Tag: Social Security

The ‘47 Percent’ and the Fundamental Attribution Error

There are a number of things wrong with Mitt Romney’s now infamous suggestion that the 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay federal income tax will automatically support larger government, because those “who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them” can never be persuaded to “take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” For one, as both Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein note, the people who aren’t paying income tax are overwhelmingly either college-aged or elderly retirees who aren’t making much taxable income, not able-bodied layabouts in their 30s and 40s. In other words, they’re mostly not some distinct parasite class, but rather ordinary, hard-working people who either already have paid or will soon be paying quite substantial taxes.

The deeper mistake, however, is what social psychologists have dubbed the “fundamental attribution error”: the nigh universal human tendency to ascribe actions and outcomes to immutable personal characteristics rather than situational factors. We assume too quickly that someone behaves kindly or callously because they are a “kind person” or a “callous person”—yet research suggests that minor variations in circumstances can elicit either type of behavior from the very same people.

Presumably there are some people out there who really do just shun responsibility and think others should work to provide them with life’s necessities—but it’s hard to believe they’re more than a very tiny fraction of the millions who depend in some way on government benefits. Most of them are just responding rationally to the circumstances of the world they live in. In a society where young people know they’ll soon be taxed to support educational subsidies, of course they’ll accept the government college loans they’ll later be expected to fund. In a society where the payroll taxes that support a government pension system leave workers with 15.3 percent less in their paychecks to save and invest for old age, of course they’re going to rely heavily on the system they’ve been paying into when they retire. But to infer that this reveals something about people’s desire for big government is a little like wondering why 18th century Americans were so much fonder of agriculture than we are. People mostly live in the world that’s presented to them.

This is an equal opportunity observation, however. Progressives, after all, often make essentially the same fallacious argument as Romney, though usually not put quite as offensively: if you benefit from government largesse—whether in the form of direct supports like Social Security and Medicare, or because the state “generously” offers to spare your earnings through tax credits or deductions—then obviously you’re logically required to fall to your knees in gratitude, and you must be either confused or some kind of hypocrite if you perversely persist in supporting smaller government. Net recipients of government aid, in this view, ought to have the political commitments Romney wrongly ascribed to them.

All of this seems confused. People want goods like health care and financial security. In a social and political environment where those things are provided by government, people will accept them from government. In an environment where they’re provided by the private sector, people will acquire them privately. In the long run, the nature of the broader system will probably influence the frequency in the population of deeper character traits and dispositions like responsibility or resilience—but you can’t legitimately infer a whole lot about people’s preferences between systems from their behavior within systems.

Sometimes, Governments Lie (6th Anniversary Ed.)

(This blog post first appeared at Cato@Liberty following the release of the 2006 Medicare and Social Security trustees’ reports. I repost it, with updated links and “exhaustion dates” because sadly nothing else has changed.)

Sometimes, Governments Lie

Year after year, federal officials speak of the Social Security and Medicare trust funds as if they were real.  Yesterday Today, the government announced that the Social Security trust fund will be exhausted in 2040 2033 and that the Medicare hospital insurance trust fund will be exhausted in 2018 2024— projections that the media dutifully reported.

But those dates are meaningless, because there are no assets for these “trust funds” to exhaust.  The Bush administration wrote in its FY2007 budget proposal:

These balances are available to finance future benefit payments and other trust fund expenditures—but only in a bookkeeping sense. These funds…are not assets…that can be drawn down in the future to fund benefits…When trust fund holdings are redeemed to pay benefits, Treasury will have to finance the expenditure in the same way as any other Federal expenditure: out of current receipts, by borrowing from the public, or by reducing benefits or other expenditures. The existence of large trust fund balances, therefore, does not, by itself, increase the Government’s ability to pay benefits.

This is similar to language in the Clinton administration’s FY2000 budget, which noted that the size of the trust fund “does not…have any impact on the Government’s ability to pay benefits” (emphasis added).

I offer the following proposition:

If the government knows that there are no assets in the Social Security and Medicare “trust funds,” and yet projects the interest earned on those non-assets and the date on which those non-assets will be exhausted, then the government is lying.

If that’s the case, then these annual trustees reports constitute an institutionalized, ritualistic lie.  Also ritualistic is the media’s uncritical repetition of the lie.

The Less-than-Thrilled Case for Extending the Payroll Tax Holiday

When I think about taxes, my first instinct is to rip up the corrupt internal revenue code and implement a simple and fair flat tax.

When I think about Social Security, my first instinct is to copy dozens of other nations and implement personal retirement accounts.

Unfortunately, the political system rarely generates opportunities to enact big reforms that actually solve problems and increase freedom. Instead, we’re stuck with proposals that make things modestly better or modestly worse.

So you can imagine my sense of dissatisfaction that I’m getting peppered with questions about whether the one-year, two-percentage point payroll tax holiday should be extended.

But it’s more complicated than that. The Democrats in the Senate want to make the temporary tax cut even bigger and “offset” that tax cut with some soak-the-rich tax increases. Republicans, meanwhile, are frozen like deer in the headlights. They understandably don’t like the Democrat plan, but they seem reluctant to support anything else, not even a “clean” extension of the current policy.

Here are a handful of observations.

  • The Democrat’s proposal for a one-year payroll tax cut financed by a permanent income tax hike on investors, entrepreneurs, and small business owners would be a big net negative for U.S. job creation and competitiveness.
  • A “clean” extension of the payroll tax holiday would modestly improve incentives for work, but the temporary nature of the tax cut substantially weakens pro-growth effects.
  • Ideally, the extension of the tax holiday should be financed by reducing the growth of federal spending.
  • There are other tax cuts, such as permanent reductions in marginal income tax rates and/or permanent reductions in the double taxation of saving and investment, that would have a better impact on the economy.
  • There are other tax cuts, such as expanded credits, deductions, preferences, exemptions, and shelters, that have no positive impact on the economy.
  • A payroll tax holiday does not undermine Social Security since the Trust Fund is nothing but a big pile of IOUs.
  • The best incremental reform would be a permanent reduction in the payroll tax, with the money channeled to personal retirement accounts. This would lower the tax burden of work while reducing the long-run burden of entitlement spending.

So what does all this mean? Simply stated, there are many other fiscal reforms that are preferable, but a temporary extension of the payroll tax holiday is better than nothing—assuming, of course, it is not poisoned by accompanying class-warfare tax hikes.

Spending Reform in Rick Perry’s Plan

Texas governor Rick Perry’s “Cut, Balance, and Grow” plan is out. Dan Mitchell discussed Perry’s proposed tax reforms so I’ll offer my take on the proposed spending reforms:

  • Perry says he wants to “preserve Social Security for all generations of Americans” but state and local government employees would be allowed to opt-out of the program. Perry says that younger Americans would be able to “contribute a portion of their earnings” to a personal retirement account. I’d like to be able to completely opt-op without having to work in government. I suspect that other younger Americans who recognize that Social Security is a lousy deal will feel the same.
  • Other proposed reforms to Social Security include raising the retirement age, changing the indexing formula, and ending the practice of using excess Social Security revenues to fund general government activities. Proposing to put an end to “raiding” the Social Security trust fund might be a good sound bite for the campaign trail, but excess Social Security revenues will soon be a thing of the past anyhow. Bizarrely, Perry cites the Highway Trust Fund as “the model for how to protect funds in a pay-as-you-go system from being used for unrelated purposes.” As a Cato essay on federal highway financing explains, only about 60 percent of highway trust fund money is actually spent on highways. The rest is spent on non-highway uses like transit and bicycle paths. The bottom line is that the federal budget’s so-called “trust funds” generally belong in the same category as Santa Claus and the Toothy Fairy. Perry should just stick with calling Social Security a “Ponzi scheme.”
  • As for Medicare, Perry says reform options would include raising the retirement age, adjusting benefits, and giving Medicare recipients more control over how they spend the money they receive from current taxpayers. No surprises there.
  • I’m a little confused by Perry’s language on Medicaid reform. On one hand, he says that the 1996 welfare reform law should be used as the model. The 1996 welfare reform law block granted a fixed amount of federal funds for each state. On the other hand, Perry says “Instead of the federal government confiscating money from states, taking a cut off the top, and then sending the money back out with limited flexibility for how states can actually use it, individual states should control the program’s funding and requirements from the very beginning.” I believe that the states, and not the federal government, should be responsible for funding low-income health care programs (if they choose to offer such programs). However, I don’t think that’s what Perry is actually proposing.
  • Perry calls for a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution and a cap on total federal spending equal to 18 percent of GDP. Federal spending will be about 24 percent of GDP this year. What agencies and programs would Perry cut or eliminate to reduce federal spending by 6 percent of GDP? He doesn’t really say. That leaves me to conclude that he embraces a BBA for the same reason that most Republicans embrace it: he wants to avoid getting specific about what programs he’d cut. One could argue that his entitlement reforms are sufficiently specific, but compared to Ron Paul’s plan, which calls for the elimination of five federal departments, Perry’s plan leaves too much guesswork.
  • Other spending reform proposals don’t make up for the lack of specifics on spending cuts. For example, Perry proposes to eliminate earmarks. That’s already happened. He says he’d cut non-defense discretionary spending by $100 billion, but that’s a relatively small sum and letting military spending off the hook is disappointing. Proposing to “require emergency spending to be spent only on emergencies” sounds nice but would a President Perry stick to it if Congress larded up “emergency” legislation for a natural disaster in Texas or some military adventure abroad?

In sum, there’s some okay stuff here, but I don’t think it’s anything those who desire a truly limited federal government can get excited about. That said, Perry could have done a lot worse.

Government at War With Itself

An op-ed in the Washington Post discusses why federal farm subsidies don’t even make sense from an activist government point of view. Most farm subsidies go for animal-feed crops, which can be viewed as a subsidy for meat production. At the same time, the government propagandizes the public to follow healthy habits and eat lots of fruit and vegetables, but not so much meat.

At www.DownsizingGovernment.org, we’ve come across many federal policies that are contradictory. The government tells the public that X is good, but then it takes actions to do the opposite. Here are some examples:

  • Government health experts tell new moms to breastfeed, but the government spends billions of dollars a year on the WIC program, which subsidizes baby formula for moms.
  • The government imposes strict rules on property owners to protect wetlands, but the government’s Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation have destroyed vast amounts of wetlands.
  • The government enforces strict anti-pollution laws, but the Department of Energy and other federal agencies have been notorious polluters.
  • The Corps of Engineers has spent billions of dollars building levees to protect against flooding, but its own infrastructure has worsened the damage caused by hurricanes.
  • The government imposes tight rules to ensure proper funding and to prevent abuse in private pension plans, but its own “pension plan”—Social Security—is a Ponzi scheme.
  • The Constitution says that the federal government is created to “insure domestic tranquility,” but the government has spurred violence with alcohol prohibition and now the drug war.

My Cato colleagues are probably aware of many other contradictions, and it seems that the more the government intervenes in society, the more it will work against both the people and itself.

Social Security Demagoguery from Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann: Economically Wrong, Politically Wrong

Governor Rick Perry of Texas is being attacked by two rivals in the GOP presidential race. His sin, if you can believe it, is that he told the truth (as acknowledged by everyone from Paul Krugman to Milton Friedman) about Social Security being a Ponzi scheme.

Here’s an excerpt from Philip Klein’s column in the Examiner, looking at how Mitt Romney is criticizing Perry.

Mitt Romney doubled down on his attack against Texas Gov. Rick Perry this afternoon, warning in an interview with Sean Hannity that his critique of Social Security amounted to “terrible politics” that would cost Republicans the election. Romney’s decision to pile on suggests that he’s willing to play the “granny card” against Perry if it will help him get elected, a tactic more becoming of the likes of DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz than a potential Republican nominee.

And here’s a Byron York column from the Examiner looking at how Michele Bachmann is taking the same approach.

…another Republican rival, Michele Bachmann, is preparing to hit Perry on the same issue. “Bernie Madoff deals with Ponzi schemes, not the grandparents of America,” says a Bachmann adviser.  “Clearly she feels differently about the value of Social Security than Gov. Perry does.  She believes Social Security needs to be saved, that it’s an important safety net for Americans who have paid into it all their lives.” … “She strongly disagrees with his position on that…”

Shame on Romney and Bachmann. With an inflation-adjusted long-run shortfall of about $28 trillion, Social Security is a Ponzi scheme on steroids.

But as I explain in this video, that’s just part of the problem. The program also is a terrible deal for workers, particularly young people and minorities.

Here’s what’s so frustrating. Romney and Bachmann almost certainly understand that Social Security is actuarially bankrupt. And they probably realize that personal retirement accounts are the only long-run answer.

But they’re letting political ambition lure them into saying things that they know are not true. Why? Because they think Perry will lose votes and they can improve their respective chances of getting the GOP nomination.

Sounds like a smart approach, assuming truth and morality don’t matter.

But here’s what’s so ironic. The Romney and Bachmann strategy is only astute if Social Security is sacrosanct and personal accounts are political poison.

But as I noted last year, the American public supports personal accounts by a hefty margin. And former President Bush won two elections while supporting Social Security reform. And election-day polls confirmed that voters supported personal accounts.

I’m not a political scientist, so maybe something has changed, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Perry benefited from the left-wing demagoguery being utilized by Romney and Bachmann.

P.S. This does not mean Perry has the right answer. As far as I know, he hasn’t endorsed personal accounts. But at least he’s telling the truth about Social Security being unsustainable.

Cooling out the Marks in Uncle Sam’s Ponzi Schemes

The flap over whether Social Security is a Ponzi scheme reminds me of two passages about Social Security’s sister program, Medicare, from Cato adjunct scholar David Hyman.

The first is from his book Medicare Meets Mephistopheles, which remains the best (and only) satire ever written about Medicare:

Consider what happened when I presented some considerably less pointed remarks at the conference at Washington and Lee University School of Law. One of Medicare’s most enthusiastic supporters responded by making an impassioned speech that it was improper to describe Medicare as a “Ponzi scheme,” and the program should not be judged by the standards that would apply to a private pension because it was actually a “sacred bond” between the generations. (Leave aside the fact that I never used the word “Ponzi” in my remarks. I did note that the Medicare program bore certain similarities to an inter-generational pyramid scheme, which is something quite different. Of course, it is possible that the use of this term by the commentator was a Freudian slip.) His words brought enthusiastic applause from those members of the audience who had heard enough bad news of the sort found in this book and were more than ready to ignore Medicare’s problems on the basis of empty political sloganeering.

The second is from Hyman’s response to a critic of Medicare Meets Mephistopheles:

Finally, my reply is titled “Cooling Out the Marks, Medicare Style.” This is a reference to a well-known article by a famous sociologist, on con games and the social process of adaptation to failure:

“Sometimes, however, a mark is not quite prepared to accept his loss as a gain in experience and to say and do nothing about his venture. He may feel moved to complain to the police or to chase after the operators. In the terminology of the trade, the mark may squawk, beef, or come through. From the operators’ point of view, this kind of behavior is bad for business. It gives the members of the mob a bad reputation with such police as have not yet been fixed and with marks who have not yet been taken. In order to avoid this adverse publicity, an additional phase is sometimes added at the end of the play. It is called cooling the mark out. After the blowoff has occurred, one of the operators stays with the mark and makes an effort to keep the anger of the mark within manageable and sensible proportions. The operator stays behind his team-mates in the capacity of what might be called a cooler and exercises upon the mark the art of consolation. An attempt is made to define the situation for the mark in a way that makes it easy for him to accept the inevitable and quietly go home. The mark is given instruction in the philosophy of taking a loss.”  Erving Goffman, “On Cooling the Mark Out: Some Aspects of Adaptation to Failure,” 15 Psychiatry 451, 451-52 (1952).

The occupational hazard for Medicare’s defenders is the tendency to become coolers on the program’s behalf. Professor Horwitz largely avoids this temptation, although she is not (yet) willing to concede how hot things actually are in the place in which we find ourselves. The same cannot be said for Medicare’s more ardent defenders, who routinely justify and excuse Medicare’s pathologies on the grounds that it is a “sacred inter-generational trust,” and not just another mediocre government program. Yet, even these ardent defenders may eventually find themselves wondering, in the dark of night, how it came to pass that they became coolers, giving instruction to the poor and working classes on the philosophy of taking a loss at the hands of a program that was supposed to help them, but ended up treating them as marks. With friends like that, who needs enemies?