Social Security and Charles Ponzi


No doubt you have heard the uproar over Gov. Rick Perry’s assertion that Social Security operates much like a Ponzi scheme. Perry’s attempt to discuss the “third rail of American politics” once again thrusts the program’s solvency before the American electorate. True to form, rather than sparking honest debate, Perry’s comments elicited immediate scorn and mocking from liberal ideologues bent on preserving this longstanding entitlement program rather than dealing truthfully with its present predicament.

For those unfamiliar with Charles Ponzi, he was an Italian immigrant who made a fortune in the 1920’s posturing as the wise sage promising unheard of investment returns to people placing money in his care. To backup his nefarious claims, Ponzi paid initial investors robust earnings out of cash received from even newer investors. With the initial investors flashing their new cash, others jumped into the frenzy unable to resist the allure of easy gains. Since Ponzi was making no legitimate attempt to generate actual profits for any of these people (he initially deposited most of the money in his own savings account), fresh money sources had to constantly be found in order to keep everybody happy. As with all such schemes, eventually new money dries up and later investors become skid marks left with much smaller bank accounts and no avenues for recourse. Their money is gone.

Why then does Governor Perry compare your future retirement benefits to this awful scam? Because like it or not, the similarities are there:

*Taxpayers are told their payroll taxes will be put into a trust, invested wisely, and will be returned to them with interest during retirement.
*Meanwhile, the money is not invested but is used to make promised payments to somebody else. The government must then tax new people to take care of old promises.
*Should the revenue stream dry up, retirees promised their own money back, must rely on the government to further increase taxes on today’s workers or print more money in order to keep the program running (Charles Ponzi didn’t have this option).
*If this does not happen benefits run out and current retirees are left with nothing.
*Finally, early retirees receive exponentially higher returns on their payroll tax contributions than current recipients. Note Ida May Fuller, who as the first monthly Social Security recipient collected $22,888 dollars in benefits while paying in $24.75. [1]

Gov. Perry wasn’t saying we shouldn’t provide a safety net for seniors. He was saying let’s be honest about how that safety net is paid for. The system is broken. We should expect it to be broken based on how it was designed. Let’s fix the problem rather than use it as a political tool to maintain the status quo at all costs.

FDR set in motion a mandatory benefits program designed to force his version of fairness on all of us in a manner never to be undone since the people will always feel entitled to their money. He opined as much.

Back in the 1935, FDR signed the program into law, and in 1941 remarked about his motivation for Social Security by saying, “…We put those pay roll contributions there so as to give the contributors a legal, moral, and political right to collect their pensions and their unemployment benefits. With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program. Those taxes aren’t a matter of economics, they’re straight politics.” [2]

Social Security was a matter of politics in the 1930’s and remains so today. The sooner we are honest about it, the sooner we can explore real alternatives to replace it. Investors willingly gave Charles Ponzi money; taxpayers paying into Social Security have no choice. I’ll let you ponder which is worse.



Thank you for an excellent discussion on this important issue.  (Lady P – Ed.)

Pic credit: Dr. Boyceretirement

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September 16, 2011 2:21 pm

I think even at my age “mid 40s” I would accept the closing down of this socialist scheme!

September 16, 2011 2:30 pm

Thanks for fleshing out the Ponzi story for a lot of folks who didn’t know the history of it, as well as FDR’s take on the arrangement. Facts are funny things, aren’t they?

September 16, 2011 3:08 pm

Good to have you onboard, PSU.

September 16, 2011 3:37 pm

I appreciate the in-depth exploration of the SS nightmare. Thanks and I’m looking forward to your next dispatch!

redneck hippie
September 16, 2011 4:02 pm

Thank you for presenting so well the case we must make, i.e., that SS was flawed from its inception. Barring that admission, we will not garner the political capital needed to transform entitlements and, more fundamentally, right the ship of state. It is my belief that as long as our politicians keep telling us that we just need to make “adjustments,” we will fail. They need to be saying, “voluntary replacement options” for “future beneficiaries” with the emphasis on “future beneficiaries.” The people must be shaken out of their complacency or we will be stuck with the FDR collectivists’ status… Read more »

September 17, 2011 12:17 pm

Good to see you here. 🙂

Queen Hotchibobo
September 17, 2011 2:27 pm

GREAT post. I agree with you completely, it’s time we confronted the American electorate with the truth and let them make an informed decision. No more “Lock Box” lies.

Queen Hotchibobo
September 17, 2011 2:34 pm

And I should add, my mom says that when the politicians were first lobbying for Social Security they said it was “A Penny for the Old Folks.” The tax was only going to be 1% and was only going to apply to income up to $3,000. So no one would pay more than $30 per year. And it was for the Old Folks. Kind of resembles all the crap they do now “for the children” doesn’t it?

And totally harmless sounding, isn’t it? Like Hope and Change.