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Archive for the ‘Economics’ Category

When I write about columns in the New York Times, I’m normally pointing out silly examples of bias or exposing absurd mistakes (with Paul Krugman deserving his own special category for sloppiness, as seen here, here, here, here, here, herehere, here, here, here, here, and here).

But every so often, there’s an insightful piece that is worth sharing rather than worth mocking. And that’s the case with a column by Claire Cain Miller on the unintended negative consequences of policies that ostensibly are supposed to help women but actually hurt them.

In Chile, a law requires employers to provide working mothers with child care. One result? Women are paid less. In Spain, a policy to give parents of young children the right to work part-time has led to a decline in full-time, stable jobs available to all women — even those who are not mothers. Elsewhere in Europe, generous maternity leaves have meant that women are much less likely than men to become managers or achieve other high-powered positions at work.

Why all these bad results, which seemingly are contrary to the intentions of lawmakers?

…these policies often have unintended consequences. They can end up discouraging employers from hiring women in the first place, because they fear women will leave for long periods or use expensive benefits.

Amen. You don’t make workers more attractive to employers with laws and regulations that increase the real and/or potential costs of employing those workers.

The column cites some research on the impact of the Family and Medical Leave Act in the United States. As well as the harmful effect of similar laws in other nations.

Women are 5 percent more likely to remain employed but 8 percent less likely to get promotions than they were before it became law, according to an unpublished new study by Mallika Thomas, who will be an assistant professor of economics at Cornell University. …These findings are consistent with previous research by Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn, economists at Cornell. In a study of 22 countries, they found that generous family-friendly policies like long maternity leaves and part-time work protections in Europe made it possible for more women to work — but that they were more likely to be in dead-end jobs and less likely to be managers.

The bottom line is that government intervention is not a recipe for helping people, especially once you factor in the effect of unintended consequences.

Speaking of which, I made the same argument when looking at a government proposal to help those struggling with long-run unemployment.

All of which tells us that you must have asked a very silly question if the answer is more government.

P.S. My favorite articles and columns from the New York Times are the ones that accidentally show the superiority of small government and free markets.

P.P.S. Since I wrote the other day about the wisdom of allowing successful foreigners to emigrate to the United States, here’s a related graphic.

Maybe I’m missing something, but doesn’t this suggest we should welcome more Indians to America?

After all, the economy isn’t a fixed pie and sensible folks understand that the rest of us benefit when there are more rich and successful people.

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What’s the most effective way of screwing up a sector of the economy? Since I’m a fiscal policy economist, I’m tempted to say that bad tax policy is the fastest way of causing damage. And France might be my top example.

But other forms of government intervention also can have a poisonous effect. Regulation, for instance, imposes an enormous burden on our economy.

Today, though, we’re going to look at how subsidies can result in costly distortions. More specifically, using examples from the health sector and higher-ed sectors, we’re going to see how “third-party payer” is a very expensive form of intervention.

We’ll start with the example from the healthcare sector. Writing for the Institute for Policy Innovation, Merrill Matthews has a must-read article about an unintended consequences of Obamacare.

He starts with a very sensible point about the effect of third-party payer.

Health care actuaries will tell you that when people have to spend more out of pocket for health care, they tend to spend less. And when a third party—employers, health insurers or the government—insulates consumers from the cost of care they tend to spend more. Just imagine how much more people would spend on cars if they could have any car they wanted for a $20 copay.

The car-buying example is great. I’ve previously tried to make the same point about third-party payer by using the examples of home insurance and car insurance, but I may have to steal Merrill’s argument since it’s so intuitively effective.

But that’s a digression. Merrill has a far more important point about what’s actually happening today in the health care sector.

…out-of-pocket spending on health care has declined for decades—until the Affordable Care Act kicked in. In 1961, Americans forked over 43 cents out of their own pocket for every dollar spent on health care. That out-of-pocket spending steadily declined over the years so that by 2010 consumers were only spending about 12 cents out of pocket.Enter Obamacare in 2010. By 2012 out-of-pocket spending had risen to 14.8 percent of total health care spending, and by 2013 it was up to 15.2 percent, according to the Health Care Cost Institute. With people spending more out of pocket, they will naturally curb their spending. And expect to be spending more out of pocket in the future. That’s in part because so many Americans have had to shift to very high deductible policies in order to afford Obamacare’s very expensive coverage. Thank you, President Obama! …The upshot of these higher deductibles is that people will spend less on health care, and that is helping to slow the growth in health care spending—giving Obama his boasting point. Rising deductibles aren’t the only factor, but they are an important one.

Yet Obama doesn’t really deserve to boast.

But here’s the irony: Obama never intended any of this. He thought Obamacare would reduce out-of-pocket spending. And he and most Democrats have railed against high-deductible policies for years, claiming that greedy health insurers were taking people’s money but didn’t have to pay any claims (because of the high deductibles). And yet under Obamacare deductibles have never been so high. The fact is that moving to higher deductibles, especially when accompanied by a tax-free health care spending account for smaller and routine expenditures, is good policy.

And let’s not forget that Obama’s “Cadillac tax” on employer-provided health insurance also is good policy (though it was implemented the wrong way).

So maybe, as that policy also takes effect, we’ll get even further reductions over time in third-party payer!

Which might cause me adjust my overall assessment of Obamacare. In the past, I’ve said it was awful policy because it expanded the Medicaid entitlement while also mucking up the private insurance market.

All that’s still true, but we’re getting some unintended consequences that are positive. Not only are some states refusing to expand Medicaid, but Merrill’s big point is that the private insurance market is evolving in ways that have some good effects.

So maybe instead of Obamacare shifting us from a 68-percent-government-controlled healthcare system to one where government has 79-percent control, as I speculated back in 2013, maybe we’ll wind up with a system that’s “only” 73-percent dictated by government.

Not a victory, to be sure, but at least we’re going in the wrong direction at a slower pace.

Now let’s shift to the higher-ed sector.

Paul Campos, a law professor at the University of Colorado, writes in The Atlantic about the surging level of subsidies for higher education.

…when considering government support for American higher education as a whole, subsidies for colleges and universities are—even on a per-student basis and despite the enrollment explosion—greater than ever before. In particular, per-capita government subsidies are far higher now than they were 35 years ago, when tuition was drastically lower. …The federal government is currently spending approximately $80 billion per year on subsidies for higher education—a figure that almost exactly matches the combined higher-ed spending of the 50 legislatures. …The Pell grant program has expanded rapidly, more than tripling in size since 2000.  …What’s far less known…is the remarkable extent to which the federal tax code has been amended in ways that benefit colleges and universities. According to the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation’s most recent estimates of federal tax expenditures, the IRS is currently redistributing approximately $45.7 billion annually in tax revenue in ways that directly and indirectly support American higher education. (This represents a 675 percent increase in such spending since 1990.)

Even though I agree with his analysis, I get agitated when tax preferences are referred to as “spending.”

But that’s not particularly relevant today. What matters is that there’s been an unbroken increase in handouts and subsidies for the higher-ed sector over the past few decades.

Here’s a chart from his article.

Now let’s look at the policy implications. Mr. Campos outlines a series of problems in the higher-education sector.

…total per-student government support for higher education has increased. Yet this increase has failed to stop or even slow massive tuition increases at both public and private schools. …many higher-ed institutions have become increasingly bloated and inefficient—even as they’ve relied on a growing population of poorly paid contingent faculty members and on hundreds of billions of dollars of federal student loans, only a small percentage of which are currently being repaid in a timely manner. …roughly half of recent college graduates in the U.S. find themselves either unemployed or seriously underemployed. And many graduates struggle to pay educational debts that, unlike almost all other debts in American society, typically can’t be settled via bankruptcy.

But he doesn’t really connect the dots, other than to point out that it is absurdly dishonest when some people (like Senator Bernie Sanders) want others to believe that we need even more intervention and more handouts to compensate for non-existent budget cuts.

Claiming that skyrocketing tuition has been caused by “cuts” in government subsidies only helps delay American higher education’s inevitable day of fiscal reckoning.

If he did connect the dots, he would have explained that the higher-ed sector is needlessly expensive and pointlessly inefficient because of all the subsidies from government.

He may even agree with that assessment, though he isn’t explicit about the connection. Though Professor Richard Vedder doesn’t hesitate in pointing out that bad government policy deserves the blame.

And if you want to learn more, here’s a great video from Learn Liberty explaining why subsidies have translated into higher tuition.

Last but not least, here’s my two cents on the issue, including my dour prediction that the higher-ed bubble won’t pop until and unless we stop the handouts from government.

Yet another reason why we should dismantle the Department of Education.

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I can understand why immigration reform is so contentious since it touches on all sorts of hot-button issues, such as jobs, politics, national identity, and the welfare state.

But I don’t understand why there’s a controversy just because Governor Walker of Wisconsin supports a specific part of the immigration system that provides easier access for foreigners who are willing to invest money and create jobs in America.

Seems like a win-win situation, but check out these excerpts from a report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

We’ll start with a description of the program.

Congress created the EB-5 program in 1990… Under the Citizenship and Immigration Services’ Immigrant Investor Program, foreigners can obtain these visas by investing $500,000 in high unemployment areas — or $1 million elsewhere — in projects generating or saving 10 jobs over two years. According to The New York Times, the federal government puts the green card applications from these foreign investors on the fast track. In general, it takes about two years to obtain legal residency through the program; other visa programs take much longer.

Not let’s get to the controversy over Governor Walker’s support.

…there’s one federal visa program you won’t hear him attack. It’s the controversial and deeply troubled immigrant investor program. The program — known as EB-5 — puts wealthy foreigners on the path to U.S. citizenship if they invest at least $500,000 in an American commercial project that will create or preserve 10 jobs. Critics have called the abuse-riddled program a “scam” that essentially sells green cards to the affluent and their families, with more than 80% of those in the program coming from China. …David North, a fellow with the conservative Center for Immigration Studies, said…the program is flawed in its premise. “I think it’s immoral, fattening and otherwise unattractive to sell visas, which is what we’re doing now,” North said.

By thew way, there are reasons to be unhappy about the EB-5 program, at least in the way it operates.

I’ve already shared examples of how political insiders are manipulating the program for cronyist purposes.

But today let’s look at the concept of whether it’s good to have an “economic citizenship” program.

And we’ll start the very relevant point that any immigration system is going to be arbitrary.

  • A lottery system is arbitrary because you get to come to America because of luck.
  • A family-reunification system is arbitrary because you get to come to America because of your genes.
  • A system based on refugee status is arbitrary because you get to come to America based on geopolitical circumstances.
  • Even an “open borders” system is arbitrary because you don’t get to come to America if you’re a terrorist, criminal, have communicable diseases, etc.

So if a system is going to be based on arbitrary factors, what’s wrong with deciding that one of the criteria is economic benefit to the United States?

Indeed, maybe I’m too myopic because of my background and training, but it seems like economic benefit should be a factor that everyone can support. After all, these won’t be people seeking handouts from the welfare system.

Consider these passages from a recent New York Times story about all the EB-5 money that’s boosting the Empire State’s economy.

Through a federal visa program known as EB-5, foreigners, more than 80 percent of them from China, are investing billions of dollars in hotels, condominiums, office towers and public/private works in the hope it will result in green cards. Twelve-hundred foreigners have poured $600 million into projects at Hudson Yards; 1,154 have invested $577 million in Pacific Park Brooklyn, the development formerly known as Atlantic Yards; and 500 have put $250 million into the Four Seasons hotel and condominium in the financial district. The list of projects involving EB-5 investments also includes the International Gem Tower on West 47th Street and the New York Wheel on Staten Island. …In the last four years, the program’s popularity has surged. In fiscal year 2010, 1,885 visas were issued. But by fiscal year 2013 that figure jumped 354 percent to 8,564, according to government data. Last year, the entire annual allotment of 10,000 visas had been claimed by August — before the end of the fiscal year in October. This year the quota was reached even earlier, on May 1.

As an aside, this program isn’t attractive to those with lots of money because of America’s punitive tax system.

“This program is not for the very rich in China, because the superwealthy do not want to pay U.S. taxes.” Instead, he said, the wealthiest Chinese prefer to have their legal residences in low tax jurisdictions like Hong Kong or Singapore, and then take advantage of 10-year tourist visas to the United States.

While I’m tempted to now explain why we should fix our bad tax system, let’s stick to the topic of immigration and delve further into the issue of whether it’s good to attract economically successful foreigners to America.

Some scholars say the answer is yes, but they think the EB-5 program is inefficient.

Here’s some of what Professor Eric Posner of the University of Chicago Law School wrote for Slate.

The program is a mess. …it’s almost impossible to figure out whether a specific investment generates jobs rather than reshuffles them from one place to another. There have also been examples of outright fraud and political cronyism. Part of the problem is a lack of documentation but the real problem is that the program is misconceived. …the price we charge for citizenship is extraordinarily low. …A shrewd investor will find an investment that pays a couple percentage points below the market rate. If he invests $500,000 in order to obtain, say, a 6 percent return rather than an 8 percent return, then the true price he pays for U.S. citizenship is $10,000 in foregone return.

So what’s the alternative?

Gary Becker, the late University of Chicago economist and Nobel laureate, once proposed that the United States should sell citizenship to foreigners for a flat fee. The EB-5 program approximates Becker’s proposal, albeit in the most inefficient way possible. Becker argued that citizenship is a scarce good just like tomatoes and hula hoops, and is thus subject to the law of supply and demand. America owns visas and should sell them to willing buyers at the market-clearing price. We would attract immigrants who are skilled enough to earn wages that would cover the fee, and we would gain again from the tax on their wages once they began work in this country. These types of immigrants—the ones who could afford the fee—would be least likely to burden the public fisc by needing welfare payments.

The Becker plan, which Posner basically supports, certainly would be simpler than the EB-5 program.

And it presumably eliminates the instances of corrupt cronyism that taint that otherwise good system.

Moreover, many of the nations with economic citizenship programs use this approach.

But here’s the downside. If you sell citizenship directly, the money goes to the government rather than to the productive sector of the economy.

That might be acceptable if it meant that the politicians reduced or eliminated some tax. But I fear the real-world impact would be to simply give the crowd in Washington more money to waste.

So perhaps the real challenge is to figure out some smarter way of operating the EB-5 program so we get even more private investment and job creation while also reducing opportunities for cronyist intervention.

P.S. If you want to enjoy some immigration-themed humor, here’s some involving Peru and Canada.

P.P.S. While I don’t like government getting more money, that shouldn’t be the only factor when grading a policy proposal. I fretted, for instance, that pot legalization in Colorado would be a mixed blessing because it would generate more tax revenue. But thanks to Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, the politicians haven’t been able to spend all the new money, so it’s unambiguously a win-win situation.

P.P.P.S. The Princess of the Levant is in America because of the immigration lottery, so I certainly won’t be complaining too much about arbitrary systems. [correction: The PoTL has informed me that her U.S. residency is the result of her grandfather’s application and not the lottery]

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In my ultimate fantasy world, Washington wouldn’t need any sort of broad-based tax because we succeeded in shrinking the federal government back to the very limited size and scope envisioned by our Founding Fathers.

In my more realistic fantasy world, we might not be able to restore constitutional limits on Washington, but at least we could reform the tax code so that revenues were generated in a less destructive fashion.

That’s why I’m a big advocate of a simple and fair flat tax, which has several desirable features.

The rate is as low as possible, to minimize penalties on productive behavior.

There’s no double taxation, so no more bias against saving and investment.

And there are no distorting loopholes that bribe people into inefficient choices.

But not everyone is on board, The class-warfare crowd will never like a flat tax. And Washington insiders hate tax reform because it undermines their power.

But there are also sensible people who are hesitant to back fundamental reform.

Consider what Reihan Salam just wrote for National Review. He starts with a reasonably fair description of the proposal.

The original flat tax, championed by the economists Robert Hall and Alvin Rabushka, which formed the basis of Steve Forbes’s flat-tax proposal in 1996, is a single-rate tax on consumption, with a substantial exemption to make the tax progressive at the low end of the household-income distribution.

Though if I want to nit-pick, I could point out that the flat tax has effective progressivity across all incomes because the family-based exemption is available to everyone. As such, a poor household pays nothing. A middle-income household might have an effective tax rate of 12 percent. And the tax rate for Bill Gates would be asymptotically approaching 17 percent (or whatever the statutory rate is).

My far greater concerns arise when Reihan delves into economic analysis.

…the Hall-Rabushka tax would be highly regressive, in part because high-income households tend to consume less of their income than lower-income households and because investment income would not be taxed (or rather double-taxed).

This is a very schizophrenic passage since he makes a claim of regressivity even though he acknowledged that the flat tax has effective progressivity just a few sentences earlier.

And since he admits that the flat tax actually does tax income that is saved and invested (but only one time rather than over and over again, as can happen in the current system), it’s puzzling why he says the system is “highly regressive.”

If he simply said the flat tax was far less progressive (i.e., less discriminatory) than the current system, that would have been fine.

Here’s the next passage that rubbed me the wrong way.

…there is some dispute over whether ending the double taxation of savings would yield significant growth dividends. Chris William Sanchirico of Penn Law School takes a skeptical view in a review of the academic research on the subject, in part because cutting capital-income taxation as part of a revenue-neutral reform would require offsetting increases in labor-income taxation, which would dampen long-term economic growth in their own right.

I’m not even sure where to start. First, Reihan seems to dismiss the role of dynamic scoring in enabling low tax rates on labor. Second, he cites just one professor about growth effects and overlooks the overwhelming evidence from other perspectives. And third, he says the flat tax would be revenue neutral, when virtually every plan that’s been proposed combines tax reform with a tax cut.

On a somewhat more positive note, Reihan then suggests that lawmakers instead embrace “universal savings accounts” as an alternative to sweeping tax reform.

Instead of campaigning for a flat tax, GOP candidates ought to consider backing Universal Savings Accounts (USAs)… The main difference between USAs and Roth IRAs is that “withdrawals could be made at any time for any reason,” a change that would make the accounts far more attractive to far more people. …Unlike a wholesale shift to consumption taxation, USAs with a contribution limit are a modest step in the same general direction, which future reformers can build on.

I have no objection to incremental reform to reduce double taxation, and I’ve previously written about the attractiveness of USAs, so it sounds like we’re on the same page. And if you get rid of all double taxation and keep rates about where they are now, you get the Rubio-Lee tax plan, which I’ve also argued is a positive reform.

But then he closes with an endorsement of more redistribution through the tax code.

Republicans should put Earned Income Tax Credit expansion and other measures to improve work incentives for low-income households at the heart of their tax-reform agenda.

I want to improve work incentives, but it’s important to realize that the EIC is “refundable,” which is simply an inside-the-beltway term for spending that is laundered through the tax code. In other words, the government isn’t refunding taxes to people. It’s giving money to people who don’t owe taxes.

As an economist, I definitely think it’s better to pay people to work instead of subsidizing them for not working. But we also need to understand that this additional spending has two negative tax implications.

  1. When politicians spend more money, that either increases pressure for tax increases or it makes tax cuts more difficult to achieve.
  2. The EIC is supposed to boost labor force participation, but the evidence is mixed on this point, and any possible benefit with regards to the number of people working may be offset by reductions in actual hours worked because the phase out of the EIC’s wage subsidy is akin to a steep increase in marginal tax rates on additional labor supply.

In any event, I don’t want the federal government in the business of redistributing income. We’ll get much better results, both for poor people and taxpayers, if state and local government compete and innovate to figure out the best ways of ending dependency.

The rest of Reihan’s column is more focused on political obstacles to the flat tax. Since I’ve expressed pessimism on getting a flat tax in my lifetime, I can’t really argue too strenuously with those points.

In closing, I used “friendly fight” in the title of this post for a reason. I don’t get the sense that Mr. Salam is opposed to good policy. Indeed, I would be very surprised if he preferred the current convoluted system over the flat tax.

But if there was a spectrum with “prudence” and “caution” on one side and “bold” and “aggressive” on the other side, I suspect we wouldn’t be on the same side. And since it’s good for there to be both types of people in any movement, that’s a good thing.

P.S. I got a special treat this morning. I was at Reagan Airport for a flight to Detroit at the same time as a bunch of America’s World War II vets arrived on an Honor Flight to visit the WWII Memorial.

Here’s my rather pathetic attempt to get a photo of one of the vets being greeted.

Since I’ll never be in demand as a photographer, you should watch this video to learn more about this great private initiative to honor World War II veterans.

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There’s an old saying that you shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds you. Unfortunately, politicians in Washington don’t follow that advice.

Let me explain. All economic theories – even Marxism and socialism – agree that capital formation is a necessary condition for long-run growth and higher wages.

The Marxists and the socialists are misguided in thinking that government has the capacity to be in charge of saving and investing, but at least they recognize that you have to set aside some of today’s income to finance tomorrow’s growth. And they even understand that capital formation leads to more productivity and higher wages.

The politicians, however, act as if they don’t understand the importance of saving and investment. Or, based on the policies we get from Washington, maybe they simply don’t care about the well-being of workers, savers, and investors.

Which is a very short-sighted attitude since capital formation leads to a bigger tax base (i.e., more income that they can tax), which is something they presumably should care about!

I’m pondering this conundrum because of a thought-provoking column. Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Thomas Duesterberg and Donald Norman explore the very important question of why corporations are in very strong shape while investment is lagging.

Corporate profits and cash flow are strong, cash on the books of American firms is at record highs… Yet capital investment, which is one of the main pillars of growing productivity and rising living standards, is historically weak. …In 2014, real gross domestic product was 8.7% above the level it reached just before the onset of the great recession in late 2007, …yet gross private investment was just 3.9% higher. Private investment net of depreciation—an even better measure of keeping up production and innovation capacity—was $524 billion in 2013 (the last year for which we have good data), compared with $860 billion in 2006.

Why is this a problem?

For the simple reason that less investment means lower productivity. And lower productivity translates into stagnant wages.

Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that labor productivity grew at an average rate of just 1.5% a year between 2005 and 2014, and by 0.7% a year since 2011. These numbers compare poorly with the average annual growth rates of 3.3% between 1948 and 1973, and 3.2% between 1996 and 2004.

So why has investment been weak?

You shouldn’t be surprised to learn that bad government policy is at the top of the list. Having the world’s highest corporate tax rate obviously doesn’t help.

…one clear factor—noted by many economic analysts—is corporate tax rates, including effective tax rates. These rates can sway decisions about where companies locate new production or research facilities.

Mindless regulation and red tape also puts a costly burden on the economy’s productive sector.

Regulation is also a growing burden. For example, a 2012 study by NERA Economic Consulting notes that the number of major regulations in the manufacturing sector has grown at the compound annual rate of 7.6% since 1998, compared with only 2.2% average annual growth in GDP. …in the World Economic Forum’s annual “Global Competitiveness Report.” …in the category for “burden of government regulation” the latest report ranks the U.S. 82nd of 144.

America also is falling behind in trade.

More than 400 regional free trade agreements have come into effect since 1995, but the United States is party to just two of these and to 10 smaller-scale bilateral agreements. Europe has 38 separate FTAs, and Mexico has added Europe and all of Latin America to its arsenal, which is one reason cited by Audi recently in locating its newest plant there instead of in the U.S.

Last but not least, the overall policy environment in Washington is creating “regime uncertainty.”

A number of studies—including one at Stanford led by Nicholas Bloom and Scott Baker, and at the University of Chicago led by Steven Davis—have employed sophisticated models to chart what is seen as a secular trend in growth of uncertainty that is tied to growth in government regulation, spending, taxes…major shifts in monetary policy probably also contribute to uncertainty.

In other words, investment is lagging both because of the bad policies that have been imposed and because of the expectation/fear that there will be additional burdens coming from Washington.

So we shouldn’t be surprised that corporations are sitting on record piles of cash. Simply stated, it doesn’t make much sense to invest if there’s little hope of future profits.

And don’t be surprised that banks also are sitting on record piles of cash for the same reason.

When I share this kind of information with some of my leftist friends, I frequently get a visceral response about how they won’t shed any tears just because there are fewer profitable opportunities for “fatcat investors” and “rich corporations.”

That reaction doesn’t bother me, at least in the sense that I never lose sleep about the financial health of Warren Buffett or General Electric.

But then I ask my statist friends whether we should be concerned about the “collateral damage” that occurs when lower levels of investment result in less productivity growth, which translates into stagnant wages for ordinary Americans.

Here’s the bottom line. If you punish investors, you also punish workers. This is why, as Walter Williams has explained, the class-warfare mentality is so destructive.

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America has a giant long-run problem largely caused by poorly designed entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

So when I wrote last month about proposals by some Democrats to expand Social Security, I was less than enthusiastic.

…demographic changes and ill-designed programs will combine to dramatically expand the size of the public sector over the next few decades. So it’s really amazing that some politicians, led by the clownish Elizabeth Warren, want to dig the hole deeper. …I’m surprised demagogues such as Elizabeth Warren haven’t rallied behind a plan to simply add a bunch of zeroes to the IOUs already sitting in the so-called Social Security Trust Fund. …If Hillary winds up endorsing Warren’s reckless plan, it will give us another data point for our I-can’t-believe-she-said-that collection.

But it turns out I may have been too nice in my analysis.

As reported by USA Today, independent researchers have discovered that Social Security is even more bankrupt than suggested by official estimates.

New studies from Harvard and Dartmouth researchers find that the SSA’s actuarial forecasts have been consistently overstating the financial health of the program’s trust funds since 2000. “These biases are getting bigger and they are substantial,” said Gary King, co-author of the studies and director of Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science. “[Social Security] is going to be insolvent before everyone thinks.” …Once the trust funds are drained, annual revenues from payroll tax would be projected to cover only three-quarters of scheduled Social Security benefits through 2088.

By the way, I’m not overly enamored with this analysis since it is based on the assumption that the Social Security Trust Fund is real when it’s really nothing but a collection of IOUs.

But if you don’t believe me, perhaps you’ll believe the Clinton Administration, which admitted back in 1999 (see page 337) that the Trust Fund is just a bookkeeping gimmick.

These balances are available to finance future benefit payments and other trust fund expenditures–but only in a bookkeeping sense. …They do not consist of real economic assets that can be drawn down in the future to fund benefits. Instead, they are claims on the Treasury, that, when redeemed, will have to be financed by raising taxes, borrowing from the public, or reducing benefits or other expenditures.

In other words, what really matters is that Social Security spending is climbing too fast and consuming an ever-larger share of economic output.

That means – in the absence of reform – that more and more money will be diverted from the economy’s productive sector, in the form of taxes or borrowing, to finance benefits.

And when I write “more and more money,” that’s not a throwaway statement.

Returning to the USA Today report, academic experts warn that the long-term shortfall in the program is understated because it is based on 75-year estimates even though the program doesn’t have an expiration date.

The bigger problem with the Social Security Administration is not disclosure, it’s accounting, said Laurence Kotlikoff, a Boston University professor of economics… Kotlikoff…wants the agency to calculate its liabilities using fiscal gap accounting, which considers the difference between the government’s projected financial obligations and the present value of all projected future tax and other revenue. …Under this accounting system, SSA’s projected unfunded liabilities would be $24.9 trillion (instead of the $10.6 trillion projected in 2088). …17 Nobel Prize-winning economists have endorsed Kotlikoff’s push for the SSA and other government agencies to use the fiscal gap accounting method more broadly. “We have a situation that is like Enron accounting,” Kotlikoff said. “And the public doesn’t want to hear about it.”

At the risk of being pedantic, I’m also not enamored with either approach mentioned in the above passage.

Sure, we should acknowledge all expenses and not arbitrarily assume the program disappears after 75 years, but the approach used to calculate “unfunded liabilities” is artificial since it is based on how much money would need to be invested today to finance future promised benefits (whether for 75 years or forever).

Needless to say, governments don’t budget by setting aside trillions of dollars to meet future expenses. Social Security, like other programs, is funded on a pay-as-you-go basis.

That’s why the most appropriate way to measure the shortfall is to take all projected future deficits, adjust them for inflation, and calculate the total. When you do that, the Social Security shortfall is a staggering $40 trillion.

And that’s based on just a 75-year estimate, so the real number is much higher.

Though keep in mind that this is just an estimate of the fiscal shortfall. What really matters is the total level of spending, not how much is financed with red ink.

Which is why the only real answer is genuine reform.

For further information, here’s the video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity on the need to modernize the system with personal retirement accounts.

But if you prefer to trust politicians, you can always support the left’s favored solution.

P.S. You can enjoy some previous Social Security cartoons here, here, and here. And we also have a Social Security joke if you appreciate grim humor.

P.P.S. The “Trust Fund” is real only in the sense that the government’s legal authority to pay benefits will be constrained when the IOUs are used up. That’s why the USA Today article says that the government at that point would be able to pay only about 3/4ths of promised benefits (though one imagines that future politicians will simply override that technical provision and require full payments).

P.P.P.S. Many nations have adopted genuine reform based on private retirement savings, including Australia, Sweden, the Faroe Islands, Chile, and The Netherlands.

P.P.P.P.S. Because of lower life expectancies, African-Americans are very disadvantaged by the Social Security system. A system of personal accounts presumably wouldn’t help them live longer, but at least they would have a nest egg to pass on to their kids.

P.P.P.P.P.S. And don’t fall for the false argument that financial markets are too unstable for personal retirement accounts

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I wrote just yesterday about new evidence showing that decentralized government is more efficient.

Part of the reason is because local governments are easier for voters to monitor and more likely to reflect the actual preferences of residents.

Another reason is tax competition. It’s relatively easy to “vote with your feet” by moving from one community to another, and this makes it difficult for interest groups and politicians to impose excessive tax burdens.

Now we have some serendipity.

I’m in Gdansk, Poland, for a Liberty Fund seminar on “Economic Growth, Entrepreneurship, and the Future of the Welfare State.”

Two of the readings, by great scholars from the Austrian school of economics, had passages about the importance of decentralization.

In 1960, here’s some of what Friedrich Hayek wrote in his classic, The Constitution of Liberty.

While it has always been characteristic of those favoring an increase in governmental powers to support maximum concentration of these powers, those mainly concerned with individual liberty have generally advocated decentralization. There are strong reasons why action by local authorities offers the next-best solution…it has many of the advantages of private enterprise and fewer of the dangers of coercive action by government. Competition between local authorities or between larger units within an area where there is freedom of movement…will secure most of the advantages of free growth. Though the majority of individuals may never contemplate a change of residence, there will usually be enough people, especially among the young and more enterprising, to make it necessary for the local authorities to provide as good services at a reasonable costs as their competitors. It is usually the authoritarian planner who…supports the centralist tendencies.

I should have remembered that quote from my collection of pro-tax competition statements by Nobel laureates.

In any event, I’m glad my memory was refreshed.

And here’s some of what Ludwig von Mises wrote in his 1944 book, Omnipotent Government. He approached the issue from the opposite direction, explaining that proponents of redistribution needed centralization so their intended victims couldn’t escape by moving across city borders.

Every step toward more government interference and toward more planning means at the same time an expansion of the jurisdiction of the central government. …It is a very significant fact that the adversaries of this trend toward more government control describe their opposition as a fight against Washington…against centralization. …This evolution is not accidental. It is the inevitable outcome of policies of interference and planning. …There can be no question of adopting these measure for only one state. It is impossible to raise production costs within a territory not sheltered by trade walls.

And remember that there’s academic evidence showing that decentralization limits redistribution.

So the statists were smart to oppose welfare reform, since that meant decentralization and less wasteful and counterproductive spending.

Just as the statists are smart to push for a nationwide sales tax cartel. And just as the statists are wise to push for an end to international tax competition.

All of which means, of course, that the rest of us (at least those of us who value liberty) should follow the wisdom of Hayek and Mises.

P.S. Hayek even has groupies.

P.P.S. And Hayek even came back to life for Part I and Part II of the Hayek v Keynes rap videos.

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