Topic: Social Security

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.

The Correct Perspective on Social Security Privatization

In today’s WSJ, William Shipman and Peter Ferrara have a column criticizing President Obama’s recent and vehement rejection of Social Security private accounts. I agree with Shipman and Ferrara — it’s rather shabby logic from a president of all Americans.

Shipman and Ferrara correctly note that Social Security privatization options provide participants with a choice — opt for private accounts or stay with the traditional system. In other words, people can choose their preferred risk set — political or market.  The lesson here is that there’s no avoiding risk.

Shipman and Ferrara suggest that all investments in private Social Security accounts do not have to be in stocks; people can choose bonds as well.  Better yet, they can hold the market basket of all stocks and bonds through low-cost index funds and hold some cash.  They can select the mix between these elements to optimize the risk-return trade-off given their abilities/preferences on the two. This investment strategy is transparent and easy to learn; it requires only a modicum of financial literacy.

However, I find their ”Joe the Plumber” example unpersuasive. Who cares if investing on the planet Mars yields 50 percent annual returns if we cannot do it unconditionally — that is, without incurring costs that would neutralize its higher-than-Social Security returns?  Those additional costs arise from having to borrow to pay existing Social Security beneficiaries their “promised” benefits, and from carrying market risks on personal account portfolios of Martian investments. 

Market risk represents a real cost, even if investments are for the long term.  The Shipman/Ferrara calculations take account of the recent financial crisis.  But they don’t take account of the potential for fat tails in the distribution of financial crises going forward.  The recent crisis could have been less severe.  But what if it had been more severe and had wiped out all savings for many more people?  Is there zero risk of such an outcome? A generalization on the basis of just one 40-year record of investment returns is inappropriate and insufficient for ruling out the importance of market risk.

In the authors’ defense, however, is the fact that the historical evidence of market returns is conditional on the existence of Social Security (and Medicare and the rest of the government’s panoply of welfare programs, regulations, etc.).  Without such broad and deep government interference in markets, the history of capital returns may have been different: returns may have been smaller (because the economy may have been better capitalized) but also more stable. And correlations between worker average wage growth and capital market returns may also have been smaller, yielding important diversification benefits from a privatized system of retirement saving.  But the bottom line is that we just don’t have adequate data of the correct type to make the “analytical” arguments that the authors attempt in their op-ed.  

Shipman and Ferrara (jointly and individually) have never explicated this latter argument clearly. They persist with their “higher-and-sexy-market-returns” argument in support of private Social Security accounts.  As such, I’m compelled to say that their argument continues to exhibit a real and serious deficiency.

On balance, however, when faced with two extremes — 1) political risk that the government will muck things up so badly that we and our children will suffer considerably reduced living standards, and 2) market risks that could devastate retirement savings because a recession/depression wipes out the value of lifetime savings — I would recommend an “interior solution” that straddles both worlds.  That is, continue a strictly limited government-run Social Security system and supplement it with a privatized element as many other countries have done, the UK and Australia being important examples. 

Some would say that we have such a system already, in the form of 401k, IRA and other tax-qualified saving plans. However, not all workers have access to 401k plans.  And the evidence is that despite those plans, national saving has declined considerably over the last three decades.  My analysis suggests that the reason for the decline in saving is the very existence of (supposedly) government-guaranteed Social Security (and Medicare) benefits that lull us into a false sense of security.  The key shortcoming is the lack of a system of universal Social Security personal accounts wherein a minimum amount of saving is mandatory (despite government mandates being bad in general). Such a system would provide a vehicle for the rich and the poor alike to partake of the wealth creation process that capital markets can and do provide. 

We’re not there today, and the correct direction from where we are is toward, not away, from Social Security personal accounts.

Topics:

Liberal Dogma on Social Security Redux

Liberal posturing on Social Security reform continues unabated – betraying nervousness that Obama’s Deficit Reduction Commission will recommend Social Security benefit cuts. 

Left-wing voices also continue to repeat the mantra that introducing private Social Security accounts would be a bad idea. Ronald Brownstein’s recent recent column in the National Journal is a case in point. However, Brownstein’s readers may come away thinking that he believes breaking promises is a good idea.

Brownstein concedes that “Social Security indeed faces a long-term imbalance between expected revenue and promised benefits.” I consider this to be progress — at least relative to the erstwhile “there’s nothing wrong and nothing to fix” mantra adopted by liberal adherents of the status quo on Social Security.

Notice Brownstein’s use of the term “promised benefits.”  A promise implies a commitment and obligation to make good on future benefit payments.  But the solution that Mr. Brownstein points to is as follows:

Instead [of private accounts], Obama argued, the two parties could emulate the Reagan model and arrive at a sensible solution… [T]he program’s long-term shortfall could be eliminated just by trimming benefits for the top half of earners [JG note: breaking the Social Security benefit promise here], linking the retirement age to lengthening life spans [JG note: breaking the promise here too], and imposing a partial payroll tax on earnings above $250,000 [JG note: that is, promise more benefits by expanding the definition of covered earnings and increasing payroll taxes on high earners].”

But all that the last element may achieve is to stave of the program’s insolvency for a few more years. 

My comment:  Please don’t drag Reagan into this “solution.”  The 1983 reforms were implemented under the gun, at a time when there was no way out of Social Security’s imminent revenue shortfall. If President Reagan had enjoyed the luxury of a couple more years to plan changes to Social Security, he would have adopted a different approach, and be much better off today. According to broad market indexes such as the S&P 500, total returns averaged well above 10 percent per year during the 1980s and 90s – so, well above inflation. (The first decade of the 2000s yielded a negative 1 percent return.)

Finally, Brownstein writes:

[T]he gap between the system’s revenues and obligations, relatively speaking, isn’t that daunting–less than 1 percent of the economy’s expected output over the next 75 years. 

Does Mr. Brownstein really appreciate how large that is? In present value terms, the Social Security actuaries report that the present value of Social Security’s shortfall over the next 75-years equals $5.4 trillion. That’s one-third of current annual GDP. In other words we have to devote that sum to earning interest each year for 75 years to cover Social Security’s financial gap.

Alternatively, since payrolls equal only one-half of national output, it means that payroll taxes would have to increase by an average of about 2.0 percent per year if they are levied over all wage earners.  However, the tax increase is to be levied only on those earning $250,000 or more.  There are about 3 million U.S. taxpayers with incomes above $250,000, with average income of about $500,000. (I’m rounding up based on information for 2006 available here.)  That makes a tax base of $1.5 trillion. (Actually, this is likely to be too large because I’m counting total income, not taxable income, which would be much smaller.) Raising the equivalent amount of revenues from these high earners (who face the highest marginal income tax rates already and are likely to alter their work effort in response to still higher taxes) would imply increasing their average tax rates by almost 11 percentage points. Of course, because some of the adjustment will be through benefit cuts and indexing the retirement age to increasing longevity, the tax increases that must be levied on high earners would be smaller. 

But are those benefit cuts politically realistic? Americans already face a normal retirement age of 66, and it is scheduled to increase to 67 in little more than a decade. Extrapolating from the French response to increasing their pensionable age from just 60 to 62, Americans’ would probably end up opening a third war front to resist further increases in Social Security’s retirement ages – a “generational war” here at home.

So where do we go from here?  One answer may be to first introduce “add-on” personal accounts using the 2.0 percentage points of payrolls – the amount required to plug Social Security’s current shortfall. This would not be a “tax” as the funds would be invested in personal accounts – and it would enable low earners an opportunity to partake in the long-term wealth creation mechanism that they have heretofore been unable to exploit.  As I have argued here, if this amount is effectively saved and invested – by insuring that the government does not borrow and spend those savings – it would create space for a “carve-out” addition to the “add on” personal accounts, increasing retirement wealth even more.  Finally, with the stock markets relatively stable and current P/E ratios of broad market indexes close to historical averages, now would be the right time to begin such a reform program for Social Security. 

Would liberal policymakers and analysts take on this approach?  No prizes for guessing the answer.

Personal Accounts for Social Security an Election Killer — Not Quite

You can tell its election season because Democrats are once again attacking Republican’s for daring to propose reforms to Social Security.  These attacks come despite the fact that Social Security is already running a temporary deficit, and that deficit will turn permanent in just five years.  Overall, the amount the system has promised beyond what it can actually pay now totals $18.7 trillion.

But the latest Pew Poll suggests that attacking Republicans for wanting to “privatize” Social Security might not be such an effective tactic after all.  According to the poll, Americans support proposals to “allow workers younger than age 55 to invest a portion of their Social Security taxes in personal retirement accounts that would rise and fall with the markets” by 58 – 28 percent.   Younger voters supported personal accounts my an astounding 70-14 percent margin, but every age group except seniors was supportive.  Seniors split evenly.   Independents, widely believed to be the key to the upcoming election, supported personal accounts by 61-27, and even Democrats favored the idea by 50-36.

Maybe this will finally give the Republicans some courage on the issue.