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Posts Tagged ‘Demographics’

The Census Bureau just released a report on America’s aging population.

The big takeaway is that our population will be getting much older between now and 2050.

And since I’m a baby boomer, I very much like the fact that we’re expected to live longer.

But as a public finance economist, I’m not nearly as happy.

As I explain in this interview with the Wall Street Journal’s Digital Network (and as confirmed by BIS, OECD, and IMF data), the United States is going to get deluged by a tsunami of entitlement spending.

I mentioned that it’s important to focus on the ratio of workers to retirees. This “dependency ratio” matters because economic output largely is a function of an economy’s working-age population.

To cite my famous cartoons, you need a sufficient number of people pulling the wagon to support those riding in the wagon.

Here’s a chart from the Census report to help you understand the magnitude of the problem. As you can see, both in the United States and other nations, the increase in the dependency ratio is almost entirely the result of aging populations.

Census Dependency Ratio

This is why I said that we face a slow-motion train wreck because of poorly designed entitlement programs.

But the good news is that there is time to reform those programs and avert a crisis.

Which explains why I probably sound like a broken record about the need for genuine entitlement reform.

In a column citing the new private pension system in the Faroe Islands, I gave the arguments for modernizing Social Security with personal retirement accounts.

But we also need to deal with the health entitlements.

Here’s how to fix Medicare.

And here’s how to fix Medicaid.

By the way, some of the damaging provisions of Obamacare can be de facto repealed by including them in the Medicaid block grant, so it’s a critically important reform.

Needless to say, I think these reforms are far better for the economy than the big tax hike Obama has endorsed to deal with the giant financing gap.

P.S. For a clever look at the worker-dependency ratio, check out the party ship produced by a Danish think tank.

P.P.S. The interviewer also mentioned that America’s racial composition is changing, which gives me an excuse to point out that Social Security reform is particularly beneficial for blacks because of differences in life expectancy.

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Over the years, I’ve shared many charts, graphs, and tables to help people understand that the welfare state is fundamentally unsustainable.

And, assuming there’s not genuine entitlement reform, many of these fiscal estimates show that the United States has a very perilous future.

According to the Bank for International Settlements, the United States is in worse shape than every nation other than Japan and the United Kingdom.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States has a bigger long-run fiscal problem than all countries other than New Zealand and Japan.

And according to International Monetary Fund estimates of both future spending increases and the need for reform, no nation has a bigger problem than the United States.

So do all these numbers mean the United States is really in worse shape than basket cases such as Italy, Spain, Japan, France, and Greece?

Yes and no. I realize that answer makes me sound like a politician, but it is  hard to answer that question because America’s grim long-run numbers are largely a function of rapidly rising health care spending.

And if you assume that Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare are left unreformed, then the budgets for these programs will eat up an ever-larger share of our economy and we’ll eventually suffer a fiscal collapse.

However, if you assume that these programs at some point get reformed (and it better be the right kind of reform), then the long-run outlook is considerably less severe.

But notice that I wrote “less severe.” That’s because we still have a demographic issue. Any type of pay-as-you-go welfare state becomes increasingly expensive when there are more and more old people and fewer and fewer young workers.

This is why new projections from the Pew Research Center are so sobering. They show the change in age dependency ratio between now and 2050.

As you can see, we currently have about 50 young or old people for every 100 working-age people. By 2050, however, there will be 66 dependents for every 100 working-age people. And most of that added dependency will be caused by an aging population, not more children.

Age Dependency Ratio Pew

But here’s the good news. Compared to nations such as Spain and Japan, we’re in pretty good shape. Or, to be more accurate, we don’t face as deep of a problem. Indeed, it’s hard to see how those nations will survive.

Same with South Korea and Italy.

Even Germany has a very difficult future. Its welfare state may not be as bloated as some other nations in Europe, and the work ethic may be stronger than most other European countries, but as I already explained, any welfare state becomes unsustainable without new workers to pay taxes to support the dependent class.

In other words, demographics can be destiny. Look at this data on the nations with the lowest fertility rates. You’ll notice that Germans are not reproducing. And the same is true of the Japanese, Italians, and South Koreans (Spain is in 191st place, so they also aren’t having many kids).

Fertility Rate by Nation

I don’t know where this will lead, but it won’t be pretty. Simply stated, the welfare states in these nations will have to be reformed.

But how does that happen in countries where people have been told for decades that they have a “human right” to freebies from the government?

I fear that European nations are going to suffer some major dislocations. And as this Michael Ramirez cartoon suggests, the same problem could happen in America.

Let’s close with some optimism. You’ll notice that two of the four jurisdictions with the lowest fertility rates in the entire world are Hong Kong and Singapore. Yet there’s no major long-run fiscal crisis in those places.

Why? Because they have “pre-funded” retirement systems. In other words, they have personal retirement accounts instead of tax-and-transfer entitlement systems.

The moral of the story is that demographics can be destiny, but it doesn’t have to be.

Something to keep in mind next time there’s a discussion of Social Security reform.

P.S. Considering the high levels of pulchritude in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, I’m mystified that there’s so little reproduction in those nations. Maybe I should volunteer to help out?

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Last month, I exposed some major errors that Paul Krugman committed when he criticized Estonia for restraining the burden of government spending.

My analysis will be helpful since I am now in Estonia for a speech about economic reform, and I wrote a column that was published today by the nation’s main business newspaper.

But just in case you’re one of the few people in the world who isn’t fluent in the local language, the Mises Institute Estonia was kind enough to post an English version.

Here are some of the key points I made. I started by explaining one of Krugman’s main blunders.

Krugman’s biggest mistake is that he claimed that spending cuts caused the downturn, even though the recession began in 2008 when government spending was rapidly expanding. It wasn’t until 2009 that the burden of government spending was reduced, and that was when the economy began to grow again. In other words, Krugman’s Keynesian theory was completely wrong. The economy should have boomed in 2008 and suffered a recession beginning in 2009. Instead, the opposite has happened.

I then pointed out that Estonia’s long-run performance has been admirable.

…the nation’s long-run economic performance is quite exemplary. Economic output has doubled in just 15 years according to the International Monetary Fund. Over that entire period – including the recent downturn, it has enjoyed one of the fastest growth rates in Europe.

But I’m not a mindless cheerleader (though I might become one if any of the local women gave me the time of day), so I took the opportunity to identify areas where public policy needs improvement.

This doesn’t mean Estonia’s policy is perfect. Spending was reduced in 2009 and 2010, but now it is climbing again. This is unfortunate. Government spending consumes about 40 percent of GDP, which is a significant burden on the private sector.

Being a thoughtful guy, I then made suggestions for pro-growth changes.

Estonia should copy the Asian Tiger economies of Singapore and Hong Kong. These jurisdictions have maintained very high growth for decades in part because the burden of the public sector is only about 20 percent of GDP. …Estonia already has a flat tax, which is very important for competitiveness. The key goal should be to impose a spending cap, perhaps similar to Switzerland’s very successful “debt brake.” Under the Swiss system, government spending is not allowed to grow faster than population plus inflation. And since nominal GDP usually expands at a faster rate, this means that the relative burden of government spending shrinks over time. By slowly but surely reducing the amount of GDP diverted to fund government, this would enable policymakers to deal with the one area where Estonia’s tax system is very unfriendly. Social insurance taxes equal about one-fourth of the cost of hiring a worker, thus discouraging job creation and boosting the shadow economy.

And I elaborated on why reform of social insurance is not just a good idea, but should be viewed as an absolute necessity.

Reducing the heavy burden of social insurance taxes should be part of a big reform to modernize programs for healthcare and the elderly. A major long-term challenge for Estonia is that the population is expected to shrink. The World Bank and the United Nations both show that fertility rates are well below the “replacement rate,” meaning that there will be fewer workers in the future. That’s a very compelling reason why it is important to expand personal retirement accounts and allow the “pre-funding” of healthcare. It’s a simple matter of demographic reality.

In other words, Estonia doesn’t have a choice. If they don’t reform their entitlement programs, the burden of government spending will rise dramatically, which would mean a higher tax burden and/or substantial government debt.

We also need entitlement reform in the United States. Our demographics aren’t as bad as Estonia’s, but we all know – as I explained in my post about Cyprus – that bad things happen sooner or later if government spending grows faster than the economy’s productive sector.

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