Greenspan's Con Job

by William Greider

The Nation magazine, March 22, 2004


It is not exactly that he lies, but Alan Greenspan certainly ranks among the most duplicitous figures to serve in modern American government. Using his exalted status as economic wizard, the Federal Reserve chairman regularly corrupts the political dialogue by sowing outrageously false impressions among gullible ~ members of Congress and adoring financial reporters. These distortions are not harmless; they become solemn writ for lawmakers and opinion mongers. Greenspan is especially destructive when he opines on public matters outside his supposed expertise as a central banker. His thinking is still anchored by Ayn Rand's brittle social philosophy: Let the strong prevail, let the weak pay for their weakness.

The Fed chairman's recent remarks on Social Security and the federal budget deficits offer a particularly chilling example. In a House budget hearing, he elided the two subjects in a way that produced predictable scare headlines and chin-wagging editorials. The deficits must be dealt with promptly, he warned, because the baby boomers are about to retire. Then Social Security will be in trouble. And so government must cut benefits now, before it's too late. "I am just basically saying that we are overcommitted at this stage," he explained. "You don't have the resources to do it all."

That sounds like manly wisdom. Greenspan was widely praised for courage. He should more properly be pilloried for gross mendacity. He is proposing a con job on ordinary working Americans-a bait-and-switch game on a grand scale-in which the payroll taxes they paid into Social Security over many years will now be diverted to other purposes, including the generous tax reductions G.W. Bush has enacted for the very wealthy and the corporations. It doesn't sound so noble when you put it that way. Greenspan knows these facts but also knows his big lie will probably endure as conventional wisdom. Typically, the media shorthanded his comments to create a larger fallacy-that Social Security is part of the deficit problem, therefore future retirees deserve to take the hit.

Here is the truth: Social Security is not in deficit, not now and not for at least the next forty years. The trust fund will have a surplus next year of $1.8 trillion. In 2011 when, Greenspan warns, the baby boomers will start retiring in large numbers, the surplus will be $3.2 trillion. These stored savings, plus future payroll-tax revenue, are sufficient to pay all retirees the current level of benefits through 2042, according to the fund's very conservative actuaries.

The problem is, the government borrowed this money and has spent it on other projects. But the trust fund, despite what rightwingers like to claim, is not an accounting gimmick. The government is legally obligated to pay back the money (as surely as it is obliged to repay Treasury bonds). The borrowed trillions, in fiduciary terms, belong to the "beneficial owners"-every worker who has paid higher payroll taxes for the past twenty years.

Greenspan is familiar with the accounting because he was chairman of the bipartisan commission that supposedly "fixed" the Social Security problem back in 1983 by imposing a huge increase in FICA payroll taxes-extra revenue that produced the still-growing surpluses. This historic tax shift (I think of it as the "crime of '83") was most convenient to the Reagan Administration because Reaganomics had just created huge budget deficits by cutting income taxes for the monied interests and pumping up the military budget. The burgeoning surpluses from the Social Security payroll tax would help offset the economic impact of the deficits. Hardly anyone noticed at the time, since Democrats cooperated in the "solution." Now Bush Jr; has done the same thing. And Greenspan is proposing another "fix": Double-cross the workers who paid the extra trillions; don't disturb the monster tax cuts delivered to the rich. Any con artist would appreciate the . bait-and-switch as a nifty piece of work.

But the epic swindle may yet fail. Politicians, even the rightwing variety, hesitate to close the deal for fear the "marks"-workers, young and old-might figure it out. Meanwhile, there's one simple and just solution for any long-term fiscal problems Social Security might face: Eliminate the income cap of $87,000 on FICA taxes so that every highly paid worker, even Bill Gates, would pay the full freight. Since wealthy earners have benefited disproportionately from tax reduction, this would be their personal contribution to restoring fiscal order. Why doesn't someone ask the Fed chairman about that? If Democrats were more attentive to their constituencies, they would be aggressively promoting this reasonable alternative to Greenspan's sordid double talk, attacking him for duplicity and filing resolutions of impeachment. Did the Federal Reserve chairman knowingly deceive Congress and the public? What did the chairman know and when did he know it? Let the hearings begin.

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