Saturday, June 9, 2012

Why Do People Talk About Means Testing of Social Security?

I don't understand why anyone would waste time talking about this.

Social Security is already means tested; every dollar of SS benefits is considered taxable income.

Thus, much of the benefits that accrue to rich beneficiaries is already recovered by the government. What's the point of arguing about the accounting mechanics of it, which are almost entirely government accounting fictions. (If the government chose to, it could certainly classify some of those tax revenues as recapture of social security, but so what?)

And sure, it's inefficient to cut a check and then have everyone send some back later (although in a world of electronic deposits, it's not that inefficient) there's also the advantage that this form of "means testing" via the income tax should generally work in favor of people who actually get themselves stuck in bad situations- i.e. a rich senior who has a sudden fall in income (perhaps they invested in GM or Chrysler bonds) will automatically be supported through the current situation.

Alternatively, under means testing, the same person would presumably have to go fill out some kind of paper work, have their new and additional benefit levels approved but a complicated and expensive bureaucracy. And how would you measure prospective income anyway- isn't it inherently more difficult than simply seeing what your income actually was over the course of a year? It sure is to me. I guess you could save some money by making the means testing rule based on past income only, but of course that will generate significant hardship exactly the sort of people (those who suddenly lose income) we're setting things up to try and help.

So basically, no offense, this is yet another situation in which our seemingly insane government has evolved to a more rational, flexible outcome than a comprehensive and purely rational approach would likely get to.