The Social Security Crisis Myth – Analysis


Last weekend, the Washington Post ran an editorial that bothered me more than most Washington Post editorials. The headline said it all, “Telling Americans the economy is good won’t work.”

I knew I had heard this before but couldn’t remember where. Then it hit me, the Social Security debate of the 1990s.

The 1990s were the heyday of the Social Security “crisis.” The problem wasn’t that Social Security actually was in crisis. The problem was that all the pundits, very much including the news and editorial pages of the Washington Post, insisted that Social Security was in crisis.

This view was deeply entrenched in elite opinion. (Who can forget this classic?)  It was endlessly repeated in wise columns by leading intellectuals and backed up with vaguely scary data, like the ratio of retirees to workers is rising (sort of like it always has).

The crisis story became so deeply entrenched that even progressive politicians, who knew it was tripe, felt they had to repeat it, otherwise they wouldn’t look serious. I recall having a Democratic pollster tell me that people just get angry if you don’t “acknowledge” that Social Security is in a crisis.

Being old-fashioned, I decided to stick with the facts rather than what the pollsters were telling me. My friend Mark Weisbrot and I wrote a  book, Social Security: The Phony Crisis.

Anyhow, these memories all came back to me when I saw the Washington Post loudly asserting that we can’t tell people the economy is good. Well, I have been telling people the economy is good, based on the data, and I intend to continue to do so, despite the marching orders from the Washington Post.

The Good Economy Story

In making the case for the economy being good, my benchmark is 2019, before the pandemic, when most people said the economy was good. To be clear, even in 2019 tens of millions of people were struggling. The poverty rate was 10.5 percent, and if we go to double the poverty line, still a very low income, we’re talking about more than a quarter of the population.

So, saying 2019 was a good economy hardly means everyone was doing great, and it’s the same story today. We need to take steps to improve our system of social supports so that everyone can have decent housing, access to healthcare, and food. The Biden administration has made some steps in this direction, but we need to go much further.

But again, I’m using the 2019 benchmark. If 2019 was a good economy, then can we also say the economy is good today?

I will strongly argue that case, starting with what I have always considered the single most important statistic about the economy, the unemployment rate. The story of the unemployment rate is incredibly good. We have had 27 consecutive months of below 4.0 percent unemployment. That streak matches the run in the 1960s boom and exceeds any stretch in the last half century.

Unemployment is a really huge deal for the simple reason that in an economy where most people get the bulk of their income from working, not being able to get a job means you’re really screwed. But that is only the beginning of the story.

When the unemployment rate is low workers have more bargaining power. This means that workers can push for higher wages. They can tell their boss that they need a pay hike or they will go somewhere else. This is especially important for workers at the bottom end of the pay ladder and for people who are victims of discrimination in the labor market.

And we have seen this story play out in this recovery. Workers in the bottom decile of the pay distribution have seen the sharpest real wage gains in half a century. Overall Black and Black teen unemployment hit record lows, as did Hispanic unemployment. The Black/white wage gap is the lowest on record.

When we have a tight labor market workers quit bad jobs and find better ones. If a job has few opportunities for advancement, or the boss is a jerk, workers can go elsewhere. And they did in a big way in this recovery. As a result, their measure of job satisfaction is the highest on record.

This should all be a very big deal, but the pundits don’t want us to talk about low unemployment. It gets just passing mention in one sentence in the Post editorial.

The Inflation Horror Story

The Post editorial is about the inflation horror story, and that is bad news. Although even here, the pundits have to do some little twists to make their case. The problem is that the pandemic inflation has come down sharply in the last year. In fact, if we pull out one item, owners’ equivalent rent, the inflation rate was just 2.0 percent over the last year.

Am I playing games by pulling out a very important item? Well, owners’ equivalent rent is the rent that a homeowner would be paying to themselves, if they rented their own home. In other words, it is a payment that literally no one is making. I think it is fair to say that if this is what is driving the inflation story, there is not much of an inflation story.

But the pundits actually don’t want us to focus on current inflation. The problem, according to them, is that prices jumped during the pandemic and have not come back down.

There are two points to be made here. First, prices rose in the pandemic because of the pandemic. There was inflation everywhere in the world because of the pandemic. (Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also was a factor.)

We all get that people don’t care about inflation in Germany and France, they care about inflation here. But pandemic inflation is a reality, sort of like when a hurricane destroys much of the housing in an area you get a housing shortage. People may not care about the hurricane, they care about their housing, but that is the reality, as is the case with the pandemic and inflation.

Furthermore, for some reason people could understand pandemic unemployment and not blame Donald Trump. Have they gotten that much stupider in four years?

But the other reason the prices-going-back-down story is silly is that nominal wages have gone up by almost 22 percent since the start of the pandemic. We aren’t going to see pre-pandemic prices with post-pandemic wages, as all the pundits surely know.

To be clear, there has been some padding of profit margins since the pandemic, and we can reasonably hope that this will be reversed. But we’re talking about price declines here of 1.0-3.0 percent on average, not a story where prices fall back to their pre-pandemic levels.

Interestingly, no one expected prices to fall back to their pre-inflation surge levels in the 1980s. Everyone was satisfied that inflation had fallen back to a manageable pace of around 3.0-4.0 percent. However, this time around the pundits have chosen to place an obviously unrealistic complaint front and center in the policy debate.

We Are Not Telling Anyone They Should Feel Good About Their Own Situation

There is a final point here that is very important. No one is telling anyone that they personally are wrong about their own economic situation and that this is actually good, even though they think it is bad. The polls tell us that most people actually feel pretty good about their own economic situation. The problem is that people think their own situation is an exception and that everyone else is doing poorly.

So, in telling people that the economy is good, we are not saying that their perception of their own situation is wrong, we’re telling them that their perception of other people’s situation is mistaken. Now where would people get the idea that everyone else is doing horribly when they are doing good?

Anyhow, this is the place where the pundits don’t want us to go. Just like we couldn’t tell people that Social Security is not in a crisis, they don’t want us to tell them the economy is actually pretty good by most measures.

Everyone can make their own choices here, but I’m going to make the same choice I did a quarter century ago. I’m going to follow what the data say and not listen to what the pundits tell me. It’s a great economy!

  • This first article appeared on Dean Baker’s Beat the Press blog.

Dean Baker

Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy.

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