OK

(Today is the day-May 31. Click on first link below, Report should be up by noon Eastern)
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The Annual Report to Congress of the Trustees of Social Security for years appeared reliably (and I believe per statute) on March 31st. In recent years publication has lagged by a little or lot and all I can say is that it will appear sometime between next Monday April 1 and the 15th of Whenever. When it does it will appear on the following webpage, which somewhat to my surprise has been newly formatted. And in a more useful way for SS Defenders. Baby steps. Reports from the Board of Trustees.

Okay that is the Where and When. Before getting to the How and Why let me talk a little bit about the Trustees and the Trust Fund. Because they are not necessarily what they seem. Much more in extended.

To the extent that their existence is recognized at all I suspect most people think of the Trustees of Social Security as being some quasi-independent outside group akin to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. That is when people hear "The Trustees project" they hear "The apolitical technocratic Trustees project". Well this is wrong on almost all counts.

The six Trustees of Social Security are the Commissioner of Social Security, the Secretary of the Treasury (ex officio the Managing Trustee), the Secretaries of Labor and HHS, and the two Public Trustees. All six are Presidential appointees subject to Advice and Consent of the Senate with at least the three Cabinet Secretaries openly committed to the President's current policy. The Commissioner on the other hand is appointed to a fixed term that can overlap from President to President and the immediate past Commissioner Michael Astrue was a Bush appointee whose term did overlap the entire first Obama term. Interestingly the Commissioner slot is currently vacant and Obama's choice will be fascinatingly revealing. One way or the other.

Which leaves the 'Public Trustees'. The title is somewhat a misnomer, the only absolute requirement being that the two be from different political parties, and the President is free to choose an opposite party Trustee sympathetic to his own policy. At least as long as the Senate will go along. Similarly a Democratic President can select a Democratic Public Trustee who is openly committed to 'reform' of Social Security even if that goes against the general Party and public position. Which is the case today. The relatively new Public Trustees are Charles Blahous, formerly Bush's point man on Privatization and Democratic deficit hawk and Social Security 'reformer' Robert Reischauer. The links are deliberately to positive depictions of both men, my point here just being to show that the Public Trustees can and do come to their positions with committed policy positions not congruent with anything particularly 'Public'.

So we have six Trustees, all political appointees with at least three and as many as all six committed to the President's current policy. Which should raise a warning flag when you see the MSM reporting something starting "Even the Trustees of SS say---".

On the other hand the actual contents of the Annual Report are mostly not the work product of the Trustees or their personal staff, instead the vast bulk of it is the product of the SSA Office of the Chief Actuary, led typically by a career staffer and comprised of actual technocratic demographers, actuaries, and economic forecasters. Which isn't to say that their work doesn't have an inherent bias (see Priceman's Diary) just that any such bias is more professional and institutional than political.

But--, and it is a big but, there is an intermediary between the full Report of the Trustees, largely the product of SSA OACT, and what most Congressmen and certainly most members of the MSM read (if they read any of this at all). This intermediary is the Summary Report which until the web redesign referenced in the lede appeared to the casual eye as THE Social Security Report with the actual Report being relegated to supporting tables status. And this is important because the Summary IS a political document that also serves as the Introduction to the Full Report. Meaning that even those who do a little due diligence and start reading the 200+ page Report and stop after the Conclusion on page 17 get a deliberately shaped and limited version.

In particular, and relating directly back to Priceman's diary, the Summary/Introduction gives very little hint that the Low Cost and High Cost alternatives even exist, and while it acknowledges year over year changes in the numbers the language always carries the assumption that all the variations are in the directions of more accuracy and better precision. As it we really knew more about the year 2087 in the 2012 Report than we did about the year 2086 in the 2011 Report. But the result is that all the 'mays' and 'coulds' get submerged by the 'wills', that is the Trust Fund WILL run out in 2033. And not 2034 like the last Report. Oh my God the outlook has deteriorated! Well it depends on what you mean by 'outlook'. Because the changes can and have moved the other direction. As an example the dates of Trust Fund exhaustion moved out every Report year from 1996 to 2005 yet the language never changed. Despite the clear volatility the Trustees stuck with 'will' rather than 'may' and 'Crisis' was always there and ALWAYS demanding action from Congress. No matter that the actuarial gap was shrinking and Trust Fund Depletion moving out in time. These changes can be seen in Table form here from the 2012 Report:
Table VI.B1.—Long-Range OASDI Actuarial Balances  and Trust Fund Exhaustion Dates as Shown in the Trustees Reports for 1982-2012
The Table is too big to cut and paste but it is important to click through and observe some things. One the Social Security system has always been 'insolvent' when judged on a 75 year time frame since the 1985 Report put Trust Fund exhaustion at 2049. And although the outlook has deteriorated since then to the 2012 projection of TF exhaustion in 2033 the fluctuations in between had the TF going to depletion as early as 2029 (1996-1997 Reports) and improving from there to 2042 (2003-2004 Reports).

Now the precise REASONS for this variation from year to year, and following Priceman from Low Cost through Intermediate Cost to High Cost are a very complicated interaction of actual near term economic performance and projection of medium to long term economic and demographic outcomes. And exploring all the aspects of that would take dozens to hundreds of posts. All of which would have to start by careful examination of some to most of the data tables linked from the following:
2012 OASDI Trustees Report: List of Tables

Which supplies the How and maybe the Why to go with the When and Where of the post title. And feel free to ask questions about any of those Tables in Comments. If I don't know the answer I'll tell you. And let others fill in the gap.

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