Archive for the ‘Social Security’ Category

We should fondly remember the great, late Margaret Thatcher for several reasons, most notably because she saved the United Kingdom from economic collapse.

I’m especially a fan of her famous observation that socialism fails because, sooner or later, you run out of other people’s money.

Though apparently the real quote (as opposed to the versions that circulate on the Internet) is “they always run out of other people’s money.”

And that’s exactly what’s happening in Brazil. It’s even gotten to the point that the New York Times has noticed. Here are some excerpts from a very sobering story about the pension mess in that nation.

It starts with an anecdote about a bureaucrat who retired with a full pension when she was only 44 years old.

When Rosângela Araújo turned 44, she decided that she had worked long enough. So Ms. Araújo, a public school supervisor, did what millions of others in their 40s and 50s have done in this country: She retired, with a full pension. “I had to take advantage of the benefit that was available to me,” said Ms. Araújo, now 65.

But the problem is that Ms. Araújo is the rule rather than the exception.

Indeed, her pension is relatively small compared to the way some government workers bilk the system.

An exploding pension crisis here in Brazil, Latin America’s biggest country, is wreaking havoc on its public finances, intensifying a political struggle over the economy that already has the president fighting for survival. Brazilians retire at an average age of 54, and some public servants, military officials and politicians manage to collect multiple pensions totaling well over $100,000 year. Then, once they die, loopholes enable their spouses or daughters to go on collecting the pensions for the rest of their lives, too. …“Think Greece, but on a crazier, more colossal scale,” said Paulo Tafner, an economist and a leading authority on Brazil’s pension system. …The nation’s economy has soured badly.

Worse than Greece?!? Is that really true?

Depends on what’s being measured. Greece has a bigger and more bloated public sector (and it’s getting worse), but Brazil ranks below Greece for overall economic freedom. So I wouldn’t be surprised if Brazil’s pension system is even worse than the one in Greece.

For instance, I don’t think young Greek women have an incentive to marry old codgers just to get a lifelong pension. That’s apparently so prevalent in Greece that they call it the “Viagra effect.”

In any event, it’s adding up, setting the stage for a fiscal crisis. Particularly when you consider demographic changes.

…economists warn that the pension crisis will grow more acute…, ranking it among Brazil’s most vexing structural binds. Officials had expected a major shortfall in 2030, but they now say that could happen as soon as next year. …Brazil’s plummeting fertility rate — which recently dropped to 1.77 children per woman, below the rate needed for the population to replace itself — which will eventually put even more pressure on a pension system already under intense strain. …Brazil already spends more than 10 percent of its gross domestic product on public pensions, similar to what southern European countries with much older populations have recently spent…an even bigger shock is expected here, given that the population of people 60 or older is expected to reach about 14 percent of the overall population in just two decades, up from about 7 percent now.

You also won’t be surprised to learn that government bureaucrats have rigged the system so that they get the best deal.

…the system also perpetuates inequality by providing special benefits to hundreds of thousands of government employees and their families. …Brazil is estimated to spend about 3 percent of its gross domestic product on survivors’ pensions, about three times the level in many rich industrialized countries. Politicians have been especially skilled at securing big pensions at the state level. In the Amazonian state of Pará, former governors and first ladies were recently receiving lifelong pensions as high as $7,000 a month, even if they served only a few years in office. …“Public pensions in Brazil have long been a slow-motion disaster,” said Raul Velloso, a specialist on public finances.

Gee, I hope bureaucrats in New Jersey, California, and Illinois don’t read this article. They might get some additional ideas of how to pillage taxpayers.

By the way, the lesson from all this is that the only stable pension system – and the one that is impervious to demographic change – is personal retirement accounts.

P.S. As bad as things are in Brazil, the former socialist president of that nation has more wisdom than Obama.

P.P.S. Then again, the Brazilians have a very strange approach to “rights.”

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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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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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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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The American Enterprise Institute has published a comprehensive budgetary plan entitled, “Tax and spending reform for fiscal stability and economic growth.”

Authored by Joseph Antos, Andrew G. Biggs, Alex Brill, and Alan D. Viard, all of whom I know and admire, this new document outlines a series of reforms designed to restrain the growth of government and mitigate many of the tax code’s more punitive features.

Compared to current law, the plan is a huge improvement.

But huge improvement isn’t the same as perfect, so here’s my two cents on what’s really good, what’s partially good, and what has me worried.

I’ll start with something that’s both good and bad.

According to the latest CBO estimates, federal tax revenues for 2015 will absorb 17.7 percent of GDP and spending will consume 20.4 percent of economic output. Now look at this table showing the impact of the AEI proposal. As you can see, the burden of taxes and spending will both be higher in the future than today.

That’s obviously bad. One would think a conservative organization would present a plan that shrinks the size of government!

But here’s the catch. Under current law, the burden of government is projected to climb far more rapidly, largely because of demographic changes and poorly designed entitlement programs. So if we do nothing and leave government on auto-pilot, America will be saddled with a European-sized welfare state.

From that perspective, the AEI plan actually is good since it is based on reforms that stop most – but not all – of the already-legislated expansions in the size of the public sector.

So here’s the bottom line. Compared to what I would like to see, the AEI plan is too timid. But compared to what I fear will happen, the AEI plan is reasonably bold.

Now let’s look at the specific reforms, staring with tax policy. Here’s some of what’s in the report.

The goal of our tax reform is to eliminate the income tax’s inherent bias against saving and investment and to reduce other tax distortions. To achieve this goal, the income tax system and the estate and gift taxes would be replaced by a progressive consumption tax, in the form of a Bradford X tax consisting of a…37 percent flat-rate firm-level tax on business cash flow and a graduated-rate household-level tax, with a top rate of 35 percent, on wages and fringe benefits.

At the risk of oversimplifying, the AEI folks decided that it was very important to solve the problem of double taxation and not so important to deal with the problem of a discriminatory and punitive rate structure. Which is sort of like embracing one big part of the flat tax while ignoring the other big part.

We’d have a less destructive tax code than we have now, but it wouldn’t be as good as it could be. Indeed, the plan is conceptually similar to the Rubio-Lee proposal, but with a lot more details.

Not that I’m happy with all those additional details.

To address environmental externalities in a more cost-effective and market-based manner, energy subsidies, tax credits, and regulations would be replaced by a modest carbon tax. The gasoline tax would be increased to cover highway-related costs.

I’m very nervous about giving Washington a new source of revenue. And while I’m open (in theory) to the argument that a carbon tax would be a better (less worse) approach than what we have now, I’m not sure it’s wise to trust that politicians won’t pull a bait and switch and burden us with both a costly energy tax and new forms of regulatory intervention.

And I definitely don’t like the idea of a higher gas tax. The federal government should be out of the transportation business.

There are also other features that irk me, including the continuation of some loopholes and the expansion of redistribution through the tax code.

Child and dependent care expenses could be deducted… A 15 percent refundable credit for charitable contributions… A 15 percent refundable credit for mortgage interest… A refundable credit for health insurance…the EITC for childless workers would be doubled relative to current law.

Though I should also point out that the new tax system proposed by AEI would be territorial, which would be a big step in the right direction. And it’s also important to note that the X tax has full expensing, which solves the bias against investment in a depreciation-based system.

But now let’s look at the most worrisome feature of the plan. It explicitly says that Washington should get more money.

… we also cannot address the imbalance simply by cutting spending… The tax proposals presented in this plan raise necessary revenues… Over time, tax revenue would gradually rise as a share of GDP… The upward path of tax revenue is necessary to finance the upward path of federal spending.

This is very counterproductive. But I don’t want to regurgitate my ideological anti-tax arguments (click here if that’s what you want). Let’s look at this issue from a strictly practical perspective.

I’ve reluctantly admitted that there are potential tax-hike deals that I would accept, at least in theory.

But those deals will never happen. In the real world, once the potential for additional revenue exists, the appetite for genuine spending restraint quickly evaporates. Just look at the evidence from Europe about the long-run relationship between taxes and debt and you’ll see that more revenue simply enables more spending.

Speaking of which, now let’s shift to the outlay side of the fiscal ledger.

We’ll start with Social Security, where the AEI folks are proposing to turn Social Security from a substandard social insurance program, which is bad, to a flat benefit, which might even be worse since it involves a shift to a system that is even more focused on redistribution.

The minimum benefit would be implemented immediately, increasing benefits for about one third of retirees, while benefits for middle- and high-earning individuals would be scaled down to the wage-indexed poverty level between now and 2050.

Yes, the system they propose is more fiscally sustainable for government, but what about the fact that most workers are paying record amounts of payroll tax in exchange for a miserly monthly payment?

This is why the right answer is personal retirement accounts.

The failure to embrace personal accounts may be the most disappointing feature of the AEI plan. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the authors veered in this unfortunate direction because they put the cart of debt reduction ahead of the horse of good policy.

To elaborate, a big challenge for real Social Security reform is the “transition cost” of financing promised benefits to current retirees and older workers when younger workers are allowed to shift their payroll taxes to personal accounts. Dealing with this challenge presumably means more borrowing over the next few decades, but it would give us a much better system in the long run. But this approach generally isn’t an attractive option for folks who fixate on near-term government debt.

That being said, there are spending reforms in the proposal that are very appealing.

The AEI plan basically endorses the good Medicare and Medicaid reforms that have been part of recent GOP budgets. And since those two programs are the biggest drivers of our long-run spending crisis, this is very important.

With regards to discretionary spending, the program maintains sequester/Budget Control Act spending levels for domestic programs, which is far too much since we should be abolishing departments such as HUD, Agriculture, Transportation, Education, etc.

But since Congress presumably would spend even more, the AEI plan could be considered a step in the right direction.

Finally, the AEI plan calls for military spending to consume 3.8 percent of economic output in perpetuity. National defense is one of the few legitimate functions of the federal government, but that doesn’t mean the Pentagon should get a blank check, particularly since big chunks of that check get used for dubious purposes. But I’ll let the foreign policy and defense crowd fight that issue since it’s not my area of expertise.

P.S. The Heritage Foundation also has thrown in the towel on personal retirement accounts and embraced a basic universal flat benefit.

P.P.S. On a completely different topic, here’s a fascinating chart that’s being shared on Twitter.

As you can see, the United States is an exception that proves the rule. I don’t know that there are any policy implications, but I can’t help but wonder whether America’s greater belief in self-reliance is linked to the tendency of religious people to believe in individual ethics and moral behavior.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which is why the only real answer is genuine reform.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What’s America’s main fiscal policy challenge, particularly in the long run?

Most sensible people will agree that our greatest threat is the rising burden of entitlement spending.

More specifically, demographic changes and ill-designed programs will combine to dramatically expand the size of the public sector over the next few decades.

So it’s really amazing that some politicians, led by the clownish Elizabeth Warren, want to dig the hole deeper.

Here are some excerpts from a recent article in the Washington Examiner.

Elizabeth Warren is pushing Democrats to expand Social Security rather than cut it, a move that could pressure presumed party frontrunner Hillary Clinton to move left. …”What Elizabeth Warren has done on pushing the ball forward on Social Security is another example of why she’s a bold progressive hero,” said T.J. Helmstetter, a representative for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, an outside group that pushes for progressive causes. …In March, almost all Democratic senators voted for a symbolic budget amendment to express support for expanding Social Security. …The messaging amendment approved by most Senate Democrats also did not specify how benefits were to be expanded.

I discussed this topic in a recent interview.

Though I’m surprised that my head didn’t explode while discussing such a reckless idea.

I closed the interview by expressing a modest bit of optimism.

Surely (at least I hope) politicians won’t dig the hole deeper when we can see right before our eyes the fiscal chaos and economic disarray in Greece, right?!?

I’m surprised demagogues such as Elizabeth Warren haven’t rallied behind a plan to simply add a bunch of zeroes to the IOUs already sitting in the so-called Social Security Trust Fund.

Fortunately, not all politicians think it’s smart to accelerate as you’re driving toward a cliff.

Writing in the Washington Post, Charles Lane explains Governor Christie’s proposal.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie…wants to campaign on a sweeping proposal to rein in federal entitlement spending on the elderly. …he urged a phaseout of Social Security benefits for retirees with $80,000 or more in other income and backed a gradual upward adjustment of the retirement ages for Medicare and Social Security, which is also appropriate, given increased life expectancy. …Social Security…remains a non-trivial cause of the government’s long-term fiscal imbalance. Its trust fund, admittedly an accounting fiction of sorts, is on course to run out of cash by the early 2030s. Christie’s plan would provide three-fifths of the resources necessary to guarantee Social Security’s solvency for 75 years

Kudos to Governor Christie for recognizing that you can’t repeal mathematics with politics.

And this modest bit of praise isn’t based on policy. I’m not a big fan of means testing, which has some unfortunate economic effects.

And I also think that raising the retirement age is sub-optimal since it forces people to pay longer into an inferior system that already is giving them a very low rate of return.

The right approach is to transition to a system of personal retirement accounts, but at least Christie has an adult proposal based on real-world considerations.

Though, to be fair, many leftists claim we can afford higher benefits and also “fix” the system with a giant tax increase. So they sometimes recognize that math exists, even if they want us to believe that 2 + 2 = 7.

P.S. If Hillary winds up endorsing Warren’s reckless plan, it will give us another data point for our I-can’t-believe-she-said-that collection.

P.P.S. Is Elizabeth Warren more of a faux populist or more of a faux American Indian?

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

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