Skidmore’s Weak Defense of Social Security

University of Missouri-Kansas City political scientist Max Skidmore recently criticized as “add[ing] nothing” Cal-Berkeley economist Konstantin Magin’s arguments in support of Social Security personal accounts. Let’s examine some of Skidmore’s arguments in favor of the current system:

Magin seems almost to promise guaranteed, risk free returns. Even if this were correct, it is irrelevant. Social Security is not an investment scheme; it offers more than retirement benefits, and its low administrative expenses make it more efficient than any private scheme.

Skidmore’s focus on just administrative costs misrepresents the program’s true costs, which includes distortions in saving and work effort in the economy. The payroll taxes that fund Social Security — to the extent that they are perceived as unrelated to future benefits — reduce worker incentives and, at the same time, Social Security retirement benefits induce workers to exit earlier from the work force. Those effects are well-documented by economists David Wise (Harvard) and Jonathan Gruber (MIT). Tax-financed benefits reduce personal saving (as demonstrated by Harvard’s Martin Feldstein), and the program’s institutional structure — the Trust Fund’s investment restrictions — means the program’s surpluses are not truly saved and invested (as argued by Penn’s Kent Smetters and Stanford’s John Shoven). Thus, overall the program reduces national saving. Those resource costs should be added to obtain a true picture of how costly Social Security is.

It has a mildly redistributive effect: workers who earn less receive a greater portion of their earnings in benefits than do those who earn more.

The redistributive effect is not mild at all when you consider its redistribution from younger and future generations toward older ones. There are any number of measures developed by well-respected economists — such as Alan Auerbach (Berkeley) and Larry Kotlikoff’s (Boston University) generational accounting measures — that document the massive intergenerational redistribution that the program imposes. That redistribution remains hidden because of the cash-flow budget accounting adopted by official scoring agencies. As the program’s shortfalls compel policy adjustments in the future, the true scope of the program’s redistributive force will become obvious — but it will be too late to avoid the negative economic effects of forced higher taxes and smaller benefits for future generations.

[I]nsurance against long life is very valuable, and private annuity markets appear to be quite costly[.]

But annuity markets are costly because we already live in a world with Social Security, which forcibly annuitizes retirement resources. And there is evidence that private insurance purchases do not fully unwind the forced annuitization via Social Security (Auerbach et al.). This is increasingly so as the intensity of desires to bequeath assets to children has eroded over time, as Kotlikoff and I have shown using data from the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances.

Social Security effectively monopolizes the annuity market and any residual purchasers on private markets are the high-risk ones — those likely to live longer than average. That explains the high cost of private annuities. If Social Security were altered by the introduction of personal accounts, private annuity sales would increase and broader risk pooling would lead to lower costs.

Nearly one third of all Social Security checks go to children, and to others younger than retirement age.

Children’s Social Security benefits as survivors and dependents could be replaced easily by independent insurance programs under a Social Security reform that establishes personal accounts.

Because of the independence it gives to seniors, young couples now rarely are required to support their elderly relatives, as documented by Kathleen Mcgarry and Robert Schoeni.

Again, this is an extremely shortsighted view. By encouraging independence among the elderly from their children, Social Security is destroying family cohesion and extended family links that are crucial for transferring human capital to the next generation. By increasing the costs for younger workers through the program’s excessively costly payroll taxes, it is also promoting lower fertility — thereby weakening a key growth-promoting factor in developing countries. Studies by Washington University’s Michele Boldrin indicate that, in countries with generous public pensions, fertility rates have declined.