Topic: Social Security

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.

Topics:

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.