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Posts Tagged ‘Entitlements’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These balances are available to finance future benefit payments and other trust fund expenditures–but only in a bookkeeping sense. …They do not consist of real economic assets that can be drawn down in the future to fund benefits. Instead, they are claims on the Treasury, that, when redeemed, will have to be financed by raising taxes, borrowing from the public, or reducing benefits or other expenditures.

Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I will occasionally pontificate about a demographic crisis in the developed world, but I usually feel guilty afterwards. After all, how can it be a bad thing that we’re living longer? And what gives me the right to grouse about the number of children other families decide to have?

What I should be saying instead is that demographic changes are forcing us to recognize that we have a crisis of bad public policy. To be more specific, the entitlement state has become too large.

That’s the message I tried to get across in an interview earlier this week.

At the risk of oversimplification, I basically stated that there are two crises in the world.

The first crisis, based in the industrialized world, is that tax-and-transfer welfare states were created back when there were lots of workers and relatively few old people, and most people assumed that demographic profile would always exist.

But now that the “population pyramid” is becoming a “population cylinder” (I was talking faster than I was thinking in the interview and reversed the two concepts at one point), there aren’t going to be enough workers to finance all the redistribution programs, particularly the ones that funnel money to the elderly.

This is a big reason why nations such as Greece and Italy already are in deep trouble and why it’s just a matter of time before the fiscal crisis spreads to France and Japan (and the United States if we don’t enact genuine entitlement reform).

Here’s a table, based on World Bank data, showing the 20 jurisdictions with the lowest fertility rates. Which means, of course, the places with the fewest future taxpayers to finance redistribution.

The second crisis, based in the developing world, is that pervasive statism suffocates growth.

And while I largely agree with the late Julian Simon about people being a resource rather than liability, if a nation has a bloated and intrusive public sector that stifles the private sector, then a growing population can be a bad thing.

But it’s not the growing population that’s bad, it’s the statist policies. Here’s a list of the 20 counties with the highest fertility rates. The majority of them are ranked in the “least free” quartile according to Economic Freedom of the World. And none of them are in the “most free” quartile.

But the most important part of the interview, at least when thinking about problems in the industrialized world, is when I pointed out that nations such as Singapore don’t face a big problem.

Yes, Singapore has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, but it also doesn’t have a pervasive tax-and-transfer welfare state. People are responsible for saving for their own retirement and healthcare. So the absence of future taxpayers isn’t a major challenge because the system doesn’t need to be propped up with tax revenue.

And the same thing is true in Hong Kong, another jurisdiction that is in good long-run shape even though the fertility rate is extremely low.

P.S. Given the demographic changes that are now occurring, many governments with big welfare states now recognize that they have a problem. Unfortunately, many of them think the solution is to artificially encourage more babies rather than entitlement reform.

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In a recent interview on the new Trump budget, I hit on some of my usual topics such as growth, real-world fiscal numbers, tax reform, fake budget cuts, entitlement reform, and my Golden Rule.

But I want to call attention to the part of the discussion that started a bit before the one-minute mark. This is the point where I expressed concern about Donald Trump’s proposed parental leave entitlement.

I’ve written about Trump’s childcare scheme, but that’s a different intervention than what we’re talking about today.

Government-mandated paid parental leave is just as misguided childcare subsidies. It may even be worse. Let’s look at some details.

The Wall Street Journal is unimpressed by Trump’s plan to expand the welfare state.

Mr. Trump’s budget would require states to provide six weeks of paid family leave for new mothers and fathers, as well as adoptive parents. States would have “broad latitude to design and finance” the benefit, which would be delivered through unemployment insurance. States would be forced to work out how much to pay parents, whether to ban a beneficiary from working during the leave, and dozens of other details. The budget says the program will cost the feds $25 billion. The cost is offset in theory by reducing waste and abuse in unemployment insurance. The left is naturally panning the plan as stingy. …Once an entitlement is codified it expands. Proponents note that underwriting the benefit requires only a tiny increase in taxes, or some other levy on businesses. But wait until Democrats double or triple the duration of the leave, which they will do as soon as they are in power. The idea that Republicans can propose a cost-effective entitlement is delusional… The left chants that every industrialized country in the world offers some form of paid family leave—even Oman!—but one reason European countries have inflexible labor markets and higher unemployment is because they make hiring more expensive.

The final sentence is the key.

Why on earth should the United States mimic the policies of nations that have less growth, more unemployment, and lower per-capita economic output?

And James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute agrees that if Republicans start the program, Democrats will expand it. But his citation of some academic research is the best part of his article.

…how could the left not be secretly thrilled? Even if Trump’s bare-bones plan doesn’t become law, it sets a sort of precedent for Republicans supporting paid leave. And should the plan pass Congress and get signed by Trump, it establishes a program that future Democratic presidents and lawmakers can expand. …A 2017 study, by UC Santa Barbara economist Jenna Stearns, of maternity leave policy in Great Britain found that…there’s a tradeoff: Expanding job protected leave benefits led to “fewer women holding management positions and other jobs with the potential for promotion.” Likewise, a 2013 study by Cornell University’s Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn found family-friendly policies…also “leave women less likely to be considered for high-level positions. One’s evaluation of such policies must take both of these effects into account.” …In a classic 1983 paper on mandated benefits like paid leave, former Obama economist Lawrence Summers explained businesses would offset higher benefits with lower pay or hiring workers with lower potential benefit costs. You know, tradeoffs.

Amen.

And this is why even a columnist for the New York Times has pointed out that self-styled feminist policies actually are bad for women.

The best policies for women are the same as the best policies for men (not to mention all the other genders that now exist). Simply stated, allow free markets and small government.

P.S. Government-mandated paid parental leave is a bad idea even when the idea is pushed by people at right-wing think tanks.

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When President Trump released his so-called “skinny budget” back in March (dealing with the parts of Leviathan that are annually appropriated), I applauded several of the specific recommendations.

  • Shutting down the wasteful National Endowment for the Arts.
  • Defunding National Public Radio and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
  • Terminating the scandal-plagued Community Development Block Grant program.

The only problem is that I didn’t sense – and still don’t see – any serious effort to push through these much-needed fiscal reforms (and the same is true for his proposed tax cut).

The bottom line is that Trump has the power to achieve the bulk of his agenda, but only if he is willing to veto pork-filled bills and force a partial government shutdown. But he’s already blinked once in this type of battle, so the spending lobbies feel confident that he can be rolled again.

But let’s set that aside. The White House is about to release the President’s full budget and there already is considerable angst about potential reforms to Medicaid. Here are some excerpts from a report in the Washington Post.

President Trump’s first major budget proposal on Tuesday will include massive cuts to Medicaid…more than $800 billion over 10 years. …Trump’s decision to include the Medicaid cuts is significant because it shows he is rejecting calls from a number of Senate Republicans not to reverse the expansion of Medicaid that President Barack Obama achieved as part of the Affordable Care Act. The House has voted to cut the Medicaid funding… The proposed changes will be a central feature of Trump’s first comprehensive budget plan…it will seek changes to entitlements — programs that are essentially on auto­pilot and don’t need annual authorization from Congress.

I have two reactions to this story.

First, the Washington Post is lying (and not for the first time). There will be no Medicaid cuts in Trump’s budget. Contrary to the headline, there aren’t “big cuts” and there won’t be any “slashing.” We won’t see the actual numbers until tomorrow, but I can state with complete certainty that the Trump Administration is merely going to propose a reduction in how fast the program’s budget increases.

Second, it’s a very good idea to slow down the growth of Medicaid spending.

Here is some background information on the program, starting with an article in The Week by Shikha Dalmia

Medicaid is arguably the civilized world’s worst health insurance program. …This joint federal and state program has historically allowed the feds to give states 50 cents for every dollar they spent on purchasing health coverage for the poor. Because of this federal largesse, Medicaid has grown astronomically, becoming the single biggest ticket item on virtually every state budget. …President Obama essentially money-bombed states into expanding it even further. He told states that Uncle Sam would pick up 100 percent of the tab for the first three years for every additional person they covered up to 138 percent of the poverty level. …Medicaid now covers almost 75 million Americans. And even before ObamaCare took effect, Medicaid paid for almost half of all births in America. …The combined annual cost of the program now exceeds half a trillion dollars (with the feds’ share at 63 percent and states’ at 37 percent) — which adds up to roughly $7,000 for every man, woman, and child covered by the program. …Several reputable studies have found that Medicaid patients experience no better health outcomes than uninsured people, and arguably even slightly worse outcomes. …ObamaCare is like a Rube Goldberg contraption. Taking it apart and reassembling it is easier said than done — even if it’s the right and smart thing to do. And if Republicans can’t figure out a way to do so, American patients and taxpayers will be the big losers.

And here are some excerpts from a Wall Street Journal editorial.

The…important goal is to change the incentives over the long term and eliminate the perverse formulas that discount the welfare of the truly needy. …A helpful revolution in Medicaid would be to end the match rate that rewards higher spending and move to block grants. States would get some fixed pot of money annually, determined by how many people are enrolled. The pots might be expensive in the early years, but states would become accountable for marginal per capita spending growth over time. Governors can be assuaged by ending Medicaid’s command-and-control regulatory model, freeing them to use new tools to control costs.

James Capretta of the American Enterprise has additional details, particularly showing how the “federal medical assistance percentage” encourages higher spending.

In 1965, the authors of Medicaid thought they were creating a program that would provide federal structure, uniformity, and some funding for the many state programs that were already providing relatively inexpensive “indigent care” services to low-income households. …Medicaid has grown into the largest health care program in the country by enrollment, with 66 million participants and with annual federal and state costs of more than $550 billion. …Medicaid spending has increased rapidly nearly every year since the program was enacted, creating significant pressure in federal and state budgets. …The Medicaid FMAP is the fundamental flaw in the program’s current design and the main reason it is so costly. States can initiate new spending in Medicaid—spending that often will boost economic activity in the state—and federal taxpayers pay for at least half the cost. At the same time, savings from state-initiated Medicaid-spending cuts are also shared with federal taxpayers. For instance, in a state where the FMAP is 60 percent, the governor and state legislators face the unattractive prospect of keeping only $1.00 of every $2.50 in Medicaid savings they can identify and implement. The other $1.50 goes to the federal treasury. Put another way, governors and state legislators are reluctant to impose $2.50 in budgetary pain for a $1.00 gain to their bottom line.

The solution to this rigged system, he explains, is block grants or per-capita caps.

The…important structural change would be the switch to some form of fixed federal funding to states. The federal government would continue to heavily support the Medicaid program, but the commitment would have a limit, which would give states a strong incentive to manage the program for efficiency and cost control. One approach would be a block grant. Under a block grant, the federal government would make fixed, aggregate payments to the states based on historical spending patterns. Cost overruns at the state level would require the state to find additional resources within the state budget. Conversely, states that were able to control costs would enjoy the full benefits of their efforts. …Under per capita caps, the federal government would establish for each state a per-person payment for each of the main eligibility categories in the Medicaid program: the elderly, the blind and disabled, nondisabled adults, and children. The federal government would then make payments to the states based on the number of Medicaid enrollees in each of these categories. The per capita payment would be based on historical spending rates for the various categories of beneficiaries in each state and, again, would be indexed to a predetermined growth rate.

By the way, I previously shared two very depressing charts from Jim’s article.

In a 2012 column for Forbes, Avik Roy explains why reform will produce good results.

People on Medicaid have far worse health outcomes than those with private insurance, and in many cases those with no insurance at all. …there are…substantial efficiencies that can be gained by giving states broad flexibility in the way they care for the poor. Indeed, this is what made block-granting welfare in 1996 such a spectacular success. …three states—Rhode Island, Indiana, and New York—have taken advantage of more flexibility to save money while delivering better care. …Rhode Island was able to save $100 million, and slow the growth of Medicaid from 8 percent per year to 3 percent, by making a few tweaks to their program that they couldn’t before…under a block-grant system, states can identify ways to save money while improving care, and other states can adopt best practices.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Professor Regina Herzlinger and Dr. Richard Boxer elaborate on how a new system would work.

Republicans should combine two ideas popular in their party: block grants and health savings accounts. The former would let states tailor their Medicaid policies to their local communities, while the latter would give enrollees the ability to choose their own insurers and providers. In essence, Washington could give the states Medicaid block grants, allocated per capita, to provide beneficiaries with high-deductible insurance and health savings accounts. …Health savings accounts, which force medical providers to compete for consumers who pay out of their own pocket, also reduce overall costs. When employers introduce such accounts, health-care costs are reduced by about 5% for each of the next three years, according to a 2015 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Nicholas Eberstadt, in an article for Commentary, points out the Medicaid is an employment killer.

21st-century America has witnessed a dreadful collapse of work. …According to the Census Bureau’s SIPP survey (Survey of Income and Program Participation), as of 2013, over one-fifth (21 percent) of all civilian men between 25 and 55 years of age were Medicaid beneficiaries. For prime-age people not in the labor force, the share was over half (53 percent). …means-tested benefits cannot support a lavish lifestyle. But they can offer a permanent alternative to paid employment, and for growing numbers of American men, they do. The rise of these programs has coincided with the death of work for larger and larger numbers of American men not yet of retirement age.

And the icing on the cake is that Medicaid finances much of the opioid problem in America.

[The Medicaid card] pays for medicine—whatever pills a doctor deems that the insured patient needs. …For a three-dollar Medicaid co-pay, therefore, addicts got pills priced at thousands of dollars, with the difference paid for by U.S. and state taxpayers. A user could turn around and sell those pills, obtained for that three-dollar co-pay, for as much as ten thousand dollars on the street. …Medicaid inadvertently helped finance America’s immense and increasing appetite for opioids in our new century.

And if we want a cherry on top of the icing, Medicaid also is a cesspool of fraud, as reported by Reason.

Every year, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) releases a report putting a dollar figure on the amount of improper payments in Medicaid. …it shows that the program…spends a substantial portion of its annual budget…On fraud, on waste, on services not rendered, not medically necessary, or incorrectly billed. Last year, for example, the GAO found that about 9.8 percent of federal Medicaid expenditures, or about $29 billion, was spent improperly. …This year, the total has risen once again. About 10.5 percent, or $36 billion, of federal spending on the program isn’t up to snuff, according to a GAO report released this morning.

On that issue, my “favorite” example of Medicaid fraud was perpetrated by Russian diplomats.

Last but not least, Charlie Katebi discusses Medicaid problems in a column for the Federalist.

Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway said Trump wants to “block-grant Medicaid to the states” to ensure “those who are closest to the people in need will be administering.” …Block grants would cap federal Medicaid funding and let states decide how to use those dollars. It would introduce flexibility and budget discipline to a program that sorely needs both. …Medicaid’s funding formula incentivizes policymakers to expand the program at the expense of core state government functions. …Medicaid’s structure also hurts its beneficiaries. …Washington bars reformers from making meaningful changes without going through a lengthy and restrictive approval process. This forces states to control costs the only way they can: paying doctors less. States have cut Medicaid’s reimbursement so low that many providers simply refuse to treat its beneficiaries. …Block grants promise to break Medicaid’s vicious cycle of rising costs and declining care. Spendthrift politicians would no longer be able to expand Medicaid and expect the federal government to foot the bill. But state-level reformers will enjoy greater authority to streamline and improve the program.

I may as well close with the video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

The video was released in 2011, but nothing has changed…except that the numbers today are far worse, in part because of Obama’s Medicaid expansion.

P.S. Based on CBO’s long-run forecast, Trump also should reconsider his views on old-age entitlements and support Medicare reform and Social Security reform.

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I’ve repeatedly argued that there are two Social Security crises. The one most people know about is the fiscal crisis. Simply stated, the program is bankrupt.

But you don’t have to believe me. Here are some excerpts from a CNBC column.

The Social Security Administration projects that unfunded obligations will reach $11.4 trillion by 2090. That’s up $700 billion from the $10.7 trillion the administration projected for its 2089 shortfall. …Despite the huge numbers, there’s even a less generous way of looking at the fiscal shortfall. A projection, known as the “infinite horizon,” takes into account all the program’s future liabilities, even those beyond the 75-year period that Social Security actuaries typically use in their calculations. Under the infinite horizon, Social Security will have $32.1 trillion in unfunded liabilities by 2090, $6.3 trillion more than last year’s projection. …The Social Security Administration projects that unfunded obligations will reach $11.4 trillion by 2090. That’s up $700 billion from the $10.7 trillion the administration projected for its 2089 shortfall.

By the way, the projections cited above are based on “present value,” which is calculated by predicting how much money would have to be set aside and invested today to finance future promises.

But that’s not how budgets work. At least not for pay-as-you-go systems like Social Security.

I prefer looking at inflation-adjusted estimates of cumulative deficits. On that basis, the 75-year unfunded liability is $37 trillion. The “infinite horizon” number presumably would be even scarier.

Oh, and don’t be under the illusion that the “Trust Fund” will solve the problem. It’s nothing but a pile of IOUs.

The second crisis is that Social Security is a bad deal for workers. They have to pay an enormous amount of taxes into the program during their working years, yet the monthly benefits they are promised are far lower than they could get if they had been able to put the same money into personal retirement accounts.

An analysis in the New York Times correctly points out that some groups with low lifespans are particularly disadvantaged by Social Security.

Social Security is designed…as an equalizer between rich and poor. It is structured to give more generous retirement benefits to low-income people, given the taxes they pay during their working years. …But in reality, a large body of research shows that the rich live longer — and that the life span gap between rich and poor is growing. And that means that the progressive ideal built into the design of Social Security is, gradually, being thwarted. In some circumstances, the program can actually be regressive, offering richer benefits to those who are already affluent. …because different groups of people have different life expectancies, some groups receive more value from every dollar of payroll taxes they and their employers pay into the system. Over all, women live longer than men and African-Americans die younger than whites. … the Social Security retirement system as a whole is regressive, or more favorable to the affluent than to the poor. …the richest 1 percent of Americans gained three years of life expectancy from 2001 to 2014 alone, while the poorest had almost no gain (0.3 of a year). For anyone who believes that it’s important for the Social Security program to remain progressive, the life-span shifts have big implications that are made more acute by the program’s financial problems.

I’m not motivated by having Social Security “remain progressive,” but I fully agree that it’s bad policy to have government programs that are especially harmful for poor people.

The obvious solution to both crises is personal retirement accounts. We should copy nations elsewhere that have successfully transitioned to systems based on real savings rather than empty political promises.

But some of our friends on the left think that the answer is to make the program even worse for higher-income taxpayers, even though this doesn’t change the fact that the program is a bad deal for lower-income taxpayers. Hillary Clinton embraced this approach during last year’s campaign (as did Obama in 2008).

Moreover, many Democrats in Washington are lurching even further to the left.

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Andrew Biggs dissects their latest plan.

…congressional Democrats…have embraced an ambitious but flawed policy of expanding the program’s benefits via tax increases on all workers, including doubling payroll taxes on high earners. …today’s Democrats…would boost the initial benefits Americans receive upon retirement, and pay larger cost-of-living adjustments, or COLAs, in the years after. Over the plan’s first 10 years, Social Security benefit payments would rise by almost $1.2 trillion, according to an analysis by Social Security’s actuaries. To fund those higher benefits, the plan would increase the Social Security payroll rate from the current 12.4% to 14.8% between 2019 and 2042. The plan also would phase out the ceiling on earnings subject to the tax, currently $127,000, so that by the mid-2030s all earnings would be taxed. For low- and middle-income workers, lifetime payroll taxes would rise by nearly one-fifth from current levels. …the effective top federal marginal tax rate on earned income (inclusive of Medicare taxes and limitations on deductions) would rise from the current 44.6% to 59.4%. State income taxes could boost the total marginal rate as high as 72.7% for California residents. Under the Democrats’ Social Security plan the U.S. would have, by far, the highest top marginal tax rate in the developed world.

And higher tax rates would be bad news.

…employers who are required to pay higher Social Security taxes would reduce wages to help cover those costs. …According to a recent analysis by the Joint Committee on Taxation, lost income and Medicare taxes would offset between 12% and 21% of workers’ Social Security payroll tax increases, depending on income level. …Left-leaning economists Emmanuel Saez and Jeffrey Liebman found in a 2006 study that even modest behavioral reactions could reduce the net revenue gains from a plan like Mr. Larson’s by nearly half. Assume stronger behavioral effects (specifically, an elasticity of taxable income of 0.5), and losses to non-Social Security revenue would, in the authors’ words, “swamp any benefits from the increase in payroll tax revenue.” In other words, the Democrats’ Social Security reform could increase government deficits and debt, permanently.

To augment this research by Biggs, let’s look at an academic study that estimates how government entitlements push older people out of the labor force, which is bad for them and bad for the overall economy.

Baby Boomers appear at risk of suffering a major decline in their living standard in retirement. With federal and state government finances far too encumbered to significantly raise Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits, Boomers must look to their own devices to rescue their retirements, namely working harder and longer. However, the incentive of Boomers to earn more is significantly limited by a plethora of explicit federal and state taxes and implicit taxes arising from the loss of federal and state benefits as one earns more. Of particular concern is Medicaid and Social Security’s complex Earnings Test and clawback of disability benefits. …We find that working longer, say an extra five years, can raise older workers’ sustainable living standards. But the impact is far smaller than suggested in the literature in large part because of high net taxation of labor earnings. We also find that many Baby Boomers now face or will face high and, in very many cases, extremely high work disincentives arising from the hodgepodge design of our fiscal system. …we find that traditional, current-year (i.e., static) marginal tax calculations relating this year’s extra taxes to this year’s extra income are woefully off target when it comes to properly measuring the elderly’s disincentives to work. Our findings suggest that Uncle Sam is, indeed, inducing the elderly to retire.

Interestingly, there are some honest folks on the left who support personal accounts. Here’s an article on the “progressive case for privatizing Social Security in the US.”

…privatization is an underrated idea, and progressives who oppose benefit cuts should be fighting for it. …With private accounts, the system would be much more transparent. Currently, for every $1 a middle-earning couple (born in 1985) pays into Social Security, they can expect $1.01 back in benefits when they retire. That’s not a great return on investment, and it may fall in the future because Social Security isn’t on track to keep paying this level of benefits. If the government cuts benefits enough to make the program solvent they’d only get $0.80 for every $1 they pay in. …private accounts would change the conversation about entitlements. It clarifies what people expect to earn in retirement. …private accounts should appeal to those on the left who value a generous social safety net.

Amen.

Honest folks on the left should look around the world and see how personal accounts are good news, both for workers and the overall economy. Heck, just compare these two charts on the United States and Australia.

Sadly, we have too many statists who are motivated by penalizing the rich rather than helping the poor.

P.S. The United States was actually very close to genuine Social Security reform during the Bill Clinton presidency. Investor’s Business Daily opined last year on what almost happened.

The U.S. came very close to having private retirement accounts as part of a sweeping Social Security reform…under President Clinton. That surprising bit of news comes 18 years after the fact in a reminiscence by Cato Institute senior fellow Jose Pinera, who once upon a time served as Chile’s secretary of labor and social security, and who designed that country’s highly successful pension reforms in 1980. Pinera says that Clinton began thinking in earnest about privatizing part of Social Security back in 1995… According to Pinera, Clinton saw private accounts as a way to cement his presidential record as a reformer. And the model for doing so that he had in mind was from Chile, where Pinera and a group of reformers created private retirement accounts that helped fuel that nation’s decade-long growth boom. It was a rousing success. Clinton even sent his former chief of staff, Mack McLarty, to Chile in 1996 to see how private personal accounts worked. In a letter to Pinera, he talked about how impressive Chile’s program was… Three years later, in December 1998, Pinera attended a White House conference on Social Security reform. There, he outlined the simple elements of the Chilean Model… It must have struck a chord with Clinton. Just one month later, in his 1999 State of the Union address, he proposed what he called “USA accounts,”… Every American would have had a private savings account, funded by a portion of his or her payroll taxes. …But it was not to be. Clinton’s involvement in the Monica Lewinsky scandal and his subsequent impeachment for perjury and obstruction of justice derailed his plans.

Having been very involved in the Social Security debates back in the last 1990s, I can vouch for this. Clinton was remarkably sympathetic to reform and almost always gave the right answers when discussing the issue (not too surprising since he compiled a remarkably pro-market record).

Unfortunately, the Lewinsky scandal and impeachment fight poisoned the political environment for bipartisan reform. Who would have thought that a sexual dalliance could have killed an opportunity for much-needed reform. That was the most expensive you-know-what in world history.

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

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When I write about poorly designed entitlement programs, I will warn about America’s Greek future. Simply stated, we will suffer the same chaos and disarray now plaguing Greece if we don’t engage in serious reform.

Ideally sooner rather than later.

But when I write about state governments, perhaps it would be more appropriate to warn about a Brazilian future. That’s because many American states have made unaffordable and unfunded promises to give lavish benefits to retired bureaucrats, a topic that I’ve addressed on numerous occasions.

And why does that mean a Brazilian future? Because as Greece is already suffering the inevitable consequences of a bloated welfare state, Brazil is already suffering the inevitable consequences of a pension system that treats bureaucrats as a protected and cossetted class. Here are some excerpts from a sobering report in the Wall Street Journal.

Twenty years before Michel Temer became president of Brazil, he did something millions of his compatriots do, at great cost to the country’s coffers: He retired at age 55 and started collecting a generous pension. Delaying that moment until age 65 is at the center of Mr. Temer’s proposed economic overhaul. …making that happen is seen as a make-or-break test of whether the government can get its arms around mounting economic problems like rising debt, low investment and a stubborn recession now entering its third year. New pension rules are considered central to fixing an insolvent system.

It’s easy to understand why the system is bankrupt when you read the details.

…some retirees receive pensions before age 50 and surviving spouses can receive full pensions of the deceased while still drawing their own. The generosity of Brazil’s pension system is legendary—and, economists say, troubling as the country’s fertility rate plummets and life expectancy climbs. João Mansur, a long-time state legislator in Paraná state, served as interim governor there for 39 days in 1973, a stint that qualified him to retire with a $8,000 monthly pension. …Other former public workers who retire not only reap nearly the same income they got while on the job, but also see their checks get bumped up whenever those still working in the same job category get raises. …Retirement outlays will eat up 43% of the $422-billion national budget this year. …Demographics are playing against a generous system created in great part to bridge Brazil’s infamous social gap. Official statistics say there are 11 retirees for every 100 working-age Brazilians; that will rise to 44 per 100 by 2060.

Fixing this mess won’t be easy.

Brazil’s constitution must be amended to allow its pension system to be restructured… Mr. Temer has already been forced to make a series of major compromises, including exempting state and local government employees from the overhaul. …legislators have sought to further water down Mr. Temer’s proposals, by for instance maintaining the lower retirement ages for women and dragging out the transition from the old social-security regime to the new one.

In other words, Brazilian politicians are in the same position Greek politicians were in back in 2003. There’s a catastrophically bad fiscal forecast and the only issue is whether reforms will happen before a crisis actually begins. If you really want to be pessimistic, it’s even possible that Brazil has passed the tipping point of too much government dependency.

In any event, it appears that legislators prefer to kick the pension can down the road – even though that will make the problem harder to solve. Assuming they ever want to solve it.

Which is exactly what’s happening at the state level in America.

Consider these passages from a recent Bloomberg column.

Unfunded pension obligations have risen to $1.9 trillion from $292 billion since 2007. Credit rating firms have begun downgrading states and municipalities whose pensions risk overwhelming their budgets. New Jersey and the cities of Chicago, Houston and Dallas are some of the issuers in the crosshairs. …unlike their private peers, public pensions discount their liabilities using the rate of returns they assume their overall portfolio will generate. …Put differently, companies have been forced to set aside something closer to what it will really cost to service their obligations as opposed to the fantasy figures allowed among public pensions. …many cities and potentially states would buckle under the weight of more realistic assumed rates of return. By some estimates, unfunded liabilities would triple to upwards of $6 trillion if the prevailing yields on Treasuries were used.

But this looming disaster will not hit all states equally.

Here’s a map from the Tax Foundation which shows a tiny handful of states actually have funded their pensions (in other words, they may provide extravagant benefits, but at least they’ve set aside enough money to finance them). Most states, though, have big shortfalls.

The lighter the color, the bigger the financing gap.

To get a sense of the states that have a very good economic outlook, look for a combination of zero income taxes and small unfunded liabilities.

South Dakota (best tax system and negative pension liability!) gets the top marks, followed by Tennessee and Florida. Honorable mention for the state of Washington.

And is anyone surprised that Illinois is tied for last place? Or that Connecticut and New Jersey are near the bottom? Kentucky’s awful position, by contrast, is somewhat unexpected.

P.S. Brazil’s government may kick the can down the road on pension reform, but at least they added a spending cap to their constitution.

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I sometimes feel like a broken record about entitlement programs. How many times, after all, can I point out that America is on a path to become a decrepit European-style welfare state because of a combination of demographic changes and poorly designed entitlement programs?

But I can’t help myself. I feel like I’m watching a surreal version of Titanic where the captain and crew know in advance that the ship will hit the iceberg, yet they’re still allowing passengers to board and still planning the same route. And in this dystopian version of the movie, the tickets actually warn the passengers that tragedy will strike, but most of them don’t bother to read the fine print because they are distracted by the promise of fancy buffets and free drinks.

We now have the book version of this grim movie. It’s called The 2017 Long-Term Budget Outlook and it was just released today by the Congressional Budget Office.

If you’re a fiscal policy wonk, it’s an exciting publication. If you’re a normal human being, it’s a turgid collection of depressing data.

But maybe, just maybe, the data is so depressing that both the electorate and politicians will wake up and realize something needs to change.

I’ve selected six charts and images from the new CBO report, all of which highlight America’s grim fiscal future.

The first chart simply shows where we are right now and where we will be in 30 years if policy is left on autopilot. The most important takeaway is that the burden of government spending is going to increase significantly.

Interestingly, even CBO openly acknowledges that rising levels of red ink are caused solely by the fact that spending is projected to increase faster than revenue.

And it’s also worth noting that revenues are going up, even without any additional tax increases.

The bottom part of this chart shows that revenues from the income tax will climb by about 2 percent of GDP. In other words, more than 100 percent of our long-run fiscal mess is due to higher levels of government spending. So it’s absurd to think the solution should involve higher taxes.

This next image digs into the details. We can see that the spending burden is rising because of Social Security and the health entitlements. By the way, the top middle column on “other noninterest spending” shows one thing that is real, which is that defense spending has fallen as a share of GDP since the mid-1960s, and one thing that may not be real, which is that politicians somehow will limit domestic discretionary spending over the next three decades.

This bottom left part of the image also gives the details on built-in growth in revenues from the income tax, further underscoring that we don’t have a problem of inadequate revenue.

Here’s a chart that shows that our main problem is Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare.

Last but not least, here’s a graphic that shows the amount of fiscal policy changes that would be needed to either reduce or stabilize government debt.

I think that’s the wrong goal, and that instead the focus should be on reducing or stabilizing the burden of government spending, but I’m sharing this chart because it shows that spending would have to be lowered by 3.1 percent of GDP to put the nation on a good fiscal path.

Some folks think that might be impossible, but I’ll simply point out that the five-year de facto spending freeze that we achieved from 2009-2014 actually reduced the burden of government spending by a greater amount. In other words, the payoff from genuine spending restraint is enormous.

The bottom line is very simple.

We need to invoke my Golden Rule so that government grows slower than the private sector. In the long run, that will require genuine entitlement reform.

Or we can let America become Greece.

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