Donald Trump has some big ideas about Social Security. Happily, he is almost certainly lying about them.
Trump is, politically speaking, a weathervane, prone to telling every audience what he believes it wants to hear, irrespective of what he said an hour ago or plans to say an hour hence.
Our friends at the National Rifle Association, which foolishly endorsed Trump, learned this the hard way when barely a fortnight after putting their imprimatur on the Trump campaign he turned around endorsed the Barack Obama-Hillary Clinton position on stripping Americans of their Second Amendment rights without any sort of due process through executive fiat. He’ll tell the NRA what they want to hear, and he’ll tell the gun-loathing soccer moms in suburbia what they want to hear, too.
He’ll make whatever vow he thinks will get him what he wants. And if you want to know how serious he is about vows, ask the NRA, or Mrs. Trump, or Mrs. Trump, or Mrs. Trump.
On the question of entitlement reform, that’s the good news: You can’t believe a word that comes out of Trump’s mouth.
What’s Trump’s position on entitlement reform? Depends on who is asking.
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In an interview with Fox and Friends on Tuesday, Trump suggested that we should pay Social Security dependents more than we currently do. “The people are not making it on Social Security,” he said. “It’s a very big problem. We’ll take care of it.”
Oh, will we?
Under current policy, the unfunded liabilities of Social Security right now are about $25 trillion. (Conservatively; different assumptions will of course produce different results.) Say “$25 trillion” to most people and you may as well be saying “$25 billion” or “$25 gazillion” or “$25 googol” (that’s $25.00 x 10 to the hundredth power for you English majors out there) — most people have trouble mentally processing such large numbers. So, here’s a handy comparison: If you took all of the money deposited in all of the banks in the United States and then doubled it, that’s how short we are on Social Security alone. That’s one program.
#share#A group of economists including 15 Nobel laureates estimated our total long-term unfunded liabilities a few years back at $222 trillion. How big is that number? It’s about three times the total net worth of all U.S. households combined, which includes all of the directly and indirectly held shares they have in U.S. corporations. It is just shy of the entire stock of wealth held by the human race, not just money and financial instruments and real estate, houses, cars, vintage sneaker collections, etc.
If you took all of the money deposited in all of the banks in the United States and then doubled it, that’s how short we are on Social Security alone.
Sometimes, progressives confronted with those numbers will retort: “Well, that’s over a 75-year timeline!” or “That’s over an infinite time horizon!” And that is true. But those unfunded liabilities are not the difference between our future obligations and current assets but rather are the difference between our future obligations and our projected future assets. Economic growth will not get us out of this mess, because economic growth already is incorporated into the calculations.
With that in mind, ask yourself this question: Given that the shortfall of our total future government obligations — not the obligations themselves, just how short we are of paying them — almost equals the entire stock of wealth accumulated by the entire human race over the course of its history, what do you imagine the chances are that those obligations will be paid out in the future at their present value?
Don’t ask me to show my work here, but I’m going to go with something in the neighborhood of 0.0000000 percent.
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Social Security isn’t the biggest chunk of our unfunded entitlement liabilities: It’s the second-biggest chunk, behind Medicare. Medicare won’t be easy to cut, either. To sum up: There’s no way in hell we’re going to pay out what we’ve already promised, and Trump wants to promise even more.
The real debate going forward isn’t how we’re going to go about making good on all those promises — it’s how we’re going to go about not making good on those promises.
But console yourselves with this: Donald Trump is a habitual, incorrigible liar. He lies about almost every subject he mentions: He lies about his real-estate holdings, lies about his bankruptcies, lies to his business partners, lies to his family, and he lies constantly to the rubes who have bought into his snake-oil presidential campaign.
According to a Bloomberg report, Trump told Paul Ryan he fundamentally agrees with his entitlement-reform ideas — which is to say, with cutting benefits — but doesn’t want to say so in public. From Bloomberg:
“From a moral standpoint, I believe in it,” Trump told Ryan. “But you also have to get elected. And there’s no way a Republican is going to beat a Democrat when the Republican is saying, ‘We’re going to cut your Social Security’ and the Democrat is saying, ‘We’re going to keep it and give you more.’”
That approach isn’t new, of course. Jude Wanniski famously described the partisan dynamic in the United States with his “Two Santa Claus Theory,” meaning that the Democrats promise goodies in the form of public benefits, and the Republicans promise goodies in the form of cutting the taxes that pay for those benefits. The result is enormous public indebtedness and unfunded liabilities. The Republicans had a pretty good run of it but eventually became victims of their own success. As Mitt Romney once had the bad taste to point out, promising cuts in the federal income tax is not a winning strategy when half the population doesn’t pay it.
#related#Trump has decided to run on both sides of Wanniski’s jolly old political divide: Want tax cuts? He’ll promise you enormous, huge, fiscally irresponsible tax cuts. Want tax hikes on venture capitalists and private-equity investors? He’ll promise you tax hikes, too. Hillary Rodham Clinton promises a new stimulus bill with $275 billion in pork? Trump promises to double it.
He’s a five-point drop in the polls away from promising us all unicorns that egest rainbow sherbet.
Strangely, this is the best you can really say of Trump: Thank goodness he’s a compulsive liar, because otherwise he’d just be nuts.
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent