY Candidates is on board to do this also. Joe Miller said it should be in the State’s hand.
    What about all the People thats has paid into this system, so they just take their money.
    I’m not voting for any of these people, because the Democrats said they needs to fix Social Security, Medicare, but thats doesn’t seem to be what the Republican’s wants.

  43. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 10/08/2010 - 07:07 pm.

    Eric I strongly suggest you read the article referenced by #32 John Reindon. It will open your eyes a bit. Also do a little research on the Social Securiy Program itself. The folks that created it took into consideration that people would be living longer in the future. They were very smart people.

    Anyone who has paid into Social Security since 1983, when Reagan enacted the largest tax increase in American history, has been paying an extra amount that the government has been “borrowing.” If those “IOUs” are funny money or hold no value, as some have suggested, then Full Faith and Credit of the United States Government means nothing. If that’s the case than large investors in US Government paper, like the Chinese, will lose confidence in our ability to repay them. In that case we will have much bigger prolems than a social insurance program that may or may not be able to pay full benifits in 25 to 30 years.

  44. Submitted by Hal Sanders on 10/09/2010 - 01:45 pm.

    Eric: After all your years and experience as a newspaperman I find it very strange that you would (or allow some to) slap this inaccurate and misleading headline on your article.

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