Tag: Social Security

Fiscal Imbalance and Global Power

Over at National Journal’s National Security Experts blog, this week’s question revolves around the health of the U.S. economy, and its relationship to U.S. power. 

The editors ask

How serious a threat is the mounting debt to the nation’s standing as the world’s only superpower? Can the U.S. continue to spend more than all other countries combined on its military forces given burdensome debt levels? In what other ways does the mounting debt undermine the country’s strategic position? […]

My response:

Our long-term fiscal imbalance, which increasingly amounts to a massive intergenerational wealth transfer, is clearly a sign of our decline. But it is a decline that has been a long time coming. (I first wrote about the insolvency of the Social Security system as a college sophomore, 23 years ago.) As such, it is tempting for people to assume that we’ll figure our way out of this mess before a complete collapse. Let’s call them, at the risk of a double negative, the declinist naysayers. And, even if they are willing to admit to the problem in the abstract, the naysayers can point to the more serious, and urgent, imbalances between pensioners and those who pay the pensions in Europe or Japan and say “At least we aren’t them.”

That is a pretty shoddy argument, but it seems to be ruling the day. We can talk about the obvious unsustainability of using taxes on current workers to pay benefits for retirees until we’re blue in the face. And my second grader can do the math on a system that was designed when workers outnumbered beneficiaries by 16.5 to 1, and in which, by 2030, that ratio will fall to 2 to 1. It simply doesn’t add up. (For more on this, much more, see my colleague Jagadeesh Gokhale’s latest.)

But this isn’t a math problem; this is a political problem. The incentive to kick the can down the road is overwhelming. The pain in attempting to deal with the problem in the here and now is, well, painful. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that members of Congress / Parliament / Bundestag / Diet, etc, have become very good at avoiding the issue altogether. And many of those who have chosen to tackle it are “spending more time with their families.”

What does all this mean for the United States’s standing as the world superpower? Less than you might think. Our difficulties in two medium-sized countries in SW/Central Asia have done more to puncture the illusion of American power than our political inability to deal with domestic problems. Our fiscal insolvency might convince other countries to play a larger role, if they genuinely feared for their safety. But other countries, especially our allies, are cutting military spending, while Uncle Sam continues to bear the weight of the world on his shoulders. In other words, our ability to maintain our global superpower status isn’t driven by our economic problems. But it is strategically stupid.

It is here that I take issue with Ron Marks’s contention that we spend less today than during the Cold War. While technically accurate, measuring military spending as a share of GDP is utterly misleading (as I’ve argued elsewhere.) If the point is to argue that we could spend more, I agree. But the measure doesn’t address whether we should do so.

We should think of military spending not as a share of the American economy, but rather relative to the threats we face. In real terms (constant current dollars), we spend today more than when we were facing down a nuclear-armed adversary with a massive army stationed in Eastern Europe and a navy that plied the seven seas from Cam Ranh Bay to Cuba. We spend more than during the height of the Vietnam or Korean Wars. Today, terrorist leaders are hunkered down in safe houses somewhere in, well, somewhere. In other words, what we spend is utterly disconnected from the threats we face, a point that is easily obscured when one focuses on military spending as a share of total output.

We spend so much today not because we are facing down one very scary adversary, but because we are facing down dozens or hundreds of small adversaries that should be confronted by others. After the Cold War ended, our strategy expanded to justify a massive military. Since 9/11, it has expanded further. Our fiscal crisis alone won’t force a reevaluation of our grand strategy. It will take sound strategic judgement, and a bit of political courage, to turn things around.

In the cover letter to his just-released National Security Strategy, President Obama acknowledged that it doesn’t make sense for any one country to attempt to police the entire planet, irrespective of the costs. Unfortunately, the document fails to outline a mechanism for transferring some of the burdens of global governance to others who benefit from a peaceful and prosperous world order. We should assume, therefore, that the U.S. military will continue to be the go-to force for cleaning up all manner of problems, and that the U.S. taxpayers will be stuck with the bill.

Heating Up the Covert Generational War

My latest book Social Security: A Fresh Look at Reform Alternatives (available here) argues that it’s not just labor quantity — the number of employees who are accruing future Social Security benefits — that will determine the size of Social Security’s future imbalances (and, incidentally, those of Medicare, and the size of deficits for all of government), but also the quality of that labor — the value of the work those employees are doing. 

Declining labor quality (as experienced baby boomers retire) will reduce taxable payrolls faster than is being projected by the Social Security Administration and the Congressional Budget Office.  The result is even more beneficiaries receiving Social Security checks, and lower-wage workers who will be funding those checks.

In the book, I construct a detailed simulation of U.S. demographic and economic forces over the coming decades to estimate how much of a drag declining labor quality will exert on labor productivity, countering the effects of capital accumulation and technological advance.

Now James Heckman has coauthored a study suggesting that the same thing is happening in Europe, traceable in part to public policies promoting less use and low maintenance of worker skills through the early retirement incentives of their public pension, welfare, and health systems. 

So it is quite clear how the developed world (Anglo-Saxon and mainland Europe) will spiral downward.  We’ll all vote to “strengthen” social insurance systems (the U.S. health care “reform” this year being the latest example), only to further weaken incentives for the young to acquire skills, further erode the tax base, which in turn will promote the further “strengthening” of social insurance protections … and so on. 

My old idea of a “covert generational war” is playing out before our very (but fully blind) eyes.

Two months ago, EU officials were even flirting with the idea of a cross-country crisis insurance institution — a European Monetary Fund. 

One ironic element in the ongoing European crisis: Remember how the EU’s erstwhile Stability and Growth Pact included penalties on nations who exceeded the 3 percent fiscal deficit rule?  Turns out, penalties must now be paid by the “successful” countries — mainly Germany and France — by coughing up the aid packages!

Thursday Links

  • Now that the health care bill is law, you should know exactly how it’s going to affect you, your premiums, and your coverage over the next few years. Here’s a helpful breakdown.
  • As the health care overhaul crosses home plate, global warming legislation steps up to bat.
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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.

Tuesday Links

  • Americans tuning out the State of the Union: “When Obama had to make way for ‘Lost,’ some lamented the fact that many Americans preferred trash TV over presidential enlightenment. But the public’s lack of interest in the SOTU is actually a sign of political health.”

Weekend Links

  • The G.O.P.’s next move on health care: “The challenge for Republicans is not to try to ‘do’ things just like the Democrats but a little less expensively or with a little less bureaucracy, but to present an agenda of personal and economic liberty as a positive alternative… [Republicans] will have to show that this time they are in favor of something positive. It’s called freedom.”

Obama Bank Tax Is Misguided

Perhaps I am a little confused, but didn’t the Obama Administration tell the American public only months ago that TARP was turning a profit?   But now the same administration is proposing to assess a fee on banks to cover losses from the TARP. Maybe President Obama is coming around to the realization that the TARP has indeed been a loser for the taxpayer. He appears, however, to be missing the critical reason why: the bailouts of the auto companies and AIG, all non-banks. This is to say nothing of the bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, whose losses will far exceed those from the TARP. Where is the plan to re-coup losses from Fannie and Freddie? Or a plan to re-coup our rescue of the autos?

If the effort is really about deficit reduction, then it completely misses the mark.  Any serious deficit reduction plan has to start with Medicare and Social Security.  Assessing bank fees is nothing more than a rounding error in terms of the deficit.  Let’s put aside the politics and get serious about both fixing our financial system and bringing our fiscal house into order.  The problem driving our deficits is not a lack of revenues, aside from effects of the recession, revenues have remained stable as a percent of GDP, the problem is runaway spending.

The bank tax would also miss what one has to guess is Obama’s target, the bank CEOs.  Econ 101 tells us (maybe the President can ask Larry Summers for some tutoring) corporations do not bear the incidence of taxes, their consumers and shareholders do.   So the real outcome of this proposed tax would be to increase consumer banking costs while reducing the value of bank equity, all at a time when banks are already under-capitalized.

But now the same administration is proposing to assess a fee on banks to cover losses from the TARP.  Maybe President Obama is coming around to the realization that the TARP has indeed been a loser for the taxpayer.  He appears, however, to be missing the critical reason why:  the bailouts of the auto companies and AIG, all non-banks. This is to say nothing of the bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, whose losses will far exceed those from the TARP. Where is the plan to re-coup losses from Fannie and Freddie? Or a plan to re-coup our rescue of the autos?