Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Unfunded Liabilities’

I’m a long-time critic of the Federal Reserve, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac, but I had no idea they would produce something as bad as the 2008 financial meltdown. It’s not easy to predict the timing and severity of a crisis.

Unless we’re talking about the ticking time bomb described in this video.

In theory, of course, state politicians and their local counterparts are supposed to set aside enough money to pay the lavish future benefits they promise their bureaucrats.

Far too often, however, that doesn’t happen. And that means the governments (to be more accurate, their taxpayers) have a big “unfunded liability.”

This racket is a good deal for the bureaucrats – who get lots of pay now and lots of promised benefits in the future. And it’s a good deal for the state and local politicians who get votes and campaign contributions from the bureaucrats.

But, as explained in a new report from the American Legislative Exchange Council, it is a fiscal disaster that is going to explode at some point in the not-too-distant future.

Unfunded state pension liabilities total $4.9 trillion or $15,080 for every man, woman and child in the United States. State governments are often obligated, by contract and state constitutional law, to make these pension payments regardless of economic conditions. As these pension payments continue to grow, revenue that would have gone to essential services like public safety and education, or tax relief, goes to paying off these liabilities instead. …Most state pension plans are structured as defined-benefit plans. Under a defined-benefit plan, an employee receives a fixed payout at retirement based on the employee’s final average salary, the number of years worked and a benefit multiplier.

There are several ways to measure the degree to which a state has dug a big hole by promising big goodies to bureaucrats.

Figure 2 shows per-capita unfunded liabilities on a state-by-state basis. Tennessee is in the best shape, followed by Indiana and Wisconsin (thanks in part to former Governor Scott Walker). Alaska has the biggest fiscal hole, along with Illinois (no surprise) and Connecticut (no surprise).

It’s important to recognize, though, that some states have more income than others.

So in addition to a per-capita estimate of pension liabilities, here’s a map showing the burden as a share of each state’s economic output. Once again, Tennessee, Indiana (the #22 is a misprint), and Wisconsin rank the highest. Alaska stays at the bottom, joined by Mississippi and New Mexico.

Let’s also give credit and blame to states that are the top 10 and bottom 10 on each map.

In addition to Tennessee, Indiana, and Wisconsin, good states include Utah, Nebraska, South Dakota and Texas (honorable mention to Florida, which just missed).

Bad states are led by Alaska, with Nevada, New Mexico, Mississippi, Illinois, and Ohio also being governed by particularly short-sighted politicians.

So what’s the solution for the bad states? The ALEC report gives the answer.

Ultimately, one of the best ways to solve the pension crisis is to change the way pension plans are structured. Changing from the current defined-benefit system toward a defined-contribution system for new employees will improve the health of state pension plans by giving employees full control over their retirement savings.

By the way, it’s worth noting that blue states may have a bigger problem than red states, but this is a bipartisan mess.

In a recent column in the Wall Street Journal, Steve Malanga says there is plenty of blame to share.

The crisis in state pension systems is a result of decades of fiscal mismanagement. The problem, however, goes well beyond deeply indebted Illinois and New Jersey. Many state and municipal retirement funds have been on an unrelenting downward trajectory… This fiscal nightmare stems in part from politicians’ habit of increasing employee benefits while markets are booming, thereby squandering fund surpluses. …Politicians have consistently neglected to contribute to these systems even during good budgetary times, preferring to fund more popular programs. …Meanwhile, elected officials and pension administrators have endorsed overly optimistic economic assumptions that made their systems look affordable.

Let’s close today’s grim column with another way of measuring the problem.

Here’s a map from the Tax Foundation that shows how much money is set aside in pension programs compared to the level of benefits that bureaucrats are promised.

Looking at the data from this angle, Kentucky has the biggest hole, followed by New Jersey, Illinois (the only state to be in the bottom 10 on all three maps), and Connecticut, while the good states are led by Wisconsin, South Dakota, and Tennessee.

The bottom line is that some states have a very grim future, which is why even Warren Buffett is advising investors and entrepreneurs to steer clear of doing business in those places.

P.S. Unfortunately, you can’t avoid the massive unfunded liabilities of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid by moving across state lines.

Read Full Post »

When I put forth the “The Case for Social Security Personal Accounts” in early 2011, I pointed out that the program’s long-run fiscal shortfall was more than $27 trillion.

We should be so lucky to have that problem today.

The Social Security Administration just released the annual report on the program’s finances, so I went to to Table VI.G9 of the “Supplemental Single-Year Tables” to peruse the yearly projections for future revenue and spending (which are adjusted for inflation so we have a more accurate method for comparisons).

The bad news is that an ever-increasing amount of our income is going to be grabbed by payroll taxes. The worse news is that Social Security’s spending burden will climb at an even-faster rate (historical data to the left of the red line, future projections to the right of the red line).

For those who focus on the less-important issue of red ink, the gap between revenue and spending over the next 75 years is projected to reach $44.7 trillion.

The gap in this year’s report is not directly comparable to the number I cited in 2011, but there’s no question the program’s finances are heading in the wrong direction.

This is partly because Social Security – as a “pay-as-you-go” program – is very vulnerable to demographic changes.

Like other types of Ponzi Schemes, it can work so long as there are always more and more new people entering the system.

But America’s demographic profile is changing. We’re living longer and having fewer kids.

In a column for the Foundation for Economic Education, Daniel Kowalski has a summary of how the program works and why it has a grim future.

Social Security recipients are not paid with the money that the government deducted directly from them and their past employers. Instead that money was used to pay the benefits for past retirees, while current retired recipients are getting their money through Americans who are currently working and contributing to the system. …the first recipients of the Social Security program took out far more than they put in with the difference being made up by the fact that active workers then greatly outnumbered beneficiaries. In 1940 this was not an issue as there were 159 workers supporting one beneficiary. …By 1960, 15 years after President Roosevelt’s death, that ratio was reduced to 5 workers for every beneficiary. In 1980, the ratio dropped to just above three and in 2010 it dropped below that. …there is one thing that Millennials and Generation Z can do to prepare themselves for that day. Start saving and planning for retirement now and make a plan that does not count on a government-issued Social Security check.

He’s right, and his column doesn’t even address the other problem for young people, which is the fact that they get a rotten deal from the program, paying in record amounts of money in exchange for hollow promises of a meager monthly benefit.

By the way, the numbers in the two charts above are based on the Social Security Administration’s “intermediate” assumptions.

I’ve never had any reason to question the reasonableness of those numbers. But in a world with coronavirus, which is causing crippling short-run economic damage and could cause significant long-run harm, it may be more prudent to look at SSA’s “high-cost” assumptions.

The bottom line is that the program’s long-run shortfall could be more than $20 trillion higher.

And remember, these numbers are in 2020 dollars. In other words, adjusted for inflation.

So how do we solve this mess? How do we avoid a grim fiscal future?

Shifting to a system of personal retirement accounts would be the most prudent approach. Yes, there would be an enormous transition cost since we would need to pay benefits to current retirees and many older workers, but that transition cost would be less than the $44.7 trillion unfunded liability (or even more!) of the current system.

I’ve written many times about the benefits of personal accounts for the United States, but I find most people are more interested in real-world evidence. Here are just a few of the several dozen nations that either fully or partially utilize private savings instead of political promises.

P.S. Some folks in Washington want to exacerbate Social Security’s fiscal burden by expanding the program.

P.P.S. I hate to add to the bad news, but the long-run finances for Medicare and Medicaid are an even-bigger problem.

Read Full Post »

Back in 2013, I shared a poll to see who people would pick as their “favorite political cartoonist.” Michael Ramirez currently has the lead, which doesn’t surprise me when you look at options (here, here, here, and here) I provided.

But if there was a prize for the most depressingly accurate political cartoon, he also would win the prize for his depiction of what happens when state and local politicians “negotiate” compensation packages for bureaucrats.

Simply stated, politicians have a giant incentive to provide lavish benefits to interest groups that then recycle some of the loot back to elected officials in the form of campaign contributions.

But the real key to the scam is that the bill gets imposed on future generations.

The American Legislative Exchange Council has a must-read report on the giant funding gaps that this has produced in the pension plans for state and local government bureaucrats.

If net pension assets are determined using more realistic investment return assumptions, pension funding gaps are much wider than even the large sums reported in state financial documents. Unfunded liabilities (using a risk-free rate of return assumption) of state-administered pension plans now exceed $6 trillion—an increase of $433 billion since our 2016 report. The national average funding ratio is a mere 33.7 percent, amounting to $18,676 dollars of unfunded liabilities for every resident of the United States. …the personal share of liability for every resident in each state, an indicator of the severity of the taxes to be borne now or in the future by each taxpayer for promises made but not funded. In Alaska, each resident is on the hook for a staggering $45,689, the highest in the nation. Connecticut, Ohio, Illinois, and New Mexico follow for the five highest per person unfunded pension liabilities.

This map is the most important takeaway from the report. It shows which states have the highest per-capita unfunded liabilities.

I’m not surprised to see Alaska, Illinois, Connecticut, and New Jersey near the bottom of the rankings. All of them were choices in my poll on which state was “most likely to collapse.”

But perhaps New Mexico, Hawaii, and Ohio should have been on that list as well.

For further background on the issue, here are some passages from a pension primer published by Forbes.

Years ago, as an actuarial student, …I remember…first, the eye-popping idea that state constitutions promised state and local employees that they could keep their existing benefits, not just for past service accruals, but for all future years of employment; and, second, the notion that it was generally accepted for public plans to be un- or underfunded… this is the story that’s repeated over and over again.  Pensions are made more generous — with high accrual rates, low retirement eligibility ages, generous cost of living provisions — as a means of providing more generous compensation to state and local employees, without actually needing to pay anything from the current year’s budget.  Costs are deferred until well after current legislators have themselves retired. …pension debt is even worse than ordinary state debts, for instance, bond issues for building up infrastructure.  Pension debt is nothing other than borrowing to pay for present-day employee salaries.

In other words, bureaucrat pensions are a scam, an opportunity for politicians to buy off a powerful voting bloc today while imposing the bill on the future.

Bureaucrats are making out like bandits, as the New York Times recently reported.

A public university president in Oregon gives new meaning to the idea of a pensioner. Joseph Robertson, …who retired as head of the Oregon Health & Science University last fall, receives the state’s largest government pension. It is $76,111. Per month. That is considerably more than the average Oregon family earns in a year. Oregon — like many other states and cities, including New Jersey, Kentucky and Connecticut — is caught in a fiscal squeeze of its own making. Its economy is growing, but the cost of its state-run pension system is growing faster. More government workers are retiring, including more than 2,000, like Dr. Robertson, who get pensions exceeding $100,000 a year. The state is not the most profligate pension payer in America… “It’s an affront to everybody who pays taxes,” said Bruce Dennis, a retired carpenter from outside Portland who earned a $54,000-a-year pension by swinging a hammer for 45 years. No one gives him extra money.

But there’s a problem with this scam.

As Margaret Thatcher famously noted, sooner or later you run out of other people’s money.

And we’re getting to that point, as illustrated by this article for the Wall Street Journal. It cites what’s happening on the state level in Connecticut.

Connecticut has just 31.7% of what it needs to pay its employees’ future retirement benefits, according to state financial reports. A fund for teachers has 52.3%. Together, that adds up to more than $37 billion in unfunded pension liabilities, or about $10,300 per Connecticut resident. Connecticut’s unfunded pension liabilities resulted from nearly 40 years of politicians making promises about benefits without adequately funding them, according to a 2015 study by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

And it gives an example of trouble at the local level from a city in Michigan.

East Lansing, home of Michigan State University…is struggling with almost $125 million in unfunded pension and retiree health-care liabilities, has been cutting services… East Lansing asked MSU to pony up $100 million over 20 years to help shore up the city’s underfunded pension plan. The alternative, the city said, was asking voters to approve a 1% income tax that would hit university employees and working students. After negotiations went nowhere, the city brought the income-tax proposal before voters in a referendum last November. …On Nov. 7, East Lansing residents shot down the income-tax referendum, forcing the city to debate what services to cut to save money for the pension obligations. …The city hopes to shed another 17 police and fire positions over the next two years… Altmann suggested a long list of potential cuts to make more room in the budget for increased pension payments: closing the fire station on MSU’s campus, shuttering the city’s pool, aquatic center, dog park and soccer complex, suspending bulk leaf pickup and plowing of public sidewalks and ending annual jazz, folk, film and art festivals.

This is not going to end well.

And the problem seems to get worse every year.

Doesn’t matter who is slicing and dicing the data. The numbers always look grim.

When the next recession hits, many of these simmering problems are going to explode.

P.S. In addition to extravagant and unfunded pensions, don’t forget that state and local bureaucrats (and their federal cousins) are overpaid.

P.P.S. And if you don’t believe that they’re overpaid, then please explain why they don’t voluntarily leave their jobs for positions in the economy’s productive sector?

P.P.P.S. Also keep in mind that there are negative macroeconomic repercussions when bureaucrats are overpaid.

Read Full Post »

Perhaps because there’s no hope for genuine Obamacare repeal and limited hope for sweeping tax reform, I’m having to look outside of Washington for good news.

I wrote the other day about the very successful tax reforms in North Carolina. So now let’s travel to the Midwest.

The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page has a very upbeat assessment of Michigan’s turnaround, though it starts by noting that many states teach us lessons on what shouldn’t happen.

…states can provide instructive policy lessons for better and sometimes worse—see the fiscal crack-ups in Connecticut and Illinois.

I definitely agree about the fiscal disasters of Connecticut and Illinois. And Michigan used to be in that group.

Former Michigan Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm was a progressive specialist in using the tax code to politically allocate capital, which depressed and distorted business investment. Between 2002 and 2007, Michigan was the only state to experience zero economic growth. …misguided policies were arguably bigger contributors to Michigan’s slump. Between 2002 and 2007, Michigan’s manufacturing grew at a third of the rate of the Great Lakes region. …In 2007 Democrats increased the state income tax to 4.35% from 3.9%. They also enacted a new business tax with a 4.95% tax on income, a 0.8% gross-receipts tax, plus a 21.99% surcharge on business tax liability. …Michigan’s economy plunged amid the national recession with unemployment hitting 14.9% in June 2009.

But Michigan has experienced a remarkable turnaround in recent years.

Michigan…offers a case study in the pro-growth potential of business tax reform. …Mr. Snyder’s first major undertaking with his Republican legislature was to replace the cumbersome state business tax with a 6% corporate tax and trim the individual rate to 4.25%. Michigan’s corporate-tax ranking jumped to seventh from 49th in the Tax Foundation’s business tax climate rankings. …They also reformed state-worker pensions. After the 2012 midterm elections, Republicans passed right-to-work legislation that lets workers choose whether to join unions. In 2014 state voters approved a ballot measure backed by the governor to repeal the personal-property tax for small businesses and manufacturers.

These reforms already are paying dividends.

In 2011 Michigan added jobs for the first time in six years, and it has since led the Great Lakes region in manufacturing growth. Unemployment has fallen below the national average to 3.9% even as the labor-force participation rate has ticked up. …Unemployment in the Detroit metro area has fallen to 3.2% from 11.4% six years ago. Businesses in Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids say they can’t find enough workers. Perhaps they should try recruiting in Chicago or New Haven.

As a fiscal wonk, I’m delighted by tax cuts and tax reform. That being said, I want to specifically focus on the reform of bureaucrat pensions in the Wolverine State.

It was mentioned as an aside in the WSJ editorial, but it may be even more important than tax changes in the long run. We’ll start with a short video the Mackinac Center produced to helped stimulate debate.

Here’s some of what Investor’s Business Daily wrote about the recent reforms.

We’ll start with a description of the problem that existed.

For years, Michigan had been racking up pension liabilities for public school teachers that it had no money to pay for. By 2016, the state’s unfunded liability had reached $29 billion — which meant state was funding only 60% of its pension obligations. …Michigan is hardly the only state to have made this mistake. Pressured by public sector unions, state lawmakers boosted retirement benefits, using wildly unrealistic forecasts for investment returns and wage growth to justify them.

And here are the admirable reforms that were enacted.

So what did Michigan do to avoid Illinois’ fate? It embraced bold pension reforms that will protect taxpayers and provide a solid retirement benefit to teachers. …it’s shifting its public school teachers toward defined contribution plans. All new hires will be automatically enrolled in a 401(k)-type plan with a default 10% contribution rate. Teachers will still be able to opt for a traditional defined benefit pension, but one that splits costs 50-50 between workers and the state, and includes safeguards that will prevent the funding ratio from dropping below 85%.

The experts at Reason also weighed in on the topic.

Pension analysts from the Reason Foundation (which publishes this blog and advocated for passage of SB 401) say no other state in the country has embraced reforms that go as far as Michigan’s. …new hires will be enrolled in a 401(k)-style pension plan, giving those workers the chance to control their own retirement planning while removing the threat of future unfunded liabilities. …What makes the Michigan proposal unique is it allows future hires to choose a so-called “hybrid” pension system retaining some elements of the old system with a provision requiring pension system to be shuttered if the gap between the fund’s liabilities and assets falls below 85 percent for two consecutive years. The mixed approach, allowing teachers to choose between a traditional pension and a 401(k)-style retirement plan, could be a model for other states to follow as they grapple with similar pension troubles.

Though the bill isn’t a panacea.

Paying down those obligations will take time—all current teachers and public school employees will remain enrolled in the current pension system and retirees will continue to collect benefits from it—but [it]…would make a big difference in the state’s long-term fiscal outlook.

Here’s a chart from the Mackinac Center showing how pensions became a growing problem. Unwinding this mess understandably won’t happen overnight.

But at least Michigan lawmakers took a real step in the right direction.

The same principle applies in Washington. Reforms to Medicare and Social Security wouldn’t change payments to existing retirees. And older workers generally would stick with the status quo.

But proposed entitlement reforms would lead to substantial long-run savings as younger workers are given the freedom to participate in new systems.

 

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

As a supporter of genuine capitalism, which means the right of contract and the absence of coercion, I don’t think there should be any policies that help or hinder unions.

The government should simply be a neutral referee that enforces contracts and upholds the rule of law.

Similarly, I also don’t have any philosophical objection to employers and employees agreeing to “defined benefit” pension plans, which basically promise workers a pre-determined amount of money after they retire based on factors such as average pay and years in the workforce.

After all, my money and property aren’t involved, so it’s not my business.

That being said, these so-called “DB plans” have a bad habit of going bankrupt. And that means the rest of us may get stuck with the bill if there’s a taxpayer bailout.

I discuss these issues in an interview with Fox Business News.

My main point is that there’s a deep hole in many of these plans, so someone is going to feel some pain.

I don’t want taxpayers to be hit, and I also don’t think well-managed pensions should be gouged with ever-rising premiums simply because other plans are faltering.

But I bet both will suffer, as will workers and retirees in the under-funded plans.

As part of the interview, I also warned that other “DB plans” are ticking time bombs. More specifically, most pensions for state and local bureaucrats involve (overly generous) pre-determined commitments and very rarely have governments set aside the amount of money needed to fund those promises.

And the biggest DB time bomb is Social Security, which has an unfunded cash-flow liability of more than $30 trillion. That’s a lot of money even by Washington standards.

But I closed with a bit of good news.

As workers and employers have learned that DB plans tend to be unstable and unsustainable, there has been a marked shift toward “defined contribution” plans such as IRAs and 401(k)s.

These plans are the private property of workers, so there’s no risk that the money will be stolen or squandered.

But even this good news comes with a caveat. We closed the interview by fretting about the possibility that governments will steal (or at least over-tax) these private pension assets at some point in the future.

That’s already happened in Argentina and Poland, so I’m not just being a paranoid libertarian.

Read Full Post »

One of the challenges of good entitlement reform (or even bad entitlement reform) is that recipients think they’ve “earned” benefits.

If you tell them that programs such as Medicare are unsustainable and need to be changed, some of them suspect you’re trying to somehow cheat them. After all, they were forced to cough up payroll taxes during their working year.

That’s true, but the real issue is how much did they pay in tax and how much are they getting back.

Here’s a very sobering chart from the recently released Long-Term Fiscal Outlook from the Congressional Budget Office.

It shows that people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s paid, on average, between $45,000-$65,000 of taxes into Medicare. That’s a big chunk of money, but it’s far less than the $160,000-$270,000 that Medicare will spend on them.

Medicare individual tax spending

I’m tempted to say that current retirees and older workers are being charged for a hamburger but they’re getting a steak.

But that’s not accurate. As most recipients will tell you, Medicare leaves a lot to be desired, which is what you might expect with a government-run system.

So the right way to look at the program is that recipients are being charged for a hamburger, they’re getting a hamburger, but taxpayers (the ones who make up the funding gap) are being charged for a steak.

Which is why structural reform is the only good way of dealing with the program’s giant unfunded liability. As explained in this video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

As discussed in the video, the reform (which has been part of the Ryan budget that’s been approved by the House) basically leaves the program as is for current retirees and older workers, but younger workers are allowed to move to a new system that gives them – upon retirement – the ability to choose their preferred health policy.

P.S. Don’t forget that we also need to reform Medicaid and Social Security, the other two big entitlement programs.

Read Full Post »

Everyone has a cross to bear in life, some sort of burden or obligation, often self-imposed.

For some inexplicable reason, I’ve decided that one of my responsibilities is to educate a backwards and primitive people who seem impervious to common sense, simple logic, and strong principles.

As you’ve probably guessed already, I’m talking about Republicans.

I’ve already identified them at the Stupid Party, but they seem especially ill-informed and clueless on the topic of government borrowing.

I’ve specifically warned that they are economically (and politically) misguided when they focus on deficits and debt as America’s main fiscal problem.

I even created a “Bob Dole Award” in hopes of getting this point across. Simply stated, fixating on debt opens the door for higher taxes.

And does anyone think our economy would be stronger, or our fiscal position would be better, if we replaced some debt-financed spending with some spending financed by class-warfare taxes?

Especially since the higher taxes almost certainly would trigger more spending, so government borrowing would stay the same and the only thing that would change is that we’d be saddled with even more waste.

Notwithstanding all my educational efforts, Republicans couldn’t resist jumping up and down and making loud noises earlier this week when the national debt hit the $16 trillion mark earlier this week (a google search for “$16 trillion debt” returned more than 24 million hits).

So let’s walk through (again) why this is misguided.

First, let’s clear up some numbers that cause confusion. Republicans are complaining about something called the “gross federal debt.” This number is largely meaningless (see table 7.1 of the OMB Historical Tables if you want to look at the details).

It is the combination of a somewhat meaningful number of more than $11 trillion known as “debt held by the public,” which is a measure of how much the federal government has borrowed over time from the private sector, and a totally irrelevant number  of about $4.5 trillion known as “debt held by federal government accounts.”

The latter number is simply a total of the IOUs that the government issues to itself, most notably the ones at the Social Security Trust Fund. But the “assets” in the Trust Fund at the Social Security Administration are offset by the “liabilities” at the Treasury Department. This is an empty bookkeeping gimmick, just as if you took a dollar out of your right pocket, put it in your left pocket, and left an IOU in exchange.

That being said, it is important to recognize that politicians have imposed poorly designed entitlement programs, and future spending on these programs will skyrocket far beyond current revenues. That growing gap, which is explained in this short video, is sometimes known as “unfunded liabilities.”

This number depends on a whole range of assumptions and can be measured in current dollars, constant dollars, and present value. I prefer the middle approach, which adjusts for inflation, and it’s worth noting that “unfunded liabilities” for Social Security and Medicare are more than $100 trillion.

That’s a number we should worry about, not the make-believe $4.5 trillion of IOUs that comprise part of the “gross national debt.”

Now let’s get to the most important issue. The reason we should worry about that $100 trillion number is that it is an estimate of how much the burden of spending will climb in the future. That additional spending will weaken the economy whether it is financed by borrowing or taxes.

Sort of helps to explain why entitlement reform is completely necessary if we want to keep America from a Greek-style fiscal collapse at some point in the future.

Here’s my video on the topic. In an ideal world, Republicans would not be allowed to talk about fiscal policy until they were first strapped in chairs, given a bunch of ADD medicine, and forced to watch this on automatic replay about 50 times.

Now for the all-important caveats. Yes, a nation can reach a point where debt becomes a problem. All you have to do is look at the mess in Europe to understand that point.

And I’ve shared numbers from both the Bank for International Settlements and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to indicate that almost all nations – including the U.S. – are going to face similar problems if government policy is left on autopilot.

What I want people to realize, though, is that governments only get into that kind of mess because there’s too much spending.

Government spending is the disease. The various ways of financing that spending – taxes, borrowing, and printing money – are symptoms of the underlying disease.

Read Full Post »

I don’t give the issue much attention on this blog, but I’m very interested in Social Security reform. I wrote my dissertation on Australia’s very successful system of personal retirement accounts, for instance, and I narrated this video on Social Security reform in the United States.

So I was very interested to see that the Associated Press put out a story warning about the dismal state of the program’s finances.

Here’s some of what the AP reported.

For nearly three decades Social Security produced big surpluses, collecting more in taxes from workers than it paid in benefits to retirees, disabled workers, spouses and children. The surpluses also helped mask the size of the budget deficit being generated by the rest of the federal government. Those days are over. Since 2010, Social Security has been paying out more in benefits than it collects in taxes… The projected shortfall in 2033 is $623 billion, according to the trustees’ latest report. It reaches $1 trillion in 2045 and nearly $7 trillion in 2086, the end of a 75-year period used by Social Security’s number crunchers because it covers the retirement years of just about everyone working today. Add up 75 years’ worth of shortfalls and you get an astonishing figure: $134 trillion. Adjusted for inflation, that’s $30.5 trillion in 2012 dollars, or eight times the size of this year’s entire federal budget.

First of all, kudos to the AP. I criticized them for a sloppy and biased report on poverty last month, so it behooves me to mention that their story on Social Security is mostly fair and accurate.

My only complaint is that the story does include some analysis of the Social Security Trust Fund, even though that supposed Fund is nothing but a pile of IOUs – money that one part of the government promises to give to another part of the government.

But let’s set that aside. Another interesting tidbit from the story is this quote from one of the kleptocrats at the American Association of Retired Persons. Note that he implicitly rules out any changes other than those that enable the government to “pay the benefits we promised.”  But that shouldn’t be a surprise. AARP is part of the left-wing coalition.

“I’m not suggesting we need to wait 20 years but we do have time to make changes to Social Security so that we can pay the benefits we promised,” said David Certner, AARP’s legislative policy director. “Let’s face it. Relative to a lot of other things right now, Social Security is in pretty good shape.”

But I will say that Mr. Certner is sort of correct about Social Security being in better shape than Medicare and Medicaid. But that’s like saying the guy with lung cancer who is 75 lbs overweight is in better shape than the two guys with brain tumors who are both 150 lbs overweight.

If you have to engage in fiscal triage, it would be smart to first address Medicare and Medicaid, but Social Security also needs reform. And not the kind of statist reform the folks at AARP would like to see.

By the way, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that President Obama’s approach is similar to the left-wingers at AARP. Here’s a video I narrated about his preferred policy.

It seems that the question doesn’t matter with this administration. The answer is always to impose more class-warfare tax policy.

P.S. If you need to be cheered up after reading this post, here’s a good cartoon showing the difference between Social Security and a Ponzi scheme, and here’s another cartoon showing what inspired Bernie Madoff to steal so much money.

Read Full Post »

Governor Rick Perry of Texas is being attacked by two rivals in the GOP presidential race. His sin, if you can believe it, is that he told the truth (as acknowledged by everyone from Paul Krugman to Milton Friedman) about Social Security being a Ponzi scheme.

Here’s an excerpt from Philip Klein’s column in the Examiner, looking at how Mitt Romney is criticizing Perry.

Mitt Romney doubled down on his attack against Texas Gov. Rick Perry this afternoon, warning in an interview with Sean Hannity that his critique of Social Security amounted to “terrible politics” that would cost Republicans the election. Romney’s decision to pile on suggests that he’s willing to play the “granny card” against Perry if it will help him get elected, a tactic more becoming of the likes of DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz than a potential Republican nominee.

And here’s a Byron York column from the Examiner looking at how Michele Bachmann is taking the same approach.

…another Republican rival, Michele Bachmann, is preparing to hit Perry on the same issue. “Bernie Madoff deals with Ponzi schemes, not the grandparents of America,” says a Bachmann adviser.  “Clearly she feels differently about the value of Social Security than Gov. Perry does.  She believes Social Security needs to be saved, that it’s an important safety net for Americans who have paid into it all their lives.” … “She strongly disagrees with his position on that…”

Shame on Romney and Bachmann. With an inflation-adjusted long-run shortfall of about $28 trillion, Social Security is a Ponzi scheme on steroids.

But as I explain in this video, that’s just part of the problem. The program also is a terrible deal for workers, particularly young people and minorities.

Here’s what’s so frustrating. Romney and Bachmann almost certainly understand that Social Security is actuarially bankrupt. And they probably realize that personal retirement accounts are the only long-run answer.

But they’re letting political ambition lure them into saying things that they know are not true. Why? Because they think Perry will lose votes and they can improve their respective chances of getting the GOP nomination.

Sounds like a smart approach, assuming truth and morality don’t matter.

But here’s what’s so ironic. The Romney and Bachmann strategy is only astute if Social Security is sacrosanct and personal accounts are political poison.

But as I noted last year, the American public supports personal accounts by a hefty margin. And former President Bush won two elections while supporting Social Security reform. And election-day polls confirmed that voters supported personal accounts.

I’m not a political scientist, so maybe something has changed, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Perry benefited from the left-wing demagoguery being utilized by Romney and Bachmann.

P.S. This does not mean Perry has the right answer. As far as I know, he hasn’t endorsed personal accounts. But at least he’s telling the truth about Social Security being unsustainable.

Read Full Post »

It certainly is true that a rising stock market, over a long period of time, is a good thing.

But does that mean it is always a good development if the stock market has a big jump in one day? Or is it unambiguously bad news if there’s a significant one-day drop in financial markets?

I’ve been pondering this issue because recent stock market gyrations have triggered predictable finger pointing by politicians and pundits. Indeed, the past few days have been somewhat similar to the blame game that took place during the TARP bailout fight. Republicans and Democrats often have the same message: Any upward blip in markets is because “my side” did something good and any fall is because “your side” did something bad.

But so what? I certainly don’t pretend to be anything other than a policy wonk, so maybe people with real experience in financial markets can tell me that I’m way off base, but here are a couple of reasons why a short-term jump in the stock market might be a sign of bad news.

1. What if the Federal Reserve suddenly reveals that it intends to pursue an aggressive, easy-money policy? One likely result of such an announcement is that investors will pull money out of bonds, because of an expectation in the short run of lower interest rates (and therefore lower returns), and put that money into stocks.

Would that rising stock market be a sign of good economic policy, or would it just be a result of portfolio shifting, probably followed by weaker economic performance?

2. What if the Treasury Department announces that it will pay every underwater mortgage in the country. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was followed by a big jump in the stock market, led by financial companies such as banks.

Would that jump in stocks be a sign of good economic policy, or would it simply measure the value of a one-time wealth transfer from taxpayers to bank shareholders, probably followed by weaker economic performance?

My gut instinct is that these are examples of bad economic policies leading to short-term jumps in stocks. And this is why I try to avoid predicting markets when being interviewed.

But, if nothing else, I try to unleash a good one-liner during every interview. Here are two recent appearances, where I mention the “Sword of Damocles of big government” and “another Keynesian who’s been rattling around the revolving door of Washington and Wall Street.”

.

Read Full Post »

I cover a wide range of issues in this interview for Bloomberg Asia. My main theme, not surprisingly, is that government is too big.

And I specifically warn about the looming explosion of entitlement spending as the baby boom generation retires.

 

Read Full Post »

Under current law, Social Security is supposed to be an “earned benefit,” where taxes are akin to insurance premiums that finance retirement benefits for workers. And because there is a cap on retirement benefits, this means there also is a “wage-base cap” on the amount of income that is hit by the payroll tax.

For 2011, the maximum annual retirement benefit is about $28,400 and the maximum amount of income subject to the payroll tax is about $107,000.

It appears that President Obama wants to radically change this system so that it is based on a class-warfare model. During the 2008 campaign, for instance, then-Senator Obama suggested that the programs giant long-run deficit could be addressed by busting the wage-base cap and imposing the payroll tax on a larger amount of income.

For the past two years, the White House (thankfully) has not followed through on this campaign rhetoric, but that’s now changing. His Fiscal Commission, as I noted last year, suggested a big hike in the payroll tax burden. And the President reiterated his support for a class-warfare approach earlier this week, leading the Wall Street Journal to opine.

Speaking Tuesday in Annandale, Virginia, Mr. Obama came out for lifting the cap on income on which the Social Security payroll tax is applied. Currently, the employer and employee each pay 6.2% up to $106,800, a level that rises with inflation each year. …Mr. Obama didn’t hint at specifics, though he did run in 2008 on a plan to raise the “tax max” by somewhere between two to eight percentage points for the top 3% of earners. …most of the increase could be paid by the middle class or modestly affluent—i.e., those who merely make somewhat more than $106,800. A 6.2% additional hit on every extra dollar they make above that level is a huge reduction from their take-home pay. If the cap is removed entirely, it will also mean a huge increase in the marginal tax rates that affect decisions to work, invest and save. In a recent paper for the American Enterprise Institute, Andrew Biggs calculates that this and other tax increases Mr. Obama favors would bring the top marginal rate to somewhere between 57% and 68% when factoring in state taxes. Tax levels like these haven’t been seen since the 1970s.

Obama is cleverly avoiding specifics, largely because the potential tax hike could be enormous. The excerpt above actually understates the potential damage since it mostly focuses on the “employee” side of the payroll tax. The “employer” share of the tax (which everyone agrees is paid for by workers in the form of reduced take-home wages) is also 6.2 percent, so the increase in marginal tax rates for affected workers could be as high as 12.4 percentage points.

This video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, narrated by yours truly, elaborates on why this is the wrong approach.

Read Full Post »

One of my presentations at CPAC addressed America’s long-term entitlement crisis. I was part of a panel organized by the National Taxpayers Union, and I discussed how to solve the long-run fiscal problems caused by Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

The lighting and focus leave something to be desired, but hopefully my message is crisp and clear.

Read Full Post »

There are two crises facing Social Security. First the program has a gigantic unfunded liability, largely caused by demographics. Second, the program is a very bad deal for younger workers, making them pay record amounts of tax in exchange for comparatively meager benefits. This video explains how personal accounts can solve both problems, and also notes that nations as varied as Australia, Chile, Sweden, and Hong Kong have implemented this pro-growth reform.

Social Security reform received a good bit of attention in the past two decades. President Clinton openly flirted with the idea, and President Bush explicitly endorsed the concept. But it has faded from the public square in recent years. But this may be about to change. Personal accounts are part of Congressman Paul Ryan’s Roadmap proposal, and recent polls show continued strong support for letting younger workers shift some of their payroll taxes to individual accounts.

Equally important, the American people understand that Social Security’s finances are unsustainable. They may not know specific numbers, but they know politicians have created a house of cards, which is why jokes about the system are so easily understandable.

President Obama thinks the answer is higher taxes, which is hardly a surprise. But making people pay more is hardly an attractive option, unless you’re the type of person who thinks it’s okay to give people a hamburger and charge them for a steak.

Other nations have figured out the right approach. Australia began to implement personal accounts back in the mid-1980s, and the results have been remarkable. The government’s finances are stronger. National saving has increased. But most important, people now can look forward to a safer and more secure retirement. Another great example is Chile, which set up personal accounts in the early 1980s. This interview with Jose Pinera, who designed the Chilean system, is a great summary of why personal accounts are necessary. All told, about 30 nations around the world have set up some form of personal accounts. Even  Sweden, which the left usually wants to mimic,  has partially privatized its Social Security system.

It also should be noted that personal accounts would be good for growth and competitiveness. Reforming a tax-and-transfer entitlement scheme into a system of private savings will boost jobs by lowering the marginal tax rate on work. Personal accounts also will boost private savings. And Social Security reform will reduce the long-run burden of government spending, something that is desperately needed if we want to avoid the kind of fiscal crisis that is afflicting European welfare states such as Greece.

Last but not least, it is important to understand that personal retirement accounts are not a free lunch. Social Security is a pay-as-you-go system, so if we let younger workers shift their payroll taxes to individual accounts, that means the money won’t be there to pay benefits to current retirees. Fulfilling the government’s promise to those retirees, as well as to older workers who wouldn’t have time to benefit from the new system, will require a lot of money over the next couple of decades, probably more than $5 trillion.

That’s a shocking number, but it’s important to remember that it would be even more expensive to bail out the current system. As I explain at the conclusion of the video, we’re in a deep hole, but it will be easier to climb out if we implement real reform.

Read Full Post »

I’m just making up the 1.94 percent number, but the International Herald Tribune reported last year that unfunded liabilities in France are nearly 550 percent of GDP. The news reports don’t include any estimates of what Sarkozy’s reform will mean, but I would be surprised if it had a big impact on France’s long-run fiscal nightmare. But, as the old saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a first step, and Sarkozy has pushed through the reforms notwithstanding protests and riots from left-wing unions and brain-dead students (who don’t seem to realize that they’ll pay even higher taxes if entitlements aren’t reformed).

Under pressure from the government, the French Senate voted Friday to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62, a victory for President Nicolas Sarkozy after days of street rage, acrimonious debate and strikes that dried up the supply of gasoline across the country. The vote all but sealed passage of the highly unpopular measure, but it was unlikely to end the increasingly radicalized protests. The coming days promised more work stoppages and demonstrations by those who feel changing the retirement age threatens a French birthright. …Leftist critics called the move a denial of democracy by an increasingly confrontational president. “No, you haven’t finished with retirement. You haven’t finished with the French,” said Socialist Sen. Jean-Pierre Bel, alluding to an apparently unflagging determination by unions, now joined by students, to keep protests alive — even through the upcoming week of school holidays.

Read Full Post »

The Economist has a fascinating webpage that allows you to look at all the world’s nations and compare them based on various measures of government debt (and for various years).

The most economically relevant measure is public debt as a share of GDP, and you can see that the United States is not in great shape, though many nations have more accumulated red ink (especially Japan, where debt if much higher than it is in Greece).  As faithful readers of this blog already understand, the real issue is the size of government, but this site is a good indicator of nations that finance their spending in a risky fashion.

By the way, keep in mind that these figures do not include unfunded liabilities. For those who worry about debt, those are the truly shocking numbers (at least for the United States and other nations with government-run pension and health schemes).

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: