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Posts Tagged ‘Entitlements’

Imagine that we’re in a parallel universe and that you’re the lookout on the Titanic. But in this make-believe world, you have all sorts of fancy radar that allows you to detect icebergs with lots of advance notice. Furthermore, imagine that you detect danger and give lots of warning to the Captain and other officers.

How would you feel if they then decided to ignore your warnings and continued on their course to disaster? You’d probably tear your hair out in frustration.

And that’s a pretty good description of how I feel about the easy-to-predict, visible-to-the-naked-eye, baked-in-the-cake, bound-to-happen fiscal crisis that will occur because of the combination of demographic change and poorly designed entitlement programs.

It’s happening in the United States. It’s happening in Europe. It’s happening in Asia. Heck, this is a worldwide problem.

Simply stated, welfare states were created back when everyone assumed that there would always be a “population pyramid,” which means relatively few old people (who collect a lot of money from entitlement programs) at the top, plenty of workers (also known as taxpayers) in the middle, and lots of children (i.e., future taxpayers) at the bottom.

In that world, a modest-sized welfare state isn’t a good idea, but at least it is mathematically sustainable.

Today, by contrast, such a welfare state is a problem because we’re living longer and having fewer children.

And in the future, that kind of welfare state is a recipe for a Greek-style fiscal crisis because demographic trends will be even less favorable. To be blunt, there won’t be enough people pulling the wagon compared to the mass of people riding in the wagon.

At the risk of beating a dead horse, here’s some additional data on this global problem. We’ll start with this look at how the population pyramid is becoming a population cylinder. The key thing to notice is the growth of the over-65 cohort.

And here’s a different way of looking at the same data, but stretching out to 2100.

I didn’t add a red line at age 65, but it’s easy to see that the number of older people will dramatically increase without a concomitant increase in the number of working-age people who are expected to pay the taxes to finance pensions and health care.

So what’s all this mean? Here’s a sobering thought from Prospect.

The ageing populations of the advanced economies and the larger emerging ones combines with past falls in the birth rate to mean that the share of total world population who are of prime working age has been falling since 2012. After a four-decade rise, the trend has reversed with that fall projected to last throughout the 2020s, 2030s and 2040s. A slower-growing global workforce will be a big challenge for the global economy.

A “big challenge” may win the prize for understatement.

Bloomberg has a column on the implications of this massive demographic shift. Notice the data on the number of workers per retiree in various nations.

Rising dependency ratios — or the number of retirees per employed worker — provide one useful metric. In 1970, in the U.S., there were 5.3 workers for every retired person. By 2010 this had fallen to 4.5, and it’s expected to decline to 2.6 by 2050. In Germany, the number of workers per retiree will decrease to 1.6 in 2050, down from 4.1 in 1970. In Japan, the oldest society to have ever existed, the ratio will decrease to 1.2 in 2050, from 8.5 in 1970. Even as spending commitments grow, in other words, there will be fewer and fewer productive adults around to fund them.

The bottom line is that there are enormous unfunded liabilities.

Arnaud Mares of Morgan Stanley analyzed national solvency, or the difference between actual and potential government revenue, on one hand, and existing debt levels and future commitments on the other. The study found that by this measure the net worth of the U.S. was negative 800 percent of its GDP; that is, its future tax revenue was less than committed obligations by an amount equivalent to eight times the value of all goods and services America produces in a year. The net worth of European countries ranged from about negative 250 percent (Italy) to negative 1,800 percent (Greece). For Germany, France and the U.K., the approximate figures were negative 500 percent, negative 600 percent and negative 1,000 percent of GDP.

Wow, it’s depressing that the long-run outlook for the United States is worse than it is for some of Europe’s most infamous welfare states. Though I guess we shouldn’t be totally surprised since I’ve already shared similarly grim estimates from the IMF, BIS, and OECD.

I’ll close with some (sort of) good news.

Notwithstanding some of the estimates I’ve shared, America actually is in better shape than these other nations. If we enact genuine entitlement reform, ideally sooner rather than later, the long-run numbers dramatically improve because spending and debt no longer would be projected to rise so dramatically (whereas government already is an enormous burden in Europe).

This isn’t idle theory. Policymakers don’t have much control over demographics, but they can reduce the fiscal impact of demographic change by adopting better policy.

To cite the most prominent examples, jurisdictions such as Hong Kong and Singapore have very long lifespans and very low birthrates, yet their public finances don’t face nearly as much long-run pressure because they never made the mistake of setting up western-style welfare states.

The solution, therefore, is for America and other nations to copy these successful jurisdictions by replacing tax-and-transfer entitlements with systems based on private savings.

P.S. For what it’s worth, I’m not overflowing with optimism that we’ll get the reforms that are needed with Trump in the White House.

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The world’s best welfare state arguably is Finland.

Yes, the burden of government spending is enormous and the tax system is stifling, but the nation gets extremely high scores for rule of law and human liberty. Moreover, it is one of the world’s most laissez-faire economies when looking at areas other than fiscal policy.

Indeed, depending on who is doing the measuring, Finland ranks either slightly above or slightly below the United States when grading overall policy.

Yet even the best welfare state faces a grim future because of demographic change. Simply stated, redistribution programs only work if there is a sufficiently large supply of new taxpayers to finance promised handouts.

And that supply is running dry in Finland. Bloomberg reports that policymakers in that nation are waking up to the fact that there won’t be enough future taxpayers to finance the country’s extravagant welfare state.

Demographics are a concern across the developed world, of course. But they are particularly problematic for countries with a generous welfare state, since they endanger its long-term survival. …the Aktia Bank chief economist said in a telephone interview in Helsinki. “We have a large public sector and the system needs taxpayers in the future.” …According to the OECD, Finland already has the lowest ratio of youths to the working-age population in the Nordics. …And it also has the highest rate of old-age dependency in the region. …The situation is only likely to get worse, according to OECD projections.

Here are a couple of charts showing dramatic demographic changes in Nordic nations. The first chart shows the ratio of children to working-age adults.

And the second charts shows the population of old people (i.e., those most likely to receive money from the government) compared to the number of working-age adults.

As you can see, the numbers are grim now (green bar) but will get far worse by the middle of the century (the red and black bars) because the small number of children today translates into a small number of working-age adults in the future.

To be blunt, these numbers suggest that it’s just a matter of time before the fiscal crisis in Southern Europe spreads to Scandinavia.

Heck, it’s going to spread everywhere: Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Asia, the developing world, Japan and the United States.

Though it’s important to understand that demographic changes don’t necessarily trigger fiscal and economic problems. Hong Kong and Singapore have extremely low fertility rates, yet they don’t face big problems since they are not burdened by western-style welfare states.

By the way, the article also reveals that Finland’s government isn’t very effective at boosting birthrates, something that we already knew based on the failure of pro-natalist government schemes in nations such as Italy, Spain, Denmark, and Japan.

Though I’m amused that the reporter apparently thinks government handouts are a pro-parent policy and believes that more of the same will somehow have a positive effect.

Finland, a first-rate place in which to be a mother, has registered the lowest number of newborns in nearly 150 years. …the fertility rate should equal two per woman, Schauman says. It was projected at 1.57 in 2016, according to Statistics Finland. That’s a surprisingly low level, given the efforts made by the state to support parenthood. …Finland’s famous baby-boxes. Introduced in 1937, containers full of baby clothes and care products are delivered to expectant mothers, with the cardboard boxes doubling up as a makeshift cot. …Offering generous parental leave…doesn’t seem to be working either. …The government has been working with employers and trade unions to boost gender equality by making parental leave more flexible and the benefits system simpler.

Sigh, a bit of research would have shown that welfare states actually have a negative impact on fertility.

The bottom line is that entitlement reform is the only plausible way for Finland to solve this major economic threat.

P.S. Since the nation’s central bank has published research on the negative impact of excessive government spending, there are some Finns who understand what should be done.

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Most people understand that there’s a Social Security crisis, but they only know half the story.

The part of the crisis they grasp is that the program is basically bankrupt, though I doubt many of them realize that the long-run shortfall is a staggering $44 trillion.

The part of the crisis that generally is overlooked is that the program is a lousy deal for workers. They pay record amounts of tax into the system in exchange for a shaky promise of a modest monthly check. For all intents and purposes, they are being charged for a steak, but they’re getting a hamburger (with Medicare, by contrast, people are charged for a hamburger and they receive a hamburger but taxpayers pay for a steak that nobody gets).

For groups with lower-than-average life expectancy, such as poor people and minorities, Social Security is even worse. They pay into the system throughout their working lives, but then they don’t live long enough to collect a decent amount of benefits.

I narrated a video that was partly focused on how people could have more retirement income if we shifted to a system of personal retirement accounts, but this video from Learn Liberty directly addresses this issue.

By the way, I have one minor complaint with this excellent video. Social Security is not forced savings. There’s no money set aside. Yes, there’s a “trust fund,” but it contains nothing but IOUs. And if you don’t believe me, see what the Clinton Administration wrote back in 1999.

It would be more accurate to say the system is a pay-as-you-go, tax-and-transfer entitlement.

But I’m digressing, so let’s focus on some potential good news. Americans actually have a pretty good track record of saving for their own retirement. Indeed, total pension assets (measured as a share of economic output) in the United States rival those of nations that have mandatory private retirement systems.

So it presumably shouldn’t be that difficult to transition to a private retirement system in America.

Which was a key takeaway from a column in the Wall Street Journal last week by Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute. He starts with a pessimistic observation on how major politicians have addressed the crisis.

During last year’s presidential campaign, the candidates promised not to cut Social Security benefits (Donald Trump) and even to increase them (Hillary Clinton). …the Trump administration should reconsider its pledge not to cut Social Security benefits. The program is 25% underfunded over the long term, the Congressional Budget Office projects.

But the good news is that many Americans already are saving for retirement, so it wouldn’t be disruptive to extend personal retirement accounts to the entire population.

…private plans such as 401(k)s have allowed more people than ever to save for retirement…61% of workers… Contributions to private plans have…risen from an average 5.8% of wages in 1975 to 8% in 2014. …in 1984 only 23% of households received benefits from private retirement plans. By 2007 that had risen to 45%. Moreover, during the same period the benefits that the median household received from private plans rose by 141% above inflation, versus only 25% for Social Security benefits.

This is a system that should be expanded, with a prudent transition from a bankrupt Social Security system to a safer and more lucrative system of personal retirement accounts.

And that would be a much better outcome than what the current system will give us.

…Scandinavian-level tax rates or multi-trillion dollar unfunded entitlement liabilities.

P.S. Responding to those who worry about stock market downturns and the implications for retirement income, my colleague Mike Tanner showed that even people retiring after the 2008 crash would have been better off with personal 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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According to leftists like Bernie Sanders, European nations have wonderfully generous welfare states financed by high tax rates on the rich.

They’re partly right. There are very large welfare states in Europe (though I wouldn’t use “wonderfully” and “generous” to describe systems that have caused economic stagnation and high levels of unemployment).

But they’re wrong about how those welfare states are financed. Yes, tax rates on the rich are onerous, but not that much higher than in the United States. Instead, the big difference between America and Europe is that ordinary people pay much higher taxes on the other side of the Atlantic.

Indeed, I’ve previously cited Tax Foundation data showing that the United States arguably has the most “progressive” tax system in the developed world. Not because we tax the rich more, but simply because we impose comparatively modest burdens on everyone else.

And now we have some new evidence making the same point. Joseph Sternberg of the Wall Street Journal has some very sobering data on how the German tax system imposes a heavy weight on poor and middle-income taxpayers.

Europeans believe their tax codes are highly progressive, giving lower earners a break while levying significant proportions of the income of higher earners and corporations to fund generous social benefits. But that progressivity holds true only for direct taxes on personal and corporate income. Indirect taxes, such as the value-added tax on consumption and social-security taxes (disguised as “contributions”), are a different matter. The VAT disproportionately affects lower earners, who spend a higher proportion of their incomes. And social taxes tend to kick in at lower income levels than income taxes, and extract a higher and more uniform proportion of income. …if you look at the proportion of gross household income paid in all forms of tax, the rate varies by only 25 points. The lowest-earning 5% of households pay roughly 27% of their income in various taxes—mainly VAT—while a household in the 85th income percentile pays total taxes of around 52%, mostly in social-security taxes that amount to nearly double the income-tax bill.

Here’s a chart the WSJ included with the editorial.

As you can see, high payroll taxes and the value-added tax are a very costly combination.

And the rest of Europe is similar to Germany.

…Germany is not unique. The way German total revenues are split among income taxes, social taxes and the consumption tax is in line with the rest of Western Europe, as are its tax rates, according to OECD data. If other countries are more progressive than Germany, it’s only because Germany applies its second-highest marginal income-tax rate of 42% at a lower level of income than most.

Speaking of the OECD, here’s the bureaucracy’s data on the burden of government spending.

Germany is in the middle of the pack, with the public sector consuming 44 percent of economic output (Finland edges out France and Greece for the dubious honor of having the most expensive government).

The overall burden of the public sector is far too high in the United States, but we’re actually on the “low” side by OECD standards.

According to the data, total government spending “only” consumes 37.7 percent of America’s GDP. Only Ireland, Switzerland, and Latvia have better numbers (though my friend Constantin Gurdgiev explains we should be cautious about Irish economic data).

But I’m digressing. The point I want to emphasize is that punitive taxes on poor and middle-income taxpayers are unavoidable once politicians decide to impose a large welfare state.

Which is why I’m so inflexibly hostile to any tax increase, especially a value-added tax (or anything close to a VAT, such as the BAT) that would vacuum up huge amounts of money from the general population. Simply stated, politicians in Washington will have a hard time financing a bigger burden of government if they can only target the rich.

Sternberg makes the same point in his column.

Tax cuts have emerged as an issue ahead of Germany’s national election next month, with both major parties promising various timid tinkers… Not gonna happen. The VAT and social taxes are too important to the modern welfare state. The great lie is that there are a) enough “rich people,” b) who are rich enough, that c) taxing their incomes heavily enough can pay for generous health benefits and an old-age pension at 65. None of those propositions are true, and the third is especially wrong in an era of globally mobile capital and labor. That leaves the lower and middle classes, and taxes concealed in price tags or dolled up as “insurance contributions” to obscure exactly how much voters are paying for the privilege of their welfare states. …reform of the indirect taxes that impose such a drag on European economies awaits a more serious discussion about the proper role of the state overall.

Exactly.

There’s no feasible way to ease the burden on ordinary German taxpayers (or regular people in other European nations) unless there are sweeping reforms to reduce the welfare state.

And the moral of the story for Americans is that we better enact genuine entitlement reform if we don’t want to suffer the same fate.

P.S. If you don’t like German data, for whatever reason, I wrote last year about Belgium and made the same point about how a big welfare state necessarily means a bad tax system.

P.P.S. By the way, even the OECD admitted that European nations would grow faster if the burden of government was reduced.

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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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I’ve looked at some of the grim fiscal implications of demographic changes the United States and Europe.

Now let’s look at what’s happening in Asia.

The International Monetary Fund has a recent study that looks at shortfalls in government-run pension schemes and various policies that could address the long-run imbalances in the region. Here are the main points from the abstract.

Asian economies are aging fast, with significant implications for their pension system finances. While some countries already have high dependency ratios (Japan), others are expected to experience a sharp increase in the next couple of decades (China, Korea, Singapore). …This has…implications. …pension system deficits can increase very quickly, limiting room for policy action and hampering fiscal sustainability. …This paper explores how incorporating Automatic Adjustment Mechanisms (AAMs)—rules ensuring that certain characteristics of a pension system respond to demographic, macroeconomic and financial developments, in a predetermined fashion and without the need for additional intervention— can be part of pension reforms in Asia.

More succinctly, AAMs are built-in rules that automatically make changes to government pension systems based on various criteria.

Incidentally, we already have AAMs in the United States. Annual Social Security cost of living adjustments (COLAs) and increases in the wage base cap are examples of automatic changes that occur on a regular basis. And such policies exist in many other nations.

But those are AAMs that generally are designed to give more money to beneficiaries. The IMF study is talking about AAMs that are designed to deal with looming shortfalls caused by demographic changes. In other words, AAMs that result in seniors getting lower-than-promised benefits in the future. Here’s how the IMF study describes this development.

More recently, AAMs have come to the forefront to help address financial sustainability concerns of public pension systems. Social insurance pension systems are dominated by defined benefit schemes, pay-as-you-go financed, with liabilities explicitly underwritten by the government. …these systems, under their previous contribution and benefit rules, are unprepared for population aging and need to implement parametric reform or structural reforms in order to reduce the level or growth rate of their unfunded pension liabilities. …Automatic adjustments can theoretically make the reform process politically less painful and more likely to succeed.

Here’s a chart from the study that underscores the need for some sort of reform. It shows the age-dependency ratio on the left and the projected increase in the burden of pension spending on the right.

I’m surprised that the future burden of pension spending in Japan will only be slightly higher than it is today.

And I’m shocked by the awful long-run outlook in Mongolia (the bad numbers for China are New Zealand are also noteworthy, though not as surprising).

To address these grim numbers, the study considers various AAMs that might make government systems fiscally sustainable.

Especially automatic increases in the retirement age based on life expectancy.

One attractive option is to link statutory retirement ages—which seem relatively low in the region—to longevity or other sustainability indicators. This would at the very least help ameliorate the impact of life expectancy improvements in the finances of public pension systems. … While some countries have already raised the retirement age over time (Japan, Korea), pension systems in Asia do not yet feature automatic links between retirement age and life expectancy. …The case studies for Korea and China (section IV) suggest that automatic indexation of retirement age to life expectancy can indeed help reduce the pension system’s financial imbalances.

Here’s a table showing the AAMs that already exist.

Notice that the United States is on this list with an “ex-post trigger” based on “current deficits.”

This is because when the make-believe Trust Fund runs out of IOUs in the 2030s, there’s an automatic reduction in benefits. For what it’s worth, I fully expect future politicians to simply pass a law stating that promised benefits get paid regardless.

It’s also worth noting that Germany and Canada have “ex-ante triggers” for “contribution rates.” I’m assuming that means automatic tax hikes, which is a horrid idea. Heck, even the study acknowledges a problem with that approach.

…raising contribution rates can have important effects on the labor market and growth, it would be important to prioritize other adjustments.

From my perspective, the main – albeit unintended – lesson from the IMF study is that private retirement accounts are the best approach. These defined contribution (DC) systems avoid all the problems associated with pay-as-you-go, tax-and-transfer regimes, generally known as defined benefit (DB) systems.

The larger role played by defined contribution schemes in Asia reduce the scope for using AAMs for financial sustainability purposes. Many Asian economies (Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, Malaysia and Indonesia) have defined contribution systems, …under which system sustainability is typically inherent.

Here are the types of pension systems in Asia, with Australia and New Zealand added to the mix..

For what it’s worth, I would put Australia in the “defined contribution” grouping. Yes, there is still a government age pension that serves as a safety net, but there also are safety nets in Singapore and Hong Kong as well.

But I’m nitpicking.

Here’s another table from the study showing that it’s much simpler to deal with “DC” systems compared with “DB” systems. About the only reforms that are ever needed revolve around the question of how much private savings should be required.

By the way, even though the information in the IMF study shows the superiority of DC plans, that’s only an implicit message.

To the extent the bureaucracy has an explicit message, it’s mostly about indexing the retirement age to changes in life expectancy.

That’s probably better than doing nothing, but there’s an unaddressed problem with that approach. It forces people to spend more years working and paying into systems, and then leaves them fewer years to collect benefits in retirement.

That idea periodically gets floated in the United States. Here’s some of what I wrote in 2011.

Think of this as the pay-for-a-steak-and-get-a-hamburger plan. Social Security already is a bad deal for workers, forcing them to pay a lot of money in exchange for relatively meager retirement benefits.

I made a related observation about this approach back in 2012.

…it focuses on the government’s finances and overlooks the implications for households. It is possible, at least on paper, to “save” Social Security by cutting benefits and raising taxes. But such “reforms” force people to pay more and get less – even though Social Security already is a very bad deal, particularly for younger workers.

The bottom line is that the implicit message should be explicit. Other nations should copy jurisdictions such as Chile, Australia, and Hong Kong by shifting to personal retirement accounts

P.S. Speaking of which, here’s the case for U.S. reform, as captured by cartoons. And you can enjoy other Social Security cartoons here, here, and here, along with a Social Security joke if you appreciate grim humor.

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We have reached the 50th full day of the Trump Presidency.

In that span of time, we’ve had lots of political wrangling between Trump and the media. We’ve been introduced to the concept of the “Deep State” (yes, there is a permanent bureaucracy that acts to protect its own interests, but it’s silly to call it a conspiracy). There have been some controversial executive orders. And Trump made his big speech to Congress.

Lots of noise, though, does not mean lots of action. The President hasn’t signed any big legislation to repeal Obamacare, or even any legislation to tinker with Obamacare. There haven’t been any big changes on fiscal policy, either with regards to spending or taxes.

Heck, Trump hasn’t even told us what he really thinks on some of these issues.

In other words, the biggest takeaway after 50 days is that we still don’t know whether Trump is going to make government bigger or smaller.

I address some of these issues in two recent interviews. We’ll start with this discussion on the day of Trump’s Joint Address. I mostly focus on the need for entitlement reform and explain how Trump could do the right thing for America…if he wants to.

You’ll also notice, right at the end of the interview, that I made sure to sneak in a reference to fiscal policy’s Golden Rule. Gotta stay on message!

In this second interview, which occurred a couple of days later, I start the conversation by fretting about how the border-adjustable tax could kill the chances of getting good tax policy.

In the latter part of the interview, the discussion shifts to infrastructure and I make the rare point that we should copy Europe and get the private sector more involved (it’s generally a good idea to do the opposite of Europe, to be sure, but there are a small handful of other areas – including corporate tax rates, Social Security, and privatized postal services – where various European countries are ahead of us).

The bottom line is that we didn’t know before the election whether Trump wants to limit the burden of government, and we still don’t know today. My guess last year was that we’ll get the wrong answer, though I confess that the jury is still out.

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The tax-and-transfer welfare state is in deep trouble. I explained last year that the United States faces a very serious long-run challenge.

Many of our entitlement programs were created based on the assumption that we would always have an expanding population, as represented by a population pyramid. …however, we’ve seen major changes in demographic trends, including longer lifespans and falling birthrates. The combination of these two factors means that our population pyramid is slowly, but surely, turning into a population cylinder. …this looming shift in America’s population profile means massive amounts of red ink as the baby boom generation moves into full retirement.

In other words, in the absence of genuine entitlement reform, America will have a Greek-style fiscal mess at some point in the future. Or, as I wrote yesterday, maybe we should call it a Japan-style mess.

Demographic 2030Simply stated, we’re going to have too many people collecting benefits and too few people generating income.

The outlook is even worse in Europe. Indeed, the fiscal crisis has already started in many nations in Southern Europe. And the crisis will spread to many countries in Northern Europe. And it will hit Eastern Europe as well, notwithstanding some good economic reforms in that region.

Unfortunately, most politicians are reluctant to undertake the entitlement reforms that would avert this crisis.

So what’s their alternative solution? In many cases, they don’t have one. In other cases, they act as if higher tax burdens can solve the problem, even though that probably means even more people will be discouraged from productive lives and instead decide to ride in the wagon of government dependency (higher taxes also would enable even more spending, but that’s a separate story).

Another potential answer is sex. To be more specific, governments around the world are urging people to procreate more so that there will be additional future taxpayers to finance the welfare state.

I’m not kidding.

Let’s start with the new effort in Spain.

Europeans across the continent are having so many fewer babies that national populations from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean are skewing towards the older end of the spectrum, with not enough young, productive people to keep economies thriving and to look after the rest of the aging population. Spanish women have 1.3 children on average. In 2015, Spain’s death rate outstripped the birth rate… Edelmira Barreira Diz was appointed as “commissioner for the demographic challenge” last month.

I think “sex commissioner” would have been a better title. Heck, that probably would have enticed a certain former American president to apply for the position.

Here’s a chart from the story showing declining fertility rates.

There’s a similar effort for government-encouraged babies in Italy.

Italy is facing a dramatic demographic change, with increasingly fewer children being born. So the Health Ministry recently launched an ad campaign to remind people of Sept. 22 being “fertility day.” …another ad claiming that fertility was “a common good” — a comparison that reminded some of fascist propaganda from the 1920s which urged women to have more babies to support the nation. …As a social welfare state, Italy’s pensions system and economy relies on a certain number of younger people joining the workforce every year.

The Danish government also wants women to think they have an obligation to produce future taxpayers.

In Denmark, for instance, schoolchildren are now taught in class that they should have more babies. “…we just thought, maybe we should actually also tell them about how to get pregnant,” Marianne Lomholt, national director of Sex and Society, told the New York Times. …Denmark’s Education Ministry now has teachers talk not only about the dangers of sex and pregnancies, but also about their benefits.

Also in Denmark, private companies are jumping on this bandwagon (sexwagon?) of more sex as a solution to demographic-entitlement crisis.

Denmark has a sex problem. …not exactly a sex problem, per se. It’s more like a baby problem. …Denmark’s perennially low birth rate…has left people worried… “We are concerned. The fewer Danes means fewer people to support the aging population…” …can vacation sex save the Kingdom of Denmark? Spies thinks it can, so the company has sweetened the deal. According to its promotion, the company will give prizes to couples who get pregnant while on vacations purchased through them.

Given the grim demographic outlook in Japan, nobody should be surprised that the government there is agitating for more future taxpayers.

A comprehensive plan to reverse Japan’s crashing population numbers was unveiled on Thursday by a government task force… Shigeru Ishiba, minister in charge of overcoming population decline and reviving local economies, was more blunt. “Japan will die off” without proper countermeasures, he warned. …The strategy outlined in the government plan is to encourage young people to relocate to areas outside the major metropolitan regions by fostering jobs and economic growth in small local communities that are now in danger of simply disappearing for lack of inhabitants.

Huh?!? Japan’s repeated forays into Keynesian economics haven’t generated good results nationally, so I’m not holding my breath that this new campaign will be “fostering jobs and economic growth” in targeted communities.

For a final example, let’s shift to China, where a government that formerly forced women to have abortions is suddenly looking at ways to subsidize an extra child.

China is considering introducing birth rewards and subsidies to encourage people to have a second child… the country issued new guidelines in late 2015 allowing all parents to have two children amid growing concerns over the costs of supporting an aging population. …China began implementing its controversial “one-child policy” in the 1970s in order to limit population growth, but authorities are now concerned that the country’s dwindling workforce will not be able to support an increasingly aging population.

Since coerced redistribution isn’t nearly as odious as coerced abortion, I guess this is another sign of progress in China.

But I’m not sure that will be enough to produce enough future taxpayers for China. Or any other nation.

The only sustainable welfare state, given modern demographics, is no welfare state.

Or, to be more accurate, the right approach is to start with the default assumption that people are responsible for saving and investing to support themselves in retirement. There are lots of nations that now have systems of personal retirement accounts, and this puts them in much stronger position than nations that rely solely on tax-and-transfer entitlement schemes. Hong Kong is a good example, as are Chile and Australia.

By the way, countries with private social security systems have safety-net programs for destitute seniors, but that’s far more affordable than automatic payments to everyone in retirement.

P.S. On a related note, there’s a big debate in academic circles about whether the welfare state (specifically young-to-old redistribution) actually sows the seed of its own destruction by inducing lower fertility rates. Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review summarized some of the evidence for this hypothesis back in 2012.

A 2005 paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research by economists Michele Boldrin, Mariacristina De Nardi, and Larry E. Jones points out that “the size and timing of the growth in government pension systems” matches up nicely with fertility trends in the U.S. and Europe. They expanded on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, and fertility fell on both sides, after World War II; and they expanded more in Europe, where fertility fell further. In their model, entitlements account for roughly half of the decline in fertility, and 60 percent of the difference between European and American fertility. When a pension system expands by 10 percent of GDP, the average number of children per woman drops by 0.7 to 1.6. “These findings are highly statistically significant and fairly robust to the inclusion of other possible explanatory variables.” A 2007 paper by Isaac Ehrlich and Jinyoung Kim, also for the NBER, reached similar conclusions, finding that pension programs explained a little under half of the decline in fertility rates, and a little more than half of the decline in marriage rates, in developed countries between 1965 and 1989. One implication of this finding is that pension programs have contributed to their own financial woes by suppressing fertility.

Some researchers have concluded that other types of redistribution spending can boost fertility, though other scholars are more skeptical.

I haven’t studied this literature on subsidized babies enough to have a strong opinion.

For what it’s worth, I suspect the government can provide enough handouts to induce motherhood (heck, one of the motives for the welfare reform that was adopted during Bill Clinton’s presidency was a concern that the old system was encouraging women to have children out of wedlock).

But I’m very doubtful that such policies would fix the demographic/entitlement crisis that threatens most nations. In part, because I’m skeptical about the ability of governments to cause large shifts in fertility, but also because recreating a population pyramid only works if the additional children wind up being productive workers in the private sector.

In other words, the goal isn’t really a population pyramid as much as it’s a shift in the ratio of producers versus dependents in a nation.

As such, if many of the babies induced by handouts come from mothers that rely on welfare, and if those children are less likely to grow up to be net payers of tax rather than net consumers of tax, then baby subsidies are not going to solve the problem.

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When I warn about the fiscal and economic consequences of America’s poorly designed entitlement programs (as well as the impact of demographic changes), I regularly suggest that the United States is on a path to become Greece.

Because of Greece’s horrible economy, this link has obvious rhetorical appeal.

But there’s another nation that may be a more accurate “role model” of America’s future. This other country, like the United States, is big, relatively rich, and has its own currency.

For these and other reasons, in an article for The Hill, I suggest that Japan is the nation that may offer the most relevant warning signs. I explain first that Japan shows the failure of Keynesian economics.

…ever since a property bubble burst in the late 1980s, Japan’s economy has been in the doldrums, and its politicians deserve much of the blame. They’ve engaged in repeated binges of so-called Keynesian stimulus. But running up the national credit card hasn’t worked any better in Japan than it did for President Barack Obama. Instead of economic rejuvenation, Japan is now saddled with record levels of debt.

In other words, Japan already is a basket case and may be the next Greece. And all this foolish policy has been cheered on by the IMF.

I then highlight how Japan shows why a value-added tax is a huge mistake.

Japan’s politicians also decided to impose a value-added tax (VAT) on the nation. As so often happens when a VAT gets adopted, it turns into a money machine, as legislators start ratcheting the rate higher and higher. That happened in Europe back in the 1960s and 1970s, and it’s happening in Japan today.

And regular readers know my paranoid fear of the VAT taking hold in the United States.

But here’s the main lesson in the column.

The combination of demographic changes and redistribution programs is a recipe for fiscal crisis.

…the biggest economic threat to the country is the way Japan’s welfare state interacts with demographic changes. It’s not that the welfare state is enormous, particularly compared with European nations, but the system is becoming an ever-increasing burden because the Japanese people are living longer and having fewer children. …America faces some of the same problems. …if we don’t reform our entitlement programs, it’s just a matter of time before we also have a fiscal crisis.

To be sure, as I note in the article, Japan’s demographic outlook is worse. And that nation’s hostility to any immigration (even from high-skilled people) means that Japan can’t compensate (as America has to some degree) for low birth rates by expanding its population.

Indeed, the demographic situation in Japan is so grim that social scientists have actually estimated the date on which the Japanese people become extinct.

Mark August 16, 3766 on your calendar. According to…researchers at Tohoku University, that’s the date Japan’s population will dwindle to one. For 25 years, the country has had falling fertility rates, coinciding with widespread aging. The worrisome trend has now reached a critical mass known as a “demographic time bomb.” When that happens, a vicious cycle of low spending and low fertility can cause entire generations to shrink — or disappear completely.

Though I guess none of us will know whether this prediction is true unless we live another 1750 years. But it doesn’t matter if the estimate is perfect. Japan’s demographic outlook is very grim.

By the way, the problem of aging populations and misguided entitlements exists in almost every developed nation.

But I mentioned in the article for The Hill that there are two exceptions. Hong Kong and Singapore have extremely low birthrates and aging populations. But neither jurisdiction faces a fiscal crisis for the simple reason that people largely are responsible for saving for their own retirement.

And that, of course, is the main lesson. The United States desperately needs genuine entitlement reform. While I’m not overflowing with optimism about Trump’s view on these issues, hope springs eternal.

P.S. In yesterday’s column about Germany, I listed bizarre policies in Germany in the postscripts. My favorite example from Japan is the regulation of coffee enemas. And the Japanese government has even proven incompetent at giving away money.

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The United States is going to become another Greece, and it’s largely because of poorly designed entitlement programs. As the old saying goes, demography is destiny.

Let’s look at just one piece of that puzzle. James Capretta of the American Enterprise Institute has a very sobering summary of how Medicaid has metastasized into one of the largest and fastest-growing entitlement programs.

You should read the entire article, but if you’re pressed for time, I’m going to share two grim charts that tell you what you need to know.

First, we have a look at how the burden of Medicaid spending, measured as a share of national output, has increased over time.

What makes this chart particularly depressing is that Medicaid was never supposed to become a massive entitlement program.

It was basically created so the crowd in Washington could buy a few votes. Yet the moment politicians decided that it was the federal government had a role in subsidizing health care for the indigent, it was just a matter of time before the program was expanded to new groups of potential voters.

And every time the program was expanded, that increased the burden of spending and further undermined market forces in the health sector.

This is why entitlement programs are so injurious to a nation.

But Medicaid isn’t just a problem because of its adverse fiscal and economic impact.

The program also is exacerbating the redistribution culture in the United States as more and more people get trapped in the web of dependency.

Which brings us to our second chart from Capretta’s article. Here’s a look at the share of the population being subsidized by Medicaid.

As a fiscal wonk, I realize I should care more about the budget numbers, but I actually find this second graph more depressing. In my lifetime, we’ve gone from a nation where the federal government had no role in the provision of low-income healthcare, and now nearly one out of every five Americans is on the federal teat.

Even though we’re far richer than we were in the mid-1960s when the program was created, which presumably should have meant less supposed need for federal subsidies.

For further background on the issue, here’s a video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

I urge you to pay close attention to the discussion that starts at 1:48. I explain that programs with both federal and state spending create perverse incentives for even more spending. This is mostly because politicians in either Washington or state capitals can expand eligibility and take full credit for new handouts while only being responsible for a portion of the costs. But it also happens because the federal match gives states big incentives to manipulate the system to get more transfers.

P.S. All of which explains why I think Medicaid reform should be the first priority when looking at how to fix the entitlements mess, even before Medicare reform and Social Security reform.

P.P.S. I’m not overflowing with optimism that Trump will tackle the issue, but there is a feasible scenario for him fixing the program.

P.P.P.S. Regardless, one would hope all politicians would agree that it’s time to tackle rampant Medicaid fraud.

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Since yesterday’s column was a look back on the good and bad things of 2016, let’s now look forward and speculate about the good and bad things that may happen in 2017.

I’m not pretending any of this is a forecast, particularly since economists have a miserable track record in that regard. Instead, the following lists are simply things I hope may happen or fear may happen.

We’ll start with the things I want.

  • Reform of healthcare entitlements – Republicans in 2017 will control Congress and the White House, so they’ll have the power to fix our broken entitlement system and dramatically improve America’s long-run outlook. And since the House and Senate GOPers have voted for budgets that presume much-need structural changes to Medicare and Medicaid, that bodes well for reform. The wild card is Donald Trump. He said some rather irresponsible things about entitlements during the campaign, which suggests he will leave policy on autopilot (which is not a good idea when we’re heading for a fiscal iceberg). On the other hand, politicians oftentimes disregard their campaign commitments (remember Obama and “you can keep your doctor“?), especially when they get in power and finally take a hard look at budget numbers. Perhaps the most optimistic sign is that Trump has appointed Budget Committee Chairman Congressman Tom Price to be Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services and Congressman Mick Mulvaney to be Director of the Office of Management and Budget.  I very much hope Trump seriously addresses the health entitlements.
  • A lower corporate tax rate, “expensing,” and repeal of the death tax – During the campaign, Trump proposed a very large tax cut. With Republicans controlling both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, some sort of significant tax cut should be feasible. It’s highly unlikely that Trump will get everything he wants, but the three items at the top of my wish list are lowering the corporate tax rate, ending the tax code’s bias against new investment by replacing punitive “depreciation” rules with “expensing,” and repeal of the death tax. Those reforms would have the strongest impact on long-run growth. And the icing on the cake would be a repeal of the state and local tax deduction, which subsidizes high-tax states such as California, Illinois, New York, and New Jersey (I’d also like to see repeal of the healthcare exclusion, but I’m focusing on things that might actually happen in 2017 rather than what’s on my fantasy list).
  • Regulatory reform – The tentacles of the regulatory octopus are stifling the American economy. There’s no single fix for this problem. The overall system for approving regulations should be changed (I will write on the “REINS Act” in a few days), but that’s a partial solution for future red tape. To deal with the existing burden of red tape, a different set of answers will be necessary, including sensible political appointees so that bureaucrats will have a harder time pushing for regulations that are needlessly expensive and misguided and instead will be charged with undoing existing red tape. In some cases (Dodd-Frank, Obamacare, etc), it will be necessary to change current law in order to roll back regulatory excess.
  • Italian default – I’m not hoping for Italy to face a fiscal crisis, but it almost certainly will happen in the near future. The nation’s demographic decline, combined with its bloated welfare state, are a horrible recipe. And while it’s theoretically possible to avert a mess by capping spending and fixing programs (just as it is still possible to fix the mess in Greece), I don’t think good policy is very likely. So Italy will soon face a fiscal crisis and the real question is whether there’s a good response. Ideally, if this happens in 2017, Italy will be allowed to default (presumably because Trump’s representative at the International Monetary Fund vetoes any sort of bailout). This will mean, a) the people and institutions who were silly enough to lend money to a profligate government will suffer losses, making them more prudent in the future, b) Italy will lose the ability to borrow more money, putting an end to additional red ink, c) Italian politicians will be forced to immediately balance the government’s budget, which hopefully means genuine budget cuts, and d) the Italian people will (hopefully) realize that a system based on looting and mooching can no longer be maintained.

Now here’s a list of things I’m afraid may happen.

  • Punting on entitlement Reform – As noted above, the wild card for any sort of genuine entitlement reform is Donald Trump. If he decides to to be President Santa Claus by appeasing various interest groups (like the previous GOPer in the White House), then reform will be dead. Simply stated, House and Senate Republicans will not push good changes without support from the White House. But that’s only a partial worst-case scenario. Trump may choose to be like the previous Republican President and actually expand entitlements (perhaps by borrowing a page from Elizabeth Warren’s playbook and expanding Social Security). If Trump decides to punt (or, gulp, make things worse), that has very grim implications. Reform will be dead for at least eight years (either because Trump gets reelected or because he’s replaced by a Democrat who also opposes reform) and the longer we wait to address the problem, the harder it will be to save America from a Greek fiscal future.
  • A “Poison Pill” in tax reform – While there is a great opportunity to fix some of the biggest warts in the internal revenue code, I worry that lawmakers will include some bad revenue raisers to help “pay for” the good provisions. I don’t think there’s any danger (at least for 2017) of a value-added tax, but the plan from House Republicans includes a “border adjustable”/”destination based” tax on imports (known as a DBCFT) that is not only protectionist, but could eventually morph into a VAT. A smaller tax cut without a DBCFT would be better than a bigger tax cut with a DBCFT.
  • An infrastructure boondoggle – It appears that some sort of infrastructure plan will be approved in 2017. I wrote last year to suggest three guidelines for the incoming Trump Administration on this issue, but I fear that this initiative will become a typical DC feeding frenzy. Lots of spending with no accountability.
  • Italian bailout – If the inevitable Italian fiscal crisis occurs in 2017, the worst possible outcome would be a Greek-style bailout. That approach has several undesirable implications. It will a) exacerbate moral hazard by rewarding the investors who bought Italian bonds, b) it will enable Italian politicians to incur more debt, and c) it will enable the Italian people to continue thinking that big government is good because someone else is paying for it. To be sure, because there’s so much more debt involved, bailing out Italy will be much harder than bailing out Greece. But so long as the corrupt and venal IMF plays a role, it’s always prudent to assume the worst policy will be imposed.

I hope all readers have a happy new year. And I hope. for the sake of America and the rest of the world, that the first half of today’s column is more accurate than the second half.

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At the risk of sounding like a broken record (or like Donald Sutherland in Animal House), I’m going to repeat myself for the umpteenth time and state that the United States has a big long-run problem.

To be specific, the burden of government spending will inexorably climb in the absence of big reforms. This isn’t just my speculation. It’s a built-in mathematical result of poorly designed entitlement programs combined with demographic changes.

I wrote about these issues in a column for The Hill.

…there is a big reason to worry about the slowdown in population growth in the U.S. Many of our entitlement programs were created based on the assumption that we would always have an expanding population, as represented by a population pyramid. …however, we’ve seen major changes in demographic trends, including longer lifespans and falling birthrates. The combination of these two factors means that our population pyramid is slowly, but surely, turning into a population cylinder. …this looming shift in America’s population profile means massive amounts of red ink as the baby boom generation moves into full retirement.

To back up my claim, I then cited grim numbers from the Congressional Budget Office, and also linked to very sobering data about America’s long-run fiscal position from the Bank for International Settlements, the International Monetary Fund, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Simply stated, the United States will become a failed welfare state if we don’t make changes in the near future.

But I point out that we can save ourselves from that fate. And it’s not complicated. Just make sure government spending grows slower than the private economy, which will only be possible in the long run if lawmakers reform entitlements, particularly Medicare and Medicaid.

…it’s also possible that Washington will get serious about genuine entitlement reform. …if Congress adopted the structural reforms that have been in House budgets in recent years, much of our long-run spending problem would disappear. …the real goal is to make sure that government spending grows slower than the private sector.

That’s the good news.

But here’s the bad news. Based on his campaign rhetoric, Donald Trump isn’t a fan of entitlement reform.

And if he says no, it isn’t going to happen. Writing for National Review, Michael Barone explains that Trump’s opposition is a death knell.

The election of Donald Trump has put the kibosh on…the entitlement reform sought by conservative elites… Trump…has made plain that he’s opposed to significant changes in entitlements… It’s hard to see how Republicans in Congress will go to the trouble of addressing entitlements if their efforts can’t succeed.

As a matter of political prognostication, I agree. Republicans on Capitol Hill are not going to push reform without a receptive White House.

It doesn’t matter that they’re right.

Conservative elites’ concern about entitlements is based on solider numbers… There’s a strong case for making adjustments now… The longer we wait, the more expensive and painful adjustments will be. …Conservative…elites may have superior long-range vision. But they’re not going to get the policies they want for the next four years.

But this doesn’t mean reform is a lost cause.

I explained last month that there are three reasons why Trump might push for good policy (even though he said “I’m not going to cut Medicare or Medicaid”).

  • First, politicians oftentimes say things they don’t mean (remember Obama’s pledge that people could keep their doctors and their health plans if Obamacare was enacted?).
  • Second, the plans to fix Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid don’t involve any cuts. Instead, reformers are proposing changes that will slow the growth of outlays.
  • Third, if Trump is even slightly serious about pushing through his big tax cut, he’ll need to have some plan to restrain overall spending to make his agenda politically viable.

And maybe Trump has reached the same conclusion. At least to some degree.

Here’s what is being reported by The Hill.

Medicaid has grown in size in recent years, with ObamaCare extending coverage to millions of low-income people who hadn’t qualified before. But Republicans warn of the program’s growing costs and have pushed to provide that money to states in the form of block grants — an idea President-elect Donald Trump endorsed during the campaign. Vice President-elect Mike Pence signaled in an interview with ABC this month that the incoming administration planned to keep Medicare as it is, while looking at ways to change Medicaid. …Block grants would mean limiting federal Medicaid funds to a set amount given to the states, rather than the current federal commitment, which is more open-ended. …Gail Wilensky, who was head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services…argued that…If federal money for the program were fixed, “states would have much greater incentives to use it as efficiently as possible,” she said.

The policy argument for Medicaid reform is very strong.

The real question is whether Trump ultimately decides to expend political capital on a much-needed reform. Because he would need to do some heavy lifting. If GOPers push for block grants, well-heeled medical providers such as hospitals will lobby fiercely to maintain the status quo (after all what’s is waste and fraud to us is money in the bank for them). Trump would have to be willing to push back and make a populist argument for federalism and fiscal responsibility rather than a populist argument for dependency.

I guess we’ll see what happens.

P.S. For what it’s worth, if Trump is going to fix just one entitlement program, Medicaid is a good choice.

P.P.S. In an ideal world, Medicare and Social Security also should be fixed.

P.P.P.S. That being said, if the major fiscal change of a Trump Administration is Medicaid reform, I’ll be relatively happy. I’ve been operating on the assumption (based in part of what he said during the campaign) that Trump is a big-government Republican. Sort of like Bush. I will be very happy if it turns out I was wrong.

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When I give speeches on fiscal policy, I commonly get some variation of this question (and you can choose one of more of the options).

Isn’t our fiscal problem largely the result of the wars/intervention/Iraq/Afghanistan/Libya/Syria launched by Bush/Hillary/neocons/Blackwater/Pentagon?

I generally respond by first confessing my lack of expertise on military and foreign affairs, but then I point out that I’m not a fan of nation building (see George Will and Mark Steyn on this topic), so I tell people that I’m very sympathetic to the proposition that trillions of dollars that have been misspent on foreign adventurism this century. Not to mention the human cost of dead and wounded American soldiers.

But I then tell audiences that the Pentagon is not the reason why we’re in fiscal trouble.

Let’s look at two charts, both derived from the Office and Management and Budget’s historical data.

First, here are two pie charts based on the spreadsheet in Table 4.2, which looks at how much of the budget is consumed by different agencies and departments. For both 1962 and 2016, I added together outlays for the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs and compared that military-related spending to other major categories.

As you can see, military-related outlays used to account for more than one-half of the federal budget, but not they are less than one-fourth of total spending in Washington.

Notice, by the way, that Social Security spending now consumes a significantly larger share of the federal budget, as does spending by the Treasury Department (I assume much of that is EITC redistribution).

But the biggest change, by far, is that the Department of Health and Human Services used to account for 3 percent of federal outlays, but now eats up 28 percent of the budget. Why? Because of programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare.

By the way, the above numbers do not mean that the military budget has been cut.

Here’s our second chart, which is based on the spreadsheet in Table 8.2, which has the numbers for inflation-adjusted outlays for major budget categories.

As you can see, the federal government is spending more today on defense than it was back in the 1960s, even after adjusting for inflation. And outlays for “domestic discretionary” programs also have increased.

But what’s obviously driving fiscal policy is the relentless expansion of entitlements (referred to as “mandatory spending” for purposes of the Budget Enforcement Act).

And because of demographic changes and bad policy choices, outlays for entitlement are projected to become a much larger burden in the future.

So now, perhaps, you understand why I keep arguing in favor of genuine entitlement reform and why I think it’s so critical that Donald Trump reconsider his skepticism.

P.S. In addition to George Will and Mark Steyn, Barack Obama also expressed some support for a libertarian-oriented foreign policy. But only in theory, not in practice.

P.P.S. To put America’s military spending in global context, check out this pie chart.

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I’m a fiscal policy wonk, so I freely acknowledge that I sometimes look at the world through green-eyeshade-colored lenses. But I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that expanding entitlements,Demographic 2030 changing demographics, and increasing dependency are the main long-run threats to the American economy.

And this is why the concerns I had about a Hillary Clinton presidency aren’t that different from the concerns I have about a Donald Trump presidency.

Simply stated, he apparently doesn’t even think there’s a problem that needs to be addressed. Here’s what Trump said in an interview with the Daily Signal.

I’m not going to cut Social Security like every other Republican and I’m not going to cut Medicare or Medicaid.

Some people have told me not to get too worried about this statement because candidates make so many speeches and give so many interviews that they’re bound to make mistakes and say things they don’t really mean.

I agree that we shouldn’t get too hung up on every slip of the tongue on the campaign trail (notwithstanding this clip, for instance, Obama surely doesn’t think there are 57 states).

But the Trump people actually re-posted the Daily Signal interview on the campaign’s website, which certainly suggests (to use legal terminology) malice and forethought on the issue of entitlements.

That being said, this doesn’t mean Trump is a lost cause and that genuine entitlement reform is an impossibility.

  • First, politicians oftentimes say things they don’t mean (remember Obama’s pledge that people could keep their doctors and their health plans if Obamacare was enacted?).
  • Second, the plans to fix Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid don’t involve any cuts. Instead, reformers are proposing changes that will slow the growth of outlays.
  • Third, if Trump is even slightly serious about pushing through his big tax cut, he’ll need to have some plan to restrain overall spending to make his agenda politically viable.

For what it’s worth, I’m particularly hopeful (or not un-hopeful, to be more accurate) that Trump will be willing to address Medicaid reform, ideally as part of an overall proposal to block-grant all means-tested programs.

One reason for my semi-optimism is that the programs is becoming even more of a mess thanks to Obamacare and plenty of governors and state legislators would gladly accept that kind of reform simply to have more control over state budget matters.

And every serious budget person in Washington understands the program must be reformed because of spiraling costs.

The Wall Street Journal has an editorial today about out-of-control Medicaid spending.

One immediate problem is ObamaCare’s expansion of Medicaid, which has seen enrollment at least twice as high as advertised. …Governors claimed not joining would leave “free money” on the table because the feds would pick up 100% of the costs of new beneficiaries. In a new report this week for the Foundation for Government Accountability, Jonathan Ingram and Nicholas Horton tracked down the original enrollment projections by actuaries in 24 states that expanded and have since disclosed at least a year of data on the results. Some 11.5 million people now belong to ObamaCare’s new class of able-bodied enrollees, or 110% higher than the projections. Analysts in California expected only 910,000 people to sign up, but instead 3.84 million have, 322% off the projections. The situation is nearly as dire in New York, where enrollment is 276% higher than expected, and Illinois, which is up 90%. This liberal state triumvirate is particularly notable because they already ran generous welfare states long before ObamaCare.

Of course, the “free money” for states is a fiscal burden for all taxpayers. It’s just that the money from taxpayers gets cycled through Washington before going to state capitals.

But it’s also worth noting that the money soon won’t be “free.”

The state spending share of new Medicaid enrollment will rise to 5% next year and then to 10% by 2020, up from 0% today. The enrollment overruns mean these states will have less to spend than they planned for every other priority, especially the least fortunate.

I suppose this is a good opportunity to recycle my video on Medicaid reform. It was filmed more than five years ago, so some of the numbers are outdated (they’re worse today!). But the policy analysis is still right on point.

Who knows, maybe Trump actually will do the right thing and (in a phrase he took from Reagan) make America great again.

Remember, none of us expected that economic freedom would expand during Bill Clinton’s presidency, so a bit of optimism isn’t totally out-of-bounds.

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The burden of government spending is already excessive. But the numbers will get worse with the passage of time if policy is left on autopilot.

The main culprits are the so-called mandatory programs. Entitlements such as Social Security, Medicare, Food Stamps, and Obamacare that automatically dispense money to various constituencies are consuming an ever-larger chunk of the economy’s output.

And if you want to be even more specific, the fastest-growing entitlement program is Medicaid, which was originally supposed to be a very small program to subsidize health care for poor people but has now metastasized into a budget-gobbling fiscal disaster. Arguably, it’s the entitlement program most in need of reform.

So how big is the problem? Enormous if you look at the numbers from the National Association of State Budget Officers.

States increased their spending in fiscal year 2015 by the biggest margin in more than 20 years, but most of the increase was thanks to huge leaps in Medicaid spending under the first full year of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Spending increased last fiscal year, which ended on June 30 for most states, by 7.8 percent, according to new estimates from the National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO). It’s the biggest boost since 1992 and was thanks to a 15.1 percent increase in Medicaid spending, much of that paid for via federal Medicaid funds. Illinois, Michigan, Kentucky, Nevada and Oregon saw more than 30 percent increases in federal funding because they expanded Medicaid under the ACA. But 2015 was also a year where states were putting up more of their own money again.

Here’s the chart showing which outlay categories grew the fastest.

The article points out that spending is outpacing revenue.

On average, state revenues aren’t keeping pace with spending; NASBO estimates General Fund revenues will increase by just 3.8 percent.

Though the real problem is that spending is expanding faster than the private sector, which is the opposite of what is called for by my Golden Rule.

One of the reasons Medicaid grows so fast is that the program is split between Washington and the states, which both picking up a share of the cost. This may sound reasonable, but it creates a very perverse incentive structure since politicians at both levels can vote to expand the spending burden while only having to provide part of the cost.

The National Center for Policy Analysis explains how this system produces bad decisions.

Medicaid has a horrible financing mechanism: Federal transfers to states are not based on the number of poor people, or any other reasonable calculation. Instead, they depend on the amount of its own taxpayers’ money a state spends. Traditionally, when California spent $1 on Medi-Cal, the federal government kicked in $1. …So, state politicians hike taxes and spending on their own citizens in order to get as much funding as possible from people in other states (via the feds). Hospitals and Medicaid MCOs maximize this by agreeing to a state tax on themselves, which the state uses to ratchet up the federal funding. After multiplication, the money goes right back to these providers. …Stopping this wild spending growth requires fundamental reform to Medicaid’s financing. Congressional Republicans have proposed “block grants,” whereby states would get federal Medicaid transfers based on their population of poor residents, not how much they gouge out of their own people.

But unless that kind of reform happens, the program will continue to grow and become an ever-larger fiscal burden.

Heritage Action has more details on the perverse incentives of the current system.

…the federal government promises to reimburse states for a majority of their Medicaid spending, most of which involves reimbursements to health care providers. Therefore, states collude with health care providers in the following manner: they tell providers that they will tax them (so-called “provider taxes”), bringing in more revenue to the state. The state then promises to filter that money back to those same providers in the form of higher Medicaid reimbursements. States then bill the federal government for this added cost. Because the federal government provides more than 50% of total Medicaid funding, both state governments and Medicaid providers are made better off by the arrangement, while the federal government is stuck footing a larger bill it had no part in creating.

Though I partially disagree with the assertion that the feds are blameless. After all, it was politicians in Washington who created this wretched system, including the reimbursement rules that states manipulate.

This info-graphic illustrates how the “provider fee” scam operates.

The net result of all this is a nightmare for federal taxpayers, but states also are losing out when you consider the long-run consequences. And that’s even true with the Medicaid expansions contained in Obamacare, which supposedly were going to be financed almost entirely by Uncle Sam. The Wall Street Journal reports.

…the Affordable Care Act was designed to essentially bribe states to expand their Medicaid programs: The feds offered to pay 100% of additional costs through 2016, dropping to 90% by 2020. This “free money” prompted 30 states and the District of Columbia to take the deal. Democratic activists have joined with state hospital lobbies to pressure lawmakers in the remaining 20 state capitals to follow.

But free money can be very expensive.

Consider the experience of the states that did expand Medicaid. “At least 14 states have seen new enrollments exceed their original projections, causing at least seven to increase their cost estimates for 2017,” the Associated Press reported in July. The AP says that California expected 800,000 new enrollees after the state’s 2013 Medicaid expansion, but wound up with 2.3 million. Enrollment outstripped estimates in New Mexico by 44%, Oregon by 73%, and Washington state by more than 100%. This has blown holes in state budgets. Illinois once projected that its Medicaid expansion would cost the state $573 million for 2017 through 2020. Yet 200,000 more people have enrolled than were expected, and the state has increased its estimated cost for covering each. The new price tag? About $2 billion… Enrollment overruns in Kentucky forced officials to more than double the anticipated cost of the state’s Medicaid expansion for 2017, the AP reports, to $74 million from $33 million. That figure could rise to $363 million a year by 2021. In Rhode Island, where one-quarter of the state’s population is now on Medicaid, the program consumes roughly 30% of all state spending, the Providence Journal reports. To plug this growing hole, Rhode Island has levied a 3.5% tax on insurance policies sold through the state’s ObamaCare exchange.

Interestingly, Obamacare is causing pro-big government states to dig even deeper fiscal holes.

The National Center for Policy Analysis has some remarkable data on this development.

States that expanded Medicaid tend to have per capita state spending that’s about 17 percent higher than non-expansion states. …In 2004, expansion states had median per capita tax collections (both state and local) of 19 percent more than non-expansion states. By 2012, this gap had widened with expansion states collecting 28 percent more taxes per capita than non-expansion states. Moreover, since 2008 expansion states have moved to increase taxes, while non-expansion states have reduced taxes slightly.

Unsurprisingly, the states that are making government bigger are experiencing slower growth.

In 2001 expansion states had real median income that was nearly 13 percent higher than non-expansion states. However, by 2013 this gap had narrowed to just over 9 percent. Expansion states have historically had slightly lower poverty rates, but the difference was only 1 percentage point by 2012 (12.9 percent vs. 13.9 percent). Non-expansion states, although slightly poorer, have lower unemployment than expansion states (6.7 percent versus 7.2 percent).

By the way, the decision by some states to reject Medicaid expansion is a huge – and underappreciated – victory over Obamacare.

Another point worth mentioning is that the program isn’t even a good deal for the poor according to Scott Atlas at the Hoover Institution. Here’s some of what he wrote for the Wall Street Journal.

Americans should be more worried than ever about Medicaid… The cost of the $500 billion program is expected to rise to $890 billion by 2024… Yet more spending doesn’t necessarily mean better care for beneficiaries… The expansion of Medicaid is one of the most misguided parts of ObamaCare… Some 55% of doctors in major metropolitan areas refuse to take new Medicaid patients… Medicaid enrollees who manage to see a doctor typically experience outcomes worse than those under private insurance. That means more in-hospital deaths, more complications from surgery, worse posttreatment survival rates, and longer hospital stays than similar patients with private insurance. A randomized study by the Oregon Health Study Group showed that having Medicaid did not significantly improve patients’ physical health compared with those without insurance.

The proverbial icing on this foul-tasting cake is the way the program enables staggering amounts of fraud and theft.

I’ve written about this before (including how foreigners are bilking the system). But here are some fresh details from the Wall Street Journal.

…one of our favorite political euphemisms is “improper payments.” That’s how Washington airbrushes away the taxpayer money that flows each year to someone who is not eligible, or to the right beneficiary in the wrong amount, or that disappears to fraud or federal accounting ineptitude. Now thanks to ObamaCare, improper payments are soaring. Last week the Health and Human Services Department published an “alert” warning that the improper payment rate for Medicaid in 2016 will likely hit 11.5%. That’s nearly double the 5.8% rate as recently as 2013… The 11.5% for 2016 is likely an underestimate given that HHS’s goal last year was 6.7% and instead scored 9.8%, which amounts to $29.1 billion. The dollar amount of improper payments in Medicaid was bound to rise because ObamaCare vastly opened eligibility. In 2015 enrollment climbed by 13.8% and one of five Americans are now covered by the program. …In recent audits of Medicaid in Arizona, Florida, Michigan and New Jersey, the GAO uncovered 50 dead people who recouped at least $9.6 million in benefits after they died; 47 providers who registered foreign addresses as their location of service in places such as Saudi Arabia; and $448 million bestowed on 199,000 beneficiaries with fake Social Security numbers—12,500 of which had never been issued by the Social Security Administration.

But as bad as all this sounds, it can get worse.

If HHS tries hard enough, maybe the department can match the failure rate for school lunches (15.7%) or the Earned Income Tax Credit (23.8%).

And Kevin Williamson of National Review adds some acidic observations.

…the criminal — and I do not use the word figuratively — administration of Medicaid by the Obama administration. …improper payments under Medicaid have become so common that they will account this year for almost 12 percent of total Medicaid spending — just shy of $140 billion. …That rate has doubled in only a few years…12 percent in improper payments isn’t an error rate — it’s a malfeasance rate. …If improper and illegal federal payments were an economy of their own, that economy would be bigger than Hungary’s… The Obama administration is not lifting a pinky to do anything about this, even though analysts such as John Hood have — for years — been arguing that it is necessary and possible to reform this mess. As the Wall Street Journal has reported, we don’t even verify that doctors billing Medicaid for services rendered are actually doctors. In many cases, we do not do much to verify that their patients actually, you know, exist. We’ve paid untold billions of dollars to “clinics” that turn out to be little more — or nothing more — than post-office boxes and prepaid cell phones. And as bad as that 12 percent rate is, some policy scholars believe that it is in fact probably worse.

Kevin observes that this system is good for the Poverty Pimps.

…the real problem with the welfare state is not the poor people receiving checks — it’s everybody in the middle, the vast array of government employees, their union allies, contractors, and third parties who earn six-, seven-, eight-, or nine-figure paydays taking their cuts of money we think we’re spending on the poor. This is an enormous criminal conspiracy against the American people and the public fisc.

You might think that fixing this fraud would be an area for bipartisan cooperation.

But the sad reality is that fraud is a feature, not a bug. Politicians like the fact that scam artists in their states and district are stealing healthcare money from taxpayers. After all, recipients of the loot can be registered voters and campaign contributors.

So what’s the best way of fixing this mess?

Will big tax hikes solve the problems? If the problem is that America isn’t enough like France, then the answer is yes.

But if the problem is that government already is too much of a burden and that it would be a good idea to at least slow down the rate at which America becomes France, then the answer is genuine entitlement reform.

And this video shows how the Medicaid program should be “block-granted” (just as welfare was reformed in the 1990s).

P.S. For all intents and purposes, block granting Medicaid is a partial repeal of Obamacare. Just in case you wanted an additional reason to support reform.

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I’ve been accused of making supposedly inconsistent arguments against Hillary Clinton. Make up your mind, these critics say. Is she corrupt or is she a doctrinaire leftist?

I always respond with the simple observation that she’s both. Not that this should come as a surprise. Proponents of bigger government have long track records of expanding their bank accounts at the same time they’re expanding the burden of the public sector. This is true for radical leftists in places like Venezuela and it’s true for establishment leftists in places like America.

And it’s definitely true for Hillary Clinton. I shared lots of information about Hillary’s corruption yesterday, so let’s spend some time today detailing her statist policy agenda.

Consider her new entitlement scheme for childcare. As the Wall Street Journal opines, it’s even worse than an ordinary handout.

Hillary Clinton is methodically expanding her plans to supervise or subsidize those remaining spheres of human existence unspoiled by government. Mrs. Clinton rolled out her latest proposal…to make child care more affordable for working parents and also to raise the wages of child-care workers. The Democrat didn’t mention how she’d resolve the contradiction between her cost-increasing ideas and her cost-reducing ideas, though you can bet it will be expensive. …Her solution is for the feds to cap the share of a family’s income that goes toward care at 10%, with the rest of the tab covered by various tax benefits, direct cash payments and scholarships.

Her scheme to cap a family’s exposure so they don’t have to pay more than 10 percent may be appealing to some voters, but it is terrible economics.

Although we don’t have details on how the various handouts will work, the net effect surely will be to exacerbate a third-party payer problem that already is leading to childcare costs rising faster than the overall inflation rate.

After all, families won’t care about the cost once it rises above 10 percent of their income since Hillary says that taxpayers will pick up the tab for anything about that level.

There’s more information about government intervention in the editorial.

The auditors at the Government Accountability Office report that there are currently 45 federal programs dedicated to supporting care “from birth through age five,” spread across multiple agencies. The Agriculture Department runs a nursery division, for some reason. …Mrs. Clinton also feels that caregivers are paid “less than the value of their worth,” and she promises to increase their compensation. How? Why, another program of course. She’ll call it the Respect and Increased Salaries for Early Childhood Educators (Raise) Initiative, which she says is modelled after another one of her proposals, the Care Workers Initiative. …If families think day care and health care are “really expensive” now, wait until they have to pay for Mrs. Clinton’s government.

Just as subsidized childcare will be very expensive if Hillary gets elected, the same will be true for higher education.

But in a different way. The current system of subsidies and handouts gives money (in the form of grants and loans) to students, who then give the money to colleges and universities. This is a great deal for the schools, who have taken advantage of the programs by dramatically increasing tuition and fees, while also expanding bureaucratic empires.

Hillary’s plan will expand the subsidies for colleges and universities, but students apparently no longer will serve as the middlemen. Instead, the money will go directly from Uncle Sam to the schools.

Here’s some analysis from the Pope Center on Hillary’s new scheme.

Clinton has come out with a plan to make public colleges and universities free for families with earnings less than $125,000 annually by 2021. …“free” college…would depend on state governments going along with her scheme whereby the federal government would pay them if they cooperate by charging no tuition… Suppose a state decides to adopt Clinton’s free college plan. What would the consequences be? …That would mean at least a modest increase in enrollment, but it would come mainly from the most academically marginal students. The colleges and universities that gained in those enrollments would also find they need to increase remedial programs. …Another adverse result from making college tuition free would be that many students would devote less effort to their courses. …Federal Reserve Bank of New York economist Aysegul Sahin…studied the effort college students put into their work in a 2004 paper“The Incentive Effects of Higher Education Subsidies on Student Effort.” She concluded, “Low-tuition, high-subsidy policies cause an increase in the ratio of less highly-motivated students among the college graduates and that even highly-motivated ones respond to lower tuition by choosing to study less.”

As with much of Hillary’s agenda, we don’t have full details. I strongly suspect that colleges and universities will have a big incentive to jack up tuition and fees to take advantage of the new handout, though I suppose we have to consider the possibility (fantasy?) that the plan will somehow include safeguards to prevent that from happening.

Oh, and don’t forget all the tax hikes she’s proposing to finance bigger government.

The really sad part about all this is that her husband actually wound up being one of the most market-oriented presidents in the post-World War II era. I’ve written on this topic several times (including speculation on whether the credit actually belongs to the post-1994 GOP Congress).

Is it possible that Hillary decides to “triangulate” and move to the center if she gets to the White House?

Yes, but I’m not brimming with optimism.

The Wall Street Journal has some depressing analysis on Bill Clinton vs Hillary Clinton.

…the Obama-era Democratic Party has repudiated the Democratic Party’s Bill-era centrist agenda. They now call themselves progressives, not New Democrats… The Clinton contradiction is that she claims she’ll produce economic results like her husband did with economic policies like Mr. Obama’s.

The editorial looks at Bill Clinton’s sensible record and compares it to what Hillary is proposing.

His wife wants to nearly double the top tax rate on long-term cap gains to 43.4% from 23.8%, in the name of ending “quarterly capitalism.” That’s higher than the 40% rate under Jimmy Carter, and she’d also impose a minimum tax on millionaires and above, details to come. …Mrs. Clinton has repudiated the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership that she had praised as Secretary of State. …She wants to extend Dodd-Frank regulation to nonbanks, and she promises to entrench Mr. Obama’s anticarbon central planning at the EPA and expand ObamaCare with price controls on new medicines. …Mrs. Clinton is proposing to impose many more such work disincentives. She’ll bestow tax credits on everything from child care to elderly care, from college tuition to businesses that share profits with workers. To the extent her new mandates for family leave, the minimum wage, overtime and “equal pay” increase the cost of labor, she’ll drive more Americans out of the workforce. Oh, and…Mrs. Clinton wants to “enhance” Social Security benefits and make Medicare available to pre-retirees.

I’ve already written about her irresponsible approach to Social Security.

And I also opined on the issue in this interview.

The bottom line is that we’re in a very deep hole and Hillary Clinton, simply for reasons of personal ambition, wants to dig the hole deeper. As I remarked in the interview, she’s akin to a Greek politician agitating for more spending in 2007.

Given all this, is anyone surprised that “French President Francois Hollande endorsed Hillary Clinton”? What’s next, a pro-Hillary campaign commercial featuring Nicolas Maduro? A direct mail piece from the ghost of Che Guevara?

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I’m like a broken record when it comes to entitlement spending. I’ve explained, ad nauseam, that programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, and Social Security must be reformed.

In part, genuine entitlement reform is a good idea because you get better economic performance when you replace tax-and-transfer schemes with private savings and competitive markets.

Demographic 2030But reform also is desperately needed because of changing demographics. Simply stated, leaving all the entitlement programs on autopilot is a recipe for a Greek-style fiscal crisis.

If you want a rigorous explanation of the issue, my colleague Jeff Miron has a must-read monograph on the topic. You should peruse the entire study, but here’s the key conclusion if you’re pressed for time.

…this paper projects fiscal imbalance as of every year between 1965 and 2014, using data-supported assumptions about gross domestic product (GDP) growth, revenue, and trends in mandatory spending on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other programs. The projections reveal that the United States has faced a growing fiscal imbalance since the early 1970s, largely as a consequence of continuous growth in mandatory spending. As of 2014, the fiscal imbalance stands at $117.9 trillion, with few signs of future improvement even if GDP growth accelerates or tax revenues increase relative to historic norms. Thus the only viable way to restore fiscal balance is to scale back mandatory spending policies, particularly on large health care programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Jeff’s report is filled with sobering charts. I’ve picked out three that deserve special attention.

First, here’s a look back in history at the growing fiscal burden of entitlement programs.

Second, here’s a look forward at how the fiscal burden of entitlement programs will get even worse in coming decades.

Keep in mind, by the way, that the two above charts only show the fiscal burden of entitlement programs (sometimes referred to as “mandatory spending” since the laws “mandate” that money be given to anyone who is “entitled” based on various criteria).

When you add discretionary (annually appropriated) spending to the mix, as well as interest that is paid on the national debt, the numbers get even more grim.

Jeff adds everything together and shows, for each year between 1965 and 2014, the “present value” of the gap between what the government is promising to spend and how much revenue it is projected to collect.

These numbers are especially horrific because “present value” is a measure of how much money the government would have to somehow obtain and set aside in order to have a nest egg capable of offsetting future deficits.

Needless to say, the federal government did not have access to $118 trillion (yes, trillion with a “t”) in 2014. And if there were updated numbers for 2015 and 2016 (which would probably be even higher than $118 trillion), the federal government still wouldn’t have access to that amount of money either.

Especially since the total annual output of the American economy is about $18 trillion.

So now you can understand why international bureaucracies like the IMF, BIS, and OECD estimate that the fiscal challenge in the United States may be even bigger than the problems in decrepit welfare states such as France and Italy.

Let’s get another perspective on the issue. James Capretta of the Ethics and Public Policy Center warns about the scope of the problem.

Despite what presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have been saying on the campaign trail, the need to reform the nation’s major entitlement programs cannot be wished away. The primary cause of the nation’s fiscal problems, now and in the future, is the rapid rise in entitlement spending. In 1970, spending on Social Security and the major health care entitlement programs was 3.6 percent of GDP. In 2015, spending on these programs was 10.3 percent of GDP. By 2040, CBO expects spending on these programs to reach 14.2 percent of GDP. …entitlement reform is needed to put the federal government’s finances on a more stable foundation.

He outlines his preferred reforms, some of which I heartily embrace and some of what I think are too timid, but the key point is that he succinctly explains the need to act soon to avoid a giant long-term problem.

…reforms are not intended to create budgetary balance in the short-run. Large-scale change cannot be implemented in the major programs without significant transition periods, which means the reforms need to be enacted soon to reduce costs in fifteen, twenty, and twenty-five years. Skeptics may say it’s pointless to worry about fiscal problems that are more than twenty years off. They’re wrong. …The result is a misallocation of resources that undermines long-term economic growth. …Entitlement reform is an absolute necessity, as will soon become evident to everyone, one way or another.

The recent testimony by Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute also is must reading.

In just two generations, the government…has effectively become an entitlements machine. …transfers have become a major component in the family budget of the average American household-and our dependence on these government transfers continues to rise. …Fifty years into our great social experiment of massive expansion of entitlement programs, there is ample evidence to indicate that the unintended consequences of this reconfigutation of American political and economic life have been major and adverse.

You should read the entire testimony, which is a comprehensive explanation of how entitlements are eroding American exceptionalism.

And I’ve previously shared some of Eberstadt’s work on the growing dependency crisis in America.

In effect, our “social capital” of self reliance and the work ethic is being replaced by an entitlement mentality.

At the risk of understatement, that won’t end well. Heck, I don’t know which part is more depressing, the ever-growing burden of spending or the fact that more and more Americans think it’s okay to live off the labor of others.

All I can say for sure is that this combination never was, is not now, and never will be a recipe for national success.

Let’s conclude with some sage observations by George Melloan of the Wall Street Journal. He summarizes the problem as being a combination of too much spending and too little political courage. Here’s the too-much-spending part.

…we seem richer than we actually are because we have borrowed so heavily from future generations. …the nation’s slow growth and rising debt are already reducing the opportunities for upward mobility. …Recent projections of the future cost of current government obligations certainly won’t relieve…people’s worries. Those promises have expanded far beyond any reasonable projection of the government’s ability to extract enough revenue to cover them. …The Congressional Budget Office projects a steady rise in “mandatory” (i.e., entitlement) costs as a share of GDP out into the distant future. …The upshot: Americans are deep in debt, mainly thanks to government excesses.

And here’s the too-little-political-courage part.

The only real answer is that the entitlement programs will have to be reformed, and sooner better than later, because the longer reform is postponed the greater the fiscal imbalance will become and the greater its drain will be… Donald Trump is out to lunch on this issue, as he is on most questions that require more than a fatuous sound-bite answer. As for Hillary…, forget about it.

Sigh, how depressing. It seems like America will be “Europeanized.”

For additional background on the issue of debt, unfunded liabilities, and present value, this video is a great tutorial.

P.S. I must have taken LSD or crack earlier this year. That’s the only logical explanation for saying I was optimistic about entitlement reform.

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The Social Security Administration has released the 2016 Trustees Report, which shines a spotlight on the overall fiscal condition of the program.

In previous years (2012, 2013, 2014), I’ve used this opportunity to play Paul Revere. But instead of warning that the British are coming, I sound the alarm about a future fiscal crisis resulting from demographic change and poorly designed entitlement programs.

Which is what I did in this interview on Fox Business.

It wasn’t a long interview, but I had the opportunity to touch on four very important issues.

First, I explained that the Social Security Trust Fund is nothing but a pile of IOUs. It’s money the government owes itself, which means that the bonds in the Trust Fund can only be turned into real money by taking more from the private sector.

But if you don’t trust me, perhaps you’ll believe the Clinton Administration, which admitted back in 1999 (see page 337) that the Trust Fund is just a bookkeeping gimmick.

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.

In other words, the Trust Fund is like putting IOUs to yourself in a college fund. When it’s time for junior to start his freshman year, you’ll have to find the money to cash those IOUs.

Second, Social Security already is in the red and the rising burden of spending for the program will lead to huge fiscal shortfalls.

Here’s a chart, based directly on the data from Table VI.G9 of the Trustees Report, showing the annual deficit in the program based on today’s dollars.

Third, it’s grossly irresponsible for politicians such as Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton to agitate for higher spending in the program.

Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute weighed in on this issue earlier this year. Here’s some of what he wrote in a column for the Wall Street Journal.

Mrs. Clinton would raise retirement payments for widows as well as provide Social Security credits for individuals who take time out of the workforce to care for a child or an infirm adult.

Andrew points out that Hillary also has expressed support for increases in the payroll tax rate and letting the government impose the tax on a greater share of income.

Mrs. Clinton…has recently spoken in favor of both approaches.

By the way, the latter option is especially dangerous for the economy, as explained in this video.

Fourth, Social Security is in bad shape, but the main long-run entitlement challenge comes from health-related programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare.

In other words, we need comprehensive long-run entitlement reform if we don’t want to become Greece.

P.S. For reasons that I’ve already covered, I didn’t like being called a “deficit hawk” by the host.

P.P.S. While proponents deserve credit for being serious, I think the Simpson-Bowles plan leaves a lot to be desired.

P.P.P.S. Here’s the right way to fix Social Security.

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Changing demographics is one of the most powerful arguments for genuine entitlement reform.

When programs such as Social Security and Medicare (and equivalent systems in other nations) were first created, there were lots of young people and comparatively few old people.

And so long as a “population pyramid” was the norm, reasonably sized welfare states were sustainable (though still not desirable because of the impact on labor supply, savings rates, tax policy, etc).

In most parts of the world, however, demographic profiles have changed. Because of longer life expectancy and falling birth rates, population pyramids are turning into population cylinders.

This is one of the reasons why there is a fiscal crisis in Southern European nations such as Greece. And there’s little reason for optimism since the budgetary outlook will get worse in those countries as their versions of baby-boom generations move into full retirement.

But while Southern Europe already has been hit, and while the long-run challenge in Northern European nations such as France has received a lot of attention, there’s been inadequate focus on the problem in Eastern Europe.

The fact that there’s a major problem surprises some people. After all, isn’t the welfare state smaller in these countries? Haven’t many of them adopted pro-growth reforms such as the flat tax? Isn’t Eastern Europe a success story considering that the region was enslaved by communism for many decades?

To some degree, the answer to those questions is yes. But there are two big challenges for the region.

First, while the fiscal burden of government may not be as high in some Eastern European countries as it is elsewhere on the continent (damning with faint praise), those nations tend to rank lower for other factors that determine overall economic freedom, such as regulation and the rule of law.

Looking at the most-recent edition of Economic Freedom of the World, there are nine Western European nations among the top 30 countries: Switzerland (#4), Ireland (#8), United Kingdom (#10), Finland (#19), Denmark (#22), Luxembourg (#27), Norway (#27), Germany (#29), and the Netherlands (#30).

For Eastern Europe, by contrast, the only representatives are Romania (#17), Lithuania (#19), and Estonia (#22).

Second, Eastern Europe has a giant demographic challenge.

Here’s what was recently reported by the Financial Times.

Eastern Europe’s population is shrinking like no other regional population in modern history. …a population drop throughout a whole region and over decades has never been observed in the world since the 1950s with the exception of…Eastern Europe over the last 25 consecutive years.

Here’s the chart that accompanied the article. It shows the population change over five-year periods, starting in 1955. Eastern Europe (circled in the lower right) is suffering a population hemorrhage.

By the way, it’s not like the trend is about to change.

If you look at global fertility data, these nations all rank near the bottom. And they also suffer from brain drain since a very smart person, even from fast-growing, low-tax Estonia, generally can enjoy more after-tax income by moving to an already-rich nation such as Switzerland or the United Kingdom.

So what’s the moral of the story? What lessons can be learned?

There are actually three answers, only two of which are practical.

  • First, Eastern European nations can somehow boost birthrates. But nobody knows how to coerce or bribe people to have more children.
  • Second, Eastern European nations can engage in more reform to improve overall economic liberty and thus boost growth rates.
  • Third, Eastern European nations can copy Hong Kong and Singapore (both very near the bottom for fertility) by setting up private retirement systems.

The second option obviously is good, and presumably would reduce – and perhaps ultimately reverse – the brain drain.

But the third option is the one that’s absolutely required.

The good news is that there’s been some movement in that direction. But the bad news is that reform has taken place only in some nations, and usually only partial privatization, and in some cases (like Poland and Hungary) the reforms have been reversed.

And even if full pension reform is adopted, there’s still the harder-to-solve issue of government-run healthcare.

Eastern Europe has a very grim future.

P.S. I’m a great fan of the reforms that have been adopted in some of the nations in Eastern Europe, but none of them are small-government jurisdictions. Yes, the welfare state in Eastern European countries is generally smaller than in Western European nations, but it’s worth noting that every Eastern European nation in the OECD (Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia) has a larger burden of government spending than the United States.

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Maybe future events will require a reassessment, but right now the biggest danger to the western world isn’t terrorism. Nor is it climate change. Or Zika. Or even Donald Trump.

The real threat is demographic change.

America’s population profile already has changed, but the future shift will be even more dramatic.

But demographics changes are neither good nor bad. The real problem, as I pointed out last month, is when you combine an aging population with poorly designed entitlement programs.

…even a small welfare state becomes a problem when a nation has a population cylinder. Simply stated, there aren’t enough people to pull the wagon and there are too many people riding in the wagon.

That’s a recipe for a crisis.

Here are some sobering details from a story in Business Insider.

The world is about to see a mind-blowing demographic situation that will be a first in human history: There are about to be more elderly people than young children. …And these two age groups will continue to grow in opposite directions: The proportion of the population ages 65 and up will continue to increase, while the proportion of the population ages 5 and under will continue decreasing. In fact, according to the Census Bureau, by 2050 those ages 65 and up will make up an estimated 15.6% of the global population — more than double that of children ages 5 and under, who will make up an estimated 7.2%. “This unique demographic phenomenon of the ‘crossing’ is unprecedented,” the report’s authors said.

Here’s the chart that accompanied the story.

And as you look at the numbers, keep in mind that entitlement programs mean that a growing population of old people means more spending, while a shrinking number of children means fewer future taxpayers to finance that spending.

Let’s now look at a nation that is the “canary in the coal mine” for why changing demographics is a recipe for fiscal crisis.

A story from The Week highlights the grim demographic outlook for Japan.

Japan is us, and we’re Japan. …Japan has a…serious problem on its hands: The country is literally dying. According to current projections, by 2060 the country will have shrunk by a third, and people over 65 years old will account for 40 percent of the population. Already, the country is selling more adult diapers than infant diapers. To say this is unsustainable is a euphemism. The country is quite simply dying. …Demography is not destiny, exactly, but it is close to it. …the impending collapse can no longer be denied, as is the case in Japan and Germany. …The extinction of a people and culture is always a global tragedy. It’s time for Japan — and the West — to wake up.

A wake-up call is needed. It’s not just Japan. The entire developed world faces a demographic problem.

The good news is that there is an understanding that something needs to change.

The not-so-good news is that many of the responses are misguided. Cheered on by the OECD, Japan has been boosting the value-added tax in hopes of financing an ever-expanding burden of government spending.

That won’t end well.

And I’m not overly enthralled by some of the other proposals.

Why not just pay people to have children? …If you lower the price of something, you will get more of it. Over the past two decades, Japan has spent trillions of dollars on mostly wasteful pork-barrel spending projects. It seems to me that the country would be better off today if that money had been spent on bonuses for second and third children instead.

For what it’s worth, I agree that giving money to parents would have been better than the various Keynesian spending binges (some of which are downright nuts) that have taken place in Japan.

But I’m not confident that child subsidies are an effective or desirable long-run solution to the nation’s demographic situation.

The one option that would work is to reform entitlement programs. Hong Kong’s demographic outlook is even more challenging than Japan’s, yet it is in much better long-run shape because it has a more sensible approach to entitlements, including a private Social Security system.

P.S. Every so often, a celebrity from the entertainment world has an epiphany about greedy and corrupt government. It definitely happened for Jon Lovitz, Will Smith, and Rob Schneider. And it might be happening for George Lopez.

Newsbusters has the details.

In a recent radio interview for BigBoyTV, comedian George Lopez let us all know that he’s endorsing Senator Bernie Sanders, while paradoxically, making it known he doesn’t want to pay any more taxes.

Here’s what he specifically said.

I endorsed Bernie Sanders. But really just to… I mean it’s cool. I can’t pay any more taxes, it’s ridiculous. But, so, we’ll figure it out.

Huh?!? He’s getting pillaged by the tax code yet he’s supporting a candidate who wants giant tax hikes. I guess his epiphany needs more clarity.

P.P.S. I admit these examples are all sarcastic, but Obama could have a Hollywood career after leaving office.

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The welfare state is bad news. It’s bad for taxpayers and it’s bad for recipients.

It’s also bad for the economy since prosperity is in part a function of the quantity of labor that is productively employed. As such, government programs that lure people into dependency obviously reduce national economic output.

We can get a sense of how the nation is being hurt by reviewing some of the scholarly literature.

Writing for the Cato Journal, Lowell Gallaway and Daniel Garrett explore the relationship between redistribution spending and poverty reduction.

They start by pointing out that more welfare spending used to be associated with reductions in poverty. But when President Johnson launched his so-called War on Poverty and dramatically increased the level of redistribution, the link between welfare spending and poverty reduction substantially weakened.

…the real per capita cost in the United States of federal public aid rose 70 percent in the 11 years between 1953—the first year the federal government reported an official poverty rate—and Johnson’s 1964 remarks. In the 11 years that followed, however, that same real per capita cost increased by an astonishing 434 percent—that is, more than six times faster than in 1953–64. …in 1953–64, every 10 percentage point increase in public aid was associated with a 1 percentage point drop in the official poverty rate. Compare that with the experience of the 11 years following the outbreak of hostilities in the War on Poverty. During that interval, every 1 percentage point fall in the poverty rate was accompanied by a 50 percentage point increase in real public aid. …the relationship between public aid and the poverty rate is subject to the principle of diminishing returns.

Not just a diminishing return. There’s a point at which more redistribution actually leads to an increase in poverty.

Just like there’s a point at which higher tax rates lead to less revenue. And the authors recognize this link.

This is a Laffer Curve type relationship, which is to say that while public aid initially decreases poverty, there eventually comes a point at which additional increases in public aid increase poverty. …the effectiveness of additional real public aid expenditures, as a policy instrument designed to reduce the poverty rate, had been exhausted by the mid-1970s. Indeed, any additional public aid beyond the mid-1970s levels would result in an increase, not a decrease, in the poverty rate.

Gallaway and Garrett crunch the numbers.

…to calculate the impact of public aid expenditures on the incidence of poverty in the United States. The greatest poverty-reducing effect occurs at $1,291 of per capita expenditures on public aid, which produces a 6.07 percentage point reduction in the overall poverty rate. However, as the level of real per capita public aid rises beyond $1,291, the poverty reducing effect is eroded. …at $2,407 of per capita public aid, all of the initial reductions in the poverty rate have disappeared. …By 2010, real per capita aid stood at $2,697—a level that produces a 2.52 percentage point increase in the poverty rate. Thus, the impact of per capita public aid in 2010 being $1,406 greater than the optimal, poverty-reducing level was to increase the poverty rate by 8.59 percentage points, according to our analysis.

Here’s the relevant table from their article.

Unfortunately, they didn’t create a hypothetical curve to show these numbers, so we don’t have the welfare/poverty version of the Laffer Curve.

But they do estimate the negative human impact of excessive redistribution spending.

Since the official poverty rate in 2010 was 15.1 percent, this implies that in the absence of that extra $1,406 of per capita public aid, the official poverty rate in 2010 would have been 6.5 percent. …Taking dynamic factors into consideration would probably lower the figure to less than 6 percent. This implies that the actual poverty rate in 2010 was more than two and-one-half times higher than it could have been were it not for the excessive use of public aid income transfers as an instrument of policy. In other words, it may be argued that public aid overreach was responsible for approximately 30 million extra people living in poverty in 2010.

And children are among the biggest victims.

…one in every eight American children is living below the poverty line because public aid payments exceed the level that would minimize the poverty rate.

Ugh, this is terrible news. Children raised in government-dependent households are significantly more likely to suffer adverse life outcomes, in large part because of very poor social capital.

Last but not least, the authors also speculate that excessive redistribution may be one of the reasons why the distribution of income has shifted.

…up to the mid- 1970s, government cash income transfers (public aid) were increasing the incomes of those in the bottom quintile of the income distribution by more than work-disincentive effects were reducing them. The result was a reduction in the official poverty rate. …However, as the volume of public aid payments continued to increase, the work-disincentive effect more than offset the income enhancements generated by the flow of public aid. As this happened, the poverty rate began to drift upward and the percentage share of all income received by those in the bottom quintile of the income distribution began what would turn out to be a long and steady decline.

By the way, I don’t think that there’s a “correct” or “proper” level of income distribution. That should be a function of what people contribute to economic output. I’m concerned instead with boosting growth so everyone has a chance to rise.

Which is why it is especially tragic that redistribution spending is trapping less-fortunate people in long-term government dependency by undermining their incentives to earn income.

The bottom line is that it’s time to reduce – and ideally eliminate – the Washington welfare state.

Though that involves a major challenge since the real beneficiaries of the current system are the “poverty pimps” in Washington.

P.S. This Wizard-of-Id parody contains a lot of insight about labor supply and government-distorted incentives. As does this Chuck Asay cartoon and this Robert Gorrell cartoon.

P.P.S. If you want to see sloppy and biased analysis (paid for with your tax dollars), take a look at efforts to rationalize that redistribution is good for growth from the International Monetary Fund and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

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The most depressing data about America’s economy is not the top tax rate, the regulatory burden, or the level of wasteful of government spending.

Those numbers certainly are grim, but I think they’re not nearly as depressing as America’s demographic outlook.

As you can see from this sobering image, America’s population pyramid is turning into a population cylinder.

There’s nothing a priori wrong with an aging population and a falling birthrate, of course, but those factors create a poisonous outlook when mixed with poorly designed entitlement programs.

The lesson is that a modest-sized welfare state is sustainable (even if not advisable) when a nation has a population pyramid. But even a small welfare state becomes a problem when a nation has a population cylinder. Simply stated, there aren’t enough people to pull the wagon and there are too many people riding in the wagon.

But if America’s numbers are depressing, the data from Europe should lead to mass suicide.

The Wall Street Journal has a new story on the utterly dismal fiscal and demographic data from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

State-funded pensions are at the heart of Europe’s social-welfare model, insulating people from extreme poverty in old age. Most European countries have set aside almost nothing to pay these benefits, simply funding them each year out of tax revenue. Now, European countries face a demographic tsunami, in the form of a growing mismatch between low birthrates and high longevity, for which few are prepared. …Looking at Europeans 65 or older who aren’t working, there are 42 for every 100 workers, and this will rise to 65 per 100 by 2060, the European Union’s data agency says. …Though its situation is unusually dire, Greece isn’t the only European government being forced to acknowledge it has made pension promises it can ill afford. …Across Europe, the birthrate has fallen 40% since the 1960s to around 1.5 children per woman, according to the United Nations. In that time, life expectancies have risen to roughly 80 from 69. …Only a few countries estimate the total debt burden of the pension promises they have made.

The various nations is Europe may not produce the data, but one of the few good aspects of international bureaucracies is that they generate such numbers.

I’ve previously shared projections from the IMF, BIS, and OECD, all of which show the vast majority of developed nations will face serious fiscal crises in the absence of reforms to restrain the burden of government spending.

New we can add some data from the European Commission, which has an Ageing Report that is filled with some horrifying demographic and fiscal information.

First, here are the numbers showing that most parts of the world (and especially Europe) will have many more old people but a lot fewer working-age people.

Looking specifically at the European Union, here’s what will happen to the population pyramid between 2013 and 2060. As you can see, the pyramid no longer exists today and will become an upside-down pyramid in the future.

Now let’s look at data on the ratio between old people and working-age people in various EU nations.

Dark blue shows the recent data, medium blue is the dependency ratio in 2030, and the light blue shows the dependency ration in 2060.

The bottom line is that it won’t be long before any two working-age people in the EU will be expected to support themselves plus one old person. That necessarily implies a very onerous tax burden.

But the numbers actually are even more depressing than what is shown in the above chart.

In the European Commission’s Ageing Report, there’s an estimate of the “economic dependency ratio,” which compares the number of workers with the number of people supported by those workers.

The total economic dependency ratio is a more comprehensive indicator, which is calculated as the ratio between the total inactive population and employment (either 20-64 or 20-74). It gives a measure of the average number of individuals that each employed “supports”.

And here are the jaw-dropping numbers.

These numbers are basically a death knell for an economy. The tax burden necessary for this kind of society would be ruinous to an  economy. A huge share of productive people in these nations would decide not to work or to migrate where they would have a chance to keep a decent share of their earnings.

So now you understand why I wrote a column identifying safe havens that might remain stable while other nations are suffering Greek-style fiscal collapse.

Having shared all this depressing data, allow me to close with some semi-optimistic data.

I recently wrote that Hong Kong’s demographic outlook is far worse than what you find in Europe, but I explained that this won’t cause a crisis because Hong Kong wisely has chosen not to adopt a welfare state. People basically save for their own retirement.

Well, a handful of European nations have taken some steps to restrain spending. Here’s a table from the EC report on countries which have rules designed to adjust outlays as the population gets older.

These reforms are better than nothing, but the far better approach is a shift to a system of private retirement savings.

As you can see from this chart, Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands already have a large degree of mandatory private retirement savings, and a handful of other countries have recently adopted private Social Security systems that will help the long-run outlook.

I’ve already written about the sensible “pre-funded” system in The Netherlands, and there are many other nations (ranging from Australia to Chile to the Faroe Islands) that have implemented this type of reform.

Given all the other types of government spending across the Atlantic, Social Security reform surely won’t be a sufficient condition to save Europe, but it surely is a necessary condition.

Here’s my video explaining why such reform is a good idea, both in America and every other place in the world.

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I’m in Hong Kong for series of meeting and briefings on various economic and policy issues.

As you can imagine, I’m a huge fan of the jurisdiction’s simple 15 percent flat tax. It’s basically about as close to a pure flat tax as anyplace in the world. There is zero double taxation of income that is saved and invested.

That’s not an exaggeration. You don’t get double taxed on the interest you earn on your bank balances and other financial accounts. There’s no capital gains tax. There’s no death tax. And there’s no double taxation of dividends.

There are only a few deviations from a pure flat tax that even merit a mention. First, taxpayers with modest amounts of income don’t have to use the flat tax system. Instead, they can opt for a “progressive” tax system that has a top rate of 17 percent, but also has tax rates of 2 percent and 7 percent, and 12 percent.

Imagine, taxpayers getting to choose the system that works best for them, instead of the government forcing them into the system that requires the highest payment!

The other deviations are that businesses are not always allowed full expensing of business investment, and there also are a handful of deductions.

All things considered, though, Hong Kong gets almost everything right on tax policy, whereas the United States gets a majority of things wrong.

Oh, and I should mention that there are no payroll taxes in Hong Kong. Nor is there a value-added tax.

That’s all very impressive, but let’s actually focus on something that may be even more remarkable about Hong Kong.

It currently has a modest-sized government, with spending consuming less than 20 percent of economic output. That’s not as good as the United States 100 years ago, but it’s far better than where America is today.

That being said, Hong Kong has some major challenges. I’ve explained before that demographic changes will put pressure on fiscal policy in America, but demographic change is far more profound in Hong Kong.

As you can see from this data, it has the seventh-highest level of life expectancy in the world.

That’s good news, of course, but it does mean a lot of fiscal pressure, even for a jurisdiction that is justly famous for its very small welfare state.

But then you have to consider the fact that Hong Kong also has the fourth-lowest birthrate in the entire world.

In other words, Hong Kong faces a perfect storm of demographics. More and more non-working elderly over time, combined with fewer and fewer taxpayers to pull the wagon.

Given these unfriendly numbers, the Hong Kong government put together a working group to look at long-run fiscal issues.

In its recent report, the group presented a fiscal forecast that shows how the burden of government spending will slowly climb to nearly 24 percent of GDP over the next 25 years.

Here’s a chart showing actual data starting in the late 1990s and then projections until 2042.

To those of us from North America and Western Europe, where the overall burden of government spending, on average, consumes more than 40 percent of economic output, it seems like Hong Kong has a trivial problem.

But it’s still a problem and something has to change. Hong Kong could finance a bigger public sector by dipping into its large reserves (currently the jurisdiction has saved enough money to finance about two years of government spending) or by increasing the tax burden.

But hopefully Hong Kong will abide by Article 107 of its Basic Law (its constitution) and limit government spending so that it doesn’t grow faster than the private economy.

And there are some positive signs.

About 15 years ago, Hong Kong set up a system of private retirement accounts in order to create a self-funded source of retirement income.

Based on a recent government report on retirement income, here are some key features of this Mandatory Provident Fund (MPF) system.

The MPF System is an employment-based, privately-managed mandatory defined contribution system. …Employers are required under the Mandatory Provident Fund Schemes Ordinance (Cap. 485) to arrange for their employees aged 18 or above but under 65 to join… The MPF System has been implemented for 15 years only. …about 2.55 million employees are enrolled in MPF schemes, representing 100% of the employees required by law to join the schemes. This is a very high rate by international standards. In addition, another 210 000 self-employed persons are also scheme members. …An employer and an employee are each required to contribute 5% of the relevant employee’s income… As at end October 2015, MPF assets had increased to $594.2 billion, of which about $123.1 billion were investment returns.

Here’s a chart from the report, showing the cumulative growth of assets, based on both contributions and investment returns.

Keep in mind, though, that it takes 7.8 Hong Kong dollars to equal 1 U.S. dollar, so $594.2 billion is not nearly as large as it sounds.

In part, this is because the system isn’t yet mature. Workers have only been making contributions from 15 years, while a working lifetime is 40-45 years.

But there also are concerns that the level of mandatory saving is insufficient. Here’s additional language from the report, which cites the private retirement systems in Australia and Denmark.

There are views that the contribution rate or the maximum relevant income level should be raised to strengthen the retirement protection function of the MPF System. Take the privately-managed mandatory occupational contributory pension plans in Denmark and Australia as examples. In Denmark, employers and employees generally contribute a total of 9% to 17%. In Australia, only employers make contributions and the contribution rate will be raised progressively from 9% in 2013 to the present 9.5% and further to 12% in 2025.

I’m personally agnostic on the precise level of mandatory savings. My goal is simply to shrink tax-and-transfer entitlement programs, particularly before demographic changes lead to a larger burden of government spending.

And since I have great fondness for Hong Kong (how can you not get a thrill up your leg about a jurisdiction that routinely gets the highest score in Economic Freedom of the World?), I want it to remain a beacon for advocates of economic liberty.

P.S. Lest anyone think I’m being too fawning, Hong Kong has several policies that are misguided. Public housing is pervasive, there’s government-run healthcare, and one peculiar legacy of British rule is that only one piece of land is privately owned. Fixing these warts would make Hong Kong even more vibrant.

P.P.S. Another quirky feature of Hong Kong policy is that currency is issued by private banks. If you pull a $20 bill from your wallet, you’ll see that it was printed by HSBC, Standard Chartered, or Bank of China. Unfortunately, this isn’t because Hong Kong has a market-driven system of competing currencies. But it does have a currency board, which – by standards of government-controlled monetary systems – is one of the least-worst options. Of course, that means Hong Kong’s money is only as good as the currency to which it’s linked. And since the Hong Kong dollar is pegged to the U.S. dollar, that might be a cause for long-run concern.

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If pessimism was an Olympic event, I used to think I might be favored to win a medal. After all, growing levels of dependency outside of Washington and rampant corruption inside of Washington sometimes lead me to conclude that America is doomed to a Greek fiscal future.

But compared to some people, maybe I’m just an amateur Cassandra. Or even a Pollyanna.

Holman Jenkins of the Wall Street Journal has an ultra-pessimistic column today arguing that “many of us believe the entitlement programs need to be reformed” but worrying about “Republicans who pose as ‘conservative’ defenders of Social Security and Medicare.”

And part of his column is rather convincing since he points out that Donald Trump has criticized Republicans who favor reform.

…the meaning of Trumpism…goes like this: “…Every Republican wants to do a big number on Social Security, they want to do it on Medicare, they want to do it on Medicaid. And we can’t do that. And it’s not fair to the people that have been paying in for years and now all of the sudden they want [it] to be cut.” Mr. Trump is a political harbinger here of a new strand of populist Republicanism.

To be fair, Trump’s comments aren’t necessarily anti-reform. One could argue that he’s simply saying that benefits for existing retirees and older workers shouldn’t be adversely impacted.

But since “The Donald” hasn’t expressed any support for reforms that would create better and more viable options for younger workers, Jenkins is probably right to be pessimistic.

But he also argues that Tea Party-type Republicans are opposed to reform.

The tea party animus toward ObamaCare is…means-tested new entitlements…are viewed as a threat to the traditional, universal, “earned,” middle-class retirement programs of Social Security and Medicare. …The unspoken tea party stance of defending the good old-fashioned entitlements of “real” Americans is increasingly, in dog-whistle terms, what differentiates one Republican from another.

While it’s almost certainly true that there’s more animosity to redistribution-oriented programs such as Obamacare than there is to so-called earned entitlements, I think Holman misreads the Tea Party crowd.

Based on my speeches to – and other interactions with – these activists, I have never detected any measurable hostility to Social Security reform and Medicare reform. Fixing those programs may not be at the top of their agenda, but they’re not on the wrong side.

Moreover, I work closely with folks on Capitol Hill and I almost never hear about any meaningful opposition from Tea Partiers. And since House GOPers have approved budgets with genuine entitlement reform for five consecutive years, there’s been plenty of time for opposition to materialize.

Jenkins also is glum because Governor Christie, who has openly expressed support for reform, hasn’t fared well. And he notes that Senator Rubio has rejected reforms that would harm current seniors.

Chris Christie, who went nowhere in Iowa, did himself no favor by dragging Social Security and Medicare into every debate, however much those programs need to be addressed. Marco Rubio was just as quick to modify any implication that Republicans therefore are entitlement reformers: “We are talking about reforms for future generations. Nothing has to change for current beneficiaries. My mother is on Medicare and Social Security. I’m against anything that’s bad for my mother.”

I’m not a political expert, so I won’t pretend to know why Chris Christie didn’t get many votes in Iowa, but I don’t think it’s right to label Marco Rubio as an opponent. He’s been very upfront about supporting much-needed structural reform of Medicare and Medicaid. He simply doesn’t want to change the rules for existing retirees and older workers.

You can argue that such a condition makes it harder to save money in the short run, but I’m more concerned about dealing with the long-run fiscal challenge (as seen in these IMF, BIS, and OECD numbers). So Rubio’s position doesn’t strike me as a problem. Indeed, I think he’s pushed the envelope in the right direction, particularly since he comes from a state with so many seniors.

And since Ted Cruz also has said similar things about entitlement reform, that means both top-tier GOP candidates (other than Trump) are willing to do the right thing to restore fiscal sanity.

To be sure, maybe I am being naively optimistic. Perhaps Rubio or Cruz will win and will decide to kick the can down the road, even with a GOP Congress that might be primed for reform.

If that happens and we miss what may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for genuine entitlement reform, I’ll be very unhappy and Holman Jenkins will have demonstrated that pessimism is a much smarter assumption when contemplating the actions of politicians.

In which case my already-low opinion of politicians would drop to a record depth. And it also might be time to escape to a country that still has some sensible people and is less likely to suffer fiscal collapse.

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