Topic: Social Security

Social Security Technical Panel: 75-Year Shortfall Might Be 28 Percent Larger

A recent report from the Social Security Advisory Board’s Technical Panel found that the 75-year shortfall could be 28 percent (roughly $2.6 trillion) larger than the estimate in this year’s Trustees Report due to changes in some of the underlying technical assumptions. This disparity is more the product of the difficulties related to projecting the trajectory of a program as large and complicated as Social Security so far into the future, with the chair of the Technical Panel taking pains to reiterate that “the methods and assumptions used by the Social Security actuaries and Trustees are reasonable.” Even so, the report reveals the uncertainty related to the long-term projections for Social Security, with relatively small changes to some of the underlying assumptions significantly changing the program’s financial solvency outlook. Social Security is the largest government program in the world, and changes in its fiscal outlook could have a large impact on the government’s overall finances.

The changes in the Technical Panel report that would have the largest impact are concentrated in a few variables:

  • Higher fertility rate
  • Higher life expectancy
  • Higher interest rates

Other changes to inflation and real earnings growth rate assumptions have a small negative impact, while changes to immigration assumptions slightly improve the program’s financial picture.  Some of the changes reflect developments that are good overall but have a negative impact on Social Security’s finances, like higher life expectancy.


Some of the panel’s recommendations focus on making the methodology of the Trustees’ Report more transparent and the degree of uncertainty more clear.  While it’s possible that unforeseen changes to underlying variables like the fertility rate could improve the program’s financial outlook, it is much more likely that the trillions in unfunded obligations published in the Annual Trustees’ Report understate the shortfall, if anything.


Government Workers More Satisfied with Retirement, Health Insurance, and Vacation Benefits

A recent Gallup poll finds that government employees are considerably more satisfied than their private sector counterparts with their compensation fringe benefits–namely government retirement plans (+25), health insurance benefits (+23), and vacation time (+17).

The poll compared satisfaction with 13 different job aspects for both government and nongovernment employees, ranging from stress on the job, flexibility, recognition, salary, relations with coworkers and bosses, etc. In 9 of the 13 characteristics, government and private sector workers reported similar levels of satisfaction (all above 60%) with job stress, recognition, flexibility, safety, salary, hours, promotion opportunities and job security. 

Big Problems with Anthony Atkinson’s “Inequality: What Can Be Done?”

“The godfather of inequality research,”  is how The Economist describes septuagenarian  British economist Anthony Atkinson. A frequent co-author with Thomas Piketty and Joe Stiglitz, Sir Atkinson has written a book about inequality which a  New York Times reviewer described as a “flurry of largely recycled policy proposals.”   Inequality: What can be done? is all about “unapologetic support for aggressive government intervention,” says The Economist, and “a throwback to the 1960s and 1970s.” 

There is no need to buy the book, because the following summary – “15 Proposals from Tony Atkinson’s book ‘Inequality: What can be done?’ – is more than enough.  Each Proposal is in the author’s own words, but followed by my own view of Problems with those plans.  [I skip Proposals 9-11, which are just inflated versions of policies similar to those in the U.S. – the earned income credit, estate & gift tax, and property tax.]

Higher Tax Rates and Lower Revenues 1925-36

My recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, “Hillary Parties Like It’s 1938,” is not just about FDR’s self-defeating “tax increases” in 1936-37.  It is also about the particularly huge across-the-board increase in marginal tax rates the Herbert Hoover pushed for and enacted retroactively in 1932.   The primary motive in 1932, as in 1936, was to raise more revenue.   Federal spending under President Hoover doubled from 3.4% of GDP in 1930 to 6.8% in 1932, and he believed that unprecedented spending spree required that tax rates be even more than doubled to “restore confidence.”

Unfortunately, things did not quite work out as planned.  Total federal revenues fell dramatically to less than $2 billion in 1932 and 1933 – after all tax rates had been at least doubled and the top rate raised from 25% to 63%.  That was a sharp decline from revenues of $3.1 billion in 1931 and more than $4 billion in 1930, when the top tax was just 25%.  

Some may object that this is unfair, arguing that revenues should be expressed as a share of GDP because GDP fell so sharply in 1932 and 1933.  But that begs a key question.  Comparing the drop in revenues to the even deeper drop in GDP would make sense only if the depth and duration of the 1932-33 drop in GDP had absolutely nothing to do with higher tax rates (including Smoot-Hawley tariffs).  Yet neither Keynesian nor supply-side economics would consider huge tax hikes are so harmless (though Keynesians, seeing no revenue gain, might come to the paradoxical conclusion the Hoover actually cut taxes).  

In any case, dividing weak revenues by even weaker GDP doesn’t help support the conventional wisdom that higher tax rates always bring higher revenues. Revenues fell even as a share of falling GDP –  from 4.1% in 1930 and 3.7% in 1931 to 2.8% in 1932 (the first year of the Hoover tax increase) and 3.4% in 1933. That illusory 1932-33 “increase” was entirely due to less GDP, not more revenue. 

Stock Market Crash No Argument against Social Security Accounts

There have been many good, if ultimately unconvincing, arguments against allowing younger workers to privately invest a portion of their Social Security taxes through personal accounts.  There have been even more silly ones.  One of the silliest is the one regurgitated Monday by ThinkProgress, that this week’s stock market decline proves that “If Social Security Had Been In Private Accounts The Stock Market Drop Could Have Been A Disaster.”

Few personal account plans would require a retiree to cash out their entire account on the day that the market crashed.  But what if they did?  It is important to understand that someone retiring Monday would have begun paying into their account 40 years ago when the Dow was at 835.34.  After yesterday’s decline, it opened at 15,676 today.  Over those 40 years, the worker would have made roughly 1,040 contributions to their account.  Only 48 of them would have been at a time when the market was higher than today’s open.

Yep, even after Monday’s crash, the worker would have made a tidy profit.  In fact, his return would have been substantially higher than what he could expect to receive from Social Security. 

The last that defenders of the status quo made this argument was 2009, during the market crash that led into the Great Recession.  At that time the market hit a low of 6,547.   Obviously, if workers had been allowed to start investing then, they would have done pretty well.  But more importantly, retirees in 2009 would have done well too, once again better than Social Security.

Cato published this comprehensive study of that downturn and its impact on personal accounts.

Social Security is running nearly $26 trillion in future unfunded liabilities.  It cannot pay promised future benefits to young workers without substantial tax hikes.  We should begin a discussion of how to reform this troubled program.  A start to such a discussion would be to retire the canard about market crashes and personal accounts.

Cross-posted at TannerOnPolicy


Who Could Have Seen That Coming?

Several recent news stories report information that was hardly surprising to anyone who has studied economics or read Cato at Liberty. We talk a lot about unintended or unanticipated consequences around here, but in these cases the consequences were anticipated and even predicted by a lot of people.

First, consider this front-page story from the Washington Post on Monday:

The [fast-food] industry could be ready for another jolt as a ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour nears in the District and as other campaigns to boost wages gain traction around the country. About 30 percent of the restaurant industry’s costs come from salaries, so burger-flipping robots — or at least super-fast ovens that expedite the process — become that much more cost-competitive if the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is doubled….

Many chains are already at work looking for ingenious ways to take humans out of the picture, threatening workers in an industry that employs 2.4 million wait staffers, nearly 3 million cooks and food preparers and many of the nation’s 3.3 million cashiers….

The labor-saving technology that has so far been rolled out most extensively — kiosk and ­tablet-based ordering — could be used to replace cashiers and the part of the wait staff’s job that involves taking orders and bringing checks. 

Who could have predicted that? Well, Cato vice president Jim Dorn in his 2014 testimony to the Maryland legislature. Or Bill Gates around the same time.

Then there’s this all-too-typical AP story out of California:

Can Inequality Get Worse If Poverty Gets Better?

Jim Tankersley of the Washington Post believes he has discovered “The Big Issue With Hillary Clinton Running Against Inequality”:

“Inequality got worse under Bill Clinton, not better. That’s true if you look at the share of American incomes going to the 1 percent, per economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty. It’s also true when you look at the share of American wealth going to the super-super-rich, the top 0.1%, per research by Saez and Gabriel Zucman.”

What this actually reveals is the absurdity of (1) defining inequality solely by top 1% shares of pretax income less government benefits, and (2) judging any strong economic expansion as a failure because top 1% income shares always rise during strong economic expansions.

The graph uses the Congressional Budget Office estimates of top 1% shares, because (unlike Piketty and Saez) they include government benefits as income and subtract federal taxes.  What it shows is that both affluence and poverty are normally highly cyclical. When the top 1 percent’s share of after-tax income jumped from 11.2% in 1996 to 15.2% in 2000, the poverty rate simultaneously dropped from 11% to 8.7%.  Meanwhile, median income, after taxes and benefits, rose from $50,900 in 1993 to $61,400 by 2001, measured in 2011 dollars. 


Conversely, when the top 1% share fell from 16.7% in 2007 to about 12% in 2013 (my estimate), the poverty rate rose from 9.8% to 15%.  If we adopt the egalitarians’ top 1% mantra, must we conclude that inequality “got better” lately as poverty got worse?Top 1% and Poverty

The income peak of 2000 is a tough act to beat, and few of us are ahead of it today – least of all the top 1%. The brief surge in top incomes of 2006-2007, like the related speculative surge in housing prices, proved unhealthy and unsustainable. But weak economic performance and high poverty in the past four years is no reason to dismiss the 3.7% average economic growth of 1983-2000 simply because such prolonged prosperity made more people rich.

Tankersley also asks us to “look at the share of American wealth going to the super-super-rich, the top 0.1%, per research by Saez and Gabriel Zucman.”  As I’ve explained in The Wall Street Journal, however, the Saez-Zucman estimates misinterpret shrinking shares of capital gains and investment income still reported on individual tax returns, or shifted from the corporate tax to a pass-through firm, rather than (like most middle-class savings) sheltered in IRA, 529 and 401(k) plans.

It is easy to envision Republican partisans welcoming and adopting the Tankersley theme that Hillary Clinton should now be ashamed of the strong economy of 1996-2000 because “inequality got worse” as many new firms were created and stock prices soared. Yet whenever stocks crashed and the top 1% share fell (making inequality “better”?) the poverty rate rose and median incomes were flat or down.

Some Republican candidates have already alluded to the same pretax, pre-transfer “top 1%” figures to claim inequality worsened under Obama – meaning since 2009.  According to Piketty and Saez, real average incomes of the top 1% were indeed higher in 2013 ($1,119,315) than in the crash of 2009 ($975,884).  Before crashing below $1 million in 2009, though, top 1% incomes had been much higher in 2007 (the equivalent of $1,533, 064 in 2013 dollars) and in 2000 ($1,369,780). The rising tide has not lifted many small boats or big yachts since 2009, because the tide hasn’t risen much; higher tax rates in 2013 certainly didn’t help.

The trouble with Republicans using highly cyclical top 1% statistics as a political weapon against Democrats is that doing so requires capitulating to the divisive and dishonest leftist fallacy that poor people and middle-income people do best when the top 1% is doing badly.

The truth is that the poverty rate fell sharply and middle-incomes rose briskly in President Clinton’s second term, and the top 1% gladly reported more taxable income and paid more taxes as the tax on capital gains was cut from 28% to 20%.  There is a lesson to be learned here, but it is not to denigrate the so-called rising inequality of the late 1990s.