Is Social Security a Ponzi Scheme?

by on September 10, 2011 at 12:47 pm in Economics | Permalink

Matt Yglesias says anyone who thinks social security is a Ponzi scheme is nuts. So let’s take a look at some of these nuts. First up is Nobel prize winner Paul Samuelson who wrote:

The beauty of social insurance is that it is actuarially unsound. Everyone who reaches retirement age is given benefit privileges that far exceed anything he has paid in — exceed his payments by more than ten times (or five times counting employer payments)!

How is it possible? It stems from the fact that the national product is growing at a compound interest rate and can be expected to do so for as far ahead as the eye cannot see. Always there are more youths than old folks in a growing population. More important, with real income going up at 3% per year, the taxable base on which benefits rest is always much greater than the taxes paid historically by the generation now retired.

…A growing nation is the greatest Ponzi game ever contrived.

Samuelson wrote that in 1967 riffing off his classic paper of 1958. By “as far as the eye cannot see” he apparently meant not very far because it soon became clear that the system could not count on waves of youths or rapid productivity growth to generate the actuarially unsound returns that made the program so popular in the early years.

Milton Friedman and Paul Samuelson rarely agreed on much but Friedman also called social security a Ponzi scheme. In fact, he called it The Biggest Ponzi Scheme on Earth but perhaps Yglesias puts Friedman in the nut category so let’s go for a third Nobel prize winner who recognizes the Ponzi like nature of social security, none other than…..Paul Krugman (writing in 1996):

Social Security is structured from the point of view of the recipients as if it were an ordinary retirement plan: what you get out depends on what you put in. So it does not look like a redistributionist scheme. In practice it has turned out to be strongly redistributionist, but only because of its Ponzi game aspect, in which each generation takes more out than it put in. Well, the Ponzi game will soon be over, thanks to changing demographics, so that the typical recipient henceforth will get only about as much as he or she put in (and today’s young may well get less than they put in). (ital added, AT)

Of these, I agree the most with Krugman. Social Security is not necessarily a Ponzi scheme but it only generated massive returns in the past because of its Ponzi-like aspects. The Ponzi-like aspects are now over and social security is turning into what is essentially a forced savings/welfare program with, as Krugman recognizes, crummy returns for average workers. Social security is thus a Ponzi scheme which has not gone bust but it has gone flat.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: