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Archive for the ‘Social Security’ Category

The Social Security Administration has released the 2016 Trustees Report, which shines a spotlight on the overall fiscal condition of the program.

In previous years (2012, 2013, 2014), I’ve used this opportunity to play Paul Revere. But instead of warning that the British are coming, I sound the alarm about a future fiscal crisis resulting from demographic change and poorly designed entitlement programs.

Which is what I did in this interview on Fox Business.

It wasn’t a long interview, but I had the opportunity to touch on four very important issues.

First, I explained that the Social Security Trust Fund is nothing but a pile of IOUs. It’s money the government owes itself, which means that the bonds in the Trust Fund can only be turned into real money by taking more from the private sector.

But if you don’t trust 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, the Trust Fund is like putting IOUs to yourself in a college fund. When it’s time for junior to start his freshman year, you’ll have to find the money to cash those IOUs.

Second, Social Security already is in the red and the rising burden of spending for the program will lead to huge fiscal shortfalls.

Here’s a chart, based directly on the data from Table VI.G9 of the Trustees Report, showing the annual deficit in the program based on today’s dollars.

Third, it’s grossly irresponsible for politicians such as Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton to agitate for higher spending in the program.

Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute weighed in on this issue earlier this year. Here’s some of what he wrote in a column for the Wall Street Journal.

Mrs. Clinton would raise retirement payments for widows as well as provide Social Security credits for individuals who take time out of the workforce to care for a child or an infirm adult.

Andrew points out that Hillary also has expressed support for increases in the payroll tax rate and letting the government impose the tax on a greater share of income.

Mrs. Clinton…has recently spoken in favor of both approaches.

By the way, the latter option is especially dangerous for the economy, as explained in this video.

Fourth, Social Security is in bad shape, but the main long-run entitlement challenge comes from health-related programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare.

In other words, we need comprehensive long-run entitlement reform if we don’t want to become Greece.

P.S. For reasons that I’ve already covered, I didn’t like being called a “deficit hawk” by the host.

P.P.S. While proponents deserve credit for being serious, I think the Simpson-Bowles plan leaves a lot to be desired.

P.P.P.S. Here’s the right way to fix Social Security.

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I shared yesterday a remarkable TV show about Estonia’s entrepreneurial miracle.

Today, let’s look at the Chilean version in the series. It shows how the South American nation, which now is ranked very high for economic freedom, is a shining example of how small government and free markets are a recipe for good results.

I don’t follow Chile as closely as Estonia, so instead of five good and bad policy developments (or lack thereof) in the nation, we’ll focus on three favorable items and one unfortunate feature.

Here are the three most positive policy lessons from Chile

First, Chile is the world champion for personal retirement accounts. It shifted from a failed pay-as-you-go tax-and-transfer to a funded system of personal accounts. Workers were given the opportunity to stay in the old system, but more than 95 percent realized it was better to have private savings rather than empty promised from politicians.

Second, Chile’s shift to free trade and away from protectionism has been enormously beneficial for the economy. Openness has produced big benefits for consumers, and also created big markets for exports.

Third, Chile shows the value of monetary stability. If you look at the big increase in the country’s economic freedom since 1975 and break it down by the major sub-categories, there have been impressive improvements in fiscal policy, regulatory policy, trade policy, and rule of law/property rights. But the biggest jump was for monetary policy. The nation went from hyperinflation and instability to a more sensible monetary regime.

Here’s the one thing that worry me about Chile.

Chile has enjoyed reasonably stable and practical leaders since suffering the chaos and brutality of Marxist and military governments in the 1970s and 1980s. Even left-leaning governments have been reasonable, recognizing that it would be a mistake to undermine the goose that has been laying golden eggs. That’s the good news. The bad news is that some recent politicians have adopted strident anti-market views. And the nation’s economic freedom score and ranking have both marginally declined in recent years.

By the way, you’ll have noticed in the above video that Peru also got some positive attention for its economic reform. It isn’t ranked nearly as high as Chile, but the progress has been enormous. Particularly when you consider how other nations in the region such as Venezuela are total basket cases of statism.

P.S. Chile also has one of the world’s best school choice systems, though it also has come under pressure from recent left-leaning politicians.

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Changing demographics is one of the most powerful arguments for genuine entitlement reform.

When programs such as Social Security and Medicare (and equivalent systems in other nations) were first created, there were lots of young people and comparatively few old people.

And so long as a “population pyramid” was the norm, reasonably sized welfare states were sustainable (though still not desirable because of the impact on labor supply, savings rates, tax policy, etc).

In most parts of the world, however, demographic profiles have changed. Because of longer life expectancy and falling birth rates, population pyramids are turning into population cylinders.

This is one of the reasons why there is a fiscal crisis in Southern European nations such as Greece. And there’s little reason for optimism since the budgetary outlook will get worse in those countries as their versions of baby-boom generations move into full retirement.

But while Southern Europe already has been hit, and while the long-run challenge in Northern European nations such as France has received a lot of attention, there’s been inadequate focus on the problem in Eastern Europe.

The fact that there’s a major problem surprises some people. After all, isn’t the welfare state smaller in these countries? Haven’t many of them adopted pro-growth reforms such as the flat tax? Isn’t Eastern Europe a success story considering that the region was enslaved by communism for many decades?

To some degree, the answer to those questions is yes. But there are two big challenges for the region.

First, while the fiscal burden of government may not be as high in some Eastern European countries as it is elsewhere on the continent (damning with faint praise), those nations tend to rank lower for other factors that determine overall economic freedom, such as regulation and the rule of law.

Looking at the most-recent edition of Economic Freedom of the World, there are nine Western European nations among the top 30 countries: Switzerland (#4), Ireland (#8), United Kingdom (#10), Finland (#19), Denmark (#22), Luxembourg (#27), Norway (#27), Germany (#29), and the Netherlands (#30).

For Eastern Europe, by contrast, the only representatives are Romania (#17), Lithuania (#19), and Estonia (#22).

Second, Eastern Europe has a giant demographic challenge.

Here’s what was recently reported by the Financial Times.

Eastern Europe’s population is shrinking like no other regional population in modern history. …a population drop throughout a whole region and over decades has never been observed in the world since the 1950s with the exception of…Eastern Europe over the last 25 consecutive years.

Here’s the chart that accompanied the article. It shows the population change over five-year periods, starting in 1955. Eastern Europe (circled in the lower right) is suffering a population hemorrhage.

By the way, it’s not like the trend is about to change.

If you look at global fertility data, these nations all rank near the bottom. And they also suffer from brain drain since a very smart person, even from fast-growing, low-tax Estonia, generally can enjoy more after-tax income by moving to an already-rich nation such as Switzerland or the United Kingdom.

So what’s the moral of the story? What lessons can be learned?

There are actually three answers, only two of which are practical.

  • First, Eastern European nations can somehow boost birthrates. But nobody knows how to coerce or bribe people to have more children.
  • Second, Eastern European nations can engage in more reform to improve overall economic liberty and thus boost growth rates.
  • Third, Eastern European nations can copy Hong Kong and Singapore (both very near the bottom for fertility) by setting up private retirement systems.

The second option obviously is good, and presumably would reduce – and perhaps ultimately reverse – the brain drain.

But the third option is the one that’s absolutely required.

The good news is that there’s been some movement in that direction. But the bad news is that reform has taken place only in some nations, and usually only partial privatization, and in some cases (like Poland and Hungary) the reforms have been reversed.

And even if full pension reform is adopted, there’s still the harder-to-solve issue of government-run healthcare.

Eastern Europe has a very grim future.

P.S. I’m a great fan of the reforms that have been adopted in some of the nations in Eastern Europe, but none of them are small-government jurisdictions. Yes, the welfare state in Eastern European countries is generally smaller than in Western European nations, but it’s worth noting that every Eastern European nation in the OECD (Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia) has a larger burden of government spending than the United States.

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I sometimes feel guilty when commenting on Paul Krugman’s work.

In part, this is because I don’t want to give him any additional attention, but mostly it’s because it’s too easy. Like shooting fish in a barrel.

His advocacy of Keynesian economics, for instance, makes him a very easy target.

And it’s always amusing to cite his words when exposing horror stories about the U.K.’s government-run healthcare system.

That being said, I feel obliged to write about Krugman when he attacks me or the Cato Institute.

Now he’s attacked Cato again and he looks like an even bigger fool.

Here’s some of what he wrote on May 15.

David Glasner has an interesting post about how the Cato Institute suppressed an old paper of his, refusing either to publish it or release it for publication elsewhere, not for a few months, but for decades. What Glasner may not know or recall is that Cato has a long-standing habit of trying to send inconvenient history down the memory hole.

When I first read that, I wondered why this was a bad thing. After all, should Cato be obliged to publish articles if we don’t fully agree with them?

But perhaps we had made some sort of commitment and were guilty of reneging. That certainly wouldn’t reflect well on us. So was Cato indeed guilty of spiking a paper we had promised to publish?

Nope.

On the same day that Krugman published his attack, Mr. Glasner published a correction. After emailing back and forth with the relevant person at Cato, he acknowledged that “my recollection of the events I describe was inaccurate or incomplete in several respects”  and that “Cato did not intend to suppress my paper.”

Since Krugman wrote his attack on Cato before Glasner wrote his correction, one presumably could forgive Krugman for an honest mistake. After all, surely he would immediately correct his column, right?

Nope.

On May 19, Jonathan Adler wrote about Krugman’s unseemly behavior in the Washington Post.

Krugman’s charge is false… As Glasner recounts in an update to the post that Krugman cited, the initial allegation was based upon a misunderstanding. Cato had not sought to suppress Glasner’s paper. Indeed, Cato had offered to publish it, albeit not as quickly as either Cato or Glasner had hoped. Once this was cleared up, Glasner forthrightly acknowledged the error. “Evidently, my recollection was faulty,” Glasner wrote. Krugman, however, has yet to update his post.

Wow. That doesn’t look good for Krugman.

But perhaps Adler’s comments had an impact because Krugman did add an update to his post.

In an amazing bit of chutzpah, however, he said it didn’t matter.

Glasner has retracted, saying he got his facts wrong. Unfortunate. It has no bearing on what I wrote, however.

Wow again.

I can understand that it’s no fun to admit mistakes. I’ve had to do it myself. More than once.

But you own up to errors because it’s the right thing to do.

Ethical behavior, however, is apparently not necessary if you’re Paul Krugman.

By the way, Krugman also attacked Cato in his column for supposedly trying to “pretend that they had never used the term privatization” when writing about Social Security personal accounts.

I’m not sure why this is supposed to be damning. All groups try to come up with terms and phrases that work best when trying to advocate particular policies.

Heck, I recently wrote about whether advocates of economic freedom should discard “capitalism” and talk instead about “free markets” or “free enterprise.”

So if Cato people decided to write about Social Security personal accounts instead of Social Security private accounts, the only crime we were guilty of is…gasp…marketing.

P.S. I’ve had some fun over the years by pointing out that Paul Krugman has butchered numbers when writing about fiscal policy in nations such as France, Estonia, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

P.P.S. In addition to defending Cato, I’ve also had to explain why Krugman was being disingenuous when he attacked the Heritage Foundation.

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The most depressing data about America’s economy is not the top tax rate, the regulatory burden, or the level of wasteful of government spending.

Those numbers certainly are grim, but I think they’re not nearly as depressing as America’s demographic outlook.

As you can see from this sobering image, America’s population pyramid is turning into a population cylinder.

There’s nothing a priori wrong with an aging population and a falling birthrate, of course, but those factors create a poisonous outlook when mixed with poorly designed entitlement programs.

The lesson is that a modest-sized welfare state is sustainable (even if not advisable) when a nation has a population pyramid. But even a small welfare state becomes a problem when a nation has a population cylinder. Simply stated, there aren’t enough people to pull the wagon and there are too many people riding in the wagon.

But if America’s numbers are depressing, the data from Europe should lead to mass suicide.

The Wall Street Journal has a new story on the utterly dismal fiscal and demographic data from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

State-funded pensions are at the heart of Europe’s social-welfare model, insulating people from extreme poverty in old age. Most European countries have set aside almost nothing to pay these benefits, simply funding them each year out of tax revenue. Now, European countries face a demographic tsunami, in the form of a growing mismatch between low birthrates and high longevity, for which few are prepared. …Looking at Europeans 65 or older who aren’t working, there are 42 for every 100 workers, and this will rise to 65 per 100 by 2060, the European Union’s data agency says. …Though its situation is unusually dire, Greece isn’t the only European government being forced to acknowledge it has made pension promises it can ill afford. …Across Europe, the birthrate has fallen 40% since the 1960s to around 1.5 children per woman, according to the United Nations. In that time, life expectancies have risen to roughly 80 from 69. …Only a few countries estimate the total debt burden of the pension promises they have made.

The various nations is Europe may not produce the data, but one of the few good aspects of international bureaucracies is that they generate such numbers.

I’ve previously shared projections from the IMF, BIS, and OECD, all of which show the vast majority of developed nations will face serious fiscal crises in the absence of reforms to restrain the burden of government spending.

New we can add some data from the European Commission, which has an Ageing Report that is filled with some horrifying demographic and fiscal information.

First, here are the numbers showing that most parts of the world (and especially Europe) will have many more old people but a lot fewer working-age people.

Looking specifically at the European Union, here’s what will happen to the population pyramid between 2013 and 2060. As you can see, the pyramid no longer exists today and will become an upside-down pyramid in the future.

Now let’s look at data on the ratio between old people and working-age people in various EU nations.

Dark blue shows the recent data, medium blue is the dependency ratio in 2030, and the light blue shows the dependency ration in 2060.

The bottom line is that it won’t be long before any two working-age people in the EU will be expected to support themselves plus one old person. That necessarily implies a very onerous tax burden.

But the numbers actually are even more depressing than what is shown in the above chart.

In the European Commission’s Ageing Report, there’s an estimate of the “economic dependency ratio,” which compares the number of workers with the number of people supported by those workers.

The total economic dependency ratio is a more comprehensive indicator, which is calculated as the ratio between the total inactive population and employment (either 20-64 or 20-74). It gives a measure of the average number of individuals that each employed “supports”.

And here are the jaw-dropping numbers.

These numbers are basically a death knell for an economy. The tax burden necessary for this kind of society would be ruinous to an  economy. A huge share of productive people in these nations would decide not to work or to migrate where they would have a chance to keep a decent share of their earnings.

So now you understand why I wrote a column identifying safe havens that might remain stable while other nations are suffering Greek-style fiscal collapse.

Having shared all this depressing data, allow me to close with some semi-optimistic data.

I recently wrote that Hong Kong’s demographic outlook is far worse than what you find in Europe, but I explained that this won’t cause a crisis because Hong Kong wisely has chosen not to adopt a welfare state. People basically save for their own retirement.

Well, a handful of European nations have taken some steps to restrain spending. Here’s a table from the EC report on countries which have rules designed to adjust outlays as the population gets older.

These reforms are better than nothing, but the far better approach is a shift to a system of private retirement savings.

As you can see from this chart, Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands already have a large degree of mandatory private retirement savings, and a handful of other countries have recently adopted private Social Security systems that will help the long-run outlook.

I’ve already written about the sensible “pre-funded” system in The Netherlands, and there are many other nations (ranging from Australia to Chile to the Faroe Islands) that have implemented this type of reform.

Given all the other types of government spending across the Atlantic, Social Security reform surely won’t be a sufficient condition to save Europe, but it surely is a necessary condition.

Here’s my video explaining why such reform is a good idea, both in America and every other place in the world.

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I’m in Hong Kong for series of meeting and briefings on various economic and policy issues.

As you can imagine, I’m a huge fan of the jurisdiction’s simple 15 percent flat tax. It’s basically about as close to a pure flat tax as anyplace in the world. There is zero double taxation of income that is saved and invested.

That’s not an exaggeration. You don’t get double taxed on the interest you earn on your bank balances and other financial accounts. There’s no capital gains tax. There’s no death tax. And there’s no double taxation of dividends.

There are only a few deviations from a pure flat tax that even merit a mention. First, taxpayers with modest amounts of income don’t have to use the flat tax system. Instead, they can opt for a “progressive” tax system that has a top rate of 17 percent, but also has tax rates of 2 percent and 7 percent, and 12 percent.

Imagine, taxpayers getting to choose the system that works best for them, instead of the government forcing them into the system that requires the highest payment!

The other deviations are that businesses are not always allowed full expensing of business investment, and there also are a handful of deductions.

All things considered, though, Hong Kong gets almost everything right on tax policy, whereas the United States gets a majority of things wrong.

Oh, and I should mention that there are no payroll taxes in Hong Kong. Nor is there a value-added tax.

That’s all very impressive, but let’s actually focus on something that may be even more remarkable about Hong Kong.

It currently has a modest-sized government, with spending consuming less than 20 percent of economic output. That’s not as good as the United States 100 years ago, but it’s far better than where America is today.

That being said, Hong Kong has some major challenges. I’ve explained before that demographic changes will put pressure on fiscal policy in America, but demographic change is far more profound in Hong Kong.

As you can see from this data, it has the seventh-highest level of life expectancy in the world.

That’s good news, of course, but it does mean a lot of fiscal pressure, even for a jurisdiction that is justly famous for its very small welfare state.

But then you have to consider the fact that Hong Kong also has the fourth-lowest birthrate in the entire world.

In other words, Hong Kong faces a perfect storm of demographics. More and more non-working elderly over time, combined with fewer and fewer taxpayers to pull the wagon.

Given these unfriendly numbers, the Hong Kong government put together a working group to look at long-run fiscal issues.

In its recent report, the group presented a fiscal forecast that shows how the burden of government spending will slowly climb to nearly 24 percent of GDP over the next 25 years.

Here’s a chart showing actual data starting in the late 1990s and then projections until 2042.

To those of us from North America and Western Europe, where the overall burden of government spending, on average, consumes more than 40 percent of economic output, it seems like Hong Kong has a trivial problem.

But it’s still a problem and something has to change. Hong Kong could finance a bigger public sector by dipping into its large reserves (currently the jurisdiction has saved enough money to finance about two years of government spending) or by increasing the tax burden.

But hopefully Hong Kong will abide by Article 107 of its Basic Law (its constitution) and limit government spending so that it doesn’t grow faster than the private economy.

And there are some positive signs.

About 15 years ago, Hong Kong set up a system of private retirement accounts in order to create a self-funded source of retirement income.

Based on a recent government report on retirement income, here are some key features of this Mandatory Provident Fund (MPF) system.

The MPF System is an employment-based, privately-managed mandatory defined contribution system. …Employers are required under the Mandatory Provident Fund Schemes Ordinance (Cap. 485) to arrange for their employees aged 18 or above but under 65 to join… The MPF System has been implemented for 15 years only. …about 2.55 million employees are enrolled in MPF schemes, representing 100% of the employees required by law to join the schemes. This is a very high rate by international standards. In addition, another 210 000 self-employed persons are also scheme members. …An employer and an employee are each required to contribute 5% of the relevant employee’s income… As at end October 2015, MPF assets had increased to $594.2 billion, of which about $123.1 billion were investment returns.

Here’s a chart from the report, showing the cumulative growth of assets, based on both contributions and investment returns.

Keep in mind, though, that it takes 7.8 Hong Kong dollars to equal 1 U.S. dollar, so $594.2 billion is not nearly as large as it sounds.

In part, this is because the system isn’t yet mature. Workers have only been making contributions from 15 years, while a working lifetime is 40-45 years.

But there also are concerns that the level of mandatory saving is insufficient. Here’s additional language from the report, which cites the private retirement systems in Australia and Denmark.

There are views that the contribution rate or the maximum relevant income level should be raised to strengthen the retirement protection function of the MPF System. Take the privately-managed mandatory occupational contributory pension plans in Denmark and Australia as examples. In Denmark, employers and employees generally contribute a total of 9% to 17%. In Australia, only employers make contributions and the contribution rate will be raised progressively from 9% in 2013 to the present 9.5% and further to 12% in 2025.

I’m personally agnostic on the precise level of mandatory savings. My goal is simply to shrink tax-and-transfer entitlement programs, particularly before demographic changes lead to a larger burden of government spending.

And since I have great fondness for Hong Kong (how can you not get a thrill up your leg about a jurisdiction that routinely gets the highest score in Economic Freedom of the World?), I want it to remain a beacon for advocates of economic liberty.

P.S. Lest anyone think I’m being too fawning, Hong Kong has several policies that are misguided. Public housing is pervasive, there’s government-run healthcare, and one peculiar legacy of British rule is that only one piece of land is privately owned. Fixing these warts would make Hong Kong even more vibrant.

P.P.S. Another quirky feature of Hong Kong policy is that currency is issued by private banks. If you pull a $20 bill from your wallet, you’ll see that it was printed by HSBC, Standard Chartered, or Bank of China. Unfortunately, this isn’t because Hong Kong has a market-driven system of competing currencies. But it does have a currency board, which – by standards of government-controlled monetary systems – is one of the least-worst options. Of course, that means Hong Kong’s money is only as good as the currency to which it’s linked. And since the Hong Kong dollar is pegged to the U.S. dollar, that might be a cause for long-run concern.

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My views on the value-added tax are very simple and straightforward.

If we completely eliminated all income-based taxes, I would be willing to accept a VAT (or even a national sales tax) as a revenue source for government.

But unless that happens, I’m unalterably opposed because it’s far too risky to give politicians two major sources of tax revenue. Just look at what happened in Europe (and Japan). Before the VAT, the burden of government spending wasn’t that much higher in Europe than it was in the United States. Once VATs were adopted, however, that enabled a vast expansion of the welfare state.

This is why I’m worried about the Rand Paul and Ted Cruz tax plans. On paper, both plans are very good, dramatically lowering income tax rates, significantly curtailing double taxation, and also abolishing the corporate income tax. But I don’t like that they both propose a VAT to help make up the difference. It’s not that I think they have bad intentions, but I worry about what happens in the future when a bad President takes office and has the ability to increase both the income tax and the value-added tax. When the dust settles, we’re France or Greece!

By contrast, if we do some type of tax reform that doesn’t include a VAT, the worst thing that could happen when that bad president takes office is that we degenerate back to the awful tax code we have today. Which would be unfortunate, but not nearly as bad as today’s income tax with a VAT on top.

Bad since I’ve already addressed this issue, let’s focus on a part of the Paul and Cruz tax plans that has received very little attention.

Both of them propose to get rid of the payroll tax, which is the part of your paycheck that goes to “FICA” and is used to help fund Social Security and Medicare.

Alan Viard of the American Enterprise Institute has a column in U.S. News & World Report that explores the implications of this repeal.

Would you like to see the FICA item on your pay stub go away and be able to keep the 7.65 percent that the payroll tax takes out of your paycheck? If so, Republican presidential candidates Rand Paul and Ted Cruz have a deal for you – each of them has proposed getting rid of the tax. The senators’ plans would also eliminate the other 7.65 percent that the government collects from your employer, which you ultimately pay in the form of lower wages.

That sounds good, right? After all, who wouldn’t like to keep 15.3 percent of their income that is now being siphoned off for entitlement programs.

But here’s the catch. As Alan explains, other revenue sources would be needed to finance those programs, particularly Social Security.

The payroll tax finances two large benefit programs – 6.2 percent goes to Social Security and 1.45 percent goes to Medicare Part A. If the payroll tax went away, we would have to find another way to pay for those benefits. Paul and Cruz would turn to a value added tax, known as a VAT. …using it to pay for Social Security would have repercussions for the program that the candidates haven’t thought through. …once the payroll tax was gone, Social Security would no longer be a self-financed program with its own funding source. Instead, it would draw on the same general revenues as other government programs.

Viard thinks there are two problems with using VAT revenue to finance Social Security.

First, it means that there’s no longer a limit on how much money can be spent on the program.

…having a separate funding source for Social Security has been good budgetary policy. It’s kept the program out of annual budget fights while controlling its long-run growth – Social Security spending is limited to what current and past payroll taxes can support.

Second, replacing the payroll tax with a VAT eliminated the existing rationale for how benefits are determined.

And that will open a potential can of worms.

…what would happen to the benefit formula if the payroll tax disappeared and Social Security was financed by general revenue from the VAT? Paul and Cruz haven’t said. …One option would be to switch to a completely different formula, maybe a flat monthly benefit for all retirees. …that would be a big step, cutting benefits for high-wage workers and posing tricky transition issues.

I imagine there are probably ways to address these issues, though they might wind up generating varying degrees of controversy.

But I’m more concerned with an issue that isn’t addressed in Viard’s article.

I worry that eliminating the payroll tax would make it far harder to modernize Social Security by creating a system of personal retirement accounts.

With the current system, it would be relatively easy to give workers an option to shift their payroll taxes into a retirement account.

If the payroll tax is replaced by a VAT, by contrast, that option no longer exists and I fear reform would be more difficult.

By the way, this is also the reason why I was less than enthused about a tax reform plan proposed by the Heritage Foundation that would have merged the payroll tax into the income tax.

Yes, I realize that genuine Social Security reform may be a long shot, but I don’t want to make that uphill climb even more difficult.

The bottom line is that I don’t want changes to payroll taxes as part of tax reform, particularly when it would only be happening to offset the adverse distributional impact of the VAT, which is a tax that shouldn’t be adopted in the first place!

Instead, let’s do the right kind of tax reform and leave the payroll tax unscathed so we’ll have the ability to do the right kind of Social Security reform.

P.S. Some of you may be wondering why Senators Paul and Cruz included payroll tax repeal in their plans when that leads to some tricky issues. The answer is simple. As I briefly noted above, it’s a distribution issue. The VAT unquestionably would impose a burden on low-income households. That would not be nice (and it also would be politically toxic), so they needed some offsetting tax cut. And since low-income households generally don’t pay any income tax because of deductions, exemptions, and credits, repealing the payroll tax was the only way to address this concern about fairness for the less fortunate.

P.P.S. Since we have a “pay-as-you-go” Social Security system, with benefits for current retirees being financed by current workers, some people inevitably ask how those benefits will be financed if younger workers get to shift their payroll taxes into personal retirement accounts. That’s what’s known as the “transition” issue, and it’s a multi-trillion-dollar challenge. But the good news (relatively speaking) is that coming up with trillions of dollars over several decades as part of a switch to personal accounts will be less of a challenge than coming up with $40 trillion (in today’s dollars) to bail out a Social Security system that is actuarially bankrupt.

P.P.P.S. It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyhow) that class-warfare taxation is Obama’s (and Hillary’s) ostensible solution to Social Security’s shortfall.

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