Social Security: The Unsustainable Promise

Mike Shedlock
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Posted: Oct 18, 2013 12:01 AM
Social Security: The Unsustainable Promise

I have written numerous times about pension problems in the US. Let's cross the Atlantic and take a peek at the setup in Spain, then let's compare the two setups.

Via translation from Libre Mercado, please consider The Chart That Will Shake Future Pensioners.

Workers vs. Pensioners

Given that eight million people age 65 and 16.7 million workers cannot sustain the current pension, imagine what will happen in the coming decades as the differential goes back even closer.

Pensions today promise Social Security payments of 100% of the average wage in the last 25 years for those with 37 years of Social Security contributions. Such payments are absolutely unsustainable. The relative income of pensioners relative to the average income of the society will sink (without massive tax looting of active workers).

Immigration could partially alleviate the problem, making the demographic transition somewhat smoother, but if new rights accrue to future pensions, immigration only delays the problem. In any case, it might be a good idea to allow free immigration to Spain in exchange for not accrue rights to Social Security.

The most important practical advice to draw from the above chart is simple: save and invest. If you trust your retirement to politicians, you will end up poor and feeling cheated.

US vs. Spain

Here are a few charts from my January 8, 2013 post Social Security Trends: Beneficiaries, Total Costs, Number of Workers, Ratio of Workers to Beneficiaries

Average Monthly Social Security Benefit




Total Annual Cost of Social Security 1967-Present



Social Security Beneficiaries vs. Total Non-Farm Employment



Ratio of Workers to Social Security Beneficiaries



Social Security Benefits Analysis

  • The ratio of workers to beneficiaries peaked in 1999 at 2.927 to 1.
  • The ratio of workers to beneficiaries was 2.361 to 1 at the end of 2012.
  • The ratio of workers to beneficiaries is falling fast and will continue to fall fast for a decade as the baby boomer population ages.
  • The average payout and the number of payouts are both rising fast
  • Total Social Security payouts (a multiplication of two rising numbers) are on an unsustainable exponential growth path.


The system is currently running a deficit. Trends say that deficit is going to worsen with each passing year unless benefits are cut and/or taxes are hiked.

The next chart is courtesy of Reader Tim Wallace in a January 11, post.

Social Security Burden on Non-Farm Workers



Social Security Cliff Reading


Tip of the Iceberg

Unfortunately, Social Security is just a tip of the unsustainable payout promises problem. Public union pensions are trillions of dollars underfunded and several cities in California have gone bankrupt over those promises.

Detroit went bankrupt for the same reason as did Central Falls, Rhode Island (see Central Falls Set to File Bankruptcy Exit Plan; 50% Pension Reductions, 40% Slash in Police and Fire Budgets Coming Up).

Zombified Cities

Vallejo Round Two

Vallejo, California went bankrupt about two years ago and is headed there again because it did not shed pension promises in bankruptcy: Vallejo, Mired in Pension Debt Again; Lesson for Stockton and Detroit - Shed Those Pension Obligations Now!

As I said in the above link, Stockton and Detroit have a choice. They can cut pensions now, or cut them later in a second bankruptcy, just like Vallejo will.

Pension Promises Not Sacrosanct

Yet people keep emailing me that pension are guaranteed by law. Tell that to residents of Central Falls. Their pensions were cut 50% in bankruptcy.

Here's reality: haircuts are coming. Unions need to negotiate benefit cuts now, in a sensible manner (with the highest beneficiaries taking the biggest cuts). The alternative is across the board benefit cuts à la Central Falls.

Meanwhile please consider the solid advice from Libre Mercado:

"The most important practical advice to draw from the above chart is simple: save and invest. If you trust your retirement to politicians [or promises], you will end up poor and feeling cheated."

Mike "Mish" Shedlock
http://globaleconomicanalysis.blogspot.com