Tag: Social Security

Washington Post Asks for Budget Plans

The Washington Post’s editorial board issued a challenge to the president and his Republican opponents: “show us your plans” for deficit reduction. In fact, the Post says it would be “delighted” to receive plans from its readers. However, the Post isn’t interested in “meaningless promises” to cut “waste, fraud, and abuse”—it wants specifics:

Here’s what we’re not looking for: pablum about eliminating unnecessary spending without identifying where. Gauzy rhetoric about making hard choices without making them. Meaningless promises about eliminating waste, fraud and abuse. Broad assertions about where to find the money — “Medicare savings,” “tax reform” — without specifics. Arbitrary spending caps without accompanying details about how those limits are to be met. If you believe, for example, that federal spending should be kept to a specific share of the economy — 18 percent? 20 percent? — show the plausible path to getting there.

Amen. Chris Edwards and I have been beating the drum for Republican policymakers in particular to get specific about what they would cut. Chris recently noted that with the exception of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), and perhaps a few others, Republicans aren’t putting much effort into identifying programs to terminate. And I have noted that “It’s more common to hear Republicans blubber on about ‘reducing waste, fraud, and abuse’ in government programs and ‘saving’ the pillars of the welfare state (Social Security and Medicare) for ‘future generations.’”

As for deficit reduction ideas from Washington Post readers, we have a balanced budget plan on our Downsizing the Federal Government website. In fact, not only do we have a plan, we have over three dozen essays on numerous government agencies that provide details on what programs to cut and why.

How Your Government Deceives You, ‘Social Insurance’ Edition

From my former Cato colleague, Will Wilkinson:

The trick to weaving an effective and politically-robust safety net for those who most need one is designing it to appear to benefit everyone, especially those who don’t need it. The whole thing turns on maintaining the illusion that payroll taxes are “premiums” or “insurance contributions” and that subsequent transfers from the government are “benefits” one has paid for through a lifetime of payroll deductions. The insurance schema protects the main redistributive work of the programme by obscuring it. As a matter of legal fact, payroll taxes are just taxes; they create no legal entitlement to benefits. The government can and does spend your Social Security and Medicare taxes on killer drones. But the architects of America’s big social-insurance schemes, such as Frances Perkins and Wilbur Cohen, thought it very important that it doesn’t look that way. That’s why you you see specific deductions for Social Security and Medicare on your paycheck. And that’s why the government maintains these shell “trust funds” where you are meant to believe your “insurance contributions” are kept.

Alas, like Social Security and Medicare themselves, the deceptions that protect these entitlement programs cannot go on forever.

Generally, liberals are profoundly conservative about the classic Perkins-Cohen architecture of America’s big entitlement programmes, which they credit for their remarkable popularity and stability. Yet that architecture offers very few degrees of freedom for significant reform. Crunch time is coming, though, and sooner or later something’s got to give.

If Wilkinson’s overlords at The Economist demand that he misspell program, they should be consistent and allow him to abandon the American convention of mislabeling leftists as liberals.

ObamaCare’s Latest ‘Glitch’: Medicaid for Millions of Middle-Class Retirees

Remember how ObamaCare inadvertently kicked members of Congress out of their health insurance plans?  (Just kidding!  The Obama administration ignored that part of the law!)

Well, today we learned that ObamaCare also inadvertently gives free health care to millions of middle-class Social Security recipients:

President Barack Obama’s health care law would let several million middle-class people get nearly free insurance meant for the poor, a twist government number crunchers say they discovered only after the complex bill was signed.

The change would affect early retirees: A married couple could have an annual income of about $64,000 and still get Medicaid, said officials who make long-range cost estimates for the Health and Human Services department.

Up to 3 million people could qualify for Medicaid in 2014 as a result of the anomaly. That’s because, in a major change from today, most of their Social Security benefits would no longer be counted as income for determining eligibility.

Medicare chief actuary Richard Foster says the situation keeps him up at night.

“I don’t generally comment on the pros or cons of policy, but that just doesn’t make sense,” Foster said during a question-and-answer session at a recent professional society meeting. It’s almost like allowing middle-class people to qualify for food stamps, he suggested.

What other surprises lurk in ObamaCare’s 2,000-plus pages?

Kudos to Rick Foster and the Associated Press’s Ricardo Alonzo-Zaldivar.

Wednesday Links

Senate Vote on Rand Paul’s Budget

Last week, a motion to proceed on a budget resolution introduced by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) was decisively defeated in the Senate (7 in favor, 90 opposed). Paul’s proposal would have balanced the budget in five years (fiscal year 2016) through spending cuts and no tax increases. Social Security and Medicare would not have been altered. Instead, the proposal merely instructed relevant congressional committees to enact reforms that would achieve “solvency” over a 75-year window.

That’s hardly radical.

Paul’s proposed spending cuts were certainly bold by Washington’s standards, but they weren’t radical either. For example, military spending would have been cut, in part, by reducing the government’s bootprint abroad. From the Paul proposal:

The ability to utilize our immense air and sea power, to be anywhere in the world in a relatively short amount of time, no longer justifies our expanded presence in the world. This budget would require the Department of Defense to begin realigning the over 750 confirmed military installations around the world. It would also require the countries that we assist to begin providing more funding to their own defense. European, Asian, and Middle Eastern countries have little incentive to increase their own military budgets, or take control of regional security, when the U.S. has consistently subsidized their protection.

Over 750 confirmed military installations around the world. That’s enough to make a Roman emperor blush. Isn’t continuing to go deeper into debt to subsidize the defense of rich allies the more “radical” position? (See these Cato essays for more on downsizing the Department of Defense.)

Other cuts included eliminating the Department of Housing & Urban Development, the Department of Energy, and most of the Department of Education. But unlike most Republicans, Paul didn’t apologize for the cuts or use the debt dilemma as a cop out. Instead, he explains in his plan why these federal activities are counterproductive and should be devolved to the states or left to the private sector.

It’s disappointing that Paul could only get seven Republicans and no Democrats to support his budget. For all the bluster about needing to cut spending, not raise taxes, and stop the Obama administration’s big government agenda, most Republican senators said “no dice” when given the chance to vote in favor of a plan that would accomplish all three objectives and balance the budget in five years.

Ron Paul on the General Welfare Clause

Now that Rep. Ron Paul is again a presidential candidate, his constitutional views will come under increasing scrutiny, as happened yesterday when he was interviewed by Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday. Not surprisingly, critics immediately leapt on Paul’s “crankish view” that Social Security, Medicare, and other such programs are unconstitutional. Even Wallace seemed taken aback, citing the document’s General Welfare Clause:

The Congress shall have the Power to lay and collect Taxes … to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.

“Doesn’t Social Security come under promoting the general welfare of the United States?” Wallace asked, incredulously.

One does not have to agree with everything Paul has said or stood for over the years to grant that he has a point, and a very important one. It’s a mark of how widespread our constitutional misunderstanding is that so many Americans take it for granted, at least until the Tea Party came along, that most of what the federal government does today is constitutional.

In a nutshell, the Constitution was written and ratified to both authorize and limit the government created through it. It was designed to do the latter not through the Bill of Rights – that was an afterthought, added two years later – but through the doctrine of enumerated powers. Article I, section 8, grants the Congress only 18 powers. Nothing for education, or retirement security, or health care: Those responsibilities were left to the states or to the people, as the Tenth Amendment makes clear.

So what about the General Welfare Clause, the first of Congress’s 18 powers? To be sure, the clause was inartfully drafted, like several other provisions in the Constitution. But it was understood by nearly all as granting Congress the power simply to tax (in limited ways: see the full text). The terms “common Defence” and “general Welfare” were meant merely as general headings under which the 17 other specific powers or ends were subsumed.

In fact, the question came up almost immediately, during the ratification debates, and in early Congresses as well, so we have a rich record of just what the General Welfare Clause meant. Here, for example, in Federalist #41, is James Madison, the principal author of the Constitution:

Some, who have not denied the necessity of the power of taxation, have grounded a very fierce attack against the Constitution, on the language in which it is defined. It has been urged and echoed, that the power “to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises, to pay the debts, and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States,” amounts to an unlimited commission to exercise every power which may be alleged to be necessary for the common defense or general welfare. No stronger proof could be given of the distress under which these writers labor for objections, than their stooping to such a misconstruction…. Had no other enumeration or definition of the powers of the Congress been found in the Constitution, than the general expressions just cited, the authors of the objection might have had some color for it…. But what color can the objection have, when a specification of the objects alluded to by these general terms immediately follows, and is not even separated by a longer pause than a semicolon?

Indeed, as was often asked: What was the point of enumerating the 17 other powers if Congress could do anything it wanted under this single power? The Framers could have stopped right there. They didn’t because they meant for Congress to have only certain limited powers, each one enumerated in Article I, section 8. And taxing for the general welfare limited Congress even further by precluding it from providing for special parties or interests.

Nor does it change anything to note, as Wallace did yesterday, that the Supreme Court upheld the Social Security Act in 1937 – as if that settled the question. As a practical matter it settled things, of course, just as Plessy v. Ferguson settled the “separate-but-equal” issue in 1896, only to be reversed in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, and Bowers v. Hardwick settled the issue of homosexual sodomy in 1986, only to be reversed in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003. It’s well understood that the 1937 Court, cowed by Franklin Roosevelt’s infamous Court-packing threat, simply reversed 150 years of understanding and precedent concerning the doctrine of enumerated powers. And that removed the Constitution’s main restraint on federal power – not by constitutional amendment but by judicial fiat.

But it’s not been “extreme liberals” alone, Wallace went on to say, who’ve read the Constitution as the 1937 Court did, noting that conservative Justice Antonin Scalia recently told a congressional gathering: “It’s up to Congress how you want to appropriate, basically.” To be sure, from fear over “judicial activism,” many conservative judges have bought into the New Deal’s constitutional revolution. Perhaps the most that can be said on their side is that the Court cannot alone, this late in the day, reverse these mistakes.

In fact, this unconstitutionality cannot be undone overnight even by the Congress. Here again there are practical concerns, as Paul has recognized. Vast numbers of people have come to rely on these welfare schemes, however unsustainable they are in the long run, as has become increasingly clear. If constitutional fidelity can serve to spur fiscal discipline, however, we may yet slowly work our way out of our present and long-term fiscal dilemma. But that felicitous result will not happen until we admit both our infidelity and our indiscipline – the two are intimately connected.

By reading the General Welfare Clause in isolation, therefore, Wallace and others turn the Constitution on its head. Rather than a document aimed at limiting government, it becomes a document authorizing unlimited government. And let’s be clear: The basic issue here is nothing more – nor less – than legitimacy. Do we live under the Constitution, or don’t we? If Ron Paul’s views on this fundamental question are “cranky,” so too were those of Madison, Jefferson, Washington, and the rest of the Founders we revere.

The 2011 Social Security Trustees Report — Harbinger of Bad News

The just-released 2011 annual report of the Social Security Trustees shows a significant worsening of the program’s finances.

Last year we were told that we would see payroll tax surpluses over benefit expenditures for a few more years — until 2015. That won’t happen according to the 2011 report; the program will now add to federal deficits in every future year — and increasingly so, which will ramp-up financial pressure to downsize other federal programs, increase taxes, or create yet more debt.

Note that both Republicans and Democrats negotiating over how to reduce federal deficits and the national debt have resolved to leave Social Security untouched for now.  That leaves the program’s finances to fester and worsen — increasing the costs of future adjustments and burdens on future generations.

Many people, especially those who favor early reforms, say that the Social Security trust funds “don’t matter.”  Note, however, that they lock up future federal revenues for Social Security benefit payments — on par with future dedicated payroll taxes.

The lock-up effect of the Social Security trust funds  is demonstrated by the fact that the program’s cash flow deficits today are not forcing any benefit cuts or payroll tax increases.  This can continue until the year 2036 according to the 2011 report.

But if we allow the situation to continue for that long, fixing the program will require a permanent benefit cut of at least 25 percent or a payroll tax increase of at least 40 percent of payrolls in 2036 and beyond.

Most left-leaning politicians and analysts are unwilling to entertain any benefit cuts today.  They favor tax increases today.  But those will fall on today’s and future workers, destroying their incentives to work and ability to save for the future.

Retirees, on the other hand, can continue to enjoy Social Security benefits that are much more generous compared to what they paid in when working.  So to hold all, including well-off, retirees harmless from a “shared sacrifice” approach to fixing Social Security’s finances seems unfair.

The trust fund also “matters” because it provides fodder to the argument of left-leaning politicians that the program’s finances are sound, backed by $2.6 trillion in Trust Fund treasury securities.  That $2.6 trillion sounds like a lot of money to the average Joe on the street. But consider that past and current generations, who together contributed an extra $2.6 trillion to Social Security, are now owed much more under the program’s current laws — a whopping $18.8 trillion according to the 2011 report.

The program’s long-term actuarial deficit (over 75 years) is now 2.2 percentage points of payrolls.  That’s 30 basis points larger than was the case in last year’s report, by far the largest increase in recent memory . That’s surely because of poorer prospects today compared to last year of experiencing a rapid recovery of productivity, output, and payroll tax revenues.

Finally, Mark Warshawsky, my friend and colleague on the Social Security Advisory Board, notes that this year’s Trustees’ report has been released on a Friday during the afternoon — the right day to release bad news because policymakers and the public are usually busy planning or traveling for weekend activities.