Topic: Social Security

We’ll Never Improve the Tax System by Clinging to Partisan Folklore

top marginal tax rates over time

A stubborn myth of the pro-tax left (exemplified by Bernie Sanders) is that the Reagan tax cuts merely benefitted the rich (aka Top 1%), so it would be both harmless and fair to roll back the top tax rates to 70% or 91%.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Between the cyclical peaks of 1979 and 2007, average individual income tax rates fell most dramatically for the bottom 80%  of taxpayers, with the bottom 40 percent receiving more in refundable tax credits than paid in taxes.  By 2008 (with the 2003 tax cuts in place), the OECD found the U.S. had the most progressive tax system among OECD countries while taxes in Sweden and France were among the least progressive.

What is commonly forgotten is that before two across-the-board tax rate reductions of 30% in 1964 and 23% in 1983, families with very modest incomes faced astonishingly high marginal tax rates on every increase in income from extra work or saving (there were no tax-favored saving plans for retirement or college).

From 1954 to 1963 there were 24 tax brackets and 19 of those brackets were higher than 35%.  The lowest rate was 20% -double what it is now.  The highest was 91%.

High and steeply progressive marginal tax rates were terrible for the economy but terrific for tax avoidance. Revenues from the individual income tax were only 7.5% from 1954 to 1963 when the highest tax rate was 91%, which compares poorly with revenues of 7.9% of GDP from 1988 to 1990 when the highest tax rate was 28%. 

The Fundamental Fallacy of Redistribution

The idea that government could redistribute income willy-nilly with impunity did not originate with Senator Bernie Sanders. On the contrary, it may have begun with two of the most famous 19th Century economists, David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill.   Karl Marx, on the other side, found the idea preposterous, calling it “vulgar socialism.”

Mill wrote, “The laws and conditions of the production of wealth partake of the character of physical truths.  There is nothing optional or arbitrary about them… . It is not so with the Distribution of Wealth.  That is a matter of human institution only.  The things once there, mankind, individually, can do with them as they like.”[1]

Mill’s distinction between production and distribution appears to encourage the view that any sort of government intervention in distribution is utterly harmless – a free lunch.  But redistribution aims to take money from people who earned it and give it to those who did not.  And that, of course, has adverse effects on the incentives of those who receive the government’s benefits and on taxpayers who finance those benefits.

David Ricardo had earlier made the identical mistake. In his 1936 book The Good Society (p. 196), Walter Lippmann criticized Ricardo as being “not concerned with the increase of wealth, for wealth was increasing and the economists did not need to worry about that.” But Ricardo saw income distribution as an interesting issue of political economy and “set out to ascertain ‘the laws which determine the division of the produce of industry among the classes who concur in its formation.’

Lippmann wisely argued that, “separating the production of wealth from the distribution of wealth” was “almost certainly an error. For the amount of wealth which is available for distribution cannot in fact be separated from the proportions in which it is distributed… . Moreover, the proportion in which wealth is distributed must have an effect on the amount produced.” 

The third classical economist to address this issue was Karl Marx.  There were many fatal flaws in Marxism, including the whole notion that a society is divided into two armies – workers and capitalists.[2]  Late in his career, however, Marx wrote a fascinating 1875 letter to his allies in the German Social Democratic movement criticizing a redistributionist scheme he found unworkable.  In this famous “Critique of the Gotha Program,” Marx was highly critical of “vulgar socialism” and considered the whole notion of “fair distribution” to be “obsolete verbal rubbish.”  In response to the Gotha’s program claim that society’s production should be equally distributed to all, Marx asked, “To those who do not work as well? … But one man is superior to another physically or mentally and so supplies more labor in the same time, or can labor for a longer time… . This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labor… It is, therefore, a right to inequality…”  

Finland to Break New Ground with Basic Income Experiment

Despite some of the breathless headlines, Finland is not adopting a national universal basic income. That is, Finland is not scrapping the existing welfare system and distributing the same cash benefit to every adult citizen without additional strings or eligibility criteria. Finland is moving forward with one of the most extensive and rigorous basic income experiments in decades, which could help answer some of the lingering questions surrounding the basic income. The failures of the current system are well documented, but there are concerns about costs and potential work disincentives with a basic income. Finland’s experiment could prove invaluable in trying to find an answer some of these questions, and whether it is possible some kind of basic income or negative income tax would be a preferable alternative to the tangled web of programs in place now.

The Finnish Social Insurance Institution (Kela) will lead a consortium of think tanks, universities, and businesses in surveying the existing literature, analyzing past experiments, and designing different models to test in Finland. They will present an interim report next March, where the government will decide which models to develop further. The consortium will present a final report in November, after which the government will choose which models to actually test. The experiment will begin in 2017 and last for two years, after which the consortium will begin to evaluate the results.

One of the most important issues with any basic income proposal is deciding whether it would replace the current system or be added on to the existing structure. (The latter, of course, does not have much appeal from a limited-government perspective.) The consortium is considering multiple models, as Kela’s presentation shows: 

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.

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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. 

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