Tag: Social Security

The Cost of Government Guarantees

John Kay’s column in yesterday’s Financial Times criticizes government guarantees to banks because they involve hidden but large costs. According to Kay:

  • Such guarantees distort competition: sheltered banks outperform rivals not because of greater efficiency, but because capital becomes cheaper to obtain.
  • Sheltered banks gain too-big-to-fail status, which creates barriers to entry for smaller, more efficient banks.
  • Relief from business risk leads to more risk taking, AKA moral hazard.
  • Cheaper private risk management incentives are reduced within and outside the bank.

Other kinds of government guarantees, such as social insurance, also involve large hidden costs. Social Security and Medicare’s guarantee of a paid holiday with medical care for the rest of retirees’ lives generates the same types of costs:

  • Labor competition is reduced because the programs induce early worker retirements, which leads to higher wage costs, on average, and lower national output.
  • Workers who believe they will receive Social Security and Medicare will engage in lower personal saving, which means less capital formation and lower economic efficiency.
  • Retirement income guarantees induce riskier personal savings portfolios, AKA moral hazard.
  • Guaranteed retirement income means poorer financial knowledge and poorer risk management.

And now, retiree political power is too big to fail as well!

How come when Kay writes about market distortions from government guarantees for banks, he gets published; but when I do the same about government guarantees for people, I get the cold shoulder from editorial page editors?

Wednesday Links

  • Senate Judiciary Committee abandons hope of bringing any real change to the Patriot Act. Julian Sanchez in The Nation: “The Obama administration makes vague, reassuring noises about constraining executive power and protecting civil liberties, but then merrily adopts whatever appalling policy George W. Bush put in place.”

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.

20-somethings Will Pay for Big Government

A front-page Washington Post story today notes that the cost of Obama-style health care reform will fall disproportionately on young adults.

Younger workers are typically more healthy than the population at large, and a significant share of them quite rationally choose not to buy health insurance, as my colleague Mike Tanner explains in a recent op-ed. The major health care plans on the table in Washington would force them to buy coverage. As the Post story explains:

Drafting young adults into any health-care reform package is crucial to paying for it. As low-cost additions to insurance pools, young adults would help dilute the expense of covering older, sicker people. Depending on how Congress requires insurers to price their policies, this group could even wind up paying disproportionately hefty premiums—effectively subsidizing coverage for their parents.

I’m beginning to see a pattern. Those same young workers will be forced to pay the bills for soaring Social Security and Medicare expenditures when the Baby Boomers begin retiring en masse a decade from now. And of course, they will be the ones paying off the $9 trillion in additional federal debt expected to be wracked up from the current explosion in federal spending.

I always thought parents were supposed to support their kids, not saddle them with bigger bills and huge debts.

Don’t Leave Room for Desert

Duncan “Atrios” Black sums up and amplifies on a much longer post by Salon’s Glenn Greenwald as follows:

Just adding on to Glenn’s post, much opposition to the government actually doing anything decent for people comes from the idea that the government is going to take my tax money and give it to people who don’t deserve it. The problem is that for decades the Dems have tried to get around this by making sure policies and programs were relatively small and incremental, everything targeted and means tested. But doing that effectively confirmed the critics’ point. The big (giant) government programs which are most popular are the ones which are universal - Social Security and Medicare - and other less controversial government programs, like highway spending, are also perceived to benefit people across the board.

There’s a couple of interesting things going on here that seem worth unpacking.  The first is actually a legitimate point about how valid arguments against various kinds of redistribution tend, with unsettling ease, to shade into unsavory demonization of the folks on the receiving end of the transfer. Suppose someone suggests that the government should, either by regulation or direct subsidy, ensure that the indigent are provided with health care or that insolvent homeowners are protected from foreclosure. Now, there are a few types of objections people might raise. There’s an argument from efficiency and incentives: To the extent that the risks associated with individual financial or lifestyle choices are borne by the public, there’s a familiar problem of “moral hazard” reducing incentives for prudence. And there’s an argument from property and autonomy, to the effect that even if people ought to help others in need, each person is entitled to decide whether and how to do so without compulsion. Neither of these implies any blanket judgment about the folks who find themselves in need of aid. The first argument does suggest that redistributive policy will make it rational for people to take more risks at the margin, but it does not follow from either that people who are having trouble meeting their mortgage payments, or people who get sick and cannot afford care, are bad or foolish or irresponsible or otherwise deserving of their fate. And it is a good thing for these arguments that no such conclusion follows, because it’s clearly not true.

Yet in popular political rhetoric, it’s disturbingly easy to find just such a leap being made. Think of Rick Santelli’s jeremiad against “losers” under foreclosure getting bailed out by government. Is it just that people are inherently spiteful or unkind? In fact, the tendency to assume that people who are badly off must deserve it may be a result of what social psychologists call the Just World Hypothesis. In brief, faced with evidence that the world is often arbitrary and unfair, and that bad things often happen to good people, many of us prefer to preserve our faith in a basically fair and benevolent universe by assuming that the badly off must somehow deserve their fates—which is a stronger and (I think) rather morally uglier proposition than the more plausible notion that people are often significantly responsible for their fates.

There are at least three reasons to take some care to avoid this implication, given how easily human beings fall into it. The first is just that it’s an ugly and callous attitude to have toward people who will often deserve our compassion whether or not they ought to receive government aid. The second is that people will readily—and sometimes intentionally—misconstrue an argument about incentives as an argument about the moral worthiness or personal virtue of the proposed recipients, which does not make for a particularly fruitful conversation. Finally, there’s a paradoxically quite authoritarian implicit premise lurking behind this sort of argument—to wit, that it’s the job of the government  to determine who is or is not morally deserving of its largess, and that the central question is whether this or that particular class of prospective recipients qualifies. That’s a frame people across the spectrum ought to be uncomfortable with.

As Atrios points out, strategic response to this on the part of progressives has been to embed what are essentially welfare programs within an elaborate—and functionally, if not politically, superfluous—superstructure of universal social insurance. My colleague Will Wilkinson has pressed this point cogently in the context of Social Security. The rationale for the program is ultimately that we hope it will prevent people from being mired in poverty in old age. There is no sane reason, on this rationale, for cutting Bill Gates a check when he reaches the age of eligibility—but we do it this way because progressives believe, perhaps correctly, that a means-tested aid program for the indigent elderly would be more politically vulnerable to cuts. Which, I think, underscores the perverse effect of thinking in terms of the desert of the recipients, since there’s no actually-valid argument on which a universal need-blind benefit makes more sense than a narrow means-tested one. So one more reason to eschew desert-centered political discourse: It gives rise to policy that’s less intelligent whether your underlying commitments are progressive or libertarian.

Assessing the Claim that CDT Opposes a National ID

It was good of Ari Schwartz to respond last week to my recent post querying whether the Center for Democracy and Technology outright opposes a national ID or simply “does not support” one.

Ari says CDT does oppose a national ID, and I believe that he honestly believes that. But it’s worth taking a look at whether the group’s actions are consistent with opposition to a national ID. I believe CDT’s actions – most recently its support of the PASS ID Act – support the creation of a national ID.

(The title of his post and some of his commentary suggest I have engaged in rhetorical excess and mischaracterized his views. Please do judge for yourself whether I’m being shrill or unfair, which is not my intention.)

First I want to address an unusual claim of Ari’s – that we already have a national ID system. If that is true, his support for PASS ID is more sensible because it is an opportunity to inject federal privacy protections into the existing system (putting aside whether it is a federal responsibility to manage a state system or systems).

Do We Already Have a National ID?

I have heard a few people suggest that we have a national ID in the form of the Social Security Number. I believe the SSN is a national identifier, but it fails the test of a national identification card or system because it is not used for identification. As we know well from the scourge of identity fraud, there is no definitive way to tie an SSN to a person. The SSN is not used for identification (at least not reliably and not alone), which is the third part of my national ID definition. (Senator Schumer might like the SSN to form the basis of a national ID system, of course.)

But Ari says something different. He does not claim any definition of “national ID” or “national ID system.” Instead, he appeals to the authority of a 2003 report from a National Academy of Sciences group entitled “Who Goes There?: Authentication Through the Lens of Privacy.” That report indeed says, “State-issued driver’s licenses are a de facto nationwide identity system” – on the second-to-last substantive page of its second-to-last substantive chapter

But this is a highly selective use of quotation. The year before, that same group issued a report called “IDs – Not That Easy: Questions About Nationwide Identity Systems.” From the beginning and throughout, that report discussed the many issues around proposals to create a “nationwide” identity system. If the NAS panel had already concluded that we have a national ID system, it would not have issued an entire report critiquing that prospect. It would have discussed the existing one as such. Ari’s one quote doesn’t do much to support the notion that we already have a national ID.

What’s more, CDT’s own public comments on the proposed REAL ID Act regulations in May 2007 said that its data-intensive “one person – one license/ID card – one record” policy would ”create a national identification system.”

If a national ID system already existed, the new policy wouldn’t create one. This is another authority at odds with the idea that we have a national ID system already.

Support of PASS ID might be forgiven if we had a national ID system and if PASS ID would improve it. But the claim we already have one is weak.

“Political Reality” and Its Manufacture

But the heart of Ari’s claim is that supporting PASS ID reflects good judgment in light of political reality.

Despite the fact that there are no federal politicians, no governors and no appointed officials from any party publicly supporting repeal of REAL ID today, CDT still says that repeal is an acceptable option. However, PASS ID would get to the same outcome, or better, in practice and has the added benefit of actually being a political possibility… . I realize that Harper has invested a lot of time fighting for the word “repeal,” but at some point we have to look at the political reality.

A “Dear Colleague” letter inviting support for a bill to repeal REAL ID circulated on the Hill last week. How many legislators will hesitate to sign on to the bill because they have heard that the PASS ID Act, and not repeal of REAL ID, is CDT’s preferred way forward?

The phrase “political reality” is more often used by advocates to craft the political reality they prefer than to describe anything truly real. Like the observer effect in experimental research, statements about “political reality” change political reality.  Convince enough people that a thing is “political reality” and the sought-after political reality becomes, simply, reality.

I wrote here before about how the National Governors Association, sensing profit, has worked diligently to make REAL ID a “political reality.” And it has certainly made some headway (though not enough). In the last Congress, the only legislation aimed at resolving the REAL ID impasse were bills to repeal REAL ID. Since then, the political reality is that Barack Obama was elected president and an administration far less friendly to a national ID took office. Democrats – who are on average less friendly to a national ID – made gains in both the House and Senate.

But how are political realities crafted? It has often been described as trying to get people on a bus. To pass a bill, you change it to get more people on the bus than get off.

The REAL ID bus was missing some important riders. It had security hawks, the Department of Homeland Security, anti-immigrant groups, DMV bureaucrats, public safety advocates, and the Bush Administration. But it didn’t have: state legislators and governors, privacy and civil liberties groups, and certain religious communities, among others.

PASS ID is for the most part an effort to bring on state legislators and governors. The NGA is hoping to broker the sale of state power to the federal government, locking in its own institutional role as a supplicant in Washington, D.C. for state political leaders.

But look who else was hanging around the bus station looking for rides! – CDT, the nominal civil liberties group. Alone it jumped on the bus, communicating to others less familiar with the issues that PASS ID represented a good way forward.

Happily, few have taken this signal. The authors of PASS ID were unable to escape the name “REAL ID,” which is a far more powerful beacon flashing national ID and all the ills that entails than CDT’s signal to the contrary.

This is not the first time that CDT’s penchant for compromise has assisted the national ID effort, though.

Compromising Toward National ID

The current push for a national ID has a short history that I summarized three years ago in a righteously titled post on the TechLiberationFront blog: “The Markle Foundation: Font of Evil II.”

Briefly, in December 2003, a group called the Markle Foundation Task Force on National Security in the Information Age recommended “both near-term measures and a longer-term research agenda to increase the reliability of identification while protecting privacy.” (Never mind that false identification was not a modus operandi of the 9/11 attacks.)

The 9/11 Commission, citing Markle, found that “[t]he federal government should set standards for the issuance of birth certificates and sources of identification, such as drivers licenses.” In December 2004, Congress passed the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, implementing the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, including national standards for drivers’ licenses and identification cards, the national ID system recommended by the Markle Task Force. And in May 2005, Congress passed a strengthened national ID system in the REAL ID Act.

An earlier post, “The Markle Foundation: Font of Evil,” has more – and the text of a PoliTech debate between myself and Stewart Baker. Security hawk Baker was a participant in the Markle Foundation group, as was national ID advocate Amitai Etzioni. So was the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Jim Dempsey.

I had many reservations about the Markle Foundation Task Force and its work product, and in an April 2005 meeting of the DHS Privacy Committee, I asked Dempsey about what qualified people to serve on that task force, whether people were invited, and what might exclude them. A month before REAL ID passed, he said:

I think the Markle Task Force at least sought balance. And people came to the table committed to dialogue. And those who came with a particular point of view, I think, were all committed to listening. And I think people’s minds were changed… . What we were committed to in the Markle Task Force was changing our minds and trying to find a common ground and to try to understand each other. And we spent the time at it. And that, I think, is reflected in the product of the task force.

There isn’t a nicer, more genuine person working in public policy than Jim Dempsey. He is the consummate honest broker, and this statement of his intentions for the Markle Foundation I believe to be characteristically truthful and earnest.

But consider the possibility that others participating on the Markle Foundation Task Force did not share Jim’s predilection for honest dialogue and compromise. It is even possible that they mouthed these ideals while working intently to advance their goals, including creation of a national ID.

Stewart Baker, who I personally like, is canny and wily, and he wants to win. I see no evidence that Amitai Etzioni changed his mind about having a national ID when he authored the recommendation in the Markle report that ultimately produced REAL ID.

Other Markle participants I have talked to were unaware of what the report said about identity-based security, national identity standards, or a national ID. They don’t even know (or didn’t at the time) that lending your name to a report also lends it your credibility. Whatever privacy or civil liberties advocates were involved with the Markle Task Force got rolled – big-time – by the pro-national-ID team.

CDT is a sophisticated Washington, D.C. operation. It is supposed to understand these dynamics. I can’t give it the pass that outsiders to Washington might get. By committing to compromise rather than any principle, and by lending its name to the Markle Foundation Task Force report, CDT gave credibility to a bad idea – the creation of a national ID.

CDT helped produce the REAL ID Act, which has taken years of struggle to beat back. And now they are at it again with “pragmatic” support for PASS ID.

CDT has been consistently compromising on national ID issues while proponents of a national ID have been doggedly and persistently pursuing their interests. This is not the behavior of a civil liberties organization. It’s why I asked in the post that precipitated this debate whether there is anything that would cause CDT to push back from the table and say No.

Despite words to the contrary, I don’t see evidence that CDT opposes having a national ID. It certainly works around the edges to improve privacy in the context of having a national ID – reducing the wetness of the water, as it were – but at key junctures, CDT’s actions have tended to support having a U.S. national ID. I remain open to seeing contrary evidence.