Posts Tagged ‘Demographics’

In my speeches, I routinely argue that an aging population is one of the reasons why we need genuine entitlement reform.

A modest-sized welfare state may be feasible if a country has a “population pyramid,” I explain, Welfare State Wagon Cartoonsbut it’s a recipe for fiscal chaos when changing demographics result in fewer and fewer people pulling the wagon and more and more people riding in the wagon.

And if you somehow doubt that’s what is happening in America, check out this very sobering image showing that America’s population pyramid is turning into a population cylinder.

The bottom line is that demographics and entitlements will mean a Greek fiscal future for America and other nations.

To bolster my case (particularly for folks who might be skeptical of a libertarian message), I frequently cite pessimistic long-run fiscal data from international bureaucracies such as the IMF, BIS, and OECD.

I’m not a big fan of these organizations because they routinely endorse statist policies, but I figure skeptics will be more likely to listen to me if I point out that even left-leaning international bureaucracies agree the public sector is getting too large.

And now I have more evidence to cite. A new report from the International Monetary Fund explores “The Fiscal Consequences of Shrinking Populations.” Here’s what you need to know.

Declining fertility and increasing longevity will lead to a slower-growing, older world population. …For the world, the share of the population older than age 65 could increase from 12 percent today to 38 percent by 2100. …These developments would place public finances of countries under pressure, through two channels. First, spending on age-related programs (pensions and health) would rise. Without further reforms, these outlays would increase by 9 percentage points of GDP and 11 percentage points of GDP in more and less developed countries, respectively, between now and 2100. The fiscal consequences are potentially dire…large tax increases that could stymie economic growth.

Let’s now look at a couple of charts from the study.

The one of the left shows that one-third of developed nations already have negative population growth, and that number will jump to about 60 percent by 2050. And because that means fewer workers to support more old people, the chart on the right shows how the dependency ratio will worsen over time.

So what do these demographic changes mean for fiscal policy?

Well, if you live in a sensible jurisdiction such as Hong Kong or Singapore, there’s not much impact, even though birthrates are very low, because government is small and people basically are responsible for setting aside income for their retirement years.

And if live in a semi-sensible jurisdiction such as Australia or Chile, the impact is modest because personal retirement accounts preclude Social Security-type fiscal challenges.

But if you live just about anywhere else, in places where government somehow is supposed to provide pensions and health care, the situation is very grim.

Here’s another chart from the new IMF report. If you look at developed nations, you can see a big increase in the projected burden of government spending, mostly because of rising expenditures for health care.

At this stage, I can’t resist pointing out that this is one reason why the enactment of Obamacare was a spectacularly irresponsible decision.

But let’s not get sidetracked.

Returning to the IMF report, the authors contemplate possible policy responses.

They look at increased migration, but at best that’s a beggar-thy-neighbor approach. They look at increased labor force participation, which would be a very good development, but it’s hard to see that happening when nations have redistribution policies that discourage people from being in the workforce.

And the report is very skeptical about the prospects of government-induced increases in birthrates.

Boosting birth rates could slow down population aging and gradually reduce fiscal pressures. …However, a “birth rate” solution to aging is unlikely to work for most countries. The pronatalist policies seem to have only modest effects on the number of births, although they might affect the timing of births.

So that means the problem will need to be addressed through fiscal policy.

The IMF’s proposed solutions include some misguided policies, but I was surprisingly pleased by the recognition that steps were needed to limit the growth of government.

Regarding pensions, the IMF suggested higher retirement ages, which is a second-best option, while also suggesting private retirement savings, which is the ideal solution.

Reforming public pension systems can help offset the effects of aging. Raising retirement ages is an especially attractive option… For example, raising retirement ages over 2015–2100 by an additional five years (about 7 months per decade) beyond what is already legislated would reduce pension spending by about 2 percentage points of GDP by 2100 (relative to the baseline) in both the more and less developed countries. …increasing the role of private retirement saving schemes could be helpful in offsetting the potential decline in lifetime retirement income.

But if you recall from above, the biggest problem is rising health care costs.

And kudos to the IMF for supporting market-driven competition. Even more important, though, the international bureaucracy recognizes that the key is to limit the government’s health care spending to the growth of the private economy (sort of a a healthcare version of Mitchell’s Golden Rule).

…health care reform can be effective in containing the growth of public health spending. …There is past success in improving health outcomes without raising costs through promoting some degree of competition among insurers and service providers. …Containing the growing costs of health care would help reduce long-term fiscal risks. On average, health care costs are projected to increase faster than economic growth. …Assuming policies are able to keep the growth of health care costs per capita in line with GDP per capita, health care spending will increase at a slower rate, reflecting only demographics. Under this scenario, public health care spending pressures would be greatly subdued: by 2100, health spending would be reduced by 4½ percentage points of GDP in the more developed countries.

Interestingly, of all the options examined by the IMF, capping the growth of health care spending had the biggest positive impact on long-run government spending.

So what lessons can we learn?

Most important, the IMF study underscores the importance of the Medicaid reform and Medicare reform proposals that have been included in recent budgets on Capitol Hill.

In addition to making necessary structural changes, both of these reforms cap the annual growth of health care spending, which is precisely what the IMF report says will generate the largest savings.

So we’re actually in a very unusual situation. Some lawmakers want to do the right thing for the right reason at the right time.

But not all of them. Some politicians, either because of malice or ignorance, think we should do nothing, even though that will mean a very unpleasant future.

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Why are many developed nations facing long-run fiscal crisis according to long-run estimates from the IMF, BIS, and OECD?

Poorly designed entitlement programs are a big part of the answer, with the United States being an unfortunate example of how fiscal systems become unstable when politicians buy votes by putting burdens on future taxpayers.

But changing demographics is an equally important part of the answer.

Simply stated, birth rates are falling and lifespans are increasing all over the world. Those aren’t bad things. Indeed, longer lifespans are a very good thing.

But it means there won’t be enough workers to finance the modern welfare state. And when there are too many people riding in the wagon and too few people pulling the wagon, that is a recipe for Greek-style fiscal chaos.

When I explain this to audiences, I get the feeling that some folks think I’m exaggerating.

Indeed, some people openly accuse me of exaggerating demographic changes as part of a “scare campaign.”

They’re partially correct. My warnings about the need for reform could be considered a “scare campaign.” But that’s because I am scared. And I’m definitely not exaggerating.

Check out this very sobering image of how America’s population pyramid is turning into a population cylinder. Heck, our population profile will be somewhat akin to an upside-down pyramid by the middle of the century!

I have two thoughts when looking at this data.

The first – and most obvious – reaction is that we better implement genuine entitlement reform if we want to avoid a big mess. And the sooner, the better.

My second reaction is to express some sympathy and understanding (thought not approval) for the politicians who created America’s entitlement crisis.

Social Security was created in the mid-1930s and Medicare and Medicaid were adopted in the mid-1960s. And if you pay close attention to the above image, you’ll see that America had a “population pyramid” during those periods, meaning that there were comparatively few old people, plenty of workers, and then even larger generations of children (i.e., future workers and taxpayers).

With that type of population profile, tax-and-transfer entitlement systems appeared to be financially sustainable. That didn’t mean those programs were a good idea, of course, but it did mean that politicians could plausibly argue that it was okay to create entitlement programs that resembled Ponzi schemes.

The bottom line is that FDR and LBJ were very misguided, but their mistakes look far worse today than they did at the time.

So now the question is whether today’s politicians will show some actual foresight and fix the problems. There are reasons for optimism, but also reasons for pessimism.

P.S. Demography is not destiny. As I wrote earlier this year, “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. …Mandatory pension savings is a key reason why some jurisdictions have mitigated a demographic death squeeze.

P.P.S. My 11th-most viewed post of all time (and the most-viewed item in the past three months) used two cows to explain economic and political theories.

Here’s an addendum to that post.

For more Greek-related humor, this cartoon is quite  good, but this this one is my favorite. And the final cartoon in this post also has a Greek theme.

We also have a couple of videos. The first one features a video about…well, I’m not sure, but we’ll call it a European romantic comedy and the second one features a Greek comic pontificating about Germany.

Last but not least, here are some rather un-PC maps of how various peoples – including the Greeks – view different European nations.


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The Census Bureau just released a report on America’s aging population.

The big takeaway is that our population will be getting much older between now and 2050.

And since I’m a baby boomer, I very much like the fact that we’re expected to live longer.

But as a public finance economist, I’m not nearly as happy.

As I explain in this interview with the Wall Street Journal’s Digital Network (and as confirmed by BIS, OECD, and IMF data), the United States is going to get deluged by a tsunami of entitlement spending.

I mentioned that it’s important to focus on the ratio of workers to retirees. This “dependency ratio” matters because economic output largely is a function of an economy’s working-age population.

To cite my famous cartoons, you need a sufficient number of people pulling the wagon to support those riding in the wagon.

Here’s a chart from the Census report to help you understand the magnitude of the problem. As you can see, both in the United States and other nations, the increase in the dependency ratio is almost entirely the result of aging populations.

Census Dependency Ratio

This is why I said that we face a slow-motion train wreck because of poorly designed entitlement programs.

But the good news is that there is time to reform those programs and avert a crisis.

Which explains why I probably sound like a broken record about the need for genuine entitlement reform.

In a column citing the new private pension system in the Faroe Islands, I gave the arguments for modernizing Social Security with personal retirement accounts.

But we also need to deal with the health entitlements.

Here’s how to fix Medicare.

And here’s how to fix Medicaid.

By the way, some of the damaging provisions of Obamacare can be de facto repealed by including them in the Medicaid block grant, so it’s a critically important reform.

Needless to say, I think these reforms are far better for the economy than the big tax hike Obama has endorsed to deal with the giant financing gap.

P.S. For a clever look at the worker-dependency ratio, check out the party ship produced by a Danish think tank.

P.P.S. The interviewer also mentioned that America’s racial composition is changing, which gives me an excuse to point out that Social Security reform is particularly beneficial for blacks because of differences in life expectancy.

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Over the years, I’ve shared many charts, graphs, and tables to help people understand that the welfare state is fundamentally unsustainable.

And, assuming there’s not genuine entitlement reform, many of these fiscal estimates show that the United States has a very perilous future.

According to the Bank for International Settlements, the United States is in worse shape than every nation other than Japan and the United Kingdom.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States has a bigger long-run fiscal problem than all countries other than New Zealand and Japan.

And according to International Monetary Fund estimates of both future spending increases and the need for reform, no nation has a bigger problem than the United States.

So do all these numbers mean the United States is really in worse shape than basket cases such as Italy, Spain, Japan, France, and Greece?

Yes and no. I realize that answer makes me sound like a politician, but it is  hard to answer that question because America’s grim long-run numbers are largely a function of rapidly rising health care spending.

And if you assume that Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare are left unreformed, then the budgets for these programs will eat up an ever-larger share of our economy and we’ll eventually suffer a fiscal collapse.

However, if you assume that these programs at some point get reformed (and it better be the right kind of reform), then the long-run outlook is considerably less severe.

But notice that I wrote “less severe.” That’s because we still have a demographic issue. Any type of pay-as-you-go welfare state becomes increasingly expensive when there are more and more old people and fewer and fewer young workers.

This is why new projections from the Pew Research Center are so sobering. They show the change in age dependency ratio between now and 2050.

As you can see, we currently have about 50 young or old people for every 100 working-age people. By 2050, however, there will be 66 dependents for every 100 working-age people. And most of that added dependency will be caused by an aging population, not more children.

Age Dependency Ratio Pew

But here’s the good news. Compared to nations such as Spain and Japan, we’re in pretty good shape. Or, to be more accurate, we don’t face as deep of a problem. Indeed, it’s hard to see how those nations will survive.

Same with South Korea and Italy.

Even Germany has a very difficult future. Its welfare state may not be as bloated as some other nations in Europe, and the work ethic may be stronger than most other European countries, but as I already explained, any welfare state becomes unsustainable without new workers to pay taxes to support the dependent class.

In other words, demographics can be destiny. Look at this data on the nations with the lowest fertility rates. You’ll notice that Germans are not reproducing. And the same is true of the Japanese, Italians, and South Koreans (Spain is in 191st place, so they also aren’t having many kids).

Fertility Rate by Nation

I don’t know where this will lead, but it won’t be pretty. Simply stated, the welfare states in these nations will have to be reformed.

But how does that happen in countries where people have been told for decades that they have a “human right” to freebies from the government?

I fear that European nations are going to suffer some major dislocations. And as this Michael Ramirez cartoon suggests, the same problem could happen in America.

Let’s close with some optimism. You’ll notice that two of the four jurisdictions with the lowest fertility rates in the entire world are Hong Kong and Singapore. Yet there’s no major long-run fiscal crisis in those places.

Why? Because they have “pre-funded” retirement systems. In other words, they have personal retirement accounts instead of tax-and-transfer entitlement systems.

The moral of the story is that demographics can be destiny, but it doesn’t have to be.

Something to keep in mind next time there’s a discussion of Social Security reform.

P.S. Considering the high levels of pulchritude in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, I’m mystified that there’s so little reproduction in those nations. Maybe I should volunteer to help out?

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Last month, I exposed some major errors that Paul Krugman committed when he criticized Estonia for restraining the burden of government spending.

My analysis will be helpful since I am now in Estonia for a speech about economic reform, and I wrote a column that was published today by the nation’s main business newspaper.

But just in case you’re one of the few people in the world who isn’t fluent in the local language, the Mises Institute Estonia was kind enough to post an English version.

Here are some of the key points I made. I started by explaining one of Krugman’s main blunders.

Krugman’s biggest mistake is that he claimed that spending cuts caused the downturn, even though the recession began in 2008 when government spending was rapidly expanding. It wasn’t until 2009 that the burden of government spending was reduced, and that was when the economy began to grow again. In other words, Krugman’s Keynesian theory was completely wrong. The economy should have boomed in 2008 and suffered a recession beginning in 2009. Instead, the opposite has happened.

I then pointed out that Estonia’s long-run performance has been admirable.

…the nation’s long-run economic performance is quite exemplary. Economic output has doubled in just 15 years according to the International Monetary Fund. Over that entire period – including the recent downturn, it has enjoyed one of the fastest growth rates in Europe.

But I’m not a mindless cheerleader (though I might become one if any of the local women gave me the time of day), so I took the opportunity to identify areas where public policy needs improvement.

This doesn’t mean Estonia’s policy is perfect. Spending was reduced in 2009 and 2010, but now it is climbing again. This is unfortunate. Government spending consumes about 40 percent of GDP, which is a significant burden on the private sector.

Being a thoughtful guy, I then made suggestions for pro-growth changes.

Estonia should copy the Asian Tiger economies of Singapore and Hong Kong. These jurisdictions have maintained very high growth for decades in part because the burden of the public sector is only about 20 percent of GDP. …Estonia already has a flat tax, which is very important for competitiveness. The key goal should be to impose a spending cap, perhaps similar to Switzerland’s very successful “debt brake.” Under the Swiss system, government spending is not allowed to grow faster than population plus inflation. And since nominal GDP usually expands at a faster rate, this means that the relative burden of government spending shrinks over time. By slowly but surely reducing the amount of GDP diverted to fund government, this would enable policymakers to deal with the one area where Estonia’s tax system is very unfriendly. Social insurance taxes equal about one-fourth of the cost of hiring a worker, thus discouraging job creation and boosting the shadow economy.

And I elaborated on why reform of social insurance is not just a good idea, but should be viewed as an absolute necessity.

Reducing the heavy burden of social insurance taxes should be part of a big reform to modernize programs for healthcare and the elderly. A major long-term challenge for Estonia is that the population is expected to shrink. The World Bank and the United Nations both show that fertility rates are well below the “replacement rate,” meaning that there will be fewer workers in the future. That’s a very compelling reason why it is important to expand personal retirement accounts and allow the “pre-funding” of healthcare. It’s a simple matter of demographic reality.

In other words, Estonia doesn’t have a choice. If they don’t reform their entitlement programs, the burden of government spending will rise dramatically, which would mean a higher tax burden and/or substantial government debt.

We also need entitlement reform in the United States. Our demographics aren’t as bad as Estonia’s, but we all know – as I explained in my post about Cyprus – that bad things happen sooner or later if government spending grows faster than the economy’s productive sector.

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