Social Security

March 4, 2020 6:13PM

Ignoring Social Security Paints False Wealth Inequality Picture

My recent paper with Chris Edwards concluded that studies estimating wealth inequality without accounting for Social Security would both exaggerate the level of inequality and overestimate its increases since the 1980s.

We realized that increasing amounts of wealth for the bottom 90 percent had become tied up in Social Security claims over the past three decades. And a host of evidence suggests that redistributive programs, such as Social Security, actively crowd out private saving among those on modest incomes.

By reducing the incentive and ability for lower paid workers to save (not least because of payroll taxes), Social Security widens marketable wealth inequality, which has been the focus of most inequality studies. Perversely, critics of current levels of marketable wealth inequality then use these calculations ignoring Social Security as justification for increasing the generosity of transfer programs such as Social Security, that would iwiden their preferred wealth inequality metrics further.

A new study from University of Pennsylvania economists adds empirical blast to our intuition. Whereas the oft‐​cited work of Thomas Piketty et al restricts wealth inequality statistics to the distribution of marketable assets, this new study estimates the present value of Social Security wealth too, before assigning it across the wealth distribution.

Its conclusions are striking. Adjusting for Social Security wealth not only substantially reduces the level of wealth apparently “held” by the top 1 percent and top 10 percent, it completely changes the trend since 1989:

Our most conservative estimates suggest that between 1989 and 2016 the top 10% share [of wealth] declined by 3 percentage points and the top 1% share increased only slightly by 1.2 percentage points. This differs drastically from recent work that excludes Social Security and finds the top 10% and 1% shares rose by over 10 percentage points over this period.

Why does including Social Security wealth have such a dramatic effect? Well, first, because the implied wealth is large, at around 42 percent of marketable wealth today. But, second, because Social Security wealth has increased over three‐​fold between 1989 and 2016, due to expansions of the program, a fall in real interest rates, and population aging, which means the share of workers near the peak of their Social Security wealth (just before retirement) is larger. As a result, in 2016 Social Security represented 57.7 percent of all wealth held by the bottom 90 percent by net wealth, up from 14.2 percent in 1989.

As the study makes clear, there is no convincing rationale for excluding Social Security from studies of wealth concentration. But doing so exaggerates both wealth inequality levels and its increases over the last three decades. If some academics still contest that marketable wealth inequality alone tells us something interesting, then they must also acknowledge that Social Security’s existence widens that measure.

Strangely, those who consider marketable wealth inequality a huge problem do not often advocate abolishing Social Security to narrow it. In fact, the opposite. So do they really care as much about wealth inequality as their rhetoric suggests?

October 18, 2019 10:28AM

Welfare State Causes Wealth Inequality—Euro Experience

Democrats running for president are condemning wealth inequality while calling for an increase in social spending. But expanding social spending would magnify wealth inequality, not reduce it, because it would displace private wealth accumulation by lower‐ and middle‐​income households.

Evidence comes from a study by Pirmin Fessler and Martin Schurz for the European Central Bank. The authors explore the relationship between government social spending and wealth distribution in 13 European countries using a survey database of 62,000 households. The database contains household balance sheet information.

Regression analyses by the authors confirm that “the degree of welfare state spending across countries is negatively correlated with household net wealth. These findings suggest that social services provided by the state are substitutes for private wealth accumulation and partly explain observed differences in levels of household net wealth across European countries.”

The authors found that the “measured inequality of wealth is higher in countries with a relatively more developed welfare state.” Why is this the case?

The substitution effect of welfare state expenditures with regard to private wealth holdings is significant along the full net wealth distribution, but is relatively lower at higher levels of net wealth. Given an increase in welfare state expenditure, the percentage decrease in net wealth of poorer households is relatively stronger than for households in the upper part of the wealth distribution. This finding implies that given an increase of welfare state expenditure, wealth inequality measured by standard relative inequality measures, such as the Gini coefficient, will increase.

Fessler and Schurz found, for example, that Austria, France, Germany, and the Netherlands have high social spending and low private wealth holdings by less well‐​off households. But other countries such as Luxembourg and Spain have lower social spending and higher private wealth holdings by less well‐​off households.

The relationship can be seen in this figure, which is their plot of social spending compared to the wealth of households at the 25th percentile (from the bottom) of each nation’s wealth distribution.

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The authors note that their results are in line with the displacement, or crowding out, effects found in other statistical studies, such as economist Martin Feldstein’s work showing that Social Security substantially displaces private saving for retirement in the United States.

Data from Credit Suisse confirm that some nations with large welfare states have high wealth inequality. The bank points to Denmark, Norway, and Sweden:

strong social security programs—good public pensions, free higher education or generous student loans, unemployment and health insurance—can greatly reduce the need for personal financial assets, as Domeij and Klein (2002) found for public pensions in Sweden. Public housing programs can do the same for real assets. This is one explanation for the high level of wealth inequality we identify in Denmark, Norway and Sweden: the top groups continue to accumulate for business and investment purposes, while the middle and lower classes have a less pressing need for personal saving than in many other countries.

The bottom line for America is that expanding programs such as Social Security and Medicare will increase wealth inequality—the opposite effect Warren and Sanders may hope for. A better approach would be to cut the size of government and transition the nation to a leaner array of social programs based on personal savings accounts.

March 22, 2019 12:58PM

Government Mandated, State‐​Run Auto‐​IRAs Can Cause Real Harm

A number of states have recently enacted employer mandates that force companies who don’t offer retirement plans to enroll their workers in a state‐​run, auto‐​IRA plan. Oregon’s program – known as OregonSaves – is the oldest and most established. By mid‐​2020, Oregon’s mandate will cover all companies; it currently covers companies with twenty or more workers.


One myth – perpetuated by the National Employment Law Project – is that state mandates expand opportunity to retirement savings, especially for low‐​income workers. They don’t. OregonSaves initially defaults worker contributions into a conservative capital preservation fund before redirecting contributions to a life‐​cycle fund once balances exceed $1,000. Since inception in 2004, the capital preservation fund has offered a paltry nominal return of 1.52% (essentially an inflation‐​adjusted return of 0%). OregonSaves also assesses an administrative fee of 100 basis points (that is, 1%) regardless of investment choices, further diminishing this return. This set‐​up isn’t really an opportunity for Oregon workers, because they already have access to Roth IRAs and investments with a more beneficial set‐​up. A 25‐​year‐​old worker might actively choose a life cycle fund with no minimums for initial investment or additional contributions, along with administrative fees of 75 basis points, significantly lower than OregonSaves. Choosing an index fund that tracks the S&P 500 could have administrative fees as low as 1.5 basis points. Without mandating Oregon employers to enroll their workers, OregonSaves would struggle to compete in a vibrant marketplace with many inexpensive alternatives for retirement contributions.


If government mandates don’t improve access to retirement plans, why have the program? The real reason is that the programs increase participation through inertia; simply put, many workers are asleep at the wheel. Many workers don’t take active steps to plan for retirement regardless of how a program is designed. If the default choice is to actively enroll, many workers won’t participate. If the default choice is automatic enrollment with an opt‐​out option, many workers do participate. Oregon’s 28% opt‐​out rate is relatively high, highlighting some of the problems of the program’s design. Among those enrolled, fully 93% of participants stick with the specified contribution rate and an astonishing 79% of all fund balances are invested in the capital preservation fund. Almost all remaining balances are invested in target date funds, likely for workers who have exceeded the $1,000 contribution.


Worker inertia is real, meaning that design choices like opting in or out, asset classes and contribution rates are likely to stick. The one‐​size‐​fits‐​all design of OregonSaves can cause real harm for many workers, an issue I explored with my colleagues in a new study for Journal of Retirement. If OregonSaves were adopted nationally, 24.2 million workers aged 25–64 would initially be opted‐​in. Approximately 33% of affected workers carry high‐​interest credit card debt, with balances averaging nearly $5,500. Around 15% of affected workers struggle to meet basic needs like paying rent or utility bills. Workers in these situations come out ahead by paying down debt or meeting basic needs, and siphoning off 5% of their paycheck will likely worsen their overall financial situation.


Financial planning websites consistently emphasize paying off revolving high‐​interest debt before saving for retirement (unless a company offers a match rate), yet auto‐​IRAs fail to take these investment lessons into account. Advocates for government mandates emphasize the benefits of compounding for assets in an IRA, while curiously ignoring the reality that unpaid debt compounds in the exact same manner! At an 18% interest rate, an unpaid $5,500 credit card debt would mushroom to $28,800 in ten years. The same amount of money directed towards OregonSaves might accumulate to $12,900 under rosy assumptions about investment returns. Ultimately, our study shows a significant number of workers are in situations like this, and auto‐​IRAs would do more harm than good for them.

August 21, 2018 1:23PM

Results from the 2018 Libertarianism vs. Conservatism Post‐​Debate Survey

As part of a yearly summer tradition, the Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute co-host a debate in which interns at both think tanks debate whether conservatism or libertarianism is a better ideology. Following this year’s debate, the Cato Institute conducted a post-debate survey of attendees to ask who they thought won the debate and what they believe about a variety of public policy and philosophical issues. The post-debate survey offers a unique opportunity to examine how young leaders in the conservative and libertarian movements approach deep philosophical questions that may be inaccessible to a general audience.

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Despite agreement on domestic economic issues and free trade, the survey finds striking differences between conservative and libertarian  attitudes about Donald Trump, immigration, transgender pronouns, government’s response to opioid addiction, police, defense spending and national security, domestic surveillance, and religion. The survey also went further than just asking about policy and used Jordan Peterson’s 12 principles for a 21st century conservatism to examine the underlying philosophical differences between libertarian and conservative millennials. 

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July 19, 2018 2:34PM

Appraising MAGAnomics after 500 Days

A few weeks ago, President Trump surpassed his 500th day in office. That’s a good vantage point to appraise his economic policies to Make American Great Again.


Over at the Library of Economics and Liberty’s Econlog, I offer my assessment. It’s not good.


This may seem surprising, given current economic conditions. But economic policy isn’t merely about the current moment, but predominantly about improving economic conditions long‐​term. Aside from a couple of provisions in the December 2017 tax law, President Trump has done precious little in that regard and much to harm the economy long‐​term, from borrow‐​and‐​spend fiscal policy, to disastrous trade and immigration policies, to disinterest in serious regulatory reform, to his refusal to face the country’s dreary long‐​term fiscal challenges.


From my conclusion:

MAGAnomics appears to be little more than an impulsive dislike of free trade and immigration, a hazy desire for less regulation, disinterest in (or perhaps a lack courage to face) the nation’s long‐​term fiscal problems, and a desire to temporarily lower taxes without making the hard choices necessary to fiscally balance those cuts and make them enduring. In other words, MAGAnomics is a slogan supporting a few weak and many harmful initiatives, not a serious collection of policies thoughtfully designed to strengthen the nation’s economic health.

Take a look and see if you agree.

March 7, 2018 4:01PM

California’s Pension Woes Exacerbated by Politics

California governor Jerry Brown has been taking a victory lap of sorts after putting forth a budget for fiscal year 2019 that would include a $6 billion surplus, a remarkable turnaround for a state that hemorrhaged red ink in the wake of the great recession.

Of course, much of that surplus arrived via a hefty tax increase, as well as a surfeit of revenue resulting from the stock market boom via capital gains taxes, so attributing this turnaround to fiscal probity might be taking things a bit far.

However, Governor Brown does get credit for at least temporarily righting what seemed to be a sinking ship. What’s more, he seems to realize that this surplus can easily disappear, and he has warned his potential successors to resist spending that surplus. What Brown is fully aware of is that even the most spectacular stock market increase is not enough to erase the state's most pressing financial problem—namely, its underfunded government pension.

Currently, it has enough money set aside to cover just 68% of its future obligations—certainly far from the most indebted state (that would be my own state of Illinois), but still low enough to dismiss any notion that future stock market growth can remedy the problem.

Despite this, the California Public Employees Retirement System, or CalPERS, has put politics ahead of achieving a high rate of return by insisting that the boards of the companies it invests in adhere to various social and environmental practices.

It's nonsense, of course, and it amounts to little more than an extension of politics into a realm that doesn't have room for it.

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February 23, 2018 5:03PM

Support Parental Leave by Saving Not Spending

Some conservative writers are proposing to raid Social Security for the costs of a new parental leave program. Proponents are selling it as a sort-of free lunch. The plan would be “self financing” says the IWF’s Kristin Shapiro because “new parents would agree to defer their collection of Social Security benefits upon retirement for the period of time necessary to offset the cost of their parental benefits.”

But Social Security is not a savings program with a pool of assets to draw on. If the government starts mailing checks to millions of new parents, the only “financing” would be more federal borrowing. What Shapiro calls $7 billion a year in “parental benefits” would be $7 billion more in government spending. What Shapiro calls “self financing” would be more government debt.

In theory, the government would delay retirement handouts for participating individuals three decades down to the road. But, if enacted, lobby groups and politicians would get to work undoing those future savings. And if this sort of accounting trick is used for spending on parental leave, then the flood gates would be opened for Social Security spending on home purchases, job training, and other trendy causes.

What ever happened to personal saving? Humans can look ahead and plan, and they have been doing so since the beginning of time. Personal saving is the most powerful financing tool. But the more the government hands out benefits—for retirement, health care, unemployment, parental leave, and many other things—the more it undermines the innate and responsible saving incentive. The more the nanny state spends, the more it sabotages a culture of savings and the practical ability to save as taxes rise.

Young people thinking about having children should start setting aside some of their paychecks. Young people should be taught that kids are expensive, and they should plan accordingly. Alas, personal responsibility and saving are not the starting points for most policy discussions these days.

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