Tag: social security benefits

Marriage, Private and Public

Wouldn’t it be great if we could just get the state out of the marriage business? Perhaps. Marriage is fundamentally private, after all. It’s a matter for families, churches, and couples to decide for themselves.

Yet state recognition of marriage often acts to keep the government out of private life, to ensure family stability, and to give regular, orderly rules for all those times when, despite our best efforts, family and state still collide. Here are just a few of the things that the civil side of marriage does:

  • If you’re happily married and you have children, you don’t have to worry for a moment about child custody law. Your children are yours to raise jointly, whether they are biological or adoptive.
  • If you’re married and you die without a will, your spouse typically gets at least a share of your estate. You don’t have to do anything special for this to happen. It’s automatic, and I think this probably strikes most people as fair.
  • If you’re married, you don’t need to do anything special to be able to make medical decisions for an incapacitated spouse. It’s presumed that you are competent to do this.
  • You can sponsor your foreign spouse for U.S. citizenship.
  • You can sue for wrongful death of a spouse.
  • You can collect a spouse’s Social Security benefits.
  • You can often keep joint personal finances without worrying that your spouse will bankrupt you.

Depending on where you live, some of these protections can be won outside of marriage, if you’re willing to go to a lawyer and spend a few hundred bucks. Others, like the last four, can’t be had without either a marriage or a blood relationship.

State recognition of marriage protects families, often from the state itself. If the state got out of the marriage business, the state would be a lot more in all of our private lives, judging, inspecting, regulating, forbidding, taxing, redistributing, and all the rest. Much of the state part of marriage is really a protection against the state.

All of this is a lead-up to saying congratulations to the same-sex couples who will now be able to marry in Washington, DC. Perhaps even more than other types of marriages, same-sex marriages need these protections. (Some, like sponsoring an immigrant or collecting Social Security, may have to wait for federal law to catch up.)

On the whole, same-sex marriage means that gays’ and lesbians’ private lives can stay private. It gives them a protection against the government, which has too often been used against them. It means that gays and lesbians can be treated the same as any other group of citizens. And it means that their basic right to be left alone is finally being honored.

Emergency Aid to Seniors? No Way

Social Security benefits are indexed for inflation, but because inflation has been roughly zero for the past year, the adjustment formula implies no increase in benefits this year. Nevertheless,

President Obama on Wednesday attempted to preempt the announcement that Social Security recipients will not get an increase in their benefit checks for the first time in three decades, encouraging Congress to provide a one-time payment of $250 to help seniors and disabled Americans weather the recession.

Obama endorsed the idea, which is expected to cost at least $13 billion, as the administration gropes for ways to sustain an apparent economic rebound without the kind of massive spending package that critics could label a second stimulus act.

This is outrageous on four levels:

1. If the president thinks the economy needs more stimulus, he should say that explicitly and have an honest debate.

2. This is the wrong kind of stimulus. Any further stimulus should consist of reductions in marginal tax rates, such as a cut in the corporate income tax (or better yet, repeal).

3. All Social Security recipients already have a moderate guaranteed income, and many have significant income beyond their Social Security benefits. This kind of transfer has no plausible justification as redistribution for the needy.

4. Sending checks to seniors is a blatant attempt to buy their support for Obamacare, which promises to cut Medicare spending substantially.

C/P Libertarianism, from A to Z

The President’s Health Care Tax

As Michael Cannon discussed in an earlier post, the White House is trying to claim that health care “reform” does not mean higher taxes. This is a two-pronged issue. First, there is a mandate to purchase health insurance. Second, there is a tax (the White House calls it a fee) on people who fail to purchase a policy.

The White House claims this mandate is akin to state-level requirements for the purchase of health insurance, and that the newly-insured people will be getting some value (a health insurance policy) in exchange for their money. These assertions are defensible, but that does not change the fact that a tax is being imposed.

It might be plausible to argue that the mandate is not a tax if the value of the insurance policy to the individual was equal to the cost. But since these are people who are not buying policies, their behavior reveals that this obviously cannot be true. So this means that they will be worse off under Obama’s plan and that at least some of the cost should be considered a tax.

The Social Security payroll tax allows a good analogy. Labor economists correctly argue that the payroll tax functions, in part, as a “premium” for what can be considered a government-provided annuity. As such, when we try to measure the disincentive effect of the payroll tax, it is appropriate to include the perceived value of future Social Security benefits (for most Americans, especially with average or above-average incomes, the “rate of return” is very low or negative, so a substantial share of the payroll tax is a tax both in the legal sense and economic-distortion sense). The same is true of a mandatory health insurance policy (even if the money does not go through the government’s hands).

On the broader issue of paying money and getting something of value in return, another analogy is helpful. A share of the gasoline excise tax is used for road construction and maintenance. We all benefit from roads, even if we don’t drive (let’s set aside issues such as whether the benefits equal the costs, whether the federal government should be involved, etc). Does that somehow mean the gasoline excise tax is not a tax? Of course not.

Turning now to the excise tax, the Administration’s argument that this is a fee is even less defensible. The Baucus legislation in the Senate Finance Committee explicitly references an excise tax. Equally revealing (and even more ominous), the IRS is charged with collecting the fee. The White House can argue that the tax - in the economic sense - is lower than the fee if something of value is exchanged. But the tax is still there.

Rather than play games, the White House should make an open argument for bigger government. The fact that the Administration prefers to be deceptive says a lot about the underlying merits of their proposal.

What’s a Trillion Dollars Among Friends?

If you’re Barack Obama, money is no object. The national debt exceeds $11 trillion. We’ve had about $13 trillion worth of bail-outs over the last year. The deficit this year will run nearly $2 trillion. The Congressional Budget Office warns of a cumulative deficit of some $10 trillion over the next decade.

Now Obama-style health care “reform” will add another $1 trillion in increased spending over the same period. And the ultimate cost likely would be higher, perhaps much higher. Reports the Congressional Budget Office:

According to our preliminary assessment, enacting the proposal would result in a net increase in federal budget deficits of about $1.0 trillion over the 2010-2019 period. When fully implemented, about 39 million individuals would obtain coverage through the new insurance exchanges. At the same time, the number of people who had coverage through an employer would decline by about 15 million (or roughly 10 percent), and coverage from other sources would fall by about 8 million, so the net decrease in the number of people uninsured would be about 16 million or 17 million.

These new figures do not represent a formal or complete cost estimate for the draft legislation, for several reasons. The estimates provided do not address the entire bill—only the major provisions related to health insurance coverage. Some details have not been estimated yet, and the draft legislation has not been fully reviewed. Also, because expanded eligibility for the Medicaid program may be added at a later date, those figures are not likely to represent the impact that more comprehensive proposals—which might include a significant expansion of Medicaid or other options for subsidizing coverage for those with income below 150 percent of the federal poverty level—would have both on the federal budget and on the extent of insurance coverage.

Then there is the more than $100 trillion in unfunded Medicare and Social Security benefits.

Just who is going to pay all these bills?

Don’t worry, be happy.

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.

Topics: