A few weeks ago I got my annual "Your Social Security Statement" from the government. This is a statement carefully crafted to look like it's telling you a lot while at the same time covering up Social Security's dirty little secret. But with a spreadsheet and 5 minutes of work, one can figure out what is really going on.
The statement shows the total of my social security taxes paid into the system, including the employer share. It also shows my taxed earnings per year, and my "benefits." The main benefit is the monthly annuity payment Social Security will make to me after I retire. My statement shows that $140,139 total taxes have been paid into the system on my behalf over the last 25 years. Based on these taxes and (this is important) the assumption I and my employer will continue to pay in at least $7440 per year until I retire, I can expect an annuity at retirement age of 67 (under current law, which the statement makes clear can be changed at any time) of $1,985 per month.
So I built a spreadsheet (click to download excel file), going back to my first year of employment. Each year, I added the social security taxes to savings, and grew the accumulated balance by some interest rate. For past years I used actuals from the report, for future years I used the $7440 tax number the report uses to calculate the social security payout.
This allowed me to answer a question: If I had been able to take these social security taxes and instead put them in a savings plan, and then took the accumulated balance out at age 67 and bought an annuity (at current rates), what would be my monthly payment? Well, assuming a very conservative after-tax rate of return of 5%, I would have $1,077,790 at age 67 to buy an annuity, which at current rates quoted on the Vanguard site, would give me $7,789 a month until I die. This return is just about four times the amount I get from having the Social Security Administration manage the money for me instead. Ugh. Also note that I did not assume "risky" equity investments or whatever straw man anti-reformers are using nowadays. If I assume a higher return of 8% (the stock market in the 90's returned something like 18%) then my annuity will be $17,860 per month, or 9 times the Social Security payout. Double ugh.
In fact, this all opens up the obvious question, what actual rate of return is Social Security paying out on your "premiums?" Well, in fact we can calculate this with the same spreadsheet. I plugged in 2% for the interest rate. No go -- resulting annuity is to high. Then I plugged in 1%. Still too high. Could the government be paying you 0% on your money? I plugged that in. Still too high. In fact, the implied rate of return on my money in the Social Security system is -0.8% a year. In other words, not only is the government not paying me any interest, they are charging me to hold my money.
Social Security defenders insist that it is not a welfare program. For example, Kevin Drum quotes this with approval:
The men in my family of my father's generation returned home after serving
their country and got jobs in the local steel mills, as had their fathers and
their grandfathers. In exchange for their brawn, sweat, and expertise, the steel
mills promised these men certain benefits. In exchange for Social Security taxes
withheld from their already modest paychecks, the government promised these men
certain benefits as well.
....These were church-attending, flag-waving, football-loving, honest family
men. They are rightfully proud of providing homes and educations for their
children and instilling the sorts of values and manners that serve them well as
adults. And if I have to move heaven and earth, now that they've retired, the
Republican party is NOT going to redefine them as welfare
Fine, let's call it a retirement program. Well, as a retirement program, it is a really, really big RIPOFF. Ever worker in this country is being raped by this retirement plan. In fact, it is the worst retirement program in the whole country:
- As we see above, it pays a negative rate of return
- It is not optional - you go to prison if you choose not to participate
- Unlike a private annuity contract, the government can rewrite your benefits level any time, and you have to take it. In fact, my statement says "Your estimated benefits are based on current law. Congress has made changes to the law in the past and can do so at any time. The law governing benefit amounts may change because, by 2040, the payroll taxes collected will be enough to pay only about 74 percent of scheduled benefits."
- There are no assets backing this annuity!! An insurance company that wrote annuities without any invested assets backing them would be thrown in jail faster than Jeff Skilling. The government has been doing it for decades.
A couple of months ago, news-hog Eliot Spitzer had a well-publicized (what else?) suit against H&R Block for not providing high enough returns in its low-income retirement savings accounts.
New York Attorney General Elliot Spitzer [official website] Wednesday launched a $250 million lawsuit [complaint, PDF] against H&R Block
[corporate website], the largest tax preparation service in the US, for
fraudulently coaxing its customers into a retirement account plan that
lost them money. Spitzer said that money in the retirement accounts
decreased over time because the low interest rate did not cover the
fees associated with the account.
Doesn't this exactly match the situation in my social security spreadsheet? At least H&R Block's customers had a choice whether or not to sign up.
Postscript: As is usual with retirement issues, tax is a messy topic, so I mostly left it out. My spreadsheet is correct if you call it an "after-tax" rate of return. This may mean the nominal rate is higher, but it got taxed, or it could posit some tax-free savings alternative to social security. Note also that we pay income taxes on the amount that gets taxed by Social Security (at least our employee portion). This means an IRA type replacement for social security would actually have higher returns and dollars at retirement than those in my spreadsheet, because it would eliminate or at least defer income taxes on the premium.
Also note that the analysis is all in nominal dollars, because that is the way the dollars are on my SS statement - there are not inflation escalators in the program.
Postscript #2: When last social security was a national topic, opponents of reform got a lot of mileage out of the 2001-2002 bear market in stocks. They would ask, what if people had invested in stocks, they would have lost their money. Well, as of today, if you had invested every dollar of your retirement savings on the worst possible day, the 2000 peak in the Dow, you would still be up 5% today. This is a disappointing return of less than 1% annually, but is STILL higher than the negative return in social security. And remember, we are using nearly the worst five year before and after dates in this generation. A real-world steady investment in stocks over the last 20 years, with equal amounts each year, would be way up (anyone with an exact number is welcome to post it in the comments).
Postscript #3: In an earlier post, I took on Social Security as intellectual welfare:
Advocates for keeping forced savings programs like Social Security in
place as-is by necesity argue that the average American is too stupid,
too short-sighted, and/or too lazy to save for retirement without the
government forcing them. Basically the argument is that we
are smarter than you, and we are going to take control of aspects of
your life that we think we can manage better than you can. You are
too stupid to save for retirement, too stupid to stop eating fatty
foods, too stupid to wear a seat belt, and/or too stupid to accept
employment on the right terms -- so we will take control of these
decisions for you, whether you like it or not. For lack of a better
word, I call this intellectual welfare.
Update #1: In response to some comments, the spreadsheet does work right, it is just labeled wrong. The column that is labeled "investment income" is actually the saved balance to date plus the investment income. The "End of Year" column is the correct balance at the end of year after investment income and new contributions.
Update #2: A commenter reasonably points out that investment at the top of the market in the Nasdaq would still be way underwater. However, I took this point investment on the worst day as an extreme example. Even in the Nasdaq, which is still off 50% from its peaks, a steady monthly investment from 1997 or 1998 to date would be above water in total. Leftists do a lot of bad things for the country, but trying to scare average workers away from equity investments for the long-term is certainly on of the most hypocritical. I guarantee that every liberal politician has a big fat chunk of their savings in equities, because they know that is the way to create wealth over the long haul.
Update #3: In a follow-up post, using this same spreadsheet, I conclude that only 17% of my Social Security taxes are going to my retirement while 83% are welfare for someone else.