Topic: Social Security

Rick Perry’s Moment

Last night POLITICO Arena asked:

Who won the Reagan debate?

My response:

Give Rick Perry credit: he had the courage to call Social Security a Ponzi scheme, which it is. As with all such schemes, early entrants got something for nothing (or very little). Late entrants will get nothing for something. Social Security started with 16 contributors for every recipient. It’s now down to fewer that 3, and headed for 2. It’s unsustainable, as Perry said. A private company that ran such a scheme would be prosecuted in less than a New York minute. We should be grateful that a major candidate has finally spoken truth to fiction.

Why Congressional Budget Office Estimates and Policy Options Are Taken Much Too Seriously

Coercive redistribution and diversity in the interests of its constituent groups are essential features of the modern welfare state.  Disagreement over perceived consequences of social policy creates the demand for publicly justified “objective” evaluations. If there were no coercion, redistribution and intervention would be voluntary activities and there would be no need for public justification for voluntary trades.

James J. Heckman (winner of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Economics), “Accounting for Heterogeneity, Diversity and General Equilibrium in Evaluating Social Programs,” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 7230, July 1999.

Is Medicare Sustainable?

A letter in the Washington Post from Dale Everett of Ashburn, Va., makes a point about the sustainability of our entitlements programs:

At 80, I am a “poster boy” for what is wrong with Medicare and Social Security. I worked full time from 1950 until 1993, when I retired. I paid the maximum amount annually required by law. My payment from Social Security in 1993 was $1,170 per month, and it now exceeds $1,500. I paid $47,377 into the fund and have so far received more than $288,000 from it.

As for Medicare I paid $14,350 into the fund from 1966 to 1993. I have been very healthy but had cancer several years ago and a craniotomy five years ago. The costs of those exceeded $1 million. Even minor surgery would far exceed what I paid to the fund.

Please tell me how such a system can be sustained. Both programs need to be overhauled now. No one should believe that he has paid for and earned the right to such payments.

How Your Government Deceives You, ‘Social Insurance’ Edition

From my former Cato colleague, Will Wilkinson:

The trick to weaving an effective and politically-robust safety net for those who most need one is designing it to appear to benefit everyone, especially those who don’t need it. The whole thing turns on maintaining the illusion that payroll taxes are “premiums” or “insurance contributions” and that subsequent transfers from the government are “benefits” one has paid for through a lifetime of payroll deductions. The insurance schema protects the main redistributive work of the programme by obscuring it. As a matter of legal fact, payroll taxes are just taxes; they create no legal entitlement to benefits. The government can and does spend your Social Security and Medicare taxes on killer drones. But the architects of America’s big social-insurance schemes, such as Frances Perkins and Wilbur Cohen, thought it very important that it doesn’t look that way. That’s why you you see specific deductions for Social Security and Medicare on your paycheck. And that’s why the government maintains these shell “trust funds” where you are meant to believe your “insurance contributions” are kept.

Alas, like Social Security and Medicare themselves, the deceptions that protect these entitlement programs cannot go on forever.

Generally, liberals are profoundly conservative about the classic Perkins-Cohen architecture of America’s big entitlement programmes, which they credit for their remarkable popularity and stability. Yet that architecture offers very few degrees of freedom for significant reform. Crunch time is coming, though, and sooner or later something’s got to give.

If Wilkinson’s overlords at The Economist demand that he misspell program, they should be consistent and allow him to abandon the American convention of mislabeling leftists as liberals.

Parallels to 1995 in Spending Fight

The American welfare state has been in crisis for decades. Many of the problems faced in 1995 fight have become less tractable problems today. John Samples comments in yesterday’s Cato Daily Podcast.

One notable difference between 1995 and today, Samples says, is that the GOP of 1995 kept Social Security off the chopping block for spending cuts.

Subscribe to the podcast here (RSS) and here (iTunes).

The 2011 Social Security Trustees Report — Harbinger of Bad News

The just-released 2011 annual report of the Social Security Trustees shows a significant worsening of the program’s finances.

Last year we were told that we would see payroll tax surpluses over benefit expenditures for a few more years — until 2015. That won’t happen according to the 2011 report; the program will now add to federal deficits in every future year — and increasingly so, which will ramp-up financial pressure to downsize other federal programs, increase taxes, or create yet more debt.

Note that both Republicans and Democrats negotiating over how to reduce federal deficits and the national debt have resolved to leave Social Security untouched for now.  That leaves the program’s finances to fester and worsen — increasing the costs of future adjustments and burdens on future generations.

Many people, especially those who favor early reforms, say that the Social Security trust funds “don’t matter.”  Note, however, that they lock up future federal revenues for Social Security benefit payments — on par with future dedicated payroll taxes.

The lock-up effect of the Social Security trust funds  is demonstrated by the fact that the program’s cash flow deficits today are not forcing any benefit cuts or payroll tax increases.  This can continue until the year 2036 according to the 2011 report.

But if we allow the situation to continue for that long, fixing the program will require a permanent benefit cut of at least 25 percent or a payroll tax increase of at least 40 percent of payrolls in 2036 and beyond.

Most left-leaning politicians and analysts are unwilling to entertain any benefit cuts today.  They favor tax increases today.  But those will fall on today’s and future workers, destroying their incentives to work and ability to save for the future.

Retirees, on the other hand, can continue to enjoy Social Security benefits that are much more generous compared to what they paid in when working.  So to hold all, including well-off, retirees harmless from a “shared sacrifice” approach to fixing Social Security’s finances seems unfair.

The trust fund also “matters” because it provides fodder to the argument of left-leaning politicians that the program’s finances are sound, backed by $2.6 trillion in Trust Fund treasury securities.  That $2.6 trillion sounds like a lot of money to the average Joe on the street. But consider that past and current generations, who together contributed an extra $2.6 trillion to Social Security, are now owed much more under the program’s current laws — a whopping $18.8 trillion according to the 2011 report.

The program’s long-term actuarial deficit (over 75 years) is now 2.2 percentage points of payrolls.  That’s 30 basis points larger than was the case in last year’s report, by far the largest increase in recent memory . That’s surely because of poorer prospects today compared to last year of experiencing a rapid recovery of productivity, output, and payroll tax revenues.

Finally, Mark Warshawsky, my friend and colleague on the Social Security Advisory Board, notes that this year’s Trustees’ report has been released on a Friday during the afternoon — the right day to release bad news because policymakers and the public are usually busy planning or traveling for weekend activities.

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Thirty Years of Private Social Security in Chile

The big international story that broke on Sunday understandably was the death of Osama Bin Laden. But another big story was that May 1 also marked the thirtieth anniversary of the introduction of Chile’s successful private pension system. Implemented by José Piñera (now a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Cato) to replace unsustainable public pensions, private retirement accounts have averaged real annual rates of return of more than 9 percent, contributed to economic growth and the rise in savings, and helped turn working Chileans into capitalists. They’ve been a key to Chile’s economic progress and political maturity. The reform has been copied in part or in full by some 30 countries around the world. And contrary to what American critics on the left claimed at the time, private pensions weathered the global financial storm admirably. It’s only a matter of time before the United States and other rich nations begin addressing the crisis in public pensions in the same way. But the sooner the better. See this piece from Investor’s Business Daily on Chile’s system at 30.