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Archive for the ‘Entitlements’ Category

Back in 2008, the soon-to-be Chief of Staff for President Obama infamously stated that, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”

Sure enough, the Obama Administration – elected in the aftermath of the financial crisis – quickly rammed through a so-called stimulus, followed by Obamacare and Dodd-Frank.

Now it’s happening again. Politicians are trying to exploit the coronavirus by pushing a proposal to expand government by enacting paid sick leave.

Veronique de Rugy and Don Boudreaux of George Mason University’s Mercatus Center explain the downsides of such a new mandate in National Review.

It’s one thing to support temporary provision of sick leave paid for by the government when we face a public-health crisis. …But it would be deeply misguided to use COVID-19 as an excuse for a permanent policy change. …If Congress rushes through a universal paid-leave plan, …many employers will reduce their privately supplied coverage in response. Such crowding-out is what has already happened in states where paid-family-leave programs were adopted, with many companies…now requiring employees to first tap all the available taxpayer-provided benefits, which in turn has produced larger-than-expected budgetary costs for state governments. …Obliging companies to permanently provide paid sick leave to workers who don’t currently have it would impose eventual reductions on their take-home pay. The provision of such benefits isn’t costless. We can be sure that in the long run — after the coronavirus fades from the headlines — mandated paid leave would inflict a pricey and permanent toll on workers who would prefer to receive more of their compensation as take-home pay and less as paid leave. …This negative effect would exist even if leave benefits were paid for through the government and financed with a payroll tax split between employers and employees, as they would be in the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act also proposed by DeLauro and Murray… Unfortunately, the requirement that part of the tax be paid by employers is a legalistic formality: Economics dictates that the cost of this part of the tax, too, will over time fall on workers in the form of lower wages. …coronavirus is a serious problem… We must not further enfeeble American workers by using it as an excuse to enact permanent government mandates and entitlements that risk unleashing unintended negative consequences.

Here are some excerpts from a Wall Street Journal column on the same topic from Aaron Yelowitz and Michael Saltsman.

Democrats in Congress have a cure for the coronavirus crisis: a nationwide paid sick-leave mandate. …Ms. Murray and Ms. DeLauro began advocating such a policy in 2004 and have clearly internalized Rahm Emanuel’s immortal political advice that “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” …San Francisco was the first locality to require paid sick leave, starting in 2007. The law brought modest benefits and significant costs. A 2011 study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found nearly 30% of the lowest-wage earners reported layoffs or reduced hours… Connecticut’s sick-leave policy was the focus of a 2016 study…, which found a “sizeable decrease in labor demand” as a consequence of the mandate. …The coronavirus’s domestic arrival in these two states complicates Ms. Murray’s promise that a paid-leave mandate could “prevent” its spread. …Why didn’t paid-leave regimes in California and Washington prevent the spread of the disease, as Ms. Murray imagines? According to Johns Hopkins researchers, it takes five days on average for coronavirus symptoms to present. …The relative benefits and consequences of paid sick leave must be considered carefully. Using a pandemic to justify its swift enactment would result in ineffective policy that may hurt the workers it’s meant to help.

The bottom line, as I’ve explained before, is that employers don’t create jobs out of a sense of charity.

They hire workers because of an expectation that the revenue generated by those people will exceed the cost of employing them.

So when politicians enact laws to create new goodies, there will be “unintended consequences” that are bad for workers.

They’ll get less take-home pay, either because of higher taxes or higher costs (a point inadvertently acknowledged by a columnist for the New York Times).

Sadly, I don’t expect economic arguments to have much impact on vote-seeking politicians. Especially when they can exploit a crisis.

Which is a sad pattern in American history, as documented by Robert Higgs in his classic book, Crisis and Leviathan.

It’s what they did during the Great Depression. It’s what they did after 9-11. It’s what they did after the financial crisis. It’s what they’re doing today.

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The race for the Democratic nomination is very depressing. All the candidates – even supposed moderates such as Biden and Buttigieg – are openly advocating a much bigger burden of government.

I’m hoping some of their proposals are simply election-year pandering, that they really don’t believe in statism, and that they would be reasonable if they got to the White House.

We got a good bit of economic liberalization under Bill Clinton, for instance, even though he didn’t campaign as any sort of libertarian.

Some people speculate that Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor, might be this year’s closet moderate. A few people have even sent me this CNN article as proof of his underlying rationality.

…when he was mayor of New York City, Bloomberg twice compared Social Security to a “Ponzi scheme” and repeatedly said cuts to that program as well as Medicare and Medicaid had to be part of any serious solution to reducing the federal deficit. …if there’s ever a Ponzi scheme, people say Madoff was the biggest? Wrong. Social Security is, far and away,” Bloomberg said in a January 2009 appearance… “We are giving monies out with the next guy’s money coming in and at the end of — when the music stops — it’s just not gonna be enough chairs for everybody,” Bloomberg said. …Bloomberg’s past comments are at odds with the mainstream positions within the Democratic Party. …During other radio appearances, Bloomberg called for passing Simpson-Bowles, the deficit cutting plan named after former Wyoming Republican Sen. Alan Simpson and former Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles.

I have mixed feelings after reading that article.

The good news is that Bloomberg at one point was semi-rational about entitlements.

  • He understood Social Security is a Ponzi scheme, meaning that the system is only made possible by having new people enter the scheme to finance promises made to people who joined earlier.
  • He recognized that some sort of corrective action was needed on entitlements because of enormous unfunded promises, driven by demographic change and poorly designed programs.

The bad news is that Bloomberg never supported the right policies that would address both Social Security’s gigantic fiscal shortfall and the fact that the program is a really bad deal for younger workers. Instead, he supported plans such as Simpson-Bowles that would merely make people pay more to get less.

The worst news is that Bloomberg has abandoned his semi-rational view and is now urging higher taxes and program expansions. He’s presumably not as bad as some of the other candidates, but that’s damning with faint praise.

Here’s a simple way of thinking about Social Security. First, are people actually connected to reality? Do they understand math and demographics? If yes, they’re on the rational (left) side of this 2×2 matrix.

But even if people are rational and recognize there’s a problem, do they support the right type of reform (top half), which is personal retirement accounts?

As you can see, Bloomberg used to be in the bottom-left quadrant, which is bad but rational. Now he’s in the bottom-right quadrant, which is bad and irrational.

A politician who is good and rational will be in top-left quadrant.

P.S. Social Security technically isn’t a Ponzi scheme. That’s because people have the freedom to reject a con artist peddling a pyramid scam. With Social Security, by contrast, participants are legally required to be part of the scheme.

P.P.S. The logical assumption is that the top-right quadrant is empty other than a question mark. After all, any politicians who supports good policy presumably would also recognize there’s a problem. That being said, Trump could be the exception. He doesn’t think we have an entitlement problem, so he obviously belongs on the right side of the matrix. But if he decided to support individual accounts (Trump is very inconsistent on policy, but that does mean he is good on some issues), he could replace the question mark.

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When the Congressional Budget Office released its Budget and Economic Outlook yesterday, almost everyone in Washington foolishly fixated on the estimate of $1 trillion-plus annual deficits.

What’s far more important – and much more worrisome – is that the burden of government spending is projected to relentlessly increase, violating the Golden Rule of fiscal policy.

More specifically, the federal budget currently is consuming 21 percent of gross domestic product, but will consume 23.4 percent of economic output in 2030 if fiscal policy is left on autopilot.

Here is a chart, based on CBO’s new data, that shows why we should be very concerned.

By the way, last year’s long-run forecast from CBO shows the problem will get even worse in the following decades, especially if there isn’t genuine entitlement reform.

We’re in trouble today because government has been growing too fast, and we’ll be in bigger trouble in the future for the same reason.

But the situation is not hopeless. The problem can be fixed with some long-overdue and much-needed spending restraint.

We don’t even need to cut spending, though that would be very desirable.

As this next chart illustrates, our budgetary problems can be solved if there’s some sort of spending cap.

The grey line shows the current projection for federal spending and the orange line shows how much tax revenue Washington expects to collect (assuming the Trump tax cut is made permanent). There’s a big gap between those two lines (the $1 trillion-plus deficits everyone else is worried about).

My contribution to the discussion is to show we can have a budget surplus by 2028 if spending only grows by 1 percent annually and we can balance the budget by 2030 if spending grows by 1.7 percent per year.

Needless to say, I’m not fixated on balancing the budget and eliminating red ink.

The real goal is to change budgetary trend lines with a spending cap so that the fiscal burden of government begins to shrink as a share of the nation’s economy.

The bottom line is that modest spending restraint (government growing at 1.7 percent annually, nearly as fast as projected inflation) would slowly but surely achieve that goal by gradually reversing the big-government policies of Bush, Obama, and Trump.

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Social Security is projected to consume an ever-larger share of America’s national income, mostly thanks to an aging population.

Indeed, demographic change is why the program is bankrupt, with an inflation-adjusted cash-flow deficit of more than $42 trillion.

Yet Senator Elizabeth Warren wants to make a bad situation even worse.

In a blatant effort to buy votes, she is proposing a radical expansion in the old-age entitlement program. Here’s how USA Today describes her proposal.

Warren’s strategy would make major changes to Social Security, boosting benefits for all and imposing new taxes on high-income earners to finance them. …Under the proposal, everyone would get a $200 increase in monthly payments from Social Security, including both retirement and disability benefits. …Certain groups would see even larger increases. …In order to cover these benefits and shore up Social Security’s future finances, Warren would impose two new taxes. First, a new payroll tax would apply to wages above $250,000, with employees paying 7.4% and employers matching with 7.4% of their own. This is above the 6.2% employee rate that applies to current wages up to $132,900 in 2019, …Second, individual filers making more than $250,000 or joint filers above $400,000 would owe a heightened net investment income tax at a rate of 14.8%. …The Warren proposal breaks new ground by largely disconnecting the benefits that Social Security pays from the wages on which the program collects taxes.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, John Cogan of the Hoover Institution explains why the proposal is so irresponsible.

It’s a strange campaign season, loaded with fantastical promises of government handouts for health care, college and even a guaranteed national income. But Sen. Elizabeth Warren ’s Social Security plan takes the cake. With trillion-dollar federal budget deficits and Social Security heading for bankruptcy, Ms. Warren proposes to give every current and future Social Security recipient an additional $2,400 a year. She plans to finance her proposal, which would cost more than $150 billion annually, with a 14.8% tax on high-income individuals. …the majority of Ms. Warren’s proposed Social Security bonanza would go to middle- and upper-income seniors. …The plan would cost taxpayers about $70,000 for each senior citizen lifted out of poverty.

Cogan also explains that Warren’s scheme upends FDR’s notion that Social Security should be an “earned benefit.”

The cornerstone of FDR’s Social Security program is its “earned right” principle, under which benefits are earned through payroll-tax contributions. …in a major break from one of FDR’s main Social Security principles, the plan provides no additional benefits in return for the new taxes. …Such a large revenue stream to fund unearned benefits, aptly called “gratuities” in FDR’s era, would put Social Security on a road to becoming a welfare program. …Ms. Warren’s proposal returns the country to an era when elected officials regularly used Social Security as a vote-buying scheme.

For all intents and purposes, Warren has put forth a more radical version of the plan introduced by Congressman John Larson, along with most of his colleagues in the House Democratic Caucus.

And that plan is plenty bad.

Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute wrote about the economic damage it would cause.

…the Social Security 2100 Act consists of more than 100% tax increases – because it not only raises payroll taxes to fund currently promised benefits, but increases benefits for all current and future retirees. …Social Security’s 12.4% payroll tax rate would rise to 14.8% while the $132,900 salary ceiling on which Social Security taxes apply would be phased out. Combined with federal income taxes, Medicare taxes and state income taxes, high-earning taxpayers could face marginal tax rates topping 60%. …Economists agree that tax increases reduce labor supply, the only disagreement being whether it’s by a little or a lot. Likewise, various research concludes that middle- and upper-income households factor Social Security into how much they’ll save for retirement on their own. If they expect higher Social Security benefits their personal saving will fall. Since higher labor supply and more saving are the most reliable routes to economic growth, the Social Security 2100 Act’s risk to the economy is obvious. …an economic model created by a team based at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School…projects GDP in 2049 would be 2.0% lower than a hypothetical baseline in which the government borrowed to fund full promised Social Security benefits. The logic is straightforward: when taxes go up people work less; when Social Security benefits go up, people save less. If people work less and save less, the economy grows more slowly.

And the Wall Street Journal opined about the adverse impact of the proposal.

Among the many tax increases Democrats are now pushing is the Social Security 2100 Act sponsored by John Larson of House Ways and Means. The plan would raise average benefits by 2% and ties cost-of-living raises to a highly generous and experimental measure of inflation for the elderly known as CPI-E. The payroll tax rate for Social Security would rise steadily over two decades to 14.8% from 12.4% for all workers, and Democrats would also apply the tax to income above $400,000. …The proposal would also further tilt government spending to the elderly, who in general are doing well. …Democrats are also sneaky in the way they lift the income cap on Social Security taxes. The Social Security tax currently applies only on income up to $132,900, an amount that rises each year with inflation. But the new payroll tax on income above $400,000 isn’t indexed to inflation, which means the tax would ensnare ever more taxpayers over time. …The new 14.8% Social Security payroll-tax rate would come on top of the 37% federal income-tax rate, plus 2.9% for Medicare today (split between employer and employee), plus the 0.9% ObamaCare surcharge on income above $200,000 and 3.8% surcharge on investment income. …As lifespans increase, the U.S. needs more working seniors contributing to the economy. Yet higher Social Security benefits can induce earlier retirement if people think they don’t have to save as much. Higher marginal tax rates on Social Security benefits and income also discourage healthy seniors from working.

Now imagine those bad results and add in the economic damage from a 14.8 percentage point increase in the tax burden on saving and investment, which is the main wrinkle that Senator Warren has added.

Last but not least, using Social Security as an excuse to push higher taxes is not a new strategy. Back in 2008 when he was in the Senate and running for the White House, Barack Obama proposed a Warren-style increase in the payroll tax.

Here’s a video I narrated that year, which discusses the adverse economic effect of that type of class-warfare tax hike.

By the way, Hillary Clinton supported a similar tax increase in 2016.

Though it’s worth noting that neither Obama nor Clinton were as radical as Warren since they didn’t propose to exacerbate the tax code’s bias against saving and investment.

And don’t forget she also wants higher capital gains taxes and a punitive wealth tax.

Her overall tax agenda is unquestionably going to be very bad news for job creation and American competitiveness.

The “rich” are the primary targets of her tax hikes, but the rest of us will suffer the collateral damage.

P.S. Instead of huge tax increases, personal retirement accounts are a far better way of addressing Social Security’s long-run problem. I’ve written favorably about the Australian system, the Chilean system, the Hong Kong system, the Swiss system, the Dutch system, the Swedish system. Heck, I even like the system in the Faroe Islands.

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Every year, the Social Security Administration issues a “Trustees Report” that summarizes the program’s financing. So every year (see 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, etc) I cut through all the verbiage and focus the numbers that really matter.

First, here’s the data from Table VI.G9 showing annual spending and annual revenue, and the numbers are adjusted for inflation. Everything to the left of the vertical red line is historical data. Everything to the right is an estimate based on “intermediate” economic and demographic projections.

The bad news is that there’s a never-ending increase in the program’s fiscal burden.

The only good news is that country presumably will be much richer in the future, so we’ll have more income to pay all those taxes and finance all that spending.

That being said, the fiscal burden is projected to increase faster than our income, so the economic burden of Social Security will increase over time.

But there’s also a wild card to consider. Simply stated, we have more data from Table VI.G9 that shows the program has a giant, ever-expanding deficit.

Here are the grim numbers (though not quite as grim as last year when the cumulative shortfall was $43.7 trillion). Once again, everything to the left of the line is historical data and everything to the right is a projection.

The obvious takeaway is that the program is bankrupt.

Indeed, a private pension fund with these numbers would have been shut down a long time ago. And its executives would be in prison for running a Ponzi Scheme.

Politicians won’t put themselves in prison, of course, but they eventually will be forced to address Social Security’s huge shortfall. If nothing else, the so-called Trust Fund (which isn’t a real Trust Fund since it is filled with IOUs) runs out of money in 2035.

The interesting question is what sort of “solution” they choose when the crisis occurs.

Sadly, many politicians are gravitating to a plan to impose ever-higher taxes to prop up the system.

A far better approach is personal retirement accounts. I’ve written favorably about the Australian system, the Chilean system, the Hong Kong system, the Swiss system, the Dutch system, the Swedish system. Heck, I even like the system in the Faroe Islands.

The bottom line is that there’s been a worldwide revolution in favor of private savings and the United States is falling behind.

P.S. If you have some statist friends and family who get confused by numbers, here’s a set of cartoons that shows the need for Social Security reform.

P.P.S. As I explain in this video, reform does not mean reducing benefits for current retirees, or even older workers.

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When I write about Social Security, I normally focus on the program’s huge fiscal imbalance ($44 trillion and climbing).

But it’s not just a fiscal crisis. Social Security is also an increasingly bad deal for workers. Especially minorities with lower average lifespans. When compared to what they would get from a private retirement system, people are paying in too much and getting out too little.

There’s also another major problem with the program.

Academic experts have quantified how older workers are lured out of the labor force when they get money from the government. And since economic output is a function of the quality and quantity of labor and capital, this means we’re sacrificing wealth and reducing prosperity.

Here are some excerpts from a study by Professors Daniel Fetter and Lee Lockwood.

Many of the most important government programs, including Social Security and Medicare, transfer resources to older people… Standard economic theory predicts that such programs reduce late-life labor supply and that the implicit taxation reduces the ex-post value of the programs to recipients. Understanding the size and nature of such effects on labor supply and welfare is an increasingly important issue, as demographic trends have increased both the potential labor supply of the elderly and its aggregate importance, while simultaneously increasing the need for reforms to government old-age support programs. …We address these questions by investigating Old Age Assistance (OAA), a means-tested program introduced in the 1930s alongside Social Security that later became the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program.

Here are charts illustrating how people are retiring earlier in part because of government payments.

And here are some calculations from the study.

Our estimates indicate that OAA significantly reduced labor force participation among older individuals. The basic patterns that we explore in the data are evident in Figure 2, which plots male labor force participation by age, separately for states with above- and belowmedian OAA payments per person 65 and older. Up to age 65, the age pattern of labor force participation was extremely similar in states with larger and smaller OAA programs. At age 65, however, there was a sharp divergence in labor force participation between states with larger OAA programs relative to those with smaller programs, and this divergence continued at older ages. Our regression results, which isolate variation in OAA program size due to state policy differences, imply that OAA can explain more than half of the large 1930–40 drop in labor force participation of men aged 65–74. …Our results suggest that Social Security had the potential to drive at least half—and likely more—of the mid-century decline in late-life labor supply for men. …Taken as a whole, our results suggest that government old-age support programs can have large effects on labor supply, through both their transfer and taxation components.

This chart captures how old-age payments in various states were associated with varying degrees of labor force participation.

By the way, I’m not sharing this information because it’s bad for people to retire at some point.

I’m merely establishing that there’s academic support for the common-sense observation that people are more likely to leave the labor force when there’s an alternative source of income (though it’s worth noting that there should be a sensible and sustainable system for providing that retirement income).

Moreover, people are likely to stop working when government systems give them money before age 65.

Three academics, Andres Erosa, Luisa Fuster, and Gueorgui Kambourov, have a study quantifying this problem in European nations.

There are substantial differences in labor supply and in the design of tax and transfer programs across countries. The cross-country differences in labor supply increase dramatically late in the life cycle…while differences in employment rates among eight European countries are in the order of 15 percentage points for the 50-54 age group, they increase to 35 percentage points for the 55-59 age group and to more than 50 percentage points for the 60-64 age group. In this paper we quantitatively assess the role of social security, disability insurance, and taxation for understanding differences in labor supply late in the life cycle (age 50+) across European countries and the United States. … The social security, disability insurance, and taxation systems in the United States and European countries in the study are modelled in great detail.

Here’s a sampling of their results.

The main findings are that the model accounts fairly well for how labor supply decreases late in the life cycle for most countries. The model matches remarkably well the large decline in the aggregate labor supply after age 50 in Spain, Italy, and the Netherlands. The results support the view that government policies can go a long way towards accounting for the low labor supply late in the life cycle for these European countries relative to the United States, with social security rules accounting for the bulk of these effects… relative to the United States, the hours worked by men aged 60-64 is…49% in the Netherlands, 66% in Spain, 44% in Italy, and 29% in France. …government policies can go a long way towards accounting for labor supply differences across countries. Social security rules account for the bulk of cross country differences in labor supply late in the life cycle (with its contribution varying from 50% to 100%), but other policies also matter. In accounting for the low labor supply relative to the US at ages 60 to 64, taxes matter importantly in the Netherlands (6%), Italy (6%), and France (5%); disability insurance policies are important for the Netherlands (7%) and Spain (10%).

And here’s one of their charts comparing hours worked at various ages in Switzerland, Spain, France, and the United States.

The good news is that we don’t push people out of the labor force as much as the French and the Spanish.

The bad news is that we’re not as good as Switzerland (probably in part because the Swiss have a retirement system based on private saving, so they have the ideal combination of good work incentives and comfortable retirement).

But it shouldn’t matter whether other countries have good systems or bad systems. What does matter is that America’s demographic profile is changing. We’re living longer and having fewer children and our system of entitlements is a mess.

We should be reforming these programs, both for fiscal reasons and economic reasons.

P.S. It’s not just Social Security. Other programs also lure people out of the job market and into government dependency, with Obamacare being an especially harmful example.

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The world is in the middle of a dramatic demographic transition caused by increasing lifespans and falling birthrates.

One consequence of this change is that traditional tax-and-transfer, pay-as-you-go retirement schemes (such as Social Security in the United States) are basically bankrupt.

The problem is so acute that even the normally statist bureaucrats at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development are expressing considerable sympathy for reforms that would allow much greater reliance on private savings (shifting to what is known as “funded” systems).

Countries should introduce funded arrangements gradually… Policymakers should carefully assess the transition as it may put an additional, short-term, strain on public finances… Tax rules should be straightforward, stable and consistent across all retirement savings plans. …Countries with an “EET” tax regime should maintain the deferred taxation structure… Funded, private pensions may be expected to support broader economic growth and accelerate the development of local capital markets by creating a pool of pension savings that must be invested. The role of funded, private pensions in economic development is likely to become more important still as countries place a higher priority on the objective of labour force participation. Funded pensions increase the incentive to work and save and by encouraging older workers to stay in the labour market they can help to address concerns about the sustainability and adequacy of public PAYG pensions in the face of demographic changes.

Here’s a chart from the OECD report. It shows that many developed nations already have fully or partly privatized systems.

By the way, I corrected a glaring mistake. The OECD chart shows Australia as blue. I changed it to white since they have a fully private Social Security system Down Under.

The report highlights some of the secondary economic benefits of private systems.

Funded pensions offer a number of advantages compared to PAYG pensions. They provide stronger incentives to participate in the labor market and to save for retirement. They create a pool of savings that can be put to productive use in the broader economy. Increasing national savings or reallocating savings to longer-term investment supports the development of financial markets. …More domestic savings reduces dependency on foreign savings to finance necessary investment. Higher investment may lead to higher productive capacity, increasing GDP, wages and employment, higher tax revenues and lower deficits.

Here’s the chart showing that countries with private retirement systems are among the world leaders in pension assets.

The report highlights some of the specific nations and how they benefited.

Over the long term, transition costs may be at least partially offset by additional positive economic effects associated with introducing private pensions rather than relying solely on public provision. …poverty rates have declined in Australia, the Netherlands and Switzerland since mandatory funded pensions were introduced. The initial transformation of Poland’s public PAYG system into a multi-pillar DC approach helped to encourage Warsaw’s development as a financial centre. …the introduction of funded DC pensions in Chile encouraged the growth of financial markets and provided a source of domestic financing.

For those seeking additional information on national reforms, I’ve written about the following jurisdictions.

At some point, I also need to write about the Singaporean system, which is one of the reasons that nation is so successful.

P.S. Needless to say, it would be nice if the United States was added to this list at some point. Though I won’t be holding my breath for any progress while Trump is in the White House.

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