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Posts Tagged ‘Social Security Reform’

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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The Social Security Board just released its Trustee’s Report, and it’s generated the usual hand wringing about the program’s long-term demise – much of which is perfectly appropriate for reasons I’ve already discussed.

But I’m usually unhappy about the press treatment of this issue.

Here’s some of what Stephen Ohlemacher and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar wrote for the Associated Press.

Social Security is rushing even faster toward insolvency, driven by retiring baby boomers, a weak economy and politicians’ reluctance to take painful action to fix the huge retirement and disability program. The trust funds that support Social Security will run dry in 2033 – three years earlier than previously projected – the government said Monday. …Unless Congress acts – and forcefully – payments to millions of Americans could be cut. …Potential options to reduce Social Security costs include raising the full retirement age, which already is being gradually increased to 67, reducing annual benefit increases and limiting benefits for wealthier Americans. Policymakers could also increase the amount of wages that are subject to Social Security taxes. Social Security is financed by a 6.2 percent tax on the first $110,100 in workers’ wages. It is paid by both employers and workers.

There are two flaws with what’s written in this story. One is a sin of commission, failing to expose the government’s dishonest accounting. The other is a sin of omission, analyzing the issue solely through the lens of government finances.

1. The sin of commission is that the story assumes the Social Security Trust Fund is real, when it is nothing but a collection of IOUs. When extra Social Security taxes are collected, the Treasury keeps those monies and spends them on other programs. In exchange, it engages in a bookkeeping exercise and credits the Social Security Trust Fund with some government bonds.

When one part of the government owes another part of the government some money, it is a wash. There’s no pile of assets to finance benefits. Those bonds simply represent a claim on future taxpayers.

This is why politicians can play dishonest games, such as approving a payroll tax holiday and declaring – by waving a magic wand – that this won’t affect the amount of IOUs in the Trust Fund. Just in case you think I’m joking, the AP story notes that “Congress temporarily reduced the tax on workers to 4.2 percent for 2011 and 2012, though the program’s finances are being made whole through increased government borrowing.”

Needless to say, that’s phoniness on top of phoniness. I guess the next step is for politicians to enact legislation adding several zeroes to all the existing IOUs. They can then declare that Social Security is solvent. Problem solved…other than the itsy-bitsy problem that there’s still no money.

2. The sin of omission in the story is that it focuses on the government’s finances and overlooks the implications for households. It is possible, at least on paper, to “save” Social Security by cutting benefits and raising taxes. But such “reforms” force people to pay more and get less – even though Social Security already is a very bad deal, particularly for younger workers.

My video on Social Security reform explains that personal retirement accounts are the only way to simultaneously deal with government finances and household finances in a constructive fashion.

Sadly, neither Obama nor Romney seem interested in this type of pro-growth reform.

By the way, I don’t mean to pick on the Associated Press. The report excerpted above simply happened to be the first one I read. You ‘ll find the same myopic analysis in the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg, to cite just two of many examples.

In closing, Social Security reform is actually the least important of the entitlement reforms. The long-term fiscal problems caused by Medicare and Medicaid are much larger. This three-part video series looks at the reforms that could address all three programs.

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Most people have a vague understanding that America has a huge long-run fiscal problem.

They’re right, though they probably don’t realize the seriousness of that looming crisis.

Here’s what you need to know: America’s fiscal crisis is actually a spending crisis, and that spending crisis is driven by entitlements.

More specifically, the vast majority of the problem is the result of Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security, programs that are poorly designed and unsustainable.

America needs to fix these programs…or eventually become another Greece.

Fortunately, all of the problems can be solved, as these three videos demonstrate.

The first video explains how to fix Medicaid.

The second video shows how to fix Medicare.

And the final video shows how to fix Social Security.

Regular readers know I’m fairly gloomy about the future of liberty, but this is one area where there is a glimmer of hope.

The Chairman of the House Budget Committee actually put together a plan that addresses the two biggest problems (Medicare and Medicaid) and the House of Representatives actually adopted the proposal.

The Senate didn’t act, of course, and Obama would veto any good legislation anyhow, so I don’t want to be crazy optimistic. Depending on how things play out politically in the next six years, I’ll say there’s actually a 20 percent chance to save America.

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Welcome Instapundit readers. Notwithstanding my next-to-last paragraph full of caveats, some people are saying I’m too soft on the Aussies. This previous post should disabuse people of that notion.

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The Economist magazine has a couple of good articles about Australia’s increasingly enviable economic status. Here’s a blurb from the first article, which outlines the pro-market reforms that enabled today’s prosperity.

Only a dozen economies are bigger, and only six nations are richer—of which Switzerland alone has even a third as many people. Australia is rich, tranquil and mostly overlooked, yet it has a story to tell. Its current prosperity was far from inevitable. Twenty-five years ago Paul Keating, the country’s treasurer (finance minister), declared that if Australia failed to reform it would become a banana republic. Barely five years later, after a nasty recession, the country began a period of uninterrupted economic expansion matched by no other rich country. It continues to this day. This special report will explain how this has come about and ask whether it can last. …With the popular, politically astute Mr Hawke presiding, and the coruscating, aggressive Mr Keating doing most of the pushing, this Labor government floated the Australian dollar, deregulated the financial system, abolished import quotas and cut tariffs. The reforms were continued by Mr Keating when he took over as prime minister in 1991, and then by the Liberal-led (which in Australia means conservative-led) coalition government of John Howard and his treasurer, Peter Costello, after 1996. …By 2003 the effective rate of protection in manufacturing had fallen from about 35% in the 1970s to 5%. Foreign banks had been allowed to compete. Airlines, shipping and telecoms had been deregulated. The labour market had been largely freed, with centralised wage-fixing replaced by enterprise bargaining. State-owned firms had been privatised. …the double taxation of dividends ended. Corporate and income taxes had both been cut.

This chart (click for a larger image), from Economic Freedom of the World, presents a more rigorous look at this period. It shows how Australia’s economic freedom ranking had dropped to as low at 19 (out of 72 nations measured) and now is up to 8 (out of 114 nations measured). This is akin to moving from the 74th percentile to the 94th percentile.

There is also an accompanying article about Australia’s private Social Security system. Called superannuation, these personal accounts have generated tremendous results.

…most Australian workers, over 8m in total, now have a private nest-egg for their old age. No tax is paid when members withdraw from their fund; they can take all they want as a lump sum, subject to a limit, or buy an annuity. Aussies are now a nation of capitalists. At the same time the state pension system, and therefore the taxpayer, is being progressively relieved of most of the burden of retirement provision, since eligibility for the state pension depends on both assets and income. As supers take over, the provision for old folks’ incomes will be almost entirely based on defined contributions, not defined benefits. So Australia is in the happy position of not having to worry too much about the pension implications of an ageing population… The supers…have created a pool of capital in Australia that might not otherwise have existed. Collectively worth about $1.3 trillion—much the same as GDP—they have made Australia the world’s fourth-largest market for pension savings.

Australia is not exactly Hong Kong. Marginal tax rates are still far too high. The burden of government spending is lower than in the United States, but is still far too onerous. Nonetheless, the Aussies have made impressive strides in reducing the overall size, scope, and level of government interference and intervention. And this has translated into much better economic performance.

This video uses the Economic Freedom of the World index to explain why comprehensive free market reforms (like Australia) generate the best results.

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I am pleasantly shocked to see that a healthy majority of respondents favor partial privatization of Social Security. I knew support was reasonably strong several years ago, but I feared that the financial crisis would have made Americans more leery of financial markets. I also wondered whether the idea was discredited by its association with the Bush Administration. But a new Pew survey shows very good results, so maybe Republicans will feel more comfortable about developing a “secret plan” for Social Security reform.

…a majority favors a proposal to allow some private investments in Social Security… The latest Pew Research/National Journal Congressional Connection poll, sponsored by SHRM, conducted Sept. 9-12 among 1,001 adults, finds that 58% favor a proposal that would allow workers younger than age 55 to invest a portion of their Social Security taxes in personal retirement accounts that would rise and fall with the markets; 28% oppose this proposal. Majorities across all age groups — except for those ages 65 and older — favor this proposal. …Support for the general concept is comparable to support for a similar plan advocated by former President George W. Bush in 2004. As he sought reelection in the fall of 2004, 58% of registered voters that September favored allowing younger workers to invest a portion of their Social Security; 26% said they opposed this change. However, after Bush won reelection and debate about the proposal began, support weakened. By March 2005, the public was largely split (44% favor, 40% oppose) and the proposal was not enacted.

P.S. The same poll shows that people are not sympathetic, however, to reforming Medicare, however, so the Social Security silver cloud does have a dark lining.

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Unlike the United States and most European nations, Chile does not face a long-term Social Security crisis. This is because lawmakers shifted to a system of personal accounts almost 30 years ago. As a result, Chile’s economy is much stronger, the financial system is healthy, workers are better off, and taxpayers are protected. It also turns out that a system of personal accounts has a positive impact on the labor supply of older workers. Instead of getting lured into retirement by a punitive tax-and-transfer government system, they remain active to reap the rewards of a system that rewards them (rather than tax collectors) for continued work. A former World Bank expert has the details in a new report from the National Center for Policy Analysis.
American workers live longer each decade but they continue to retire early. They often begin receiving Social Security benefits, quit working and stop contributing to national output well before age 65. Reversing these trends must be an important objective when designing long-term reforms to balance revenues and expenditures on elderly entitlements. Chile faced similar problems prior to 1981. It had a traditional pay-as-you-go defined benefit system, like Social Security in the United States. Workers had strong incentives to start their retirement benefits as soon as possible, because postponing pensions and adding contributions did not increase benefits commensurately. Labor force participation dropped dramatically when workers became eligible for pensions. This changed with reforms in 1981 that replaced the defined benefit system with a defined contribution system. All new workers were required to join the defined contribution system while existing workers had a choice. Most workers are now in the new system and are required to contribute 10 percent of their wages to an individual account. Contributions are invested in a pension fund chosen by the worker and accumulate a market rate of return. Payouts take the form of inflation-protected annuities or gradual withdrawals during retirement. The new system increased incentives for older workers to postpone retirement and continue working. The response was dramatic….Following the 1981 policy changes and reforms, and after controlling for other sources of change in retirement behavior, the percentage of individuals receiving early benefits fell significantly: The proportion who received benefits before age 65 decreased by about 8 percentage points. The proportion of individuals who started receiving retirement benefits by their early 60s fell by about a quarter. The proportion who started receiving benefits by their 50s was cut in half. Postponing the commencement of benefits could be due to market returns on additional contributions, which made workers more willing to continue working in order to save more money for retirement. Or it could be due to tighter preconditions on early retirement, which required more individuals to continue working until age 65. Tighter preconditions seem to dominate, as the percentage of individuals who receive benefits after 65 has not changed. More older workers kept working following the reform, after controlling for other factors: Labor force participation rates for individuals in their 50s rose 12 percentage points. Labor force rates rose 13 percentage points for those aged 65-70. Individuals aged 60-64 increased their labor force participation the most – by 19 percentage points. The biggest change in labor force participation was for individuals who had started receiving benefits from their retirement accounts: Participation rates rose by 15 percentage points for pension recipients in their late 60s. Rates rose by 28 percentage points for those in their 50s and early 60s. Among all pension recipients under age 70, the proportion who continued working more than doubled.

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