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Posts Tagged ‘Entitlements’

Five former Democratic appointees to the Council of Economic Advisers have a column in today’s Washington Post asserting that we should not blame entitlements for America’s future fiscal problems.

The good news is that they at least recognize that there’s a future problem.

The bad news is that their analysis is sloppy, inaccurate, and deceptive.

They start with an observation about red ink that is generally true, though I think the link between government borrowing and interest rates is rather weak (at least until a government – like Greece – gets to the point where investors no longer trust its ability to repay).

The federal budget deficit is on track to exceed $1 trillion next year and get worse over time. Eventually, ever-rising debt and deficits will cause interest rates to rise. …the growing debt will take an increasing toll.

But the authors don’t want us to blame entitlements for ever-rising levels of red ink.

It is dishonest to single out entitlements for blame.

That’s a remarkable claim since the Congressional Budget Office (which is not a small government-oriented bureaucracy, to put it mildly) unambiguously shows that rising levels of so-called mandatory spending are driving our long-run fiscal problems.

CBO’s own charts make this abundantly clear (click on the image to see the original column with the full-size chart).

So how do the authors get around this problem?

First, they try to confuse the issue by myopically focusing on the short run.

The primary reason the deficit in coming years will now be higher than had been expected is the reduction in tax revenue from last year’s tax cuts, not an increase in spending.

Okay, fair enough. There will be a short-run tax cut because of the recent tax legislation. But the column is supposed to be about the future debt crisis. And that’s a medium-term and long-term issue.

Well, it turns out that they have to focus on the short run because their arguments become very weak – or completely false – when we look at the overall fiscal situation.

For instance, they make an inaccurate observation about the recent tax reform legislation.

…the tax cuts passed last year actually added an amount to America’s long-run fiscal challenge that is roughly the same size as the preexisting shortfalls in Social Security and Medicare.

That’s wrong. The legislation actually increases the long-run tax burden.

And that’s in addition to the long-understood reality that the tax burden already is scheduled to gradually increase, even measured as a share of economic output.

Once again, the CBO has a chart with the relevant data. Note especially the steady rise in the burden of the income tax (once again, feel free to click on the image to see the original column with the full-size chart).

The authors do pay lip service to the notion that there should be some spending restraint.

There is some room for…spending reductions in these programs, but not to an extent large enough to solve the long-run debt problem.

But even that admission is deceptive.

We don’t actually need spending reductions. We simply need to slow down the growth of government. Indeed, our long-run debt problem would be solved if imposed some sort of Swiss-style or Hong Kong-style spending cap so that the budget couldn’t grow faster than 3 percent yearly.

In any event, they wrap up their column by unveiling their main agenda. They want higher taxes.

Additional revenue is critical…responding to the looming fiscal challenge required a balanced approach that combined increased revenue with reduced spending. Two bipartisan commissions, Simpson-Bowles and Domenici-Rivlin, proposed such approaches that called for tax reform to raise revenue as a percent of GDP…set tax policy to realize adequate revenue.

As I already noted, the tax burden already is going to climb as a share of GDP. But the authors want an increase on top of the built-in increase.

And it’s very revealing that they cite Simpson-Bowles, which is basically a left-wing proposal of higher taxes combined with the wrong type of entitlement reform. To be fair, the Domenici-Rivlin plan  has the right kind of entitlement reform, but that proposal is nonetheless bad news since it contains a value-added tax.

The bottom line if that the five Democratic CEA appointees who put together the column (I’m wondering why Austan Goolsbee didn’t add his name) do not make a compelling case for higher taxes.

Unless, of course, the goal is to enable a bigger burden of government.

Which is the message of this very appropriate cartoon.

Needless to say, this belongs in my “Government in Cartoons” collection.

P.S. Entitlement spending is not only to blame for our future spending problems. It’s also the cause of our current spending problems.

P.P.S. In a perverse way, I actually like the column we discussed today. Five top economists on the left put their heads together and tried to figure out the most compelling argument for higher taxes. Yet what they produced is shoddy and deceptive. In other words, they didn’t make a strong argument because they don’t have a strong argument. Reminds me of Robert Rubin’s anemic argument last year against the GOP tax plan.

P.P.P.S. Four former presidents offer good advice on the topic of taxation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now it’s time for another friendly spat.

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

Such as the Independent Women’s Forum.

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

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

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

And Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have three objections.

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

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

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

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

Writing for Reason, Shikha Dalmia also is a skeptic.

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

The Wall Street Journal opined against the idea last month.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Writing about federal spending last week, I shared five charts illustrating how the process works and what’s causing America’s fiscal problems.

Most important, I showed that the ever-increasing burden of federal spending is almost entirely the result of domestic spending increasing much faster than what would be needed to keep pace with inflation.

And when I further sliced and diced the numbers, I showed that outlays for entitlements (programs such as Social SecurityMedicareMedicaid, and Obamacare) were the real problem.

Let’s elaborate.

John Cogan, writing for the Wall Street Journal, summarizes our current predicament.

Since the end of World War II, federal tax revenue has grown 15% faster than national income—while federal spending has grown 50% faster. …all—yes, all—of the increase in federal spending relative to GDP over the past seven decades is attributable to entitlement spending. Since the late 1940s, entitlement claims on the nation’s output of goods and services have risen from less than 4% to 14%. …If you’re seeking the reason for the federal government’s chronic budget deficits and crushing national debt, look no further than entitlement programs. …entitlement spending accounts for nearly two-thirds of federal spending. …What about the future? Social Security and Medicare expenditures are accelerating now that baby boomers have begun to collect their government-financed retirement and health-care benefits. If left unchecked, these programs will push government spending to levels never seen during peacetime. Financing this spending will require either record levels of taxation or debt.

Here’s a chart from his column. Only instead of looking at inflation-adjusted growth of past spending, he looks at what will happen to future entitlement spending, measured as a share of economic output.

And he concludes with a very dismal point.

…restraint is not possible without presidential leadership. Unfortunately, President Trump has failed to step up.

I largely agree. Trump has nominally endorsed some reforms, but the White House hasn’t expended the slightest bit of effort to fix any of the entitlement programs.

Now let’s see what another expert has to say on the topic. Brian Riedl of the Manhattan Institute paints a rather gloomy picture in an article for National Review.

…the $82 trillion avalanche of Social Security and Medicare deficits that will come over the next three decades elicits a collective shrug. Future historians — and taxpayers — are unlikely to forgive our casual indifference to what has been called “the most predictable economic crisis in history.” …Between 2008 and 2030, 74 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964 — or 10,000 per day — will retire into Social Security and Medicare. And despite trust-fund accounting games, all spending will be financed by current taxpayers. That was all right in 1960, when five workers supported each retiree. The ratio has since fallen below three-to-one today, on its way to two-to-one by the 2030s. …These demographic challenges are worsened by rising health-care costs and repeated benefit expansions from Congress. Today’s typical retiring couple has paid $140,000 into Medicare and will receive $420,000 in benefits (in net present value)… Most Social Security recipients also come out ahead. In other words, seniors are not merely getting back what they paid in. …the spending avalanche has already begun. Since 2008 — when the first Baby Boomers qualified for early retirement — Social Security and Medicare have accounted for 72 percent of all inflation-adjusted federal-spending growth (with other health entitlements responsible for the rest). …

Brian speculates on what will happen if politicians kick the can down the road.

…something has to give. Will it be responsible policy changes now, or a Greek-style crisis of debt and taxes later? …Restructuring cannot wait. Every year of delay sees 4 million more Baby Boomers retire and get locked into benefits that will be difficult to alter… Unless Washington reins in Social Security and Medicare, no tax cuts can be sustained over the long run. Ultimately, the math always wins. …Frédéric Bastiat long ago observed that “government is the great fiction through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else.” Reality will soon fall like an anvil on Generation X and Millennials, as they find themselves on the wrong side of the largest intergenerational wealth transfer in world history.

Not exactly a cause for optimism!

Last but not least, Charles Hughes writes on the looming entitlement crisis for E21.

Medicare and Social Security already account for roughly two-fifths of all federal outlays, and they will account for a growing share of the federal budget over the coming decade. …Entitlement spending growth is a major reason that budget deficits are projected to surge over the next decade. …The unsustainable nature of these programs face mean that some reforms will have to be implemented: the only questions are when and what kind of changes will be made. The longer these reforms are put off, the inevitable changes will by necessity be larger and more abrupt. …Without real reform, the important task of placing entitlement programs back on a sustainable trajectory will be left for later generations—at which point the country will be farther down this unsustainable path.

By the way, it’s not just libertarians and conservatives who recognize there is a problem.

There have been several proposals from centrists and bipartisan groups to address the problem, such as the Simpson-Bowles plan, the Debt Reduction Task Force, and Obama’s Fiscal Commission.

For what it’s worth, I’m not a big fan of these initiatives since they include big tax increases. And oftentimes, they even propose the wrong kind of entitlement reform.

Heck, even folks on the left recognize there’s a problem. Paul Krugman correctly notes that America is facing a massive demographic shift that will lead to much higher levels of spending. And he admits that entitlement spending is driving the budget further into the red. That’s a welcome acknowledgement of reality.

Sadly, he concludes that we should somehow fix this spending problem with tax hikes.

That hasn’t worked for Europe, though, so it’s silly to think that same tax-and-spend approach will work for the United States.

I’ll close by also offering some friendly criticism of conservatives and libertarians. If you read what Cogan, Riedl, and Hughes wrote, they all stated that entitlement programs were a problem in part because they would produce rising levels of red ink.

It’s certainly true that deficits and debt will increase in the absence of genuine entitlement reform, but what irks me about this rhetoric is that a focus on red ink might lead some people to conclude that rising levels of entitlements somehow wouldn’t be a problem if matched by big tax hikes.

Wrong. Tax-financed spending diverts resources from the private economy, just as debt-financed spending diverts resources from the private economy.

In other words, the real problem is spending, not how it’s financed.

I’m almost tempted to give all of them the Bob Dole Award.

P.S. For more on America’s built-in entitlement crisis, click here, here, here, and here.

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I write constantly (some would say incessantly and annoyingly) about entitlement spending. And I occasionally write about discretionary spending.

It’s time to address the budget in a comprehensive fashion. Let’s look at five charts to put everything in context and to show how we got into our current mess.

Our first chart (based on Table 8.2 from the Office of Management and Budget’s Historical Tables) shows what has happened to major spending categories from 1962 to 2017. And all the data is in inflation-adjusted dollars (2009 benchmark) to accurately gauge how and why the burden of federal spending has grown.

This next chart shows the actual percentage increases in the major spending categories during this time period. The two big takeaways are that 1) the defense budget is not the cause of our long-run fiscal problems (though that doesn’t mean it should be exempt from cuts), and 2) entitlement expenditures have exploded.

And if you look at the data I shared from the Congressional Budget Office’s long-run forecast, you would see that these same trends will prevail for the next three decades.

In other words, our fiscal problems start with entitlements and end with entitlements.

If you want to look at the problem with a broader lens, this next chart shows that the problem is domestic spending (i.e., the combination of entitlement and domestic discretionary outlays).

If you’re pressed for time, you can stop reading now. You have the key information already.

But if you want to get a bit wonky, here are two other charts that help explain the intricacies of how budgets work (or don’t work!) in Washington.

The first thing to realize is that there are two budget processes in Washington. There are entitlement programs, which basically operate on autopilot. For all intents and purposes, the President and Congress could go on vacation for the next three years and programs such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare would mechanically continue. But there is also “discretionary” spending for the Pentagon and various domestic programs, all of which is determined through an annual “appropriations” process. Whenever you read about a government shutdown, it’s because politicians can’t agree on the level of funding for the discretionary part of the budget.

Now let’s get to my favorite part, which is figuring out how to limit the size of the federal leviathan.

This last chart shows that net interest spending is genuinely untouchable (unless one wants a Greek-style or Argentine-style default). The rest of the budget, however, can be addressed. Entitlements can be changed through “reconciliation”, which is a legislative process designed to minimize procedural roadblocks (in general, tax bills also use reconciliation legislation). And discretionary programs can be changed via annual appropriations legislation.

I should add that net interest may not be directly touchable, but interest payments can be reduced by controlling spending and thus reducing red ink.

Another thing to understand is that the budget caps (yes, the ones that were weakened in 2013, 2015, and earlier this year) only apply to discretionary spending.

And the most important thing to realize is that the only solution to our budget mess is genuine entitlement reform. Which is why we need constitutional (and comprehensive) limits on total outlays. Politicians will only do what’s right if every other option is off the table.

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At some point in the next 10 years, there will be a huge fight in the United States over fiscal policy. This battle is inevitable because politicians are violating the Golden Rule of fiscal policy by allowing government spending to grow faster than the private sector (exacerbated by the recent budget deal), leading to ever-larger budget deficits.

I’m more sanguine about red ink than most people. After all, deficits and debt are merely symptoms. The real problem is excessive government spending.

But when peacetime, non-recessionary deficits climb above $1 trillion, the political pressure to adopt some sort of “austerity” package will become enormous. What’s critical to understand, however, is that not all forms of austerity are created equal.

The crowd in Washington reflexively will assert that higher taxes are necessary and desirable. People like me will respond by explaining that the real problem is entitlements and that we need structural reform of programs such as Medicaid and Medicare. Moreover, I will point out that higher taxes most likely will simply trigger and enable additional spending. And I will warn that tax increases will undermine economic performance.

Regarding that last point, three professors, led by Alberto Alesina at Harvard, have unveiled some new research looking at the economic impact of expenditure-based austerity compared to tax-based austerity.

…we started from detailed information on the consolidations implemented by 16 OECD countries between 1978 and 2014. …we group measures in just two broad categories: spending, g, and taxes, t. …We distinguish fiscal plans between those that are expenditure based (EB) and those that are tax based (TB)… Measuring the macroeconomic impact of a plan requires modelling the relationship between plans and macroeconomic variables.

Here are their econometric results.

There is a large and statistically significant difference between the effects on output of EB and TB austerity. EB fiscal consolidations have, on average, been associated with a very small downturn in output growth: a spending based plan worth one percent of GDP implies a loss of about half of a percentage point relative to the average GDP growth of the country, which lasts less than two year. Moreover, if an EB austerity plan is launched when the economy is not in a recession, the output costs are zero on average. …On the other hand TB plans are associated with large and long lasting recessions. A TB plan worth one per cent of GDP is followed, on average, by a two percent fall in GDP relative to its pre-austerity path. This large recessionary effect lasts several years.

Here’s a chart from the study showing that economic performance drops farther and farther to the extent taxes are part of an austerity package.

In addition to the core results, the authors explain why tax-based austerity packages are bad for capital…

…investment growth responds very differently following the introduction of the two types of austerity plans. It responds positively to EB plans and negatively to TB plans. …in their sample of OECD countries, business confidence increases immediately at the start of an EB consolidation plan, much more so that at the beginning of a TB plan.

…and why tax-based austerity packages are bad for labor.

…clearly tax hikes and spending cuts – beyond other effects – have different effects on labor supply. …EB plans are the least recessionary the longer lived is the reduction in government spending. Symmetrically, TB plans are more recessionary the longer lasting is the increase in the tax burden and thus in distortions.

Since capital and labor are the two factors of production, the obvious and inevitable conclusion is that the economy does worse when taxes are higher.

The study also make a critical point about the futility of tax increases when the burden of government spending is rising faster than the private sector. Simply stated, that’s a recipe for ever-increasing taxes, sort of like a dog chasing its tail.

…a TB plan which does not address the automatic growth of entitlements and other spending programs which grow over time if much less like likely to produce a long lasting effect on the budget. If the automatic increase of spending is not addressed, taxes will have to be continually increased to cover the increase in outlays.

That’s why spending restraint is the only way to successfully address red ink.

It doesn’t even require dramatic spending cuts, even though that would be desirable. All that’s needed is some modest fiscal restraint so that spending grows slower than the productive sector of the economy.

Nations that follow this approach for a multi-year period always get good results. But if you want examples of nations that have achieved good outcomes with tax increases, you’ll have to explore a parallel universe because there aren’t any on this planet.

P.S. I need to update the table because both the United States (between 2009-2014) and the United Kingdom (between 2010-2016) enjoyed dramatic improvements in fiscal outcomes in recent years because of spending restraint.

P.P.S. Politicians don’t like spending restraint, which is why most periods of good fiscal policy come to an end. To achieve good long-run outcomes, some sort of constitutional spending cap is probably necessary.

P.P.P.S. The study cited above builds upon research I cited in 2016.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barnes’ final point is also important.

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s look at some additional research.

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

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

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

Now let’s address some of the critics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

P.S. Chile also has nationwide school choice.

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

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

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