Topic: Social Security

The Folly of Dismissing the Effects of Entitlements on Fertility

Steve Entin recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal (“The Folly of ‘Family Friendly’ Tax Policy,” April 9, 2008; Page A15): “…proponents of greater family tax credits also claim that society owes families a big child credit because the children will face huge payroll taxes to support childless retirees who never paid to rear the next generation. Another claim is that payroll taxes make it hard for families to afford children, and we need families to have more children to pay for Social Security and Medicare. These arguments don’t wash. Most people have children because they want them, not because the state needs future taxpayers to fund social programs.”

On the 1st claim of the child tax credit proponents: Higher child tax credits today would strengthen the defense against cuts in future benefits by everyone, and especially by childless retirees.  But that goes in the wrong direction relative to what’s required–cutting future benefits because they’re not payable, even under today’s high payroll taxes.

On their 2nd claim: If payroll taxes are a hurdle to procreation by young adults, the correct remedy should be to lower them rather than introduce yet another entitlement for young adults in their children’s names – which they would use to extract resources from those children in the future by way of retirement benefits. But today’s high payroll taxes on parents are not for saving and investing for their own future retirements.  Those taxes are for paying benefits to today’s retirees under our pay-as-you-go Social Security system.  Cutting payroll taxes, therefore, would require today’s retirees, in turn, to accept smaller benefits—which is, of course, a big no-no for proponents of child-tax credits.

According to Mr. Entin, however, both of these claims don’t wash because of the rather tepid idea that people have kids because they want them, not because they (or the state) wants more future taxpayers.

However, according to studies on the potential links between fertility and entitlement spending, (for example, Michele Boldrin’s) it appears that fertility rates correlate negatively with generous government entitlement expenditures across countries.  They also correlate negatively with better access to financial markets which enables people to securely transfer purchasing power to old age. So positive fertility seems to reflect, however indirectly, a desire to “save/invest” for the future in the absence of other public and private vehicles of achieving economic security during old age.

The bottom line: Along with its well-established negative impacts on saving/investing and labor supply, unfunded entitlement promises potentially erode yet another pro-growth factor–fertility.  An estimate of net benefit promises to current adults under current entitlement policies – compiled from various tables of the latest Social Security and Medicare Trustees’ reports – shows that such underfunding amounts to $44 trillion in present discounted value!  That’s a promise of almost $200,000 in today’s dollars of future Social Security and Medicare benefits for each person aged 15 and older today.  Why would you, then, work, save, and have children to safeguard your future?

Obama’s Reckless Tax Increase to ‘Save’ Social Security

A column in the Wall Street Journal discusses Senator Obama’s plan to boost the top tax rate on entrepreneurs and investors from less than 38 percent to more than 50 percent. This huge tax increase will significantly undermine incentives to both earn and report income. As a result, the author, formerly with the Social Security Administration, explains that behavioral responses will result in far less money than projected by “static” revenue estimates:

Mr. Obama has recently veered sharply left. He now proposes to solve the looming Social Security shortfall exclusively with higher taxes. …Currently, all wages below about $100,000 are subject to a 12.4% Social Security payroll tax. But all wages above that amount are not subject to the tax. Mr. Obama wants to eliminate the cap, but, in a concession to taxpayers, exempt wages between $100,000 and $200,000. …Mr. Obama’s plan would keep Social Security in the black for only three additional years. Under his proposal, annual deficits would hit in 2020, instead of 2017. By the 2030s the system would still run an annual deficit exceeding $150 billion. Mr. Obama’s modest improvements to Social Security’s financing come at a steep cost. …The top marginal federal tax rates would effectively increase to 50.3% from 37.9%, equivalent to repealing the Bush income tax cuts almost three times over. If one accounts for behavioral responses, even the modest budgetary improvements from Mr. Obama’s plan are likely to be overstated. If employers reduce wages to cover their increased payroll-tax liabilities, these wages would no longer be subject to state or federal income taxes, or Medicare taxes. A 2006 study by Harvard economist and Obama adviser Jeffrey Liebman concluded that roughly 20% of revenue increases from raising the tax cap would be offset by declining non-Social Security taxes. Assuming modest negative behavioral responses, Mr. Liebman projected an additional 30% reduction in net revenues, leaving barely half the intended revenue intact. Mr. Obama’s plan would also dramatically raise incentives for tax evasion, further degrading revenue gains. Many high-earning individuals evade the Medicare payroll tax by setting up “S Corporations,” paying themselves in untaxed dividends rather than taxable wages. John Edwards avoided $590,000 in Medicare taxes this way in the 1990s. …The U.S. already collects far more Social Security taxes from high earners than other countries do. Social Security taxes here are currently capped at about three times the national average wage – far above other developed countries. In Canada and France payroll taxes are levied only up to the average wage. In the United Kingdom, taxes stop at 1.15 times the average wage; in Germany and Japan at 1.5 times.

Obama also wants to let the Bush tax cuts expire, which means the top tax rate would rise even farther - to more than 55 percent. But the bad news may get even worse. It is unclear how Obama will “fix” the alternative minimum tax. If his Social Security plan is any indication, he may propose to raise the top rate even further. What would all this mean? Simply stated, European-style tax rates will mean European-style stagnation.

Correction: There Is No Such Thing as Mandatory Out-Year Entitlement Spending

Astute Cato@Liberty reader Mark Close challenged my assertion that there is no such thing as mandatory federal spending – and won.

Since Congress can reduce spending on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, etc. at will, I made the strong claim that all federal spending is discretionary. I was even willing to describe interest payments on the national debt that way. I know, I know, the consequences of reneging on the debt would be catastrophic. But the (short-term) consequences of repealing Social Security & Medicare could be catastrophic for many people, too. (Imagine thousands of unemployed bureaucrats with no marketable skills! Won’t somebody please think of the surgeons??) Yet Social Security & Medicare spending is clearly discretionary.

If the difference between mandatory and discretionary spending is determined by the amount of economic dislocation that results from shutting off the spigot, I reasoned, where to draw the line? If it’s just a matter of degree, how can there be any definition of “mandatory” that isn’t just arbitrary?

Mr. Close suggested a very defensible place to draw that line: if reneging on a spending commitment would subject the U.S. government to legal action, then such spending is effectively mandatory. Examples include current-year entitlement spending, as well as current and future contractual obligations (e.g., interest payments on the national debt). Future outlays for Social Security, Medicare, etc. are not mandatory because reneging on those commitments would not subject the U.S. government to legal action.

Of course, one could still argue that interest payments on the national debt are discretionary, because Congress could always change the law to eliminate the threat of such legal action. But that’s pretty far-fetched. Even if it weren’t, Mr. Close has provided a non-arbitrary way to distinguish between mandatory and discretionary spending.

So to recap … when government officials refer to future Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid expenditures as “mandatory spending,” they’re still lying. The U.S. government, its officers, and its agents should describe such spending as automatic, not mandatory. And the new rallying cry for the Sub-Boomer generations shall be:

There Is No Such Thing as Mandatory Out-Year Entitlement Spending!

Not quite as punchy as the original, is it? I am consoled by the fact that such smart people read Cato@Liberty.

Corporate-Style Accounting Shows Growing Burden of Entitlements

A feature story in USA Today reveals the staggering burden of entitlement programs if future deficits are recognized today. These figures are revealing, but they can also be misleading. The key concern, for instance, should be the size of government in the future, not the share that is debt-financed. Funded liabilities and unfunded liabilities, after all, both result in the transfer of resources from the productive sector to government. Another problem with corporate accounting is that it assumes that political promises are binding. In reality, politicians can enact laws to completely eliminate unfunded liabilities (though they are more likely to pass bills to make the problem worse). Even with these caveats, however, the data is sobering since the numbers show that the U.S. is destined to become a European-style welfare state unless dramatic reforms are implemented:

The federal government recorded a $1.3 trillion loss last year — far more than the official $248 billion deficit — when corporate-style accounting standards are used, a USA TODAY analysis shows. The loss reflects a continued deterioration in the finances of Social Security and government retirement programs for civil servants and military personnel. The loss — equal to $11,434 per household — is more than Americans paid in income taxes in 2006. …Modern accounting requires that corporations, state governments and local governments count expenses immediately when a transaction occurs, even if the payment will be made later. The federal government does not follow the rule, so promises for Social Security and Medicare don’t show up when the government reports its financial condition. Bottom line: Taxpayers are now on the hook for a record $59.1 trillion in liabilities, a 2.3% increase from 2006. That amount is equal to $516,348 for every U.S. household. …Unfunded promises made for Medicare, Social Security and federal retirement programs account for 85% of taxpayer liabilities. State and local government retirement plans account for much of the rest. This hidden debt is the amount taxpayers would have to pay immediately to cover government’s financial obligations.

Getting It Wrong (Again) on Social Security

Yesterday, the Social Security Trustees released their annual report on the programs finances and much of the national news media thought they saw good news. “Extra Year Expected for Retirement Funds,” was a typical headline, with nearly all the media reports focusing on the Trustees’ projection that the Social Security Trust Fund would be exhausted in 2041, a year later than was projected last year.

But, of course, that date is meaningless. The Trust Fund is not a pile of money that can be used to pay Social Security benefits. It is simply an accounting measure of how much money the system owes, a collection of IOUs. No one explained it better than the Clinton administration in its 2000 budget message.

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 large Trust Fund balances, therefore, does not by itself have any impact on the government’s ability to pay benefits.

The important date in the Trustees’ Report is 2017, just 10 years from now. That is when Social Security will begin running a deficit. At that point, Social Security will have to begin redeeming the special issue bonds held by the Trust Fund. Since the federal government has no extra money with which to redeem these bonds (note our ongoing budget deficit), it will have to raise taxes, borrow more, or cut other government spending.

Moreover, the failure to reform Social Security has allowed the program’s financial problems to get worse. The system’s total unfunded liabilities are now $15.6 trillion (in discounted present value terms). That’s $100 billion worse than last year, despite $600 billion in savings from changes in technical assumptions.  And, of course, workers still have no legal, contractual, or property rights to their benefits.

That doesn’t sound much like good news to me.

But We Can Trust the Government, Right?

A common criticism of Social Security choice (and defense of the Social Security status quo) is that there are dishonest actors in private markets who would put people’s private account assets at risk of (in the words of the AFL-CIO) “corruption, waste and Enron-ization.” These critics argue that society is much better off keeping Social Security in the honest, benevolent hands of Uncle Sam.

What must these critics be thinking about today’s NYT above-the-fold article on teacher pension fund shenanigans in New Jersey? The lede says it all:

In 2005, New Jersey put either $551 million, $56 million or nothing into its pension fund for teachers. All three figures appeared in various state documents — though the state now says that the actual amount was zero.

Like many state and local government pension systems, New Jersey’s is woefully underfunded compared to the benefits it will have to pay in the future. (This situation will make headlines in the coming years, as state and local governments begin to disclose their pension fund and retirement benefit system shortfalls in accordance with a recent GASB requirement.) In New Jersey’s case, the shortfall is more than has been publicly acknowledged, however: “an analysis of its records by The New York Times shows that in many cases, New Jersey has overstated even what it has claimed to be contributing, sometimes by hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Talk about the Enronization of retirement benefits…

What should be especially troubling to SS choice opponents is that New Jersey has a number of “good government” provisions on its books, including one requiring any new state spending be paid for using a specified revenue source. When the state sweetened its pension benefits a few years ago, lawmakers supposedly complied with the law. Moreover, New Jersey officials told the NYT that there is no impropriety in the pension fund’s accounting — everything (including the apparent misstatements) is on the level.

So, despite “the right” legal safeguards, despite accounting mandates, despite the existence of a special interest (aka the state’s teachers’ union) with strong incentive to make sure the teachers’ pension fund is healthy, and despite the fund’s handling by supposedly honest, benevolent government, New Jersey’s teachers’ pension fund is “in dire shape, with a serious deficit.”

Choice opponents do have a reasonable concern that bad actors in investment markets could harm private accounts. But they fail to acknowledge that bad actors (and even non-bad actors) can — and do — harm public pensions. Wouldn’t it be sensible to allow people to put their public pension nest eggs in many different private investment baskets (some of which may be susceptible to bad actors) instead of keeping those eggs all in one Social Security basket (also susceptible to bad actors)?

At the very least, wouldn’t it be sensible to give people a choice of which bad actor risk they’d rather run?

The Swift-Boating of Andrew Biggs

Anyone who thinks that Democrats might be prepared to work in a bipartisan manner to reform Social Security should be quickly disabused by their disgraceful treatment of Andrew Biggs, President Bush’s nominee to be the next deputy administrator of the Social Security Administration.   Biggs, who once worked for me, is a distinguished economist and expert on Social Security, who has earned the respect of people on all sides of the Social Security debate.  During the time we worked together, he proved to be a rigorous analyst, who followed the numbers wherever they led, always choosing facts over ideology.  No one ever criticized his character or the quality of his research.

However, Biggs is an advocate of personal accounts.  As a result, some Democrats in Congress, the New York Times, and the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare have embarked on a campaign to smear him and scuttle his nomination.  Democrats appear to be saying that holding any opinion with which they disagree makes one unfit for public office.  If that’s the course they plan to pursue in the next Congress, more than just hope for Social Security reform will go down the drain.