Shock Therapy: Hands off, ya lying crooks!

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Cartoonists often nail frauds better than anyone else.

By Hannah Bell //Dateline: 12/26/07

If you still worry about a social security meltdown, stop worrying and start exposing the lying cheats in media and the political class who keep drumming this piece of crock into your brain. [Simulpost with Jason Miller’s TPC on this same site. We’re giving this topic the double-barrel treatment it deserves. We thank Jason for giving this gem immediate attention.]

Shock Therapy: Pt. 1

Part I

As all good torturers know, fear and uncertainty can be wonderfully motivating.

In Naomi Klein’s latest book, The Shock Doctrine, she explains how this simple principle has been used by international financial institutions to push through neo-liberal economic policy around the world. In the wake of crises and disasters, the boys from the IMF and the World Bank would show up, loans in hand, preaching the gospel of privatization and austerity.

The natives, their better judgment clouded by fear and confusion — or bribes, when needed — would generally submit. It was called “shock therapy.”

Klein has, however, been at some pains to deny any deliberate engineering of crisis by the neo-liberal shock cadres. And though I’m generally enamored with her thesis, here we part ways. To my mind, there’s plenty of circumstantial evidence that deliberate engineering is sometimes precisely what’s going on.

Case in point, right here at home: Social Security.

A recent headline from my local paper: “Social Security 13.6 Trillion Short.” Big, scary number, but you’ll search the article in vain for any contextual detail. Just how much is 13.6 trillion? And when will this shortfall occur? Next week? Next year? Sometime in infinity?

They don’t say. Just the scary number. The lack of context, boys and girls, is a clue you’re being played.

The correct answer is: “Sometime in infinity”.1

It’s the Bush Administration making its annual noises about the Social Security “crisis.” Alan Greenspan has been out hyping the same message. On Democracy Now, for example, he pronounced that “There is no alternative” to increased private funding of retirement.2

But wait a minute. Alan Greenspan? I dimly remember him as the guy who “saved” Social Security, back in the reign of St. Ronnie Reagan. Greenspan chaired Reagan’s National Commission on Social Security Reform, for heaven’s sake, and made the recommendations that became the Social Security Amendments of 1983. A bipartisan Congress passed them, and Reagan signed them into law. St. Ron said at the time:

“This bill demonstrates for all time our nation’s ironclad commitment to Social Security. It assures the elderly that America will always keep the promises made in troubled times a half a century ago. It assures those who are still working that they, too, have a pact with the future. From this day forward, they have one pledge that they will get their fair
share of benefits when they retire.”3

Now Alan’s saying we have to privatize? What terrible disaster’s occurred since 1983?

In fact, the disaster was the 1983 “reform” itself. Its main provision was an increase in Social Security taxes calculated to generate 25+ years of ever-increasing surpluses, surpluses that could be dumped into the general budget to grease the skids for tax cuts to the super-rich.

In 1983, 20 million in extra Social Security taxes and interest was collected, 20 million more than needed to pay retirees. In 1988, Reagan’s last year in office, the surplus was 38 billion. By 2006, it was 182 billion,4 and nearly 2 trillion in bonds sat in the Social Security Trust Fund, mostly surplus tax payments and interest accumulated since 1983.5

The 2006 surplus was 1/3 over and above the $544 billion mailed out to beneficiaries that year. 102 billion of it was interest paid to the Trust Fund, and 80 billion was excess payroll taxes: 13% of total collections.6

Tossed into the general budget, the 2006 surplus easily financed the Department of Education budget (67 billion),7 with plenty left to pay for the Administration for Children and Families (47 billion).

ACF, by the way, is welfare, Head Start, child support enforcement,* adoption assistance, foster care, child care, community block grants, energy assistance, and programs for the mentally retarded, refugees, and Native Americans.8

That’s how big the yearly Social Security surplus is.

Alternatively, the 2006 surplus would fund about a year of the war in Iraq. That’s how big the war budget is.”9

Note: To add insult to injury, in 2007 the Bush Administration began charging for child support enforcement, automatically deducting the fee from the child support payments of the mostly poor clients.

1. Social Security Administration, 2007 Trustees Report, Table IVB6,
2. Democracy Now 9/24/07,
3. R. Reagan, “Remarks on Signing the Social Security Amendments of 1983? 4/20/83,
4. Congressional Budget Office Historical Budget Data 1962-2006,
5. Social Security Administration, “Fiscal Year Trust Fund Operations,”
6. Social Security Administration, “Trust Fund Operations in 2006,”
7. Department of Education Budget History, 2007 Total Appropriation,
8. Administration for Children and Families, “ACF All-Purpose Table 2006 Enacted,”
9. “Iraq War Budget Jumps for 2008,” LA Times, 10/11/07, ret. 10/11/07,,0,234891.story?coll=la-home-center

Part II: Three-Card Monte

“Pay as you go” was policy for over 40 years; it worked very well. With an overhead of less than 2%,3 Social Security never missed a check. It’s the most successful and longest-lived retirement security program in history.

It took a financial wizard like Alan Greenspan to think of generating increasing surpluses. But since they don’t ease the burden on the next generation as advertised, one has to ask: why?

First, note that in 1983 Social Security taxes applied only to the first 32,000 of wage income, and now apply only to the first 97,000. Wage income over the cap isn’t subject to Social Security taxes.4 Not a concern for most of us, since 90% of us make less than 90,000 a year, and every penny is taxed.5

Second, note that Social Security was designed as a stand-alone, transparently self-financing program on purpose, so that its taxes and benefits wouldn’t be mixed in with the general budget for nefarious ends.

But that’s just what happened in 1983. While Greenspan and company were busy raising Social Security taxes on the bottom 90%, the Reagan Administration was merrily cutting income and capital gains taxes, mainly for folks making over 200,000.

In 1979 the top income tax rate was 70%, assessed only on income above 200,000, and the capital gains tax was 28%. By 1986 the top rate was 50%, and the capital gains tax was 20%, with 60% of income excluded.6

Here the “reform” begins to look like a three-card monte shuffle. Raise Social Security taxes on ordinary working people to generate a surplus. Borrow the surplus into the general budget. Whoa Nelly, look at that extra money! Someone needs a tax cut!

The super-rich and big businesses gain; ordinary workers and small businesses lose. Predictably, increasing budget deficits were the result. Both Bush I and Clinton re-jiggered taxes to generate more revenue, but never back to their pre-Reagan levels at the top.6

Now here comes Bush 2, and he wants to lower taxes even more. Who’s there to help but Alan? In 2001 Greenspan testified in support of Bush’s tax plan.7 Wonderful idea, he told Congress. Clinton’s budget surpluses are just too big. We’re in danger of paying off the federal debt too fast, and then whatever would we do with all the money rolling in? Someone needs a tax cut. And once again, dear reader, that someone isn’t you.

Never mind that without borrowing the Social Security surplus, Clinton never produced a general budget surplus. But who bothers with details like that? With a wink and a nod from Alan, Congress passed Bush’s tax cuts. Currently the top rate on capital gains is 15%, and the top rate (on income over 250K) is 35%.6

TV media diva Leslie Stahl (here during an embarrassing interview with Sarkozy) recently wasted almost an entire 60 Minutes program on Greenspan without managing to ask a single important question. Typically, she never brought up before a mass audience what Greenspan himself had just made public in a book: that the Iraq war was not about democracy and freedom but simply about oil. Her People Magazine approach, of course, and typical acculturation to superficialities, preclude serious journalism.

The Social Security tax is 12.4%. Half is taken off the top of employees’ checks and half is paid by employers. Both halves are part of the employee’s compensation. So in effect, the kid who works for $5.15 an hour at the Burger Palace gets taxed at almost the same rate Bill Gates does when he sells a property for capital gains.

But here’s another wrinkle that’s not as immediately obvious: the owner of the Burger Palace also takes it in the shorts. Small and medium-sized businesses use more labor than large ones to generate a unit of production and profit. Every increase in Social Security taxes hits a small business harder than a giant corporation because the giants are less labor-intensive. Compared to a 28% cut in the top income tax rate, a 2% increase in payroll taxes is insignificant to Bill Gates; each of his 79,000 employees generates over 100K in profits.8

For the owner of the Burger Palace and his 5 employees generating only 3K each, it’s a different story. But hey — by Greenspan’s style of reckoning, who needs an inefficient Burger Palace when you have a shiny corporate Burger King?

* Social Security Administration, “Performance of Social Security Trust Funds, 1937-2005.”

1. Social Security Administration, “Agency History,”

2. Congressional Budget Office Historical Budget Data, “Revenues, Outlays, Surpluses, Deficits and Debt Held by the Public, 1962 to 2006,”

3. Social Security Administration, “Performance of Social Security Trust Funds, 1937-2005,”

4. Social Security Administration, “Administrative Expenses,”

5. Urban and Brookings Institution Tax Policy Center, “Historical Social Security Tax

6. Citizens for Tax Justice 3/07, “Background Information on Incomes and Income Ranges,”

7. Citizens for Tax Justice, “Top Federal Income Tax Rates on Regular Income and Capital Gains Since 1916,”

8. Ibid.

9. “2001 Tax Cuts were Justified, Greenspan Maintains,” Washington Post, 3/16/05, ret. 10/07”

10. Citizens for Tax Justice, “Top Federal Income Tax Rates on Regular Income and Capital Gains Since 1916,”

11. Gates profit/employee, MSFT Investor Relations (July 19, 2007). “Microsoft Fourth Quarter FY 2007 Earnings Release: Microsoft’s Annual Revenue Surpasses $50 Billion”., Ret. 07/08/15,

Part III: The Big Lie

So new tax cuts were passed by a bipartisan Congress in 2001, and once again, the main beneficiaries were — you guessed it — the filthy rich. The top 1% of wage earners, those making 500K and up, saved 70 billion in 2006 alone. Enough to fund the Department of Education with change to spare.

Over the ten years 2001-2010, the top 5%, those making 191K and up, will save about 920 billion dollars. That’s 48.3% of all Bush’s tax cuts.1

Incidentally, that’s about half of what’s in the Social Security Trust Fund right now, built up over 24 years on wages under 97K.

But the Trust Fund debt, some say, is “just IOUs”. You’ve heard the spiel. Here’s Bush in 2005:

Now, let me tell you something about the Social Security system. It’s not a trust. A lot of people think, well, we’re collecting your money and we’re holding it for you, and then when you retire, we’re going to give it back to you. That’s not the way it works. We’re collecting your money, and if we’ve got money left over — in other words, if the — if there’s more money than the benefits promised to be paid in our hands, we’re spending it and leaving behind an IOU. That’s how it works. It’s called a pay-as-you-go system. You pay, we go ahead and spend it. (Laughter.)2

Isn’t he cute? Here he is again, same year:

“We take your payroll taxes, we pay out the benefits to current retirees, and with the money left over, we pay…for other programs. And there’s nothing left but file cabinets with IOUs. And that’s how it works.”3

Let’s not ignore his second-in-command. Here’s Cheney on the mission:

“Now, about 1.7 trillion of that is in the so-called Trust Fund: that is, money – that’s money that’s been collected that’s not there as cash at this point.”4

They don’t sound very encouraging, do they?

The cost of the war in Iraq, waged over imaginary WMDs, is approaching 200 billion a year.5 Nine billion of that has simply disappeared6, and unknown millions have gone into the pockets of corporations with ties to Cheneys and Bushes.7,8,9

Apparently it’s easy to find 200 billion a year to kill people, even while cutting 70 billion from millionaires’ tax bills — but impossible to come up with 60 billion or so a year to redeem the Trust Fund.10

Those IOUs are implied to be “worthless” only because they’re owed to ordinary working people: sheep to be sheared, rubes to be conned, like the rubes dying in Iraq.

Greenspan’s no better. In 2004, he urged the House Budget Committee to “deal with the country’s escalating budget deficit by cutting benefits for future Social Security retirees.”11

There. Did you watch his hands? Same old three-card monte shuffle.

Thanks to Bush’s “No Billionaire Left Behind” tax policy and Iraq, there’s a growing deficit in the general budget — so Greenspan wants to cut Social Security benefits. That’s the kind of rigorous logic that earns you the title of “Wizard” in ruling circles.

Social Security was set up as a self-funding program. It’s currently running multi-billion-dollar surpluses. Its finances and benefits have nothing to do with the general budget, or didn’t, until Alan stuck his paws in. Is he senile? Doesn’t he remember what he did and said in 1983?

If deficits are bad, why in 1983 did he recommend the deliberate creation of a deficit — the debt now owed to the Social Security Trust Fund?

And if the extra money we’ve been sending Social Security for 24 years is just creating debt and “worthless IOUs,” how come Alan never suggests we stop making those excess payments?

Because he’s senile like a fox.

And neither will you hear our brave party leaders suggesting we stop paying the extra freight. Instead, Republicans cheer-lead for private accounts, and Democrats push for benefit cuts and payroll tax increases. To save us from crisis, they say. They’re picking our pockets, and they offer us every solution but the obvious one: remove their thieving hands.

They’re lying. They’ve always been lying.

“…the great masses of the people… more easily fall a victim to a big lie than to a little one, since they themselves lie in little things, but would be ashamed of lies that were too big. Such a falsehood will never enter their heads and they will not be able to believe in the possibility of such monstrous effrontery and infamous misrepresentation in others…”

– Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, Chapter 10

1. Citizens for Tax Justice, “The Bush Tax Cuts: The Latest CTJ Data,” 3/07

2. “President Participates in Social Security Conversation in Arizona,” 3/21/2005,

3. “President Participates in Social Security Roundtable in Texas,” 4/26/2005,

4. “Vice President’s Remarks at Town Hall Meeting on Social Security,” 3/22/05,

5. “Iraq War Budget Jumps for 2008,” LA Times, 10/11/07, ret. 10/11/07,,0,234891.story?coll=la-home-center

6. “Audit: US Lost Track of Nine Billion in Iraq Funds,” CNN 9/05, retrieved 10/07,

7. “Cheney’s Multi-Million Dollar Revolving Door,” Mother Jones 8/2/00,

8. “The Perpetual War Portfolio,” Rational Enquirer,

9. “Big Contracts Went to Big Donors,” CBS News, 10/30/03,

10. Ignoring the complication of interest, it would cost about 63 billion/year to pay off 2 trillion dollars over 32 years.

11. “To Trim Deficits, Bush Recommends Social Security and Medicare Cuts,” New York Times 2/28/2004

“Greenspan Urges Future Social Security Cuts,” MSNBC 2/25/04,

Part IV: “Ideas that are Lying Around”

Here’s where we come back to Klein’s thesis. In her book she quotes Milton Friedman, the capo di capi of the Chicago School of Economics: “Only a crisis produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”1

Within certain circles of power, the Social Security “crisis” has been lying around for a very long time. In his 1936 campaign against FDR, Alf Landon called the new program a “fraud on the workingman,” and continued:

“Every month they bring 6 per cent of their wages…so that he may act as trustee and invest their savings for their old age….the day comes…What do they find? Roll after roll of neatly executed IOU’s.”2

Those damned IOUs again.

FDR won that election. It was the Great Depression, the poorhouses were full, and for some the threat of starvation hit all too close to home.3

During the war and after, booming profits kept the rich folks busy for awhile, but by the end of the 50’s things had started to slow down and Social Security crisis was back on the agenda.

St. Reagan, in his nominating speech at the 1964 Republican convention, suggested privatization.4 Goldwater, the nominee, echoed the call.

He lost. Too many folks still remembered the Depression and the poorhouses. Social Security had put those institutions out of business, but in their day, the overwhelming majority of their residents were over sixty.5,6

Today Social Security is a bulwark against penury for the elderly. It provides 50% or more of retirement support for 2/3 of beneficiaries, and 100% of support for 1/3.7

In 1978, a young Congressional candidate picked up the theme of crisis. Stumping at the Midland Texas Country Club, George W. Bush said:

“[Social Security] will be bust in 10 years unless there are some changes…The ideal solution would be…[for people] to invest the money the way they feel.”8

Like the WMDs, the 1988 Social Security bust never manifested. You’d think Bush would be embarrassed, but 20 years after the crisis-that-wasn’t, he’s still banging the privatization gong.

There’s plenty more scary talk where that came from, a steady stream of policy papers and opinion pieces, dutifully parroted by the media. The think tanks that produce them are funded, not by any grass-roots demanding Social Security reform, but by a handful of big private fortunes, some well-known: Mellon-Scaife9, DuPont10, Coors.11

Other funders are less famous, but their fortunes are equally large. The Koch brothers, inheritors of one of the world’s largest private oil fortunes, fund what’s probably the most important source of privatization propaganda: the Cato Institute.12 Incidentally, George Bush’s sister Doro Bush Koch, is reportedly married to a Koch cousin.13

In 1983, in the wake of another failed attempt to gather public support for privatization, Cato published an influential paper titled “Achieving a Leninist Strategy.”14

The authors start by acknowledging that Social Security is a popular program, so head-on approaches to dismantling it are unlikely to be successful. Instead, they recommend the “Leninist Strategy” of the title. Strange to find libertarian free-marketeers so enthusiastic about a reviled communist, but politics does make strange bedfellows.

Lenin was a political strategist known for super-pragmatism, a proponent of stealth tactics, alliances of convenience, and sleeper cells. He advised a secretive vanguard to help create the conditions for revolution, while lying in wait for the “revolutionary moment” when power could by seized by virtue of the same vanguard’s superior organization and discipline. [Note: A similar approach has been utilized, in reverse, to defend the rotten status quo in the healthcare sector, with Big Pharma and the medical establishment circling the wagons, so to speak, after the SiCKO disaster.—EDS]

This is exactly what the Cato authors recommend in the way of a long-term strategy to take Social Security private. To help create revolutionary conditions, they suggest:

1) Mobilizing a coalition of folks who’d benefit from privatization (banks, investment houses, and other financial institutions).

2) Continuing public “education” aimed at discrediting Social Security and talking up privatization.

3) Creation and promotion of financial savings alternatives (e.g. 401Ks, IRAs) to get people accustomed to using them.

4) Splitting potential coalition supporters of Social Security, such as current and future recipients: “…the strategy must be to propose moving to a private…system in such a way as “to…neutralize…the coalition that supports the existing system.” Thus, older folks would be told their benefits wouldn’t be cut, making them less likely to mobilize to help protect benefits for the young.

All this has happened in the years since.

At the end of the paper, the authors say: “The next Social Security crisis may be further away than many people believe…it could be many years before the conditions are such that a radical reform of Social Security is possible. But then, as Lenin well knew, to be a successful revolutionary, one must also be patient and consistently plan for real reform.”

1. Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom, 1962

2. Alf Landon, “I Will Not Promise the Moon,” Speech
of 1936,

3. Ronald Edsforth, The New Deal: America’s Response to the Great Depression, Starvation deaths, pp. 84-87.

4. Ronald Reagan, “A Time for Choosing,” Speech of 1964,

5. Michael B. Katz, The Shadow of the Poorhouse, Social Security as “the end of the poorhouse,” p. 132

6. Abraham Epstein, Facing Old Age: A Study of Old Age Dependency in the United States and Old Age Pensions, majority of residents elderly, pp 28-29

7. Economic Policy Institute, “Economic Snapshots, Social Security and Income, Figure 1, Importance of Social Security Benefits to Those Aged 65 and Older,”

8. “For Bush, A Long Embrace of Social Security Plan,” New York Times 2/27/05,

9. Mellon-Scaife helps fund Cato, Heritage and other anti-Social Security initiatives through Scaife foundations, e.g.:

10. The Dupont think tank is the National Center for Policy Analysis,

11. The Coors family helps fund Cato, Heritage and other anti-Social Security, initiatives, e.g.:

12. Media Transparency,,

Cato Institute Project on Social Security Choice,

13. “Kicked in the Koch,” American Politics Journal 8/4/00,

14. Stuart Butler and Peter Germanis, “Achieving a Leninist Strategy,”

Part V: Perfect Storm

Lenin and the boys at Cato agree with Friedman: “Only a crisis produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”

We know what ideas our “leaders” have lying around. They’ve been drumming them into our heads for years. What shape might the coming crisis take?

Crisis needn’t be a hurricane or tsunami; it can be a financial disaster as well — even a phony one. As long as people are scared and confused and will do what you want them to — that’s all that matters.

Crisis might look like the perfect storm of mortgage meltdown, recession, declining industries and wages, rising deficits, all coming to a head as the boomers retire — and that unfortunate file cabinet full of IOUs, with — so sorry — “no money” to redeem them.

Combine that with a full-court press of pundits, preachers and politicians, all well-manicured and well-fed, none in any danger of going without in their old age, though they insist you must. All of them nattering away at you, on the TV, in the papers, on the radio, relentless as the zombies in The Night of the Living Dead:

“There’s no-o-o-o money! No-o-o-o money! If you don’t do what we say the country’s going to go broke and you’re all going to die!”

It might be that the 1983 debut of both Greenspan’s “reform” and the Cato paper wasn’t coincidental. It might be, indeed, that Greenspan created the debt to the Trust Fund with an inkling that it could eventually be hyped as a “crisis” to take down Social Security for good.

That’s how the IMF did it, Klein says. Get the rubes in debt, then pressure them to take your “shock treatment,” your austerity program. As in Chile, as in Russia, where poverty rates doubled and tripled after the treatment1; so here. We too must take our medicine.

Bugger that.

There’s no Social Security crisis. There never has been. If you’re not convinced yet, how about this: the projection used to hype the phony crisis assumes a growth rate of 1.8% over the next 75 years.2 That’s lower than the 1.9% average growth rate of the Great Depression, 1929-1940.3

But there are actually three projections; an optimistic one, an intermediate one, and a pessimistic one. In the “optimistic” scenario, long-term growth averages 2.6%, the Trust Fund never runs out, and there’s a 17-trillion dollar surplus in 2080.4 So far, reality has always turned out closer to the optimistic projection than the other two. Since 1980, growth has averaged 3.1%.5 Whee! Feel better?

Not that a projection 75 years into the future has any bankable accuracy anyway.

The projection, like “crisis” it predicts, is a fraud, a cynical Big Lie, a con. They want your money. That’s all they’ve ever wanted, and they’ll keep pushing until they get it, unless they know you understand the con.

The Republicans won’t save you, and the Democrats won’t save you either. They’re the ones up on the tube, debating oh-so-seriously about the “crisis” when they know it’s phony, pretending to disagree, all the better to con you. They’re the good cop and the bad cop, the inside and the outside man in the three-card game.6

They know that some of you’ll want to identify with the nice, caring Democrats, who’ll save Social Security by raising taxes — just a hair, just a smidge. And others will want to identify with the tough, fiscally responsible Republicans, who’ll institute sensible private accounts.

And while you’re watching the game, taking one side or the other, getting all riled up about the stupidity of the other side — they’re moving in, like the partners in crime they really are, for the coup de grace.

Here’s the straight story.

“The economy” isn’t the casino, isn’t the game, isn’t even the chits of paper we use to trade and keep score with. The economy is the real world of producing real goods and services. So long as American workers are producing real goods and real knowledge for decent wages, there will be enough surplus for their elders’ Social Security.

If, on the other hand, our “leaders” follow the road they’ve been on the last 30 years: off-shoring production, outsourcing democratic government to unaccountable private power, stripping resources faster than they’re renewed, allowing infrastructure and human skills to decay, and substituting a casino economy for a real one, we’ll all go broke, and private accounts won’t change that likelihood one bit.

Social Security’s not in crisis. Our leadership is. Our democracy is.

No tax hikes, no benefit cuts, no private accounts. Hands off, ya lying crooks.

1. See discussion of the effect of “shock therapy” and privatization on Chile and Russia in Melanie Klein, The Shock Doctrine, 2007.

2. Social Security Administration, 2004 Trustees Report, Table V.B.2, intermediate projection 2015-2080 = 1.8% GDP growth

3. Growth % calculated from “Real GDP 1929-1940,” Louis D. Johnston and Samuel H. Williamson, “The Annual Real and Nominal GDP for the United States, 1790 – Present.” Economic History Services, 10/05,

4. Social Security Administration, 2005 Trustees Report, Table VI.F7,

5. Growth % calculated from “Real GDP 1941-2006,” Louis D. Johnston and Samuel H. Williamson, “The Annual Real and Nominal GDP for the United States, 1790-Present.” Economic History Services, 10/05,

6. Three-card monte is a confidence game where the “mark” is tricked into betting he can find the money card among three face-down playing cards, a classic short con in which the outside man pretends to conspire with the mark to cheat the inside man, while
in fact conspiring with the inside man to cheat the mark. (*definition from wikipedia)

Hannah B. is from the Pacific Northwest and works in healthcare. She can be reached at:

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