Topic: General

Why Can’t Suri Laugh?

Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes (AKA TomKat) had a baby last month, Suri Holmes.  Apropos, this week the Medicare program’s public trustees reported that even though only 7 percent of TomKat’s federal income taxes now go toward Medicare, when Suri turns 15 years old, 25 percent of the federal income taxes levied on her modeling earnings will go straight to Medicare.  By the time Suri turns 25 years old, 40 percent of the federal income taxes levied on her book deal will help finance Medicare benefits for her dear old dad, who will then be 68 years old.

The Social Security Side-Step

In describing the contents of the Social Security Trustees’ latest annual report, most reporters have described the changes as “minor.” That impression rests, however, on a comparison of a large number with a gigantic number—the present value of Social Security’s financial shortfall over 75 years to the present value of total payrolls, also projected over the next 75 years.

Note that according to the report, an additional 2 percentage points must be added to payroll tax rates immediately and must be kept in place permanently. That’s unlikely, and precisely because we are describing the shortfall as “no big deal.”

Problem is, the cost escalates the longer we wait. How long would we wait? When it becomes as large as four percentage points? Six? No, if it becomes that large, chances are taxpayers would revolt and the system would have to face benefit cuts.

Benefit cuts? At a time when beneficiaries are more numerous and politically powerful? Unlikely. Then what?

Buried inside the report are other, larger estimates of the system’s shortfall—the “actuarial deficit” calculated without a time limit is reported to be $13.3 trillion. Including the outstanding Treasury liabilities to Social Security that must be paid for out of higher income or other non-payroll taxes, the total financial shortfall compared to benefits is a whopping $15.2 trillion. And compared to total future payrolls, this amount equals 3.7 percentage points.

Most reports attached some variant of “let’s not panic, these numbers are very uncertain” to the perpetuity estimates of Social Security’s shortfall.

Not panic? OK. But ignore? That’s effectively the message. If we don’t like the outlook, we should just ignore it. It’s not going to affect us. We’ll collect our benefits well before then, so why bother?

That’s not the advice financial planners would give to an individual or family facing uncertainty in personal finances. Rather, they would recommend purchasing insurance or hedging their portfolios by diversifying assets.

But prudence with personal assets and profligacy with public ones imply a collision course—one that’s unlikely to deliver “social security.”

Someone recently asked: Even if God told us these numbers were correct, what can we do today? After all, we can only distribute future outputs to meet future needs. This reminded me of Jacob and the Pharaohs. In that story, Jacob suggested filling the granaries well before the famines arrived—in other words, saving and investing more today.

Existing institutions—Social Security Trust Funds and such—haven’t worked in that regard. Indeed, the evidence points to the exact opposite outcome: Today’s entitlement programs are inducing us to spend more, work less, and retire earlier than ever before.
Rather than give up on a structural reform of Social Security, our efforts need redoubling.

Max Boot, Oil, and the “Dictatorship Dividend”

In the LA Times today, Max Boot identifies a real problem: oil revenue goes disproportionately to some pretty odious regimes. His solutions, such as “increase federal funding for research and rollout of fossil-fuel substitutes such as hydrogen, cellulosic ethanol (produced from grasses and agricultural waste) and plug-in electric engines,” reflect a touching faith in the ability of the federal government to pick winners among all the potential alternatives to oil out there. He would be on stronger ground if we were to argue “tax the hell out of oil and let’s see what emerges.”

Unfortunately, the cost gap between conventional gasoline and the alternatives is quite steep. Look at Europe for instance. Even with gasoline taxes that put prices at between $5-8 per gallon, we don’t see non-oil transportation fuels penetrating the market in any significant way.

I call this the “wish upon a star” policy. Yes, it would be nice if we could render oil valueless through some sort of concerted government effort. But we have made a number of great and small stabs toward that end over the decades and have nothing to show for it save for bankrupt companies, synfuel stories that no one apparently pays any attention to anymore, and forgotten white elephants like California’s glorious attempt in the early 1990s to produce high performance golf carts to replace the automobile. But alas, hope springs eternal.

If consumers want to strike a blow against “the dictator dividend” associated with gasoline consumption, there’s nothing stopping them. Don’t buy gasoline. Ride a bike. Walk. Tool around in a golf cart. Retrofit your car to run on vegetable oil or “Bio-Willie.” If that’s too much for you, you can always simply cut back on gasoline and shrink the dividend that way. There’s nothing here that government needs to do that we can’t do ourselves—if we really want to go where Boot would take us.

New at Cato Unbound: Dark Days for Small Government

Today in Cato Unbound, Bruce Bartlett, author of Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy, agrees with David Frum’s gloomy assessment of the prospects for small government and argues that conservatives and libertarians often compound the problem by failing to understand the magnitude and political intractability of the government’s non-discretionary entitlement programs. Slashing government is not “as easy as waving a magic wand.” Bartlett warns of the danger of resigning in frustration and calls for “a serious debate among libertarians and small government-types on a realistic political strategy for achieving their goals.”

Stay tuned! Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam will comment Friday, and Cato’s David Boaz will round out the replies to Frum with an essay on Monday.

Beyond Parody

The Nanny State grows too bizarre for satire.

Here’s The Onion in 1998:

According to a controversial Federal Trade Commission report released Tuesday, food manufacturer Hostess may have intentionally marketed “Twinkies”—a dangerous snack cake linked to obesity and hyperactivity—to minors.

There is substantial evidence supporting the claim that, for decades, Hostess has carried out an aggressive marketing campaign with the goal of promoting Twinkie use among underage consumers,” the FTC report read. “Our nation’s children have been targeted for the consumption of these fattening, unwholesome cakes at a vulnerable age, before they are old enough to make responsible decisions about health and nutrition. “The report also stated that “as a result of Hostess’ targeting of minors, millions of young bodies have been exposed to potentially harmful substances such as fat, sugar, cholesterol, polysorbate 60, calcium sulfate, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil and caramel color.”

Among the questionable Hostess marketing tactics the FTC report cites: positioning Twinkies billboards in the direct view of schoolyards, airing Twinkies ads on Saturday-morning TV and, most notably, developing and aggressively promoting “Twinkie The Kid,” a smiling, lariat-wielding cowboy cartoon mascot shaped like a Hostess Twinkie.

Believe it or not, here’s an actual press release from the FTC, issued yesterday:

The Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Health and Human Services today released a report recommending concrete steps that industry can take to change their marketing and other practices to make progress against childhood obesity.

[…]

“Responsible, industry-generated action and effective self-regulation are critical to addressing the national problem of childhood obesity,” said FTC Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras. “The FTC plans to monitor industry efforts closely, and we expect to see real improvements.”

This isn’t the first time the Nanny State has caught up to an Onion parody. See here, for example. Or here. Or here.

For an explanation why SpongeBob Squarepants isn’t to blame for childhood obesity, check here.

Medicare

On May 2, I attended an American Enterprise Institute symposium on Medicare’s financial outlook. That outlook is awful.

I offered the Stroke of a Pen solution of raising the age of eligibility going forward. In Crisis of Abundance, I explain in more detail how to phase out Medicare.

This idea was ridiculed by the panel. For the most part the panel reminded me of an old business cartoon with the caption, “I don’t have a solution, but I really admire your problem.”

However, the most likely alternative to cutting benefits is “cost control,” meaning price controls and/or rationing. The audience and the panel seemed much more receptive to cost control than to cutting benefits. Maybe the AEI is getting ready to play a role in the Hillary Clinton administration.

One of those who emphatically resisted cutting benefits was Mark McClellan, the Medicare czar. He was so gung-ho about Medicare’s quality initiatives that during the Q&A I asked him whether Medicare should take over health care for everyone. Instead of saying, “No,” he gave a political answer about how Medicare’s new initiatives were a “partnership” with the private sector.

Public-private partnerships are problematic, in my view. Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and private-public partnerships absolutely corrupt the private sector.

We have reached the point in health care policy where government is like the ten-year-old boy who starts fires so that he can be lauded as a hero for helping to put them out. Massachusetts gives huge hospital subsidies for “uncompensated care”—the subsidies apparently exceed the cost of care, because one of the obstacles to the Massachusetts reform is that hospitals are worried that they will lose money. Anyway, these subsidies, along with dysfunctional insurance regulations, favor uninsured free riders, causing the fire that needs to be put out with health insurance mandates.

McClellan lauded the Massachusetts reforms.