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Posts Tagged ‘Personal Retirement Accounts’

I don’t give the issue much attention on this blog, but I’m very interested in Social Security reform. I wrote my dissertation on Australia’s very successful system of personal retirement accounts, for instance, and I narrated this video on Social Security reform in the United States.

So I was very interested to see that the Associated Press put out a story warning about the dismal state of the program’s finances.

Here’s some of what the AP reported.

For nearly three decades Social Security produced big surpluses, collecting more in taxes from workers than it paid in benefits to retirees, disabled workers, spouses and children. The surpluses also helped mask the size of the budget deficit being generated by the rest of the federal government. Those days are over. Since 2010, Social Security has been paying out more in benefits than it collects in taxes… The projected shortfall in 2033 is $623 billion, according to the trustees’ latest report. It reaches $1 trillion in 2045 and nearly $7 trillion in 2086, the end of a 75-year period used by Social Security’s number crunchers because it covers the retirement years of just about everyone working today. Add up 75 years’ worth of shortfalls and you get an astonishing figure: $134 trillion. Adjusted for inflation, that’s $30.5 trillion in 2012 dollars, or eight times the size of this year’s entire federal budget.

First of all, kudos to the AP. I criticized them for a sloppy and biased report on poverty last month, so it behooves me to mention that their story on Social Security is mostly fair and accurate.

My only complaint is that the story does include some analysis of the Social Security Trust Fund, even though that supposed Fund is nothing but a pile of IOUs – money that one part of the government promises to give to another part of the government.

But let’s set that aside. Another interesting tidbit from the story is this quote from one of the kleptocrats at the American Association of Retired Persons. Note that he implicitly rules out any changes other than those that enable the government to “pay the benefits we promised.”  But that shouldn’t be a surprise. AARP is part of the left-wing coalition.

“I’m not suggesting we need to wait 20 years but we do have time to make changes to Social Security so that we can pay the benefits we promised,” said David Certner, AARP’s legislative policy director. “Let’s face it. Relative to a lot of other things right now, Social Security is in pretty good shape.”

But I will say that Mr. Certner is sort of correct about Social Security being in better shape than Medicare and Medicaid. But that’s like saying the guy with lung cancer who is 75 lbs overweight is in better shape than the two guys with brain tumors who are both 150 lbs overweight.

If you have to engage in fiscal triage, it would be smart to first address Medicare and Medicaid, but Social Security also needs reform. And not the kind of statist reform the folks at AARP would like to see.

By the way, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that President Obama’s approach is similar to the left-wingers at AARP. Here’s a video I narrated about his preferred policy.

It seems that the question doesn’t matter with this administration. The answer is always to impose more class-warfare tax policy.

P.S. If you need to be cheered up after reading this post, here’s a good cartoon showing the difference between Social Security and a Ponzi scheme, and here’s another cartoon showing what inspired Bernie Madoff to steal so much money.

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One of the reasons why this blog is called International Liberty is that the world is a laboratory, with some nations (such as France) showing why statism is a mistake, other jurisdictions (such as Hong Kong) showing that freedom is a key to prosperity, and other countries (such as Sweden) having good and bad features.

It’s time to include Chile in the list of nations with generally good policies. That nation’s transition from statism and dictatorship to freedom and prosperity must rank as one of the most positive developments over the past 30 years.

Here’s some of what I wrote with Julia Morriss for the Daily Caller. Let’s start with the bad news.

Thirty years ago, Chile was a basket case. A socialist government in the 1970s had crippled the economy and destabilized society, leading to civil unrest and a military coup. Given the dismal situation, it’s no surprise that Chile’s economy was moribund and other Latin American countries, such as Mexico, Venezuela, and Argentina, had about twice as much per-capita economic output.

Realizing that change was necessary, the nation began to adopt pro-market reforms. Many people in the policy world are at least vaguely familiar with the system of personal retirement accounts that was introduced in the early 1980s, but we explain in the article that pension reform was just the beginning.

Let’s look at how Chile became the Latin Tiger. Pension reform is the best-known economic reform in Chile. Ever since the early 1980s, workers have been allowed to put 10 percent of their income into a personal retirement account. This system, implemented by José Piñera, has been remarkably successful, reducing the burden of taxes and spending and increasing saving and investment, while also producing a 50-100 percent increase in retirement benefits. Chile is now a nation of capitalists. But it takes a lot more than entitlement reform, however impressive, to turn a nation into an economic success story. What made Chile special was across-the-board economic liberalization.

We then show the data (on a scale of 1-10) from the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World, which confirm significant pro-market reforms in just about all facets of economic policy over the past three decades.

But have these reforms made a difference for the Chilean people? The answer seems to be a firm yes.

This has meant good things for all segments of the population. The number of people below the poverty line dropped from 40 percent to 20 percent between 1985 and 1997 and then to 15.1 percent in 2009. Public debt is now under 10 percent of GDP and after 1983 GDP grew an average of 4.6 percent per year. But growth isn’t a random event. Chile has prospered because the burden of government has declined. Chile is now ranked number one for freedom in its region and number seven in the world, even ahead of the United States.

But I think the most important piece of evidence (building on the powerful comparison in this chart) is in the second table we included with the article.

Chile’s per-capita GDP has increased by about 130 percent, while other major Latin American nations have experienced much more modest growth (or, in the tragic case of Venezuela, almost no growth).

Perhaps not as impressive as the performance of Hong Kong and Singapore, but that’s to be expected since they regularly rank as the world’s two most pro-market jurisdictions.

But that’s not to take the limelight away from Chile. That nation’s reforms are impressive - particularly considering the grim developments of the 1970s. So our takeaway is rather obvious.

The lesson from Chile is that free markets and small government are a recipe for prosperity. The key for other developing nations is to figure out how to achieve these benefits without first suffering through a period of socialist tyranny and military dictatorship.

Heck, if other developing nations learn the right lessons from Chile, maybe we can even educate policy makers in America about the benefits of restraining Leviathan.

P.S. One thing that Julia and I forgot to include in the article is that Chile has reformed its education system with vouchers, similar to the good reforms in Sweden and the Netherlands.

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Early last year, the Center for Freedom and Prosperity released this video, narrated by yours truly, making the case that the United States and other nations should shift from a tax-and-transfer entitlement scheme to a system of personal retirement accounts.

Some left wingers criticized the idea, saying the big drop in the stock market in 2008-2009 is proof that personal retirement accounts are too risky.

You won’t be surprised to learn, though, that they are wrong. It is true that retirement income fluctuates with a system of personal accounts, but that simply means that it is difficult to predict how much more income one would enjoy when compared to being stuck with Social Security.

Here is the key section from a just-released paper authored by my Cato colleague, Mike Tanner.

Despite recent declines in the stock market, a worker who had invested privately over the past 40 years would have still earned an average yearly return of 6.85 percent investing in the S&P 500, 3.46 percent from corporate bonds, and 2.44 percent from government bonds. If workers who retired in 2011 had been allowed to invest the employee half of the Social Security payroll tax over their working lifetime, they would retire with more income than if they relied on Social Security. Indeed, even in the worst-case scenario—a low-wage worker who invested entirely in bonds—the benefits from private investment would equal those from traditional Social Security.

Some people doubtlessly will still be skeptical of personal accounts, thinking to themselves that a check from the government might be meager, but at least it’s guaranteed.

But that is a very foolish assumption. When the welfare state begins to collapse and it becomes apparent that higher taxes simply make a bad situation even worse, politicians will have no choice but to renege on unaffordable promises. Just look at what’s happening in Greece and elsewhere in Europe.

And as this chart from Mike’s paper illustrates, American politicians have dug a huge hole. Relying on the empty promises of Washington politicians will be far more risky than personal retirement accounts.

The chart shows big funding shortfalls, particularly once the baby boomers have retired. Most people, though, aren’t familiar with concepts such as “percent of taxable payroll.”

So let’s make it simple. If we look at all of the future deficits, adjust them for inflation so we can make an apples-to-apples comparison, and then add them up, the Social Security shortfall is close to $30 trillion.

We know that personal accounts work. Nations such as Australia, Chile, and Sweden have reaped big benefits by making the shift.

I’m not surprised that left-wing journalists want to trap American workers in a bad system. But I am disappointed that a lot of Republican politicians feel the same way.

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Governor Rick Perry of Texas is being attacked by two rivals in the GOP presidential race. His sin, if you can believe it, is that he told the truth (as acknowledged by everyone from Paul Krugman to Milton Friedman) about Social Security being a Ponzi scheme.

Here’s an excerpt from Philip Klein’s column in the Examiner, looking at how Mitt Romney is criticizing Perry.

Mitt Romney doubled down on his attack against Texas Gov. Rick Perry this afternoon, warning in an interview with Sean Hannity that his critique of Social Security amounted to “terrible politics” that would cost Republicans the election. Romney’s decision to pile on suggests that he’s willing to play the “granny card” against Perry if it will help him get elected, a tactic more becoming of the likes of DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz than a potential Republican nominee.

And here’s a Byron York column from the Examiner looking at how Michele Bachmann is taking the same approach.

…another Republican rival, Michele Bachmann, is preparing to hit Perry on the same issue. “Bernie Madoff deals with Ponzi schemes, not the grandparents of America,” says a Bachmann adviser.  “Clearly she feels differently about the value of Social Security than Gov. Perry does.  She believes Social Security needs to be saved, that it’s an important safety net for Americans who have paid into it all their lives.” … “She strongly disagrees with his position on that…”

Shame on Romney and Bachmann. With an inflation-adjusted long-run shortfall of about $28 trillion, Social Security is a Ponzi scheme on steroids.

But as I explain in this video, that’s just part of the problem. The program also is a terrible deal for workers, particularly young people and minorities.

Here’s what’s so frustrating. Romney and Bachmann almost certainly understand that Social Security is actuarially bankrupt. And they probably realize that personal retirement accounts are the only long-run answer.

But they’re letting political ambition lure them into saying things that they know are not true. Why? Because they think Perry will lose votes and they can improve their respective chances of getting the GOP nomination.

Sounds like a smart approach, assuming truth and morality don’t matter.

But here’s what’s so ironic. The Romney and Bachmann strategy is only astute if Social Security is sacrosanct and personal accounts are political poison.

But as I noted last year, the American public supports personal accounts by a hefty margin. And former President Bush won two elections while supporting Social Security reform. And election-day polls confirmed that voters supported personal accounts.

I’m not a political scientist, so maybe something has changed, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Perry benefited from the left-wing demagoguery being utilized by Romney and Bachmann.

P.S. This does not mean Perry has the right answer. As far as I know, he hasn’t endorsed personal accounts. But at least he’s telling the truth about Social Security being unsustainable.

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The editors at Bloomberg have decided that condemning younger workers to a more dismal future is the best way to deal with the Social Security program’s giant long-run shortfall.

They want workers to pay higher taxes to prop up the bankrupt system. And, in exchange for those higher taxes, they want to give people less retirement income. Here’s what they wrote in their editorial.

Social Security’s finances need shoring up. But there is nothing wrong with the program that Congress couldn’t fix in a week. Gradually raising the retirement age to 69, changing the formula for cost-of-living increases, and raising the cap on wages subject to the payroll tax would close most of Social Security’s funding gap for the next 75 years. Such changes would rely about 60 percent on tax increases and 40 percent on benefit cuts, and would mainly affect the wealthiest Americans by asking them to pay more and get less in return.

Think of this as the pay-for-a-steak-and-get-a-hamburger plan. Social Security already is a bad deal for workers, forcing them to pay a lot of money in exchange for relatively meager retirement benefits. The folks at Bloomberg want to double down on that approach and make a bad system even worse.

And they want higher payroll taxes on investors, entrepreneurs, small business owners, and other “rich” people. Apparently, some people think it is a good idea to copy European fiscal policy at the exact moment that Europe’s welfare states are collapsing.

Not surprisingly, the editors at Bloomberg reject personal retirement accounts. I am 100 percent confident that they personally benefit from IRAs and 401(k)s, but I guess peasants like us are unworthy.

We don’t think private accounts should be among them. If workers divert some of their payroll taxes to an investment account, that would decrease the flow of money into Social Security and deprive retirees of benefits of equal value. Bad investment choices, or bear markets that lower returns on stocks and bonds, could add to their woes. In other words, private accounts would only make matters worse.

This is remarkable. They actually think that personal retirement accounts are more risky that the empty promises of politicians – even though the system has close to $30 trillion of unfunded promises (in inflation-adjusted dollars!), and even though we see in Europe that very bad things happen when the welfare state collapses.

This video explains why personal retirement accounts are a good idea, including an explanation of how we could transition to a new account and a discussion of how 30 nations already have adopted this pro-growth reform.

So here’s the choice we face. The Bloomberg editors want higher taxes and bigger government – an approach that dooms American to European-style stagnation (and that’s the optimistic scenario). Or we can go with personal retirement accounts – an approach that is working all over the world, while simultaneously boosting growth and creating more retirement security.

Seems like the right choice is rather obvious.

By the way, I can’t resist one last dig at the Bloomberg crowd. Their editorial is titled “Social Security Is No Ponzi Scheme,” yet nowhere in the column do they justify this absurd assertion. At least they should be honest and admit the current system is a pay-as-you-go racket that relies on taxes paid by young workers to finance benefits for old retirees.

And I also can’t resist linking to this cartoon, which makes the obvious connection between Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme and the one the government imposes on us.

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I was excited when I saw that Professor Martin Feldstein of Harvard University had a column in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal entitled, “Private Accounts Can Save Social Security.” This is great, I thought, another person advocating the kind of pro-growth, pro-freedom reform which has taken hold in about 30 nations all over the world.

Imagine my disappointment, then, when I read the column and discovered that Feldstein had unfurled the white flag. Instead of genuine reform, which would allow workers to shift their payroll taxes into personal retirement accounts, he wants everyone to remain trapped in the current system and then require individuals to pay extra into some sort of retirement account.

Social Security taxes are not to be invested in the stock market… Here’s how such a system might work. Each individual would designate a broad-based mutual fund from a large list of funds approved by the government. The designation could be done on the individual’s annual tax return and could be changed once a year. Employers and the self-employed would send an additional few percent of wages to the Social Security Administration each month in addition to the current payroll tax. The Social Security Administration would then forward those dollars to the mutual fund chosen by the individual. …The automatic extra payroll deduction could start with a less disruptive 1% or 2% and grow as high as 5%. Since every individual would have the option of requesting a refund of that payroll deduction on the following year’s income-tax form, the extra saving is strictly voluntary.

The only good news is that Feldstein would allow workers to recapture the money they are forced to put in these new accounts, so technically this is not an Obamacare-style mandate. Or, perhaps the right description is that it is a mandate, but with an escape hatch.

The right approach is to let workers shift their payroll taxes into a personal account. This video describes why this type of reform is the right approach.

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People periodically ask me why I’m so down on David Cameron, the Prime Minster of the United Kingdom. I’ve already pointed out that his pre-election agenda was big government. And I’ve pointed out that his post-election record is more spending.

(and you can read more of my whining and complaining here, here, here, here, and here)

But now I’m really disgusted, because the United Kingdom’s version of  George W. Bush is now reversing one of the few pro-market aspects of British policy.

The Wall Street Journal Europe is appropriately disappointed.

On Tuesday Iain Duncan Smith announced a sweeping reform of the U.K.’s state-pension system. In the name of simplification, the Work and Pensions Secretary plans to raise the basic pension, eliminate the current multitiered system—and pay for it all by rolling back the personal retirement accounts that were first introduced by the Thatcher Government in 1987. Pension systems across the developed world are being stretched to the breaking point as populations gray and governments face ballooning public debts. Britain today is in the privileged position of possessing on top of its public savings system an extensive private one, relatively insulated from the government’s increasingly uncertain ability to deliver on its pension liabilities. Pity, then, that Mr. Duncan Smith’s reforms serve in the long run mostly to entrench the unsustainable elements of the British system and trash the desirable ones.

Addendum: Jose Pinera reminds me that George W. Bush actually proposed personal retirement accounts in 2005, one of the few positive actions of his eight-year reign. So Cameron’s actions may put him even further to the left than Bush on economic policy, a rather challenging achievement.

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