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Archive for the ‘Social Security’ Category

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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Last month, I posted “the cartoon argument” for Social Security reform.

My main goal, as an American, is to achieve this important reform in the United States.

And I’ve tried to bolster the argument by citing lots of hard data, including the fact that “funded” accounts already exist in nations such as Australia, Chile, Sweden, and the Netherlands.

In this spirit, I wrote an article for the most recent issue of Cayman Financial Review, and I looked at the issue from a global perspective. I first explained that demographics are destiny.

It is widely believe that aging populations and falling birth rates represent one of biggest global challenges for long-term economic stability. How can a nation prosper, after all, if there are more and more old people over time and fewer and fewer workers? Don’t these demographic changes put every-growing fiscal burdens on a shrinking workforce to support the elderly, leading to crippling tax burdens and/or enormous levels of debt? In most cases, there are no good answers to those questions. So it is quite likely that many nations will face serious economic and fiscal challenge… Here are some charts showing the age profile of the world’s population in both 1990 and 2100. As you can see, demographic changes are turning population pyramids into population cylinders. …virtually every industrialized nation is undergoing demographic changes that will produce some very painful fiscal consequences.

But not all nations are in trouble.

there are jurisdictions, such as Singapore and Hong Kong that are in reasonably good shape even though their populations rank among the nations with the lowest levels of fertility and longest life expectancies. And other nations, including Sweden, Australia, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, have much smaller long-run challenges than other industrialized countries with similar demographic profiles.

Why are these jurisdictions in stronger shape?

Simply stated, they have personal retirement accounts.

Mandatory pension savings is a key reason why some jurisdictions have mitigated a demographic death squeeze. Whether they rely on occupational pensions, individual accounts, or even central provident funds, the common characteristic is that workers automatically set aside a portion of current income so it can be invested in some sort of retirement vehicle. Over several decades, this results in the accumulation of a substantial nest egg that then is used to provide retirement income.

And there are now about 30 nations that have implemented this critical reform…though that number unfortunately is dwarfed by the number of countries that haven’t modernized their tax-and-transfer schemes.

For advocates of funded pension systems, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that there has been a dramatic increase in jurisdictions that have adopted some form of private retirement system. …the bad news is that mandatory private retirement systems still only cover a small fraction of the world’s workers. The vast majority of workers with retirement plans are compelled to participate in pay-as-you-go government schemes.

Unsurprisingly, I explain why personal retirement accounts are much better for the overall economy.

Economists have been concerned about a triple-whammy caused by traditional tax-and-transfer retirement schemes. First, payroll taxes and other levies discourage labor supply during peak working years. Second, the promise of retirement benefits undermines a very significant incentive to save. Third, the provision of retirement benefits discourages labor supply once a worker reaches retirement age. …Systems based on private savings, by contrast, have very little economic downside. Workers are compelled to save and invest some portion of their income, but all of that money will be correctly seen as deferred compensation. …Perhaps equally important, second-pillar systems boost national savings, which means more funds available to finance productive private-sector investment.

Though I bluntly admit that there will be a significant transition cost.

The…common critique of mandatory retirement savings is that…if younger workers are allowed to shift their payroll taxes into personal accounts, policy makers would need to find lots of money over several decades (trillions of dollars in the American example) to fulfill promises made to existing retirees as well as workers that are too old to get much benefit from personal accounts. This critique is completely accurate. …But here’s the catch. While trillions of dollars are needed to finance the transition to a system of personal accounts, it’s also true that trillions of dollars are needed to bail out the current system. …The real question is figuring out the best way to climb out of that hole. From a long-term fiscal and economic perspective, personal accounts are the more attractive option.

To elaborate, it’s better to somehow find $5 trillion over several decades to finance the shift to personal retirement accounts than it is to somehow find $30 trillion over a longer period of time to bail out the current system.

For more information on personal accounts, you can click here for my video on the topic.

And to learn about Obama’s supposed solution, watch (with horror) this video.

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. While I’m a very strong advocate of personal retirement accounts (my Ph.D. dissertation was about Australia’s very good system), I’ll be the first to admit that it’s even more important to modernize Medicare and Medicaid.

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Political cartoons, if done correctly, are remarkably effective tools for teaching about economics and public policy.

In this post from last year, for instance, I put together some of my favorite examples on topics such as Keynesian economics, labor supply incentives, minimum wage, and the welfare state.

Today, we’re going to try something different. Using a series of cartoons, we’re going to explain the need for Social Security reform.

First, let’s establish that there is a problem. I’ve shared data on America’s long-run fiscal crisis from international bureaucracies such as the IMF, BIS, and OECD. And I’ve explained that demographics are a big part of the problem.

Simply stated, tax-and-transfer entitlement programs don’t work very well with aging populations.

But that point is made with humor in this Michael Ramirez cartoon.

And as there are more and more old people, that means an ever-growing burden on younger workers.

I’ve shared lots of data from the Social Security Administration on the depth of the problem, but this cartoon puts it in stark terms.

Since I’m a baby boomer, I’m not sure I like the implication that we’re all spoiled brats.

But the way Social Security is designed, younger workers will face a huge burden as the bills come due in the 2020s and 2030s.

And this Gary Varvel cartoon is a close-up look at one of those younger workers.

Politicians sometimes try to assure us that the long-run fiscal shortfall isn’t a big problem because there is a Social Security Trust Fund.

And they’re right.

That’s the good news. But the bad news, as I’ve previously noted, is that the Trust Fund is filled with IOUs.

But this Henry Payne cartoon puts it in a more blunt and entertaining fashion.

In other words, there are no assets.

To be blunt, Social Security is nothing more than a Ponzi scheme.

It only works if there are more and more new participants joining the system every single year.

This produces revenue that can be used to pay off the older participants, but also creates pressure to find more new victims in the future.

This type of arrangement is illegal in the private sector. Heck, there are people sitting in jail right now for such scams.

But as Michael Ramirez points out, it’s just fine for the government to operate this kind of scheme.

So is there any alternative?

Are we really stuck with an unstable system that will require a never-ending series of tax hikes?

I have no idea if it will ever happen, but there are proposals to shift away from the current tax-and-transfer entitlement regime and into a system of personal retirement accounts.

Such “funded” accounts already exist in nations such as Australia, Chile, and the Netherlands, but some critics say that there’s too much risk in that kind of system.

But as this cartoon shows, it would be just about impossible to design a system riskier than Social Security.

By the way, this list of cartoons is incomplete. It would have been nice to have one showing that Social Security is an increasingly bad deal for workers since they have to pay more and more over time, yet they are promised rather meager benefits.

It also would have been nice to share a cartoon showing that personal accounts promote national savings, whereas government-run systems lead to debt (check out these two charts for an example).

To close, here’s my video on the case for personal retirement accounts.

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

P.P.P.S. While cartoons can be great teaching tools. parables also make insightful and educational points about economics. And they tend to be very popular. This story on “the tax system explained in beer” is my second-most-viewed post. And the “socialism in the classroom” example about the perils of redistribution is my fifth-most-viewed post.

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We have some good news to share.

A government has just announced that it is going to end the unfair practice of giving government bureaucrats pension benefits that are far greater than those available for workers in the economy’s productive sector.

Can you guess which jurisdiction took this important step, notwithstanding the greed, political sophistication, and power of government bureaucracies?

Is it the federal government in Washington, which provides bureaucrats with much higher levels of overall compensation than workers in the private sector?

Is it Ireland, which a few years ago actually cut bureaucrat salaries by more than 13 percent?

Is it California, which is infamous for over-compensated bureaucrats?

Is it Denmark, which has the world’s most expensive bureaucracy?

Is it Italy, which has some of the most coddled government bureaucrats in the world?

Is it New Jersey, where it’s possible for a bureaucrat to have six government jobs at the same time?

Is it the Cayman Islands, which actually contemplated the imposition of an income tax to finance its bloated bureaucracy?

Is it Portugal, which overpays bureaucrats more than any other nation?

Those jurisdictions are all be good guesses. Or, to be more accurate, that’s a good list of jurisdictions where reform is desperately needed.

But all those guesses are wrong. The nation that is ending special pension privileges for government bureaucrats is the People’s Republic of China.

Yes, you read correctly. A communist-run nation is implementing this pro-market reform. Here are some of the details from CNTV.

China will reform its public sector pension system to reduce disparity between the public and private sectors, Vice-Premier Ma Kai said Tuesday… Under China’s dual pension system, civil servants and employees in state agencies do not need to pay for their pensions — the government provides full support for them. But employees of private enterprises have to pay 8 percent of their salary to a pension account. After retirement, private urban employees usually get a pension equal to about half of their final salary, but civil servants get much more without making any financial contribution. …now the reform is coming. The aim is to build a system for Party, government and public institution staff that is similar to the one used by the private sector. This move will affect around 37 million people: 7 million civil servants and 30 million public institution staff.

Wow, bureaucrats will have to live under the same rules as folks in the private sector.

What a radical concept! Maybe we could even try it in the United States at some point.

By the way, one additional indirect feature of the story is worth a mention. China actually has the beginnings of a private Social Security system.

Because the system is still developing, I don’t put it on my list of nations with private Social Security (though it is on the Social Security Administration’s list), but the goal is to slowly but surely shift to a funded system.

Assuming that actually happens, China could mitigate the fiscal consequences of a very large demographic crisis caused by that nation’s barbaric one-child policy.

In any event, China’s at least moving in the right direction (see here, here, and here for more information), which is more than can be said for the United States.

P.S. While China has moved in the right direction in recent decades, it still gets a relatively low score from Economic Freedom of the World. Which helps to explain why I think it’s silly for people to fear the supposed Chinese Tiger.

P.P.S. If you want to see far more striking examples of Chinese people being successful, check out Hong Kong and Taiwan.

P.P.P.S. Though at least some Chinese government officials have a very perceptive understanding of the European welfare state.

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