Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Entitlements’ Category

The new leftist website, Vox, has an article by Sarah Kliff on Vermont’s experiment with a single-payer healthcare system.

But I don’t really have much to say about what’s happening in the Green Mountain State, other than to declare that I much prefer healthcare experiments to occur at the state level. Indeed, we should reform Medicaid and Medicare and also fix the tax code so that Washington has no role in healthcare. Then the states can experiment and compete to see what works best.

But that’s a topic for another day. The real reason I cite Kliff’s article is that Ezra Klein tweeted this image from the article and stated that is was “The case for single payer, in one graphic.”

Vox Third-Party Payer

I don’t know if the numbers in the graphic are correct, but I have no reason to think they’re wrong.

Regardless, I certainly don’t disagree with the notion that our healthcare system is absurdly expensive and ridiculously inefficient.

In other words, the folks at Vox have accurately diagnosed a problem.

However, do these flaws prove “the case for single payer”?

It’s probably true that “single payer” has a lower monetary cost than the system we have today (assuming you don’t include the cost of substandard care and denied treatment), but that doesn’t mean it’s the ideal system.

Indeed, there is a better way to deal with the waste, inefficiency, and bureaucracy of the current system. third-party-2The answer is free markets and genuine insurance, both of which would help address the real problem of third-party payer.

Third-party payer, for those who are new to the healthcare field, is what you get when somebody other than the consumer picks up the tab. And because of government intervention, that’s what happens with about 90 percent of healthcare spending in the United States. Here’s what John Goodman had to say about this problem.

Almost everyone believes there is an enormous amount of waste and inefficiency in health care. But why is that? In a normal market, wherever there is waste, entrepreneurs are likely to be in hot pursuit — figuring out ways to profit from its elimination by cost-reducing, quality-enhancing innovations. Why isn’t this happening in health care? As it turns out, there is a lot of innovation here. But all too often, it’s the wrong kind. There has been an enormous amount of innovation in the medical marketplace regarding the organization and financing of care. And wherever health insurers are paying the bills (almost 90 percent of the market) it has been of two forms: (1) helping the supply side of the market maximize against third-party reimbursement formulas, or (2) helping the third-party payers minimize what they pay out. Of course, these developments have only a tangential relationship to the quality of care patients receive or its efficient delivery.

And here’s some analysis from a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

In most industries, higher quality is associated with higher prices. That is not true in medical care, however, largely because of the public sector. …Every analysis of medical care that has been done highlights the significant waste of resources in providing care. Consider a few examples: one study found that physicians spent on average of 142 hours annually interacting with health plans, at an estimated cost to practices of $68,274 per physician (Casalino et al., 2009). Another study found that 35 percent of nurses’ time in medical/surgical units of hospitals was spent on documentation (Hendrich et al., 2008); patient care was far smaller. …In retail trade, the customer is the individual shopper. If Wal-Mart finds a way to save money, it can pass that along to consumers directly. In health care, in contrast, the situation is more complex, since patients do not pay much of the bill out-of-pocket. Rather, costs are passed from providers to insurers to employers… About one-third of medical spending is not associated with improved outcomes, significantly cutting the efficiency of the medical system and leading to enormous adverse effects.

Here’s my humble contribution to the discussion, starting with an explanation of how special tax breaks deserves some of the blame.

…how many people realize that this bureaucratic process is the result of government interference? For all intents and purposes, social engineering in the tax code created this mess. Specifically, most of us get some of our compensation in the form of health insurance policies from our employers. And because that type of income is exempt from taxation, this encourages so-called Cadillac health plans. …We have replaced (or at least agumented) insurance with pre-paid health care.

I then explain why this isn’t a good idea.

Insurance is supposed to be for unforseen major expenses, such as a heart attack. But our gold-plated health plans now mean we use insurance for routine medical costs. This means, of course, we have the paperwork issues…, but that’s just a small part of the problem. Even more problematic, our pre-paid health care system is somewhat akin to going to an all-you-can-eat restaurant. We have an incentive to over-consume since we’ve already paid. Except this analogy is insufficient. When we go to all-you-can-eat restaurants, at least we know we’re paying a certain amount of money for an unlimited amount of food. Many Americans, by contrast, have no idea how much of their compensation is being diverted to purchase health plans. Last but not least, we need to consider how this messed-up approach causes inefficiency and higher costs. We consumers don’t feel any need to be careful shoppers since we perceive that our health care is being paid by someone else. Should we be surprised, then, that normal market forces don’t seem to be working?

And I ask readers to think about the damage this approach would cause if applied in other sectors of the economy.

Imagine if auto insurance worked this way? Or homeowner’s insurance? Would it make sense to file insurance forms to get an oil change? Or to buy a new couch? That sounds crazy. The system would be needlessly bureaucratic, and costs would rise because we would act like we were spending other people’s money.  But that’s what would probably happen if government intervened in the same way it does in the health-care sector.

This is probably more than most people care to read, but it underscores the point that we don’t have a free market in health care. Not now, and not before Obamacare.

So the folks at Vox are right about the current system being a mess. But I disagree with the notion that more government is a way to solve problems created by government.

The real answer, as I’ve already noted, is to get Washington out of health care. This means entitlement reform AND tax reform.

And if you want to get a flavor of why this would generate better results, watch this Reason TV video and read these stories from Maine and North Carolina.

So how do we get there? Repealing Obamacare is a necessary but far from sufficient condition. Cato’s Adjunct Scholar, John Cochrane, has a nice roadmap of what’s really needed.

Though Vermont certainly is welcome to travel in the other direction. It’s always good to have bad examples and I wouldn’t be surprised if the “Moocher State” played that role.

Read Full Post »

I spoke yesterday to the Memphis Economics Club about America’s looming fiscal crisis, and I did my usual song-and-dance routine about potential Greek-style chaos in the absence of genuine entitlement reform.

But I confess I was stumped when, after the speech, someone from the audience asked me what was going on with Obamacare.

I can pontificate at length about why government intervention has screwed up our healthcare system, and I can wax poetic about the need to restore market forces both with tax reform and with significant changes to Medicare and Medicaid.

But I was asked to speculate about the Obama Administration’s strategy, and I didn’t know what to say other than they’re in panic mode and they’re arbitrarily changing or ignoring the law based on short-term political imperatives.

To get an idea what I’m talking about, here’s what the Wall Street Journal opined.

Liberals say they believe in a living Constitution, and apparently they think the Affordable Care Act is a living document too. Amid one more last-minute regulatory delay, number 38 at last count, the mandate forcing nuns to sponsor birth control is more or less the only part of ObamaCare that is still intact. On Tuesday evening, the Health and Human Services Department announced that the six-month open enrollment period for ObamaCare insurance that began in October 2013 and was supposed to end on the last day of March would be extended indefinitely. …The expanded enrollment period was slipped into a legal crevice related to “exceptional circumstances” signing up such as natural disasters including “an earthquake, massive flooding, or hurricane.” …By the way, as part of this delay HHS will make no attempt to verify real enrollment problems and will instead rely on what the agency calls “the honor system.” No one will be asked why they need an extension. …This pattern of dishonesty and political improvisation has come to define ObamaCare, which is the law for some people, sometimes, except when it isn’t. Nothing HHS claims can be trusted, and little that the President of the United States promised about his signature law has turned out to be true.

Well, I must confess that I (sort of) agree with part of what the White House is doing. Obamacare has been a natural disaster.

Building on this theme, Abby McCloskey and Tom Miller have a column in the WSJ with a blunt message about the mandate.

The individual mandate has failed. After a last-ditch effort with President Obama himself encouraging “young invincibles” to sign up before the deadline, …the White House announced that people who applied for coverage on the federal health-insurance exchange will have until mid-April to finish the paperwork. …The individual mandate had the least effect on those it was supposed to encourage to gain coverage—the uninsured. … Goldman Sachs analysts estimate that about one million uninsured Americans will sign up for the ObamaCare exchanges before open enrollment ends. For perspective, that’s about 2% of the 48 million uninsured. A larger share of the exchange enrollees is likely coming from people whose previous coverage was canceled (due to other ObamaCare rules) or those who found a somewhat better deal for exchange coverage (due to much more generous low-income subsidies).

Wow, just 2 percent of the uninsured. That’s a high failure rate, even by government standards.

At this stage, the only good response is to laugh.

So let’s enjoy some Obamacare cartoons, starting with this gem from Glenn McCoy.

Reminds me of my quip about Syria and Obamacare, which even got noticed by Rand Paul!

Here’s Chip Bok having some fun with the government’s disgusting enforcement mechanism.

Brings to mind this flying monkeys cartoon.

Here’s McCoy again, this time mocking the left’s claim that we should be happy about the people who have lost their jobs because of Obamacare.

This Michael Ramirez cartoon is a classic. I especially love the eyes (a talent that Ramirez often exploits).

Needless to say, the White House’s disregard of its own law is largely driven by a desire to avoid election-day backlash, which is why this Gary Varvel cartoon is a good way to close today’s collection.

P.S. If you have a strange yearning to watch me predict the collapse of the western world (basically the same topic of my speech in Memphis), here’s a recording of my recent speech to the Center for Political Studies in Denmark.

And if you get bored with more than 60 minutes of my supposed wisdom, you can skip the rest of the video and look at the real highlight of my trip to Copenhagen, the “welfare state party ship.”

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Age Dependency Ratio Pew

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

Same with South Korea and Italy.

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

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

Fertility Rate by Nation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

Self awareness is supposed to be a good thing, so I’m going to openly acknowledge that I have an unusual fixation on the size of government.

I don’t lose a wink of sleep thinking about deficits, but I toss and turn all night fretting about the overall burden of government spending.

My peculiar focus on the size and scope of government can be seen in this video, which explains that spending is the disease and deficits are just a symptom.

Moreover, my Golden Rule explicitly targets the spending side of the budget. And I also came up with a “Bob Dole Award” to mock those who mistakenly dwell on deficits.

With all this as background, you’ll understand why I got excited when I started reading Robert Samuelson’s column in today’s Washington Post.

Well, there’s a presidential whopper. Obama is right that the role of the federal government deserves an important debate, but he is wrong when he says that we’ve had that debate. Just the opposite: The White House and Congress have spent the past five years evading the debate. They’ve argued over federal budget deficits without addressing the underlying issues of what the government should do, what programs are unneeded, whether some beneficiaries are undeserving… The avoidance is entirely bipartisan. Congressional Republicans have been just as allergic to genuine debate as the White House and its Democratic congressional allies.

By the way, I have mixed feelings about the final sentence in that excerpt. Yes, Republicans oftentimes have displayed grotesque levels of fiscal irresponsibility. Heck, just look at the new farm bill. Or the vote on the Export-Import Bank. Or the vote on housing subsidies. Or…well, you get the point.

On the other hand, GOPers have voted for three consecutive years in favor of a budget that restrains the growth of federal spending, in large part because it includes much-needed reforms to major entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.

But Republican inconsistency isn’t our focus today.

I want to address other parts of Samuelson’s column that left a bad taste in my mouth.

He argues that you can’t balance the budget merely by cutting discretionary programs. That’s technically untrue, but it’s an accurate assessment of political reality.

I’m much more worried about his assertion that you can’t balance the budget even if entitlement spending also is being addressed.

Let’s look at what he wrote and then I’ll explain why he’s wrong.

Eliminating many programs that are arguably marginal — Amtrak, subsidies for public broadcasting and the like — would not produce enough savings to balance the budget. The reason: Spending on Social Security, Medicare and other health programs… But even plausible benefit trims for affluent retirees would still leave deficits. There would still be a need for tax increases.

This is wrong. Not just wrong, but demonstrably inaccurate.

The Ryan budget, for instance, balanced the budget in 2023. Without a single penny of tax hikes.

Senator Rand Paul and the Republican Study Committee also have produced balanced budget plans. Even as scored by the statists at the Congressional Budget Office.

By the way, you don’t even need to cut spending to balance the budget. Spending cuts would be desirable, of course, but the key to eliminating red ink is simply making sure that government spending climbs at a slower rate than revenues.

And since revenues are expected to grow by about 6 percent per year, it shouldn’t take advanced knowledge of mathematics to realize that the deficit will fall if spending grows by less than 6 percent annually.

Indeed, we could balance the budget as early as 2018 if spending merely was restrained so that the budget grew at the rate of inflation.

But never forget that the goal of fiscal policy should be shrinking the size and scope of the federal government, not fiscal balance.

Ask yourself the following questions. If $1 trillion floated down from Heaven and into the hands of the IRS, would that alter in any way the argument for getting rid of wasteful and corrupt parts of the federal leviathan, such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development?

If the politicians had all that extra money and the budget was balanced, would that mean we could – or should – forget about entitlement reform?

If there was no red ink, would that negate the moral and economic imperative of ending the welfare state?

In other words, the first part of Samuelson’s column is right. We need a debate about “the underlying issues of what the government should do, what programs are unneeded, whether some beneficiaries are undeserving.”

But we’re not going to come up with a good answer if we don’t understand basic fiscal facts.

Read Full Post »

I’ve shared many charts over the years, but two of the most compelling ones deal with poverty.

Poverty Rate DataThe numbers in this chart, which are based on Census Bureau data and scholarly studies (see here, here, here, and here), show that the poverty rate was steadily falling in the United States – until the federal government decided to launch a so-called War on Poverty.

Once Washington got more involved and started spending trillions of dollars, we stopped making progress. The poverty rate has changed a bit with shifts in economic conditions, but it’s stayed remarkably steady between 11 percent and 15 percent of the population.

So why have we stopped making progress? This second chart shows how redistribution programs create a dependency trap. The plethora of handouts from government make self-reliance and work comparatively unattractive, particularly since poor people are hit with very high implicit marginal tax rates.

And just as rich people respond logically to incentives, the same is true of poor people.

In a recent debate with a representative of the Center for American Progress, I tried to make these points. I doubt I had any effect on her outlook, but hopefully viewers began to see that the welfare state has been bad news for taxpayers and bad news for poor people.

Our debate was cut short by the host, but I think it was a fair representation of each side’s views.

And if you want more information on this topic, my former colleague from my days at the Heritage Foundation, Robert Rector, assesses the War on Poverty for today’s Wall Street Journal.

He starts with some very sobering numbers.

Fifty years later, we’re losing that war. Fifteen percent of Americans still live in poverty, according to the official census poverty report for 2012, unchanged since the mid-1960s. Liberals argue that we aren’t spending enough money on poverty-fighting programs, but that’s not the problem. …The federal government currently runs more than 80 means-tested welfare programs that provide cash, food, housing, medical care and targeted social services to poor and low-income Americans. Government spent $916 billion on these programs in 2012 alone, and roughly 100 million Americans received aid from at least one of them, at an average cost of $9,000 per recipient. …Federal and state welfare spending, adjusted for inflation, is 16 times greater than it was in 1964. If converted to cash, current means-tested spending is five times the amount needed to eliminate all official poverty in the U.S.

He then explains that poor people don’t suffer from material deprivation (which may explain why the Obama Administration wants to manipulate the numbers to justify more welfare spending).

…the typical American living below the poverty level in 2013 lives in a house or apartment that is in good repair, equipped with air conditioning and cable TV. His home is larger than the home of the average nonpoor French, German or English man. He has a car, multiple color TVs and a DVD player. More than half the poor have computers and a third have wide, flat-screen TVs. The overwhelming majority of poor Americans are not undernourished and did not suffer from hunger for even one day of the previous year.

Robert then gets to the heart of the issue, explaining that the welfare state has expanded dependency and exacerbated social pathologies.

…consider LBJ’s original aim. He sought to give poor Americans “opportunity not doles,” planning to shrink welfare dependence not expand it.  …By that standard, the war on poverty has been a catastrophe. The root “causes” of poverty have not shrunk but expanded as family structure disintegrated and labor-force participation among men dropped. A large segment of the population is now less capable of self-sufficiency than when the war on poverty began. …In 1963, 6% of American children were born out of wedlock. Today the number stands at 41%. As benefits swelled, welfare increasingly served as a substitute for a bread-winning husband in the home. …children raised in the growing number of single-parent homes are four times more likely to be living in poverty than children reared by married parents of the same education level. …Even in good economic times, a parent in the average poor family works just 800 hours a year, roughly 16 hours weekly, according to census data. Low levels of work mean lower earnings and higher levels of dependence.

Mr. Rector also has some specific suggestions in his column, most of which seem sensible, but this is where I think my idea of sweeping decentralization and federalism is very appropriate.

P.S. Thomas Sowell’s indictment of the welfare state is must reading.

P.P.S. Some honest leftists now acknowledge that big government creates worrisome forms of dependency.

P.P.P.S. If you want to know how dependency varies by state, here’s a map showing welfare payments and another map showing food stamp usage.

P.P.P.P.S. Shifting to a bigger stage, my least favorite international bureaucracy has made the preposterous claim that poverty is a bigger problem in America than it is in basket-case nations such as Greece and Portugal. Not that we should be surprised since the OECD actively urges a bigger welfare state in the United States.

P.P.P.P.P.S. And don’t forget our Moocher Hall of Fame if you want examples of the human cost of the welfare state.

Read Full Post »

America desperately needs genuine entitlement reform to avoid a Greek-style fiscal future.

The biggest problems are the health entitlements such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare, but Social Security also has a huge long-run fiscal shortfall.

That’s why I’m a big fan of the very successful reforms in places such as Chile and Australia, where personal accounts are producing big benefits for workers. These systems also boost national economies since they generate higher savings rather than added unfunded liabilities.

And I’m very happy that we now have more than 30 nations with personal accounts, even tiny little jurisdictions such as the Faroe Islands.

But many statists object to reform, presumably because they don’t want workers to become capitalists. They apparently prefer to make people dependent on government.

Not all leftists take that narrow and cramped approach, however. Some academics at Boston College, for instance, produced some research showing some big benefits from Australia’s private Social Security system.

And new we have some remarkable admissions about how minorities are net losers from Social Security in a study from the left-leaning Urban Institute.

We use historical and projected data from 1970 to 2040 to measure the ratio of old age, survivors, and disability insurance (OASDI) benefits received to taxes paid by members of each race or ethnicity each year. This measure captures the transfers that occur in a given year from current workers to current beneficiaries of each group. We then examine benefit-tax ratios for each race or ethnicity into the future to determine how these redistributions will play out in the coming years. Our conclusion: When considered across many decades—historically, currently, and in the near future—Social Security redistributes from Hispanics, blacks, and other people of color to whites.

Why does the program have this perverse form of redistribution?

On average, blacks are more likely to be low income and short lived and are less likely to marry than whites. …Given this, one would expect forced annuitization and auxiliary benefits related to marriage and divorce to redistribute from blacks to whites.

And that’s exactly what the research found.

…whites have clearly received a disproportionate share of benefits relative to the taxes that they pay in at a point in time. Their benefit-to-tax ratio has been higher than that of blacks, Hispanics, and other ethnic groups for as long as the system has existed, while projections continue that trend at least for decades to come.

Here’s a chart from the study showing how different races have fared in terms of taxes paid and benefits received.

Social Security by Race - Urban Institute

In other words, if folks on the left really cared about minorities, they would be among the biggest advocates of genuine reform.

By the way, it’s also worth noting that Social Security is a bad deal for everyone. The Urban Institute study simply investigates who loses the most.

And the system is getting worse for every new generation.

Recent studies have also documented how different generations are treated within Social Security, with succeeding generations achieving successively lower “returns” on their contributions.

This helps explain why the evidence shows personal retirement accounts are superior – even for folks who would have retired at the peak of the recent financial crisis.

Here’s my video on why we should replace the bankrupt tax-and-transfer Social Security system with personal retirement accounts.

P.S. You can enjoy some Social Security cartoons herehere, and here. And we also have a Social Security joke, though it’s not overly funny when you realize it’s a depiction of reality.

P.P.S. Thanks to Social Security, I made a $16 trillion mistake in a TV debate. Fortunately, it didn’t really change the outcome since I was understating the fiscal shortfall of the current system.

Read Full Post »

When you work in Washington (and assuming you haven’t been corrupted), you run the risk of being endlessly outraged about all the waste.

But not all waste is created equal. Some examples are so absurd that they deserve special attention.

We now have another example to add to the list. Russian diplomats have been busted for bilking the Medicaid program of more than $1 million.

This is so outrageous that it may actually be the impetus for some desperately needed reform, as I suggest in this interview with Neil Cavuto.

But is fraud really a problem? Defenders of the Medicaid entitlement presumably would like us to think that this latest story is just an anomaly.

That would be nice, but the experts who have looked at the issue have come to a much different conclusion.

While food stamp fraud is significant, especially with a record-high 47 million Americans now on food stamps, it pales in comparison to what is stolen from Medicare and Medicaid. …It is widely accepted across the political spectrum that upwards of $100 billion of that amount is fraud and abuse. Recently, a report from the Oversight and Government Reform Committee in the US House of Representatives outlined many billions of dollars being wasted every year just in New York’s Medicaid program. Grossly inflated payments to intermediate care facilities and excessive salaries were just the tip of the iceberg in a $53 billion program that easily bleeds  more than $10 billion annually to criminals.

So what’s the best way of dealing with the Medicaid mess? Fortunately, we have a simple answer. As I mentioned in the interview, the entire program should be block granted and turned over to the states.

That doesn’t automatically eliminate fraud, but it does create much better incentives for sound governance since state taxpayers would be the ones picking up the tab if a state program is riddled with fraud. Under the current system, by contrast, the cost of waste and malfeasance is spread among taxpayers from all 50 states.

This video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity explains how block grants would work.

One final point to emphasize is that fraud reduction is really just a fringe benefit if we reform Medicaid.

The main reasons to decentralize the program are fiscal sanity and better health care policy.

But the one common thread is that third-party payer facilitates problems, whether we’re looking at excessive costs, health inefficiency, or rampant fraud.

P.S. Don’t forget the other two big entitlements that need reform, Social Security and Medicare. Like Medicaid, Medicare has major challenges with fraud. From what I understand, the retirement portion of Social Security doesn’t have major fraud issues, but the disability program is a huge problem.

Read Full Post »

There’s a saying in the sports world about how last-minute comebacks are examples of “snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.”

I don’t like that phrase because it reminds me of the painful way my beloved Georgia Bulldogs were defeated a couple of weeks ago by Auburn.

But I also don’t like the saying because it describes what Obama and other advocates of big government must be thinking now that Republicans apparently are about to do the opposite and “snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.”

More specifically, the GOP appears willing to give away the sequester’s real and meaningful spending restraint and replace that fiscal discipline with a package of gimmicks and new revenues.

I warned last month that something bad might happen to the sequester, but even a pessimist like me didn’t envision such a big defeat for fiscal responsibility.

You may be thinking to yourself that even the “stupid party” couldn’t be foolish enough to save Obama from his biggest defeat, but check out these excerpts from a Wall Street Journal report.

Sen. Patty Murray (D., Wash.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.), chief negotiators for their parties, are closing in on a deal… At issue are efforts to craft a compromise that would ease across-the-board spending cuts due to take effect in January, known as the sequester, and replace them with a mix of increased fees and cuts in mandatory spending programs.

But the supposed cuts wouldn’t include any genuine entitlement reform. And there would be back-door tax hikes.

Officials familiar with the talks say negotiators are stitching together a package of offsets to the planned sequester cuts that would include none of the major cuts in Medicare or other entitlement programs that Mr. Ryan has wanted… Instead, it would include more targeted and arcane measures, such as increased fees for airport-security and federal guarantees of private pensions.

But the package may get even worse before the ink is dry.

Democrats on Thursday stepped up their demands in advance of the closing days of negotiations between Ms. Murray and Mr. Ryan. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) brought a fresh demand to the table by saying she wouldn’t support any budget deal unless in included or was accompanied by an agreement to renew expanded unemployment benefits that expire before the end of the year—which would be a major threat to any deal.

Gee, wouldn’t that be wonderful. Not only may GOPers surrender the sequester and acquiesce to some tax hikes, but they might also condemn unemployed people to further joblessness and despair.

That’s even worse than the part of the plan that would increase taxes on airline travel to further subsidize the Keystone Cops of the TSA.

But look at the bright side…at least for DC insiders. If the sequester is gutted, that will be a big victory for lobbyists. That means they’ll get larger bonuses, which means their kids will have even more presents under the Christmas tree.

As for the rest of the nation? Well, you can’t make an omelet without scrambling a few eggs.

P.S. I suppose we should consider ourselves lucky that this looming agreement isn’t as bad as some past budget deals, such as the read-my-lips fiasco of 1990.

Read Full Post »

I’m currently in the Faroe Islands, a relatively unknown and semi-autonomous part of Denmark located in the North Atlantic. Sort of like Greenland, but too small to appear on most maps.Faroe Islands

I’m in this chilly archipelago for a speech to the annual meeting of the Faroese People’s Party. According to Wikipedia, “the party is supportive of the economic liberalism.” But liberal in this context is classical liberal, so they’re my kind of people.

I spoke on the economics of fiscal policy and talked about issues such as my Golden Rule and the Laffer Curve, but today’s post is about what I learned, not what I said.

The current government of the Faroe Islands, which includes the People’s Party, has modernized its Social Security regime with a system of personal retirement accounts. Starting next January, workers will begin setting aside some of their income to finance a comfortable retirement income. When fully implemented, workers will be putting 15 percent of their income in their accounts, creating a system that’s even larger than the private retirement models in Australia and Chile.

So why did Faroese politicians take this step? Well, unlike politicians in most nations, they looked at the long-run data, saw that they had an aging population, realized that a tax-and-transfer scheme no longer could work, and decided to reform now instead of waiting for the old system to collapse.

Here’s a chart put together by the Nordic Council. As you can see, the Faroe Islands were (and other jurisdictions are) heading to an intolerable and unsustainable situation of too few workers and too many retirees.

Faroe Islands Age-Dependency Ratio

By the way, the same situation exists in the United States.

Our population is aging, the Baby Boomers are going into retirement, and birth rates have dropped. Our long-run numbers aren’t as grim as some other nations, but our Social Security system is basically insolvent.

Indeed, Social Security’s long-run deficit is measured in trillions, not billions. According to the most recent Trustee’s Report, deficits over the next 75 years are expected to equal $36 trillion. And that’s after adjusting for inflation!

For what it’s worth, if a private insurance or pension company kept its books in the same was as Social Security, it would be forced into bankruptcy and its managers would be indicted for fraud..

But when politicians operate a Ponzi Scheme, we’re supposed to applaud them for compassion!

This is why it might be worth the cost if we sent the politicians in Washington on a junket (using their taxpayer-financed fleet of luxury jets) to Torshavn, the Faroese capital. They could eat some lamb and fish and learn what it’s like to responsibly address a problem before it becomes a crisis.

Or we could save the money and simply force them to watch my video on personal retirement accounts.

P.S. In you like gallows humor, you can enjoy some Social Security cartoons here, here, and here. And we also have a Social Security joke, though it’s not overly funny when you realize it’s a depiction of reality.

P.P.S. You probably don’t want to know how Obama would like to “fix” the Social Security shortfall.

P.P.P.S. On Monday, I continue my tour of the North Atlantic with a speech in Iceland on the Laffer Curve. I don’t know if I’ll say anything memorable, but I’ll use the opportunity to learn more about some of that nation’s policies, including their very successful privatized fishery system. Iceland has some bad policies, of course, but it’s also worth noting that they wisely have rejected membership in the European Union, they’ve reduced the burden of government spending in recent years, and they also made the right decision when they decided (with help from an outraged electorate) to limit bailouts when their banks went bust. You won’t be surprised to learn, though, that the Paris-based OECD has been using American tax dollars to advocate bad fiscal policy in Iceland.

Read Full Post »

I haven’t written much about the budget fights over a government shutdown, Obamacare, the continuing resolution, and the debt limit for the simple reason that the battles are mostly about politics and strategy rather than policy.

At the risk of oversimplifying, here’s what’s happening.

On one side are those who want to use the debt limit (legislation allowing additional borrowing) and the continuing resolution (a spending bill for the fiscal year that starts October 1) as leverage to weaken Obamacare and restrain spending.

On the other side are those who say big confrontations are too politically risky, particularly since good changes are impossible with Harry Reid controlling the Senate and Obama in the White House.

In this “insurgents” vs “establishment” fight, I think it’s possible for good people to have opposing positions, but my sympathies are with the former over the latter. Here are a couple of observations to illustrate why I think the insurgents are correct.

1. The biggest fiscal policy victory of the 21st Century – sequestration – was only possible because of hard-ball tactics on the debt limit in 2011.

2. It’s always better to be on offense. If folks like Senator Ted Cruz weren’t making the President’s unpopular healthcare law the focus of attention, the crowd in Washington might be busy right now trying to do something destructive such as class-warfare tax hikes. Or repealing sequestration.

3. It’s common sense in any negotiation to ask for more than you think you’ll get and to appear as inflexible as possible. While I think many of the “establishment” types are willing to do the right thing (as evidenced by near-unanimous votes for the Ryan budgets), they sometimes lead with their fallback position, which means the final result will be even further to the left.

4. The “political risks” of a shutdown fight or a debt limit fight are greatly overblown. As I explained in an article for National Review back in 2011, Republicans achieved a policy victory and – at worst – a political draw in the big shutdown fights of 1995-1996. And my recent testimony to the Joint Economic Committee explained why there’s no risk of default if there’s a fight on the debt limit.

All this being said, the insurgent strategy can backfire. The media serves as an echo chamber for proponents of bigger government, so expect story after story about how a government shutdown threatens the economy (even though we’ve had plenty of shutdowns in recent decades with no negative impact).

And expect stories about how a debt limit fight could mean default, even though that’s preposterously inaccurate.

But that echo chamber can be effective, particularly when statist GOPers such as Karl Rove mimic those left-wing talking points.

So the real issue is whether we can get some incremental progress – such as a one-year delay of Obamacare’s individual mandate – when a deal finally is reached.

The main thing to understand, though, is that no progress would be possible if the insurgents weren’t forcing the issue.

P.S. If you want to end on a lighter note, there are some good one-liners about the debt limit at the bottom of this post, and you can enjoy some good debt limit cartoons by clicking here and here.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Most Western nations have huge long-run fiscal problems because of unfavorable demographics and misguided entitlement programs.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that dozens of nations have fully or partially shifted to mandatory private savings as a pro-growth way of modernizing bankrupt tax-and-transfer Social Security systems.

But good news in the short run doesn’t mean good news in the long run if greedy politicians decide to loot the wealth accumulated in personal retirement accounts.

That’s already happened in Argentina and Hungary, and now it’s happened in Poland. Here’s part of a Financial Times report about the government stealing money from private pension funds.

Poland’s government on Wednesday took an axe to part of the country’s pension system in a bid to bolster public finances. Premier Donald Tusk said that part of the country’s obligatory pension system run by private funds would be dramatically revamped, with 120bn zlotys ($37bn) in government bonds held by the 14 funds being transferred to the government pension scheme and cancelled… The funds will keep control of the 111bn zlotys they hold in equities and current benchmarks will be loosened. The funds will be banned from investing in more government debt. Tusk said that the millions of Poles currently enrolled in the privatised system would have the choice of staying in the scheme or of transferring their assets into the government-run pension system. Market reaction to the long anticipated move was negative. The Warsaw Stock Exchange, where the private funds, known as OFEs, have a big presence, was down by more than 2 per cent. Yields on 10-year Polish government bonds jumped to 4.75 per cent, the highest in a year.

Is anyone surprised by the “negative” reaction?!? Of course markets are unhappy when politicians arbitrarily seize wealth for short-term political games!

Sounds like Poland wants to become the Argentina of Europe. Though there’s always plenty of competition in the contest for bad government policy.

But we do have a bit of good news.

Here is some interesting polling data from an article on the political preferences of young Americans.

…51 percent of Millennials believe that when government runs something it is usually wasteful and inefficient, up from 31 percent in 2003 and 42 percent in 2009: “Hardly a ringing endorsement for a bigger government providing more services.” There’s more: 86 percent of Millennials support private Social Security accounts and 74 percent would change Medicare so people can buy private insurance. Sixty-three percent believe free trade is a good thing. Only 38 percent of Millennials support affirmative action.

Wow, 86 percent of young people support personal retirement accounts. That’s very encouraging, particularly since the general population supports this pro-growth reform by a more-than 2-1 margin.

Here’s a video that explains why a privatized or “personalized” Social Security system is the only way of dealing with the current system’s bankruptcy without screwing younger workers.

I think the video is a good summary explanation, but I also invite you to look at these two charts, one showing the impressive private wealth being accumulated in Australia thanks to personal retirement accounts and the other showing the staggering future shortfalls for America’s pay-as-you-go Social Security scheme.

If those charts don’t convince you, I suspect you’re a genetic statist.

P.S. The thievery of the Polish government is a helpful reminder of why it’s good to have some of your money offshore, preferably managed by a non-US company. After all, does anyone doubt that American politicians are capable of the same venal behavior? They’re probably looking at the money in IRAs and 401(k)s and salivating at the thought of how many votes they could buy with all that money. If (or when) that tragic day arrives, the Americans who have their money beyond the grasp of the federal government will be very happy.

P.P.S. Here’s a good joke about the Social Security system. Except it’s not really a joke because it’s too close to the truth.

P.P.P.S. You can see President Obama’s proposed “solution” to the Social Security crisis by clicking here. I don’t think you’ll be surprised to learn that it means a big shift of money from taxpayers to politicians.

Read Full Post »

According to the Bank for International Settlements, the United States has a terrible long-run fiscal outlook. Assuming we don’t implement genuine entitlement reform, the only countries in worse shape are the United Kingdom and Japan.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, meanwhile, also has a grim fiscal outlook for America. According to their numbers, the only nations in worse shape are New Zealand and Japan.

But I’ve never been happy with these BIS and OECD numbers because they focus on deficits, debt, and fiscal balance. Those are important indicators, of course, but they’re best viewed as symptoms.

The underlying problem is that the burden of government spending is too high. And what the BIS and OECD numbers are really showing is that the public sector is going to get even bigger in coming decades, largely because of aging populations. Unfortunately, you have to read between the lines to understand what’s really happening.

But now I’ve stumbled across some IMF data that presents the long-run fiscal outlook in a more logical fashion. As you can see from this graph (taken from this publication), they show the expected rise in age-related spending on the vertical axis and the amount of needed fiscal adjustment on the horizontal axis.

In other words, you don’t want your nation to be in the upper-right quadrant, but that’s exactly where you can find the United States.

IMF Future Spending-Adjustment Needs

Yes, Japan needs more fiscal adjustment. Yes, the burden of government spending will expand by a larger amount in Belgium. But America combines the worst of both worlds in a depressingly impressive fashion.

So thanks to FDR, LBJ, Nixon, Bush, Obama and others for helping to create and expand the welfare state. They’ve managed to put the United States in a worse long-run position than Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, and other failing welfare states.

Read Full Post »

According to my reader poll, Michael Ramirez is the nation’s best political cartoonist.

His new masterpiece about entitlements is a good example of his talent. In one image, he manages to convey how the system lures people into danger by offering the illusion that they can get something for nothing.

Ramirez Entitlement Cartoon

The cartoon is an apt illustration of where we are today with programs such as Food Stamps and disability, with ever-greater numbers of people being lured into lives of dependency.

In other cases, though I’m afraid we’ve already passed the point of biting the hook, particularly for many of the middle-class entitlements. We’re now being reeled in and face a very real danger of being turned into euro-style fish filets.

Though if I’m allowed to extend the metaphor, many people are working to reform Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid in hopes of escaping the hook of dependency and fiscal crisis.

But it’s very important to realize that not all entitlement reform is created equal. As I explained back in 2011, the left would be more than happy to impose price controls and means testing as part of a “grand bargain” that seduces gullible Republicans into accepting a tax hike.

Which is why this Glenn Foden cartoon hits the nail on the head.

Foden Entitlement Cartoon

Sort of reminds me of this Ramirez cartoon. Simply stated, Republicans are dangerously susceptible to bad deals, which helps to explain why tax-increase budget agreements are always fiscal disasters.

The moral of the story is that we need the right kind of entitlement reform, but that won’t be possible until at least 2017.

P.S. If you want a tragically funny look at how the welfare state changes people for the worse, read the politically correct version of The Little Red.

Read Full Post »

I’ve done a handful of TV debates on Social Security, including the time I said that I wished Republicans had a secret plan for personal retirement accounts.

So I thought I was well prepared for this duel with a defender of the status quo on Fox Business Network.

I generally think the debate went well, but I confess that I didn’t have the updated numbers on the program’s long-run deficit.

I knew the long-run fiscal gap in past Trustees’ Reports was around $30 trillion, but I wanted to make sure I didn’t exaggerate. And since perhaps the economy’s modest improvement has impacted the long-run outlook, I decided to throw out a number that surely would be on the low side.

So I said $20 trillion.

Well, nobody can accuse me of exaggeration. Here’s a chart showing the program’s dismal long-run deficit, which is compiled from Table VI.F9 and Table V.B1 of the recently released Trustees Report. If you add up the annual deficits, you get $36 trillion. And that’s in today’s dollars!

Social Security Deficit

So I made a $16 trillion mistake. That’s a big number even by Washington standards.

But it doesn’t really matter since everything I said about policy was correct, regardless of whether the long-run deficit was $5 trillion, $50 trillion, or somewhere in between.

If you want to know more about right way to do Social Security reform, click here to see my video on personal retirement accounts.

And if you want to learn more about the wrong way to deal with the program’s huge long-run fiscal gap, click here to get the sobering details on the big tax increase that both President Obama and my debating opponent would like to impose.

P.S. One encouraging footnote is that personal retirement accounts continue to garner good support in public opinion polls. And with the very good results we’re seeing from nations such as Australia and Chile, I’m cautiously optimistic that reform can happen in America.

Read Full Post »

I want a smaller burden of government spending, so you can only imagine how frustrating it is for me to observe the fight in Europe.

On one side of the debate you have pro-spenders, who call themselves “growth” advocates, but are really just Keynesians. On the other side of the debate, you have pro-taxers, who claim to favor “austerity,” but actually just want big government financed by taxes rather than borrowing.

I had a chance to condemn these statist policy prescriptions in an appearance on the John Stossel show.

Here are 10 takeaways from the discussion, along with links to further information.

  1. The main point of the interview was to explain that government spending hasn’t been cut in Europe, with the United Kingdom being a poster child for bad policy (you won’t be surprised that Paul Krugman hasn’t bothered to look at the actual numbers).
  2. Austerity in Europe generally is just a code word for higher taxes. Governments only restrain spending as a last resort.
  3. Excessive spending is the problem, but many people mistakenly fixate on government borrowing.
  4. Keynesian spending doesn’t work, regardless of when it’s been tried.
  5. The Baltic nations are a rare good example of how to respond to a crisis (and another example of Krugman misreading the data), though I should have mentioned that Switzerland never got in trouble in the first place because of its admirable fiscal policy.
  6. We also discussed some historical examples of good policy, such as fiscal restraint in Canada and New Zealand, as well as a shrinking burden of government spending during the Clinton years.
  7. At the end of the interview segment, I say the goal should be to reduce the size of government relative to the productive sector of the economy. I wasn’t narcissistic enough to say “Mitchell’s Golden Rule” on air, but I did say that good fiscal policy occurs when government grows slower than the private sector.
  8. In the Q&A section at the end, I talked about the economic impact of different forms of government spending. Politicians and other defenders of statism like to highlight capital spending, which can have positive effects, but they overlook the fact that the vast majority of government outlays are for things that hinder growth.
  9. Most important, I made the key point about poor people are much better off in pro-market, small-government jurisdictions such as Singapore and Hong Kong, where at least they have opportunity, rather than France or Italy, where the best they can hope for is permanent dependency.
  10. Last but not least, I express some optimism about the possibility of genuine entitlement reform, though I should have acknowledged that nothing good will happen while Obama is in office.

It’s always great to do a show with Stossel since he genuinely care about freedom and wants to explore the details. In previous appearances on his show, I’ve discussed dishonest fiscal policy in Washington, the differences between Texas and California, and the reverse Midas touch of government.

P.S. There is at least one person in Europe who understands the real problem is too much spending.

Read Full Post »

I’m cited some remarkable examples of Orwellian language abuse.

I prefer the honest approach. If you believe in bigger government and higher taxes, you should “man up” and openly express your views. Don’t dissemble, prevaricate, mislead, and obfuscate.

The same is true, by the way, for advocates of individual freedom and smaller government. I’ve always admired Barry Goldwater, who famously wrote, “I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size. I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them.” There’s no ambiguity in that statement!

Anyhow, we have a new entry in this contest for the most egregious use of Orwellian word games. And, not surprisingly, it’s by a statist.

Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor of the Washington Post, wrote a column claiming that people are getting an entitlement if the government doesn’t double tax their retirement savings.

This spring Obama proposed a cap of about $3.4 million on how much people can save in their tax-advantaged IRAs and 401(k) plans… Obama isn’t keeping people from saving as much money as they can or want. The question is how much the rest of us should have to chip in. Obama is suggesting that at some point retirement accounts, invented to encourage working people to set aside enough for their sunset years, no longer need a helping hand from taxpayers. …The entitlement culture…runs deeper than the entitlement programs we normally think of, like Medicare and Social Security. …Now it’s the top one-thousandth demanding their right to tax breaks for socking away unlimited wealth in retirement plans.

There are several things about these excerpts that rub me the wrong way.

First, IRAs and 401(k)s are not “tax advantaged.” They’re tax neutral. These vehicles exist so that people don’t get double taxed on their savings. As I explained last year.

If you have a traditional IRA (or “front-ended” IRA), you get a deduction for any money you put in a retirement account, but then you pay tax on the money – including any earnings – when the money is withdrawn. If you have a Roth IRA (or “back-ended” IRA), you pay tax on your income in the year that it is earned, but if you put the money in a retirement account, there is no additional tax on withdrawals or the subsequent earnings. From an economic perspective, front-ended IRAs and back-ended IRAs generate the same result. Income that is saved and invested is treated the same as income that is immediately consumed.

But let’s set that aside. My main gripe with Hiatt’s column is that he wants us to think that people with IRAs and 401(k)s are getting “a helping hand from taxpayers” and that this is part of an “entitlement culture.”

This is statist nonsense. If somebody has an IRA and 401(k), they’re saving their own money. There’s no obligation being imposed on me or any other taxpayer.

But Hiatt presumably thinks that the government’s decision not to impose double taxation is somehow akin to a giveaway. But that only makes sense if you assume that government has a preemptive claim to all private income.

And if you have that bizarre mindset, then I guess it makes sense that IRAs and 401(k)s are part of the “entitlement culture.”

In other words, Hiatt wants us the think that there’s no moral, ethical, or economic difference between giving person A $5,000 of other people’s money and person B being allowed to keep $5,000 of his or her own money.

But if that’s true, why bother producing and subjecting yourself to stress when your reward is punitive tax rates? Why not participate in the easy side of the “entitlement culture” and simply take other people’s money?

In the real world, of course, that leads to policies with ever-growing numbers of people choosing to ride in the wagon and fewer and fewer people pulling the wagon.

Read Full Post »

As part of my “Question of the Week” series, I said that Australia probably would be the best option if the United States suffered some sort of Greek-style fiscal meltdown that led to a societal collapse.*

One reason I’m so bullish on Australia is that the nation has a privatized Social Security system called “Superannuation,” with workers setting aside 9 percent of their income in personal retirement accounts (rising to 12 percent by 2020).

Established almost 30 years ago, and made virtually universal about 20 years ago, this system is far superior to the actuarially bankrupt Social Security system in the United States.

Probably the most sobering comparison is to look at a chart of how much private wealth has been created in Superannuation accounts and then look at a chart of the debt that we face for Social Security.

To be blunt, the Aussies are kicking our butts. Their system gets stronger every day and our system generates more red ink every day.

And their system is earning praise from unexpected places. The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, led by a former Clinton Administration official, is not a right-wing bastion. So it’s noteworthy when it publishes a study praising Superannuation.

Australia’s retirement income system is regarded by some as among the best in the world. It has achieved high individual saving rates and broad coverage at reasonably low cost to the government.

Since I wrote my dissertation on Australia’s system, I can say with confidence that the author is not exaggerating. It’s a very good role model, for reasons I’ve previously discussed.

Here’s more from the Boston College study.

The program requires employers to contribute 9 percent of earnings, rising to 12 percent by 2020, to a tax-advantaged retirement plan for each employee age 18 to 70 who earns more than a specified minimum amount. …Over 90 percent of employed Australians have savings in a Superannuation account, and the total assets in these accounts now exceed Australia’s Gross Domestic Product. …Australia has been extremely effective in achieving key goals of any retirement income system. …Its Superannuation Guarantee program has generated high and rising levels of saving by essentially the entire active workforce.

The study does include some criticisms, some of which are warranted. The system can be gamed by those who want to take advantage of the safety net retirement system maintained by the government.

Australia’s means-tested Age Pension creates incentives to reduce one’s “means” in order to collect a higher means-tested benefit. This can be done by spending down one’s savings and/or investing these savings in assets excluded from the Age Pension means test. What makes this situation especially problematic is that workers can currently access their Superannuation savings at age 55, ten years before becoming eligible for Age Pension benefits at 65. This ability creates an incentive to retire early, live on these savings until eligible for an Age Pension, and collect a higher benefit, sometimes referred to as “double dipping.”

Though I admit dealing with this issue may require a bit of paternalism. Should individuals be forced to turn their retirement accounts into an income stream (called annuitization) once they reach retirement age?

I’m torn on this issue. Paternalists sometimes do have good ideas, but shouldn’t people have the freedom to make their own decisions, even if they make mistakes? But does the answer to that question change when mistakes mean that those people will be taking money from taxpayers?

Fortunately, I don’t need to be wishy-washy on the other criticism in the study.

Australia’s system does have shortcomings. It is heavily dependent on defined contribution plans and is vulnerable to weaknesses in such programs.

I strongly disagree. A “defined contribution” account is something to applaud, not a shortcoming.

The author presumably is worried that a “DC” account leaves a worker vulnerable to the ups and downs of the market, whereas a “defined benefit” account promises a specific payment and removes that uncertainty. Sounds great, but the problem with “DB” accounts is that they almost inevitably seem to promise more than they can deliver. And that seems to be the case whether they’re supposedly based on real savings (like company retirement plans or pension funds for state and local bureaucrats) or based on pay-as-you-go taxation (like Social Security).

*Since I’m somewhat optimistic that America can be saved, I’m not recommending you head Down Under just yet.

P.S. I’m also a huge fan of Chile’s system of private accounts. At the risk of oversimplifying, Chile’s system is sort of like universal IRAs and Australia’s system is sort of like universal 401(k)s.

P.P.S. There’s much to admire about Australia, but its government is plenty capable of boneheaded policy. Heck, the government even provides workers’ compensation payments to people who get injured while having sex after work hours, simply because they were on a business-related trip. Talk about double dipping!

P.P.P.S. Here’s my video explaining why we should implement personal retirement accounts in the United States.

P.P.P.S. The death tax has been abolished in Australia, so there’s more to admire than just personal retirement accounts.

Read Full Post »

I wrote last September that the budget plan put forward by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson was fatally flawed.

There were some positive features in the plan, to be sure, such as lower marginal tax rates. And I suppose it’s worth noting that the burden of government spending didn’t climb as fast under their proposal as it did in Obama’s budget, though that’s hardly an accomplishment.

Cartoon Fiscal Cliff 7But there were lots of fatal flaws in the Bowles-Simpson plan. It included a big tax increase, even though America’s fiscal problem is entirely the result of too much spending.

Moreover, the so-called entitlement reform in Bowles-Simpson wasn’t reform. It was basically a random package of means testing and price controls, and we have lots of experience showing that this approach doesn’t yield sustainable savings.

Well, Bowles and Simpson now have a new plan. Have they learned from their past mistakes? Have they responded to earlier criticisms? Have they made a more serious effort to restrain spending? To genuinely reform entitlements? To shut down useless agencies, programs, and department?

Not that you’ll be surprised, but the answer to all those questions is a big fat NO. Ryan Ellis of Americans for Tax Reform has a short analysis of the plan’s shortcomings and here are some of the highlights (though lowlights might be a better word).

The Simpson-Bowles plan headline report says it only raises taxes by $585 billion over a decade by eliminating or limiting tax deductions and credits (beyond what is needed to lower rates). …However, the plan also calls for “Chained CPI,” which the President’s FY 2014 budget says raises taxes by another $100 billion over the decade, and this plan’s Figure 21 (buried deep in the appendix) says will raise taxes by $124 billion. …There’s a third hidden tax increase, again only to be found buried in Figure 21.  This is “program integrity,” which is a polite euphemism for creating a fishing expedition audit slush fund for the IRS.  This is expected to raise another $30 billion by 2023. Put it all together, and the plan raises taxes by $739 billion over the next decade. …All of the tax hikes described above are just the first stage of new tax hikes in the Simpson-Bowles plan.  There’s also a shadowy “Step Four” which calls for even deeper tax increases to “fix” the entitlement crisis.

In other words, the plan is taxes, then more taxes, followed by additional taxes, topped off by a promise of even more taxes.

Ryan also notes that the plan doesn’t do anything about the fiscal disaster of Obamacare and that it also exacerbates the tax code’s punitive bias by increasing double taxation of income that is saved and invested.

Gee, what’s not to love about such a proposal?

Nonetheless, a lot of people feel compelled to say nice things about Bowles-Simpson. I don’t know whether it’s because they blindly assume a “bipartisan” plan must be good.

Or perhaps they think that a plan needs to be “balanced” between tax increases and spending cuts.

I don’t have any objection to bipartisanship, assuming politicians are proposing good ideas, but let’s take a closer look at this notion of “balance.”

  1. Why should we raise taxes when the current fiscal mess is the result of the excessive spending of the Bush-Obama years?
  2. Why should we raise taxes when the long-run fiscal mess is the result of rising spending caused by poorly designed entitlement programs?
  3. Why should we raise taxes when the “spending cuts” we get in exchange are based on dishonest Washington budget math?
  4. Why should we raise taxes when bitter experience teaches us that politicians will simply raise spending?

Let’s close by elaborating on this final question. A couple of years ago, a columnist at the New York Times complained that Republicans used to be much more susceptible to getting seduced by these “balanced” budget deals.

But the reporter inadvertently showed that tax-hike deals are a mistake. It turns out that the only budget deal which actually worked was the one in 1997 that lowered taxes instead!

I’m not making an argument for the Laffer Curve, by the way. The fiscal success of the late 1990s was a result of genuine spending restraint, as explained in this video. The lower taxes were simply a bit of icing on the cake.

My main point is that genuine fiscal restraint is far less likely to happen if tax hikes are on the table. After all, why would politicians have any incentive to do the right thing if there’s a possibility of simply siphoning more money from the economy’s productive sector?

We see the same pattern in other nations. When governments such as Canada and New Zealand actually imposed genuine limits on the growth of government spending, good things happened.

But when governments supposedly try to deal with fiscal problems by raising taxes, you get dismal results. Just look at mess in Europe, where tax increases have been nine times larger than spending cuts.

Read Full Post »

If America descends into Greek-style fiscal chaos, there’s no doubt that entitlement programs will be the main factor. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Disability are all fiscal train wrecks today, and the long-run outlook for these programs is frightful.

Just look at these numbers from the Bank for International Settlements and OECD to see how our fiscal future is bleaker than many of Europe’s welfare states.

If we don’t implement the right kind of entitlement reform, our children and grandchildren at some point will curse our memory.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t worry about other parts of the budget, including the so-called discretionary programs that also have been getting bigger and bigger budgets over time.

That’s why I was a bit perturbed to read Veronique de Rugy’s piece in National Review Online, which implies that these programs are “shrinking” and being subject to a “Big Squeeze.”

…there is another number to look at in that budget. It’s the shrinking share of the budget consumed by discretionary spending (spending on things like defense and infrastructure) to make space for mandatory spending and interest. This is the Big Squeeze. …in FY 2014 mandatory spending plus interest will eat up 67 percent of the budget, leaving discretionary spending with 33 percent of the budget (down from 36 percent in FY 2012). Now by FY 2023, mandatory and interest spending will consume 77 percent of the total budget. Discretionary spending will be left with 23 percent of the budget.

But all that’s really happening here is that entitlement outlays are growing faster than discretionary spending.

Here’s some data from the Historical Tables of the Budget, showing what is happening to spending for both defense discretionary and domestic discretionary. And these are inflation-adjusted numbers, so the we’re looking at genuine increases in spending.

Discretionary Spending FY62-14

As you can see, defense outlays have climbed by about $100 billion over the past 50 years, while outlays for domestic discretionary programs have more than tripled.

If that’s a “Big Squeeze,” I’m hoping that my household budget experiences a similar degree of “shrinking”!

To be fair, Veronique obviously understands these numbers and is simply making the point that politicians presumably should have an incentive to restrain entitlement programs so they have more leeway to also buy votes with discretionary spending.

But I’d hate to think that an uninformed reader would jump to the wrong conclusion and decide we need more discretionary spending.

Particularly since the federal government shouldn’t be spending even one penny for many of the programs and department that are part of the domestic discretionary category. Should there be a federal Department of Transportation? A federal Department of Housing and Urban Development? A federal Department of Agriculture?

No, NO, and Hell NO. I could continue, but you get the idea.

The burden of federal government spending in the United States is far too high and it should be reduced. That includes discretionary spending and entitlement spending.

P.S. Since I don’t want to get on Veronique’s bad side, let me take this opportunity to call attention to her good work on properly defining austerity,. And if you watch her testimony to a congressional committee, it’s also quite obvious that she also understands that the real problem is bloated and wasteful government spending.

P.P.S. For those who don’t have the misfortune of following the federal budget, “entitlements” are programs that are “permanently appropriated,” which simply means that spending automatically changes in response to factors such as eligibility rules, demographic shifts, inflation, and program expansions. Sometimes these programs (such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, etc) are referred to as “mandatory spending.”

The other big part of the budget is “discretionary spending” or “appropriations.” These are programs funded by annual spending bills from the Appropriations Committees, often divided into the two big categories of “defense discretionary” and “nondefense discretionary.”

Read Full Post »

Are we about to see a new kinder-and-gentler Obama? Has the tax-and-spend President of the past four years been replaced by a fiscal moderate?

That’s certainly the spin we’re getting from the White House about the President’s new budget. Let’s look at this theme, predictably regurgitated in a Washington Post report.

President Obama will release a budget next week that proposes significant cuts to Medicare and Social Security and fewer tax hikes than in the past, a conciliatory approach…the document will incorporate the compromise offer Obama made to House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) last December in the discussions over the “fiscal cliff” – which included $1.8 trillion in deficit reduction through spending cuts and tax increases. …unlike the Republican budget that passed the House last month, Obama’s budget does not balance within 10 years.

Since America’s fiscal challenge is the overall burden of government spending, I’m not overly worried about the fact that Obama’s budget doesn’t get to balance.

But I am curious whether Obama truly is proposing a “conciliatory” budget. Are the tax hikes smaller? Are the supposed spending cuts larger?

Actually, there are no genuine spending cuts since the President’s budget is based on dishonest baseline budgeting. At best, we’re simply talking about slowing the growth of government.

But since Mitchell’s Golden Rule is based on the very modest goal of having government grow slower than the private sector, it’s possible that Obama may be proposing something worthwhile.

But possible isn’t the same as probable. Indeed, it appears that the budget is predicated on a giant bait-and-switch since the beneficial spending restraint imposed by sequestration would be repealed!

Obama’s budget proposal, however, would eliminate sequestration.

This appears almost as an afterthought in the Washington Post article, but it should be the lead story. The White House wants to get rid of a policy that genuinely limits the growth of spending.

We won’t have the official numbers until the budget is released next Wednesday, but I’ll be very curious to see whether the supposed spending cuts elsewhere in his budget are greater than or less than the spending increases that will occur if sequestration is canceled. Particularly since the President also is proposing lots of new spending on everything from early child education to brain mapping.

Moreover, it seems as though Obama tax numbers are based on dodgy math as well. The White House is claiming that this is a “conciliatory” budget because he’s no longer proposing $1.6 trillion of tax hikes.

The budget is more conservative than Obama’s earlier proposals, which called for $1.6 trillion in new taxes and fewer cuts to health and domestic spending programs. Obama is seeking to raise $580 billion in tax revenue by limiting deductions for the wealthy and closing loopholes for certain industries like oil and gas. Those changes are in addition to the increased tobacco taxes and more limited retirement accounts for the wealthy that are meant to pay for new spending.

Let’s try to disentangle the preceding passage. The President wants $580 billion of new taxes from “deductions” and “loopholes.” But he also wants an unknown pile of revenue from new tobacco taxes and from restricting IRAs. And keep in mind that he already got $600 billion as part of the fiscal cliff.

Until we get official numbers, we can’t say anything with certainty, but I’ll be checking on Wednesday to see how much revenue the President intends to grab as a result of the tobacco and IRA provisions. Suffice to say that I won’t be surprised if the net impact of all his tax hikes is close to $1.6 trillion. Especially since he’s also proposing to manipulate CPI data, a change that would generate another $100 billion in revenues.

In other words, the revenue side of his budget likely will be a bait-and-switch scam, just like the spending side is a joke once you understand that he wants to get rid of sequestration.

I hope I’m wrong, but I fear that my concerns will be validated next Wednesday and we’ll see another budget that has no real entitlement reform and more class-warfare tax hikes.

P.S. The budget approved by the House of Representatives avoided any tax increases and restrained spending to that it will grow by an average of 3.4 percent annually. Not exactly draconian, but that approach does balance the budget in 10 years.

Read Full Post »

I’m a bit of a nag on getting people to realize that deficits are not the nation’s main fiscal problem. Government borrowing isn’t desirable, to be sure, but our real concern should be a government that is too big and spending too much.

I even created a Bob Dole Award to chastise people who mistakenly focus on red ink when they should be worried about the overall burden of government spending.

But I may have to give myself the award because I very much enjoyed these two cartoons.

Here’s one from Jerry Holbert, showing Obama blithely unconcerned about the looming debt catastrophe.

Cartoon Debt Zombie

Except it’s really an entitlement problem, which is why I would have given the zombies names like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

And this Ken Catalino cartoon sort of makes the same point, but focusing specifically on the fiscal boondoggle known as Obamacare.

Cartoon Obamacare Debt

For those who don’t get the “mint” reference, it comes from a disgustingly amusing scene in a Monty Python movie.

And since I’ve already linked to scenes in another Monty Python movie, that gives you an idea of the type of humor I appreciate.

But the serious point to this post is that we will face a fiscal crisis at some point if government isn’t put on a diet.

Waiting for the crises to actually occur is a recipe for wretched consequences, as we can see from Greece, Italy, Spain, etc.

Read Full Post »

I posted a horrifying story last week about a Lithuanian immigrant who was mooching off British taxpayers.

She basically had a very comfortable life thanks to beleaguered taxpayers, and I compared her to a Greek woman who thought the state owed her everything.

But there’s no ethnic requirement to be a bum. I’ve also shared stories about American moochers and Austrian moochers.

I’ve even shared stories about terrorists getting welfare handouts in Australia and France!

UK BumsSo I hope my British friends won’t be upset that I’m now going to highlight a couple of English deadbeats.

Here are some odious details from the UK-based Sun.

Danny Creamer, 21, and Gina Allan, 18, spend each day watching their 47in flatscreen TV and smoking 40 cigarettes between them in their comfy two-bedroom flat. It is all funded by the taxpayer, yet the couple say they deserve sympathy because they are “trapped”.

Does this mean they are imprisoned? Is someone holding them at gunpoint?

Hardly. It simply means that these two scroungers get such lavish handouts that their living standards would fall if they actually lived decent and honorable lives and went to work.

The couple, who have a four-month-old daughter Tullulah-Rose, say they can’t go out to work as they could not survive on less than their £1,473-a-month benefits. The pair left school with no qualifications, and say there is no point looking for jobs because they will never be able to earn as much as they get in handouts. Gina admits: “We could easily get a job but why would we want to work — we would be worse off.” Danny’s father, 46, even offered him a job with his bowling alley servicing company — but could not pay him enough.

So how much are these moochers stealing from taxpayers? Quite a lot, particularly if you keep in mind that £1 is equal to $1.57.

The couple, who live in Hants, receive £340 a week, made up of £150 housing benefit, £60 child tax credit, £20 child benefit and £110 in Job Seeker’s Allowance. They pay just £25 towards their spacious £625-a-month home. Their lounge is dominated by the huge TV and a leather sofa. …They spend the same on tobacco as they do on their daughter’s milk and nappies.

Gee, isn’t that nice. Taxpayers are even financing their cigarettes.

I blame Danny and Gina for being a couple of bums, but I also blame British politicians for creating a lavish welfare state that enables this awful behavior.

It’s not that people are trapped in poverty, but they definitely are lured into dependency.

By the way, the same problem exists in the United States. Indeed, this chart shows that the plethora of freebies from taxpayers means a household can be better off with $29,000 of income rather than $69,000 of income.

No wonder the poverty rate stopped falling once the so-called War on Poverty began.

For more information, here’s a short debate I had about the topic, and here’s a video explaining how the welfare state is bad for both poor people and taxpayers.

Read Full Post »

If you don’t want to be depressed, you should stop reading right now.

You probably know that we’ve been suffering because of a rising burden of government spending. And you probably understand that much of the problem is the relentless growth of redistribution and transfer programs.

But you probably don’t realize how far America has traveled in the wrong direction.

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute rips apart President Obama’s empty assertion that the welfare state is desirable.

…the president is tired of listening to critics of America’s entitlement programs, and as far as he is concerned, the discussion is now over. It is not over—and won’t be anytime soon, because the country’s social-welfare spending is generating severe and mounting hazards for the nation. These hazards are not only fiscal but moral.

Eberstadt shares a bunch of bullet points that should worry anybody who cares about the future of the nation, starting with an inverse version of Mitchell’s Golden Rule. Handouts have been growing twice as fast as overall personal income!

• Over the 50-plus years since 1960, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, entitlement transfers—government payments of cash, goods and services to citizens—have been growing twice as fast as overall personal income. Government transfers now account for nearly 18% of all personal income in America—up from 6% in 1960.

• According to the BEA, America’s myriad social-welfare programs (the federal bureaucracy apparently cannot determine exactly how many of these there are) currently dispense entitlement benefits of more than $2.3 trillion annually. Since those entitlements must be paid for—either through taxes or borrowing—the burden of entitlement spending now amounts to over $7,400 per American man, woman and child.

The $7400 figure for per-capita redistribution burden is astounding. Others have calculated that this is akin to $60,000 for every poor household.

Dependency Burden 49 percentAnd even though I’ve written about the 49 percent figure, I had no idea that such a small portion was due to the aging population.

• According to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly half (49%) of Americans today live in homes receiving one or more government transfer benefits. That percentage is up almost 20 points from the early 1980s. And contrary to what the Obama White House team suggested during the election campaign, this leap is not due to the aging of the population. In fact, only about one-tenth of the increase is due to upticks in old-age pensions and health-care programs for seniors.

A big problem is that many working-age people have decided not to work.

• As entitlement outlays have risen, there has been flight of men from the work force. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the proportion of adult men 20 and older working or seeking work dropped by 13 percentage points between 1948 and 2008. …In December 2012, more than 8.8 million working-age men and women took such disability payments from the government—nearly three times as many as in December 1990. For every 17 people in the labor force, there is now one recipient of Social Security disability program payments.

The solution, of course, is entitlement reform.

But that’s just part of the answer. We also need to change the culture. If people decide it is okay to live off the government, even leftists have begun to admit that it is very hard to re-create a system of self reliance.

Read Full Post »

The welfare state creates some amazingly pathetic and disgusting individuals.

But I’ve never found a match for Olga, a Greek woman who thinks it is government’s job to take care of her from cradle to grave.

At least not until now. I’m excited to announce that Olga has a soulmate named Natalija. She’s from Lithuania, but she now lives in England, and she doubtlessly will inspire Olga on how to live off the state.

UK Welfare Horror StoryHere’s some of what The Sun reported about this very successful moocher.

Natalija Belova, 33, told The Sun how she spurns full-time work — yet can afford foreign holidays and buys designer clothes. The Lithuanian said: “British benefits give me and my daughter a good life.” She has milked soft-touch Britain for £50,000 in benefits and yesterday said: “I simply take what is given to me.”

And what is given to her? Quite a lot.

The graduate, who became a single mum after she arrived here, rakes in more than £1,000 a month in handouts — £14,508 a year — to fund her love of designer clothes, jaunts to the Spanish sun and nightclubbing. She bragged: “I have a lovely, fully-furnished flat and money to live properly on. …Her handouts total £279 a week — with housing benefit contributing £183, child tax credit adding £56, child benefit £20 and her council tax being paid to the tune of £20.

UK Welfare HandoutsYou might expect Natalija to be grateful, but you’d be wrong.

But she does have one criticism. Natalija moaned: “I think they should help pay for private nannies, rather than just free nursery.” …Natalija vowed: “I am not going to work like a dog on minimum wage.” She added: “I don’t care what anyone thinks. I’m not doing anything wrong. “I know people won’t like to read this, but what would they do? “Would they not take the money that was being handed to them to stay with their child all day?”

I’ve written about the benefits of tax competition between nations. Well, this story shows the perverse impact of welfare competition between countries.

Speaking at her two-bedroom pad that came fully furnished in Watford, Herts, courtesy of the taxpayer, grateful Natalija said: “In Lithuania the benefits system does not pay enough. “I have a friend over there who is a single mother. “She only gets £20 a month in child benefit, plus some discounted help with gas and electricity — and some housing help. “It’s not enough to keep a normal level of life, like here. “If I was on benefits there, I couldn’t afford nice clothes or the holidays abroad.” She went on: “I am sure people will say I should return to Lithuania. But that won’t be happening. Being in Britain offers me far better benefits.”

We also have a remarkable example of labor supply economics. This is the real-world example of these charts showing how the British welfare state destroys incentives.

She is careful to work fewer than 16 hours a week so that the benefits keep rolling in. But her wages boost her income to more than £400 a week. On top of that she gets free childcare, fruit and milk vouchers — and even a clothes allowance for “job interviews”. Natalija said: “It is a strange system in this country. Basically, the fewer hours I work, the more I can earn on benefits. But that’s the way it is and it is not my fault.” …She insisted she would be prepared to get a full-time job — but only if the salary tops £25,000. …”Some people may think I am picky. But I am a realist. I need a full-time job that pays at least £25,000 — that is just enough to cover all my living costs that benefits currently pay for. “Otherwise working full time is not worth my while. “If I worked full time, I’d have to pay for childcare costs as well as rent and all my bills. “The benefits system in this country means that I do not have to do this.”

By the way, here’s a chart showing the same destructive policies in the United States.

Let’s look at one last excerpt about Natalija. British taxpayers can take comfort in the fact that this human tick is living a nice life.

In September she escaped the dreary British summer by jetting off with her daughter for a sun-kissed week in Spain. Last month she enjoyed a second holiday — back in her Lithuanian homeland. Natalija, who has three credit cards and loves to go on sprees at designer clothes stores, crowed: “After our holiday to Malaga, we went to Lithuania over Christmas and spent £1,000.” She continued: “I love to buy clothes on my credit cards and often have a blow-out at stores like Roberto Cavalli and the Armani Exchange. …”I also enjoy going to nightclubs and parties with my friends. It’s important to go out and get dressed up. It’s good for my self-esteem.”

Her self esteem has been boosted? Oh, joy!

And I can just imagine how much self esteem her daughter will have after growing up with a moocher for a mother.

John Hinderaker of Powerline was first on this horrific story and his analysis is very much worth reading as well. But since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I figured I would share the story and add some of my thoughts.

By the way, if you want more than just horrifying anecdotes, click here for a video that looks at the dismal impact of the American welfare state and click here to see how Obama has exacerbated the negative effects of such policies in America.

Read Full Post »

This is a tough question.

I obviously want comprehensive reform of all entitlement programs, so selecting just one is a bit of a challenge. Sort of like being asked to pick your favorite kid.

Would I reform Social Security? That’s a logical choice. It’s the biggest program in the federal budget, so it’s presumably the biggest problem.

And it sure would be nice to have personal retirement accounts, just like Australia, Chile, and other nations that have modernized their systems.

CBO Health Care Long Term Spending ForecastBut Medicare and Medicaid are growing faster than Social Security and the Congressional Budget Office projects that those two entitlements eventually will become a bigger burden on taxpayers than Social Security.

And since our goal should be to minimize the long-run burden of government spending, that suggests that it’s more important to reform the healthcare entitlements.

But which program should be fixed first?

There’s certainly a strong case to deal with Medicare. The health program for the elderly already is very expensive and it’s going to become even more of a budget buster because of demographic changes.

Moreover, shifting to a “premium support” system would be good for seniors since they would have the ability to pick a plan best suited to their needs. Basically the same type of system now available to members of Congress.

All things considered, though, I would deal first with Medicaid. There are three reasons why I would target the health program designed to supposedly help the poor?

  1. Medicaid is hugely expensive today and will become even more costly over time.
  2. The block-grant reform proposal is a good first step for restoring federalism.
  3. Obamacare can be partly repealed by block-granting the exchange subsidies as part of Medicaid reform.

For more information, here’s my video explaining how to reform the program.

I’m not going to cry – or even complain – if politicians instead decide to fix Medicare or Social Security. Just so long as they’re taking steps in the right direction, I’ll be happy.

What I don’t want to see, however, is a gimmicky plan such as Simpson-Bowles that merely papers over the underlying problems for a couple of years. The wrong type of entitlement reform is probably worse than doing nothing.

Read Full Post »

Since I routinely spread a message of doom and gloom about the ever-expanding welfare state and warn about the potential for European-style fiscal collapse, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I’ve received several emails asking me variants of this question: “Do you think the United States can be rescued?”

Or sometimes, I get questions that I think are somewhat related, such as “Doesn’t Washington drive you crazy” or “Why haven’t you given up?”

I’m not sure I’m good at introspection, but I’ll try to answer, and we’ll start with the main question and then deal with the secondary queries.

To be blunt, if I had to place a bet on the outcome, I think the United States will become a failed European-style welfare state. The burden of government spending already is far too high and our long-run outlook is terrible, as shown by these OECD and BIS numbers, and I don’t think the callow politicians in Washington will fix the problems because they rarely think past the next election cycle.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll have a Greek-style fiscal collapse. Perhaps we’ll simply descend into permanent stagnation, with anemic growth (at best) and widespread dependency and joblessness.

That being said, even though I would bet on a bad outcome, I think there’s a genuine opportunity to save the country.

My job: Putting my finger in the dyke, trying to hold back the flood of big government

No, I’m not talking about creating a libertarian Nirvana, with the federal government consuming only three percent of economic output. But I think we can at least hold the line and prevent government from becoming bigger than it is today. Sort of a watered-down version of Mitchell’s Golden Rule.

The key is the right kind of entitlement reform. Our long-run fiscal nightmare is entirely the result of programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, so the solution is obvious.

But is it achievable?

As I’ve already indicated, I wouldn’t bet on it. We definitely know there won’t be any good reforms for the next four years, but let me give you a plausible scenario for what might happen beginning in 2017.

We’ll start with the fact that the House of Representatives already voted for Medicaid reform and Medicare reform as part of the Ryan budget in 2011 and 2012. We also know that Republicans retained the House in the most recent election and there seems to be a political consensus that voting to fix the healthcare entitlements was not a political liability.

There was no Social Security reform in Ryan’s budget, but we also know that George W. Bush (for all his other faults) supported personal accounts in 2000 and 2004 and didn’t suffer any political backlash. Indeed, personal accounts still seem to be reasonably popular.

With this in mind, I think it may be possible to fix entitlement programs in 2017 assuming that the 2014 and 2016 elections lead to pro-reform lawmakers in the House, Senate, and White House.

That may not be likely, but it’s definitely possible.

My job, simply stated, is to help inform and educate people so that the climate is favorable to reform.

Which brings me to the secondary questions about whether Washington drives me crazy and whether I should give up.

The short answer is that I’m intellectually pessimistic but operationally optimistic.

In other words, my brain tells me that things will probably deteriorate but my heart tells me that this is a battle worth fighting.

So, yes, Washington does drive me crazy. It is both an immoral town and an amoral town, pervasively corrupt and filled with people who seem to think that it is perfectly okay to steal so long as it happens through the legislative or regulatory process.

And, yes, I may decide to give up if something really horrible happens, such as adoption of a value-added tax. Giving politicians a big new source of revenue, after all, would cripple any incentive for fiscal restraint.

But until that happens, I think I’m very lucky that I get to wake up every day and be part of the Cato Institute’s fight to preserve (and restore) American exceptionalism.

P.S. This is the second “Question of the Week” in two days, but I neglected to answer a question last week, so I had to catch up and get back on track. Yesterday’s question and answer generated a lot of interest, so I hope this one is equally thought-provoking.

Read Full Post »

Washington is filled with debate and discussion about the economic burden of the federal income tax, which collected $1.13 trillion in FY2012 ($1.37 trillion if you include the corporate income tax).

Yet politicians rarely consider the economic impact of payroll taxes, even though these levies totaled $.85 trillion during the same fiscal year.

Yes, we had a gimmicky payroll tax holiday for the past few years. And it’s true that Obama has signaled that he wants to increase the payroll tax burden at some point to prop up the Social Security system.

But there’s rarely, if ever, a discussion of wholesale reform.

That’s actually a good thing. Compared to the income tax, the payroll tax does far less damage. And it’s not just because it collects less money. On a per-dollar-raised basis, the payroll tax is considerably less destructive than the income tax.

Why? Because it’s actually a form of flat tax.

  • It has only one tax rate. There’s a 12.4 percent tax for Social Security and a 2.9 percent tax for Medicare, which means a flat tax of 15.3 percent.
  • There’s almost no double taxation. The payroll tax applies to wage and salary income, as well as personal earnings from business activities (sometimes known as “Schedule C” income). But dividends, interest, and capital gains are generally spared – other than the 3.8 percent Obamacare surtax.
  • There are no loopholes or deductions for politically connected interest groups.

And because of these three features, the tax is remarkably simple and doesn’t even require a tax form unless taxpayers have Schedule C income.

None of this, by the way, means the payroll tax is a good or desirable levy.

  • It takes for too much money from the American people and is far and away the biggest tax paid by the majority of American workers.
  • Those revenues are used for two programs – Social Security and Medicare – that are actuarially bankrupt and contributing to the nation’s long-run fiscal collapse.
  • The 15.3 percent tax undermines work incentives by driving a wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption.
  • And the tax is very non-transparent, particularly since many taxpayers don’t even realize that the “F.I.C.A.” tax on their pay stub only reflects 50 percent of their payroll tax burden. In a hidden form of pre-withholding, employers pay an equal amount to the government on behalf of their workers – funds that otherwise would be part of worker compensation.

In other words, the payroll tax is a bad imposition. That being said, it still does considerably less damage, on a per-dollar-collected basis, than the income tax.

With that in mind, I’m puzzled that some folks want to keep the income tax and get rid of the payroll tax.

My friends at the Heritage Foundation, for instance, have a tax reform proposal that would fold the payroll tax into the income tax. Since they’re also proposing to turn the income tax into a form of flat tax, with one rate and no double taxation, the overall proposal clearly is a big improvement over today’s tax system. But all of the improvement is because of reforms to the income tax.

The Washington Examiner has an even stranger position. The paper recently editorialized in favor of abolishing the Social Security portion of the payroll tax and expanding the income tax.

The payroll tax — 12.4 percent, split between workers and their employers to help finance Social Security – is one of the worst taxes on the books for several reasons. A basic economic principle is that when the government taxes something, the nation gets less of it. Because the payroll tax makes it more expensive and administratively burdensome for businesses to hire workers, it’s a drag on employment. Also, even the employer’s share of the tax is effectively passed on to workers in the form of lower salaries and benefits.

There’s nothing overtly wrong with the above passage. The tax does all those bad things. But the income tax does all those things as well, but in an even more destructive fashion.

The editorial addresses a couple of potential objections, starting with the notion that the payroll tax is a revenue dedicated to social Security.

There are two main objections to scrapping the payroll tax. The first is the theoretical idea that payroll taxes are a dedicated revenue stream for Social Security. In practice, it just isn’t true. All government expenditures ultimately come from the same place. Payroll taxes help subsidize other government functions, and the government will use other tax revenue and borrowing to pay for Social Security when revenues are short.

They’re right that all taxes basically get dumped into the same pile of money and that the relationship between payroll taxes and Social Security benefits is imprecise.

But since my argument has nothing to do with this issue, I don’t think it matters.

Here’s the part of the editorial that doesn’t make sense.

The other objection is the massive revenue hit to the federal government. In 2010 (the last year before the recent payroll tax holiday), social insurance taxes raised $865 billion in revenue, according to the Congressional Budget Office. But there are a number of ways to recoup that revenue. As stated above, eliminating the payroll tax would make it easier to get rid of a lot of credits, loopholes and deductions. Also, if lower-income Americans aren’t paying payroll taxes, they can pay a bit more in income taxes. This would also deal with a conservative complaint that the income tax system needs to be reformed so everybody has at least some skin in the game.

This passage has a policy mistake and a political mistake.

The policy mistake is that the proposed swap almost surely would make the overall tax code more hostile to growth. The Examiner is proposing to get rid of an $865 billion tax that does a modest amount of damage per dollar collected, and somehow make up for that foregone revenue by collecting an additional $865 billion from the income tax system – which we know does a very large amount of damage per dollar collected.

To be sure, it’s possible to collect that extra money by eliminating distortions such as the state and local tax deduction or the healthcare exclusion. Compared to raising marginal tax rates, those are much-preferred ways of generating more revenue. But even in a best-case scenario – with politicians miraculously trying to collect an extra $865 billion without making the income tax system even worse, it’s hard to envision a better fiscal regime if we swap the payroll tax for a bigger income tax.

The political mistake is the assumption that more people will have “skin in the game” if the income tax is expanded. That’s almost surely not true. The poor don’t pay income tax, but the payroll tax grabs 15.3 percent of every penny earned by low-income households. And since very few taxpayers pay attention to which tax is shrinking their paychecks, it doesn’t really matter whether the “skin” is a payroll tax or an income tax.

Since the Examiner isn’t proposing a specific plan, there’s no way of making a definitive statement, but it’s 99 percent likely that eliminating the Social Security payroll tax would result in low-income households paying even less money to Washington. I think everybody should send less to Washington, but I don’t think shifting a greater share of the tax burden onto the middle class and the rich is the right way of achieving that goal.

I have one final objection, and this applies to both the Heritage Foundation plan and the Examiner proposal.

Notwithstanding everything I just wrote, I actually agree with them that we should eliminate the Social Security payroll tax. But we should get rid of the tax as part of a transition to a system of personal retirement accounts.

This is a reform that has been successfully implemented in about 30 nations and it also should happen in the United States. But an integral feature of this reform is that workers would be allowed to shift their payroll taxes into personal accounts. Needless to say, that’s not possible if the payroll tax has disappeared.

This video explains why genuine Social Security reform is so desirable.

And let’s not forget that the Medicare portion of the payroll tax could and should be part of a broader agenda of entitlement reform. But that’s also less likely if the payroll tax is folded into the income tax.

Read Full Post »

Back in 2011, I linked to a simple chart that illustrated how handouts and subsidies create very high implicit marginal tax rates for low-income people and explained how “generosity” from the government leads to a tar-paper effect that limits upward mobility.

Earlier this year, I shared an amazing chart that specifically measured how the welfare state imposes these high implicit tax rates. Unbelievably, some people would be better off earning $29,000 rather than $69,000.

Simply stated, the multitude of redistribution programs are worth a lot of money, but you begin to lose those goodies if you begin to live a productive and independent life.

And since we know that rich people respond to high tax rates by declaring less income to the government, we shouldn’t be surprised that poor people also respond to incentives.

We also shouldn’t be surprised to learn that other nations have these same perverse policies. Here are some excerpts from a powerful piece for the UK-based Spectator.

…today’s Sunday Times magazine has a long piece asking whether there is a “fundamental difference in our attitudes to work”. It’s still one of the most important questions in Britain today: what’s the use of economic growth if it doesn’t shorten British dole queues? And should we blame these industrious immigrants; aren’t the Brits just lazy? …The quality of the British debate is so poor that we almost never look at this from the point of view of the low-wage worker. Every budget, the IFS will dutifully work out if it has been “fair” – ie, gives the most to the poorest. The LibDems will judge a budget by this metric. That’s a nice, easy, simple graph. But what about destroying the work incentive? Each budget and each change to tax should be judged on how many people are then ensnared in the welfare trap. I adapted the below (nasty, complex) graphs from an internal government presentation, which still make the case powerfully. The bottom axis is money earned from employer and the side axis is income retained. The graphs are complex but worth studying, if only to get a feel for the horrific system confronting millions of the lowest-paid in Britain today.

Here are the two charts. the author is correct. They are quite complex. But they show that there’s no much incentive to work harder, whether you’re a young person or a single parent.

After showing these amazing charts, the author makes some very powerful additional observations.

…if I was in a position of a British single mother I have not the slightest doubt that I would choose welfare. Why break your back on the minimum wage for longer than you have to, if it doesn’t pay? Some people do have the resolve to do it. I know I wouldn’t. …So let’s not talk about “lazy” Brits. The problem is a cruel and purblind welfare system which still, to this day, strengthens the welfare trap with budgets passed without the slightest regard for its effect on the work incentives on the poorest. …Meanwhile, the cash-strapped British government is still creating still the most expensive poverty in the world.

The final sentence in the excerpt really sums it up, noting that the government is “creating the most expensive poverty in the world.” Sort of like a turbo-charged version of Mitchell’s Law. The politicians create a few redistribution programs. Poverty begins to get worse. So then they add a few more handouts to address the problems caused by the first set of programs. Lather, rinse, repeat.

In other words, this poster applies in all nations.

P.S. If you want some real-world examples of the horrible impact of the British welfare state, you can see how the welfare state destroys lives, creates perverse incentives, and turns people into despicable moochers.

P.P.S. We have the same problems in America, and even leftists are beginning to admit this is bad for poor people. Heck, just look at this chart showing that the poverty rate was falling until the War on Poverty began.

Read Full Post »

I’m very concerned about both the fiscal cliff and its possible replacements. It will be bad news if we get an automatic tax hike on January 1, and it will be bad news if that tax increase is replaced by an even more odious plan concocted by the White House.

Fiscal Cliff Cartoon RamirezBut the cliff is not our biggest fiscal problem.

Here’s some of what I wrote for today’s New York Post about the fiscal cliff, along with a warning that we have a much bigger problem down the road.

…it’s a fight that has important implications, particularly since some of the tax increases will have a significantly harmful impact on incentives to work, save, invest and create jobs. In a competitive global economy, for instance, it is bizarrely self-destructive to increase the double taxation of dividends and capital gains. …This is all bad news, but it is not a crisis. If we go over the cliff, it simply means the economy will grow a bit slower and politicians will spend a bit more money. And the sequester actually would be (modest) good news, since it means the burden of government spending would be “only” $2 trillion higher 10 years from now, rather than $2.1 trillion higher. And even if Obama prevails in the fight, that simply means that we get a different mix of tax hikes and spending rises at a faster rate. Sure, that’s bad for the economy, but it’s not the end of the world. The real crisis is the ticking time bomb of entitlement programs and the welfare state. This bomb won’t explode this year or next year. It may not even explode for another 20 years. But at some point America will experience a Greek-style fiscal collapse if these programs are not reformed.

Just how bad is this future problem? Gee, I’m glad you ask.

A lot of people get upset about the national debt, which is somewhere between $11 trillion and $16 trillion, depending on whether you include money the government owes itself. Those are big numbers — but if you add up the amount of money that the government is promising to spend for entitlement programs in the future and compare that figure to the amount of revenue that the government projects it will collect for those programs, the cumulative shortfall is more than $100 trillion. And that’s after adjusting for inflation. Some politicians claim this huge, baked-into-the-cake expansion of government isn’t a problem, because we can raise taxes. But that’s exactly what Europe’s welfare states tried — and it didn’t work. Simply stated, even huge tax hikes won’t stem the flow of red ink in the long run if government keeps growing faster than the private economy. This is the fiscal problem that demands attention. Absent real entitlement reform, such as block-granting Medicaid to the states, the burden of government spending will consume ever-larger shares of our economic output with each passing year.

In other words, the solution is to follow Mitchell’s Golden Rule. That’s the only way to make sure that the burden of government spending shrinks relative to economic output.

Fortunately, that simply requires some modest spending restraint to address the short run problem and some intelligently designed entitlement reform to solve the long run challenge.

P.S. If my only choice is surrendering to Obama or going over the fiscal cliff, I’ll take the plunge without a second’s hesitation. At least we get the sequester if we go off the cliff, so there’s a tiny bit of spending restraint. Moreover, if the GOP capitulates to Obama on this fight, it will set the stage for additional bad policy over the next two years (much as the acquiescence to Obama during the March 2011 “government shutdown” fight was a sign of things to come for the last years, but at least we resuscitated two good cartoons and got some good jokes out of that debacle).

P.P.S. In addition to the Ramirez cartoon above, you can enjoy this bunch of amusing fiscal cliff cartoons. Or I should say they’re amusing so long as you don’t think about the implications.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,282 other followers

%d bloggers like this: