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Posts Tagged ‘Unfunded Liabilities’

As a supporter of genuine capitalism, which means the right of contract and the absence of coercion, I don’t think there should be any policies that help or hinder unions.

The government should simply be a neutral referee that enforces contracts and upholds the rule of law.

Similarly, I also don’t have any philosophical objection to employers and employees agreeing to “defined benefit” pension plans, which basically promise workers a pre-determined amount of money after they retire based on factors such as average pay and years in the workforce.

After all, my money and property aren’t involved, so it’s not my business.

That being said, these so-called “DB plans” have a bad habit of going bankrupt. And that means the rest of us may get stuck with the bill if there’s a taxpayer bailout.

I discuss these issues in an interview with Fox Business News.

My main point is that there’s a deep hole in many of these plans, so someone is going to feel some pain.

I don’t want taxpayers to be hit, and I also don’t think well-managed pensions should be gouged with ever-rising premiums simply because other plans are faltering.

But I bet both will suffer, as will workers and retirees in the under-funded plans.

As part of the interview, I also warned that other “DB plans” are ticking time bombs. More specifically, most pensions for state and local bureaucrats involve (overly generous) pre-determined commitments and very rarely have governments set aside the amount of money needed to fund those promises.

And the biggest DB time bomb is Social Security, which has an unfunded cash-flow liability of more than $30 trillion. That’s a lot of money even by Washington standards.

But I closed with a bit of good news.

As workers and employers have learned that DB plans tend to be unstable and unsustainable, there has been a marked shift toward “defined contribution” plans such as IRAs and 401(k)s.

These plans are the private property of workers, so there’s no risk that the money will be stolen or squandered.

But even this good news comes with a caveat. We closed the interview by fretting about the possibility that governments will steal (or at least over-tax) these private pension assets at some point in the future.

That’s already happened in Argentina and Poland, so I’m not just being a paranoid libertarian.

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One of the challenges of good entitlement reform (or even bad entitlement reform) is that recipients think they’ve “earned” benefits.

If you tell them that programs such as Medicare are unsustainable and need to be changed, some of them suspect you’re trying to somehow cheat them. After all, they were forced to cough up payroll taxes during their working year.

That’s true, but the real issue is how much did they pay in tax and how much are they getting back.

Here’s a very sobering chart from the recently released Long-Term Fiscal Outlook from the Congressional Budget Office.

It shows that people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s paid, on average, between $45,000-$65,000 of taxes into Medicare. That’s a big chunk of money, but it’s far less than the $160,000-$270,000 that Medicare will spend on them.

Medicare individual tax spending

I’m tempted to say that current retirees and older workers are being charged for a hamburger but they’re getting a steak.

But that’s not accurate. As most recipients will tell you, Medicare leaves a lot to be desired, which is what you might expect with a government-run system.

So the right way to look at the program is that recipients are being charged for a hamburger, they’re getting a hamburger, but taxpayers (the ones who make up the funding gap) are being charged for a steak.

Which is why structural reform is the only good way of dealing with the program’s giant unfunded liability. As explained in this video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

As discussed in the video, the reform (which has been part of the Ryan budget that’s been approved by the House) basically leaves the program as is for current retirees and older workers, but younger workers are allowed to move to a new system that gives them – upon retirement – the ability to choose their preferred health policy.

P.S. Don’t forget that we also need to reform Medicaid and Social Security, the other two big entitlement programs.

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Everyone has a cross to bear in life, some sort of burden or obligation, often self-imposed.

For some inexplicable reason, I’ve decided that one of my responsibilities is to educate a backwards and primitive people who seem impervious to common sense, simple logic, and strong principles.

As you’ve probably guessed already, I’m talking about Republicans.

I’ve already identified them at the Stupid Party, but they seem especially ill-informed and clueless on the topic of government borrowing.

I’ve specifically warned that they are economically (and politically) misguided when they focus on deficits and debt as America’s main fiscal problem.

I even created a “Bob Dole Award” in hopes of getting this point across. Simply stated, fixating on debt opens the door for higher taxes.

And does anyone think our economy would be stronger, or our fiscal position would be better, if we replaced some debt-financed spending with some spending financed by class-warfare taxes?

Especially since the higher taxes almost certainly would trigger more spending, so government borrowing would stay the same and the only thing that would change is that we’d be saddled with even more waste.

Notwithstanding all my educational efforts, Republicans couldn’t resist jumping up and down and making loud noises earlier this week when the national debt hit the $16 trillion mark earlier this week (a google search for “$16 trillion debt” returned more than 24 million hits).

So let’s walk through (again) why this is misguided.

First, let’s clear up some numbers that cause confusion. Republicans are complaining about something called the “gross federal debt.” This number is largely meaningless (see table 7.1 of the OMB Historical Tables if you want to look at the details).

It is the combination of a somewhat meaningful number of more than $11 trillion known as “debt held by the public,” which is a measure of how much the federal government has borrowed over time from the private sector, and a totally irrelevant number  of about $4.5 trillion known as “debt held by federal government accounts.”

The latter number is simply a total of the IOUs that the government issues to itself, most notably the ones at the Social Security Trust Fund. But the “assets” in the Trust Fund at the Social Security Administration are offset by the “liabilities” at the Treasury Department. This is an empty bookkeeping gimmick, just as if you took a dollar out of your right pocket, put it in your left pocket, and left an IOU in exchange.

That being said, it is important to recognize that politicians have imposed poorly designed entitlement programs, and future spending on these programs will skyrocket far beyond current revenues. That growing gap, which is explained in this short video, is sometimes known as “unfunded liabilities.”

This number depends on a whole range of assumptions and can be measured in current dollars, constant dollars, and present value. I prefer the middle approach, which adjusts for inflation, and it’s worth noting that “unfunded liabilities” for Social Security and Medicare are more than $100 trillion.

That’s a number we should worry about, not the make-believe $4.5 trillion of IOUs that comprise part of the “gross national debt.”

Now let’s get to the most important issue. The reason we should worry about that $100 trillion number is that it is an estimate of how much the burden of spending will climb in the future. That additional spending will weaken the economy whether it is financed by borrowing or taxes.

Sort of helps to explain why entitlement reform is completely necessary if we want to keep America from a Greek-style fiscal collapse at some point in the future.

Here’s my video on the topic. In an ideal world, Republicans would not be allowed to talk about fiscal policy until they were first strapped in chairs, given a bunch of ADD medicine, and forced to watch this on automatic replay about 50 times.

Now for the all-important caveats. Yes, a nation can reach a point where debt becomes a problem. All you have to do is look at the mess in Europe to understand that point.

And I’ve shared numbers from both the Bank for International Settlements and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to indicate that almost all nations – including the U.S. – are going to face similar problems if government policy is left on autopilot.

What I want people to realize, though, is that governments only get into that kind of mess because there’s too much spending.

Government spending is the disease. The various ways of financing that spending – taxes, borrowing, and printing money – are symptoms of the underlying disease.

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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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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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It certainly is true that a rising stock market, over a long period of time, is a good thing.

But does that mean it is always a good development if the stock market has a big jump in one day? Or is it unambiguously bad news if there’s a significant one-day drop in financial markets?

I’ve been pondering this issue because recent stock market gyrations have triggered predictable finger pointing by politicians and pundits. Indeed, the past few days have been somewhat similar to the blame game that took place during the TARP bailout fight. Republicans and Democrats often have the same message: Any upward blip in markets is because “my side” did something good and any fall is because “your side” did something bad.

But so what? I certainly don’t pretend to be anything other than a policy wonk, so maybe people with real experience in financial markets can tell me that I’m way off base, but here are a couple of reasons why a short-term jump in the stock market might be a sign of bad news.

1. What if the Federal Reserve suddenly reveals that it intends to pursue an aggressive, easy-money policy? One likely result of such an announcement is that investors will pull money out of bonds, because of an expectation in the short run of lower interest rates (and therefore lower returns), and put that money into stocks.

Would that rising stock market be a sign of good economic policy, or would it just be a result of portfolio shifting, probably followed by weaker economic performance?

2. What if the Treasury Department announces that it will pay every underwater mortgage in the country. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was followed by a big jump in the stock market, led by financial companies such as banks.

Would that jump in stocks be a sign of good economic policy, or would it simply measure the value of a one-time wealth transfer from taxpayers to bank shareholders, probably followed by weaker economic performance?

My gut instinct is that these are examples of bad economic policies leading to short-term jumps in stocks. And this is why I try to avoid predicting markets when being interviewed.

But, if nothing else, I try to unleash a good one-liner during every interview. Here are two recent appearances, where I mention the “Sword of Damocles of big government” and “another Keynesian who’s been rattling around the revolving door of Washington and Wall Street.”

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I cover a wide range of issues in this interview for Bloomberg Asia. My main theme, not surprisingly, is that government is too big.

And I specifically warn about the looming explosion of entitlement spending as the baby boom generation retires.

 

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Under current law, Social Security is supposed to be an “earned benefit,” where taxes are akin to insurance premiums that finance retirement benefits for workers. And because there is a cap on retirement benefits, this means there also is a “wage-base cap” on the amount of income that is hit by the payroll tax.

For 2011, the maximum annual retirement benefit is about $28,400 and the maximum amount of income subject to the payroll tax is about $107,000.

It appears that President Obama wants to radically change this system so that it is based on a class-warfare model. During the 2008 campaign, for instance, then-Senator Obama suggested that the programs giant long-run deficit could be addressed by busting the wage-base cap and imposing the payroll tax on a larger amount of income.

For the past two years, the White House (thankfully) has not followed through on this campaign rhetoric, but that’s now changing. His Fiscal Commission, as I noted last year, suggested a big hike in the payroll tax burden. And the President reiterated his support for a class-warfare approach earlier this week, leading the Wall Street Journal to opine.

Speaking Tuesday in Annandale, Virginia, Mr. Obama came out for lifting the cap on income on which the Social Security payroll tax is applied. Currently, the employer and employee each pay 6.2% up to $106,800, a level that rises with inflation each year. …Mr. Obama didn’t hint at specifics, though he did run in 2008 on a plan to raise the “tax max” by somewhere between two to eight percentage points for the top 3% of earners. …most of the increase could be paid by the middle class or modestly affluent—i.e., those who merely make somewhat more than $106,800. A 6.2% additional hit on every extra dollar they make above that level is a huge reduction from their take-home pay. If the cap is removed entirely, it will also mean a huge increase in the marginal tax rates that affect decisions to work, invest and save. In a recent paper for the American Enterprise Institute, Andrew Biggs calculates that this and other tax increases Mr. Obama favors would bring the top marginal rate to somewhere between 57% and 68% when factoring in state taxes. Tax levels like these haven’t been seen since the 1970s.

Obama is cleverly avoiding specifics, largely because the potential tax hike could be enormous. The excerpt above actually understates the potential damage since it mostly focuses on the “employee” side of the payroll tax. The “employer” share of the tax (which everyone agrees is paid for by workers in the form of reduced take-home wages) is also 6.2 percent, so the increase in marginal tax rates for affected workers could be as high as 12.4 percentage points.

This video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, narrated by yours truly, elaborates on why this is the wrong approach.

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One of my presentations at CPAC addressed America’s long-term entitlement crisis. I was part of a panel organized by the National Taxpayers Union, and I discussed how to solve the long-run fiscal problems caused by Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

The lighting and focus leave something to be desired, but hopefully my message is crisp and clear.

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There are two crises facing Social Security. First the program has a gigantic unfunded liability, largely caused by demographics. Second, the program is a very bad deal for younger workers, making them pay record amounts of tax in exchange for comparatively meager benefits. This video explains how personal accounts can solve both problems, and also notes that nations as varied as Australia, Chile, Sweden, and Hong Kong have implemented this pro-growth reform.

Social Security reform received a good bit of attention in the past two decades. President Clinton openly flirted with the idea, and President Bush explicitly endorsed the concept. But it has faded from the public square in recent years. But this may be about to change. Personal accounts are part of Congressman Paul Ryan’s Roadmap proposal, and recent polls show continued strong support for letting younger workers shift some of their payroll taxes to individual accounts.

Equally important, the American people understand that Social Security’s finances are unsustainable. They may not know specific numbers, but they know politicians have created a house of cards, which is why jokes about the system are so easily understandable.

President Obama thinks the answer is higher taxes, which is hardly a surprise. But making people pay more is hardly an attractive option, unless you’re the type of person who thinks it’s okay to give people a hamburger and charge them for a steak.

Other nations have figured out the right approach. Australia began to implement personal accounts back in the mid-1980s, and the results have been remarkable. The government’s finances are stronger. National saving has increased. But most important, people now can look forward to a safer and more secure retirement. Another great example is Chile, which set up personal accounts in the early 1980s. This interview with Jose Pinera, who designed the Chilean system, is a great summary of why personal accounts are necessary. All told, about 30 nations around the world have set up some form of personal accounts. Even  Sweden, which the left usually wants to mimic,  has partially privatized its Social Security system.

It also should be noted that personal accounts would be good for growth and competitiveness. Reforming a tax-and-transfer entitlement scheme into a system of private savings will boost jobs by lowering the marginal tax rate on work. Personal accounts also will boost private savings. And Social Security reform will reduce the long-run burden of government spending, something that is desperately needed if we want to avoid the kind of fiscal crisis that is afflicting European welfare states such as Greece.

Last but not least, it is important to understand that personal retirement accounts are not a free lunch. Social Security is a pay-as-you-go system, so if we let younger workers shift their payroll taxes to individual accounts, that means the money won’t be there to pay benefits to current retirees. Fulfilling the government’s promise to those retirees, as well as to older workers who wouldn’t have time to benefit from the new system, will require a lot of money over the next couple of decades, probably more than $5 trillion.

That’s a shocking number, but it’s important to remember that it would be even more expensive to bail out the current system. As I explain at the conclusion of the video, we’re in a deep hole, but it will be easier to climb out if we implement real reform.

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I’m just making up the 1.94 percent number, but the International Herald Tribune reported last year that unfunded liabilities in France are nearly 550 percent of GDP. The news reports don’t include any estimates of what Sarkozy’s reform will mean, but I would be surprised if it had a big impact on France’s long-run fiscal nightmare. But, as the old saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a first step, and Sarkozy has pushed through the reforms notwithstanding protests and riots from left-wing unions and brain-dead students (who don’t seem to realize that they’ll pay even higher taxes if entitlements aren’t reformed).

Under pressure from the government, the French Senate voted Friday to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62, a victory for President Nicolas Sarkozy after days of street rage, acrimonious debate and strikes that dried up the supply of gasoline across the country. The vote all but sealed passage of the highly unpopular measure, but it was unlikely to end the increasingly radicalized protests. The coming days promised more work stoppages and demonstrations by those who feel changing the retirement age threatens a French birthright. …Leftist critics called the move a denial of democracy by an increasingly confrontational president. “No, you haven’t finished with retirement. You haven’t finished with the French,” said Socialist Sen. Jean-Pierre Bel, alluding to an apparently unflagging determination by unions, now joined by students, to keep protests alive — even through the upcoming week of school holidays.

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The Economist has a fascinating webpage that allows you to look at all the world’s nations and compare them based on various measures of government debt (and for various years).

The most economically relevant measure is public debt as a share of GDP, and you can see that the United States is not in great shape, though many nations have more accumulated red ink (especially Japan, where debt if much higher than it is in Greece).  As faithful readers of this blog already understand, the real issue is the size of government, but this site is a good indicator of nations that finance their spending in a risky fashion.

By the way, keep in mind that these figures do not include unfunded liabilities. For those who worry about debt, those are the truly shocking numbers (at least for the United States and other nations with government-run pension and health schemes).

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