When In Doubt, Slash and Burn

Thursday - 8/9/2012, 2:00am EDT

So you are running this business which is cash-short. Big-time.

Times are so tough that you have to borrow money, billions with a B, from China.

The good news is that there are millions of customers that owe you billions with a B. But they haven't paid their bills. But instead of calling in their IOUs, your board of directors tells you to trim the staff — and keep borrowing money from overseas. What could possibly go wrong? Or...

Pretend you run this huge social service agency. It makes sure older people, and those with disabilities and infant children, get their pensions or benefits. It is the financial lifeline for millions of people. Due to the aging of the baby-boomers your offices are swamped with people. And you have a backlog of requests for benefits that is getting longer, and longer. So you hire more people to handle the claims, right?

Wrong.

The two businesses in question are, in fact, federal operations. Maybe you heard of them: The IRS and the Social Security Administration. Both are run by an elected board of directors — Congress — and a CEO, the President.

For a variety of reasons — a combination of anti-government ideology, idealism and genuine concern for the economy, and maybe a pinch of stupidity — Congress is cutting government spending even as it cuts the government's ability to collect money owed it. There are billions of dollars in uncollected taxes which the IRS can't collect because it doesn't have enough people. The IRS is one of Uncle Sam's few for-profit operations, yet its budget has been cut. Cut to the point where it has been offering buyouts and early retirements to employees who, if they stayed, could collect more money in the form of current and back taxes.

The Social Security Administration needs no explanation. You pay into it while you are working. When you retire (or hit a certain age level) you start collecting. You get back all your contributions pretty fast. Over the years Congress, with an eye to the seniors vote, has made Social Security more generous. For many Americans it is the only "pension" they get. As the baby-boomers age, the strain on Social Security (both in services and dollars) grows every day. Yet Congress has repeatedly cut its budget to the point where the agency of 62,000 people needs to shed 9,000 workers by Sept. 30.

Social Security this week joined the IRS in the buyout and early retirement movement. Except without the buyouts. It is hoping — don't hold your breath — that 9,000 people will retire by Sept. 30. Under early out rules employees must be at least age 50 with 20 years of federal or military service, or have 25 years of federal service, to retire.

Normally when a federal agency offers early retirement it is accompanied by a buyout worth $25,000 before deductions. Why both? Because without a buyout, few people take early retirement. It is not cost-effective. But Social Security, thanks to Congress, is so strapped it can't offer buyouts too.

If the early outs without buyouts work, it will mean fewer employees to help a growing number of customers. Maybe reduced hours at local Social Security offices. The early out offer ends Sept. 30, the last day of the current fiscal year. The election is Nov. 6. If timing is everything, this should be an interesting fall.

NEARLY USELESS FACTOID

By Jack Moore and Amanda Iacone

Olympian Usain Bolt is fast. He ran the 100-meter dash in 9.6 seconds and won a gold medal in London. He's almost as fast as a cheetah, but not quite. Sarah, a cheetah at the Cincinnati Zoo, covered the distance in just 5.9 seconds, reaching speeds of 61 miles per hour. Read more here.


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