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Archive for the ‘Social Security’ Category

Given Social Security’s enormous long-run financial problems, the program eventually will need reform.

But what should be done? Some folks on the left, such as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, support huge tax increases to prop up the program. Such an approach would have a very negative impact on the economy and, because of built-in demographic changes, would merely delay the program’s bankruptcy.

Others want a combination of tax increases and benefit cuts. This pay-more-get-less approach is somewhat more rational, but it means that today’s workers would get a really bad deal from Social Security.

This is why I frequently point out that personal retirement accounts (i.e., a “funded” system based on real savings) are the best long-run solution. And to help the crowd in Washington understand why this is the best approach, I explain that dozens of nations already have adopted this type of reform. And I’ve written about the good results in some of these jurisdictions.

Now it’s time to add Sweden to the list.

I actually first wrote about the Swedish reform almost 20 years ago, in a study for the Heritage Foundation co-authored with an expert from Sweden. Here’s some of what we said about the nation’s partial privatization.

Swedish policymakers decided that both individual workers and the overall economy would benefit if the old-age system were partially privatized. …Workers can invest 2.5 percentage points of the 18.5 percent of their income that they must set aside for retirement. …the larger part-16 percent of payroll-goes to the government portion of the program. …What makes the government pay-as-you-go portion of the pension program unique, however, is the formula used for calculating an individual’s future retirement benefits. Each worker’s 16 percent payroll tax is credited to an individual account, although the accounts are notional. …the government uses the money in these notional accounts to calculate an annuity (annual retirement benefit) for the worker. …the longer a worker stays in the workforce, the larger the annuity received. This reform is expected to discourage workers from retiring early… There are many benefits to Sweden’s new system, including greater incentives to work, increased national savings, a flexible retirement age, lower taxes and less government spending.

While that study holds up very well, let’s look at more recent research so we can see how the Swedish system has performed.

I’m a big fan of the fully privatized portion of the Swedish system (the “premium pension”) funded by the 2.5 percent of payroll that goes to personal accounts.

But let’s first highlight the very good reform of the government’s portion of the retirement system. It’s still a tax-and-transfer scheme, but there are “notional” accounts, which means that benefits for retirees are now tied to how much they work and how much they pay into the system.

A new study for the American Enterprise Institute, authored by James Capretta, explains the benefits of this approach.

Sweden enacted a reform of its public pension system that combines a defined-contribution approach with a traditional pay-as-you-go financing structure. The new system includes better work incentives and is more transparent to participants. It is also permanently solvent due to provisions that automatically adjust payouts based on shifting demographic and economic factors. …A primary objective…in Sweden was to build a new system that would be solvent permanently within a fixed overall contribution rate. …pension benefits are calculated based on notional accounts, which are credited with 16.0 percent of workers’ creditable wages. …The pensions workers get in retirement are tied directly to the amount of contributions they make to the system. …This design improved incentives for work… To keep the system in balance, this rate of return is subject to adjustment, to correct for shifts in demographic and economic factors that affect what rate of return can be paid within the fixed budget constraint of a 16.0 percent contribution rate.

The final part of the above excerpts is key. The system automatically adjusts, thus presumably averting the danger of future tax hikes.

Now let’s look at some background on the privatized portion of the new system. Here’s a good explanation in a working paper from the Center for Fiscal Studies at Sweden’s Uppsala University.

The Premium Pension was created mainly for three purposes. Firstly, funded individual accounts were believed to increase overall savings in Sweden. …Secondly, the policy makers wanted to allow participants to take account of the higher return in the capital markets as well as to tailor part of their pension to their risk preferences. Finally, an FDC scheme is inherently immune against financial instability, as an individual’s pension benefit is directly financed by her past accumulated contributions. The first investment selections in the Premium Pension plan took place in the fall of 2000, which is known as the “Big Bang” in Sweden’s financial sector. …any fund company licensed to do business in Sweden is allowed to participate in the system, but must first sign a contract with the Swedish Pensions Agency that specifies reporting requirements and the fee structure. Benefits in the Premium Pension Plan are paid out annually and can be withdrawn from age 61.

And here’s a chart from the Swedish Pension Agency’s annual report showing that pension assets are growing rapidly (right axis), in part because “premium pension has provided a 6.7 percent average value increase in people’s pensions per year since its launch.” Moreover, administrative costs (left axis) are continuously falling. Both trends are very good news for workers.

Let’s close by citing another passage from Capretta’s AEI study.

He looks at Sweden’s long-run fiscal outlook to other major European economies.

According to European Union projections, Sweden’s total public pension obligations will equal 7.5 percent of GDP in 2060, which is a substantial reduction from the…8.9 percent of GDP it spent in 2013. …In 2060, EU countries are expected to spend 11.2 percent of GDP on pensions. Germany’s public pension spending is projected to increase…to 12.7 percent of GDP in 2060. …The EU forecast shows France’s pension obligations will be 12.1 percent of GDP in 2060 and Italy’s will be 13.8 percent of GDP.

I think 8.9 percent of GDP is still far too high, but it’s better than diverting 11 percent, 12 percent, or 13 percent of economic output to pensions.

And the fiscal burden of Sweden’s system could fall even more if lawmakers allowed workers to shift a greater share of their payroll taxes to personal accounts.

But any journey begins with a first step. Sweden moved in the right direction. The United States could learn from that successful experience.

P.S. Pension reform is just the tip of the iceberg. As I wrote two years ago, Sweden has implemented a wide range of pro-market reforms over the past few decades, including some very impressive spending restraint in the 1990s. If you’re interested in more information about these changes, check out Lotta Moberg’s video and Johan Norberg’s video.

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Back in 2015, I wrote some columns about policy differences with folks who normally would be considered allies.

  • In Part I, I defended the flat tax, which had been criticized by Reihan Salam
  • In Part II, I explained why I thought a comprehensive fiscal package from the American Enterprise Institute was too timid.
  • In Part III, I disagreed with Jerry Taylor’s argument for a carbon tax.

Now it’s time for another friendly spat.

A handful of right-of-center groups and individuals have decided to embrace a new entitlement for paid parental leave.

Such as the Independent Women’s Forum.

…the United States is the only industrialized nation that does not mandate or subsidize at least some form of paid parental leave. …there is a way for the federal government to provide paid parental leave to every worker in the United States at no additional cost: offer new parents the opportunity to collect early Social Security benefits after the arrival of their child in exchange for their agreeing to defer the collection of their Social Security retirement benefits. …New parents deserve this choice.

Along with the American Enterprise Institute (cooperating with the left-leaning Urban Institute).

…public interest in creating a federal paid family leave policy has grown. …we came up with a compromise proposal… Its key elements are benefits available to both mothers and fathers, a wage-replacement rate of 70 percent up to a cap of $600 per week for eight weeks, and job protection for those who take leave. It would be financed in part by a payroll tax on employees and in part by savings in other parts of the budget. …we felt an obligation…this was better than doing nothing when the US is the only developed nation without a national paid leave policy.

And Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review.

The more I’ve followed the debate, the more I’ve supported the idea. …there are certain similarities between the personal-account and paid-leave ideas that ought to reduce conservative skepticism of the latter. …there’s a mental block that’s keeping the paid-leave objectors from seeing how much these debates have in common.

Kristin Shapiro of IWF and Andrew Biggs of AEI elaborated on a version of this idea in a column for the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. is the only industrialized nation without a law guaranteeing workers paid parental leave. The idea has broad public support, but how to pay for it? One idea is to mandate that employers fund it, but economists find employers offset the cost by reducing wages for female employees. …Our proposal is simple: Offer new parents the opportunity to collect early Social Security benefits for a period—say, 12 weeks—after the arrival of their child. To offset the cost, parents would agree to delay collecting Social Security retirement benefits… We estimate that to make the Social Security program financially whole, a parent who claimed 12 weeks of benefits would need to delay claiming retirement benefits by only around six weeks. …This idea should be considered as Congress turns to entitlement reform. It’s a fiscally responsible opportunity to help parents and children.

All of this sounds nice, but there are several reasons why I’m very skeptical.

But let’s first distinguish between a very bad idea and a somewhat bad idea. The AEI-Urban scheme for a payroll-tax-funded paid leave program is the very bad idea. The United States already has a baked-in-the-cake entitlement crisis, so the last thing we need is the creation of another tax-and-transfer program.

So I’ll focus instead on the IWF-designed plan to enable parents to get payments from Social Security when they have a new child.

I have three objections.

  1. From a big-picture philosophical perspective, I don’t think the federal government should have any role in family life. Child care certainly is not one of the enumerated powers in Article 1, Section 8, of the Constitution. Proponents of intervention routinely argue that the United States is the only advanced nation without such a program, but I view that as a feature, not a bug. We’re also the only advanced nation without a value-added tax. Does that mean we should join other countries and commit fiscal suicide with that onerous levy?
  2. Another objection is that there is a very significant risk that a small program eventually become will become much larger. I haven’t crunched the numbers, but I assume the plan proposed by Shapiro and Biggs is neutral. In other words, the short-run spending for parental leave is offset by future reductions in retirement benefits. But once the principle is established that Uncle Sam is playing a role, what will stop future politicians from expanding the short-run goodies and eliminating the long-run savings? It’s worth remembering that the original income tax in 1913 had a top rate of 7 percent and it only applied to 1/2 of 1 percent of the population. How long did that last?
  3. Finally, I still haven’t given up on the fantasy of replacing the bankrupt tax-and-transfer Social Security system with a system of personal retirement accounts. Funded systems based on real savings work very well in jurisdictions such as Australia, Chile, Switzerland, Hong Kong, and the Netherlands, but achieving this reform in the United States will be a huge challenge. And I fear that battle will become even harder if we turn Social Security into a piggy bank for other social goals. For what it’s worth, this is also why I oppose plans to integrate the payroll tax with the income tax.

Now let’s see what others have to say about a new entitlement for parental leave.

Veronique de Rugy of Mercatus explains for National Review why Ramesh’s support for a new federal entitlement is the wrong approach.

…we don’t currently have a national parental-leave entitlement. Yes, the plan he’s talking about isn’t as bad as what Hillary would propose, but it still assumes that the federal government should be playing a role in this. Let’s not pretend otherwise. It relies on the government-run Social Security system, and it increases spending for a good while. That’s regress, not progress. And we also need to be realistic. Once the door has been opened, the Left will radically expand the scheme in ways that none of us like. And, to be honest, I can already hear future conservatives demanding that the program be expanded because parents who have to retire a few months later because they use paid leaves pay “a retirement penalty” compared to non-parents. …my point of reference for judging this plan is economic freedom and smaller government involvement. If you prefer more pro-family benefits even at the risk of growing the government, then we won’t agree.

Writing for Reason, Shikha Dalmia also is a skeptic.

…this is a flawed proposal that’ll do more harm than good, including to its intended beneficiaries. …The scheme will incentivize more workers to take off and for longer periods of time. This will be especially disruptive for small businesses and start-ups that operate on a shoestring budget and can’t spread the responsibilities of the absent workers across a large workforce. They will inevitably shy away from hiring young women of childbearing age. This will diminish these women’s job options. …Furthermore, it isn’t like Social Security has a ton of spare cash lying around to dole out to people other than retirees. The program used to generate surpluses when its worker-to-retiree ratio was high. But this ratio has dropped from 42 workers to one retiree in 1945 to less than four workers per retiree now. And even though payroll taxes have gone up from 2 percent at the program’s inception to 12.6 percent now, the system is still taking in less money than it is paying out in benefits, because of all the retiring baby boomers. …It is also beyond naïve to think that once the government is allowed to dip into Social Security to pay for family leave at childbirth, it’ll simply stop there. Why shouldn’t families taking care of old and sick parents get a similar deal? Liberals are already floating proposals to use Social Security for student loan forgiveness. The possibilities are endless.

The Wall Street Journal opined against the idea last month.

…some in the ostensible party of limited government think this is the perfect time to add a new entitlement for paid family leave. …this would shift the burden of providing the benefit from the private economy to government. Academic evidence shows that family leave keeps employees in their jobs and can make them happier or more productive, which is one reason many companies pay for it. But why pay when the government offers 12 weeks? …This “crowd out” effect is a hallmark of all entitlements… Also strap yourselves in for the politics. Social Security started as a 2% payroll tax to support the elderly poor, but the tax is now 12.4% and the program is still severely under-funded.

The WSJ shares my concerns about a small program morphing into a huge entitlement.

No politician is going to deny leave to a pregnant 22-year-old merely because she hasn’t paid much into Social Security. Watch the social right demand a comparable cash benefit for stay-at-home moms, and also dads, or caring for an elderly dependent. And wait until you meet the focus group known as Congressional Democrats, who are already dismissing the proposal as unfair for forcing women to choose between children and retirement. Democrats will quickly wipe out the deferral period so everyone is entitled to leave now and get the same retirement benefits later. And once Republicans open Social Security for family leave, the door will open for other social goals. Why not college tuition? …every entitlement since Revolutionary War pensions has skied down this slope of inexorable expansion. Disability started as limited insurance but now sends checks to roughly nine million people. Medicaid was intended to cover the vulnerable and disabled but today dozens of states cover childless working-age adults above the poverty line.

If you want more information, I had two columns last year (here and here) explaining why federally mandated parental leave is a bad idea.

To put the issue in context, we should be asking whether it makes sense for the government to make employees more expensive to employers. And since this proponents will probably sell this new entitlement as being good for new mothers, it’s worth pointing out that even a columnist for the New York Times admitted that women actually get hurt by such policies.

Remember, if someone says the answer is more government, they’ve asked a very silly question.

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The United States and other western nations became rich during the 1800s thanks to a combination of rule of law and very small government.

Sadly, very few nations – most notably East Asian tiger economies – have become rich in the modern era. Yes, some other countries have grown, but they are not on a path to converge with rich nations.

Chile, however, may be an exception to that unfortunate pattern. It has enjoyed amazing levels of growth since a shift to free-market policies starting about 40 years ago. It is now the richest country in Latin America and if its “improbable success” continues, it will soon be comfortably part of what used to be called the first world.

The flagship reform in Chile was the creation of a funded retirement system based on personal accounts. Basically universal IRAs.

Writing for the Weekly Standard, Fred Barnes shared what he learned about the nation’s private retirement system.

The rags-to-riches Chile story lives on as a model of what a poor country can achieve if it spurns socialism and adopts free markets and democracy. Peru is now copying Chile. More may follow. …Chile was once a Third World country headed downhill economically after Salvador Allende was elected president in 1970…bent on creating a Marxist state. In 1973, the military led by General Augusto Pinochet staged a coup. …When he took over, Chile had one of the highest rates of poverty in South America. It was a basket case. Now it has the continent’s strongest economy. Without Pinochet’s having heeded the advice of economist Milton Friedman, imposed capitalism, and hired a team of free market economists, many trained at the University of Chicago, the rise to First World status wouldn’t have happened. One of the economists was José Piñera, brother of the new president and Harvard-educated. He created a stable, fully-funded pension program that has become a monument to the success of private markets. …Piñera released a study in January that found “72 percent of the capital accumulated in the personal retirement account of the average Chilean worker, after 36 years in the private pension system, comes from the return on the investments done with their contributions.” That’s a long way of saying the plan is a dazzling success.

Though there are opponents, mostly those inspired by the communist regime in Cuba and a Pope who thinks we should worship the state.

But obstacles remain. …Even with Fidel Castro gone, Cuba exports communism as aggressively as it once did sugar. …socialists have an ally in Pope Francis, who spent three days in Chile in mid-January. …there’s a disconnect between how people here feel about capitalism—as a concept anyway—and the economic success they are experiencing. Pinochet is partly to blame, I suspect. He’s a hard man to credit, given his bloody takeover.

Barnes’ final point is also important.

I’ve had many people tell me that personal accounts are bad because they were implemented during Pinochet’s reign. But that’s a silly argument, sort of like deciding to be against free trade because the dictatorial Chinese government opened up to the global economy.

As far as I’m concerned, tyrannical leaders are awful and should be condemned, but if they happen to grant citizens a slice of economic liberty, that’s a silver lining to an otherwise dark cloud.

Back to our main topic, Monica Showalter, in a column for the American Thinker, explained what makes Chile’s system a role model for the United States.

…the Chilean Model…shows some spectacular new results for ordinary citizens… the Chilean Model is working, big time.  Basically, you skip Social Security taxes for starters, which leaves you a lot more money to play around with.  You then put 10% of your income into a government-certified private pension account (and you have many choices among them)… This is mass-scale wealth creation, and it benefits workers most of all. …Chile has no pension crisis as most of the rest of the developed world does – no worries about a “trust fund” and no Social Security “cuts” to speak of.  This is why.  Thirty nations have adopted the same plan… the left hates this stuff.  It keeps workers out of the clutches of unions and un-dependent on government handouts.  Of course leftists want it gone.  They tried hard in Chile to turn workers against this pension idea.

And here’s a chart from her article showing how investment returns have played a big role in helping ordinary Chileans build nest eggs for their old age.

Let’s look at some additional research.

In a monograph published by the U.K.-based Institute of Economic Affairs, Kristian Niemietz takes an in-depth look at Chiles’s approach.

Taken together, the value of the assets accumulated by Chilean pension funds is equivalent to about two thirds of the country’s GDP (Figure 1). This places Chile in the same league as countries which have had private pensions for over a century, and miles ahead of countries with traditional Bismarckian systems… The poverty rate among the elderly is lower than that of the population as a whole – 3.9 per cent vs. 10.3 per cent, or 8.4 per cent vs. 14.4 per cent, depending on the poverty measure used… Chile’s 1981 pension reform has given rise to a number of positive economic spillover effects: the prefunded system has been an active ingredient in the accelerated economic development that the country has been experiencing since the mid-1980s. …It has increased employment, especially in the formal sector… It has boosted the development and sophistication of Chile’s capital markets, and thus raised Total Factor Productivity… Despite the current backlash against it, Chile’s pension system is a success story. The system has achieved consistently high rates of return. It offers excellent value for money and solid pensions for those who contribute regularly. … The official retirement age is not as important in Chile as it is in countries with state-run systems. By and large, in that system, people retire when they have accumulated enough savings, not when politicians think they should retire.

Here’s the chart Kristian mentioned in the text. By this important metric, Chile is firmly ensconced in the upper tier of developed countries.

Now let’s address some of the critics.

Under the previous leftist government, there were protests against the country’s famous private social security system and attempts to undermine the model. Indeed, I wrote about that battle back in 2014. And I also noted that even some academics agreed that it would be foolish to undermine a successful approach.

Let’s see what’s happened since then. The Economist reported about the complaints about a year ago.

…tens of thousands of Chileans in Santiago…protest against the country’s privatised pension system. Organisers—a mix of unions, pensioners’ associations and consumer-advocacy groups—say that… Pensions are too small…benefits have not measured up to people’s unrealistic expectations. The scheme’s founders told workers that if they contributed continuously throughout their careers they would receive a generous 70% of their final salaries upon retirement. …But most workers contributed far less. Women took time off to raise children (and retire earlier than men). Many Chileans spent time in informal jobs or unemployed. On average, they contribute for only 40% of their prime working years. …The system has generated high returns for pensioners, averaging 8.6% a year between 1981 and 2013. But…high fees have bitten a huge chunk out of those returns, reducing them to 3-5.4%.

Though the article also noted all the benefits of personal accounts.

Rather than saddle the government with an unaffordable pay-as-you-go system, in which today’s taxpayers support today’s pensioners even as the population ages, Chile created one in which workers save for their own retirement by paying 10% of their earnings into individual accounts. These are managed by private administrators (AFPs). …the system worked. Contributions to the AFPs flowed into capital markets, which boosted growth. Annual GDP growth from 1981 to 2001 was 0.5 percentage points higher than it would have been without the investment, according to one study. This helped lift millions of people out of poverty.

The last couple of sentences of the above passage are worth highlighting. As I’ve noted, even small differences in economic growth – if they are sustained for a long period – make a huge difference in terms of national prosperity. And 0.5 percent more growth every year is actually a big boost when looking at the impact of just one policy.

Last but not least, here’s Ian Vasquez’s response to the attacks on the Chilean system.

Critics in Chile assert that the average pension provided by the private pension fund companies is around $340 per month, which is not better than the public pension system. But as the Chile-based Liberty and Development institute (LyD) has shown, that is like comparing apples to oranges. To calculate the private system’s figures, all those affiliated with it are taken into account, even if they have only contributed to their accounts once in their lifetime. The corresponding figure for the public pension system, however, only takes into account the pensions of those who have contributed for a minimum of 10 to 15 years, something that leaves out half of the people affiliated with that system. In addition, pensions under the private system are obtained through contributions that amount to 10 percent of wages, while in the public system the contribution is 20 percent. Correcting for those distortions shows that the value of the pensions the AFPs provide is three times higher than that of the public system. …it’s true that many Chileans do not contribute regularly to their retirement accounts because too many work outside the formal sector and getting work is still too precarious for many, that is a problem that affects any pension system, whether public or private, and can only be solved with labor reforms. …Chile’s private pension system can certainly be improved, but the reality is that it has been extremely successful. …old-age pensions no longer represent a burden on the treasury. Pension savings have reached $168 billion, about 70 percent of GDP, which has stimulated high growth and domestic investment, and has put Chile on the verge of becoming a developed country—a remarkable achievement.

Amen. Chile’s system isn’t perfect, but it’s far better, by several orders of magnitude, than the debt-ridden, pay-as-you-go models that are wreaking havoc with the public finances of other countries.

And Chile is prospering in a way unimaginable in other Latin nations.

It would be very nice to have a similar system of personal retirement accounts in the United States. And here’s the cartoon version of the argument.

P.S. Chile also has nationwide school choice.

P.P.S. Bill Clinton supported good Social Security reform and was prepared to work with congressional Republicans (and some Democrats) on good legislation for personal accounts, but that effort was sidetracked by the partisan impeachment fight. A genuine tragedy.

P.P.P.S. I’ve written before about overseas bathroom adventures and I now have another episode to add to the mix from my recent trip to India. I like modern facilities, including ones that have energy-saving features. But building engineers should realize that motion-activated lights may not make sense in bathrooms. At least not when people may be locked in stalls with no good options when the lights go out. Enough said.

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I wrote yesterday about “the world’s demographic problem,” citing a new study about the fiscal implications of aging populations. The report was produced by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which is not my favorite international bureaucracy when they make policy recommendations, but I’ll be the first to admit that the bureaucrats produce some useful statistics and interesting reports.

To be succinct, the basic message of the study is that developed nations (the U.S., Europe, Asia, etc) face a demographic nightmare of increased longevity and falling birthrates.

It’s good that people are living longer, of course, and there’s nothing wrong with people choosing to have fewer kids. But since most governments maintain tax-and-transfer entitlement programs, the OECD report basically warns that those demographic changes have some very grim fiscal implications. In other words, the world’s demographic shift is actually a policy problem.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that there’s a policy solution.

The aforementioned OECD study (which can be accessed here) is a survey of how retirement income is provided in key nations. So in addition to grim information about fiscally unstable government-run retirement systems we looked at yesterday, the report also has data about the nations that rely – at least to some degree – on private savings.

Let’s start with this helpful flowchart in the report. It illustrates that there are three approaches for the provision of retirement income. The first tier is government-run programs such as the U.S. Social Security system and the third tier is voluntary savings such as IRAs and 401(k)s in America.

For today’s discussion, let’s focus on the second tier. These are the systems that are “funded” with mandatory savings.

And I highlighted (in green) the two private options. In a “defined contribution” system, retirement income is determined by how much is saved and how well it is invested. Workers accumulate a big nest egg and then choose how to spend the money when retired. In a “defined benefit” system, workers are promised a pre-determined level of retirement income and the managers of their pension funds are expected to ensure that enough money will be available.

Yes, public options based on real savings do exist. And they presumably are better than the pay-as-you-go, tax-and-transfer schemes found in the first tier. But it’s also the case that these systems (such as pension funds for state and local bureaucrats) generally don’t work very well.

So now let’s look at another table from the OECD report. It shows nations that have some degree of mandatory private retirement savings, either defined contribution (highlighted in red) or defined benefit (highlighted in yellow). As you can see, there actually are a lot of “privatized” systems.

I’ve actually written about many of these systems, especially the ones in Australia and Chile.

And I have very recent columns on the Dutch and Swiss systems.

A common theme in these columns is that government-run systems are very risky because workers are at the mercy of politicians, who are great at making extravagant promises. But huge unfunded liabilities show that they’re not very good at delivering on those promises.

Nations with funded systems, by contrast, accumulate private savings. That’s not only good for workers, but it’s very beneficial for national economies.

This table from the OECD report shows that Americans and Canadians have managed to save a lot of money, but all of the other nations with pension assets of more than 100 percent of GDP have mandatory funded systems.

When I talk about how the United States would benefit by moving to a private retirement system, people sometimes say it sounds too good to be true.

That’s obviously not the case since other nations have very successful private systems. But there is a catch, as I acknowledged in 2015.

…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.

The appropriate analogy is that shifting to private retirement accounts for younger workers (while protecting current retirees and older workers) would be like refinancing a mortgage. The short-run costs might be higher, but that temporary burden is overwhelmed by the long-run savings. That’s a good deal, at least if the goal is fiscal stability and secure retirement.

Or we can stay with the current approach and become another Greece.

P.S. Social Security reform is especially beneficial for blacks and other minorities.

P.P.S. There is some risk with personal retirement accounts. But I’m not talking about the implications of a falling stock market crash (even a horrible crash would be offset by decades of compounding earnings). Instead, I’m referring to the possibility that future politicians might simply confiscate the money.

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Most people understand that there’s a Social Security crisis, but they only know half the story.

The part of the crisis they grasp is that the program is basically bankrupt, though I doubt many of them realize that the long-run shortfall is a staggering $44 trillion.

The part of the crisis that generally is overlooked is that the program is a lousy deal for workers. They pay record amounts of tax into the system in exchange for a shaky promise of a modest monthly check. For all intents and purposes, they are being charged for a steak, but they’re getting a hamburger (with Medicare, by contrast, people are charged for a hamburger and they receive a hamburger but taxpayers pay for a steak that nobody gets).

For groups with lower-than-average life expectancy, such as poor people and minorities, Social Security is even worse. They pay into the system throughout their working lives, but then they don’t live long enough to collect a decent amount of benefits.

I narrated a video that was partly focused on how people could have more retirement income if we shifted to a system of personal retirement accounts, but this video from Learn Liberty directly addresses this issue.

By the way, I have one minor complaint with this excellent video. Social Security is not forced savings. There’s no money set aside. Yes, there’s a “trust fund,” but it contains nothing but IOUs. And if you don’t believe me, see what the Clinton Administration wrote back in 1999.

It would be more accurate to say the system is a pay-as-you-go, tax-and-transfer entitlement.

But I’m digressing, so let’s focus on some potential good news. Americans actually have a pretty good track record of saving for their own retirement. Indeed, total pension assets (measured as a share of economic output) in the United States rival those of nations that have mandatory private retirement systems.

So it presumably shouldn’t be that difficult to transition to a private retirement system in America.

Which was a key takeaway from a column in the Wall Street Journal last week by Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute. He starts with a pessimistic observation on how major politicians have addressed the crisis.

During last year’s presidential campaign, the candidates promised not to cut Social Security benefits (Donald Trump) and even to increase them (Hillary Clinton). …the Trump administration should reconsider its pledge not to cut Social Security benefits. The program is 25% underfunded over the long term, the Congressional Budget Office projects.

But the good news is that many Americans already are saving for retirement, so it wouldn’t be disruptive to extend personal retirement accounts to the entire population.

…private plans such as 401(k)s have allowed more people than ever to save for retirement…61% of workers… Contributions to private plans have…risen from an average 5.8% of wages in 1975 to 8% in 2014. …in 1984 only 23% of households received benefits from private retirement plans. By 2007 that had risen to 45%. Moreover, during the same period the benefits that the median household received from private plans rose by 141% above inflation, versus only 25% for Social Security benefits.

This is a system that should be expanded, with a prudent transition from a bankrupt Social Security system to a safer and more lucrative system of personal retirement accounts.

And that would be a much better outcome than what the current system will give us.

…Scandinavian-level tax rates or multi-trillion dollar unfunded entitlement liabilities.

P.S. Responding to those who worry about stock market downturns and the implications for retirement income, my colleague Mike Tanner showed that even people retiring after the 2008 crash would have been better off with personal retirement accounts.

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

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Since it is the single-largest government program, not only in the United States but also the entire world, it’s remarkable that Social Security isn’t getting much attention from fiscal policy wonks.

Sure, Obamacare is a more newsworthy issue because of the repeal/replace fight. And yes, it’s true that Medicare and Medicaid are growing faster and eventually will consume a larger share of the economy.

But those aren’t reasons to turn a blind eye toward a program that will soon have an annual budget of $1 trillion. Especially since the tax-and-spend crowd in Washington is actually arguing that the program should be expanded. I’m not kidding.

If nothing else, the just-released Trustees Report from the Social Security Administration demands attention. As I do every year, I immediately looked at Table VI.G9, which shows the annual inflation-adjusted budgetary impact of the program.

Here’s a chart showing how the program has grown since 1970 and what is expected in the future. Remember, these are inflation-adjusted numbers, so the sharp increase in outlays over the next several decades starkly illustrates that Social Security will be grabbing ever-larger amounts of money from the economy’s productive sector.

It’s also worth noting that the program already is in the red. Social Security outlays began to exceed revenues back in 2010.

And the numbers will get more out of balance over time.

By the way, some people say that the program is in decent shape since the “Trust Fund” isn’t projected to run out of money until 2034. That’s technically true, but utterly meaningless since it is nothing but a pile of IOUs.

You don’t have to believe me. A few years ago, I quoted this passage from one of Bill Clinton’s budgets.

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.

Amen.

This is why annual cash flow into and out of the program is what matters, at least if we care about the Social Security’s economic impact.

And for those who want to know about the gap between the inflow and outflow, here’s a chart showing how deficits are going to explode in coming decades. Again, keep in mind these are inflation-adjusted numbers.

That’s not a typo in the chart. The total shortfall between now and 2095 is a staggering $44.2 trillion. Yes, trillion.

Remarkably, there’s an even bigger long-run problem with Medicare and Medicaid. Which helps to explain I relentlessly push for genuine entitlement reform.

But let’s focus today on Social Security. The answer to this looming fiscal nightmare is to copy one of the many nations that have shifted to “funded” retirement systems based on real savings. I’m a big fan of the Australian approach. Chile also has a great system, and Switzerland and the Netherlands are good role models as well. Hong Kong and Singapore also rely on private savings for retirement, and both jurisdictions demonstrate that aging populations and falling birthrates aren’t necessarily a fiscal death sentence. Heck, even the Faroe Islands and Sweden have jumped on the bandwagon of private retirement accounts.

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

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There’s a lot to admire about Switzerland, particularly compared to its profligate neighbors.

With all these features, you won’t be surprised to learn that Switzerland is highly ranked by Human Freedom Index (#2), Economic Freedom of the World (#4), Index of Economic Freedom (#4), Global Competitiveness Report (#1), Tax Oppression Index (#1), and World Competitiveness Yearbook (#2).

Today let’s augment our list of good Swiss policies for reviewing the near-universal system of private pensions. I’ve been in Switzerland this week for a couple of speeches in Geneva, as well as interviews and meetings in Zurich and Bern.

As part of my travels around the country, I took the time to learn more about the “second pillar” of the country’s pension system.

Here’s a basic description from the Swiss government (with the help of Google translate).

The first pension funds were founded more than a hundred years ago… In 1972 the occupational pensions were included in the constitution. There it represents the second column in the three-column concept… The BVG compulsory scheme applies to all employees who are already insured in the first pillar… Pension provision in the second pillar is based on an individual savings process. This starts at 25 years. However, the condition is an annual income that exceeds the threshold (since 2015: 21’150 francs). The savings process ends with the reaching of the pension age. The accumulated savings in the individual account of the insured [are] used to finance the retirement pension.

If you want something in original English, here’s a brief description from the Swiss-American Chamber of Commerce.

The second pillar is governed by the provisions of the laws on occupational pension provision (BVG)… Employees who are paid by the same employer an annual salary exceeding CHF 21,150 are subject to compulsory insurance. The share of the salary which is subject to compulsory insurance is…between CHF 24,675 (the coordination deduction) and CHF 84,600… An employer who employs persons subject to compulsory insurance must be affiliated to a provident institution entered in the register for occupational benefit plan. The contributions into the pension scheme depend on age and include a minimum saving portion of 7% – 18% of the coordinated salary plus a risk portion. Both are equally shared between employer and employee. The benefits of the insured persons consist in the old age, invalidity and survivors pensions.

One of the interesting quirks of the system is that the mandatory contribution rate changes with age. The older you are, the more you pay.

I’m not sure that makes a lot of sense if the goal is for people to have big nest eggs when they retire, but nobody asked me. In any event, here’s a table showing the age-dependent contribution rates from an OECD description of the Swiss system.

Technically speaking, the contributions are evenly split between employees and employers, though labor economists widely agree that workers bear the real cost.

It’s also worth noting that the Swiss system is based on “defined contribution” like the Chilean and Australian private retirement systems. This means  retirement income generally is a function of how much is saved and how well it is invested.

By contrast, the Dutch private system is based on “defined benefit,” which means that workers get a pre-determined level of retirement income. As evidenced by huge shortfalls in the defined benefit regimes maintained by many public and private employers in the United States, this approach is very risky if there aren’t high levels of integrity and honesty.

Though that doesn’t seem to be a problem in the Netherlands. Speaking of the Dutch system, here’s a chart I shared back in 2014.

It was designed to laud the Netherlands, but you can see that Switzerland also had a large pool of pension assets, equal to more than 110 percent of GDP (according to OECD data, now 123 percent of GDP).

Looking at this data, ask yourself whether Switzerland (or the Netherlands, Iceland, Australia, etc) will be in a stronger position to handle the fiscal challenge of aging populations, particularly when compared to nations with virtually no private pension assets, such as France, Greece, and Japan.

The Swiss regime certainly isn’t perfect, and neither are the systems in other nations with private retirement savings. But at least those nations are in much better shape to deal with future demographic changes. Workers in Switzerland and other countries with similar systems have real assets rather than unsustainable political promises. And it’s also worth pointing out that there are macroeconomic benefits for nations that rely more on private savings rather than tax-and-transfer entitlement schemes.

In other words, the Swiss system is much better than America’s bankrupt Social Security scheme.

P.S. Back in 2011, I compared five good features of the United States to five good features of Switzerland. If retirement systems were part of that discussion, Switzerland would have enjoyed a sixth advantage.

P.P.S. Switzerland does have some warts. It is only ranked #31 in the World Bank’s Doing Business. It also has a self-destructive wealth tax. And  government spending, though modest compared to neighbors, consumes slight more than one-third of economic output.

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