Tag: personal accounts

Personal Accounts—for Medicare

Last night, Newt Gingrich praised the Chilean Social Security system, which allows workers to save for their retirements in personal accounts, rather than contribute to the government pension scheme. Several of my Cato colleagues are far more qualified than I am to comment on that system, including Mike Tanner, Jagadeesh Gokhale, and Jose Pinera–who designed and implemented it. But personal accounts are as important for reforming compulsory health insurance schemes like Medicare as they are for reforming compulsory pension schemes.

In 2010, I traveled to Chile to deliver an address to the International Federation of Pension Fund Administrators (FIAP).  I detailed the harms caused by compulsory health insurance schemes and explained how personal medical accounts would improve health care and generate wealth even for the poor:

In designing health care markets, perfection is not an option. Under any system, whether state-run or the free market, some patients will inevitably fall through the cracks.

Personal medical accounts can help fill in those cracks by enabling innovations that improve medical care and bring it within reach of the poor. Yes, some will not earn enough to provide for themselves. And when we are free to make our own decisions, a small number of people will make poor decisions. I believe we have a moral duty to care for patients who could not or would not provide for themselves. Personal medical accounts will make it easier for us to meet that moral duty.

Under compulsory health insurance schemes, those cracks widen, and more people fall through. Price and exchange controls block innovation. Governments waste resources on low-value medical care. Some would describe these as the unavoidable costs of creating an equitable society. But those wasted resources do not purchase solidarity. They purchase sickness and poverty.

FIAP turned my address into this book chapter, which also explains how to craft a system of personal medical accounts.

For current enrollees, who have not built up savings in a personal medical account, Congress should make Medicare look more like Social Security. That is, the government should subsidize Medicare enrollees by giving them cash, rather than creating a complex health-insurance scheme that effectively lets government officials shape the entire health care sector.

The Case for Social Security Personal Accounts

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.

Social Security in the Red

Social Security is officially in the red.  The New York Times reports that the system will pay out more than it takes in this year.  Explains the Times:

The bursting of the real estate bubble and the ensuing recession have hurt jobs, home prices and now Social Security.

This year, the system will pay out more in benefits than it receives in payroll taxes, an important threshold it was not expected to cross until at least 2016, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Stephen C. Goss, chief actuary of the Social Security Administration, said that while the Congressional projection would probably be borne out, the change would have no effect on benefits in 2010 and retirees would keep receiving their checks as usual.

The problem, he said, is that payments have risen more than expected during the downturn, because jobs disappeared and people applied for benefits sooner than they had planned. At the same time, the program’s revenue has fallen sharply, because there are fewer paychecks to tax.

Analysts have long tried to predict the year when Social Security would pay out more than it took in because they view it as a tipping point — the first step of a long, slow march to insolvency, unless Congress strengthens the program’s finances.

The crisis is now, since the vaunted “trust fund” is filled with non-recourse government bonds–essentially worthless pieces of paper.  There’s no there there when it comes to financing future benefits.  Either payments have to come down or taxes have to go up, unless we adopt real reform centered around personal accounts.  And the latter course seems ever more distant after Congress voted to expand federal control over every Americans’ health care.

Europe: Either Bismarck or the Euro, but Not Both

The Maastricht Treaty requires countries in the eurozone not to exceed a public debt of 60% of GDP. Well, now almost all of them have an official debt exceeding that ceiling. But the situation is immensely worse because European states also have huge, and largely hidden, unfunded liabilities arising from their pension and health systems. According to a 2009 study by my colleague Jagadeesh Gokhale, the true debt of the 25 European countries is, on average, 434% of GDP. And the treaties that underpin European integration do not say a word about such debt.

Greece’s true debt is 875% of GDP and its current problems are just the first act of the coming fiscal bankruptcy of Europe. In my 2004 essay “Will the Pension Time Bomb Sink the Euro?”, I concluded that Europe would end up facing a critical crossroads: either leave the Euro or abandon the Bismarckian welfare state paradigm. As it turns out, the DNA of the pay-as-you-go system allows for political manipulation and the consequent inflation of pension and health “rights.” This, exacerbated by falling fertility rates and increasing life expectancy, will lead to increasing fiscal deficits, unpayable debt, state insolvency, defaults, covert age wars, and the failure of the Eurozone project.

The welfare state has really become an arbitrary “entitlement state,” where everyone uses the state to rob someone else, and politicians from the right and the left play the transfer game to win elections. This crisis may serve to reveal the true nature and enormous flaws of the welfare state. Sooner or later, Europe will have to dismantle it and move toward a paradigm of personal responsability – that is, a system of personal accounts for pensions, health and unemployment benefits.

Social Security: Debating the Ostriches

Over at Salon, Michael Lind takes me to task for raising the alarm about the latest Social Security Trustees report showing that a) Social Security’s insolvency date is growing closer, and b) the system’s unfunded liabilities have increased dramatically since last year’s report.

Like most of those who resist having an honest debate about Social security’s finances, Lind relies on a combination of economic flim-flam and political sophistry to obscure the true problem. For example, Lind points out that when I quote the Trustee’s assertion that the system’s unfunded liabilities currently top $17.5 trillion, that “assumes there are no changes made between now and eternity.” Well, duh! All estimates of US budget deficits assume that spending won’t be cut or taxes raised enough to eliminate the deficit. In fact, when I get my Visa bill and it shows how much I owe, it doesn’t tell me anything about whether I will or can pay that bill in the future. Obviously, if we raise Social Security taxes, cut Social Security benefits (or create personal accounts), we can reduce or even eliminate the program’s unfunded liabilities.

Lind then returns to the hoary idea of the Trust Fund. He objects to my characterization of the Trust fund “contains no actual assets. Instead, it contains government bonds that are simply IOUs, a measure of how much the government owes the system.” This, he says, is the same as saying “government bonds backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government, a government that has never defaulted on its obligations in its entire existence since 1776, are not actual assets?” He points out that millions of Americans invest in government bonds through their retirement programs and consider them assets. “Are U.S. government bonds “actual assets” when they are part of IRAs but not “actual assets” when they are owed to the Social Security system?” he asks.

That’s right. If I write you an IOU, you have an asset and I have a debt. If I write an IOU to myself, the asset and debt cancel each other out. I haven’t gained anything, else it would be a whole lot easier to pay my bills. When Lind invests in a government bond, he has an asset and the government has a liability. But when the government issues a bond to itself (ie. Social Security), the asset and liability cancel each other out. There’s no net increase in assets.

But don’t take my word for it. This is what Bill Clinton’s budget had to say about the Trust Fund in FY2000:

These Trust Fund balances are available to finance future benefit payments…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. The existence of Trust Fund balances, therefore, does not by itself have any impact on the government’s ability to pay benefits.

Lind then switches course and says, ok, forget about the Trust Fund. Think about Social Security like we do about defense spending. “Why do we never hear of the “unfunded liabilities” of Pentagon spending – the third of the big three spending programs (Social Security, Medicare, defense) that take up most of the federal budget? Defense spending comes out of general revenues, not a dedicated tax.”

Actually, that is a valid comparison. Both defense and Social Security spending for any given year are ultimately paid for out of that year’s tax revenue. The composition of the tax revenue is largely irrelevant. And, when taxes don’t equal expenditures, we get budget deficits. Those deficits will eventually have to be paid for by raising taxes or cutting spending.

Current projections by the Congressional Budget Office suggest that unless we reform entitlements programs, government spending will reach 40 percent of GDP by mid-century. Paying for all that government will be a crushing burden of debt and taxes for our children and grandchildren.

No amount of obfuscation by defenders of the status quo can obscure that fact.

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The Social Security Trustees Report

Editors’ Note: The post below is an expanded version of Tanner’s initial post at this URL.

The Social Security system’s trustees have released their annual report on the system’s finances and announced that – surprise – the program’s looming financial crisis hasn’t gone away.

Social Security will begin running a deficit by 2016, meaning that just seven years from now the program will begin spending more money on benefits than it takes in through taxes. That’s a year sooner than last year’s report.

Of course, in theory, the Social Security Trust Fund will pay benefits until 2037. But even that figure is misleading, because the Trust Fund contains no actual assets. Instead, it contains government bonds that are simply IOUs, a measure of how much money the government owes the system.

Even if Congress can find a way to redeem the bonds, the Trust Fund surplus will be completely exhausted by 2037. At that point, Social Security will have to rely solely on revenue from the payroll tax – and that revenue will not be sufficient to pay all promised benefits. Overall, the system’s unfunded liabilities – the amount it has promised beyond what it can actually pay – now total $17.5 trillion. Yes, that’s trillion with a ‘T.’ That’s $1.7 trillion worse than last year.

Critics of personal accounts for Social Security have pointed to the decline in the stock market over the last few years as an argument against allowing younger workers to privately invest a portion of their Social Security taxes. Yet studies [more here and here] have shown that long-term investment remains remarkably safe. If workers retiring today had been allowed to start privately investing their taxes 40 years ago, they would obviously have less money than those who retired a couple of years ago.But they would still have more than Social Security promises. And, as the Trustee’s Report shows, a poor economy hurts Social Security’s ability to pay benefits just as it hurts the stock market.

In the end, there are only three possible solutions to Social Security’s problems: raise taxes (and the Social Security payroll tax would have to be nearly doubled to keep the program afloat), cut benefits, or allow younger workers to invest privately.

We can have an honest debate about which of those options is the best choice. But, as the Trustee’s Report makes clear, Congress and the Obama administration cannot continue to duck the issue.

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Social Security Is Running a Surplus…Oops

For years, opponents of Social Security reform have told us that there is no need to rush into changing the program because, after all, Social Security is running a surplus today. Well, according to a new report by the Congressional Budget Office, not so much.

CBO reports that the Social Security surplus, originally expected to be $80-90 billion this year and next will shrink to $16 billion this year and just $3 billion next year (essentially a rounding error) as a result of the recession and rising unemployment. And those estimates may be far too optimistic. In February of this year, for example, Social Security actually ran a deficit—spending more than it took in through taxes and interest combined.

And, while CBO expects a return to modest surpluses after 2010, as the recession ends and unemployment falls, that is betting on the success of the unproven Obama economic program. If unemployment stays at current levels, Social Security will begin running permanent cash flow deficits in 2011 (eight years earlier than previously predicted).

Opponents of personal accounts have pointed out recent declines in the stock market as a reason why private investment should no longer be considered an option for Social Security reform. The evidence suggests that, even with recent market declines, private investment would still produce higher returns than Social Security. The new surplus numbers provide yet another lesson: if the economy is in such a mess that it hurts private investment, traditional Social Security isn’t going to be in any better shape.

The case for personal accounts remains as strong as ever.

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