Socially Constructed Security

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Max Sawicky is one of a couple of people in recent days I've seen suggest that people who say the Social Security trust fund "isn't real" are somehow disingenuous, because, after all, most of our holdings are in the form of paper establishing some legal claim, rather than huge Scrooge McDuck style bins of gold ingots.

As a commenter there observes, though, there's a simple reality check: Just ask yourself (with apologies to John Searle) what functional difference the trust fund makes. As it stands, the trust fund effectively consists of the instruction "go raise some revenue to cover these bonds." And if it didn't exist? Well, the government would have to go raise (or divert) some revenue to cover its (legally non-binding) obligations to new retirees. So what's the difference? Is there some miracle of fiscal transubstantiation I'm missing?

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  1. “I think that’s the real objection to the “trust fund.” The libertarian/conservative faction knows it’s on the wrong side of the people on this one, and that pesky accounting practice makes it harder for you to obfuscate as you go about trying to break that promise.”

    Blech. Let’s ask the voting majority if they favor doubling social security benefits so long as they don’t have to pay for it themselves (future generations will). I suspect libertarians would still be on the ‘wrong side’ of the issue. Welcome to the democracy game!

    Lovely it is to make promises that only create obligations for future generations, eh? Read my lips was a promise, and I don’t see you sweating that one.

  2. Joe,

    Congress has made a promise that they can’t keep without raising taxes through the roof and turning the federal government into one giant clearing house of wealth transference from laborers (and eventually other taxpayers) to retired folks. By making people aware of this, what am I obfuscating?

  3. Brad DeLong on the subject:

    “Well, first of all these “bunches of IOUs” are called U.S. Treasury bonds. They are regarded by everyone else the world who trades in financial markets as the safest, most reliable, most secure investments you can possibly make–much safer and more secure than, for example, gold. Only people who are worried (or who want to make others worried) about the long-term future of Social Security dismiss them as “bunches of IOUs.”

  4. Funny how DeLong defends unsupported spending when it suits his purposes …

  5. Someday US Treasury bonds will be worthless, and gold will still be the standard of value. The only question is, when?

  6. The “Trust Fund” lie allows people to believe that the SS funds they recieve are something they acctually paid for. This belief allows them to demand thir SS benifits.

    In fact, SS is nothing more than a welfare scheme. Just a hidden welfare scheme. Joe is the one who is obfuscating.

  7. “”Well, first of all these “bunches of IOUs” are called U.S. Treasury bonds…..”

    And they are STILL just a bunch of IOUs – That’s what bonds are no matter who the issuer is. The problem is this case is that the issuer (the US govt) is also the holder of them. No IOU in the hand of it’s issuer is an “asset” – that is an immutable econonic fact.

    The government spent all those excess social security tax collections on office buildings or airplanes or whatever and then wrote itself a bunch of IOU’s that’s it’s fradulently calling an “asset”.

    Liquidating a REAL asset to satisfy future obligations would not require raising additional taxes on the general public to do so. If the govt had invested that excess money in Microsoft stock or General Electric bonds, for example, it could cash them in to pay those future benefits without imposing new taxes on the public to do so.

    Incidently, if any publicly traded corporation tried to protray it’s own debt securities as an “asset” on it’s balance sheet, the SEC would prosectute it for fraud.

  8. Brad is too smart for this bollocks. Of course, as a private investor, you’ll regard a treasury bond as a secure asset to the extent that you have confidence that the government will be capable of raising revenue to back it for the foreseeable future. That’s totally irrelevant to the fiscal question in this instance. The third party bit matters too: If you write me a check, that’s an additional asset I’ve got. If I write myself a check, it isn’t.

  9. That’s right, Treasury Bonds are the world’s safest investment – for now, just like Buggy Whip Factory stock was a safe bet in 1830.

    When Social Security crashes it will go down faster that the Soviet economy. And when it does the politicians will have a convincing cover story as well as a scape goat.

    Yesterday’s Marilyn Vos Savant column said that Europe has a bigger problem than we do, but I hear that people think of it as a population problem. That is, there are too few babies being born. Talk about not getting it.

    It’s the old ‘growth-is-good’ mentality. We should, in my opinion, reduce the population, for many reasons. As a result, Social Security and other entitlements will take a severe hit.

    If the neo-cons really want to drown the government in the bathtub, they should encourage people to have even less or no children and keep spending for stuff the voters want.

  10. The difference is, we’ve been paying substantially higher payroll taxes for twenty years, supposedly as a guarantee that the “trust fund” will remain solvent into the middle of this century.

    But we find out that the SS surplus has been used to cover the size of the overall budget deficit, and that the “trust fund” consists entirely of IOUs. To cover these IOUs, taxes will have to be raised when the SS system starts running a deficit–exactly the same as if the payroll tax had never been raised.

    The increased payroll tax we’ve been paying all these years was robbery. The money was taken under false pretenses.

  11. “”Well, first of all these “bunches of IOUs” are called U.S. Treasury bonds…..”

    Well, the question is, will or will not taxes have to be raised to honor them when SS starts running a deficit? And if taxes will have to be raised, what happened to the original payroll tax increase that was supposedly passed to keep the system solvent? Taxes will have to be increased a second time to compensate for the fact that revenue from the first tax increase was looted. By leaving Social Security on-budget and counting payroll tax revenues against the overall deficit, the architects of the 80s “reform” knowingly LIED to the public. The fact that DeLong can’t wriggle out of was that the promise to use increased payroll tax proceeds toward SS solvency was a LIE.

  12. Social Security is different from private pension planning in that there is no delayed consumption.

    When I save money in a private retirement system, the resources I would have consumed are instead used to increase the overall productivity of the economy. I accept a lower standards of living now so that I can create a larger future economy that can support me when I can no longer work. I delay consumption until a future date. Delayed consumption is the basis of all investment and all the future benefits that arise from it.

    In Social Security, there is no delayed consumption. Social Security merely transfers consumption from one demographic group to another. Economically, the effect is the same as if I just spent the money on booze and whores.

    By calling it a “Trust Fund” and other analogies to private investment, Max Swanwick and other perpetuators of the Big Lie seek to avoid the awful truth that no delayed consumption and thus no true investment occurs at anytime in the Social Security system. Social Security is nothing but a promise by this generations politicians that future generations of politicians will tax the workers of the future to pay for your retirement. Since nobody delayed consumption and used those resources to create a larger economic pie, there is no guarantee that future generations will actually have the economic resources needed to support future retirees. That’s the fraud.

  13. Relax. We’re going to blow ourselves up before SS runs out, anyway.

  14. Those of you who objected to my statement with a variation of “Social Security is Bad” or “Social Security has a fiscal problem” are avoiding the topic at hand. Those are fine conversations, but so is this one.

    Don, of all people, makes a good point on this subject; the term “trust fund” doesn’t just connote an obligation between government and the public (the point I was making), but also an obligation among retirees and working-age people. They paid they’re taxes, they played by the rules, and they feel they have a right not to have the rules changed in the middle of the game, just as their time has come. Apparently, some of you consider this a promise that can kept in a better way, while others say, “Hit the bricks, gramps. We spent your money on strippers.”

    Shannon, “Since nobody delayed consumption and used those resources to create a larger economic pie, there is no guarantee that future generations will actually have the economic resources needed to support future retirees.” is exactly backwards. By keeping the Social Security surplus circulating throughout the economy for the 50 years, this country created a large enough pie to afford the Boomers’ retirement. “Delaying consumption” by keeping that money on ice, to spend in two generations, is what would have endangered the ability of the country to keep the system afloat.

  15. joe,

    Ah, the “we made rules that bound us so we have a right to have our children bound by them too” argument. How does this differ, morally, from the senior-class bully’s argument that he was bullied back when he was a freshman, and he took his lumps without complaint in the expectation that he would get to be on top in three years’ time, so it’s wrong for the present-day freshmen to complain about his bullying now?

  16. Nicholas,

    Bullying weaker people is wrong. Using tax dollars for a public retirement system is right. The Social Security debate is about whether the American people believe that second statement. The fact that anti-New Dealers need to hide their philosophical objections behind the language of fiscal policy just demonstrates your weak position. Democrats talk about the coming fiscal bump in the road, too, but we also talk about our values as they relate to Social Security, because our values are in synch with the public. Your values are so unpopular that you need to hide them behind grammatical deconstructions.

    If we the people want to have a public retirement program, we have plenty of money to do so, so long as a modicum of planning and self restraint are exercised (meaning, a centrist Democrat in the Oval Office), and objecting to the term “trust fund” doesn’t change that fact.

  17. “Shannon, “Since nobody delayed consumption and used those resources to create a larger economic pie, there is no guarantee that future generations will actually have the economic resources needed to support future retirees.” is exactly backwards. By keeping the Social Security surplus circulating throughout the economy for the 50 years, this country created a large enough pie to afford the Boomers’ retirement. “Delaying consumption” by keeping that money on ice, to spend in two generations, is what would have endangered the ability of the country to keep the system afloat.”

    Now THAT is economic nonsense. Government spending is not what keeps the economy going – it is the private sector. Furthermore investing the surplus money in private securities (like Microsoft stock) isn’t “keeping money on ice” Private capital investment is used to finance productive assets and pay employee salaries and expand the economy by financing activities for which there is a REAL demand by the consuming public (as opposed to the artificially created demand of government spending).

  18. “The fact that anti-New Dealers need to hide their philosophical objections behind the language of fiscal policy just demonstrates your weak position.”

    No one has to hide any philosophical obojections to social security to prove that the “trust fund” is an financial fraud and the social security system as designed cannot be economically sustained over the long run. In fact it has already been proven. The basic principals of accounting, finance and economics are the same for government as they are for any other economic entiity such as corporations. The term “trust fund” has a specific economic meaning and the social security “trust fund” doesn’t qualify – therefore it is a fraud.

  19. No joe, some of us are content to say “Hit the bricks, gramps. YOU spent your money on strippers (and other assorted government largesse).”

    I am unsympathetic to people who want to tax the bejesus out of me because they want free cake. And saying that they paid the tax, too, is like saying I should buy you a steak dinner because you bought me McDonalds. I buy your dinner, you buy mine, fair is fair, right?

  20. “And saying that they paid the tax, too, is like saying I should buy you a steak dinner because you bought me McDonalds. I buy your dinner, you buy mine, fair is fair, right?”

    Yeah.

    Contrary to what Joe says, the rules HAVE changed already – plenty of times. A lot of the retirees drawing social security benefits paid taxes at a lot lower payroll tax rate over most of their working lives to finance less generous levels of benefits to the retirees who came before them. Then after they retired, the benefit levels were increased so they got the best of both worlds – keeping more of their own money on an after tax basis over their working lives and getting more of somebody elses after they retired. Of course that means that everyone after them in the pipeline who is now paying in more and will get less (or nothing ) back out is getting screwed.

  21. Gil, we’re talking past each other. If you assume the same spending levels, the use of the Social Security surplus for other government programs paid for items that would have otherwise been funded by income taxes. I suppose you could postulate a scenario in which spending was X% lower over the past 30 or 60 years, but the use of the “trust fund” surplus to cover other spending would have still allowed for still lower income taxes. Either way, if you aren’t seriously suggesting that the surplus should have been banked, and the difference made up with income tax dollars, then you’re just playing games.

    Though I agree that the term “Social Security Trust Fund” does not use the standard usage of “trust fund.”

    tchiers, actually, you’d be saying “Hit the bricks, Gramps. You spent your money on Great Grand Grandpappy’s retirement. Sorry you were planning on us doing the same; we’re spending ours on strippers.”

  22. “Then after they retired, the benefit levels were increased so they got the best of both worlds – keeping more of their own money on an after tax basis over their working lives and getting more of somebody elses after they retired.”

    Yes, Gil. The government also builds roads out of asphalt, rather than setting logs in mud. Wonderful thing this steady advance of wealth and technology, eh?

  23. “Gil, we’re talking past each other. If you assume the same spending levels, the use of the Social Security surplus for other government programs paid for items that would have otherwise been funded by income taxes. I suppose you could postulate a scenario in which spending was X% lower over the past 30 or 60 years, but the use of the “trust fund” surplus to cover other spending would have still allowed for still lower income taxes. Either way, if you aren’t seriously suggesting that the surplus should have been banked, and the difference made up with income tax dollars, then you’re just playing games.”

    Why would I assume the same spending levels? If the politicians had to actually raise new federal income taxes that go in the general fund all those years instead of diveritng SS FICA tax money then spending would have been less because they would have run into a lot more resistence to raise those taxes to finance the things they wound up spending it on.

    It is the politicians who are “palying games” not me. They are the ones pretending there is actually something of value in the trust fund that can be used without raising new taxes and they are the ones who are pretending that the system can actuarially meet the obligations it has created WITHOUT diverting general income tax revenue into it or raising the FICA tax to (more) opressive levels.

    In point of fact, the “difference” shouldn’t be made up with income taxes. What should happen is the whole system should be transitioned to a private sector type pension plan with individual accounts and individual asset ownership.

  24. Yes, Gil. The government also builds roads out of asphalt, rather than setting logs in mud. Wonderful thing this steady advance of wealth and technology, eh?

    That analogy is so bogus it’s laughable. Taking more money away from one group of citizens to finance larger handouts to another group than that group paid for for the ones who came before them in no way constitutes anything even remotely resembling an “advance of wealth and technology”.
    An advance in thievery is more like it.

  25. “To cover these IOUs, taxes will have to be raised when the SS system starts running a deficit–exactly the same as if the payroll tax had never been raised.”

    Not necessarily, as the government can do what it already does routinely when bonds mature–roll the debt over.

  26. Joe is simply wrong. To pay off the bonds in the alleged “trust fund,” the government will have to dip into general revenue. But the government always had the option to dip into general revenue to cover its social security obligation. Why does it need “IOUs to itself?”

    The answer is that this was a convenient way to raise taxes. The taxes raised were the most regressive possible-a flat tax that applied only to the first 50,000 dollars of income. Only a poll tax hits the working man harder. The money was gaily spent by Congress, with an “IOU” deposited into the trust fund, effectively promising that more taxes would be levied later to cover it. We get to pay a regressive payroll tax to finance our current wars, along with more income taxes later. Two taxes for the political cost of one, and the politicians got to strut around and claim they had “saved Social Security.”

    There will be no Social Security when I retire. That’s the only guarantee I really have faith in.

  27. Mark,

    Yes, that’s true. And if the bonds are marketable, the U.S. could raise some money from them, depending on its credit rating.

    Still, the fact remains that the only reason ANY such expedient will be needed later, is that the proceeds from the original increase in the payroll tax were stolen.

    I guess the government could distribute the bonds themselves among seniors.

  28. Using tax dollars for a public retirement system is right . . . If we the people want to have a public retirement program, we have plenty of money to do so, so long as a modicum of planning and self restraint are exercised . . . ”

    Whoa, Nellie! Since when is SS a “public retirement plan” like CALPERS or NYPERS? And if it is, why aren’t the funds being invested and earning money themselves, like CALPERS or NYPERS?

    SS isn’t a public retirement plan. That’s what public employee retirement systems, 401(k)s, 403(b)s, and IRAs are for. SS is retirement insurance, designed to see that nobody goes without income in their dotage.

    “Public retirement program,” my sweet ass. That’s the problem right there — that the American public has been conditioned for 50 years to think of SS that way.

  29. “Well, first of all these “bunches of IOUs” are called U.S. Treasury bonds. They are regarded by everyone else the world who trades in financial markets as the safest, most reliable, most secure investments you can possibly make–much safer and more secure than, for example, gold.”

    Actually, I believe the SS trust fund is composed of special, non-tradeable bonds. They are not the bonds available on the open market, that most people are familiar with as “US Bonds”. However, that does not entirely matter. Even with the normal types of US Bonds, they are only considered safe and reliable if the issuer is able to pay them off when they are called due. What the concern is, in the not too distant future, keeping up the benefits will require so many of the bonds coming due it will effectively amount to a run on the bank. There simply will not be enough ready cash in the Treasury to keep up the demand. Then the choice will be between massive taxation or massive inflation.

  30. “They paid they’re taxes, they played by the rules, and they feel they have a right not to have the rules changed in the middle of the game, just as their time has come.”-joe

    Unfortunately, they did not follow the rules either. Specifically:

    1. Have large families so that enough people are paying into the system to accommodate your benefits.

    and

    2. Make sure a significantly large number of you die before you can collect benefits so as not to overburden the system.

    Granted, these rules were, naturally, not emphasized by the orginal players, but they were still there and they were broken.

  31. No, there’s nothing you’re missing. 99% of the people who use the “trust fund” language are either trying to obfuscate the issue, or they are ignorant themselves. It is a truly worthless, misleading and brain-dead model for understanding how social security works. Especially since it just flat out doesn’t work that way. In my opinion the phrase is favored because it sounds reassuring to oldsters.

  32. Laws are simply, pace Holmes, predictions about what the state will do. Whether there is a vault of gold ala Scrooge McDuck is less important than whether the state will honor its obligations to those entitled to social security. If social security is a “right,” then there is a high probability that entitlements will be paid (by some means). If, however, as seems likely, social security is gradually redefined as something much less than a “right,” then the probability of entitlement payments declines. As Julian notes, this is much more Searle than McDuck.

  33. Oh, and speaking as a still (relatively) young person: I do not feel a compulsion to scrupulously adhere to the rules of a game I was shanghaied into playing, is blatantly stacked against me, and revolves around a number of obvious lies (“trust fund”, “insurance”, “employer share”, etc).

  34. Some guy hits the nail on the head.

    The ‘trust fund’ concept is meant to imply that, unlike other government spending, the social security benefit is guaranteed. It isn’t, of course, but it certainly doesn’t do to point out that political and demographic risk are incurred by people who are getting a guarantee (something patently illegal for any private investment to offer).

    Along those same lines, has everyone received their Social Security Statements recently? You see, if they write a number on a piece of paper, that must be the amount of money I am going to get, right? Harumph. There is something to the honesty of a 401(k) statement, on which the reflected assets ARE held in trust.

  35. The “trust fund” is a statement of principle and purpose, disguised as an accounting mechanism. It is a statement that Congress will appropriate the money necessary to carry out this program. The “functional difference” is that the Congress will be held to its promise by the public much more vigorously if it underfunds this program, because we know how much is supposed to be budgeted in each year for the promises to be kept. It may not be “legally binding,” but it is something greater when talking about Congress: politically binding.

    I think that’s the real objection to the “trust fund.” The libertarian/conservative faction knows it’s on the wrong side of the people on this one, and that pesky accounting practice makes it harder for you to obfuscate as you go about trying to break that promise.

  36. I object to the trust fund terminology because A.) it is not a trust, and B.) there is no fund. It is a pay-go system, with current year surplusses spend faster than an Andrew Jackson in Vegas. Were I to so handle “trust assets” I’d be in prison.

  37. Oh c’mon Joe, libertarians don’t necessarily want to “break that promise,” and in fact the Libertariansim In One Lesson book specifically advocates phasing it out rather than cutting it off immediately in order to be as fair as possible to those who already paid in. What we all don’t want is to perpetuate that false promise further.

    That said, you make a good point about the political promise of the so-called “trust fund.” In fact, that’s a much point than to compare it to a legal claim. But ultimately, SS is, as Thomas Sowell says, a pyramid scheme, and someone’s likely to be left holding the bag someday. Calling it a “trust fund” may have the political/psychological effect of putting that day off to some degree, but it doesn’t change the basic nature of the situation, which Julian describes aptly.

  38. What bothers me is less the implication that the benefits are “guaranteed” (politically speaking, any reductions would proably have to be quite gradual) but the false sense it gives that the money is somehow “already there” for the near term, rather than an IOU that’ll require outside infusions when payouts exceed payroll revenue in, as I recall, about 15 years.

  39. “”Income tax payors get nothing back for their payments.” They get tanks, diplomats, roads, and occasionally checks, depending on the program. FICA payers just get checks (well, the get the stabilizing and growth-sustaining benefits of a public retirement system as well, but that’s an order of separation greater than the point you’re making). You hate all of these things, they’re all paid for by the taxes the government takes out of people’s paychecks, so what’s the difference?”

    LOL

    More obfuscatory nonsense. The income taxpayers get nothing of any value given to them personally as a result of paying income taxes. Furthermore the indirect benefitsof the govt having produced tanks, roads, etc. goes to those who don’t pay any income taxes just as much as it does to those who do. Since the top 50% of wage earners pay 96% of the income taxes, there are lots of other people living off their dime.

    And of course, your claim that social security is “stabilizing and growth sustaining” to nonsense as well. Social security is merely a transfer payment scheme. It doesn’t do anything to stabilize, sustain or grow the economy.

  40. Maybe my thinking is a little naive and simplistic, but it’s not that hard to figure out that SS is not a trust fund, except maybe in some twisted collective way-which is definitely not how it’s framed in discussions by SS supporteers.

    If I set up a trust fund, I own it’s funds and can invest them should I choose to. I can will them to anyone at anytime and when I die those funds go the person they were willed to, not back to the bank.

  41. Gil: “Why would I assume the same spending levels? ” Because there are an endless number of variables when we’re talking about government. If you want to discuss one, you need to isolate it. To change a second variable in order to get the outcome you need is dishonest.

    ‘That analogy is so bogus it’s laughable. Taking more money away from one group of citizens to finance larger handouts to another group than that group paid for for the ones who came before them in no way constitutes anything even remotely resembling an “advance of wealth and technology”.’

    Right. It is the RESULT of the advance in wealth and technology. In the old days, the best we could do was a poor farm. Today, we can keep our elders living in comfort and dignity. Hooray!!!

  42. I’m totally down with James on the regressiveness of the payroll tax. I’d love to see the income cap raised, the floor raised, and the rate lowered.

    But I guess that’s what you get when you let conservatives do tax reform. Bonus points to anyone who can get a Republican to use the terms “flat tax” and “payroll tax” in a sentence.

  43. MJ, those aren’t the rules. They never were. They’re just excuses for not doing that which you don’t want to do.

    I understand your feelings. I just disagree with them.

  44. “those aren’t the rules. They never were. They’re just excuses for not doing that which you don’t want to do.”

    And everything you’ve said is nothing more than rationalizations for wanting to get your hands on someone else’s money.

    Money that you had nothing whatsoever to do with earning and money you haven’t the slightest moral or legal claim to whatsoever.

  45. “Bonus points to anyone who can get a Republican to use the terms “flat tax” and “payroll tax” in a sentence.”

    Bonus points to anyone who can get a liberal to admit that comparing the income tax to the FICA payroll tax is comparing apples and oranges.

    FICA tax payors (supposedly) will get money back in the future when they retire. Income tax payors get nothing back for their payments. It ain’t the same thing at all.

  46. Julian — your characterization of the Trust Fund is way too narrow. You can’t separate the funds from the details of the associated programs. The Fund is a collection of individual accounts. These accounts reflect what has been paid in, accrued interest, and what is eventually owed. The inflow to the accounts is a specific revenue source, and redemptions for the bonds are also specific, albeit different. The nature of revenue sources has a bearing on who pays and who gets. So there is much more going on than a simple dictum that bonds will somehow be redeemed.

    Wipe all this away and you gloss over who is obliged to pay what, what each person has been promised. Imagine a bank doing that.

    If you assume away the content of the program, then indeed there is nothing there. This is the self-fulfilling prophecy of those who don’t like the program.

    Those who compare the program unfavorably to pension funds are behind on the news.

    One way to look at the realness is to imagine the following counter-factual: the Gov takes the payroll tax surpluses and uses them to buy private sector financial assets. These are kept in a separate fund. Meanwhile, the amount borrowed from the public increases to offset the revenue diversion. The debt held by the public equals what is now the gross debt of the Gov. Exactly what would be different? Politicians could still raid the fund. Benefit promises could still be broken. But there the fund would be, in all the reality people here seem to yearn for.

    There are reasonable arguments that a funded system, or no system, or a phased out system would be better. None of these hinge on the difference between the present fund and the hypothetical I sketched out.

    Regarding worries about solvency, in re: the Sowell canard and “raising taxes through the roof,” if you read the reports you find the cost growth to be about two percent of GDP, phasing in over five decades. You might not like taxes growing to shoulder this, but you can’t very well say it’s infeasible. With labor force growth and productivity growth, there is indeed a guarantee that a consumption-loan system can go on forever. What distinguishes it from a pyramid scheme is that in the latter case, expenses outrun financing by a very wide margin. That is not Social Security’s problem. (Medicare is a different can of worms.)

    joe is on the right track here.

  47. Keep your stinkin’ libertarian paws off of our Social Security. The working class had their taxes raised in 1983 to generate those surpluses and they WILL be paid what they are owed. You libertarian morons can go pound sand if you don’t like it.

    By the way did I mention that libertarianism is a simplistic utopian philosophy for idiots and greedy disingenuous liars?

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