While I concede that means testing is inherently flawed and easily manipulated, I'm curious about one thing with respect to the whole Social Security issue:
Is Social Security a mandatory savings program, or a welfare program?
Canada has undergone similar introspection with respect to our own public pension system (the Canada Pension Plan, CPP). The CPP is basically a forced savings program. That is, you're forced to contribute to it during your working career, and then when you retire, you're guaranteed benefits.
"Means tests" are only ethically applicable (in my opinion, of course) in welfare circumstances. That is, if a benefit is intended to provide the necessities of life to people who otherwise can't afford it, then it's a welfare program, and it's fair to "means test" it (exclude people who don't truly need it, even if they've paid into it). On the other hand, if something is advertised as a "forced savings program," then one's assets are irrelevant. They've paid into the program, and they're entitled to what they deserve, regardless of how much they've squirreled away on their own.
In Canada, we have an "Old Age Security" program (OAS) which pays you based on age (currently 65, but being raised to 67 over the next couple of decades), and clawed back based on your other income (i.e., if you have too much income from other sources, then your OAS benefit is scaled back).
The CPP is paid out based on how much you've paid in over your career, regardless of your other assets or income. If you're a millionaire, you get the same CPP as a penniless individual, if you've both paid the same amounts into the program over your careers.
So what is Social Security? Is it a forced savings program, or a welfare program? If it's the latter, then I don't think means testing is at all appropriate. It's moving the goal posts at half-time, and that's unfair.
Yes it's mandatory for 99% of Americans today (or some real small population that doesn't pay into the SS program). And it is both a "welfare" program and a "forced pension." For one, there is more than just the "Retirement" benefit. Granted, you can break your tax up into various buckets, but SS also provides a survivor's benefit if the worker dies and a disability benefit if the worker becomes disabled. It does so for not only the worker/surviving spouse, but also the any [surviving] dependents.
Second, there are cases where people may have "Earned a benefit," but aren't entitled to it. For example, the WEP reduces a person's benefit. These are people (or spouse's of people) who have paid into another system besides SS for either all of, or part of their career. Another weak example of an advantageous benefit SS brings is a spouse is entitled to 50% of the benefit of the worker, even if they have worked their entire career. Many people view this as a "Waste" if the spouse can get a higher benefit without having ever worked. OF course, I view it as you are getting a better benefit than you would have, and you can choose the lesser benefit if your pride dictates. So, that is one way SS is means tested.
Another way is how the benefits are calculated. In summary, you add up your 35 years of highest wages and then the 1st 900 something gets credit for 90 something %. Then there is another bend point for income between 900 something and something else which gets credit for even less. Etc. In essence, it is not a linear payout. And therefore, in my crazy head, it means tested.
In terms of what is "fair," I think there are differing opinions on that. Is it fair that a generation kept taxes artificially low through borrowing from the SS trust fund (which isn't counted in the national debt BTW) and leaves the mess for the following generation? I think cuts to the entire program need to happen, including those that are on it. Since many people on the "clean up crew" probably weren't even born when this mess was being created. Sure, old people won't like it. And unfortunately, young people still have strong backs.
"If you only have 1 year to live, move to Penn...as it will seem like an eternity."
Good to see you back, I was starting to miss your incisive commentary!