Feeds:
Posts
Comments

If you did man-on-the-street interviews across America and asked people about Social Security, I suspect most of them would have some degree of understanding about the program’s looming fiscal crisis.

Since they’re not policy wonks, they presumably wouldn’t know the magnitude of the problem (not that I blame them since I once underestimated the shortfall by $16 trillion).

I also doubt many of them would be able to explain why the so-called Trust Fund is an accounting fiction, which is understandable since even supposedly knowledgeable people pretend IOUs are real assets.

But at least they know the program’s finances are a giant mess and that we face a fiscal crisis.

That being said, there’s a second crisis in the program that doesn’t get nearly as much attention. Simply stated, the program is a rotten deal for workers.

I explained both crises in this video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

Today, thanks to a new report from the Heritage Foundation, we have a great opportunity to peruse up-to-date numbers on the second Social Security crisis.

Here’s the problem, succinctly defined.

With Social Security consuming such a large component of workers’ paychecks and offsetting their own private savings, it is important that workers receive a valuable benefit from Social Security—one at least as good as they, as a whole, could obtain from saving on their own. This analysis looks across the United States and across generations to see if Social Security does in fact provide that.

Sadly, Social Security does a crummy job of giving workers a decent amount of retirement income.

Taking an average of all 50 states and the District of Columbia, the average worker receives significantly less from Social Security than he would have if he had conservatively invested his Social Security payroll taxes in the market. …Individuals with lower life expectancies often lose greatly. This occurs because they receive little or nothing in benefits and cannot pass along all their lost contributions to their surviving family members. …Younger workers face lower, and even negative, returns from Social Security compared to older workers. This comes as a result of paying higher average Social Security tax rates over their lifetimes, coupled with a two-year increase in Social Security’s normal retirement age—as well as the benefit cuts that will occur.

The bottom line is that the implicit rate of return from Social Security is very inadequate compared to the genuine rate of return that could be obtained if workers could invest their payroll taxes in personal retirement accounts.

Here’s the key table from the Heritage study, showing rates of return for today’s young workers based on how long they live.

You have to wonder why so many young people are intrigued by socialism when they’re the ones getting screwed by big government!

Anyhow, there are 12 tables in the report showing lots of additional data, including breakdowns based by state. The entire study is worth a look.

But for those short on time, the conclusion is a very clear summary of why we need to fix Social Security’s rate-of-return crisis as well as the program’s fiscal crisis.

The results are overwhelmingly clear. Americans would be better off keeping their payroll tax contributions and saving them in private retirement accounts than having to sacrifice them to the government’s broken Social Security system. Social Security’s design has, over the decades, presumed that many Americans are too incompetent to make informed decisions for themselves, but few Americans believe that the government knows better than they do what is best for them and their families. Moreover, Social Security’s financial structure effectively guarantees that workers will receive extremely low, or even negative, returns on their payroll taxes.

P.S. Fixing Social Security is simple, but it won’t be easy. Benefits would have to be preserved for current retirees and older workers, so there would be a “transition cost” as we shift to a “funded” system of personal accounts.

P.P.S. But reform is possible. If you want real-world role models of retirement systems based on private saving, take a look at the Australian system, the Chilean system, the Hong Kong system, the Swiss system, the Dutch system, the Swedish system, or even the system in the Faroe Islands.

P.P.P.S. Our friends on the left have a solution – albeit misguided – for Social Security’s fiscal crisis. But their approach would greatly worsen the rate-of-return crisis.

P.P.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.

The best budget rule in the United States is Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights. Known as TABOR, this provision in the state’s constitution says revenues can’t grow faster than population plus inflation. Any revenue greater than that amount must be returned to taxpayers.

Combined with the state’s requirement for a balanced budget, this means Colorado has a de facto spending cap (similar to what exists in Switzerland and Hong Kong).

The second-best budget rule is probably a requirement that tax increases can’t be imposed without a supermajority vote by the legislature.

The underlying theory is very simple. It won’t be easy for politicians to increase the burden of government spending if they can’t also raise taxes. Particularly since states generally have some form of rule requiring a balanced budget.

Basically a version of “Starve the Beast.”

Anyhow, according to the National Council of State Legislatures, 14 states have some type of supermajority requirements.

And more states are considering this reform.

Here are some excerpts from a column in the Washington Post.

Florida Republicans are pursuing a plan to make it harder for lawmakers to raise taxes in the state, adding new hurdles for Democrats hoping to enact bold social programs such as “Medicare for all” and more robust education spending. …Florida’s Republican lawmakers have approved a ballot measure that, if approved by the voters, would require a two-thirds “supermajority” of the legislature to enact any new taxes. …In…additional states — …Oregon and North Carolina — conservative lawmakers and business groups are currently advancing similar measures… The supermajority requirements have proved effective at keeping taxes low in the states where they have been implemented, said Joel Griffith of the American Legislative Exchange Council… “These supermajority rules make policymaking incredibly difficult,” said Elaine Maag, senior research associate at the Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan think tank. “If a state can’t increase spending because of these very high bars for raising taxes, they can’t expand programs.”

Dean Stansel crunched the numbers in 1998 and got some encouraging data.

There is some evidence that supermajority requirements have at least helped to restrain the growth of taxes. From 1980 to 1996, state tax burdens as a share of personal income increased by 1.1 percent in states with supermajority requirements. Taxes rose five times faster in states without such requirements. In 10 states, residents face higher top personal income tax rates today than they did in 1990. None of those states require supermajority approval for tax hikes. None of the 13 supermajority states have higher top rates today than they did in 1990, and three of them have lowered their top rate in the 1990s.

Academic experts also have found positive effects.

In a 1990 study published in the William and Mary Law Review, Jim Miller and Mark Crain found some evidence of modest spending restraint.

Seven states require approval of tax proposals by a super-majority vote in the legislature. …According to this hypothesis, the amount of revenue available to politicians resembles a budget constraint, and when this constraint shifts, government spending consequently changes. …the tax-and-spend literature suggests a causal connection that should be controlled. This variable is expected to produce a negative coefficient because in making an increase in revenues more difficult, the requirement tightens the total constraint on spending options. …The super-majority required to increase taxes variable is negative, as expected, although it is significant at only the 10% level in the three models.

In a 2000 study published in the Journal of Public Economics, Brian Knight also determined that supermajority provisions limited taxation.

This paper measures the effect of state-level supermajority requirements for tax increases on tax rates. …A model is presented in which legislatures controlled by a pro-tax party adopt a supermajority requirement to reduce the majority party agenda control. The propensity of pro-tax states to adopt supermajority requirements results in an underestimate of the true effect of these requirements on taxes. To correct this identification problem, the paper first uses fixed effects to control for unobserved attitudes and then employs instruments that measure the difficulty of amending state constitutions. The paper concludes that supermajority requirements have significantly reduced taxes.

In a 2014 study published in State Politics & Policy Quarterly, Soomi Lee concluded that a supermajority has restrained the fiscal burden in California.

My article examines whether supermajority vote requirements (SMVR) to raise taxes in California’s constitution suppresses state tax burdens. The rationale behind the rule is to contain the growth of government by making it costly to form a winning coalition to raise taxes. …I take a different approach from extant literature and estimate the causal effect of SMVR by using synthetic control methods. The results show that, from 1979 to 2008, SMVR reduced the state nonproperty tax burden by an average of $1.44 per $100 of personal income, which is equivalent to 21% of the total tax burden for each year. The effect…has abated over time.

This last study is remarkable. The long-run fiscal outlook is quite grim in California, so just imagine how much worse it would be if the supermajority requirement didn’t exist.

I’ll close with this amateurish visual that I created.

Though the evidence from California shows the kitten shouldn’t be peacefully sleeping if there is a supermajority requirement.

The best way to think of such a provision is that it is akin to putting locks on your doors in a crime-ridden neighborhood. The crooks may figure out how to mug you on the street or break through your windows, so you’re still in danger.

But having locks on your doors is definitely better than not having them.

P.S. It’s not a fiscal rule, but the best tax policy for a state is to have a zero income tax. The second best rule is for a state to have a flat tax.

Earlier this year, I explained why Nordic nations are not socialist. Or, to be more precise, I wrote that if they are socialist, then so is the United States.

And my slam-dunk evidence was this chart from the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World., which shows that there is almost no difference in overall economic liberty when comparing the United States with Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.

This doesn’t mean, incidentally, that we have identical policies. I pointed out that the United States gets a better (less worse) score on fiscal policy, but also reiterated that Nordic nations are more market oriented than America when looking at other variables (especially rule of law).

The net effect, though, is that we wind up with near-identical scores.

I’m rehashing this old data because there’s a column in The Week that celebrates Norway as an example of “democratic socialism.”

The spectacular upset victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in her recent New York congressional primary election has catapulted the topic of democratic socialism to the top of America’s political discussion. …we have a country that very closely approximates the democratic socialist ideal. It’s a place that is…considerably more successful than the United States on virtually every social metric one can name. I’m talking about Norway. …Norwegian workers are heavily protected, with 70 percent of workers covered by union contracts, and over a third directly employed by the government. The Norwegian state operates a gigantic sovereign wealth fund, and its financial assets total 331 percent of its GDP… Meanwhile, its state-owned enterprises are worth 87 percent of GDP. Of all the domestic wealth in Norway, the government owns 59 percent, and fully three-quarters of the non-home wealth.

I don’t know if those specific statistics are true, but I certainly don’t disagree with the assertion that Norway has a large public sector.

But here are a couple of passages that don’t pass the laugh test.

Norway is unquestionably more socialist than Venezuela… Indeed, it is considerably more socialist than supposedly-communist China.

This is absurdly inaccurate. If there was a thermonuclear version of wrong, you would be seeing a giant mushroom cloud.

Here’s the data on overall economic freedom for Norway, Venezuela, and China. As you can see, Norway is far more market oriented.

So how does the author, Ryan Cooper, rationalize his fantastical assertion of Norwegian super-socialism?

If you read the article, he has a tortured definition of democratic socialism. One of his variables is government ownership, which normally would be a reasonable piece of data to include.

But it’s an artificial number when looking at Norway since the government controls the nation’s oil and also has a big sovereign wealth fund that was financed by oil revenue.

In other words, Norway is geographically lucky because all that oil boosts Norwegian GDP. It makes Norwegians relatively prosperous. And it definitely helps partially offset the economic damage of big government.

But it’s nonsensical to argue that oil-rich Norway somehow provides evidence for overall notion of democratic socialism. It’s sort of like looking at data for Kuwait and asserting that the best economic system is a hereditary sheikdom.

Yet he wants people to support socialism simply because of Norway, as illustrated by this final excerpt.

…when it comes to building a decent place to live, Norway is completely blowing America out of the water. So while conservatives have been pointedly ignoring the most obvious and relevant piece of evidence in their spittle-flecked tirades against socialism, Norwegians can and do point to the United States as an example of what happens when you let capitalism run wild.

But there’s one itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny problem. As you can see from the chart, Norway and the United States have almost identical levels of economic liberty.

So if America is “capitalism run wild,” then so is Norway. Or if Norway is “socialism,” then so is the United States.

The bottom line is that both the United States and Norway are admirable nations by global standards. We both rank in the top-20 percent for overall economic freedom.

But we’re not Hong Kong or Singapore, so we both obviously should do a better job of following the recipe for greater prosperity.

For additional information about what’s good and bad about Norway and other countries in the region, I recommend these columns from January 2015 and June 2015.

For additional information about why socialism is bad (both democratic and totalitarian versions), just open your eyes and look at world evidence. Or you can also peruse these columns from June 2017 and August 2017.

A couple of days ago, I shared a segment from a TV interview about trade and warned that retaliatory tariffs were a painful consequence of Trump’s protectionism.

I also was asked in that interview about the negative effect on farmers. I speculated that farmers (and many other groups) were giving Trump the benefit of the doubt in hopes that this process might actually lead to trade liberalization – sort of like what Trump suggested at the G7 meeting.

While I was depressed and glum in that interview, it turns out that things are worse than I thought.

Instead of keeping their fingers crossed for trade liberalization, farmers may be nonplussed by protectionism because President Trump’s expansion of bad trade policy may also wind up being the pretext for an expansion of bad agricultural policy.

The Wall Street Journal opines on the upside-down logic of Washington.

When pork prices collapsed amid a global trade war during the Great Depression, the Roosevelt Administration in 1933 had an idea—slaughter six million piglets. Put a floor under prices by destroying supply. It didn’t work. Now the Trump Administration may try its own version of Depressionomics by using the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) to support crop prices walloped by the Trump tariffs: Hurt farmers and then put them on the government dole.

Given the economic misery of the 1930s, it should be obvious that copying the awful policies of Hoover or Roosevelt is never a good idea.

But that’s not stopping the crowd in Washington.

In 2012 Congress put limits on CCC purchases of surplus commodities and on price supports after the Obama Administration used it for a costly 2009 disaster program without Congressional approval. But then out of the blue this year, Congress lifted the limits on CCC’s power to remove surplus crops from the market to support prices. Republicans made that change because the Trump Administration wants to use the CCC to mitigate the damage to U.S. crop prices from the Trump trade war. In a June 25 USA Today op-ed, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue wrote that the Administration is ready to “begin fulfilling our promise to support producers, who have become casualties of these disputes.” Too bad these U.S. casualties were caused by friendly fire.

And don’t be surprised if today’s handouts wind up becoming permanent entitlements.

The bigger danger is that the need for Mr. Perdue’s “help” is unlikely to be temporary. …With the higher tariff, Beijing will turn even more to Brazil and Argentina for soy and grains; Australia and Chile for fruit, nuts and wine; and Canada and the European Union for some or all. …The CCC is a relic of Dust Bowl America. Today the American farmer is high-tech, productive and eager to compete. Mr. Trump’s trade policy is creating a problem that didn’t exist and next he may create another one to ease the pain he has caused.

In other words, one bad government policy is being used the justify another bad government policy.

This is a classic example of Mitchell’s Law, otherwise known as the lather-rinse-repeat cycle of government failure.

We see it when government over-spending is used as an excuse for big tax increases.

We see it when government-run healthcare is used as an excuse to impose nanny-state policies.

We see it when government drug-war failures are used as an excuse to push for gun control.

And now we’re seeing it when bad trade policy is leading to more bad farm subsidies.

I realize this is pure fantasy, but wouldn’t it be nice to have the reverse approach? How about we simultaneously eliminate trade barriers and get rid of the Department of Agriculture?

Given the inherent corruption of Washington, I won’t hold my breath for that outcome. I’ll have more luck waiting for this fantasy to become reality.

Three years ago, I shared two videos explaining taxation and deadweight loss (i.e., why high tax burdens are bad for prosperity).

Today, I have one video on another important principle of taxation. To set the stage for this discussion, here are two simple definitions

  • The “average tax rate” is the share of your income taken by government. If you earn $50,000 and your total tax bill is $10,000, then your average tax rate is 20 percent.
  • The “marginal tax rate” is the amount of money the government takes if you earn more income. In other words, the additional amount government would take if your income rose from $50,000 to $51,000.

These definitions are important because we want to contemplate why and how a tax cut helps an economy.

But let’s start by explaining that a tax cut doesn’t boost growth because people have more money to spend.

I want people to keep more of their earnings, to be sure, but that Keynesian-style explanation overlooks the fact that the additional “spending power” for taxpayers is offset when the government borrows more money to finance the tax cut.

Instead, when thinking about taxes and prosperity, here are the three things you need to know.

1. Economic growth occurs when we increase the quantity and/or quality of labor and capital.

2. Taxes increase the cost of whatever is being taxed, and people respond by doing less of whatever is being taxed.

3. To get more prosperity, lower tax rates on productive behaviors such as work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.

All this is completely correct, but there’s one additional point that needs to be stressed.

4. The tax rate that matters is the marginal tax rate, not the average tax rate.

I discussed the importance of marginal tax rates in 2016, pointing out that Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers was going to lose the Super Bowl (from a financial perspective) because the additional tax he was going to pay was going to exceed the additional income he would earn. In other words, his marginal tax rate was more than 100 percent.

Mon Dieu!

But I also included an example that’s more relevant to the rest of us, looking at our aforementioned hypothetical taxpayer with a 20 percent average tax rate on annual earnings of $50,000. I asked about incentives for this taxpayer to earn more money if the marginal tax rate on additional income was 0 percent, 20 percent, or 100 percent.

Needless to say, as shown in this expanded illustration, the incentive to earn $51,000 will be nonexistent if all of the additional $1,000 goes to government.

That’s why “supply-side economics” is focused on marginal tax rates. If we want more productive behavior, we want the lowest-possible marginal tax rates so people have the greatest-possible incentive to generate more prosperity.

Here’s a very short video primer on this issue.

One very important implication of this insight is that not all tax cuts (or tax increases) are created equal. For instance, as I explained in a three-part series (here, here, and here), there will be very little change in incentives for productive activity if the government gives you a tax credit because you have kids.

But if the government reduces the top tax rate or lowers the tax bias against saving and investment, the incentive for additional productive behavior will be significant.

And this helps to explain why the country enjoyed such positive results from the supply-side changes to tax policy in the 1920s, 1960s, and 1980s.

Let’s close with some good news (at least relatively speaking) for American readers. Compared to other industrialized countries, top marginal tax rates in the United States are not overly punitive.

Admittedly, this is damning with faint praise. Our tax system is very unfriendly if you compare it to Monaco, Hong Kong, or Bermuda.

But at least we’re not France, where there’s a strong argument to be made that the national sport is taxation rather than soccer.

P.S. I’m not saying tax preferences for kids are wrong. But I am saying they’re not pro-growth.

P.P.S. I mentioned above that Cam Newton – based on his personal finances – lost the Super Bowl even before the opening kickoff. Well, there’s scholarly evidence that teams in high-tax states actually win fewer games.

P.P.P.S. Today’s analysis focuses on the individual income tax, but this analysis also applies to corporate taxation. A company with clever lawyers and accountants may have the ability to lower its average tax rate, but the marginal tax rate is what drives the incentive to earn more income. Which is why reducing the federal corporate rate from 35 percent to 21 percent was the best part of last year’s tax bill.

When I give speeches about public policy issues, people sometimes ask about the impact of various policies on economic growth.

I always respond with a giant caveat about economists being lousy forecasters, and I also warn that there are many policies that determine prosperity, which makes it inherently difficult to estimate the impact of one policy.

But when pressed, I’ll toss out a number – say 2/10ths of 1 percent. And that type of answer almost always seems to disappoint the audience. It’s as if there’s a collective assessment that we shouldn’t waste time fighting for or against certain policies if the impact on growth is so trivially small.

And if you’re planning on dying in the next six months, then maybe it isn’t worth it.

In reality, though, even small differences in growth can make a big difference to prosperity if they can be sustained. This chart, which starts with the Commerce Department’s estimate of GDP for 2017 and is then adjusted for the Census Bureau’s population projections, shows how a “trivial” increase in the growth rate over the next 25 years winds up generating big increases in per-capita GDP.

Maybe I’m not a big and bold thinker, but this kind of improvement is worth fighting for.

Back in 2014, I tried to make this same point with a chart showing how long it takes an economy to double in size based on different growth rates.

It seems obvious that it’s better to be at the top of that chart, like Hong Kong and Singapore, instead of the bottom, like Italy or Greece.

And Veronique de Rugy, in a column for National Review, shared a more sophisticated version of the chart. At the risk of stating the obvious, you want the big circles to happen faster.

Let’s share one more chart, and I put it together because I’m sometimes asked about the potential impact on growth if all libertarian policies were adopted?

Once again, I give a standard caveat about economists and forecasting. And I also explain the principle of convergence so the audience understands it’s more difficult for a rich country to achieve very high growth rates.

But eventually I’ll speculate that an ideal set of policies might increase growth by 1 percent annually.

Which, once again, doesn’t seem to impress people.

In the future, though, I’m going to share this chart, showing historical numbers for U.S. and Mexican per-capita GDP from the Maddison database, augmented by a second (yellow) line showing where America would be if per-capita GDP increased by one-percentage point less each year.

In other words, an additional percentage point of growth may not sound amazingly impressive, but over time it generates amazingly impressive outcomes.

The bottom line is that even trivial pro-growth reforms are worth the effort. Even if it takes a few years for the growth to materialize or if the growth only lasts for a limited period of time.

The theoretical case against protectionism is very straightforward. Economic growth suffers when politicians interfere with markets.

The empirical case against protectionism also is very straightforward since there’s lots of data showing that it’s a job killer.

There’s also a political case against protectionism because governments almost always respond to protectionism with protectionism.

I try to summarize those concerns in this short segment from a recent interview with Neil Cavuto.

Unfortunately, retaliation by our trading partners already is causing problems.

Let’s look at a sampling of recent stories.

How about this headline for the Wall Street Journal?

Or this headline from Missouri?

And this headline from CNBC?

Here’s another headline from the Wall Street Journal.

How about this headline from Utah?

And here’s part of a headline from the New York Times.

There are hundreds of such headlines that could be shared, so maybe it’s time to look at the issue from another perspective.

Here’s a map showing the retaliation against American exporters. And it’s only showing the retaliation against Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs.

But I don’t want to be too depressing.

So let’s consider some good news. Most trade is still unaffected, at least based on this interesting data from the Washington Post.

Though maybe this is also bad news since it shows how much additional damage Trump can do to the global economy.

My nightmare scenario is that Trump imposes additional trade taxes, which leads other nations to respond with their own trade taxes. Trump then gets offended by those responses by levying another layer of taxes, which triggers more retaliation by other nations.And so on and so on.

Lather, rinse, repeat, all the way to a global downturn (a repeat of the Great Depression is unlikely since that would require big increases in income taxes and many other bad policies as well).

%d bloggers like this: