Tag: unfunded liabilities

The Two GOPs

As the fall elections approach, two factions within the congressional GOP have emerged. The first faction, which generally controls the Republican leadership, is short-term oriented and just wants to return the GOP to power in Congress. Riding the wave of voter discontent over the government’s finances is a means to an end – the end being power.

The second, and considerably smaller faction, is more ideas driven and views the upcoming election as an opportunity to push for substantive governmental reforms. Whereas the “power first faction” offers platitudes about smaller government, the “ideas first faction” isn’t afraid to offer relatively bold suggestions for confronting the federal government’s unsustainable spending.

The ideas first faction is willing to publicly recognize that runaway entitlement spending must be reigned in and offer solutions to address the problem. Representatives Ron Paul, Michelle Bachmann, and Paul Ryan, for example, aren’t shying away from advocating a phase-out of the current Social Security system, which is headed for bankruptcy. In contrast, the power first faction lambasted Democrats for wanting to “cut Medicare” during the recent legislative battle over Obamacare.

In Ryan’s case, he has given the power first faction heartburn by pushing his “Roadmap for America’s Future,” which confronts the entitlement crisis head-on. Although Ryan’s Roadmap is not the ideal from a limited government standpoint, it’s a credible offering with ideas worth discussing. Even though the Ryan plan has received some favorable notice by the mainstream media, the power first faction would probably prefer Paul and his Roadmap went away.

From the Washington Post:

Of the 178 Republicans in the House, 13 have signed on with Ryan as co-sponsors.

Ryan’s proposals have created a bind for GOP leaders, who spent much of last year attacking the Democrats’ health-care legislation for its measures to trim Medicare costs. House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has alternately praised Ryan and emphasized that his ideas are not those of the party.

Ryan has not helped to make it easy for his leaders. He is a loyal Republican, but he is also perhaps the GOP’s leading intellectual in Congress and occasionally seems to forget that he is a politician himself.

At a recent appearance touting the Roadmap at the left-leaning Brookings Institution, someone asked Ryan why more conservatives weren’t behind his budget plan. “They’re talking to their pollsters,” Ryan answered, “and their pollsters are saying, ‘Stay away from this. We’re going to win an election.’”

His remarks illustrate the tension among Republicans over their fall agenda. Some strategists say the GOP should focus on attacking the Democrats; others want the party to offer a detailed governing plan.

Ryan’s ideas can be contrasted with those of the House Republican Conference Committee, which is a key power first organization. The HRCC just released a platitude-filled August recess packet for Republican House members to recite in talking to their constituents. Entitled “Treading Boldly,” the cover prominently features Teddy Roosevelt, which should immediately send chills down the spines of anyone believing in limited government.

The document is not “bold.” Take for example the five proposals to “Reduce the Size of Government”:

  • Freeze Congress’ Budget. This has populist appeal but does virtually nothing to reduce the size of government. The legislative branch will spend approximately $5.4 billion this year. That’s less than the federal government spends in a day.
  • Eliminate Unnecessary or Duplicative Programs. This proposal is so vacuous that even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi supports it. If the GOP isn’t willing to name a dozen or so substantial “unnecessary” programs to eliminate, then this promise can’t be taken seriously.
  • Audit the Government for Ways to Save. Yawn. Isn’t that what the $600 million Government Accountability Office does? The document says “Congress should initiate a review of every federal program and provide strict oversight to uncover and eliminate waste and duplication.” Nothing says “not serious” like calling for the federal government to eliminate “waste.” Waste comes part and parcel with a nearly $4 trillion government that can spend other’s people money on pretty much anything it wants to.

To be fair, there are sound proposals contained in the document such as privatizing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. But on the issue of entitlements, the HRCC punts:

The current budget process focuses only on about 40 percent of the budget and just the near-term – usually the next twelve months. We know that we have significant medium and long-term fiscal challenges fueled by the demographic changes in our country. The Government Accountability Office estimates that we have $76 trillion in unfunded liabilities. Rather than simply ignoring these challenges, Congress should reform its budget process to ensure that Congress begins making the decisions that are necessary to update our entitlement programs to secure them for today’s seniors and save them for future generations.

Had the Republicans not swept into office in 1994 on a promise to reduce government only to make it bigger, the power first faction’s “trust us” argument might be more credible. However, given that it already views the GOP’s ideas first faction as skunks at the party, voters who are expecting a new Republican congressional majority to downsize government might not want to hold their breath.

Public Pensions as Property Rights

On Thursday I noted that former California House Speaker Willie Brown said we shouldn’t worry about the cost of government workers’ pensions because “My guess is that the State of California, like most places involved with pensions, is going to cease to pay them.”

My former colleague Andrew Biggs, writing at The American, says Speaker Brown and I are, believe it or not, too optimistic:

In most states, accrued public-sector pension benefits carry an effective property right, either through legal rulings or outright constitutional provisions. As Donald Kohn, the vice chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, put it, “For all intents and purposes, accrued benefits have turned out to be riskless obligations.”

Some states interpret these rights as prospective, meaning that not only does a public-sector employee have a right to the benefits he’s already earned, but he has a right to continue earning benefits at the same rate no matter how financially unsustainable the pension formula may be. These provisions make state pension benefits far more assured than even Social Security, which the federal government can legally cut at anytime.

Plus, he says, the pension shortfalls are even larger than most analysts think.

Resume worrying.

Europe: Either Bismarck or the Euro, but Not Both

The Maastricht Treaty requires countries in the eurozone not to exceed a public debt of 60% of GDP. Well, now almost all of them have an official debt exceeding that ceiling. But the situation is immensely worse because European states also have huge, and largely hidden, unfunded liabilities arising from their pension and health systems. According to a 2009 study by my colleague Jagadeesh Gokhale, the true debt of the 25 European countries is, on average, 434% of GDP. And the treaties that underpin European integration do not say a word about such debt.

Greece’s true debt is 875% of GDP and its current problems are just the first act of the coming fiscal bankruptcy of Europe. In my 2004 essay “Will the Pension Time Bomb Sink the Euro?”, I concluded that Europe would end up facing a critical crossroads: either leave the Euro or abandon the Bismarckian welfare state paradigm. As it turns out, the DNA of the pay-as-you-go system allows for political manipulation and the consequent inflation of pension and health “rights.” This, exacerbated by falling fertility rates and increasing life expectancy, will lead to increasing fiscal deficits, unpayable debt, state insolvency, defaults, covert age wars, and the failure of the Eurozone project.

The welfare state has really become an arbitrary “entitlement state,” where everyone uses the state to rob someone else, and politicians from the right and the left play the transfer game to win elections. This crisis may serve to reveal the true nature and enormous flaws of the welfare state. Sooner or later, Europe will have to dismantle it and move toward a paradigm of personal responsability – that is, a system of personal accounts for pensions, health and unemployment benefits.

Going Bankrupt Double-Quick

George W. Bush and the Republicans worked hard to ruin the U.S. government’s finances.  The Obama administration and the Democrats are doing an even better job of wrecking the Treasury.

Reports Bloomberg:

Treasuries headed for their second monthly loss, pushing 10-year yields up the most in almost six years, as President Barack Obama’s record borrowing spree overwhelmed Federal Reserve efforts to cap interest rates.

Notes, little changed today, also tumbled this week on speculation the worst of the economic recession is over. A private report today will show confidence among U.S. consumers gained in May for a third month, economists said. South Korea’s National Pension Service, the nation’s largest investor, plans to reduce the weighting of U.S. bonds in its holdings, the government said in a statement.

“It’s a disastrous market,” said Hideo Shimomura, who oversees $4 billion in non-yen bonds as chief fund investor at Mitsubishi UFJ Asset Management Co. in Tokyo, a unit of Japan’s largest bank. “I expected yields to rise but not this fast. We will see new highs in yields.”

The benchmark 10-year note yielded 3.61 percent at 6:29 a.m. in London, according to BGCantor Market Data. The 3.125 percent security due in May 2019 traded at a price of 95 30/32.

Ten-year rates rose about half a percentage point in May, extending an increase of 46 basis points in April. The two-month climb was the most since July and August of 2003. A basis point is 0.01 percentage point.

As borrowing costs rise, so will future deficits, requiring more borrowing, which will push up interest rates, hiking future deficits, requiring…

Just how are we going to finance trillions of dollars for health care reform while wrecking the economy with cap and trade?  And then there’s the $107 trillion in unfunded liabilities for Social Security and Medicare.

Social Security: Debating the Ostriches

Over at Salon, Michael Lind takes me to task for raising the alarm about the latest Social Security Trustees report showing that a) Social Security’s insolvency date is growing closer, and b) the system’s unfunded liabilities have increased dramatically since last year’s report.

Like most of those who resist having an honest debate about Social security’s finances, Lind relies on a combination of economic flim-flam and political sophistry to obscure the true problem. For example, Lind points out that when I quote the Trustee’s assertion that the system’s unfunded liabilities currently top $17.5 trillion, that “assumes there are no changes made between now and eternity.” Well, duh! All estimates of US budget deficits assume that spending won’t be cut or taxes raised enough to eliminate the deficit. In fact, when I get my Visa bill and it shows how much I owe, it doesn’t tell me anything about whether I will or can pay that bill in the future. Obviously, if we raise Social Security taxes, cut Social Security benefits (or create personal accounts), we can reduce or even eliminate the program’s unfunded liabilities.

Lind then returns to the hoary idea of the Trust Fund. He objects to my characterization of the Trust fund “contains no actual assets. Instead, it contains government bonds that are simply IOUs, a measure of how much the government owes the system.” This, he says, is the same as saying “government bonds backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government, a government that has never defaulted on its obligations in its entire existence since 1776, are not actual assets?” He points out that millions of Americans invest in government bonds through their retirement programs and consider them assets. “Are U.S. government bonds “actual assets” when they are part of IRAs but not “actual assets” when they are owed to the Social Security system?” he asks.

That’s right. If I write you an IOU, you have an asset and I have a debt. If I write an IOU to myself, the asset and debt cancel each other out. I haven’t gained anything, else it would be a whole lot easier to pay my bills. When Lind invests in a government bond, he has an asset and the government has a liability. But when the government issues a bond to itself (ie. Social Security), the asset and liability cancel each other out. There’s no net increase in assets.

But don’t take my word for it. This is what Bill Clinton’s budget had to say about the Trust Fund in FY2000:

These Trust Fund balances are available to finance future benefit payments…but only in a bookkeeping sense….They do not consist of real economic assets that can be drawn down in the future to fund benefits. Instead, they are claims on the Treasury that, when redeemed, will have to be financed by raising taxes, borrowing from the public, or reducing benefits or other expenditures. The existence of Trust Fund balances, therefore, does not by itself have any impact on the government’s ability to pay benefits.

Lind then switches course and says, ok, forget about the Trust Fund. Think about Social Security like we do about defense spending. “Why do we never hear of the “unfunded liabilities” of Pentagon spending – the third of the big three spending programs (Social Security, Medicare, defense) that take up most of the federal budget? Defense spending comes out of general revenues, not a dedicated tax.”

Actually, that is a valid comparison. Both defense and Social Security spending for any given year are ultimately paid for out of that year’s tax revenue. The composition of the tax revenue is largely irrelevant. And, when taxes don’t equal expenditures, we get budget deficits. Those deficits will eventually have to be paid for by raising taxes or cutting spending.

Current projections by the Congressional Budget Office suggest that unless we reform entitlements programs, government spending will reach 40 percent of GDP by mid-century. Paying for all that government will be a crushing burden of debt and taxes for our children and grandchildren.

No amount of obfuscation by defenders of the status quo can obscure that fact.

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