Donald Trump has staked out a position as the GOP primary's most ardent defender of Social Security. He has promised not to change the benefit in any way, and insisted that he will both defend the program, which is on track to insolvency, from any cuts or changes and reduce annual deficits and the national debt at the same time.
Trump repeated this pledge at last night's GOP debate, saying that he "will do everything within my power not to touch Social Security, to leave it the way it is; to make this country rich again; to bring back our jobs; to get rid of deficits; to get rid of waste, fraud and abuse, which is rampant in this country, rampant, totally rampant."
As is so often the case when Trump talks policy, his response makes clear that he has no idea what he's talking about.
Let's start with "waste, fraud, and abuse." Eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse is one of Trump's favorite talking point solutions for covering budget gaps. It's not a bad idea, exactly, but getting rid of all improper payments in the Social Security system—assuming this could even be done, which is exceedingly unlikely if you otherwise leave Social Security in its current form—would only net about $3 billion in savings annually.
That might sound like a lot, but relative to the overall size of the program, it's not. As the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB) points out, that only represents about 0.4 percent of the program's $900 billion a year in benefit payments. To put Social Security on the track to solvency, you'd need to come up with savings on the order of $150 billion every year.
To her credit, debate moderator Dana Bash followed up with Trump by pointing this out. Trump's response was to claim that he's not just talking about waste, fraud, and abuse in Social Security. And then he changed the subject to suggest—well, it's not clearly exactly what, but something to do with cutting back on foreign military involvement.
Because they don't cover most of the subjects. We're the policemen of the world. We take care of the entire world. We're going to have a stronger military, much stronger. Our military is depleted. But we take care of Germany, we take care of Saudi Arabia, we take care of Japan, we take care of South Korea. We take—every time this maniac from North Korea does anything, we immediately send our ships. We get virtually nothing.
We have 28,000 soldiers on the line, on the border between North and South Korea. We have so many places. Saudi Arabia was making a billion dollars a day, and we were getting virtually nothing to protect them. We are going to be in a different world. We're going to negotiate real deals now, and we're going to bring the wealth back to our country. We owe $19 trillion. We're going to bring wealth back to our country.
The most generous reading here is that Trump wants to save money by reducing the U.S. global military presence. And you could save money—perhaps a lot—by cutting back on the Defense Department's global footprint through base closures and troop reductions.
But it's hard to square this with Trump's repeated declarations on the campaign trail that he would make a big effort to increase America's military strength and power.
"I want to build up the military so nobody messes with us," he said last year, a promise he's repeated in some variation many times since. "I would bring it back to where it was at the height because we're in such trouble." That doesn't sound like a plan for savings. It sounds like a plan for a significant increase in military spending. And Trump's idea that he would do this and create savings at the same time by making better "deals"—a word he waves around like an all-purpose magic wand for political solutions—is just nonsense hand-waving.
Still, let's assume for a moment that Trump somehow or another finds a way to fund Social Security using military savings. That still leaves the problem of national debt, which Trump says he would reduce. The evidence of his actual plans strongly suggests otherwise.
As Trump says himself, in a figure he manages not to totally mangle, national debt stands around $19 trillion right now. And the rest of Trump's plans—in particular his proposed tax cuts—would increase national debt by anywhere from $12 to $15 trillion, according to a CRFB estimate.
Trump has no plan whatsoever to offset this massive increase in the debt. Indeed, no such plan would be remotely plausible, politically or economically. As CRFB president Maya MacGuineas said in a statement last night, "no reasonable amount of spending cuts or economic growth could cover" the overall cost of his plans.
None of this appears to matter to Trump, though. He isn't just sloppy with some details. He doesn't have the slightest clue what he's talking about.
In defending his refusal to touch Social Security last night, he also said he wanted to do things "that will bring back GDP. I mean, as an example, GDP was zero essentially for the last two quarters." GDP was not zero for the last two quarters. That's not how GDP—which stands for Gross Domestic Product and is a measure of a country's total economic output—works. U.S. GDP is close to $18 trillion. Maybe he meant GDP growth, but even if so, he was still wrong. GDP grew at 1.9 percent in the fourth quarter of last year, and 2.1 percent in the quarter before that.
Trump is just not serious about any of this. At a previous GOP debate, he suggested that he would cut $300 billion in spending from a $78 billion program. His health care plan is mostly a demonstration of how little he or anyone associated with his campaign understands, or even cares to understand, health care policy.
Trump's plans when it comes to debt and deficits, to taxes and entitlements, to health care and trade, are total fantasy, driven by disregard for even the most basic understanding of policy detail. Every time he insists he has some sort of policy or plan, what he ends up making clear that he has no such thing.