Tag: Social Security

About Those Social Security ‘Promises’

In the Republican debate last night, former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas criticized calls for Social Security reform, saying “people paid their money. They expect to have it,” and that the country needs to honor its promises to seniors. There are problems with this line of argument: the Social Security payroll taxes a person pays are not tied to the benefits they receive in a legal sense, and the ‘promises’ made by Social Security are, and always have been, subject to change.

Congress has had the authority to alter Social Security since its inception. Section 1104 of The Social Security Act of 1935 explicitly says: “The right to alter, amend, or repeal any provision of this Act is hereby reserved to the Congress.”

Not only does Congress have the right to make changes, it has done so multiple times in the past. Sometimes these changes are smaller things, like a technical correction to the indexation formula, but there were also larger reforms that were part of attempts to address the programs solvency issues.

The Supreme Court revisited the issue of Social Security’s promises in Flemming v. Nestor, in which Nestor, who had paid into Social Security for 19 years and begun to receive benefits, was then deported for previous ties to the Communist Party. Nestor tried to appeal the termination of his benefits, citing his previous contributions, but the Supreme Court upheld it, saying:

To engraft upon the Social Security system a concept of ‘accrued property rights’ would deprive it of the flexibility and boldness in adjustment to ever changing conditions which it demands… It is apparent that the non-contractual interest of an employee covered by the [Social Security] Act cannot be soundly analogized to that of the holder of an annuity, whose right to benefits is bottomed on his contractual premium payments.

The other aspect Huckabee touches on is the link between the taxes paid in and the benefits a person ultimately receives, implying that a worker’s contributions are kept in some kind of silo to be paid out to them at a later date. As another Supreme Court case found, this is not true.

In Helvering v. Davis (1937)the Court held that Social Security was not a contributory insurance program in the sense that  “[t]he proceeds of both the employee and employer taxes are to be paid into the Treasury like any other internal revenue generally, and are not earmarked in any way.” Despite how Huckabee and his fellow defenders of the status quo describe the program, the payroll tax payments a person pays into Social Security have no direct link to the benefits that they receive in a legal sense: they  are subject to future changes made by Congress and dependent on the program having sufficient revenue.

Huckabee doesn’t need to familiarize himself with these decades-old Supreme Court cases or the Social Security Act to be able to understand the problems with his invocation of the program’s ‘promises’. Anyone, including Huckabee, can see this for themselves in the Social Security Statement that the Social Security Administration periodically sends to workers:

Your estimated benefits are based on current law. Congress has made changes to the law in the past and can do so at any time.

The ‘promises’ with Social Security always came with an asterisk, and beneficiaries are not entitled to a certain amount because they have contributed payroll taxes. In the past the law has been altered to change the deal facing beneficiaries, and there will undoubtedly have to be more changes in the future if Social Security is to remain viable. If we maintain the status quo and do nothing, benefits will have to cut by 23 percent across the board when the combined trust fund is exhausted in 2034. There can be disagreements about the best way to reform Social Security, but when it is facing trillions in unfunded obligations and the certainty of drastic cuts in the future absent reform, doing nothing is not a feasible option.

Social Security Technical Panel: 75-Year Shortfall Might Be 28 Percent Larger

A recent report from the Social Security Advisory Board’s Technical Panel found that the 75-year shortfall could be 28 percent (roughly $2.6 trillion) larger than the estimate in this year’s Trustees Report due to changes in some of the underlying technical assumptions. This disparity is more the product of the difficulties related to projecting the trajectory of a program as large and complicated as Social Security so far into the future, with the chair of the Technical Panel taking pains to reiterate that “the methods and assumptions used by the Social Security actuaries and Trustees are reasonable.” Even so, the report reveals the uncertainty related to the long-term projections for Social Security, with relatively small changes to some of the underlying assumptions significantly changing the program’s financial solvency outlook. Social Security is the largest government program in the world, and changes in its fiscal outlook could have a large impact on the government’s overall finances.

The changes in the Technical Panel report that would have the largest impact are concentrated in a few variables:

  • Higher fertility rate
  • Higher life expectancy
  • Higher interest rates

Other changes to inflation and real earnings growth rate assumptions have a small negative impact, while changes to immigration assumptions slightly improve the program’s financial picture.  Some of the changes reflect developments that are good overall but have a negative impact on Social Security’s finances, like higher life expectancy.


Some of the panel’s recommendations focus on making the methodology of the Trustees’ Report more transparent and the degree of uncertainty more clear.  While it’s possible that unforeseen changes to underlying variables like the fertility rate could improve the program’s financial outlook, it is much more likely that the trillions in unfunded obligations published in the Annual Trustees’ Report understate the shortfall, if anything.


What Greek “Austerity”?

It’s hard to find anything written or spoken about Greece that doesn’t contain a great deal of hand wringing about the alleged austerity – brutal fiscal austerity – that the Greek government has been forced to endure at the hands of the so-called troika. This is Alice in Wonderland economics. It supports my 95% rule: 95% of what you read about economics and finance is either wrong or irrelevant.

The following chart contains the facts courtesy of Eurostat. Social security spending as a percentage of GDP in Greece is clearly bloated relative to the average European Union country—even more so if you only consider the 16 countries that joined the EU after the Maastricht Treaty was signed in 1992. To bring the government in Athens into line with Europe, a serious diet would be necessary – much more serious than anything prescribed by the troika.

Social Security Fund

Marriage Policy Is a Mess. Here’s How to Make Sense of It.

Give Rand Paul points for trying: His opinion piece about marriage policy in the wake of Obergefell did better than many other Republicans have done. He did not call for resurrecting the dead – and politically toxic – Federal Marriage Amendment. He would appear to be actually considering the issues at stake, which is a good start.

But contrary to the promise of the headline (which he probably didn’t write anyway), the measures that Senator Paul recommends would not get government “out of the marriage business altogether.” Judging by what he actually wrote, local government would still control entry and exit from civil marriage, and civil marriage itself would apparently still continue to exist. Many federal consequences, like Social Security survivorship and the ability to sponsor an immigrant spouse, would presumably continue to flow from marital status - and they’d still be unavailable in any other way.

This isn’t such a terrible thing, necessarily. Marriage policy is really, really complicated. As long as we have a government, and as long as it’s making important decisions about our families and property, at least some parts of civil marriage may actually be worth saving. Marriage can serve as a protection against the state, one that (among lots of other things) keeps families together and makes the Social Security system run marginally more justly: If anyone deserves to recoup some of what the government takes by way of the payroll tax, it’s the widow of the worker who “contributed.” And if anyone is competent to sponsor a new citizen, it must be that new citizen’s spouse.

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.

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?

You Shouldn’t Have to Give Up Your Health Insurance When You Take Social Security

This blogpost and the amicus brief it references were co-authored by Trevor Burrus and Kathleen Hunker.

When Brian Hall, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, and other over-65 retirees requested to opt out of Medicare’s hospital insurance coverage (because they preferred their existing private coverage), the Social Security Administration didn’t thank them for saving taxpayers’ money. Instead, the SSA explained that, because of a guideline in its “Program Operations Manual System”—essentially a manual that explains how to operate the Social Security system—anyone who declined Medicare benefits would lose Social Security.

That is, Hall and the others could disclaim their Medicare hospital insurance coverage, but only if they forfeited all of their future claims to Social Security and repaid whatever benefits they already had received — roughly $280,000 altogether. The plaintiffs challenged the linking of Social Security and Medicare as being beyond the SSA’s statutory authority. Neither the Social Security Act nor the Medicare Act allows administrative agencies to precondition benefits under one program on acceptance of benefits from other. Instead, the plain language of both statutes states that petitioners are “entitled” to benefits, which according to legal and general usage describes someone who is “legally qualified” and thus has the option of claiming benefits.

The district court disagreed and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, in a split decision, affirmed the trial court’s result but declined to grant the POMS rules deference. The court then unanimously denied a petition for rehearing. Recognizing that the D.C. Circuit ruling, if left in place, could encourage future encroachments on congressional power by administrative agencies, Cato filed an amicus brief supporting Hall’s request that the Supreme Court take the case and enforce the statute as it was written.

We note that administrative agencies have no powers not granted to them by Congress and that regulations must be anchored in the operative statute—as well as the agency’s fair and considered judgment—in order to warrant judicial deference. The POMS regulation fails this standard because Congress’s use of the word “entitled” was clear and unambiguous. Combined with the fiscal irresponsibility of forcing citizens to accept costly benefits in an economic recession, the POMS rule appears to be an arbitrary power grab rather than a faithful effort to implement the will of Congress. We conclude by reminding the Court that agency overreach imperils the separation of powers and therefore liberty.

When Congress fails to counter an unauthorized expansion of power by an administrative agency, the judiciary has a duty to uphold the Constitution by enforcing the relevant statute as written.

The Supreme Court will decide later this fall whether to take the case of Hall v. Sebelius.