Tag: Social Security

Obama Bank Tax Is Misguided

Perhaps I am a little confused, but didn’t the Obama Administration tell the American public only months ago that TARP was turning a profit?   But now the same administration is proposing to assess a fee on banks to cover losses from the TARP. Maybe President Obama is coming around to the realization that the TARP has indeed been a loser for the taxpayer. He appears, however, to be missing the critical reason why: the bailouts of the auto companies and AIG, all non-banks. This is to say nothing of the bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, whose losses will far exceed those from the TARP. Where is the plan to re-coup losses from Fannie and Freddie? Or a plan to re-coup our rescue of the autos?

If the effort is really about deficit reduction, then it completely misses the mark.  Any serious deficit reduction plan has to start with Medicare and Social Security.  Assessing bank fees is nothing more than a rounding error in terms of the deficit.  Let’s put aside the politics and get serious about both fixing our financial system and bringing our fiscal house into order.  The problem driving our deficits is not a lack of revenues, aside from effects of the recession, revenues have remained stable as a percent of GDP, the problem is runaway spending.

The bank tax would also miss what one has to guess is Obama’s target, the bank CEOs.  Econ 101 tells us (maybe the President can ask Larry Summers for some tutoring) corporations do not bear the incidence of taxes, their consumers and shareholders do.   So the real outcome of this proposed tax would be to increase consumer banking costs while reducing the value of bank equity, all at a time when banks are already under-capitalized.

But now the same administration is proposing to assess a fee on banks to cover losses from the TARP.  Maybe President Obama is coming around to the realization that the TARP has indeed been a loser for the taxpayer.  He appears, however, to be missing the critical reason why:  the bailouts of the auto companies and AIG, all non-banks. This is to say nothing of the bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, whose losses will far exceed those from the TARP. Where is the plan to re-coup losses from Fannie and Freddie? Or a plan to re-coup our rescue of the autos?

The Cost of Government Guarantees

John Kay’s column in yesterday’s Financial Times criticizes government guarantees to banks because they involve hidden but large costs. According to Kay:

  • Such guarantees distort competition: sheltered banks outperform rivals not because of greater efficiency, but because capital becomes cheaper to obtain.
  • Sheltered banks gain too-big-to-fail status, which creates barriers to entry for smaller, more efficient banks.
  • Relief from business risk leads to more risk taking, AKA moral hazard.
  • Cheaper private risk management incentives are reduced within and outside the bank.

Other kinds of government guarantees, such as social insurance, also involve large hidden costs. Social Security and Medicare’s guarantee of a paid holiday with medical care for the rest of retirees’ lives generates the same types of costs:

  • Labor competition is reduced because the programs induce early worker retirements, which leads to higher wage costs, on average, and lower national output.
  • Workers who believe they will receive Social Security and Medicare will engage in lower personal saving, which means less capital formation and lower economic efficiency.
  • Retirement income guarantees induce riskier personal savings portfolios, AKA moral hazard.
  • Guaranteed retirement income means poorer financial knowledge and poorer risk management.

And now, retiree political power is too big to fail as well!

How come when Kay writes about market distortions from government guarantees for banks, he gets published; but when I do the same about government guarantees for people, I get the cold shoulder from editorial page editors?

Wednesday Links

  • Senate Judiciary Committee abandons hope of bringing any real change to the Patriot Act. Julian Sanchez in The Nation: “The Obama administration makes vague, reassuring noises about constraining executive power and protecting civil liberties, but then merrily adopts whatever appalling policy George W. Bush put in place.”

Emergency Aid to Seniors? No Way

Social Security benefits are indexed for inflation, but because inflation has been roughly zero for the past year, the adjustment formula implies no increase in benefits this year. Nevertheless,

President Obama on Wednesday attempted to preempt the announcement that Social Security recipients will not get an increase in their benefit checks for the first time in three decades, encouraging Congress to provide a one-time payment of $250 to help seniors and disabled Americans weather the recession.

Obama endorsed the idea, which is expected to cost at least $13 billion, as the administration gropes for ways to sustain an apparent economic rebound without the kind of massive spending package that critics could label a second stimulus act.

This is outrageous on four levels:

1. If the president thinks the economy needs more stimulus, he should say that explicitly and have an honest debate.

2. This is the wrong kind of stimulus. Any further stimulus should consist of reductions in marginal tax rates, such as a cut in the corporate income tax (or better yet, repeal).

3. All Social Security recipients already have a moderate guaranteed income, and many have significant income beyond their Social Security benefits. This kind of transfer has no plausible justification as redistribution for the needy.

4. Sending checks to seniors is a blatant attempt to buy their support for Obamacare, which promises to cut Medicare spending substantially.

C/P Libertarianism, from A to Z

The President’s Health Care Tax

As Michael Cannon discussed in an earlier post, the White House is trying to claim that health care “reform” does not mean higher taxes. This is a two-pronged issue. First, there is a mandate to purchase health insurance. Second, there is a tax (the White House calls it a fee) on people who fail to purchase a policy.

The White House claims this mandate is akin to state-level requirements for the purchase of health insurance, and that the newly-insured people will be getting some value (a health insurance policy) in exchange for their money. These assertions are defensible, but that does not change the fact that a tax is being imposed.

It might be plausible to argue that the mandate is not a tax if the value of the insurance policy to the individual was equal to the cost. But since these are people who are not buying policies, their behavior reveals that this obviously cannot be true. So this means that they will be worse off under Obama’s plan and that at least some of the cost should be considered a tax.

The Social Security payroll tax allows a good analogy. Labor economists correctly argue that the payroll tax functions, in part, as a “premium” for what can be considered a government-provided annuity. As such, when we try to measure the disincentive effect of the payroll tax, it is appropriate to include the perceived value of future Social Security benefits (for most Americans, especially with average or above-average incomes, the “rate of return” is very low or negative, so a substantial share of the payroll tax is a tax both in the legal sense and economic-distortion sense). The same is true of a mandatory health insurance policy (even if the money does not go through the government’s hands).

On the broader issue of paying money and getting something of value in return, another analogy is helpful. A share of the gasoline excise tax is used for road construction and maintenance. We all benefit from roads, even if we don’t drive (let’s set aside issues such as whether the benefits equal the costs, whether the federal government should be involved, etc). Does that somehow mean the gasoline excise tax is not a tax? Of course not.

Turning now to the excise tax, the Administration’s argument that this is a fee is even less defensible. The Baucus legislation in the Senate Finance Committee explicitly references an excise tax. Equally revealing (and even more ominous), the IRS is charged with collecting the fee. The White House can argue that the tax - in the economic sense - is lower than the fee if something of value is exchanged. But the tax is still there.

Rather than play games, the White House should make an open argument for bigger government. The fact that the Administration prefers to be deceptive says a lot about the underlying merits of their proposal.

20-somethings Will Pay for Big Government

A front-page Washington Post story today notes that the cost of Obama-style health care reform will fall disproportionately on young adults.

Younger workers are typically more healthy than the population at large, and a significant share of them quite rationally choose not to buy health insurance, as my colleague Mike Tanner explains in a recent op-ed. The major health care plans on the table in Washington would force them to buy coverage. As the Post story explains:

Drafting young adults into any health-care reform package is crucial to paying for it. As low-cost additions to insurance pools, young adults would help dilute the expense of covering older, sicker people. Depending on how Congress requires insurers to price their policies, this group could even wind up paying disproportionately hefty premiums—effectively subsidizing coverage for their parents.

I’m beginning to see a pattern. Those same young workers will be forced to pay the bills for soaring Social Security and Medicare expenditures when the Baby Boomers begin retiring en masse a decade from now. And of course, they will be the ones paying off the $9 trillion in additional federal debt expected to be wracked up from the current explosion in federal spending.

I always thought parents were supposed to support their kids, not saddle them with bigger bills and huge debts.

Don’t Leave Room for Desert

Duncan “Atrios” Black sums up and amplifies on a much longer post by Salon’s Glenn Greenwald as follows:

Just adding on to Glenn’s post, much opposition to the government actually doing anything decent for people comes from the idea that the government is going to take my tax money and give it to people who don’t deserve it. The problem is that for decades the Dems have tried to get around this by making sure policies and programs were relatively small and incremental, everything targeted and means tested. But doing that effectively confirmed the critics’ point. The big (giant) government programs which are most popular are the ones which are universal - Social Security and Medicare - and other less controversial government programs, like highway spending, are also perceived to benefit people across the board.

There’s a couple of interesting things going on here that seem worth unpacking.  The first is actually a legitimate point about how valid arguments against various kinds of redistribution tend, with unsettling ease, to shade into unsavory demonization of the folks on the receiving end of the transfer. Suppose someone suggests that the government should, either by regulation or direct subsidy, ensure that the indigent are provided with health care or that insolvent homeowners are protected from foreclosure. Now, there are a few types of objections people might raise. There’s an argument from efficiency and incentives: To the extent that the risks associated with individual financial or lifestyle choices are borne by the public, there’s a familiar problem of “moral hazard” reducing incentives for prudence. And there’s an argument from property and autonomy, to the effect that even if people ought to help others in need, each person is entitled to decide whether and how to do so without compulsion. Neither of these implies any blanket judgment about the folks who find themselves in need of aid. The first argument does suggest that redistributive policy will make it rational for people to take more risks at the margin, but it does not follow from either that people who are having trouble meeting their mortgage payments, or people who get sick and cannot afford care, are bad or foolish or irresponsible or otherwise deserving of their fate. And it is a good thing for these arguments that no such conclusion follows, because it’s clearly not true.

Yet in popular political rhetoric, it’s disturbingly easy to find just such a leap being made. Think of Rick Santelli’s jeremiad against “losers” under foreclosure getting bailed out by government. Is it just that people are inherently spiteful or unkind? In fact, the tendency to assume that people who are badly off must deserve it may be a result of what social psychologists call the Just World Hypothesis. In brief, faced with evidence that the world is often arbitrary and unfair, and that bad things often happen to good people, many of us prefer to preserve our faith in a basically fair and benevolent universe by assuming that the badly off must somehow deserve their fates—which is a stronger and (I think) rather morally uglier proposition than the more plausible notion that people are often significantly responsible for their fates.

There are at least three reasons to take some care to avoid this implication, given how easily human beings fall into it. The first is just that it’s an ugly and callous attitude to have toward people who will often deserve our compassion whether or not they ought to receive government aid. The second is that people will readily—and sometimes intentionally—misconstrue an argument about incentives as an argument about the moral worthiness or personal virtue of the proposed recipients, which does not make for a particularly fruitful conversation. Finally, there’s a paradoxically quite authoritarian implicit premise lurking behind this sort of argument—to wit, that it’s the job of the government  to determine who is or is not morally deserving of its largess, and that the central question is whether this or that particular class of prospective recipients qualifies. That’s a frame people across the spectrum ought to be uncomfortable with.

As Atrios points out, strategic response to this on the part of progressives has been to embed what are essentially welfare programs within an elaborate—and functionally, if not politically, superfluous—superstructure of universal social insurance. My colleague Will Wilkinson has pressed this point cogently in the context of Social Security. The rationale for the program is ultimately that we hope it will prevent people from being mired in poverty in old age. There is no sane reason, on this rationale, for cutting Bill Gates a check when he reaches the age of eligibility—but we do it this way because progressives believe, perhaps correctly, that a means-tested aid program for the indigent elderly would be more politically vulnerable to cuts. Which, I think, underscores the perverse effect of thinking in terms of the desert of the recipients, since there’s no actually-valid argument on which a universal need-blind benefit makes more sense than a narrow means-tested one. So one more reason to eschew desert-centered political discourse: It gives rise to policy that’s less intelligent whether your underlying commitments are progressive or libertarian.