Archive for the ‘Entitlements’ Category

Chile is one of the world’s economic success stories.

Reforms in the 1980s and 1990s liberalized the nation’s economy and resulted in rapid increases in economic growth and big reductions in poverty.

Unfortunately, the current government is pushing policy in the wrong direction.

This drift toward statism has been unfortunate, featuring higher tax burdens, more spending, and increased intervention.

But I’ve always assumed that Chile’s private pension system would be safe from attack. After all, as noted in a new column for Investor’s Business Daily by Monica Showalter, it’s been a huge success.

Chile’s 35-year old private pension program…is working spectacularly well. …savings, ownership, control, responsibility and wealth building…are the pillars of the Chilean Model — and have as their ultimate reward a comfortable retirement, which Chileans now do.

But Monica warns that an ongoing education campaign is necessary to make sure that workers realize the benefits of the system.

And that’s been lacking.

…successive socialist governments in Chile have pretty well limited their recognition of the Chilean Model to criticism of it, many of them still unhappy that it’s not a state model that’s providing such high returns. …All the issues that had been called problems were largely the result of widespread public ignorance of economics…the people who should know better aren’t educating the public.

Given that Chile has enjoyed such strong growth in recent decades, you would think ordinary people would be happy, even if they’re not aware of the relationship between pro-market reforms and rising living standards.

And since Chile has grown far faster than other nations in Latin America, you would think that the political elite actually would understand that there is a strong relationship between economic freedom and national prosperity.

But that’s not the case, and the current left-leaning government is an obvious example. It even created a commission to review Chile’s pension system, and that decision was perceived as an effort – at least in part – to undermine support for the private system.

Fortunately, it’s very difficult to look closely at the Chilean system and conclude that personal retirement accounts have been unsuccessful.

Professor Olivia Mitchell of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania served on the Commission and wrote a column based on that experience for Forbes.

She starts by acknowledging Chile’s personal retirement accounts are a gold standard for reform and then asks why there’s a desire to change something that works.

Chile’s retirement system has been hailed as “best in class” by pension experts near and far. The country’s fabled individual and privately-managed accounts include around 10 million affiliates, hold $160 billion in investments, and pay retirement benefits to over a million retirees. So why did President Michelle Bachelet establish a Pension Reform Commission that just delivered to her 58 specific reforms and three comprehensive proposals to overhaul remodel Chile’s retirement system?

A benign explanation for the Commission is that it’s a helpful way of helping people learn about the system.

Ms. Mitchell (no relation, by the way) points out that workers in Chile suffer from genuine and widespread ignorance.

…only a handful (19% of men, 11% of women) know how much they contribute to the accounts: 10% of pay. This underscores my own research showing that most Chileans had no idea how much they paid in commissions, how their money was invested, or how their benefits would be determined at retirement. Only one-fifth of the participants had the faintest idea about how much money they held in their accounts (even within plus or minus 20%!).

But if those people paid close attention, they’d learn that the private system – particularly when combined with the government’s safety net – does a very good job of protecting the less fortunate.

Chile’s retirement system actually does a rather remarkable job of protecting against old age financial destitution. …Adding the means-tested to the self-financed pension generates replacement rates of about 64%, levels even above what retirees in the US get from social security.

Nonetheless, some of the Commissioners want to weaken the current system and give government a bigger role.

Prof. Mitchell is not impressed by their thinking.

…reforms offered by others on the panel have a major flaw: these would – slowly or rapidly – eat into the money so painstakingly built up in the private accounts over time. My view, along with the majority of the Commissioners, was that wrecking Chile’s funded pension system is not the answer. Instead, this would destroy decades of national saving and economic growth, not to mention the well-being of future generations. This is an especially critical concern in view of Chile’s rapid aging: this nation is set to become the oldest country in South America within 15 years. …Chile needs a resilient retirement system that encourages continued work, incentivizes saving, and offers credible pension promises that can actually be paid when the time comes. It would be unfortunate to see Chile dismantle the system that has done so well for so many, over the past 35 years.

The good news, as you can see from the column, is that most Commissioners don’t want radical changes to Chile’s private pension system.

This is a positive outcome. Assuming, of course, that the current left-wing government follows their recommendations.

What we don’t know, though, is whether other governments learn any lessons from all this analysis.

America’s Social Security system has gigantic unfunded liabilities, for instance, and many other nations also have big fiscal shortfalls in their tax-and-transfer systems operated by their governments.

The right answer is a transition to personal retirement accounts. That’s what will happen if policy makers from elsewhere in the world learn from Chile’s success.

P.S. This comparison of Chile and Cuba tells you all you need to know about markets vs statism.

P.P.S. Here’s a comparison of real savings in Australia’s system of private accounts compared to the growing debts of America’s pay-as-you-go government-run system.

P.P.P.S. If you want to see a strong case for personal retirement accounts, click here for an explanation from the man most responsible for Chile’s remarkable reforms.

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What’s worse, Democrats who deliberately seek to make government bigger because of their ideological belief in statism, or Republicans who sort of realize that big government is bad yet make government bigger because of incompetence?

I’m not sure, though this is a perfect example of why I often joke that Washington is divided between the Evil Party and the Stupid Party.

And the fight over spending caps is a perfect example.

President Obama and the Democrats despise this small bit of fiscal discipline, which was created as part of the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA). They’re aggressively seeking to eviscerate the law, particularly the sequester enforcement mechanism. And since they believe in bigger government, their actions make sense.

Republicans, by contrast, claim to believe in smaller government and fiscal responsibility. So they should be in the driver’s seat on this fight. After all, the BCA is the law of the land and the spending caps – assuming they are not changed – will automatically limit overspending in Washington. In other words, the BCA fight is like the fight over reauthorizing the corrupt Export-Import Bank. Republicans can win simply by doing nothing.

Seems like a slam dunk win for taxpayers, right?

Not exactly. With apologies for mixing my sports metaphors, the Republicans are poised to fumble the ball at the one-yard line.

Which would be a very depressing development. In this interview, I explain that preserving the spending caps should be the most important goal for advocates of limited government.

And you’ll see that I also explained that fighting for good policy today is necessary if we want to avoid huge fiscal problems in the future.

But that doesn’t seem to matter very much for a lot of Republicans.

Let’s look at what other fiscal policy experts are saying about this issue.

Writing for Reason, Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center explains that the key to good fiscal policy (including tax cuts) is to have effective and enforceable long-run spending restraint.

If lawmakers want big tax cuts, there will need to be commensurately greater levels of spending restraint. The difficulty, of course, is to persuade politicians to implement such spending constraints and actually stick to them in the long run.


That’s basically the same message I shared yesterday.

President Obama, however, has threatened to veto the budget and shut down the government if Congress doesn’t agree to bust the current spending caps.

And plenty of Republicans, either because they also want to buy votes with other people’s money or because they’re scared of a shutdown fight, are willing to throw in the towel.

The battle isn’t lost, at least not yet, but it’s very discouraging that this fight even exists. Controlling discretionary spending should be the easy part.

After all, if politicians balk at the modest requirements of the BCA, what hope is there that they’ll properly address entitlements? As Veronique notes, those are the programs that are driving America’s long-run fiscal crisis.

…the only realistic way to limit spending growth to 2 or 3 percent per year is to reform the fastest-growing programs in our budget, or the so-called entitlements.

What makes this issue especially frustrating is that we know sustained spending restraint is possible.

Nations such have Switzerland have shown how spending caps produce very positive results.

But that requires some commitment for good policy by at least some people in Washington.

And that may be lacking. In a column for the Wall Street Journal, Steve Moore takes a closer look at how GOPers are poised to throw away their biggest fiscal victory of the Obama years.

Let’s start with an excerpt illustrating how the BCA and sequestration have worked.

…the Budget Control Act helped slam the brakes on Mr. Obama’s first-term spending spree. …In 2009 the federal government accounted for nearly a quarter of the American economy, 24.4%. That fell by 2014 to 20.3% of GDP.

He’s right. I’ve shared similar numbers showing how Obama’s spending binge was halted.

And that’s led to the biggest five-year reduction in the burden of government spending since the end of World War II.

But fiscal sobriety needs to be sustained. Deciding to have “just one drink” at the big spender’s bar is not a good way to stay on the wagon.

And Steve shares some bad news on this issue.

Congress and the White House are quietly negotiating a deal for the new fiscal year that would bust the spending caps that have brought down the deficit. Breaking the caps yet again—this would be the third violation in four years—is lousy policy. …the GOP is reportedly forging a compromise with Mr. Obama that would raise the caps by $70 billion to $100 billion. …What’s worse, the deal would likely raise the spending caps permanently, meaning…nearly $1 trillion…over the next decade.

By the way, there’s a reason why this sounds like déjà vu all over again. Republicans already agreed to bust the spending caps at the end of 2013.

That was an unambiguous victory for Obama.

And now it may happen again. Steven discusses the implications of this looming GOP surrender.

The mystery is why Republicans are so ready to throw away their best fiscal weapon… Liberals hate the sequester because it squeezes their favorite programs, from transit grants to Head Start. But it is the law of the land. President Obama can do nothing to circumvent the sequester—unless Republicans in Congress cave in. …Busting the spending caps will only reverse progress toward a balanced budget, fatten liberal social programs, and confirm what many tea-party voters have been shouting for years: that Republicans break their promises once elected.

For all intents and purposes, the battle over BCA spending caps is a huge test of GOP sincerity. Do they really believe in limited government, or is that just empty rhetoric they reserve for campaign speeches.

P.S. Some Republicans argue that they favor smaller government, but that the sequester is “unfair” and the spending caps are too “harsh” because the defense budget is disproportionately affected.

It’s true that the defense budget is being capped while most domestic spending (specifically entitlement programs) is left unconstrained. But that doesn’t mean the nation’s security is threatened.

Defense spending still grows under these laws and our military budget is still far bigger than the combined budgets of all possible adversaries.

For further information, read George Will’s sober analysis and also peruse some writings by Mark Steyn and Steve Chapman.

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I repeatedly try to convince people that the welfare state is bad for both taxpayers and poor people.

Sometimes I’ll add some more detailed economic analysis and explain that redistribution programs undermine growth by reducing labor supply (with Obamacare being the latest example).

And I’ve even explained that the welfare state has a negative impact on savings and wealth accumulation (these dramatic charts show Social Security debt in America compared to ever-growing nest eggs in Australia’s private pension system).

But if new research from the European Central Bank (ECB) is any indication, I should be giving more emphasis to this final point.

Culling from the abstract, here’s the key finding from the working paper by Pirmin Fessler and Martin Schürz.

…multilevel cross-country regressions show that the degree of welfare state spending across countries is negatively correlated with household net wealth. These findings suggest that social services provided by the state are substitutes for private wealth accumulation and partly explain observed differences in levels of household net wealth across European countries.

Here are details from the study.

We regress net wealth on income…and add welfare state country level variables. …The main result of these hierarchical linear models is that pension and social security expenditure measured as shares of GDP show significant and negative correlation with household net wealth levels. …We regard this as evidence that welfare state expenditures indeed act as substitutes for private wealth accumulation and explain partly observed differences in household net wealth among euro area countries. A larger and more active welfare state leads to less need for private households to accumulate private wealth.

Here’s a pair of graphs from the study, showing the negative relationship between government-provided pensions and private wealth.

Now here’s the part that should make honest leftists more open to entitlement reform.

The data show that the welfare state increases inequality!

The effect of a 1 percentage point increase in state pension expenditure as a share of GDP on net wealth is a decrease about 20% less wealth for households around the 10th net wealth percentile. The size of the negative impact is smaller for wealthier households, but remains at above 10% of net wealth. Social security expenditure shows a similar but somewhat weaker effect, ranging at around 10% at the 10th net wealth percentile and coming close to zero for the wealthiest. …we see a decrease in net wealth of 47% for the low wealth household, of 16% for the middle wealth household, and 8% for the high wealth household. These numbers are roughly in line with our results… Additional welfare state spending is negatively associated with all wealth levels but decreasing in size relative to wealth across the full net wealth distribution. …this mechanism would lead to increased observed inequality of private net wealth given an increase of welfare state activity.

Those are some damning results.

And the numbers might be even worse in the United States since many minorities already are screwed by Social Security because they have shorter lifespans.

P.S. Since we’re on the topic of inequality, regular readers know that I think the issue as a complete red herring. Simply stated, the goal should be faster growth and it doesn’t matter if some people get richer faster than others get richer (assuming, of course, that the rich are earning their money and not getting subsidies, bailouts, and other forms of unearned wealth).

That being said, if somebody had asked me whether there had been a significant increase in inequality over the past couple of decades, I would have guessed – based on all the feverish rhetoric from our statist friends – that the answer is yes. So I was very surprised to see this chart from Mark Perry at the American Enterprise Institute.

In other words, the politicians who are talking about a supposed crisis of growing inequality are spouting nonsense. And I’m ashamed I didn’t know their rhetoric is a bunch of you-know-what.

That being said, if their concern about inequality is legitimate and not just for purposes of demagoguery, I expect them to read the ECB working paper discussed above and add their voice in support of a smaller welfare state and in favor of Social Security reform.

P.P.S. If the New York Times can support private retirement savings (albeit by accident), then other leftists should be able to do the same thing.

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As we get deeper into an election season, many politicians feel compelled to discuss how to deal with poverty.  And some of them may even be serious about trying to improve the system.

This hopefully will lead to big-picture discussions of key issues, such as why the poverty rate stopped falling in the mid-1960s.

If so, it helps to look past the headline numbers and actually understand the scope of the problem.

Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute explains that the official poverty data from the Census Bureau overstates the number of poor people.

…the official poverty rate is a positive embarrassment today. The poverty rate manifestly cannot do the single thing it was intended for: to count the number of people in our country subsisting below a fixed and absolute “poverty line.” Among its many other shortcomings, this index implicitly assumes that a family’s annual reported income is identical to its spending power… But income and spending patterns no longer track for the lowest income strata in modern America. …the bottom quintile of US households spent 130% more than their reported pretax income. The disparity between spending and income levels for poorer Americans has been gradually widening over time.

Though the shortcomings of the Census Bureau sometimes largely don’t matter because advocates of bigger government arbitrarily choose different numbers that further exaggerate the degree of poverty in the United States.

In a column for National Review, the Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector exposes the dishonest tactic (promoted by the Obama Administration and used by the OECD) of measuring income differences instead of actual poverty.

The Left often claims that the U.S has a far higher poverty rate than other developed nations have. These claims are based on a “relative poverty” standard, in which being “poor” is defined as having an income below 50 percent of the national median. Since the median income in the United States is substantially higher than the median income in most European countries, these comparisons establish a higher hurdle for escaping from “poverty” in the U.S. than is found elsewhere.

Based on honest apples-to-apples numbers, the United States is just as capable as other developed nations of minimizing material deprivation.

A more meaningful analysis would compare countries against a uniform standard. …Garfinkel and his co-authors do exactly that. They measure the percentage of people in each country who fall below the poverty-income threshold in the U.S. ($24,008 per year for a family of four in 2014). The authors reasonably broaden the measure of income to include “non-cash” benefits such as food stamps, the earned-income tax credit, and equivalent programs in other nations. They also subtract taxes paid by low-income families, which are heavy in Europe. …the differences in poverty according to this uniform standard were very small. For example, the poverty rate in the U.S. was 8.7 percent, while the average among other affluent countries was around 7.6 percent. The rate in Germany was 7.3 percent, and in Sweden, it was 7.5 percent. Using a slightly higher uniform standard set at 125 percent of the U.S. poverty-income thresholds, the authors find that the U.S. actually has a slightly lower poverty rate than other affluent countries.

These numbers probably disappoint leftists who want to believe that European nations are somehow more generous and more effective in dealing with poverty.

But Robert explains that advocates of smaller government and individual responsibility should not be happy because the federal government’s profligacy isn’t helping poor people become self sufficient.

It is, of course, a good thing that left-wing claims of widespread deprivation in the U.S. are inaccurate. But government welfare policy should be about more than shoveling out a trillion dollars per year in “free” benefits. When President Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty, he sought to decrease welfare dependence and increase self-sufficiency: the ability of family to support itself above poverty without the need for government handouts. By that score, the War on Poverty has been a $24 trillion flop. While self-sufficiency improved dramatically in the decades before the War on Poverty started, for the last 45 years, it has been at a standstill.

Robert Doar and Angela Rachidi of the American Enterprise Institute make a very similar point about the welfare state failing to promote self sufficiency.

Recently released data show that the official poverty rate was 14.8% in 2014, only slightly below the 15% in poverty in 1970. And this is despite large increases in federal spending on anti-poverty programs.  Spending on these programs has increased almost tenfold in constant dollars since the early 1970s and increased from 1.0% of GDP in 1972 to 3.8% in 2012… Where does this leave us? If helping people achieve self-sufficiency and be free of government assistance is the goal, the safety net has largely failed. But if reducing material hardship is the goal, it performs well.

I would make a very important change to the above passage. Doar and Rachidi write that the poverty rate hasn’t declined “despite large increases” in supposed anti-poverty spending. Based on the evidence, it would be more accurate to say that poverty has stayed high “because of large increases.”

Simply stated, when you subsidize something, you get more of it.

Anyhow, all this matters for three reasons.

  • First, dependency is bad news for poor people, particularly when government subsidizes multi-generational poverty and unwed motherhood.
  • Second, the current welfare state is bad news for taxpayers, who are financing a $1 trillion income-redistribution system that fails in its most important task.
  • Third, the current system is bad news for the economy because millions of people are bribed to be out of the labor force, thus lowering potential output.

Let’s summarize what we know. The official poverty rate exaggerates the actual number of poor people by failing to properly measure income, but that may not matter much since proponents of more redistribution prefer to use dishonest numbers that are even more distorted.

And we also know that the welfare state is capable of redistributing lots of money, but also that it does a terrible job of promoting self sufficiency. Indeed, it’s almost certainly the case that massive levels of redistribution have had a negative effect.

So what’s the solution to this mess?

Folks on the left want even more of the same. But why should we expect that to have any positive effect? Indeed, it’s more likely that an expansion of the welfare state will simply lure more people into lives of sloth and dependency.

Some people on the right want to replace the welfare state with a guaranteed or basic income. This has some theoretical appeal, but it is based on the very shaky assumption that politicians could be convinced to completely repeal all existing redistribution programs.

Which is why the most prudent and effective step is to simply get the federal government out of the business of redistributing income and let state and local governments decide how best to deal with the issue.

This federalism-based approach has several advantages.

  1. Since redistributing income is not listed as an enumerated power, ending Washington’s role would be consistent with the Constitution.
  2. This federalism model already has been successfully tested with welfare reform in the 1990s and it also is the core feature of proposals to block grant Medicaid.
  3. A state-based model is far more likely to result in the degree of experimentation, diversity, and innovation needed to discover how best to actually promote self sufficiency.

By the way, this federalist system may begin with block grants from the federal government (i.e., transfers of cash to state and local governments), but the ultimate goal should be to phase out such subsidies so that state and local governments are responsible for choosing how to raise funds and how to allocate them.

And once welfare is truly a responsibility of state and local governments, we have good evidence that this will lead to better policy.

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Why are many developed nations facing long-run fiscal crisis according to long-run estimates from the IMF, BIS, and OECD?

Poorly designed entitlement programs are a big part of the answer, with the United States being an unfortunate example of how fiscal systems become unstable when politicians buy votes by putting burdens on future taxpayers.

But changing demographics is an equally important part of the answer.

Simply stated, birth rates are falling and lifespans are increasing all over the world. Those aren’t bad things. Indeed, longer lifespans are a very good thing.

But it means there won’t be enough workers to finance the modern welfare state. And when there are too many people riding in the wagon and too few people pulling the wagon, that is a recipe for Greek-style fiscal chaos.

When I explain this to audiences, I get the feeling that some folks think I’m exaggerating.

Indeed, some people openly accuse me of exaggerating demographic changes as part of a “scare campaign.”

They’re partially correct. My warnings about the need for reform could be considered a “scare campaign.” But that’s because I am scared. And I’m definitely not exaggerating.

Check out this very sobering image of how America’s population pyramid is turning into a population cylinder. Heck, our population profile will be somewhat akin to an upside-down pyramid by the middle of the century!

I have two thoughts when looking at this data.

The first – and most obvious – reaction is that we better implement genuine entitlement reform if we want to avoid a big mess. And the sooner, the better.

My second reaction is to express some sympathy and understanding (thought not approval) for the politicians who created America’s entitlement crisis.

Social Security was created in the mid-1930s and Medicare and Medicaid were adopted in the mid-1960s. And if you pay close attention to the above image, you’ll see that America had a “population pyramid” during those periods, meaning that there were comparatively few old people, plenty of workers, and then even larger generations of children (i.e., future workers and taxpayers).

With that type of population profile, tax-and-transfer entitlement systems appeared to be financially sustainable. That didn’t mean those programs were a good idea, of course, but it did mean that politicians could plausibly argue that it was okay to create entitlement programs that resembled Ponzi schemes.

The bottom line is that FDR and LBJ were very misguided, but their mistakes look far worse today than they did at the time.

So now the question is whether today’s politicians will show some actual foresight and fix the problems. There are reasons for optimism, but also reasons for pessimism.

P.S. Demography is not destiny. As I wrote earlier this year, “there are jurisdictions, such as Singapore and Hong Kong that are in reasonably good shape even though their populations rank among the nations with the lowest levels of fertility and longest life expectancies. …Mandatory pension savings is a key reason why some jurisdictions have mitigated a demographic death squeeze.

P.P.S. My 11th-most viewed post of all time (and the most-viewed item in the past three months) used two cows to explain economic and political theories.

Here’s an addendum to that post.

For more Greek-related humor, this cartoon is quite  good, but this this one is my favorite. And the final cartoon in this post also has a Greek theme.

We also have a couple of videos. The first one features a video about…well, I’m not sure, but we’ll call it a European romantic comedy and the second one features a Greek comic pontificating about Germany.

Last but not least, here are some rather un-PC maps of how various peoples – including the Greeks – view different European nations.


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Defenders of Social Security often make a point of stating that the retirement system is a form of “social insurance” because people become eligible for benefits by paying into the system.

Welfare programs, by contrast, give money to people simply as a form of income redistribution.

Proponents of the status quo are right. Sort of.

Social Security is an “earned benefit.” The payroll taxes of workers are somewhat analogous to a premium payment and retirement benefits are somewhat analogous to a monthly annuity payment.

But “somewhat analogous” isn’t the same as real insurance. Money isn’t invested and set aside to pay benefits. Instead, Social Security is a pay-as-you-go program, which means the payroll taxes of current workers are paying for the benefits paid to current retirees.

If a private insurance company did the same thing, its owners would be arrested for operating a Ponzi Scheme.

But the government can get away with this kind of system because it can coerce younger workers to participate.

Or, to be more accurate, the government can get away with this approach so long as there are a sufficient number of new workers who can be forced into the program.

The problem, of course, is that the combination of longer lifespans and fewer births means that Social Security is promising far more than it can deliver.

And we’re talking real money, even by Washington standards. According to the Social Security Trustees, the cash-flow deficit over the next 75 years is approaching $40 trillion. And that’s after adjusting for inflation!

So how can this mess be solved?

At the risk of over-simplifying, there are four options.

1. Do Nothing. Some politicians want to stick their heads in the sand and pretend there isn’t a problem. They argue that the “Trust Fund” can finance promised benefits until the early 2030s. But the so-called Trust Fund has nothing but IOUs, which means that benefits can only be paid by additional government borrowing. As you can imagine, that doesn’t bother most politicians since they don’t think past the next election cycle. But this red-ink approach isn’t a solution because the IOUs will run out in less than 20 years. So what happens at that point? Retirees would have their benefits automatically reduced.

2. Personal Retirement Accounts. The reform solution would allow younger workers to shift their payroll taxes into personal retirement accounts. This “funded” approach is working very well in nations such as Australia, Chile, and the Netherlands. Since there would be less payroll tax revenue going to government, there would be a “transition cost” of financing promised benefits to current retirees and older workers. But this approach would be less expensive than trying to deal with the unfunded liabilities of the current system.

3. Limit Benefits. For those that recognize the problem but don’t want genuine reform, that leaves only two other possible choices. One of those choices is to reduce benefits by modest amounts today to preempt large automatic benefit reductions when there no longer are any IOUs in the Trust Fund. Raising the retirement age would be one way of reducing outlays since people would have to spend more time working and less time collecting benefits in retirement. Another option is means-testing, which means taking away benefits from people whose income from other sources is considered too high.

4. Increase Taxes. The other option for non-reformers is to generate more tax revenue. An increase in the payroll tax rate is a commonly cited option. Politicians have already done that many times, with the payroll tax having climbed from 3 percent when the program started to 12.4 percent today. Another option would be to bust the “wage base cap” and impose the payroll tax on more income. Under current law, because the program is supposed to be analogous to private insurance, there’s a limit on how much income is taxed and a limit on how much benefits are paid. Imposing the tax on all income would break that link and turn the program into an income-redistribution scheme, but it would generate more money.

Now take a guess which of the four options is getting the most interest from Hillary Clinton?

As reported by the Washington Post, Hillary Clinton is signalling that she wants to change Social Security so it is less of a social insurance program and more akin to welfare.

At a town hall here Tuesday, she said she’d be open to a Social Security tax increase proposed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), her radical rival in the primary. During the 2008 campaign, Clinton had flatly rejected such an increase. Her comments this week could suggest that she has warmed to the idea, or that she is responding to a broader shift to the left among Democrats. …Clinton…described an approach similar to Sanders’s — raising taxes only on the wealthiest earners to avoid an increase for people who consider themselves upper middle class. “We do have to look at the cap, and we have to figure out whether we raise it or whether we raise it a little and then jump over and raise it more higher up,” Clinton said. …Sanders’s proposal — increasing payroll taxes, but only for the wealthiest earners — resembles the one President Obama laid out as a candidate in 2008. …At the time, Clinton opposed the idea. “I’m certainly against one of Senator Obama’s ideas, which is to lift the cap on the payroll tax,” she said in a Democratic primary debate then.

So Hillary’s original position was the do-nothing approach, but now she feels pressured to go with the class-warfare tax-hike approach.

As a side note, I think it’s noteworthy that the article acknowledges that the current “wage base cap” exists because there’s also a cap on benefits.

…the wealthy don’t pay taxes on their earnings above a certain amount each year, it’s important to keep in mind that they also don’t receive benefits on those earnings later on.

But I suspect this kind of detail doesn’t matter to Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and the rest of the class-warfare crowd.

They simply want to maintain (or even expand!) the social welfare state in America. Vive la France!

For more information, here’s a video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

And here’s a link to my video on why personal retirement accounts are the ideal option.

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I have a very mixed view of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which is an organization representing self-styled deficit hawks in Washington.

They do careful work and I always feel confident about citing their numbers.

Yet I frequently get frustrated because they seem to think that tax increases have to be part of any budget deal, regardless of the evidence that such an approach will backfire.

So when CRFB published a “Fiscal FactChecker” to debunk 16 supposed budget myths that they expect during this campaign season, I knew I’d find lots of stuff I would like…and lots of stuff I wouldn’t like.

Let’s look at what they said were myths, along with my two cents on CRFB’s analysis.

Myth #1: We Can Continue Borrowing without Consequences

Reality check: CRFB’s view is largely correct. If we leave policy on autopilot, demographic changes and poorly structured entitlement programs  will lead to an ever-rising burden of government spending, which almost surely will mean ever-rising levels of government debt (as well as ever-rising tax burdens). At some point, this will lead to serious consequences, presumably bad monetary policy (i.e., printing money to finance the budget) and/or Greek-style crisis (investors no longer buying bonds because they don’t trust the government will pay them back).

The only reason I don’t fully agree with CRFB is that we could permanently borrow without consequence if the debt grew 1 percent per year while the economy grew 3 percent per year. Unfortunately, given the “new normal” of weak growth, that’s not a realistic scenario.

Myth #2: With Deficits Falling, Our Debt Problems are Behind Us

Reality check: The folks at CRFB are right. Annual deficits have dropped to about $500 billion after peaking above $1 trillion during Obama’s first term, but that’s just the calm before the storm. As already noted, demographics and entitlements are a baked-into-the-cake recipe for a bigger burden of government and more red ink.

That being said, I think that CRFB’s focus is misplaced. They fixate on debt, which is the symptom, when they should be more concerned with reducing excessive government, which is the underlying disease.

Myth #3: There is No Harm in Waiting to Solve Our Debt Problems

Reality check: We have a spending problem. Deficits and debt are merely symptoms of that problem. But other than this chronic mistake, CRFB is right that it is far better to address our fiscal challenges sooner rather than later.

CRFB offers some good analysis of why it’s easier to solve the problem by acting quickly, but this isn’t just about math. Welfare State Wagon CartoonsIt’s also important to impose some sort of spending restraint before a majority of the voting-age population has been lured into some form of government dependency. Once you get to the point when more people are riding in the wagon than pulling the wagon (think Greece), reform becomes almost impossible.

Myth #4: Deficit Reduction is Code for Austerity, Which Will Harm the Economy

Reality check: The folks at CRFB list this as a myth, but they actually agree with the assertion, stating that deficit reduction policies “have damaged economic performance and increased unemployment.” They even seem sympathetic to “modest increases to near-term deficits by replacing short-term ‘sequester’ cuts”, which would gut this century’s biggest victory for good fiscal policy!

There are two reasons for CRFB’s confusion. First, they seem to accept the Keynesian argument about bigger government and red ink boosting growth, notwithstanding all the evidence to the contrary. Second, they fail to distinguish between good austerity and bad austerity. If austerity means higher taxes, as has been the case so often in Europe, then it is unambiguously bad for growth. But if it means spending restraint (or even actual spending cuts), then it is clearly good for growth. There may be some short-term disruption since resources don’t instantaneously get reallocated, but the long-term benefits are enormous because labor and capital are used more productively in the private economy.

Myth #5: Tax Cuts Pay For Themselves

Reality check: I agree with the folks at CRFB. As a general rule, tax cuts will reduce government revenue, even after measuring possible pro-growth effects that lead to higher levels of taxable income.

But it’s also important to recognize that not all tax cuts are created equal. Some tax cuts have very large “supply-side” effects, particularly once the economy has a chance to adjust in response to better policy. So a lower capital gains tax or a repeal of the death tax, to cite a couple of examples, might increase revenue in the long run. And we definitely saw a huge response when Reagan lowered top tax rates in the 1980s. But other tax cuts, such as expanded child credits, presumably generate almost no pro-growth effects because there’s no change in the relative price of productive behavior.

Myth #6: We Can Fix the Debt Solely by Taxing the Top 1%

Reality check: The CRFB report correctly points out that confiscatory tax rates on upper-income taxpayers would backfire for the simple reason that rich people would simply choose to earn and report less income. And they didn’t even include the indirect economic damage (and reductions in taxable income) caused by less saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.

Ironically, the CRFB folks seem to recognize that tax rates beyond a certain level would result in less revenue for government. Which implies, of course, that it is possible (notwithstanding what they said in Myth #5) for some tax cuts to pay for themselves.

Myth #7: We Can Lower Tax Rates by Closing a Few Egregious Loopholes

Reality check: It depends on the definition of “egregious.” In the CRFB report, they equate “egregious” with “unpopular” in order to justify their argument.

But if we define “egregious” to mean “economically foolish and misguided,” then there are lots of preferences in the tax code that could – and should – be abolished in order to finance much lower tax rates. Including the healthcare exclusion, the mortgage interest deduction, the charitable giving deduction, and (especially) the deduction for state and local taxes.

Myth #8: Any Tax Increases Will Cripple Economic Growth

Reality check: The CRFB folks are right. A small tax increase obviously won’t “cripple” economic growth. Indeed, it’s even possible that a tax increase might lead to more growth if it was combined with pro-growth policies in other areas. Heck, that’s exactly what happened during the Clinton years. But now let’s inject some reality into the conversation. Any non-trivial tax increase on productive behavior will have some negative impact on economic performance and competitiveness. The evidence is overwhelming that higher tax rates hurt growth and the evidence is also overwhelming that more double taxation will harm the economy.

The CRFB report suggests that the harm of tax hikes could be offset by the supposed pro-growth impact of a lower budget deficit, but the evidence for that proposition if very shaky. Moreover, there’s a substantial amount of real-world data showing that tax increases worsen fiscal balance. Simply stated, tax hikes don’t augment spending restraint, they undermine spending restraint. Which may be why the only “bipartisan” budget deal that actually led to a balanced budget was the one that lowered taxes instead of raising them.

Myth #9: Medicare and Social Security Are Earned Benefits and Should Not Be Touched

Reality check: CRFB is completely correct on this one. The theory of age-related “social insurance” programs such as Medicare and Social Security is that people pay into the programs while young and then get benefits when they are old. This is why they are called “earned benefits.”

The problem is that politicians don’t like asking people to pay and they do like giving people benefits, so the programs are poorly designed. The average Medicare recipient, for instance, costs taxpayers $3 for every $1 that recipient paid into the program. Social Security isn’t that lopsided, but the program desperately needs reform because of demographic change. But the reforms shouldn’t be driven solely by budget considerations, which could lead to trapping people in poorly designed entitlement schemes. We need genuine structural reform.

Myth #10: Repealing “Obamacare” Will Fix the Debt

Reality check: Obamacare is a very costly piece of legislation that increased the burden of government spending and made the tax system more onerous. Repealing the law would dramatically improve fiscal policy.

But CRFB, because of the aforementioned misplaced fixation on red ink, doesn’t have a big problem with Obamacare because the increase in taxes and the increase in spending are roughly equivalent. So the organization is technically correct that repealing the law won’t “fix the debt.” But it would help address America’s real fiscal problem, which is a bloated and costly public sector.

Myth #11: The Health Care Cost Problem is Solved

Reality check: CRFB’s analysis is correct, though it would have been nice to see some discussion of how third-party payer is the problem.

Myth #12: Social Security’s Shortfall Can be Closed Simply by Raising Taxes on or Means-Testing Benefits for the Wealthy

Reality check: To their credit, CRFB is basically arguing against President Obama’s scheme to impose Social Security payroll taxes on all labor income, which would turn the program from a social-insurance system into a pure income-redistribution scheme.

On paper, such a system actually could eliminate the vast majority of Social Security’s giant unfunded liability. In reality, this would mean a huge increase in marginal tax rates on investors, entrepreneurs, and small business owners, which would have a serious adverse economic impact.

Myth #13: We Can Solve Our Debt Situation by Cutting Waste, Fraud, Abuse, Earmarks, and/or Foreign Aid

Reality check: Earmarks (which have been substantially curtailed already) and foreign aid are a relatively small share of the budget, so CRFB is right that getting rid of that spending won’t have a big impact. But what about the larger question. Could our fiscal mess (which is a spending problem, not a “debt situation”) be fixed by eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse?

It depends on how one defines “waste, fraud, and abuse.” If one uses a very narrow definition, such as technical malfeasance, then waste, fraud, and abuse might “only” amount to a couple of hundred billions dollars per year. But from an economic perspective (i.e., grossly inefficient misallocation of resources), then entire federal departments such as HUD, Education, Transportation, Agriculture, etc, should be classified as waste, fraud, and abuse.

Myth #14: We Can Grow Our Way Out of Debt

Reality check: CRFB is correct that faster growth won’t solve all of our fiscal problems. Unless one makes an untenable assumption that economic growth will be faster than the projected growth of entitlement spending. And even that kind of heroic assumption would be untenable since faster growth generally obligates the government to pay higher benefits in the future.

Myth #15: A Balanced Budget Amendment is All We Need to Fix the Debt

Reality check: CRFB accurately explains that a BBA is simply an obstacle to additional debt. Politicians still would be obliged to change laws to fulfill that requirement. But that analysis misses the point. A BBA focuses on red ink, whereas the real problem is that government is too big and growing too fast. State balanced-budget requirement haven’t stopped states like California and Illinois from serious fiscal imbalances and eroding competitiveness. The so-called Maastricht anti-deficit and anti-debt rules in the European Union haven’t stopped nations such as France and Greece from fiscal chaos.

This is why the real solution is to have some sort of enforceable cap on government spending. That approach has worked well in jurisdictions such as Switzerland, Hong Kong, and Colorado. And even research from the IMF (a bureaucracy that shares CRFB’s misplaced fixation on debt) has concluded that expenditure limits are the only effective fiscal rules.

Myth #16: We Can Fix the Debt Solely by Cutting Welfare Spending

Reality check: The federal government is spending about $1 trillion this year on means-tested (i.e., anti-poverty) programs, which is about one-fourth of total outlays, so getting Washington out of the business of income redistribution would substantially lower the burden of federal spending (somewhat offset, to be sure, by increases in state and local spending). And for those who fixate on red ink, that would turn today’s $500 billion deficit into a $500 billion surplus.

That being said, there would still be a big long-run problem caused by other federal programs, most notably Social Security and Medicare. So CRFB is correct in that dealing with welfare-related spending doesn’t fully solve the long-run problem, regardless of whether you focus on the problem of spending or the symptom of borrowing.

This has been a lengthy post, so let’s have a very simple summary.

We know that modest spending restraint can quickly balance the budget.

We also know lots of nations that have made rapid progress with modest amounts of spending restraint.

And we know that the tax-hike option simply leads to more spending.

So the only question to answer is why the CRFB crowd can’t put two and two together and get four?

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