Topic: Social Security

The Less-than-Thrilled Case for Extending the Payroll Tax Holiday

When I think about taxes, my first instinct is to rip up the corrupt internal revenue code and implement a simple and fair flat tax.

When I think about Social Security, my first instinct is to copy dozens of other nations and implement personal retirement accounts.

Unfortunately, the political system rarely generates opportunities to enact big reforms that actually solve problems and increase freedom. Instead, we’re stuck with proposals that make things modestly better or modestly worse.

So you can imagine my sense of dissatisfaction that I’m getting peppered with questions about whether the one-year, two-percentage point payroll tax holiday should be extended.

But it’s more complicated than that. The Democrats in the Senate want to make the temporary tax cut even bigger and “offset” that tax cut with some soak-the-rich tax increases. Republicans, meanwhile, are frozen like deer in the headlights. They understandably don’t like the Democrat plan, but they seem reluctant to support anything else, not even a “clean” extension of the current policy.

Here are a handful of observations.

  • The Democrat’s proposal for a one-year payroll tax cut financed by a permanent income tax hike on investors, entrepreneurs, and small business owners would be a big net negative for U.S. job creation and competitiveness.
  • A “clean” extension of the payroll tax holiday would modestly improve incentives for work, but the temporary nature of the tax cut substantially weakens pro-growth effects.
  • Ideally, the extension of the tax holiday should be financed by reducing the growth of federal spending.
  • There are other tax cuts, such as permanent reductions in marginal income tax rates and/or permanent reductions in the double taxation of saving and investment, that would have a better impact on the economy.
  • There are other tax cuts, such as expanded credits, deductions, preferences, exemptions, and shelters, that have no positive impact on the economy.
  • A payroll tax holiday does not undermine Social Security since the Trust Fund is nothing but a big pile of IOUs.
  • The best incremental reform would be a permanent reduction in the payroll tax, with the money channeled to personal retirement accounts. This would lower the tax burden of work while reducing the long-run burden of entitlement spending.

So what does all this mean? Simply stated, there are many other fiscal reforms that are preferable, but a temporary extension of the payroll tax holiday is better than nothing—assuming, of course, it is not poisoned by accompanying class-warfare tax hikes.

Social Security Demagoguery from Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann: Economically Wrong, Politically Wrong

Governor Rick Perry of Texas is being attacked by two rivals in the GOP presidential race. His sin, if you can believe it, is that he told the truth (as acknowledged by everyone from Paul Krugman to Milton Friedman) about Social Security being a Ponzi scheme.

Here’s an excerpt from Philip Klein’s column in the Examiner, looking at how Mitt Romney is criticizing Perry.

Mitt Romney doubled down on his attack against Texas Gov. Rick Perry this afternoon, warning in an interview with Sean Hannity that his critique of Social Security amounted to “terrible politics” that would cost Republicans the election. Romney’s decision to pile on suggests that he’s willing to play the “granny card” against Perry if it will help him get elected, a tactic more becoming of the likes of DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz than a potential Republican nominee.

And here’s a Byron York column from the Examiner looking at how Michele Bachmann is taking the same approach.

…another Republican rival, Michele Bachmann, is preparing to hit Perry on the same issue. “Bernie Madoff deals with Ponzi schemes, not the grandparents of America,” says a Bachmann adviser.  “Clearly she feels differently about the value of Social Security than Gov. Perry does.  She believes Social Security needs to be saved, that it’s an important safety net for Americans who have paid into it all their lives.” … “She strongly disagrees with his position on that…”

Shame on Romney and Bachmann. With an inflation-adjusted long-run shortfall of about $28 trillion, Social Security is a Ponzi scheme on steroids.

But as I explain in this video, that’s just part of the problem. The program also is a terrible deal for workers, particularly young people and minorities.

Here’s what’s so frustrating. Romney and Bachmann almost certainly understand that Social Security is actuarially bankrupt. And they probably realize that personal retirement accounts are the only long-run answer.

But they’re letting political ambition lure them into saying things that they know are not true. Why? Because they think Perry will lose votes and they can improve their respective chances of getting the GOP nomination.

Sounds like a smart approach, assuming truth and morality don’t matter.

But here’s what’s so ironic. The Romney and Bachmann strategy is only astute if Social Security is sacrosanct and personal accounts are political poison.

But as I noted last year, the American public supports personal accounts by a hefty margin. And former President Bush won two elections while supporting Social Security reform. And election-day polls confirmed that voters supported personal accounts.

I’m not a political scientist, so maybe something has changed, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Perry benefited from the left-wing demagoguery being utilized by Romney and Bachmann.

P.S. This does not mean Perry has the right answer. As far as I know, he hasn’t endorsed personal accounts. But at least he’s telling the truth about Social Security being unsustainable.

Cooling out the Marks in Uncle Sam’s Ponzi Schemes

The flap over whether Social Security is a Ponzi scheme reminds me of two passages about Social Security’s sister program, Medicare, from Cato adjunct scholar David Hyman.

The first is from his book Medicare Meets Mephistopheles, which remains the best (and only) satire ever written about Medicare:

Consider what happened when I presented some considerably less pointed remarks at the conference at Washington and Lee University School of Law. One of Medicare’s most enthusiastic supporters responded by making an impassioned speech that it was improper to describe Medicare as a “Ponzi scheme,” and the program should not be judged by the standards that would apply to a private pension because it was actually a “sacred bond” between the generations. (Leave aside the fact that I never used the word “Ponzi” in my remarks. I did note that the Medicare program bore certain similarities to an inter-generational pyramid scheme, which is something quite different. Of course, it is possible that the use of this term by the commentator was a Freudian slip.) His words brought enthusiastic applause from those members of the audience who had heard enough bad news of the sort found in this book and were more than ready to ignore Medicare’s problems on the basis of empty political sloganeering.

The second is from Hyman’s response to a critic of Medicare Meets Mephistopheles:

Finally, my reply is titled “Cooling Out the Marks, Medicare Style.” This is a reference to a well-known article by a famous sociologist, on con games and the social process of adaptation to failure:

“Sometimes, however, a mark is not quite prepared to accept his loss as a gain in experience and to say and do nothing about his venture. He may feel moved to complain to the police or to chase after the operators. In the terminology of the trade, the mark may squawk, beef, or come through. From the operators’ point of view, this kind of behavior is bad for business. It gives the members of the mob a bad reputation with such police as have not yet been fixed and with marks who have not yet been taken. In order to avoid this adverse publicity, an additional phase is sometimes added at the end of the play. It is called cooling the mark out. After the blowoff has occurred, one of the operators stays with the mark and makes an effort to keep the anger of the mark within manageable and sensible proportions. The operator stays behind his team-mates in the capacity of what might be called a cooler and exercises upon the mark the art of consolation. An attempt is made to define the situation for the mark in a way that makes it easy for him to accept the inevitable and quietly go home. The mark is given instruction in the philosophy of taking a loss.”  Erving Goffman, “On Cooling the Mark Out: Some Aspects of Adaptation to Failure,” 15 Psychiatry 451, 451-52 (1952).

The occupational hazard for Medicare’s defenders is the tendency to become coolers on the program’s behalf. Professor Horwitz largely avoids this temptation, although she is not (yet) willing to concede how hot things actually are in the place in which we find ourselves. The same cannot be said for Medicare’s more ardent defenders, who routinely justify and excuse Medicare’s pathologies on the grounds that it is a “sacred inter-generational trust,” and not just another mediocre government program. Yet, even these ardent defenders may eventually find themselves wondering, in the dark of night, how it came to pass that they became coolers, giving instruction to the poor and working classes on the philosophy of taking a loss at the hands of a program that was supposed to help them, but ended up treating them as marks. With friends like that, who needs enemies?

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.