I've had to think hard about 2052 lately. The Congressional Budget Office has told us the Social Security Trust Fund will be used up by 2052 and, from then on, current income will provide only 81 percent of the money necessary to pay benefits. No ifs, ands or buts.
It must have been hard for them to think that far ahead. It certainly hurts my head, just trying to imagine 2052. Paris Hilton will be 70 then and she'll be furious. The Olson twins will be 65 and very much surprised to find the fund depleted. Brad Pitt will be 88 by then and will be shocked to go to his mailbox on check day and find only 81 percent of a check.
When we're in 2052 and look back, whom can we blame? Today the fund has $1.5 trillion and is still growing by $90 billion a year, so who blew it? It was the Baby Boomers. There were too many of them and they lived too long. They were born between 1946 and 1964, when the pill halted the boom. By 2052, the oldest of these folks, like Bill Clinton (born in 1946) will already be 106. The youngest, Brad Pitt and the others, will be 88. Paris and the twins will be very angry with Bill and Brad and all those in between.
So what went wrong? Back in 1981, Allan Greenspan headed a commission to look at Social Security long range. Recognizing they had to prepare for the Boomers when they began to retire in about 2011, they said, "Let's increase the payroll taxes now, well before the Boomers retire; maybe get the fund up to a trillion and a half or so with the interest the fund will earn. That ought to do it." They calculated the fund would last at least to 2056, 75 years in the future.
Well, they did get the fund up to a trillion and a half, so why does the Congressional Budget Office now think it's not enough? How did Greenspan figure it in 1981? How did the CBO figure it now? Did they use the same figures?
No, nobody uses the same figures. In fact, the Bush administration uses even more pessimistic estimates and tells us the fund will only last until 2042. Why don't they get together and decide how long Bill and Brad and the others are going to live? Four years longer than now? Six years longer than now? Ten years more than now?
Then there are a few other factors they have to figure. Will immigration continue to boost the workforce, or will we do better job of controlling the influx? The more workers we have paying Social Security taxes, the higher income to the fund. There are other variables, too: the birth rate; productivity; the marriage rate; the disability rate. They should be able to compute all that, shouldn't they?
Yes, the actuaries do figure out all of those variables -- and come out with different answers. A small variation in even one of the factors completely changes the outlook. Moreover, by changing several of the factors plausibly, you can predict almost anything you want as an outcome.
So you can see why I'm looking forward to 2052, at age 125, looking back to see how it all comes out.
Let's face it, nobody can confidently tell us now what the shape of Social Security financing will be in 2052, 2042 or any other date that far down the road. When human behavior and the march of history are involved, we can perhaps plan ahead plausibly 10 or 15 years in the future, but not 40 or 50.
Social Security long-range financing is working out pretty much as envisioned by the Greenspan commission in the early 1980s. So leave it alone. Concentrate on the 40 or 50 more urgent problems now facing our nation.
Everell Cummins is a retired executive of the Social Security Administration
Shit, if I knew what was going to happen tomorrow I'd have my life savings down at the Race & Sports Book.