Tag: Entitlements

We Need a Debate about the Size of Government, but It Helps to Understand Basic Fiscal Facts

Self awareness is supposed to be a good thing, so I’m going to openly acknowledge that I have an unusual fixation on the size of government.

I don’t lose a wink of sleep thinking about deficits, but I toss and turn all night fretting about the overall burden of government spending.

My peculiar focus on the size and scope of government can be seen in this video, which explains that spending is the disease and deficits are just a symptom.

Moreover, my Golden Rule explicitly targets the spending side of the budget. And I also came up with a “Bob Dole Award” to mock those who mistakenly dwell on deficits.

With all this as background, you’ll understand why I got excited when I started reading Robert Samuelson’s column in today’s Washington Post.

Well, there’s a presidential whopper. Obama is right that the role of the federal government deserves an important debate, but he is wrong when he says that we’ve had that debate. Just the opposite: The White House and Congress have spent the past five years evading the debate. They’ve argued over federal budget deficits without addressing the underlying issues of what the government should do, what programs are unneeded, whether some beneficiaries are undeserving… The avoidance is entirely bipartisan. Congressional Republicans have been just as allergic to genuine debate as the White House and its Democratic congressional allies.

The ‘Stupid Party’ Strikes Again: Congressional Republicans Poised to Give Up Sequester Victory

There’s a saying in sports that teams that come back to win in the final minutes often “snatch victory from the jaws of defeat .”

I don’t like that phrase because it reminds me of the painful way my beloved Georgia Bulldogs were defeated a couple of weeks ago by Auburn. But I also don’t like the saying because it describes what President Obama and other advocates of big government must be thinking now that Republicans apparently are about to do away with the sequester.

Specifically, the GOP appears willing to give away the sequester’s real and meaningful spending restraint and replace that fiscal discipline with a package of gimmicks and new revenues.

I warned last month that something like this might happen, but even a pessimist like me didn’t envision such a big defeat for fiscal responsibility.

You may be thinking to yourself that even the “stupid party” couldn’t be foolish enough to save Obama from his biggest defeat, but check out these excerpts from a Wall Street Journal report.

Sen. Patty Murray (D., Wash.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.), chief negotiators for their parties, are closing in on a deal… At issue are efforts to craft a compromise that would ease across-the-board spending cuts due to take effect in January, known as the sequester, and replace them with a mix of increased fees and cuts in mandatory spending programs.

What America Can Learn from the Faroe Islands about Social Security Reform

I’m currently in the Faroe Islands, a relatively unknown and semi-autonomous part of Denmark located in the North Atlantic. Sort of like Greenland, but too small to appear on most maps.Faroe Islands

I’m in this chilly archipelago for a speech to the annual meeting of the Faroese People’s Party. According to Wikipedia, “the party is supportive of the economic liberalism.” But liberal in this context is classical liberal, so they’re my kind of people.

I spoke on the economics of fiscal policy and talked about issues such as my Golden Rule and the Laffer Curve, but today’s post is about what I learned, not what I said.

The current government of the Faroe Islands, which includes the People’s Party, has modernized its Social Security regime with a system of personal retirement accounts. Starting next January, workers will begin setting aside some of their income to finance a comfortable retirement income. When fully implemented, workers will be putting 15 percent of their income in their accounts, creating a system that’s even larger than the private retirement models in Australia and Chile.

So why did Faroese politicians take this step? Well, unlike politicians in most nations, they looked at the long-run data, saw that they had an aging population, realized that a tax-and-transfer scheme no longer could work, and decided to reform now instead of waiting for the old system to collapse.

Here’s a chart put together by the Nordic Council. As you can see, the Faroe Islands were (and other jurisdictions are) heading to an intolerable and unsustainable situation of too few workers and too many retirees.

Faroe Islands Age-Dependency Ratio

By the way, the same situation exists in the United States.

Our population is aging, the Baby Boomers are going into retirement, and birth rates have dropped. Our long-run numbers aren’t as grim as some other nations, but our Social Security system is basically insolvent.

Indeed, Social Security’s long-run deficit is measured in trillions, not billions. According to the most recent Trustee’s Report, deficits over the next 75 years are expected to equal $36 trillion. And that’s after adjusting for inflation!

For what it’s worth, if a private insurance or pension company kept its books in the same was as Social Security, it would be forced into bankruptcy and its managers would be indicted for fraud..

But when politicians operate a Ponzi Scheme, we’re supposed to applaud them for compassion!

This is why it might be worth the cost if we sent the politicians in Washington on a junket (using their taxpayer-financed fleet of luxury jets) to Torshavn, the Faroese capital. They could eat some lamb and fish and learn what it’s like to responsibly address a problem before it becomes a crisis.

Or we could save the money and simply force them to watch my video on personal retirement accounts.

P.S. In you like gallows humor, you can enjoy some Social Security cartoons here, here, and here. And we also have a Social Security joke, though it’s not overly funny when you realize it’s a depiction of reality.

P.P.S. You probably don’t want to know how Obama would like to “fix” the Social Security shortfall.

P.P.P.S. On Monday, I continue my tour of the North Atlantic with a speech in Iceland on the Laffer Curve. I don’t know if I’ll say anything memorable, but I’ll use the opportunity to learn more about some of that nation’s policies, including their very successful privatized fishery system. Iceland has some bad policies, of course, but it’s also worth noting that they wisely have rejected membership in the European Union, they’ve reduced the burden of government spending in recent years, and they also made the right decision when they decided (with help from an outraged electorate) to limit bailouts when their banks went bust. You won’t be surprised to learn, though, that the Paris-based OECD has been using American tax dollars to advocate bad fiscal policy in Iceland.

Downsize the Social Security Administration

A new section on the Social Security Administration (SSA) has been added to Cato’s Downsizing Government website. The SSA operates three large programs that provide benefits to millions of Americans: Old-Age and Survivors Insurance, Disability Insurance, and Supplemental Security Income. Total SSA spending will be $873 billion in 2013, which works out to an average of about $7,300 for every household in the nation. 

Essays: 

Social Security Retirement: Social Security faces a huge financing gap because of its pay-as-you-go structure and the aging of the U.S. population. It should be transitioned to a system of personal savings accounts, which would increase individual financial security and help to avert future tax increases.   

Social Security Disability Insurance: Growing numbers of Americans are receiving disability benefits, and the system is subject to major abuses. Policymakers should tighten eligibility for the program and explore ways to move it to the private sector.   

Supplemental Security Income: This program for low-income and disabled individuals suffers from similar abuses and overspending problems as Social Security Disability Insurance. The financing and administration of Supplemental Security Income should be devolved to the states. 

Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall, Which Nation Is in the Deepest Fiscal Doo-Doo of All?

According to the Bank for International Settlements, the United States has a terrible long-run fiscal outlook. Assuming we don’t implement genuine entitlement reform, the only countries in worse shape are the United Kingdom and Japan.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, meanwhile, also has a grim fiscal outlook for America. According to their numbers, the only nations in worse shape are New Zealand and Japan.

But I’ve never been happy with these BIS and OECD numbers because they focus on deficits, debt, and fiscal balance. Those are important indicators, of course, but they’re best viewed as symptoms.

The underlying problem is that the burden of government spending is too high. And what the BIS and OECD numbers are really showing is that the public sector is going to get even bigger in coming decades, largely because of aging populations. Unfortunately, you have to read between the lines to understand what’s really happening.

But now I’ve stumbled across some IMF data that presents the long-run fiscal outlook in a more logical fashion. As you can see from this graph (taken from this publication), they show the expected rise in age-related spending on the vertical axis and the amount of needed fiscal adjustment on the horizontal axis.

In other words, you don’t want your nation to be in the upper-right quadrant, but that’s exactly where you can find the United States.

IMF Future Spending-Adjustment Needs

Yes, Japan needs more fiscal adjustment. Yes, the burden of government spending will expand by a larger amount in Belgium. But America combines the worst of both worlds in a depressingly impressive fashion.

So thanks to FDR, LBJ, Nixon, Bush, Obama and others for helping to create and expand the welfare state. They’ve managed to put the United States in a worse long-run position than Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, and other failing welfare states.

Unexpected Praise for Australia’s Private Social Security System

As part of my “Question of the Week” series, I said that Australia probably would be the best option if the United States suffered some sort of Greek-style fiscal meltdown that led to a societal collapse.*

One reason I’m so bullish on Australia is that the nation has a privatized Social Security system called “Superannuation,” with workers setting aside 9 percent of their income in personal retirement accounts (rising to 12 percent by 2020).

Established almost 30 years ago, and made virtually universal about 20 years ago, this system is far superior to the actuarially bankrupt Social Security system in the United States.

Probably the most sobering comparison is to look at a chart of how much private wealth has been created in Superannuation accounts and then look at a chart of the debt that we face for Social Security.

To be blunt, the Aussies are kicking our butts. Their system gets stronger every day and our system generates more red ink every day.

And their system is earning praise from unexpected places. The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, led by a former Clinton Administration official, is not a bastion of laissez-faire thinking. So it’s noteworthy when it publishes a study praising Superannuation.

Australia’s retirement income system is regarded by some as among the best in the world. It has achieved high individual saving rates and broad coverage at reasonably low cost to the government.

Since I wrote my dissertation on Australia’s system, I can say with confidence that the author is not exaggerating. It’s a very good role model, for reasons I’ve previously discussed.

Here’s more from the Boston College study.

The program requires employers to contribute 9 percent of earnings, rising to 12 percent by 2020, to a tax-advantaged retirement plan for each employee age 18 to 70 who earns more than a specified minimum amount. …Over 90 percent of employed Australians have savings in a Superannuation account, and the total assets in these accounts now exceed Australia’s Gross Domestic Product. …Australia has been extremely effective in achieving key goals of any retirement income system. …Its Superannuation Guarantee program has generated high and rising levels of saving by essentially the entire active workforce.

The study does include some criticisms, some of which are warranted. The system can be gamed by those who want to take advantage of the safety net retirement system maintained by the government.

Australia’s means-tested Age Pension creates incentives to reduce one’s “means” in order to collect a higher means-tested benefit. This can be done by spending down one’s savings and/or investing these savings in assets excluded from the Age Pension means test. What makes this situation especially problematic is that workers can currently access their Superannuation savings at age 55, ten years before becoming eligible for Age Pension benefits at 65. This ability creates an incentive to retire early, live on these savings until eligible for an Age Pension, and collect a higher benefit, sometimes referred to as “double dipping.”

Though I admit dealing with this issue may require a bit of paternalism. Should individuals be forced to turn their retirement accounts into an income stream (called annuitization) once they reach retirement age?

Entitlement Spending Is America’s Biggest Fiscal Challenge, but Discretionary Spending Is Still Far too High

If America descends into Greek-style fiscal chaos, there’s no doubt that entitlement programs will be the main factor. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Disability are all fiscal train wrecks today, and the long-run outlook for these programs is frightful.

Just look at these numbers from the Bank for International Settlements and OECD to see how our fiscal future is bleaker than many of Europe’s welfare states.

Simply stated, if we don’t implement the right kind of entitlement reform, our children and grandchildren at some point will curse our memory.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t worry about other parts of the budget, including the so-called discretionary programs that also have been getting bigger and bigger budgets over time.

That’s why I want to add some additional analysis to Veronique de Rugy’s recent piece in National Review Online, which might lead some to mistakenly conclude that these programs are “shrinking” and being subject to a “Big Squeeze.”

…there is another number to look at in that budget. It’s the shrinking share of the budget consumed by discretionary spending (spending on things like defense and infrastructure) to make space for mandatory spending and interest. This is the Big Squeeze. …in FY 2014 mandatory spending plus interest will eat up 67 percent of the budget, leaving discretionary spending with 33 percent of the budget (down from 36 percent in FY 2012). Now by FY 2023, mandatory and interest spending will consume 77 percent of the total budget. Discretionary spending will be left with 23 percent of the budget.

She’s right that discretionary spending is becoming a smaller share of the budget, but it’s important to realize that this is solely because entitlement outlays are growing faster than discretionary spending.

Here’s some data from the Historical Tables of the Budget, showing what is happening to spending for both defense discretionary and domestic discretionary. And these are inflation-adjusted numbers, so the we’re looking at genuine increases in spending.

Discretionary Spending FY62-14

As you can see, defense outlays have climbed by about $100 billion over the past 50 years, while outlays for domestic discretionary programs have more than tripled.

If that’s a “Big Squeeze,” I’m hoping that my household budget experiences a similar degree of “shrinking”!

Veronique obviously understands these numbers, of course, and is simply making the point that politicians presumably should have an incentive to restrain entitlement programs so they have more leeway to also buy votes with discretionary spending.

But I’d hate to think that an uninformed reader would jump to the wrong conclusion and decide we need more discretionary spending.

Particularly since the federal government shouldn’t be spending even one penny for many of the programs and department that are part of the domestic discretionary category. Should there be a federal Department of Transportation? A federal Department of Housing and Urban Development? A federal Department of Agriculture?

No, NO, and Hell NO. I could continue, but you get the idea.

The burden of federal government spending in the United States is far too high and it should be reduced. That includes discretionary spending and entitlement spending.

P.S. For those who don’t have the misfortune of following the federal budget, “entitlements” are programs that are “permanently appropriated,” which simply means that spending automatically changes in response to factors such as eligibility rules, demographic shifts, inflation, and program expansions. Sometimes these programs (such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, etc) are referred to as “mandatory spending.”

The other big part of the budget is “discretionary spending” or “appropriations.” These are programs funded by annual spending bills from the Appropriations Committees, often divided into the two big categories of “defense discretionary” and “nondefense discretionary.”

Pages