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Posts Tagged ‘Entitlements’

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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Defenders of Social Security often make a point of stating that the retirement system is a form of “social insurance” because people become eligible for benefits by paying into the system.

Welfare programs, by contrast, give money to people simply as a form of income redistribution.

Proponents of the status quo are right. Sort of.

Social Security is an “earned benefit.” The payroll taxes of workers are somewhat analogous to a premium payment and retirement benefits are somewhat analogous to a monthly annuity payment.

But “somewhat analogous” isn’t the same as real insurance. Money isn’t invested and set aside to pay benefits. Instead, Social Security is a pay-as-you-go program, which means the payroll taxes of current workers are paying for the benefits paid to current retirees.

If a private insurance company did the same thing, its owners would be arrested for operating a Ponzi Scheme.

But the government can get away with this kind of system because it can coerce younger workers to participate.

Or, to be more accurate, the government can get away with this approach so long as there are a sufficient number of new workers who can be forced into the program.

The problem, of course, is that the combination of longer lifespans and fewer births means that Social Security is promising far more than it can deliver.

And we’re talking real money, even by Washington standards. According to the Social Security Trustees, the cash-flow deficit over the next 75 years is approaching $40 trillion. And that’s after adjusting for inflation!

So how can this mess be solved?

At the risk of over-simplifying, there are four options.

1. Do Nothing. Some politicians want to stick their heads in the sand and pretend there isn’t a problem. They argue that the “Trust Fund” can finance promised benefits until the early 2030s. But the so-called Trust Fund has nothing but IOUs, which means that benefits can only be paid by additional government borrowing. As you can imagine, that doesn’t bother most politicians since they don’t think past the next election cycle. But this red-ink approach isn’t a solution because the IOUs will run out in less than 20 years. So what happens at that point? Retirees would have their benefits automatically reduced.

2. Personal Retirement Accounts. The reform solution would allow younger workers to shift their payroll taxes into personal retirement accounts. This “funded” approach is working very well in nations such as Australia, Chile, and the Netherlands. Since there would be less payroll tax revenue going to government, there would be a “transition cost” of financing promised benefits to current retirees and older workers. But this approach would be less expensive than trying to deal with the unfunded liabilities of the current system.

3. Limit Benefits. For those that recognize the problem but don’t want genuine reform, that leaves only two other possible choices. One of those choices is to reduce benefits by modest amounts today to preempt large automatic benefit reductions when there no longer are any IOUs in the Trust Fund. Raising the retirement age would be one way of reducing outlays since people would have to spend more time working and less time collecting benefits in retirement. Another option is means-testing, which means taking away benefits from people whose income from other sources is considered too high.

4. Increase Taxes. The other option for non-reformers is to generate more tax revenue. An increase in the payroll tax rate is a commonly cited option. Politicians have already done that many times, with the payroll tax having climbed from 3 percent when the program started to 12.4 percent today. Another option would be to bust the “wage base cap” and impose the payroll tax on more income. Under current law, because the program is supposed to be analogous to private insurance, there’s a limit on how much income is taxed and a limit on how much benefits are paid. Imposing the tax on all income would break that link and turn the program into an income-redistribution scheme, but it would generate more money.

Now take a guess which of the four options is getting the most interest from Hillary Clinton?

As reported by the Washington Post, Hillary Clinton is signalling that she wants to change Social Security so it is less of a social insurance program and more akin to welfare.

At a town hall here Tuesday, she said she’d be open to a Social Security tax increase proposed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), her radical rival in the primary. During the 2008 campaign, Clinton had flatly rejected such an increase. Her comments this week could suggest that she has warmed to the idea, or that she is responding to a broader shift to the left among Democrats. …Clinton…described an approach similar to Sanders’s — raising taxes only on the wealthiest earners to avoid an increase for people who consider themselves upper middle class. “We do have to look at the cap, and we have to figure out whether we raise it or whether we raise it a little and then jump over and raise it more higher up,” Clinton said. …Sanders’s proposal — increasing payroll taxes, but only for the wealthiest earners — resembles the one President Obama laid out as a candidate in 2008. …At the time, Clinton opposed the idea. “I’m certainly against one of Senator Obama’s ideas, which is to lift the cap on the payroll tax,” she said in a Democratic primary debate then.

So Hillary’s original position was the do-nothing approach, but now she feels pressured to go with the class-warfare tax-hike approach.

As a side note, I think it’s noteworthy that the article acknowledges that the current “wage base cap” exists because there’s also a cap on benefits.

…the wealthy don’t pay taxes on their earnings above a certain amount each year, it’s important to keep in mind that they also don’t receive benefits on those earnings later on.

But I suspect this kind of detail doesn’t matter to Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and the rest of the class-warfare crowd.

They simply want to maintain (or even expand!) the social welfare state in America. Vive la France!

For more information, here’s a video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

And here’s a link to my video on why personal retirement accounts are the ideal option.

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I have a very mixed view of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which is an organization representing self-styled deficit hawks in Washington.

They do careful work and I always feel confident about citing their numbers.

Yet I frequently get frustrated because they seem to think that tax increases have to be part of any budget deal, regardless of the evidence that such an approach will backfire.

So when CRFB published a “Fiscal FactChecker” to debunk 16 supposed budget myths that they expect during this campaign season, I knew I’d find lots of stuff I would like…and lots of stuff I wouldn’t like.

Let’s look at what they said were myths, along with my two cents on CRFB’s analysis.

Myth #1: We Can Continue Borrowing without Consequences

Reality check: CRFB’s view is largely correct. If we leave policy on autopilot, demographic changes and poorly structured entitlement programs  will lead to an ever-rising burden of government spending, which almost surely will mean ever-rising levels of government debt (as well as ever-rising tax burdens). At some point, this will lead to serious consequences, presumably bad monetary policy (i.e., printing money to finance the budget) and/or Greek-style crisis (investors no longer buying bonds because they don’t trust the government will pay them back).

The only reason I don’t fully agree with CRFB is that we could permanently borrow without consequence if the debt grew 1 percent per year while the economy grew 3 percent per year. Unfortunately, given the “new normal” of weak growth, that’s not a realistic scenario.

Myth #2: With Deficits Falling, Our Debt Problems are Behind Us

Reality check: The folks at CRFB are right. Annual deficits have dropped to about $500 billion after peaking above $1 trillion during Obama’s first term, but that’s just the calm before the storm. As already noted, demographics and entitlements are a baked-into-the-cake recipe for a bigger burden of government and more red ink.

That being said, I think that CRFB’s focus is misplaced. They fixate on debt, which is the symptom, when they should be more concerned with reducing excessive government, which is the underlying disease.

Myth #3: There is No Harm in Waiting to Solve Our Debt Problems

Reality check: We have a spending problem. Deficits and debt are merely symptoms of that problem. But other than this chronic mistake, CRFB is right that it is far better to address our fiscal challenges sooner rather than later.

CRFB offers some good analysis of why it’s easier to solve the problem by acting quickly, but this isn’t just about math. Welfare State Wagon CartoonsIt’s also important to impose some sort of spending restraint before a majority of the voting-age population has been lured into some form of government dependency. Once you get to the point when more people are riding in the wagon than pulling the wagon (think Greece), reform becomes almost impossible.

Myth #4: Deficit Reduction is Code for Austerity, Which Will Harm the Economy

Reality check: The folks at CRFB list this as a myth, but they actually agree with the assertion, stating that deficit reduction policies “have damaged economic performance and increased unemployment.” They even seem sympathetic to “modest increases to near-term deficits by replacing short-term ‘sequester’ cuts”, which would gut this century’s biggest victory for good fiscal policy!

There are two reasons for CRFB’s confusion. First, they seem to accept the Keynesian argument about bigger government and red ink boosting growth, notwithstanding all the evidence to the contrary. Second, they fail to distinguish between good austerity and bad austerity. If austerity means higher taxes, as has been the case so often in Europe, then it is unambiguously bad for growth. But if it means spending restraint (or even actual spending cuts), then it is clearly good for growth. There may be some short-term disruption since resources don’t instantaneously get reallocated, but the long-term benefits are enormous because labor and capital are used more productively in the private economy.

Myth #5: Tax Cuts Pay For Themselves

Reality check: I agree with the folks at CRFB. As a general rule, tax cuts will reduce government revenue, even after measuring possible pro-growth effects that lead to higher levels of taxable income.

But it’s also important to recognize that not all tax cuts are created equal. Some tax cuts have very large “supply-side” effects, particularly once the economy has a chance to adjust in response to better policy. So a lower capital gains tax or a repeal of the death tax, to cite a couple of examples, might increase revenue in the long run. And we definitely saw a huge response when Reagan lowered top tax rates in the 1980s. But other tax cuts, such as expanded child credits, presumably generate almost no pro-growth effects because there’s no change in the relative price of productive behavior.

Myth #6: We Can Fix the Debt Solely by Taxing the Top 1%

Reality check: The CRFB report correctly points out that confiscatory tax rates on upper-income taxpayers would backfire for the simple reason that rich people would simply choose to earn and report less income. And they didn’t even include the indirect economic damage (and reductions in taxable income) caused by less saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.

Ironically, the CRFB folks seem to recognize that tax rates beyond a certain level would result in less revenue for government. Which implies, of course, that it is possible (notwithstanding what they said in Myth #5) for some tax cuts to pay for themselves.

Myth #7: We Can Lower Tax Rates by Closing a Few Egregious Loopholes

Reality check: It depends on the definition of “egregious.” In the CRFB report, they equate “egregious” with “unpopular” in order to justify their argument.

But if we define “egregious” to mean “economically foolish and misguided,” then there are lots of preferences in the tax code that could – and should – be abolished in order to finance much lower tax rates. Including the healthcare exclusion, the mortgage interest deduction, the charitable giving deduction, and (especially) the deduction for state and local taxes.

Myth #8: Any Tax Increases Will Cripple Economic Growth

Reality check: The CRFB folks are right. A small tax increase obviously won’t “cripple” economic growth. Indeed, it’s even possible that a tax increase might lead to more growth if it was combined with pro-growth policies in other areas. Heck, that’s exactly what happened during the Clinton years. But now let’s inject some reality into the conversation. Any non-trivial tax increase on productive behavior will have some negative impact on economic performance and competitiveness. The evidence is overwhelming that higher tax rates hurt growth and the evidence is also overwhelming that more double taxation will harm the economy.

The CRFB report suggests that the harm of tax hikes could be offset by the supposed pro-growth impact of a lower budget deficit, but the evidence for that proposition if very shaky. Moreover, there’s a substantial amount of real-world data showing that tax increases worsen fiscal balance. Simply stated, tax hikes don’t augment spending restraint, they undermine spending restraint. Which may be why the only “bipartisan” budget deal that actually led to a balanced budget was the one that lowered taxes instead of raising them.

Myth #9: Medicare and Social Security Are Earned Benefits and Should Not Be Touched

Reality check: CRFB is completely correct on this one. The theory of age-related “social insurance” programs such as Medicare and Social Security is that people pay into the programs while young and then get benefits when they are old. This is why they are called “earned benefits.”

The problem is that politicians don’t like asking people to pay and they do like giving people benefits, so the programs are poorly designed. The average Medicare recipient, for instance, costs taxpayers $3 for every $1 that recipient paid into the program. Social Security isn’t that lopsided, but the program desperately needs reform because of demographic change. But the reforms shouldn’t be driven solely by budget considerations, which could lead to trapping people in poorly designed entitlement schemes. We need genuine structural reform.

Myth #10: Repealing “Obamacare” Will Fix the Debt

Reality check: Obamacare is a very costly piece of legislation that increased the burden of government spending and made the tax system more onerous. Repealing the law would dramatically improve fiscal policy.

But CRFB, because of the aforementioned misplaced fixation on red ink, doesn’t have a big problem with Obamacare because the increase in taxes and the increase in spending are roughly equivalent. So the organization is technically correct that repealing the law won’t “fix the debt.” But it would help address America’s real fiscal problem, which is a bloated and costly public sector.

Myth #11: The Health Care Cost Problem is Solved

Reality check: CRFB’s analysis is correct, though it would have been nice to see some discussion of how third-party payer is the problem.

Myth #12: Social Security’s Shortfall Can be Closed Simply by Raising Taxes on or Means-Testing Benefits for the Wealthy

Reality check: To their credit, CRFB is basically arguing against President Obama’s scheme to impose Social Security payroll taxes on all labor income, which would turn the program from a social-insurance system into a pure income-redistribution scheme.

On paper, such a system actually could eliminate the vast majority of Social Security’s giant unfunded liability. In reality, this would mean a huge increase in marginal tax rates on investors, entrepreneurs, and small business owners, which would have a serious adverse economic impact.

Myth #13: We Can Solve Our Debt Situation by Cutting Waste, Fraud, Abuse, Earmarks, and/or Foreign Aid

Reality check: Earmarks (which have been substantially curtailed already) and foreign aid are a relatively small share of the budget, so CRFB is right that getting rid of that spending won’t have a big impact. But what about the larger question. Could our fiscal mess (which is a spending problem, not a “debt situation”) be fixed by eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse?

It depends on how one defines “waste, fraud, and abuse.” If one uses a very narrow definition, such as technical malfeasance, then waste, fraud, and abuse might “only” amount to a couple of hundred billions dollars per year. But from an economic perspective (i.e., grossly inefficient misallocation of resources), then entire federal departments such as HUD, Education, Transportation, Agriculture, etc, should be classified as waste, fraud, and abuse.

Myth #14: We Can Grow Our Way Out of Debt

Reality check: CRFB is correct that faster growth won’t solve all of our fiscal problems. Unless one makes an untenable assumption that economic growth will be faster than the projected growth of entitlement spending. And even that kind of heroic assumption would be untenable since faster growth generally obligates the government to pay higher benefits in the future.

Myth #15: A Balanced Budget Amendment is All We Need to Fix the Debt

Reality check: CRFB accurately explains that a BBA is simply an obstacle to additional debt. Politicians still would be obliged to change laws to fulfill that requirement. But that analysis misses the point. A BBA focuses on red ink, whereas the real problem is that government is too big and growing too fast. State balanced-budget requirement haven’t stopped states like California and Illinois from serious fiscal imbalances and eroding competitiveness. The so-called Maastricht anti-deficit and anti-debt rules in the European Union haven’t stopped nations such as France and Greece from fiscal chaos.

This is why the real solution is to have some sort of enforceable cap on government spending. That approach has worked well in jurisdictions such as Switzerland, Hong Kong, and Colorado. And even research from the IMF (a bureaucracy that shares CRFB’s misplaced fixation on debt) has concluded that expenditure limits are the only effective fiscal rules.

Myth #16: We Can Fix the Debt Solely by Cutting Welfare Spending

Reality check: The federal government is spending about $1 trillion this year on means-tested (i.e., anti-poverty) programs, which is about one-fourth of total outlays, so getting Washington out of the business of income redistribution would substantially lower the burden of federal spending (somewhat offset, to be sure, by increases in state and local spending). And for those who fixate on red ink, that would turn today’s $500 billion deficit into a $500 billion surplus.

That being said, there would still be a big long-run problem caused by other federal programs, most notably Social Security and Medicare. So CRFB is correct in that dealing with welfare-related spending doesn’t fully solve the long-run problem, regardless of whether you focus on the problem of spending or the symptom of borrowing.

This has been a lengthy post, so let’s have a very simple summary.

We know that modest spending restraint can quickly balance the budget.

We also know lots of nations that have made rapid progress with modest amounts of spending restraint.

And we know that the tax-hike option simply leads to more spending.

So the only question to answer is why the CRFB crowd can’t put two and two together and get four?

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Not all birthdays are a cause for untrammeled joy. Most of us baby boomers, for instance, don’t like being reminded that we’re getting older.

And for folks who follow fiscal policy, the fact that Medicare is now 50 years old is hardly a cause for celebration. That’s because the program, as one of the three big entitlement programs, will turn American into Greece without substantial structural reform.

But it’s not just a budgetary issue.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Sally Pipes of the Pacific Research Institute opines that this isn’t a happy birthday for taxpayers, seniors, or the healthcare system.

The only birthday gift this middle-age government program merits is a reality check. Health insurance for senior citizens was part of LBJ’s expansion of the welfare state, all in the service of establishing a “Great Society.” Yet many beneficiaries today are struggling to secure access to high-quality care. Future beneficiaries, meanwhile, are forking over billions of dollars today to keep a program afloat that may be bankrupt when they retire.

Like many government programs, it is far more expensive than initially promised.

Medicare spending has zoomed far beyond original expectations and is now anything but sustainable. In its first year, 1966, Medicare spent $3 billion. In 1967 the House Ways and Means Committee predicted that the program would cost $12 billion by 1990. It ended up costing $110 billion that year. Last year the program cost $511 billion, and seven years from now it will double to more than $1 trillion, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

And like many government programs, it is riddled with waste, fraud, and abuse.

Medicare has been dogged by fraud and other improper payments—$60 billion overall in fiscal 2014, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office.

You can click here if you want some jaw-dropping examples of how the program squanders money.

Moreover, many doctors don’t want to treat Medicare recipients because they lose money after you included the expense of accompanying paperwork and regulations.

…nearly three in 10 seniors on Medicare struggle to find a primary-care doctor who will treat them, according to the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission. Another survey conducted by Jackson Healthcare, the health-care staffing company, found that 10% of the more than 2,000 physicians it surveyed don’t see Medicare patients at all.

So what’s the solution?

We’ve tried price controls and that doesn’t work.

Other approaches also won’t be adequate. So the only answer, Sally explains, is to shift to a form of vouchers sometimes called “premium support.”

…tweaking the eligibility age won’t be enough. If Medicare is to survive into old age, the program has to be converted from an open-ended entitlement to a system of means-tested vouchers. Under such a system, the government would give every senior a voucher based on health status, income and age. Seniors in better health and those who are wealthy would receive smaller vouchers. Sicker or needier seniors would receive larger ones. Seniors would then choose from among privately administered health plans the one that best suited their needs and budget. Insurers would have to compete for beneficiaries’ business, and providers would have to compete to get on the most popular plans. Lower prices and better-quality care would be the result.

Grace-Marie Turner of the Galen Institute and Merrill Matthews of the Institute for Policy Innovation have a similarly pessimistic perspective.

In a column for Investor’s Business Daily, they highlight some of the same problems with cost and quality, but they also add important insight about how Medicare has caused rising health care costs.

…health economist Theodore Marmor pointed out: “Hospital price increases presented the most intractable political problem for the Johnson administration. In the first year of Medicare’s operation, the average daily service charge in America’s hospitals increased by an unprecedented 21.9%. Each month the Labor Department’s consumer price survey reported further increases…”

Gee, what a surprise. With Uncle Sam picking up the tab, normal market forces were eroded and providers responded by jacking up prices.

The federal government has responded with price controls, but that’s been predictably ineffective.

Congress imposed a type of price-control mechanism in 1983 called Diagnostic Related Groups, or DRGs. And in the early 1990s, Congress tried to cut spending on physicians by creating the Resource Based Relative Value Scale. Then there was the infamous Medicare “Sustainable Growth Rate,” later dubbed the “doc fix,” which passed in 1996 to contain Medicare spending by cutting doctors’ fees. It was repealed only recently, after Congress had postponed the vote 17 times.

So what’s the bottom line?

Government involvement dramatically increases spending, followed by clampdowns on soaring prices, leading to restrictions on doctors and patients. Perhaps next time, we might try market forces rather than another failed effort at centralized government programs.

Or we can simply leave policy on autopilot and somehow have faith that Obamacare’s death panels will “solve” the problem.

P.S. Here’s the video I narrated which explains the importance of the right kind of Medicare reform.

And if you want (what I think) is a very good description of the program, it’s that Medicare charges seniors for a hamburger and gives them a hamburger, but taxpayers are getting a bill for a steak.

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I’ve written over and over again that the federal government’s so-called War on Poverty has been a disaster.

It’s been bad news for taxpayers, of course, but it’s also been bad news for poor people since they get trapped in dependency.

So what’s the alternative? Well, we actually can learn a lot from history.

Let’s start on the other side of the Atlantic. Professor Tyler Cowen of George Mason University has a fascinating video (which is part of a must-watch series) looking at the English debate in the 1830s on how best to deal with poverty.

Now let’s cross the ocean and look at the American experience.

Professor Thomas West of Hillsdale College has researched welfare policies in the early days of the United States.

Here are some of his key findings.

…government-funded welfare, not to mention generous private charity, has existed throughout American history. …The real difference between the Founders’ welfare policies and today’s is over how, not whether, government should help those in need.

Government was involved, but only at the local level, and assistance was a two-way street.

From the earliest colonial days, local governments took responsibility for their poor. However, able-bodied men and women generally were not supported by the taxpayers unless they worked. They would sometimes be placed in group homes that provided them with food and shelter in exchange for labor. Only those who were too young, old, weak, or sick and who had no friends or family to help them were taken care of in idleness.

Here’s more.

Welfare is kept local so that the administrators of the program will know the actual situations of the persons who ask for help. This will prevent abuses and freeloading. …A distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor is carefully observed. Able-bodied vagabonds get help, but they are required to work in institutions where they will be disciplined. Children and the disabled, on the other hand, are provided for, not lavishly but without public shame. …Poor laws to support individual cases of urgent need were not intended to go beyond a minimal safety net. Benefit levels were low.

Interestingly, Professor West writes about Benjamin Franklin’s low opinion of England’s welfare system (as it existed before the 1830s, obviously), which was much more generous.

Here’s some of what Franklin wrote, as cited by West.

I am for doing good to the poor, but I differ in opinion of the means. I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it. In my youth I travelled much, and I observed in different countries, that the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer. And, on the contrary, the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer.

This was not an unusual perspective.

Franklin’s understanding of the welfare paradox—that aid to the poor must be managed carefully lest it promote indolence and therefore poverty—was shared by most Americans who wrote about and administered poverty programs until the end of the 19th century. …policies were intended to help the poor in ways that did not violate the rights of taxpayers or promote irresponsible behavior.

Thomas Jefferson definitely agreed, as seen in this quote included in Professor West’s analysis.

To take from one, because it is thought his own industry and that of his fathers has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers, have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association, the guarantee to everyone the free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it.

If you remember the discussion of “indoor” and “outdoor” relief from the video about the English welfare system, you won’t be surprised to learn similar issues were present in the United States.

As the poor population grew, many concluded that “outdoor relief” was leading people to look on welfare as an entitlement and creating a class of permanent dependents. Consequently, the emphasis soon shifted to “indoor relief”—almshouses and workhouses.

Professor West also cites the strong role of private charity, which also was based on tough-love compassion.

After the Revolution and throughout the 19th century, hospitals for the poor, educational institutions, YMCAs, and Salvation Army branches were established in growing numbers all over America by public-spirited citizens. Like the public workhouses, these private charities distinguished between deserving and undeserving poor. Good character, it was thought, would enable most people to become self-sufficient. These agencies tried to build the character of their recipients through education, moral suasion, religious instruction, and work.

Now let’s see what West says about the effectiveness of the tough-love approach from America’s past with the entitlement approach used today.

If we rank poverty and welfare policies in terms of quantity of money and material goods given to people who are poor, then today’s policies are far more effective than the Founders’. Benefit levels are much higher, and far more people are eligible for support. …However, if poverty and welfare policies are judged by their effectiveness in providing for the minimal needs of the poor while dramatically reducing poverty in a society over time, then America before 1965 could be said to have had the most successful welfare policy in world history. By the same benchmark, post-1965 poverty programs have failed.

In other words, if the goal is to make people comfortable in dependency, the current system is a big success.

But if the goal is self reliance and reduced poverty, than the current system is a terrible failure.

Professor West has some great data on how a combination of long-run growth and a sensible welfare system combined to dramatically reduce destitution between the nation’s founding and the 1960s.

Two centuries ago, most Americans—at least 90 percent—were desperately poor by today’s standards. Most houses were small, ill-constructed, and poorly heated and insulated. Based on federal family income estimates, 59 percent of Americans lived in poverty as late as 1929, before the Great Depression. In 1947, the government reported that 32 percent of Americans were poor. 

This is fascinating and valuable information. At least for those of us with a wonky interest in public policy.

Back in 2010, I shared a chart based on far more limited data to show the poverty rate consistently falling after World War II.

But only up to a point. Once the federal government declared War on Poverty in the mid-1960s, we stopped making progress.

Now, based on Professor West’s data, I can create a chart going back to 1815.

I arbitrarily connected the data points with straight lines for lack of any other obvious alternative, but that’s not important. The key point of the graph is to see that the level of poverty dramatically before Washington got involved.

Professor West puts 2 and 2 together and gets 4.

…before the huge growth in government spending on poverty programs, poverty was declining rapidly in America. After the new programs were fully implemented, the poverty rate stopped declining.

Let’s begin to wrap up our discussion.

West points out that Benjamin Franklin’s criticisms of the English welfare system apply even more so to the mess we have in America today.

And this is a very costly mistake.

The incentive structure of the modern welfare state is similar to the one that Franklin condemned in old England, except that ours is more generous and more tolerant of single motherhood. Since 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson inaugurated the modern War on Poverty, total annual government welfare spending has grown from less than $9 billion (1.3 percent of gross domestic product) to $324 billion (5 percent of GDP) in 1993 to $927 billion (6 percent of GDP) in 2011. Between 1965 and 2013, the government spent $22 trillion (adjusted for inflation) on means-tested welfare programs—more than three times the costs of all military wars in the history of the United States. …These figures do not take into account state, county, and municipal benefits. Nor do they take into account the massive use of Social Security Disability as a de facto welfare program (as of 2005, 4.1 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 64 were enrolled).

We had successful welfare reform in the 1990s, to be sure, but it dealt with just one program.

The overall trend, as discussed two days ago, is ever-growing levels of dependency.

The basic problem—that government makes it affordable for women to bear and raise children without husbands while living independently in households of their own—is still there. …High benefit levels and irresponsible attitudes toward sex and marriage create a world in which many children have few or no ties to their fathers; in which mothers, increasingly unmarried, are more often abused and exploited; and in which many men join gangs and take up crime as a way of life. …The contemporary outlook on welfare has both propelled the family’s disintegration and promoted vast dependence. …antipoverty programs can easily have a corrupting effect if they are not set up in a way that promotes rather than breaks down the morality of self-restraint and self-assertion that is a necessary foundation of what Jefferson called “temperate liberty.”

I guess what we have now in America is intemperate dependence.

Hmmm, maybe the solution is to go back to the system that worked. And that means getting Washington out of the business of income redistribution.

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Based on a new report from the Congressional Budget Office, I wrote two weeks ago about America’s dismal long-run fiscal outlook. Simply stated, we face a Greek-style fiscal future because of changing demographics and poorly designed entitlement programs.

But I was just looking at big-picture fiscal aggregates.

And while that was discouraging, it gets downright depressing when you look behind the numbers and consider how a growing share of Americans are getting lured into government dependency.

Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute has a very grim analysis on the growth of entitlement dependency in the United States.

The American welfare state today transfers over 14% of the nation’s GDP to the recipients of its many programs, and over a third of the population now accepts “need-based” benefits from the government. This is not the America that Tocqueville encountered.

It wasn’t always this way.

The article looks at the history of the welfare state in America.

 In 1961, at the start of the Kennedy Administration, total government entitlement transfers to individual recipients accounted for a little less than 5% of GDP, as opposed to 2.5% of GDP in 1931 just before the New Deal. In 1963 — the year of Kennedy’s assassination — these entitlement transfers accounted for about 6% of total personal income.

But things began to deteriorate under LBJ.

During the 1960s, …President Johnson’s “War on Poverty” (declared in 1964) and his “Great Society” pledge of the same year ushered in a new era for America, in which Washington finally commenced in earnest the construction of a massive welfare state. … Americans could claim, and obtain, an increasing trove of economic benefits from the government simply by dint of being a citizen; they were now incontestably entitled under law to some measure of transferred public bounty, thanks to our new “entitlement state.”

And guess what? Once we started rewarding dependency, more and more people decided they were entitled.

Over the half-century between 1963 and 2013, entitlement transfers were the fastest growing source of personal income in America — expanding at twice the rate for real per capita personal income from all other sources, in fact. Relentless, exponential growth of entitlement payments recast the American family budget over the course of just two generations. In 1963, these transfers accounted for less than one out of every 15 dollars of overall personal income; by 2013, they accounted for more than one dollar out of every six. The explosive growth of entitlement outlays, of course, was accompanied by a corresponding surge in the number of Americans who would routinely apply for, and accept, such government benefits.

And how many people have been lured into government dependency? A lot, and mostly because of welfare spending rather than age-related social insurance programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

…the government did not actually begin systematically tracking the demographics of America’s “program participation” until a generation ago. Such data as are available, however, depict a sea change over the past 30 years. …By 2012, the most recent year for such figures at this writing, Census Bureau estimates indicated that more than 150 million Americans, or a little more than 49% of the population, lived in households that received at least one entitlement benefit….Between 1983 and 2012, by Census Bureau estimates, the percentage of Americans “participating” in entitlement programs jumped by nearly 20 percentage points….Less than one-fifth of that 20-percentage-point jump can be attributed to increased reliance on these two “old age” programs. Overwhelmingly, the growth in claimants of entitlement benefits has stemmed from an extraordinary rise in “means-tested” entitlements.

Ugh. I’ve previously written that getting something from the government doesn’t automatically turn somebody into a moocher or a deadbeat.

Nonetheless, it can’t be good news that 49 percent of U.S. households are on the receiving end for goodies from Uncle Sam.

Here’s a table from his article that should frighten anyone who thinks work and self-reliance are worthwhile values.

There’s lot of information, so I recommend just focusing on the numbers in parentheses in the first two columns. Those show how dependency is increasing by significant amounts for many programs.

Eberstadt highlights some of the worst numbers, most notably the huge growth in food stamps and Medicaid dependency.

…the rolls of claimants receiving food stamps (a program that was officially rebranded the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, in 2008 because of the stigma the phrase had acquired) jumped from 19 million to 51 million. By 2012 almost one American in six lived in a home enrolled in the SNAP program. The ranks of Medicaid, the means-tested national health-care program, increased by over 65 million between 1983 and 2012, and now include over one in four Americans. …Between 1983 and 2012, the number of Americans in households receiving Federal SSI more than sextupled; by 2012, over 20 million people were counted as dependents of the program.

As bad as these numbers are, the most worrisome part of the article is when Eberstadt writes about the erosion of America’s cultural capital.

Asking for, and accepting, purportedly need-based government welfare benefits has become a fact of life for a significant and still growing minority of our population: Every decade, a higher proportion of Americans appear to be habituated to the practice. … nearly half of all children under 18 years of age received means-tested benefits (or lived in homes that did). For this rising cohort of young Americans, reliance on public, need-based entitlement programs is already the norm — here and now. It risks belaboring the obvious to observe that today’s real existing American entitlement state, and the habits — including habits of mind — that it engenders, do not coexist easily with the values and principles, or with the traditions, culture, and styles of life, subsumed under the shorthand of “American exceptionalism.”

And the erosion of cultural capital is very difficult to reverse, thanks in large part to the welfare-aided erosion of traditional families and falling levels of work among males.

The corrosive nature of mass dependence on entitlements is evident from the nature of the pathologies so closely associated with its spread. Two of the most pernicious of them are so tightly intertwined as to be inseparable: the breakdown of the pre-existing American family structure and the dramatic decrease in participation in work among working-age men. …the rise of long-term entitlement dependence — with the concomitant “mainstreaming” of inter-generational welfare dependence — self-evidently delivers a heavy blow.

Since this has been an utterly depressing analysis so far, let’s close with a vaguely optimistic look at the future.

While it may not be easy to reverse the erosion of cultural capital, it is simple (at least in theory) to reverse bad policies.

All we need to do is enact genuine entitlement reform and devolve all means-tested redistribution spending to the states.

P.S. This is some great work by AEI, which follows on the stellar analysis that organization recently produced on income inequality. Makes me almost want to forgot that AEI put together a somewhat disappointing fiscal plan.

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Last September, I wrote about some very disturbing 10-year projections that showed a rising burden of government spending.

Those numbers were rather depressing, but a recently released long-term forecast from the Congressional Budget Office make the 10-year numbers look benign by comparison.

The new report is overly focused on the symptom of deficits and debt rather than the underlying disease of excessive government. But if you dig into the details, you can find the numbers that really matter. Here’s some of what CBO reported about government spending in its forecast.

The long-term outlook for the federal budget has worsened dramatically over the past several years, in the wake of the 2007–2009 recession and slow recovery. …If current law remained generally unchanged…, federal spending rises from 20.5 percent of GDP this year to 25.3 percent of GDP by 2040.

And why is the burden of spending going up?

Well, here’s a chart from CBO’s slideshow presentation. I’ve added some red arrows to draw attention to the most worrisome numbers.

As you can see, entitlement programs are the big problem, especially Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare.

Even CBO agrees.

…spending for Social Security and the government’s major health care programs—Medicare, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and subsidies for health insurance purchased through the exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act—would rise sharply, to 14.2 percent of GDP by 2040, if current law remained generally unchanged. That percentage would be more than twice the 6.5 percent average seen over the past 50 years.

By the way, while it’s bad news that the overall burden of federal spending is expected to rise to more than 25 percent of GDP by 2040, I worry that the real number will be worse.

After all, the forecast assumes that other spending will drop by 2.2 percent of GDP between 2015 and 2040. Yet is it really realistic to think that politicians won’t increase – much less hold steady – the amount that’s being spent on non-health welfare programs and discretionary programs?

Another key takeaway from the report is that it is preposterous to argue (like Obama’s former economic adviser) that our long-run fiscal problems are caused by inadequate tax revenue.

Indeed, tax revenues are projected to rise significantly over the next 25 years.

Federal revenues would also increase relative to GDP under current law… Revenues would equal 19.4 percent of GDP by 2040, CBO projects, which would be higher than the 50-year average of 17.4 percent.

Here’s another slide from the CBO. I’ve added a red arrow to show that the increase in taxation is due to a climbing income tax burden.

These CBO numbers are grim, but they could be considered the “rosy scenario.”

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB) produced their own analysis of the long-run fiscal outlook.

Like the CBO, CRFB is too fixated on deficits and debt, but their report does have some additional projections of government spending.

Here’s the key table from the CRFB report. Not only do they show the CBO numbers  for 2065 and 2090 under the baseline scenario, they also pull out CBO’s “alternative fiscal scenario” projections, which are based on more pessimistic (some would say more realistic) assumptions.

As you can see from my red arrows, federal spending will consume one-third of our economy’s output based on the “extended baseline scenario” as we get close to the end of the century. So if you add state and local spending to the mix, the overall burden of spending will be higher than it is in Greece today.

But if you really want to get depressed, look at the “alternative fiscal scenario.” The burden of federal spending soars to more than 50 percent of output. So when you add state and local government spending, the overall burden would be higher than what currently exists in any of Europe’s welfare states.

In other words, America is destined to become Greece.

Unless, of course, politicians can be convinced to follow my Golden Rule and exercise some much-needed spending restraint.

This would require genuine entitlement reform and discipline in other parts of the budget, steps that would not be popular from the perspective of Washington insiders.

Which is why we need some sort of external tool that mandates spending restraint, such as an American version of Switzerland’s Debt Brake (which you can learn more about by watching a presentation from a representative of the Swiss Embassy).

Heck, even the IMF agrees that spending caps are the only feasible solution.

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