WASHINGTON - The annual trustees' reports for Social Security and Medicare - the 2013 editions have just been released - are supposed to keep the public well informed about these popular programs.
They do just the opposite: They confuse and mislead.
Worse, they allow politicians to duck the hard issues surrounding both programs
What we ought to be debating is how much spending on retirees will dominate government. Instead, we focus on the actuarial soundness of the trust funds, a baffling subject only tangentially related to the basic choices facing the country.
The trust funds should be abolished.
In the public mind, the trust funds suggest that Social Security and Medicare are quarantined from the rest of government. As long as the funds remain solvent, promised benefits can be paid.
So policy focuses on strengthening the trust funds. Against that background, it was inevitable that the trustees' latest reports would be cast as good news.
Slower-than-expected increases in health costs have extended the life of the Medicare trust fund until 2026, two years later than last year's estimate.
The Social Security trust fund is projected to pay promised benefits through 2033, the same as last year. This seems comfortably distant.
Headlines were upbeat. "Medicare's future appears brighter," said The Washington Post. The New York Times was almost identical: "Report Shows Better Outlook for Medicare."
Dive into the reports - prepared mainly by Social Security's and Medicare's actuaries - and there's precious little cause for optimism.
As the baby boom ages, the costs of these programs will mushroom.
Millions of Americans believe that Social Security is a stand-alone program whose spending is covered by the payroll taxes cascading into the trust fund. Many others, though fewer, think the same of Medicare.
Neither assumption is true.
Here's what we learn from table V.F1 on page 225 of the Medicare report.
In fiscal 2012, Social Security and Medicare benefits totaled $1.323 trillion. Payroll taxes, Medicare premiums and other fees came to $920 billion.
On a cash-flow basis, this left a deficit of $403 billion, $243 billion for Medicare and $160 billion for Social Security.
The deficit had to be covered by general revenues from the Treasury and represented 37 percent of the overall 2012 federal deficit of $1.087 trillion.