Topic: Social Security

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.


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.

A Birthday Gift from Paul Krugman

I turn 41 this summer (thank you for the condolences). Along with the well wishes of family and friends, I received an unexpected gift from NY Times writer Paul Krugman: this column in which he bashes people who are critical of Social Security in its current form or who worry about its ability to deliver expected benefits.

At first glance, the column hardly seems like a gift: it’s long on pointless insults, short on thoughtful discussion, and misleading. But it offers such a poor defense of the Social Security status quo that I suspect readers will be more skeptical of the program after seeing the column, not less. Hence, Krugman’s gift.

He writes:

Social Security has been running surpluses for the last quarter-century, banking those surpluses in a special account, the so-called trust fund. The program won’t have to turn to Congress for help or cut benefits until or unless the trust fund is exhausted, which the program’s actuaries don’t expect to happen until 2037 — and there’s a significant chance, according to their estimates, that that day will never come.

OK, 2037 — no worries. Except that, as I said, I turn 41 this summer, which means I’ll turn 67 and qualify for full Social Security benefits in mid-2036. The very next year, the Social Security trust fund will be exhausted, according to the “intermediate” scenario contained in the most recent Social Security Trustees Report, available here (see Section IV-B and Appendix E). The program will still pay out some benefits — but less than 3/4s of what it now promises. So what happens then? That’s not a good question if you’re my age or younger.

But suppose you’re not my age or younger. Suppose you’re 10 years older than me, and will have collected 10 years of benefits by 2037. Don’t feel smug — you’ll be asking “So what happens next?” when you’re 77. That’s not a good question at your age, either. 

In fairness to Krugman, the Trustees Report considers different Social Security cost scenarios, the most optimistic of which projects that the trust fund will not be fully exhausted over the 75-year period the report considers. Krugman says there’s “a significant chance” this will be the case, but my (admittedly quick) skim of the report suggests it’s more just “a chance.”

One quick aside about the 2037 exhaustion date: when Krugman wrote this column in 2005, the Trustees’ intermediate scenario projected that the trust fund would last until 2042. In five years’ time, that date has grown 10 years closer. Not good.

Krugman writes that, if the trust fund does run out, Social Security can maintain its benefits using money transferred into the program by Congress from elsewhere in the federal budget. In fact, Congress will have to direct money from elsewhere to Social Security much earlier than 2037. Under the Trustees’ intermediate scenario, beginning in 2018 the amount of money Social Security pays out in old-age benefits each year will be greater than what the public pension program takes in in payroll taxes. (The Disability Insurance component of Social Security is in even worse shape, according to the Trustees, such that the program overall will go in the red in 2015.) To cover the difference, Congress will have to begin paying off the treasury bonds that currently comprise Social Security’s trust fund in order to provide the promised benefits. (In fact, Congress will have to do that this year because, as a product of the recession, Social Security obligations are greater than revenues. Hopefully, the economy will rebound and give the program a few years’ respite before transfers become an annual necessity, though the pessimistic scenario predicts no such respite.)

Krugman is unconcerned by these transfers, dismissing those who worry about them as engaging in “three-card monte.” His column doesn’t acknowledge that these transfers would need to occur at a time when Congress will be scrambling to cover other growing costs: similar deficits in Medicare, obligations to the ever-growing federal debt, and Medicaid’s increasing burden on federal and state governments. I worry that future taxpayers will not be amenable to having so much of their tax money directed to retirees (who refused to reform Social Security when they could have done so at relatively lower cost) rather than to government services for current taxpayers.

Krugman ends the column criticizing the proposal to reduce Social Security’s cost by raising the age at which retirees become eligible for full benefits. As part of an adjustment that began in 2002, retirees must now wait until age 66 to receive full benefits; beginning in 2021, the age requirement will slowly be raised until it reaches 67 in 2027. (Retirees will still be able to take reduced benefits at 62.) Some have suggested raising the full-benefit age to 70. Krugman says that would be unfair:

America is becoming an increasingly unequal society — and the growing disparities extend to matters of life and death. Life expectancy at age 65 has risen a lot at the top of the income distribution, but much less for lower-income workers. And remember, the retirement age is already scheduled to rise under current law. So let’s beat back this unnecessary, unfair and — let’s not mince words — cruel attack on working Americans.

There is something to what Krugman says. From 1980 to 2000, life expectancy at birth for the poorest decile (i.e., 10%) of the U.S. population increased from 73.0 years to 74.7 years, while life expectancy for the wealthiest decile increased from 75.8 years to 79.2 years. (The disparity in life expectancy between the top and bottom decile groups does decline to 1.6 years at age 65, which is up from 0.3 years in 1980. H/T to Dr. Daniel Coyne at the Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine.)

But inequality in Social Security benefits would exist whether the eligibility age is 65, 66, or 70. Because Americans are required to participate in Social Security, and because all Americans become eligible for full retirement benefits for the rest of their lives at a single threshold age, then the longer-lived wealthy will receive more in benefits than the shorter-lived poor no matter what that threshold is. This is the product of having a one-size-for-all public pension plan (with lousy benefits). The way to address this inequality problem is through Social Security choice.

As I wrote at the beginning, Krugman’s column should leave thoughtful and informed readers more concerned about Social Security, not less. He couldn’t have given me a better present.