Topic: Social Security

Furman’s Folly: Nostalgia about 1973 and Nonsense about the Bottom 90 Percent

Jason Furman, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, set out to explain “middle-class economics” in the Wall Street Journal, March 11, in an earlier Vox blog and in a presentation to National Association of Business Economists (NABE), as well as the first chapter of the Economic Report of The President

The intent is to make the recent economy look healthier (massaging 2.3-2.4 percent growth for 2013-14 into 2.7 percent), and to claim that “subpar” 2010-14 income gains for the middle class (generously defined as the bottom 90 percent) are not due to a subpar recovery but to something that has gone on ever since 1973.  His Wall Street Journal article complains of “the decades-long trend of slower income growth for the middle class.”

Furman says, “Congressional Budget Office data (with a minor extrapolation) show, median U.S. incomes are up 17 percent since 1973.”  Actually, CBO data start with 1979 and end with 2011, so it takes more than minor extrapolation to extend that back to 1973 or forward to 2013.  CBO estimates show real after-tax median income rising from $45,400 in 1983 to $68,000 in 2008 (in 2011 dollars), but not yet back to the 2008 level by 2011. Making up a number for 1973 can’t undo stagnation after 2008. 

He continues: “But from 1948-73, median incomes rose 110 percent, according to broadly comparable Census estimates.”  Yet the two series aren’t remotely comparable.  Unlike pre-tax “money income” from the Census Bureau, the CBO subtracts federal taxes (middle-income tax rates were nearly cut in half since 1981) and includes rapidly increased health and other in-kind benefits from employers and government (Medicaid, SNAP, CHIP and housing allowances). 

Bipartisan Baloney About Top 1 Percent Income Gains

In the State of the Union address on January 20, President Obama said, “those at the top have never done better… Inequality has deepened.”  The following day, Fox News anchor Brett Baier said, “According to the work of Emmanuel Saez, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, during the post-recession years of 2009-2012, top earners snagged a greater share of total income growth than during the boom years of 2002-2007. In other words, income inequality has become more pronounced since the Bush administration, not less.” 

Senator Bernie Sanders agrees that “in recent years, over 99 percent of all new income generated in the economy has gone to the top 1 percent.”  And Senator Ted Cruz likewise confirmed that, “The top 1 percent under President Obama, the millionaires and billionaires that he constantly demagogued earned a higher share for our income than any year since 1928.” 

When any statistic is so politically useful and wildly popular among left-wing Democrats and right-wing Republicans you can be pretty sure it’s baloney.  Bipartisan baloney.

In November 2013, I wrote that, “Because reported capital gains and bonuses were…shifted forward from 2013 to 2012 [to avoid higher tax rates], we can expect a sizable drop in the top 1 percent’s reported income when the 2013 estimates come out a year from now. The befuddled media will doubtless figure out some way to depict that drop as an increase.” As predicted, the New York Times took one look at a 14.9% drop in top 1% incomes and concluded that “The Gains from the Recovery are Still Limited to the Top One Percent” That involved slicing the same old baloney very badly.

When Mean-Tested Benefits Rose, Labor Force Participation Fell

The U.S. job market has tightened by many measures – more advertised job openings, fewer claims for initial unemployment insurance, substantial reduction in long-term unemployment and the number of discouraged workers.  Yet the percentage of working-age population that is either working or looking for work (the labor force participation rate) remains extremely low.  This is a big problem, since projections of future economic growth are constructed by adding expected growth of productivity to growth of the labor force.

Why have so many people dropped out of the labor force?  Since they’re not working (at least in the formal economy), how do they pay for things like food, rent and health care?

One explanation answers both questions: More people are relying on a variety of means-tested cash and in-kind benefits that are made available only on the condition that recipients report little or no earned income.   Since qualification for one benefit often results in qualification for others, the effect can be equivalent to a high marginal tax rate on extra work (such as switching from a 20 to 40 hour workweek, or a spouse taking a job).  Added labor income can often result in loss of multiple benefits, such as disability benefits, supplemental security income, the earned income tax credit, food stamps and Medicaid. 

This graph compares annual labor force participation rates with Congressional Budget Office data on means-tested federal benefits as a percent of GDP.  The data appear consistent with work disincentives in federal transfer payments, labor tax rates and refundable tax credits.

Wading Through Disability Paperwork

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) provides benefits to 11 million individuals, costing $140 billion annually. Its trust fund will become insolvent by 2016, so policymakers have little time to reform the system.

Funding is not the only issue facing the program. A new report from the Washington Post highlights the long list of disability cases waiting to be adjudicated.

Individuals apply to the Social Security Administration (SSA) to claim disability benefits. The file is reviewed by an administrator who makes an initial ruling, with 32 percent of applicants qualifying. Individuals who are denied can appeal the ruling. Eleven percent of appeals are approved for benefits. More than 633,000 individuals are waiting on initial claims with 170,000 waiting on appeal.

An individual’s second appeal goes to one of SSA’s 1,445 judges, whom are tasked with more than 990,000 individuals waiting on appeals. The average wait for a hearing is longer than a year.

The backlog for a hearing before an appeals judge is not new. It started during the Gerald Ford administration and SSA has never caught up. The agency tried various tactics to solve the problem, but nothing seemed to work.

Several years ago, the SSA tried a different approach. The SSA pressured judges to decide 500 cases annually, but that led to a different problem.

The Great Society Meets the Taxpayer

President Lyndon Johnson’s legacy was the so-called Great Society (read: entitlement programs). As these programs have matured, along with the U.S. population, the proportion of the people dependent on the State has soared. Indeed, spending on entitlement programs gobbles up bigger and bigger chunks of the federal budget.

As the population grows older, entitlements will grow. Worryingly, the ratio of people receiving government benefits to those paying taxes will continue to climb, too. As the accompanying chart shows, those who receive government goodies already number the same as those who pay taxes (the ratio is one). With the steady progression of the ratio, it will be very hard to put the genie of the Great Society back in the bottle. Can you just imagine how difficult it will be to cut entitlement programs when those who are dependent on the government outnumber taxpayers by two to one?

Where’s the Annual Social Security Report?

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has announced his intention to sue President Obama for “failure to faithfully follow the nation’s laws” by taking extra-legal executive actions in some areas and failing to execute the laws in other areas such as immigration, judicial appointments, health care, foreign affairs, and so on.

One area where he’s failing to execute the law is Social Security. For instance, the President and his leadership have repeatedly failed to publish on time the Annual Report of the Social Security Trustees, the yearly description of the program’s finances and future outlook. The legal deadline for its publication is April 1—see section 201 (c)(2) of the Social Security Act. We’re now more than three months past that deadline and there’s no indication that it will appear soon.

Social Security’s ex-officio trustees include the secretaries of the Treasury, Labor, and Health and Human Services, and the (currently acting) commissioner of the program. There are also two public trustees, nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. (The two public trustees may not be from the same political party.)

It’s well known that Social Security benefits comprise the largest share of income for a majority of retirees—incomes that they could not do without. So the Trustees’ Report is a crucial document. The information it contains is important to millions of stakeholders—retirees, disability beneficiaries and applicants, financial planners, workers nearing retirement, and others.

Policymakers need to know this information so they can make timely decisions intended to ensure that the program remains on a sound financial footing. For example, the 2013 Report (which didn’t appear until the end of May last year) estimated that the Disability Insurance (DI) Trust Fund will be exhausted and the program will be unable to pay full benefits at some point in 2016. Not much time remains for lawmakers to consider and enact sensible reforms to DI—and the clock is ticking.

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Jared Bernstein’s “Tax Reform” Assault on Pensions, IRAs and 401(k)s

The bad habit of defining “tax reform” in terms of fairness or “closing loopholes” sidesteps the most essential task of effective tax policy – namely, to collect taxes in ways that do the least possible damage to incentives for productive effort, investment and entrepreneurship.

The Joint Committee on Taxation list of “tax expenditures” is arbitrary accounting, not economics, and tax expenditures are not necessarily “loopholes.” These estimates do not take taxpayer behavior into account and therefore do not estimate revenues that could be raised by closing the so-called loopholes (e.g., a higher tax on capital gains would shrink asset sales and revenues). Policies that make sense in terms of economic incentives can therefore be portrayed as useless tax subsidies in the purely static accounting of “tax expenditures.”

For example, a recent New York Times article by former vice presidential adviser Jared Bernstein complains that tax deferral for retirement savings is unfair because, “most savings subsidies go to households that would surely save anyway, while almost nothing goes to the households that need help to save.” 

These “subsidies” for high-bracket taxpayers mainly consist of deferring rather than avoiding taxes, which only partly offsets the way savings are double-taxed. Even if higher-income households would actually save the same without 401(k) accounts (which contradicts research), they would still end up with much smaller retirement savings. Dividends and capital gains would then be repeatedly taxed, year after year, rather than being continually reinvested within a tax-deferred pension, IRA or 401(k) account. 

Estimated “subsidies” from tax deferral are deceptive: Instead of having recent dividends and capital gains taxed at a 15-20 percent rate in recent years, distributions from tax-deferred accounts will later be taxed at rates up to 39.6 percent. It’s a subsidy only if you don’t live much past 70.

Bernstein presents a graph showing the top 20 percent getting a 66 percent share of these “subsidies” for pensions and defined-contribution plans while the middle fifth gets only nine percent and the poorest 20 percent just two percent. What these figures actually demonstrate is that (1) people who work full-time for many years have more income to save than those who don’t, and that (2) people who pay no income tax cannot benefit from any policy that reduces taxable income, even temporarily.

There are five times as many workers in the top 20 percent than there are in the bottom 20 percent. To exclude young singles and old retirees, Gerald Mayer examined the work experience of households headed by someone between the working ages of 22 and 62. Average work hours among the poorest 20 percent still amounted to just 1,415 hours a year in 2010, while those in the middle fifth worked 2,771 hours, and the top 20 percent worked 4060 hours.

If Bernstein’s “subsidies” were properly expressed as shares of income, rather than as shares of foregone tax revenue, the differences nearly vanish. The Congressional Budget Office (the undisclosed source of his estimates) shows tax benefits for retirement savings worth only about twice as much to the top 20 percent (2 percent of net income) as to the middle 20 percent (0.9 percent of income). Retirement savings incentives appear to be worth only 0.4 percent of income to the poorest 20 percent, since they rarely owe taxes, yet annual benefits are a poor guide to lifetime benefits. Those in low income groups while they are young commonly move up to higher tax brackets by the time they start saving for retirement.

The alleged unfairness of lower-income households not getting the same dollar tax break as couples earning more than $115,100 (the top 20 percent) could be alleviated by reducing marginal tax rates on two-earner families. But Bernstein instead suggests “closing loopholes that make it easy for wealthy individuals to exceed contribution limits to tax-preferred accounts (as was found to be the case with Mitt Romney), reducing contribution limits for high-income filers, or simple limiting the value of tax breaks for the wealthiest of filers (e.g. allowing them to deduct such contributions at 28 percent instead of 39.6 percent.” None of these schemes would add a dime to the savings of low or middle-income households, of course, and they wouldn’t work.

It is not legal – and therefore not “easy”– to exceed strict contribution limits for high-income taxpayers, and Mitt Romney certainly did not do so.  What Romney did was to roll over qualified retirement plans into an IRA and then earn high compounded returns on very successful investments.  Similarly, albeit on a much smaller scale, I rolled-over a lump-sum pension into an IRA in 1990 when I changed jobs, and that IRA is now 12-times larger thanks to compound interest and bold investments.  Since I never contributed another dollar after 1990, tougher or lower contribution limits would have been entirely irrelevant.  

Bernstein’s final proposal is from the Obama budget – “allowing taxpayers to deduct contributions at 28 percent instead of 38.6 percent.” But that too is irrelevant. Any alleged “loopholes” for retirement savings have nothing to do with itemized deductions for top-bracket taxpayers, who are not allowed to deduct contributions to an IRA.  Failure to include employer contributions as taxable income is not an itemized deduction to begin with, nor is the exclusion from adjusted gross income for contributions to a Keogh retirement plan for the self-employed.  

In the process of giving “tax reform” a bad name, Jared Bernstein uses a sham fairness argument to justify arbitrary and unworkable anti-affluence policies that are irrelevant to any ill-defined problems. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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