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Entitled? You bet we are

Who made “entitlement” a dirty word? When they talk about Social Security “entitlements,” some misinformed or disingenuous pundits portray those who expect to draw full Social Security benefits at the end of their working lives as deadbeat panhandlers.

Get this part straight: It is an entitlement because seniors are entitled. It is a right. Workers made a bargain: You take a bunch of our (and our employers’) money every week, and one day, when we’re too old or sick or worn out to keep working, we’ll get X amount of money—our money—back every month to keep a roof over our heads and save us from eating cat food in our dotage.

If I keel over at 66 and you make it to 95, you come out a little better off, but we’re all in it together. That’s why we’re a country and not a pack of survivalists living in fortified cabins with a 10-year supply of canned goods in the basement.

We all get forms every year from the Social Security Administration telling us what we theoretically will receive in retirement. The forms also tell us how much we’ve paid into it over our working lives. I estimate that my employers and I will have contributed close to a quarter-million dollars by the time I retire. That should have earned enough through even modest investments to be worth about half a million by then.

When the critics say there just isn’t enough money anymore and blame it on people living longer, higher energy prices or the Great Recession, they’re missing the point.

Why isn’t there enough money? Because the federal government, the fox guarding the henhouse with our nest eggs inside, spent it. For a long time, the feds have been “borrowing” from what was a Social Security trust fund surplus. A lot less was paid out to retirees and others than was taken in.

As the federal deficit grew, it was easier to borrow from you and me than from a foreign power.

When we borrow from China and then turn our pockets inside out and say “Sorry,” our credit rating tumbles and the whole economy goes with it. Ask Greece or (soon) Spain how that works out.

When we borrow from ourselves, it’s all internal, and all you have are angry senior citizens, which is preferable to international default.

It is estimated that there is about $2.7 trillion in IOUs sitting in a filing cabinet in a Bureau of Public Debt office in Parkersburg, W.Va., payable from the federal government to the Social Security Administration.

That would be enough to cover Social Security shortfalls for a very long time, since the money we’re contributing now will be enough to pay about three-fourth of the amount retirees and the disabled receive, even if the trust fund runs dry.

But that $2.7 trillion is gone, spent so that politicians on both sides of the aisle could lower the deficit without raising taxes. They spent it on things that otherwise would have required borrowing from some foreign entity that had the clout to demand repayment—or else. They spent it because they could, because nobody was looking out for us.

(The only thing worse than trusting the government with our old-age money, by the way, is to privatize it and trust Wall Street, the House o’ Greed. The government will sometimes hurt us by doing short-sighted, self-serving things like robbing Peter to pay Paul. Wall Street, as has been amply proved in this benighted century, will rob Peter and Paul and laugh at both of them from its beach home in the Hamptons.)

The date when the Social Security trust fund runs out moves closer, approaching us like some killer asteroid. Doomsday was 2041, then 2037, then 2036, and now it’s 2033, right around the corner.

The good news: The problem is eminently fixable. It’s been fixed before, in the 1980s. Increase the payroll tax. Stop extending the tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003. Tax everyone a little more. Do a combination of all three.

The villains here are all the politicians and bureaucrats who stole our weekly payroll deductions. Telling “entitled” seniors they’re just going to have to suck it up and work longer and implying that Social Security is a charity program for the undeserving is a classic example of blaming the victim.

Business Editor Howard Owen writes this biweekly column on business and the economy. He can be reached at 540/374-5539 or