Topic: Social Security

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.

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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.

Taxing the Rich Is the Cure for Everything!

Under current law, Social Security is supposed to be an “earned benefit,” where taxes are akin to insurance premiums that finance retirement benefits for workers. And because there is a cap on retirement benefits, this means there also is a “wage-base cap” on the amount of income that is hit by the payroll tax.

For 2011, the maximum annual retirement benefit is about $28,400 and the maximum amount of income subject to the payroll tax is about $107,000.

It appears that President Obama wants to radically change this system so that it is based on a class-warfare model. During the 2008 campaign, for instance, then-Senator Obama suggested that the program’s giant long-run deficit could be addressed by busting the wage-base cap and imposing the payroll tax on a larger amount of income.

For the past two years, the White House (thankfully) has not followed through on this campaign rhetoric, but that’s now changing. His Fiscal Commission, as I noted last year, suggested a big hike in the payroll tax burden. And the President reiterated his support for a class-warfare approach earlier this week, leading the Wall Street Journal to opine:

Speaking Tuesday in Annandale, Virginia, Mr. Obama came out for lifting the cap on income on which the Social Security payroll tax is applied. Currently, the employer and employee each pay 6.2% up to $106,800, a level that rises with inflation each year.

…Mr. Obama didn’t hint at specifics, though he did run in 2008 on a plan to raise the “tax max” by somewhere between two to eight percentage points for the top 3% of earners.

…[M]ost of the increase could be paid by the middle class or modestly affluent — i.e., those who merely make somewhat more than $106,800. A 6.2% additional hit on every extra dollar they make above that level is a huge reduction from their take-home pay. If the cap is removed entirely, it will also mean a huge increase in the marginal tax rates that affect decisions to work, invest and save. In a recent paper for the American Enterprise Institute, Andrew Biggs calculates that this and other tax increases Mr. Obama favors would bring the top marginal rate to somewhere between 57% and 68% when factoring in state taxes. Tax levels like these haven’t been seen since the 1970s.

Obama is cleverly avoiding specifics, largely because the potential tax hike could be enormous. The excerpt above actually understates the potential damage since it mostly focuses on the “employee” side of the payroll tax. The “employer” share of the tax (which everyone agrees is paid for by workers in the form of reduced take-home wages) is also 6.2 percent, so the increase in marginal tax rates for affected workers could be as high as 12.4 percentage points.

After the jump is a video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, narrated by yours truly, that elaborates on why this is the wrong approach.

Why Should Social Insurance Reform Not Affect Those Over Age 54?

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s budget plan is ostensibly for FY 2012, but it contains reforms with far-reaching implications for the nation’s fiscal condition.

Most of the action in his plan is on the spending side and mainly on health care entitlements: Medicare and Medicaid.  Many pundits on the left are claiming it is a political document rather than a serious budget proposal, especially because it lacks details on many of its proposed policy changes. 

One thing that stands out, as pointed out by David Leonhardt in the NYT, is that Ryan’s plan exempts people older than age 55 from bearing any share of the adjustment costs.  They should, instead, be called upon to share some of the burden, Leonhardt argues — a point that I agree with.  If seniors are receiving tens of thousands of dollars more than what they paid in for Medicare, then they should not be allowed to hide behind the tired old argument of being too old to bear any adjustment cost.  Indeed, seniors hold most of the nation’s assets and a progressive-minded reform would ask them to fork over a small share to relieve the financial burden that must otherwise be imposed on young workers and future generations.

The numbers presented by Leonhardt are computed by analysts at the Urban Institute.  However, those numbers aren’t quite as one-sided as Leonhardt and Urban scholars suggest, because they only compare Medicare payroll taxes by age group to Medicare benefits.  A large part of Medicare benefits (Medicare’s outpatient care, physicians’ fees, and federal premium support for prescription drugs) are financed out of general tax revenues, not just Medicare taxes. General tax revenues, of course, include revenues from income taxes, indirect taxes, and other non-social-insurance taxes and fees.  Seniors pay some of those taxes as well — especially by way of capital income and capital gains taxes — but the Urban calculations fail to account for this.  That means that the net benefit to seniors from Medicare is smaller than Leonhardt claims in his column.  I don’t know whether it would bring the per-person Medicare taxes and benefits as close to each other as they are for Social Security, however. (See Leonhardt’s column for more on this point.)

Leonhardt also notes that Chairman Ryan’s proposal leaves out revenue increases as a potential solution to the growing debt problem.  Leonhardt argues that wealthy individuals (mostly large and small entrepreneurs) received high returns on assets during the last few years (pre-recession) and could afford to pay more in taxes.

But it would be poor policy to raise these entrepreneurs’ income taxes — that would distort incentives to work, invest, innovate, and hire in their businesses.  Instead, policymakers should consider reducing high-earners’ Medicare and Social Security benefits (premium supports under the Ryan plan) in a progressive manner, including allowing them to opt out of Medicare and Social Security completely if they wish to.

During recent business trips to a few Midwestern towns, I met several investors and professionals in real estate, financial planning, and manufacturing concerns, most of whom expressed their willingness to forego social insurance benefits during retirement.  So there seems to be some public support for such a reform of social insurance programs.

The Case for Social Security Personal Accounts

There are two crises facing Social Security. First the program has a gigantic unfunded liability, largely caused by demographics. Second, the program is a very bad deal for younger workers, making them pay record amounts of tax in exchange for comparatively meager benefits. This video explains how personal accounts can solve both problems, and also notes that nations as varied as Australia, Chile, Sweden, and Hong Kong have implemented this pro-growth reform.

Social Security reform received a good bit of attention in the past two decades. President Clinton openly flirted with the idea, and President Bush explicitly endorsed the concept. But it has faded from the public square in recent years. But this may be about to change. Personal accounts are part of Congressman Paul Ryan’s Roadmap proposal, and recent polls show continued strong support for letting younger workers shift some of their payroll taxes to individual accounts.

Equally important, the American people understand that Social Security’s finances are unsustainable. They may not know specific numbers, but they know politicians have created a house of cards, which is why jokes about the system are so easily understandable.

President Obama thinks the answer is higher taxes, which is hardly a surprise. But making people pay more is hardly an attractive option, unless you’re the type of person who thinks it’s okay to give people a hamburger and charge them for a steak.

Other nations have figured out the right approach. Australia began to implement personal accounts back in the mid-1980s, and the results have been remarkable. The government’s finances are stronger. National saving has increased. But most important, people now can look forward to a safer and more secure retirement. Another great example is Chile, which set up personal accounts in the early 1980s. This interview with Jose Pinera, who designed the Chilean system, is a great summary of why personal accounts are necessary. All told, about 30 nations around the world have set up some form of personal accounts. Even Sweden, which the left usually wants to mimic, has partially privatized its Social Security system.

It also should be noted that personal accounts would be good for growth and competitiveness. Reforming a tax-and-transfer entitlement scheme into a system of private savings will boost jobs by lowering the marginal tax rate on work. Personal accounts also will boost private savings. And Social Security reform will reduce the long-run burden of government spending, something that is desperately needed if we want to avoid the kind of fiscal crisis that is afflicting European welfare states such as Greece.

Last but not least, it is important to understand that personal retirement accounts are not a free lunch. Social Security is a pay-as-you-go system, so if we let younger workers shift their payroll taxes to individual accounts, that means the money won’t be there to pay benefits to current retirees. Fulfilling the government’s promise to those retirees, as well as to older workers who wouldn’t have time to benefit from the new system, will require a lot of money over the next couple of decades, probably more than $5 trillion.

That’s a shocking number, but it’s important to remember that it would be even more expensive to bail out the current system. As I explain at the conclusion of the video, we’re in a deep hole, but it will be easier to climb out if we implement real reform.

Social Security Disability Benefits Unsustainable

The disability insurance component of Social Security was created in 1956 to provide income support to individuals aged 50 to 64 who were permanently disabled. As is typical with government programs, eligibility and benefits were greatly expanded over the subsequent decades.

SSDI, which is funded through a 1.8 percent payroll tax on all workers, was recently described by the Congressional Budget Office as “not financially sustainable.” The following chart shows that SSDI benefit payments have soared 119 percent since 1995 in real or inflation-adjusted terms:

What was supposed to be a narrowly tailored program to help individuals who could no longer work has blossomed into a gigantic budgetary burden that acts more like an unemployment program. Indeed, the number of individuals receiving SSDI benefits has jumped more than 10 percent in the last two recessionary years. So a large number of people seem to be abusing the system by claiming disability in order to get government handouts. What makes the problem worse is that, unlike standard unemployment insurance, there’s no time limit for how long an individual can receive SSDI.

The long-term upward trend in real benefit payments also suggests abuse because fewer people should be having career-ending injuries.

From a 2006 paper on SSDI by economists David Autor and Mark Duggan:

Adding to the complexity of an expanding program mission, five decades of advances in medical treatments and rehabilitative technologies, combined with a secular trend away from physically exertive work, have arguably blurred any sharp divide that may have once existed between those who are “totally and permanently disabled” and those who are disabled but retain some work capacity. While one might have expected these medical and labor market changes to reduce the incidence of disabling medical conditions and hence lower the relative size of the DI program, this has not occurred.

According to the Washington Post, Autor and Duggan will release a new paper this week that proposes changes to SSDI:

Their proposal would require workers and employers to share the cost of a modest private disability insurance package, which is between $150 and $250 a year, according to the report, which is to be officially unveiled at a Dec. 3 event in Washington.

Workers seeking to go onto the federal disability program would first have to be approved for benefits from the private policy. Those benefits would go toward rehabilitation services, partial income support and other related services, the researchers said.

After receiving private payments for two years, workers would be eligible to apply for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits if they believe their disabilities are too severe for them to remain in the workplace, the report says.

Instead of creating a program on top of a program, why not just completely transition SSDI to the private sector? Workers should be allowed to divert the disability insurance portion of the payroll tax to a private account, the proceeds from which could then be used to purchase private disability insurance. Workers would have an incentive to spend their money prudently, while private insurers would have a financial incentive to make sure they weren’t being gamed.