Topic: Social Security

Downsize the Social Security Administration

A new section on the Social Security Administration (SSA) has been added to Cato’s Downsizing Government website. The SSA operates three large programs that provide benefits to millions of Americans: Old-Age and Survivors Insurance, Disability Insurance, and Supplemental Security Income. Total SSA spending will be $873 billion in 2013, which works out to an average of about $7,300 for every household in the nation. 

Essays: 

Social Security Retirement: Social Security faces a huge financing gap because of its pay-as-you-go structure and the aging of the U.S. population. It should be transitioned to a system of personal savings accounts, which would increase individual financial security and help to avert future tax increases.   

Social Security Disability Insurance: Growing numbers of Americans are receiving disability benefits, and the system is subject to major abuses. Policymakers should tighten eligibility for the program and explore ways to move it to the private sector.   

Supplemental Security Income: This program for low-income and disabled individuals suffers from similar abuses and overspending problems as Social Security Disability Insurance. The financing and administration of Supplemental Security Income should be devolved to the states. 

State and Local Pension Liabilities

The unsustainable path of federal entitlements has received huge attention in recent years, but the unfunded pension liabilities of state and local governments are also large.  In recent work, economists Robert Novy-Marx and Joshua Rauh, of Rochester and Stanford, respectively, estimate that this liability may approach $3 trillion.  

That figure might sound paltry compared to the unfunded federal liabilities for Social Security and Medicare; Cato scholar Jagadeesh Ghokale estimates these to be more than $66 trillion as of fiscal year 2013.

Yet $3 trillion is hardly chicken feed.  Novy-Marx and Rauh estimate that to fund these pensions fully within 30 years, states would need to raise taxes by $1,385 per household, per year, over that period. 

This calculation highlights the enormity of the unfunded federal liabilities. Assuming the necessary tax increases would be proportional to the difference between state and federal liabilities, it would take an extra $30,470 in taxes per household, per year, for 30 years, to fund the federal liabilities.

Rauh and Novy-Marx go on to examine options for reducing the state unfunded liabilities. One approach is a “soft freeze” that enrolls new hires in defined contribution rather than defined benefit plans; this reduces the required tax increases from $1,385 to $1,210 per year.  Another approach is a hard freeze that stops benefit accruals for employees already in the defined benefits plans; this reduces the tax increases to $700-$800 per year.

An approach that Novy-Marx and Rauh do not consider is shrinking state and local government, which makes sense in many instances even if pensions are fully funded.  Legalizing drugs, for example, would mean reduced employment of police, prosecutors, and prison guards; this not only saves pension costs but also wages, salaries, and health costs, while eliminating a government activity that never made sense in the first place.

Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall, Which Nation Is in the Deepest Fiscal Doo-Doo of All?

According to the Bank for International Settlements, the United States has a terrible long-run fiscal outlook. Assuming we don’t implement genuine entitlement reform, the only countries in worse shape are the United Kingdom and Japan.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, meanwhile, also has a grim fiscal outlook for America. According to their numbers, the only nations in worse shape are New Zealand and Japan.

But I’ve never been happy with these BIS and OECD numbers because they focus on deficits, debt, and fiscal balance. Those are important indicators, of course, but they’re best viewed as symptoms.

The underlying problem is that the burden of government spending is too high. And what the BIS and OECD numbers are really showing is that the public sector is going to get even bigger in coming decades, largely because of aging populations. Unfortunately, you have to read between the lines to understand what’s really happening.

But now I’ve stumbled across some IMF data that presents the long-run fiscal outlook in a more logical fashion. As you can see from this graph (taken from this publication), they show the expected rise in age-related spending on the vertical axis and the amount of needed fiscal adjustment on the horizontal axis.

In other words, you don’t want your nation to be in the upper-right quadrant, but that’s exactly where you can find the United States.

IMF Future Spending-Adjustment Needs

Yes, Japan needs more fiscal adjustment. Yes, the burden of government spending will expand by a larger amount in Belgium. But America combines the worst of both worlds in a depressingly impressive fashion.

So thanks to FDR, LBJ, Nixon, Bush, Obama and others for helping to create and expand the welfare state. They’ve managed to put the United States in a worse long-run position than Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, and other failing welfare states.

The Old Infrastructure Excuse for Bigger Deficits

Washington Post columnist/blogger Ezra Klein recently echoed the latest White House rationale for additional “stimulus” spending for 2013-15 and postponing spending restraint (including sequestration) until after the 2014 elections. Klein argues for “a 10- or 12-year deficit reduction plan that includes a substantial infrastructure investment in the next two or three years.” In other words, a “deficit-reduction plan” that increases deficits until the next presidential election year.

Citing Larry Summers (who similarly promoted Obama’s 2009 stimulus plan while head of the National Economic Council) Klein says, “There’s a far better case right now for being an infrastructure hawk than a deficit hawk.”

“Deficit hawks tend to [worry that] … too much government borrowing can, in a healthy economy, begin to “crowd out” private borrowing. That means interest rates rise and the economy slows… That’s not happening right now. In real terms — which means after accounting for inflation — the U.S. government can borrow for five, seven or 10 years at less than nothing… . That’s extraordinary. It means markets are so nervous that they will literally pay us to keep their money safe for them.”

If low yields on Treasury and agency bonds simply reflected investor anxiety (unlike stock prices),  rather than quantitative easing, then why has the Federal Reserve been spending $85 billion a month buying Treasury and agency bonds? Despite those Fed efforts, Treasury bond yields have lately been moving up rather smartly – even on TIPS (inflation-protected securities). The yield on 10-year bonds rose by a half percentage point since early May. It is not credible to assume, as Summers does in a paper with Brad DeLong, that today’s yields would remain as low as they have been even in the face of substantially more federal borrowing for infrastructure. Even the Fed’s appetite for Treasury IOUs has limits. 

A second worry of deficit hawks, according to Klein and Summers, “is a moral concern about forcing our children to pay the bill for the things we bought… .These are real, worthwhile concerns. But in this economy, both make a stronger case for investing in infrastructure than paying down debt.”  Paying down debt?!  Nobody is talking about paying debt. That would require a budget surplus.  The debate is only about borrowing slightly less (sequestration) or substantially more (Obama).

The Summers-Klein argument for larger deficits is that interest rates are very low, so why not borrow billions more for a “substantial investment” in highways, bridges and airports?  Summers says, “just as you burden future generations when you accumulate debt, you also burden future generations when you defer maintenance.”  This might make sense if there was any link between government tangible assets and federal liabilities.  In reality, though, this smells like a red herring. Politicians always say they want to borrow more to build or rebuild highways and bridges.  But this is not how borrowed money is spent, particularly when it’s federal borrowing.

Accumulation of federal debt since 2008 − including the 2009 stimulus plan − had virtually nothing to do with investment. Nearly 90 percent of the  2009 “stimulus” was devoted to consumption – $430.7 billion in transfer payments to individuals, more than $300 billion in refundable tax credits, $18.4 billion in subsidies (e.g., solar and electric car lobbies), more pay and perks for government workers, etc. Stanford’s John Taylor shows that even the capital grants to states − ostensibly intended for infrastructure projects − were used to reduce state borrowing and increase transfer payments such as Medicaid.

In the National Income and Product Accounts (NIPA), the closest thing we have to a measure of “infrastructure” is government investment in structures.  Federal borrowing in the NIPA accounts rose from $493.5 billion in 2008 to $1,177.8  in 2010, yet total federal, state and local investment in structures was unchanged − $310.1 billion in 2008 and $309.3 billion in 2010. Such investment was lower by 2012, but not because federal borrowing was “only” $932.8 billion that year.  

NIPA accounts show only a $12.9 billion federal investment in nondefense structures in 2012 and $8.5 billion for defense structures. By contrast, transfer payments accounted for 61.7 percent of federal spending in 2012, consumption for 28.2 percent, interest 8.5 percent and subsidies 1.6 percent.   Consumption is mostly salaries and benefits. Transfer payments did include more than $607 billion in grants to states and localities in 2011, according to a new CBO study, but 81.7 percent of such grants were for health, income security and education, leaving only 10 percent for transportation. Transportation accounted only 3.2 percent of total federal spending in 2012 and nine percent of “discretionary” spending.

In short, direct federal infrastructure investment plus grants to states add up to only a little over $80 billion out of a budget that exceeds $3.5 trillion. If federal borrowing had anything to do with $80 billion a year in federal infrastructure spending, then we wouldn’t have been borrowing about a trillion a year for the past four years. 

Klein’s rephrasing of Summers’ rerun of the 2009 “infrastructure” excuse is not a plausible argument for increased federal debt. It is, at best, an argument for ending the chronic misuse of borrowed money to pay for transfer payments and government consumption so that we could prudently reallocate a greater share to transportation infrastructure.  

 

Obamanomics and Big Government: Bad News for Young People

I periodically post TV interviews and the second-most-watched segment - edged out only by my debate with Robert Reich on Keynesian economics - was when I discussed how President Obama’s statist policies are bad for young people.

So there’s obviously some concern about the future of the country and what it means for today’s youth.

The Center for Freedom and Prosperity has examined this issue and taken it to the next level, cramming a lot of information into this six-minute video.

The video highlights four specific ways that government intervention disadvantages younger Americans.

1. Labor market interventions such as minimum wage mandates make it more difficult for young people to find employment and climb the economic ladder.

Government is even bigger in Europe...leading to even worse results for young people2. Obamacare harms young people by requiring them to pay substantially more to prop up an inefficient government-run healthcare system.

3. Young people are trapped in a poorly designed Social Security system and politicians such as Obama think the answer is to make them pay more and get less.

4. Government has created a major third-party payer problem in higher education, putting young people on a treadmill of ever higher tuition and record debt.

What makes this situation so surreal is that young people - as noted at the start of the video - are the one group who think the “government should do more”!

I hope you share this video with every young person you know and help them understand that statism is the enemy of hope and opportunity.

And maybe also show them this poster if they need some extra help grasping the problem.

Unexpected Praise for Australia’s Private Social Security System

As part of my “Question of the Week” series, I said that Australia probably would be the best option if the United States suffered some sort of Greek-style fiscal meltdown that led to a societal collapse.*

One reason I’m so bullish on Australia is that the nation has a privatized Social Security system called “Superannuation,” with workers setting aside 9 percent of their income in personal retirement accounts (rising to 12 percent by 2020).

Established almost 30 years ago, and made virtually universal about 20 years ago, this system is far superior to the actuarially bankrupt Social Security system in the United States.

Probably the most sobering comparison is to look at a chart of how much private wealth has been created in Superannuation accounts and then look at a chart of the debt that we face for Social Security.

To be blunt, the Aussies are kicking our butts. Their system gets stronger every day and our system generates more red ink every day.

And their system is earning praise from unexpected places. The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, led by a former Clinton Administration official, is not a bastion of laissez-faire thinking. So it’s noteworthy when it publishes a study praising Superannuation.

Australia’s retirement income system is regarded by some as among the best in the world. It has achieved high individual saving rates and broad coverage at reasonably low cost to the government.

Since I wrote my dissertation on Australia’s system, I can say with confidence that the author is not exaggerating. It’s a very good role model, for reasons I’ve previously discussed.

Here’s more from the Boston College study.

The program requires employers to contribute 9 percent of earnings, rising to 12 percent by 2020, to a tax-advantaged retirement plan for each employee age 18 to 70 who earns more than a specified minimum amount. …Over 90 percent of employed Australians have savings in a Superannuation account, and the total assets in these accounts now exceed Australia’s Gross Domestic Product. …Australia has been extremely effective in achieving key goals of any retirement income system. …Its Superannuation Guarantee program has generated high and rising levels of saving by essentially the entire active workforce.

The study does include some criticisms, some of which are warranted. The system can be gamed by those who want to take advantage of the safety net retirement system maintained by the government.

Australia’s means-tested Age Pension creates incentives to reduce one’s “means” in order to collect a higher means-tested benefit. This can be done by spending down one’s savings and/or investing these savings in assets excluded from the Age Pension means test. What makes this situation especially problematic is that workers can currently access their Superannuation savings at age 55, ten years before becoming eligible for Age Pension benefits at 65. This ability creates an incentive to retire early, live on these savings until eligible for an Age Pension, and collect a higher benefit, sometimes referred to as “double dipping.”

Though I admit dealing with this issue may require a bit of paternalism. Should individuals be forced to turn their retirement accounts into an income stream (called annuitization) once they reach retirement age?

Still Looking for the Anti-Tea Party

Covering the budget fight and President Obama’s tepid and misleading budget proposal, NPR’s Scott Horsley reported this morning on opposition from the left:

We saw sort of the counterweight to the Tea Party on the right yesterday … protesting  outside the White House.

Big rally against budget constraints, eh? Like the Tea Party rallies such as this one?

Tea Party rally

Well, not exactly like the Tea Party rallies. According to various news stories, the rally was supported by numerous groups, including the AFL-CIO, MoveOn.org, the National Organization for Women, Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Democracy for America, and National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. Speakers included Sen. Bernie Sanders, liberal activist (and brother of former presidential candidate Howard Dean) Jim Dean, and at least two members of Congress. 

And here’s how the AP reported the results:

Liberal lawmakers from Congress and a coalition of like-minded groups rallied outside the White House on Tuesday, voicing frustration at the Democratic president they say has let them down by proposing cuts to Medicare and Social Security.

“If they vote to cut Social Security, they may not be returning to Washington,” Sanders told about 100 people who gathered with signs that read “No Chained CPI” and “We earned our Social Security.”

I’m not sure the president should have too much confidence in this “counterweight to the Tea Party.”