Tag: Social Security

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.

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.

Pages