Jack Lew is lucky he isn’t in prison. Were he representing a private pension fund and if he made the sort of statements he made in USA Today the other day, he might well be sharing a cell with Bernie Madoff.
So who is Jack Lew? And what did he say?
Lew is the Director of the federal Office of Management and Budget. About Social Security, he wrote: "Taxes are placed in a trust fund dedicated to paying benefits owed to current and future beneficiaries. When more taxes are collected than are needed to pay benefits, funds are converted to Treasury bonds — backed with the full faith and credit of the U.S. government.” As a result of these investments, the Social Security trust fund will be able “to pay full benefits for the next 26 years.” Not only is this preposterous, Charles Krauthammer called it a “breathtaking fraud.”
Before dissecting Lew, let’s consider why Bernie Madoff is in the hoosegow. Madoff told investors he was investing their funds in real assets, when in fact he was not. He secretly used their funds for personal consumption and to pay off other investors. Either figuratively or imaginatively, Madoff wrote IOUs to himself, all backed by the full faith and credit of Bernie Madoff. Maybe in the beginning he fully intended to pay off. But that’s beside the point. Inducing people to give you money with this sort of lie is criminal fraud. It’s against the law.
Like most government-sponsored retirement programs in the world today, our Social Security system is pay-as-you-go. All payroll tax revenues are spent — the very minute, the very hour, the very day they are received by the U.S. Treasury. Most of these revenues are spent on benefits for current retirees. Any additional amount is spent in other ways.
But there is no funding of future benefits. No money is being stashed away in bank vaults. No investments are made in real assets.
Most pay-as-you-go systems do not have trust funds, since there are no investments for the trust funds to make. In the U.S., we have trust funds — but they serve an accounting function, not a financial function. For example, the trust funds do not collect taxes. Nor do they disburse benefits. Every payroll tax check sent to Washington is written to the U.S. Treasury. Every Social Security benefit check is written on the U.S. Treasury.