Social Security Is an Entitlement

Entitlement has come to mean the right to guaranteed benefits under a government program. In the nature of government programs, those who receive the benefits usually don’t pay the taxes required to fund those benefits.

I recently saw on Facebook (which I look at occasionally) a discussion to the effect that Social Security isn’t an entitlement program because “we (the discussants) paid into it”.

Well, paying into Social Security doesn’t mean that you paid your own way. First, the system is rigged so the persons in lower income brackets receive benefits that are disproportionately high relative to the payments that they (and their employers) made during their working years.

Second, the money that a person pays into Social Security doesn’t earn anything. You are not buying a financial instrument that funds productive investments, which in turn reward you with a future stream of income.

True, there’s the mythical Social Security Trust Fund, which has been paying out benefits that have been defrayed in part by interest earned on “investments” in U.S. Treasury securities. Where does that interest come from? Not from the beneficiaries of Social Security. It comes from taxpayers who are, at the same time, also making payments into Social Security in exchange for the “promise” of future Social Security benefits. (I say “promise” because there is no binding contract for Social Security benefits; you get what Congress provides by law.)

So, yes, Social Security is an entitlement program. Paying into it doesn’t mean that the payer earns what he eventually receives from it. Quite the contrary. Most participants are feeding from the public trough.

The Social Security Mess Revisited

Laurence Kotlikoff draws attention to the Social Security mess in his recent column, “Will Social Security Be There for You?“. He states the problem and poses two stark options for solving it:

Social Security’s trustees just released their annual report. It’s a very long document, with the most important part buried deep in appendix table VIF1.

Table VIF1 shows the system is $34.2 trillion in the red. That’s its unfunded liability. Stated differently, the system’s trust fund needs to be $37 trillion, not its actual $2.8 trillion, to permit Social Security to pay all scheduled benefits into the future. How large is $34.2 trillion? Very large. It’s almost two years of GDP!

There is, of course, more than one way to make ends meet. If we can’t get the good lord to drop $34.2 trillion into Social Security’s coffers as manna from heaven, we can raise taxes. One option is to take 4.2 percent more out of everyone’s paycheck (up to the taxable earnings ceiling, now $127,500) on a permanent basis. Since Social Security’s FICA payroll tax rate is 12.4 percent, we’re talking a 33.9 (4.2/12.4) percent immediate and permanent Social Security tax hike!

Another option is to cut all Social Security benefits (retirement, spousal, divorcee, widow(er), young child, disabled child, child-in-care spousal, mother (father), disability and parent benefits) immediately and permanently by 25 percent!

There are, in fact, other options. One is to keep kicking the can down the road, as long as foreign investors are willing, in effect, to underwrite Social Security’s deficit. They do this by shipping the proceeds of their “trade surplus” (our “trade deficit”) back to the U.S. in exchange for stocks, bonds, and real estate. Some of their money goes directly into U.S. government bonds; the rest helps to relieve the crowding out that occurs when the U.S. government borrows to sustain its profligate spending, which includes Social Security.

Here’s another one. The unfunded liability isn’t a current liability; it’s the  present value of future Social Security deficits. Which means that another way of kicking the can down the road is to gradually increase Social Security taxes and/or reduce benefits to a sustainable level while foreigners to underwrite the transition.

I prefer a third option, which is usually considered politically unthinkable: eventual privatization of Social Security. How would that work? Here’s my plan:

1. Abolish Social Security payroll taxes as of a date certain (Abolition Day).

2. Pay normal benefits (those implicitly promised under the present system) to persons who are then collecting Social Security and to all other qualifying persons who have then reached the age of 62.

3. Persons who are 55 to 61 years old would receive normal benefits, pro-rated according to their contributions as of Abolition Day.

4. The retirement age for full benefits would be raised for all persons who are younger than 55 as of Abolition Day. The full retirement age is now scheduled to rise to 67 in 2027. It could rise to 70 by, say, 2025. Moreover, the minimum age for receiving partial benefits would rise from 62 to 65.

4. Persons who are 45 to 54 years old also would receive prorated benefits based on their contributions as of Abolition Day. But their initial benefits would be reduced on a sliding scale, so that the benefits of those persons who are 45 as of Abolition Day would be linked entirely to the CPI rather than the wage index.

5. Persons who are younger than 45 would receive a lump-sum repayment of their contributions (plus accrued interest) at full retirement age, in lieu of future benefits. That payment would automatically go to a surviving spouse or next-of-kin if the recipient dies intestate. Otherwise, the recipient could bequeath, transfer, or sell his interest in the payment at any time before it comes due.

The residual obligations outlined in steps 2-5 would be funded in part by a payroll tax, which would diminish as those obligations are paid off. The U.S. government would continue to borrow as necessary to fund the Social Security deficit, but — unlike the first two options — the borrowing would eventually come to an end. Social Security would be “saved”, there would be less crowding-out in financial markets, and — best of all — everyone’s retirement savings would be plowed into investment-inducing vehicles: stocks, bonds, CDs, savings accounts. This would push up the rate of economic growth and make privatization all the more affordable, and desirable.

Texas Does Retirement Better

Merrill Matthews writes about the alternative to Social Security that was adopted by three Texas counties decades ago (“Perry Is Right: There Is a Texas Model for Fixing Social Security“):

Since 1981 and 1982, workers in Galveston, Matagorda and Brazoria Counties have seen their retirement savings grow every year, even during the Great Recession. The so-called Alternate Plan of these three counties doesn’t follow the traditional defined-benefit or defined-contribution model….

As with Social Security, employees contribute 6.2% of their income, with the county matching the contribution (or, as in Galveston, providing a slightly larger share). Once the county makes its contribution, its financial obligation is done—that’s why there are no long-term unfunded liabilities.

The contributions are pooled, like bank deposits, and top-rated financial institutions bid on the money. Those institutions guarantee an interest rate that won’t go below a base level and goes higher when the market does well….

If a worker participating in Social Security dies before retirement, he loses his contribution (though part of that money might go to surviving children or a spouse who didn’t work). But a worker in the Alternate Plan owns his account, so the entire account belongs to his estate. There is also a disability benefit that pays immediately upon injury, rather than waiting six months plus other restrictions, as under Social Security.

Those who retire under the Texas counties’ Alternate Plan do much better than those on Social Security. According to First Financial’s calculations, based on 40 years of contributions:

• A lower-middle income worker making about $26,000 at retirement would get about $1,007 a month under Social Security, but $1,826 under the Alternate Plan.

• A middle-income worker making $51,200 would get about $1,540 monthly from Social Security, but $3,600 from the banking model.

• And a high-income worker who maxed out on his Social Security contribution every year would receive about $2,500 a month from Social Security versus $5,000 to $6,000 a month from the Alternate Plan….

The Alternate Plan could be adopted today by the six million public employees in the U.S.—roughly 25% of the total—who are part of state and local government retirement plans that are outside of Social Security (and are facing serious unfunded liability problems). Unfortunately this option is available only to those six million public employees, since in 1983 Congress barred all others from leaving Social Security.

If Congress overrides this provision, however, the Alternate Plan could be a model for reforming Social Security nationally. After all, it provides all the social-insurance benefits of Social Security while avoiding the unfunded liabilities that are crippling the program and the economy.

Just think of it: real saving to underwrite economic growth, no crushing burden on future generations, and more money for retirees.

It’s a shame that FDR, his successors, and many Congresses have been incapable of grasping basic economic concepts. They have been too busy “governmentizing” the economy and slowing economic growth through their “soak the rich” schemes.

Related posts:
Social Security Is Unconstitutional
Why It Makes Sense to Privatize Social Security
P.S. on Privatizing Social Security
That Mythical, Magical Social Security Trust Fund
The Real Social Security Issue
Social Security — Myth and Reality
Nonsense and Sense about Social Security
More about Social Security
Social Security Privatization and the Stock Market
Social Security: The Permanent Solution
Social Security Transition Costs, in a Nutshell
A Market Solution to the Social Security Mess?
Saving Social Security
The Bowles-Simpson Report
The Bowles-Simpson Band-Aid
PolitiFact Whiffs on Social Security

The Social Security Trust Fund Is Not a “Get Out of Jail Free Card”


David Friedman, drawing on an op-ed by Thomas Saving, suggests that

Obama may have a $2.7 trillion dollar get out of jail free card, a way of spending that much additional money without exceeding the debt limit.

How does that work? Friedman explains:

Suppose no agreement is reached on raising the debt limit. Obama instructs the relevant people to spend the income from Social Security on the war in Afghanistan, bailouts, whatever he thinks needs money. He then instructs the Social Security system to cash in as many bonds as are required to meet its obligations to Social Security recipients, say $700 billion. He then instructs the treasury, since the national debt is now $700 billion below the debt limit, to borrow $700 billion. The net effect is that he has increased total expenditure, Social Security included, by $700 billion without exceeding the debt limit. The trust fund is currently at about $2.7 trillion, so he can do it for four more years.

Friedman’s scheme would work only if total federal receipts (including Social Security taxes) remain greater than or equal to total federal outlays (including SS benefits), from the point at which federal indebtedness hits the statutory ceiling. But that is not the situation.

Let us say, for the sake of argument, that the ceiling will be reached at the end of FY 2011. The president’s budget for FY 2012 shows total outlays of $3.729 trillion (including SS benefits of $0.761 T) and total revenues of $2.626 T (including SS taxes of $0.660 T). (See tables S-1 and S-3, here.) In other words, if Congress passes the president’s budget exactly as it stands, the debt ceiling must rise by $1.103 T ($3.729 T – $2.626 T) in FY 2012. And the SS trust fund, no matter how large it is, cannot alter the arithmetic.

Here is why. Suppose the feds spend all $0.660 T in SS taxes on things other than SS benefits (as they will, in effect). From an accounting standpoint, that reduces the non-SS deficit for FY 2012 from $1.001 T (non-SS spending less non-SS receipts) to $0.341 T. But the folks at SS are faced with a bill for $0.761 T in SS benefits. To pay the bill without having received a dime in SS taxes, the SS folks must go to the SS trust fund and grab U.S. treasury bonds with a value of $0.761 T, which they must then present to Tim Geithner for payment. Geithner thinks, “Who are these fools? Do they imagine that I’ve got that much unencumbered cash lying around, when I’m over my head in debt and sinking fast?” But being a good Obamanite, Geithner gives the SS folks their $0.761 T, and they go away happy.

If the analysis stops there, Friedman is correct. The treasury has just redeemed $0.761 T in bonds held by the SS trust fund, and the total debt of the federal government has magically dropped by $0.761 T. But the analysis cannot stop there, because the treasury does not have the $0.761 T in unencumbered cash. It must now borrow $0.761 T, to cover the redemption of the SS trust fund bonds, plus another $0.341 T, to cover the amount by which non-SS outlays exceed total receipts (including the SS taxes that it intercepts). With rounding, that comes to $1.103 T, which just happens to be the amount by which total federal outlays exceed total federal receipts.

Under what conditions would Friedman’s fix work? Here is a list (perhaps not an exhaustive one):

  • The debt ceiling will not be reached, given current projections of federal outlays and receipts (including SS benefits and taxes).
  • The debt ceiling has been reached but will not be exceeded, given current projections of federal outlays and receipts (including SS benefits and taxes).
  • The debt ceiling has been reached, but the surplus from non-SS programs will offset the deficit in SS accounts, or vice versa.

What about the SS trust fund? As long as the federal government is in debt by at least the face value of the SS trust fund, the trust fund has no real value. There is one (unlikely) saving condition, which is that the government’s net worth — represented by real assets — is equal to or greater than the face value of the trust fund. Such assets would have to be authorized for sale, by law, and would have to be valued at their quick-sale price on the open market. Given the reluctance with which Congress and federal agencies part with valuable assets (mainly land), it will be a cold day on the Equator before the SS trust fund is more than a valueless collection of accounting entries.

UPDATE (07/25/11)

The crux of my objection to Friedman’s scheme is found in the original post and my reply to his first comment; viz.:

If the analysis stops there, Friedman is correct. The treasury has just redeemed $0.761 T in bonds held by the SS trust fund, and the total debt of the federal government has magically dropped by $0.761 T. But the analysis cannot stop there, because the treasury does not have the $0.761 T in unencumbered cash….

*     *     *

3. This intra-governmental transaction does not affect the revenues that SS and non-SS receive from third parties.

4. Total spending by SS and non-SS must therefore equal their total receipts from third parties.

I ended my reply with this observation:

If you disagree with this analysis, then you and/or I must be making some assumptions (perhaps inadvertently) that remain hidden from view….

As it turns out, Friedman was making a hidden assumption that allows his scheme to work. That hidden assumption is revealed in a note appended to Friedman’s original post. The note was not there when I published this post, and I was unaware of it when I replied to Friedman’s first comment. In fact, I was unaware of it until late yesterday, when I revisited this post and Friedman’s after receiving his second comment. The note reads:

Some readers seem puzzled as to where the Treasury, in my story, is to find the $700 billion that it is to pay to the Social Security Administration, once the debt limit is reached. The answer is straightforward. With or without a debt limit, the federal government is continually collecting money and spending it. In my scenario, the government takes (say) $50 billion that it was supposed to pay as salary to federal employees, pays it to SSA instead. SSA cancels $50 billion in trust fund bonds. The national debt, which includes the debt owed by the federal government to the SSA, is now $50 billion below the limit, so the Treasury borrows $50 billion and pays out salaries to federal employees. Rinse and repeat as many times as necessary.

This is too clever by half. It requires exquisite timing on the part of the Treasury; otherwise, payrolls are not met, vendors are not paid, and existing debt is not serviced. In other words, the federal government would be in constructive default and violation of the debt limit. Moreover, it most certainly would not allow the federal government’s outlays to exceed its revenues over an extended period, which is why Obama seeks a higher debt limit in the first place. I could stop there, but there’s more to say about the scheme.

It resembles check-kiting, and may be just as illegal. But even if it is not illegal, it amounts to a patent evasion of the debt limit, and the evasion soon would be obvious to knowledgeable observers. Among other things, financial markets probably would react as if the federal government were in default — because the scheme could sooner or later result in a default of some kind (especially if outlays are rising as revenues stay flat). It would not take an act of Congress (over Obama’s veto) to put an end to the scheme; financial markets would do the job, as Treasury would be unable to refinance existing debt, except (possibly) at exorbitant interest rates.

In the best case, climbing interest payments would eat up revenues and force the federal government to cut back on the actual operations and programs. The result would be exactly opposite the one desired by Obama and company, which is real expansion of government. In the worst case, the Federal Reserve would pick up the tab, if it could scrape together a voting majority with the stomach for wading into a political firestorm. But that is another deus ex machina — of dubious durability — and not a surefire way of getting around the debt limit.

I am through with this subject. Comments are closed.

UPDATE (06/08/14)

I note, very belatedly, that Friedman later amended his post to add this:

A friend who knows much more law than I do writes:

It turns on, on further research, that Congress anticipated and prevented the very trick you have devised. Public Law 104-121, section 107(a), prohibits redemption of Social Security trust fund securities prior to maturity for any purpose other than the payment of benefits or administrative expenses.So it’s still true that the debt limit cannot block social security payments, at least until the trust fund runs out. But my multi-trillion dollar get out of jail free card has been cancelled.

Curses, foiled again.

Friedman later wrote a post that is properly focused on the ability of the federal government to continue paying SS benefits, regardless of the debt ceiling, as long as the trust fund is sufficiently large. The trustees expect the fund to be exhausted in 2033.

PolitiFact Whiffs on Social Security

PolitiFact has a habit of missing the point, usually in a way that favors the left’s agenda. A good example is found in PolitiFact’s recent assessment of statements made by Herman Cain about privatizing Social Security:

During Monday’s Republican presidential debate in Manchester, N.H., former pizza executive Herman Cain touted an alternative to Social Security that has been operating for three decades in Galveston County, Texas.

“The city of Galveston, they opted out of the Social Security system way back in the ’70s,” Cain said. “And now, they retire with a whole lot more money. Why? For a real simple reason — they have an account with their money on it. What I’m simply saying is we’ve got to restructure the program using a personal retirement account option in order to eventually make it solvent.”

We’ll give Cain a pass on a pair of minor errors — it’s Galveston County, not city, and the program launched in 1981, not in the 1970s. Instead, we’ll cut to the bottom line: Has the program meant that participants “retire with a whole lot more money” than they would under Social Security?…

In 1981, employees of Galveston County — as well as those in two adjoining Texas counties, Matagorda and Brazoria — voted, after lengthy presentations and discussions, to withdraw from Social Security and initiate a system of individual accounts to provide retirement, survivor and disability benefits. Participants would contribute to their retirement accounts, supplemented by an amount from their employers, and those funds would be invested in annuities through a financial-services company chosen by a county-run bidding process….

…The Galveston plan is somewhat analogous to a 401(k) plan — that is, a plan designed to encourage workers to save for retirement — rather than a social insurance, or safety-net, program like Social Security….

Keith Brainard, the research director for the National Association of State Retirement Administrators, agreed that the Galveston plan is better for some types of workers, including those with long tenures.

But the “problem,” he said, “lies in Cain’s implication that Social Security should be a wealth-producing vehicle, when that’s not what it’s supposed to be. Social Security is supposed to be old-age insurance. That should be the emphasis of the program, not ‘retiring with a lot more money.’”…

…[T]here are some advantages to the Galveston plan — not just to the higher earners who get more out of the program, but also to the government entity running them. The Alternate Plan doesn’t face the same kind of long-term fiscal challenges that Social Security does, because it only promises participants the investment returns for the money they pay in to the system.

The downside, of course, is that the investments may not perform well enough to exceed what Social Security would have provided….

This is all misguided hogwash. I rate PolitiFact’s analysis as “wide of the mark.”

Social Security (SS) is neither a retirement plan nor insurance (as one interviewee calls it). Social Security is a transfer-payment scheme — some, rightly, call it a kind of Ponzi-scheme. It’s not fraudulent in intent, but it’s fraudulent in effect.

Today’s SS beneficiaries are not reaping returns from investments made by SS with their “contributions.” Their benefits come from the paychecks of today’s workers. And future SS benefits will come from the paychecks of future workers. (If you believe in the SS trust fund, which is nothing but a pile of IOUs, you must believe in the tooth fairy.)

Private retirement plans (and the occasional government plan, like Galveston’s) reap real returns and support economic growth through the purchase of corporate equities and securities. SS, on the other hand, inhibits economic growth by depriving workers of money that they could invest in equities and securities. Comparing real returns on private plans with the “returns” that Social Security extracts from workers is as meaningful as the proverbial comparison of apples and oranges.

There just ain’t no “returns” on SS, so it can’t be compared with a retirement plan that reaps real returns and contributes to economic growth in the process. SS can generate any kind of “return” that its political masters desire — because they have the power to extract the “returns” from workers’ paychecks.

Related posts:
Social Security Is Unconstitutional
Why It Makes Sense to Privatize Social Security
P.S. on Privatizing Social Security
That Mythical, Magical Social Security Trust Fund
The Real Social Security Issue
Social Security — Myth and Reality
Nonsense and Sense about Social Security
More about Social Security
Social Security Privatization and the Stock Market
Social Security: The Permanent Solution
Social Security Transition Costs, in a Nutshell
A Market Solution to the Social Security Mess?
Saving Social Security
The Bowles-Simpson Report
The Bowles-Simpson Band-Aid

The Evil That Is Done with Good Intentions

Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid do several bad things at once:

They crowd out prospective providers of retirement funds, medical insurance, and medical care.

They create “moral hazard” by lulling people into the false belief that they will be well-taken-care of in their old age, thereby making it less likely that they will put aside money for their old age.

They therefore cause under-saving and, thus, under-investment in those things upon which economic growth depends: innovation and business creation.

If growth were not hobbled, there would be far fewer people in need of welfare programs and far more money available for voluntary assistance to those who truly cannot care for themselves.

Related posts:
Economic Growth since WWII
A Social Security Reader
The Price of Government
The Commandeered Economy
Rationing and Health Care
The Perils of Nannyism: The Case of Obamacare
The Price of Government Redux
More about the Perils of Obamacare
Health-Care Reform: The Short of It
The Mega-Depression
Presidential Chutzpah
As Goes Greece
The Real Burden of Government
Toward a Risk-Free Economy
The Rahn Curve at Work
The Illusion of Prosperity and Stability
The “Forthcoming Financial Collapse”
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Inhibits Economic Growth
The Deficit Commission’s Deficit of Understanding
Undermining the Free Society
The Bowles-Simpson Report
The Bowles-Simpson Band-Aid
Build It and They Will Pay
Government vs. Community
The Stagnation Thesis

The Bowles-Simpson Report

The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (a.k.a. the Bowles-Simpson commission) issued a report on December 1. Voting on December 3, the 18 commissioners cast 11 votes for the report and 8 against it. Those who voted for it — including some fiscal conservatives — see it as a place to start. Presumably the fiscal conservatives who voted against it see it for what it is:

This report contains a ten-year net tax hike of over $1 trillion and increases tax revenues from their historical 18 percent of GDP to a record and permanent 21 percent.  This report shifts the debate from where it properly should be—spending—and onto deficit reduction, and thereby tax increases.

The report confirms my earlier view, based on the co-chairs’ proposal, that

It aims at too many spending targets, and misses the elephant in the room: “entitlement” commitments, namely, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid (and their promised expansion via Obamacare).

The report also confirms my view of Alan Simpson as a Bob Dole Republican: a tax collector for the welfare state.

Yes, there are proposals about Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, but their main thrust is to make those programs even more “progressive”; that is, to use them as instruments of income redistribution. Well, that’s to be expected from a gaggle of politicians, most of whom cannot imagine a world in which individuals take responsibility for themselves. There is much to criticize in the report, beyond the permanent tax increase noted above. Here are some of its more egregious statements and proposals:

P. 11 — Rising debt will also hamstring the government, depriving it of the resources needed to respond to future crises and invest in other priorities.

What crises and what priorities? The only crises contemplated by the Constitution are insurrection, rebellion, and war. But that isn’t what the authors have in mind. Is this a signal that the authors approve the federal government’s bailouts and “investments” in failing businesses?

P. 12 — We must ensure that our nation has a robust, affordable, fair, and sustainable safety net. Benefits should be focused on those who need them the most.

Why must “we” have any kind of tax-funded safety net? Family, friends, and private charities could provide an ample “safety net,” if only government would leave the money in the private sector where it could be invested. As a result, there would be fewer persons in need and more sources of private support for those who are. I will not even bother to say anything about moral hazard and the cycle of dependency, except that they are natural and inevitable consequences of things like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

P. 13 — We need to implement policies today to ensure that future generations have retirement security, affordable health care, and financial freedom.

We” do, do “we”? See the preceding comment.

P. 21 — RECOMMENDATION 1.2: CUT BOTH SECURITY AND NON-SECURITY SPENDING. Establish firewall between the two categories through 2015, and require equal percentage cuts from both sides. — In other words, balance the budget on the back of national defense. This, combined with later recommendations about war spending, suggests that Bowles-Simpson believe in instant defense. There’s no need, in their view, to build and maintain defense capabilities against undetected and unforeseen threats. No, the necessary capabilities will materialize magically, as they are needed.

P. 23 — [F]ederal budgets rarely set aside adequate resources in anticipation of such disasters, and instead rely on emergency supplemental funding requests. The Commission plan explicitly sets aside funds for disaster relief and establishes stricter parameters for the use of these funds.

What is the federal government doing in the business of disaster relief, anyway? “Stricter parameters” will vanish in a bleeding-heartbeat. And, with a permanent fund to milk, the idiots will continue to build homes and businesses in places where floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, and wildfires are as predictable as sunrise. Talk about moral hazard and cycles of dependency!

P. 24 — RECOMMENDATION 1.7: FULLY FUND THE TRANSPORTATION TRUST FUND INSTEAD OF RELYING ON DEFICIT SPENDING. Dedicate a 15-cent per gallon increase in the gas tax to transportation funding, and limit spending if necessary to match the revenues the trust fund collects each year.

How far we have come from the Constitution’s grant of authority to build “post roads” and make interstate commerce regular (i.e., regulate it) so that it flows freely. This proposal, like the one about disaster funding, is simply designed to ensure that an unconstitutional function enjoys a permanent claim on tax dollars. And it opens the door to more bridges and roads to nowhere. I would like to put Bowles and Simpson on a flight to nowhere.

P. 25 — The Commission recommends creating a new, bipartisan Cut-and-Invest Committee to be charged each year with identifying 2 percent of the discretionary budget that should be cut and identifying how to redirect half of that savings, or 1 percent, into high-value investment. Over the next decade, the Cut-and-Invest Committee will be expected to recommend more than $200 billion in discretionary cuts, freeing up $100 billion for high-priority investments America will need to remain competitive, such as increasing college graduation rates, leveraging private capital through an infrastructure bank, and expanding high-value research and development in energy and other critical areas.

It is depressing to think that a bunch of politicians and bureaucrats get to decide how the hard-earned income of citizens should be spent, and to presume that their judgments are better than the judgments of individuals and businesses acting cooperatively through free markets. A serious deficit-cutting exercise would include a proposal to get government completely out of “investing” in anything other than defense and law enforcement.

Pp. 29-30 — Maintain or increase progressivity of the tax code. Though reducing the deficit will require shared sacrifice, those of us who are best off will need to contribute the most. Tax reform must continue to protect those who are most vulnerable, and eliminate tax loopholes favoring those who need help least…. The Commission proposes tax reform that relies on “zero-base budgeting” by eliminating all income tax expenditures….

In other words, Bowles-Simpson would raise taxes by cutting so-called tax expenditures, while trying to disguise that fact by advertising lower rates. And they would shift the burden of higher taxes in the direction of high-income earners. It so happens that high-income earners already “contribute” a disproportionate share of their incomes. (You know you’re up against con-men when their word for “taxes” is “contributions,” and they view as “spending” anything that reduces the tax-collector’s take.) Greater progressivity is a recipe for slower economic growth because it will (a) further reduce the incentive to acquire and apply skills and (b) further reduce the amounts invested in capital formation.

P. 37 — RECOMMENDATION 3.3: PAY FOR THE MEDICARE “DOC FIX” AND CLASS ACT REFORM. Enact specific health savings to offset the costs of the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) fix and the lost receipts from repealing or reforming the CLASS Act. To offset the cost of the SGR fix and recover lost receipts in the first decade from repealing or reforming the CLASS Act, the Commission proposes a set of specific options for health savings that, combined, total nearly $400 billion from 2012 to 2020.

Everything that follows on pages 37-40 could — and should — be done anyway. This isn’t deficit reduction, it’s window dressing.

P. 41 — RECOMMENDATION 3.6: ESTABLISH A LONG-TERM GLOBAL BUDGET FOR TOTAL HEALTH CARE SPENDING. Establish a global budget for total federal health care costs and limit the growth to GDP plus 1 percent.

What follows is a classic cop-out. Some of the commissioners want more government intrusion into the health-care business, others want less. Ho-hum. The “compromise” is a victory for those who want more government intrusion, which is a main reason for the growth of government-funded and private health-care costs in the first place. They’re like idiots who try to put out a fire by pouring gasoline on it.

P. 45 — IV. Other Mandatory Policies

Slightly less than one-fifth of the federal budget is dedicated to other mandatory programs. These include civilian and military retirement, income support programs, veterans’ benefits, agricultural subsidies, student loans, and others.

These mandatory programs are not projected to be the main drivers of rising deficits over the next ten years, but they nevertheless should be part of a comprehensive plan to correct our fiscal path. This is especially true because mandatory spending is not subject to the scrutiny of the annual appropriations process – so poorly directed spending can continue for years with minimal oversight. The Commission’s goals in reforming these policies are:

Protect the disadvantaged. About 20 percent of mandatory spending is devoted to income support programs for the most disadvantaged. These include programs such as unemployment compensation, food stamps, and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). These programs provide vital means of support for the disadvantaged, and this report does not recommend any fundamental policy changes to these programs.

End wasteful spending. The first place to look for savings must be wasteful spending, including subsidies that are poorly targeted or create perverse incentives, and improper payments that can be eliminated through program integrity efforts.

Look to the private sector. Some mandatory programs, like federal civilian and military retirement systems, are similar to programs in the private sector. When appropriate, we should apply innovations and cost-saving techniques from the private sector. (p. 45)

Gee whiz, how compassionate and original. The “compassion,” of course, is the cheap kind that politicians purchase with other people’s money. The “originality” is found in the bankrupt view of government as business: “end wasteful spending” and “look to the private sector,” indeed. Government is neither a charitable institution nor a profit-motivated one. It is an instrument of force, and ought to be recognized and treated as such. What follows, on pages 45-47, is mostly pap, when it isn’t merely wrong-headed.

Take government pensions and government pay, for example. Studies that purport to compare the compensation of government employees with the compensation of private-sector employees are simply a waste of time and money, and usually end up justifying government’s largesse toward a large, safely Democrat, voting bloc. The way to attain pay and pension equity is as follows:

  • Abolish all the unconstitutional departments, agencies, and bureaus.
  • Cut the pay of the employees in the surviving departments, etc., until the government quit rate rises to the level of the private sector. (Exclude from the private sector any firm that derives more than, say, 50 percent of its revenues from government contracts. Such firms tend to have padded salaries and benefits.)
  • Add 25 percent to resulting pay level, in lieu of benefits. Government employees would have the choice of how to take allocate the 25 percent between cash compensation, participation in a health-insurance plan (e.g., a local Blue Cross-Blue Shield group), and tax-sheltered contributions to a private retirement plan. The accrual of government pension benefits would cease immediately upon adoption of this plan, and active government employees would receive a tax-free, lump-sum settlement in lieu of future benefits, based on length of service and years spent at various pay grades.

Now, that’s the kind of deficit reduction the overburdened taxpayers of this country deserve.

P. 48 — V. Social Security

Social Security is the foundation of economic security for millions of Americans. More than 50 million Americans – living in about one in four households – receive Social Security benefits, with about 70 percent going to retired workers and families, and the rest going to disabled workers and survivors of deceased workers. Social Security is far more than just a retirement program – it is the keystone of the American social safety net, and it must be protected….

The Commission proposes a balanced plan that eliminates the 75-year Social Security shortfall and puts the program on a sustainable path thereafter. To save Social Security for the long haul, all of us must do our part. The most fortunate will have to contribute the most, by taking lower benefits than scheduled and paying more in payroll taxes. Middle-income earners who are able to work will need to do so a little longer. At the same time, Social Security must do more to reduce poverty among the very poor and very old who need help the most.

There’s nothing in these pages (pp. 48-55) but recommendations that would increase moral hazard and reinforce the cycle of dependency, topped off with a healthy dose income redistribution. There’s not even a hint of real reform, which would be to phase out Social Security and replace it with private accounts. Those would fund actual investments in economic growth, raise incomes, and reduce the incidence of “poverty,” which isn’t the fault of high-income earners in the first place.

P. 56 — VI. Process Reform

The few pages under this heading (pp. 56-58) deliver more pap and mirrors. Here’s a sample, consisting of paraphrases (bold italics) followed by my comments:

Hide the rising cost of living by switching to chained CPI. — Not that I’m a big fan of CPI-indexed pay and benefits — I’m not. But a chained price index is simply a dishonest way of representing price increases. If the price of apples rises relative to the price of oranges, and consumers buy fewer apples and more oranges as a result, simple introspection will tell you that consumers (most of them, anyway) are worse off unless their “real” incomes have risen and they switch from apples to oranges as a matter of taste.

Adopt a “debt stabilization” process to enforce deficit reduction. — If it ain’t happening, it ain’t happening. A spendthrift Congress can change the law at a whim, and that’s exactly what will happen with this idea. What’s needed is a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution that very strictly spells out what’s in the budget (namely every red cent spent by government for any reason), and imposes harsh civil penalties on the president, Senate majority leader, speaker of the House, and other leading lights if the budget is not balanced. Period. No excuses about economic conditions. (We’ve seen how “stimulating” the “stimulus package” has been.) Just do it.

Replace ad-hoc extensions to unemployment benefits with automatic triggers. — In other words, make Congress even less accountable than it is now.

*     *     *

I am sorely underwhelmed by the work of the Bowles-Simpson Commission. “The Moment of Truth” — the grandiose sobriquet applied to the report (by Bowles and Simpson, presumably) — is nothing more than a waste of time, money, paper, and electrons.

The report begins with what seems to be a honest effort to estimate the size of the problem. But in the end it amounts to nothing more than a quibble about how to spend our money.

I’ll tell you how to spend my money. Just defend the country, administer justice, and send me a bill at the end of the year for my share of the cost — and don’t try to pad the bill, because I’ll be watching what you do.

There’s nothing to see in the Bowles-Simpson report, folks. Move along.

The Deficit Commission’s Deficit of Understanding

There are only three problems with the work of the Deficit Commission to date, as it has been revealed to us in the co-chairs’ briefing slides:

  • It will not survive the onslaught of special interests because it contains something to offend almost everyone, from homeowners, lenders, builders, and realtors (kill the mortgage interest deduction, indeed) to affluent retirees (bend the SS benefits curve downward, indeed).
  • It proposes higher taxes.
  • It aims at too many spending targets, and misses the elephant in the room: “entitelment” commitments, namely, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid (and their promised expansion via Obamacare).

The looming debt crisis and the cycle of dependency on government can be solved and broken, respectively, through the straightforward act of announcing that Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits will shrink steadily toward zero. The degree and rate of shrinkage would vary according to the age of the prospective recipient; for example:

  • Everyone now over the age of 55 would receive their current or currently promised benefits, as adjusted for inflation but not for wage growth (see next item).
  • The costly wage-parity feature of Social Security would be abolished. (Why should we subsidize retirees to keep up with the Joneses?)
  • Future benefits for persons aged 25 to 55 would be reduced on a sliding scale: from 95 percent for 55-year-olds to 5 percent for 25-year olds.
  • There would be no future benefits for persons under the age of 25.

The costs would be defrayed by a unified payroll tax, which would rise (initially) to cover persons who are older than 55 when the plan is adopted. The tax would decline — by law — as persons who are 55 and younger when the plan is adopted become eligible for benefits (or not, as the case may be).

How would individuals fund retirement and pay for health care when they have retired? A plan like the one I’ve outlined would be a great inducement to save more — and individuals could save more without sacrificing consumption as the payroll tax declines. Unlike the Social Security Ponzi scheme — where one’s “contributions’ merely pay off those who got in earlier — the higher rate of saving would generate economic growth and, thus, real returns on saving (as opposed to the phony returns on SS “contributions”). As for health care, insurance companies could get back into the business of competing to insure older Americans. And I have no doubt that joint ventures by insurance companies and health-care providers would lead to innovative and less costly ways of delivering medical care.

Following the tradition of William of Ockham, I shun the turgid, Rube-Goldbergish proposal of the Deficit Commission in favor of a frontal attack on the main cause of the deficit problem: “entitlement” commitments.

Related posts:
Economics – Growth & Decline
The Economic and Social Consequences of Government

The “Forthcoming Financial Collapse”

I have written before about my membership in a Google Group

whose active members are retired scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and economists — some in their upper 80s — who worked on defense issues from the 1940s to the 2000s….

Most members of the group were government employees and/or employees of government contractors. Their attraction to government service — and its steady and rather handsome paychecks — derives, in good part, from their belief in the power of government to “solve problems,” and in the need for government to do just that. It is only natural, then, that many members of the group hold an unrealistically exalted view of the power of quantitative methods to “solve problems,” while holding naive views about the machinations of government, human nature, and history. (The pioneers of military operations research in the United States, by contrast, were realistic about the relative impotence of quantitative analysis of complex, dynamic processes.)

Here, for example, is a recent communication from one of the group’s older members:

A political scientist and former Foreign Service Officer friend proposes the following which, if valid, may complicate the U.S.’s capability to handle the forthcoming financial collapse of our country.

His formulation is as follows: (1) The World Trade Center attacks grievously damaged our self-confidence but did little but material damage. (2) On the other hand, the collapse of Lehman Brothers had impacts across the financial world and among the Central Banks of many countries. In effect, the U.S. was the instrument inflicting damage and loss on both trading partners and creditors.

Do we agree that the second is the more serious. What may be the dimensions of the impact?

If I were to reply, this is what I would say:

Your message is provocative in more than one respect. I won’t get into the material effect of the 9/11 attacks, except to say that the assessment that they caused “little material damage” seems to ignore the economic after-shock and the value of 3,000 lives lost. But I am more concerned with the policy implications of your friend’s formulation, and with what you call “the forthcoming financial collapse of our country.”

I have trouble with your friend’s formulation because it involves an irrelevant comparison. On the one hand, there was a deliberate attack on the U.S. by a foreign enemy. On the other hand, a major investment bank failed, in large part because of investments in bad securities that were issued pursuant to policies of the U.S. government (sub-prime mortgage loans and low interest rates). These are not mutually exclusive events, and should be considered separately in devising appropriate government policies (including a hands-off policy). I am sure that your friend would prefer fewer bank failures, but not at the cost of more terrorist attacks.

I turn now to government’s role (or lack thereof) in securing our economic future. Let’s begin with the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Lehman was allowed to fail because government officials didn’t want to send a “signal” that a bailout would be an automatic reward for failure. But those same officials, in their panic, reversed course with respect to other financial institutions and bailed them out. The bailouts didn’t really help credit markets (as they were supposed to) because — quite reasonably in the aftermath of a government-caused financial panic and recession — the bailed-out institutions (and others) have been slow to lend, while individuals and businesses have been slow to borrow. What the bailouts mainly did was to reinforce the view that government (i.e., taxpayers) will bear the costs of foolish endeavors — which only encourages banks (and other businesses) to undertake more foolish endeavors. The price for those endeavors will come due at the bursting of the next bubble, whatever it is and whenever it occurs.

If there is any lesson to be taken from the comparison offered by your friend, it is an old one that most Americans seem not to have learned: The real job of government is to protect citizens from foreign and domestic predators. Government does that badly enough (though I would rather have it done by government than by private parties, namely, warlords). Government is even worse at other things, like intervening in economic affairs, the unseen cost of which — in forgone economic output — dwarfs the amount spent by governments (at all levels) on defense and law-enforcement. This comparison is apt because we could better afford to pay for the protective services of government, were it to butt out of our economic affairs.

This brings me to “the forthcoming financial collapse of our country.” I assume that you refer to the huge obligations incurred by the federal government in the form of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid — and the promised expansion of these by what has become known as Obamacare. These obligations, which now consume about 10 percent of GDP, will consume 25 percent of GDP before the end of this century. Add to them the cost of other governmental functions and the regulatory obstacles that government throws into the path of economic growth, and you do have something like an economic disaster in the making — but it may occur in slow motion (as it has for the past century), rather than in the form of a dramatic collapse.

One result of the slow-motion disaster could be a “sovereign debt crisis,” namely, the inability of the U.S. government to sell its debt except, perhaps, at very high rates of interest. In the alternative, the government, acting through the Fed, would simply “print money” in an effort to inflate its way out of the problem. But that would only make government debt less marketable while further stifling economic growth by creating great uncertainty in capital markets. The bottom line is that the “forthcoming financial collapse” — or its slow-motion equivalent — is of the government’s making, and can be averted only by getting government out of the business of running the inter-generational Ponzi schemes that we know as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

The real strength of the “country” is its people and their voluntary social and business arrangements. It is not government, which — contrary to the views of “progressives” — stands in the way of progress and prosperity.

Related posts:
The Commandeered Economy
The Price of Government
The Mega-Depression
Does the CPI Understate Inflation?
Ricardian Equivalence Reconsidered
The Real Burden of Government
Toward a Risk-Free Economy
The Rahn Curve at Work
How the Great Depression Ended
A Moral Dilemma
Our Miss Brooks
The Illusion of Prosperity and Stability
Society and the State
The Price of Government: More Evidence
Experts and the Economy
I Want My Country Back

The Real Burden of Government

Drawing on estimates of GDP and its components, it is easy to quantify the share of economic output that is absorbed by government spending. (See, for example, “The Commandeered Economy.”) With a bit of interpretive license, it is even possible to assess the cumulative effects of government spending and regulation on economic output. (See, for example,  “The Price of Government.”)

But the real economy does not consist of a homogeneous output (GDP). The real burden of government therefore depends on the specific resources that government extracts from the private sector in the execution of particular government programs, and on the particular products and services that are affected by government regulations.

Each new or expanded government program raises the demand for and price of certain kinds of goods and services, and channels rewards (claims on goods and services) in the direction of the businesses and persons involved in providing goods and services to government; for example:

  • Social Security rewards individuals for not working. The service, in this case, is the “good feeling” that comes to politicians, etc., for having done something “compassionate.”  The effect is to raise the prices of the goods and services that prematurely retired individuals would otherwise produce, therefore reducing the well-being of the working public.
  • Medicare — another of many feel-good programs — rewards retirees by subsidizing their medical care and prescription drugs. The upshot of this feel-good program is to reduce the well-being of the working public, which must pay more for its medical services and prescription drugs (directly, through higher insurance premiums, or because of lower wages to offset the cost of employer-provided health insurance).
  • R&D conducted in government laboratories and under government grants absorbs the services of scientists and engineers, thus raising the compensation of many scientists and engineers who couldn’t do as well in the private sector (the reward) and reducing the numbers of scientists and engineers engaged in private-sector R&D (the cost). Remember the private-sector inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs who brought you the telephone, automobiles, radio, television, any number of “wonder drugs,” computers, online shopping, etc., etc., etc.?
  • A goodly fraction of the teachers and professors at tax-funded schools and universities are rewarded with incomes that they could not earn if they worked in the private sector. (Tax-funded education also provides feel-good rewards to the usual suspects, who worship at the altar of statist inculcation.) Given that the “educators” and administrations of tax-funded educational institutions are essentially unaccountable to their “customers,” it should go without saying that tax-funded education delivers far less than the alternative: combination of private schools (including trade schools), apprenticeships, and penal institutions. Moreover, tax-funded education deprives private-sector companies of the services of (some) teachers and professors who have the skills and ability to help those companies to offer better products and services to consumers.

That’s as far as I care to take that list. You can add to it easily, just by selecting any federal, State, or local government program at random.

All of those programs, onerous as they are, have nothing on the insidious regulatory regime that has engulfed us in the past century. Regulation often are the means by which “bootleggers and Baptists” conspire to protect their interests, on the one hand (“bootleggers”), while slaking their thirst for do-goodism, on the other hand (“Baptists”). The classic case, of course, is Prohibition, which enriched bootleggers while making Baptists (and other temperance-types) feel good about saving our souls. You know how well that worked.

Obamacare is a leading example of “bootleggers and Baptists” at work. Insurance companies and the American Medical Association, anxious to protect themselves, lent their support to a program that promises to increase the demand for prescription drugs and doctors’ services. It’s a pact with the devil, of course, because (unless, by some miracle, it is repealed or declared unconstitutional) insurance companies and doctors will find that they are nothing more than government employees, in deed if not in name. And guess who will end up paying the bill? The working public, of course.

Obamacare is not a purely regulatory regime, however, because it revolves around a feel-good giveaway program. For examples of purely regulatory regimes, I turn to the myriad mundane regulations that are imposed upon us for “our own good” and at our own expense, from make-work schemes for electricians and plumbers building codes to death-inducing delays in drug approval the Pure Food and Drug Act.

More notorious (though perhaps not more damaging to the economy) are the federal government’s misadventures in “managing” the economy. A good place to begin is with the Federal Reserve’s actions from the late 1920s to the early 1930s, which helped to bring on the stock-market bubble that led to the stock-market crash that led to a recession that (with the Fed’s help) turned into the Great Depression. A good place to end is with the recent financial crisis and deep recession — a creature of Congress, the Fed, other federal suspects too numerous to mention, plus Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae — their pseudo-private-bur-really-government co-conspirators.

Have you had enough? I certainly have.

The growth of government and its incursions into our personal and business lives during the past century has done far more than rob us of wealth and income. It has ruined our character and our society, and deprived us of liberty. What has happened to self-reliance, social networks, private charity, and civil society in general? What has happened to plain old liberty, which is a value unto itself? That they are not gone with the wind is due only to the tenacity with which (some of us) hold onto them.

Government grows in power and reach because every government program and regulation — even the most benighted of them — creates a vested interest on the part of its political sponsors (in and out of government), bureaucratic managers, and dependent constituencies. New suckers are born every minute who believe that they can join the gravy train without paying the piper (to mangle a few metaphors). And when the problems created by government become too obvious to ignore, the conditioned response on the part of politicians, bureaucrats, their dependent constituencies, and most of the public is to find governmental solutions to those problems. It is the ultimate vicious circle.

Government is the problem. And it will be the problem for as long as it does more than merely protect its citizens from domestic and foreign predators, so that they can enjoy liberty and its fruits.

*     *     *

Related posts: Too numerous to mention. Begin with this list of posts at Liberty Corner, then start at the beginning of Politics & Prosperity, work your way to the present, and stay tuned.

Saving Social Security

Given that Social Security is unconstitutional, regardless of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Helvering v. Davis (1937), my interest in saving Social Security is merely pragmatic. I would prefer its abolition through a reversal of Helvering v. Davis. Because of the extreme unlikelihood of that event, I will settle for a legislative solution, one that preserves Social Security as a mandatory program, but converts it to a system of private accounts invested in private-sector securities and equities.

Die-hard defenders of Social Security want to preserve its essential character — a mechanism for transferring income from workers to retirees — and will resist any move in the direction of privatization. In fact, I expect the looming deficit in Social Security receipts to elicit calls for the following measures:

  • Elimination of the cap on the amount of income subject to Social Security taxes.
  • Reduction of benefits paid to retirees according to the amount of income they receive from other sources.
  • Increases in the taxes paid on benefits by retirees with income from other sources.

That these measures will cause slower economic growth and therefore yield lower-than-expected Social Security receipts will be of no consequence to welfare-state zealots. Their response will be to redouble the pain, ad infinitum. (We can expect to see a parallel treatment of health-care goods and services, as government control of those markets approaches 100 percent.)

Unlikely as privatization of Social Security may be — especially in light of today’s rush to nationalize anything and everything that involves risk and uncertainty — there are good arguments for privatization, and they must be made on the chance that they will be heeded when the present hysteria subsides. Accordingly, the rest of this post addresses the three  main objections to privatization:

  • The existence of the Social Security trust fund, which (on paper) will not be exhausted for perhaps another 30 years.
  • The transition cost, that is, the cost of funding private accounts. (It should be noted that the idea of a transition cost suggests, rightly, that the trust fund is not a real asset from which benefits can be paid.)
  • The uncertain returns to private accounts invested in private-sector securities and equities, given the gyrations of stock and bond markets, as compared with the manufactured “certainty” of returns to traditional Social Security accounts.

These rebuttable objections reflect an underlying bias toward a tax-funded system, especially a “fair” one (i.e., one that does not allow  some retirees to enjoy greater benefits “just because” they made better investment decisions). That bias, unfortunately, cannot be overcome by facts or logic. One can only hope that it does not decide the issue of privatization.

The Trust Fund

The Social Security trust fund exists because, for many years, receipts from workers outran payments to retirees. What happened to those surpluses? They were spent by other branches of the federal government. The trust fund, in other words, consists of IOUs issued by government to itself. Therefore, there is no trust fund, that is, no stock of unencumbered assets from which benefits can be paid when outlays begin to exceed receipts. There is only worthless paper or, more accurately, worthless accounting entries.

To understand why this is so, consider the following question. How much wealthier are you when you issue an IOU to yourself? Not a bit — nada, zero, zilch, zip. The same goes for Uncle Sam — a fact of life that not even Congress or the Supreme Court can repeal.

Digging deeper, let us consider the means by which the federal government could convert the IOUs held by the trust fund into benefits for retirees:

  • Borrow money from willing, private lenders.
  • Enlist the Federal Reserve in what amounts to a money-printing operation.
  • Increase Social Security taxes on workers and/or other kinds of taxes (e.g., income taxes).
  • Sell government assets to private buyers until the sum of such sales equals the nominal value of the trust fund.

This list of options simply underscores the chimerical nature of the trust fund. It can be redeemed only by passing the fiscal buck in one way or another:

  • Government borrowing from private lenders may crowd out private-sector borrowing and, in any event, has no net effect on governmental indebtedness — it just moves it around. (If your wife is in debt by $1,000 and you borrow $1,000 in order to pay her debt, your family is still $1,000 in debt.)
  • Printing money fuels inflation, which is a tax on consumers. It’s just a subtle way of shifting the burden.
  • Tax increases simply push the burden of Social Security onto taxpayers, some of whom are retirees on Social Security.
  • Government assets, unlike wholly-owned private ones, are encumbered by obligations to perform governmental services — even passive ones, such as conserving land. To the extent that government assets are sold in order to replenish the trust fund, some governmental functions must be curtailed, inflicting material and/or psychic losses on a substantial cross-section of Americans.

The trust fund would be a real, unencumbered asset only if it had been used to buy privately issued securities and equities, thus participating in the real returns that flow from economic growth.

A final defense of the trust fund goes like this: If a government bond (IOU) is a real asset to the individual who holds the bond, why isn’t it a real asset to the branch of government (Social Security Administration) that holds the bond? There are two answers, one of which I’ve already given: As you cannot make yourself wealthier by giving yourself an IOU, so government cannot make itself wealthier by giving itself an IOU. Spent money is gone.

The second answer is more shocking, but nevertheless true: A government-issued IOU is not a real asset, no matter who holds it. Private ownership of a government-issued IOU does not represent a claim on real wealth that has been accumulated by government through the provision of economically useful goods and services. A government-issued IOU merely represents the taking by government of resources that could have been used by the private sector to generate economically useful goods and services. As discussed above, the taking occurs when government borrows (crowds out private borrowers), inflates the money supply, or imposes taxes.

Oh, yes, government could confiscate private businesses and (with luck) run them at a profit, but that is simply the ultimate form of taking: socialism. Government, by its very nature as a taxpayer-funded institution with superior coercive power, can perform only one kind of service that  enables economic growth (among other things): defense of the citizenry against predators, foreign and domestic. But such defense is a negative service, one which preserves value and does not enhance it. Moreover, the returns to that service (the prevention of losses to liberty, life, limb, and dignity) cannot be quantified because the service is “purchased” by taxes (i.e., coerced), not freely purchased in market transactions. (Whether it could be and why it should not be are matters for discussion elsewhere — here, for example.)

Transition Costs

Given the foregoing, it should be obvious that there is no free lunch when it comes to Social Security, as it now stands. As long as Social Security remains a transfer-payment scheme backed by phony assets, retirees’ benefits will be extracted from their fellow citizens (and themselves), in one way or another.

One thing is true: If private accounts were established, made mandatory (to satisfy paternalists), and funded by investing workers’ Social Security taxes in stocks and bonds (that is, in ways that contribute to economic growth and yield real returns), there would be a (temporarily) larger gap between receipts and outlays. This larger gap — the so-called transition cost — would have to be filled by higher taxes (or the equivalent in borrowing or inflation). The so-called transition cost would continue until taxpayers are contributing no more to retirees’ benefits than they would have been contributing under the present system. At that point, the transition cost would become increasingly negative, that is, it would be a benefit to taxpayers. That benefit would reach its zenith when there is no longer anyone drawing Social Security benefits under the present system.

It should now be obvious that the so-called transition cost isn’t a cost. Rather, it’s a down payment on a better financial future for retirees and taxpayers. The only real issue is one of timing: how to spread the tax burden so that it doesn’t fall disproportionately on those who pay taxes in the years immediately following the establishment of private accounts.

Here, borrowing becomes a legitimate tool of government policy. The tax burden can be spread more evenly across generations if government arranges to borrow some of the down payment on privatization from willing lenders, who are then repaid with taxes levied mainly after the transition cost has becomes negative.

Returns on Private Accounts

Every time the stock market takes a dive, the die-hard defenders of Social Security point with glee to the negative returns implicit in the recent direction of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, S&P 500, and other prominent stock-market indices. The die-hards conveniently overlook three salient facts (of which most of them are probably ignorant):

  • Private accounts could be invested in a mix of stocks and bonds, at the discretion of each account owner.
  • Over the relevant time period (i.e., a working career of 30 years and longer), stocks and bonds have positive returns. For example, the inflation-adjusted return on the Wilshire 5000 (a total-market index of U.S. stocks) was 6.1 percent from February 1979 through February 2009 (when the index hit a low from which it has rebounded). For another example, the inflation-adjusted interest rate on Aaa corporate bonds has been hovering around 5 percent for the past several months.
  • There is no real return on taxes paid into Social Security, claims to the contrary notwithstanding. Those taxes are either paid out immediately to retirees or spent on unremunerative government programs. The so-called returns on Social Security taxes are illusory — they are nothing more than transfers of money coerced from current workers and other taxpayers (including retirees) and handed to current retirees.

Final score: Private accounts, 5 to 6 percent; tax- and transfer-funded accounts, 0.


Assuming that Americans, in the main, will not stand for complete self-reliance when it comes to retirement planning, the second-best solution is a mandatory system of private accounts invested in securities and equities. It is doubtful whether such a system can be established in the face of the perpetual fear-mongering and disinformation campaign against it. But there should be no doubt that such a system would be superior in every way to the present one.

A Social Security Reader

The good folks at Cato Institute weigh in today with this:

For years, opponents of Social Security reform have told us that there is no need to rush into changing the program because, after all, Social Security is running a surplus today. Well, according to a new report by the Congressional Budget Office, not so much.

CBO reports that the Social Security surplus, originally expected to be $80-90 billion this year and next will shrink to $16 billion this year and just $3 billion next year (essentially a rounding error) as a result of the recession and rising unemployment. And those estimates may be far too optimistic. In February of this year, for example, Social Security actually ran a deficit—spending more than it took in through taxes and interest combined.

And, while CBO expects a return to modest surpluses after 2010, as the recession ends and unemployment falls, that is betting on the success of the unproven Obama economic program. If unemployment stays at current levels, Social Security will begin running permanent cash flow deficits in 2011 (eight years earlier than previously predicted).

Opponents of personal accounts have pointed out recent declines in the stock market as a reason why private investment should no longer be considered an option for Social Security reform. The evidence suggests that, even with recent market declines, private investment would still produce higher returns than Social Security. The new surplus numbers provide yet another lesson: if the economy is in such a mess that it hurts private investment, traditional Social Security isn’t going to be in any better shape.

The case for personal accounts remains as strong as ever.

It does indeed.

To top it off, I (among many others) opine that Social Security is unconstitutional. To find out why, go here.

Here are some other related readings from my old blog:
Why It Makes Sense to Privatize Social Security
P.S. on Privatizing Social Security
That Mythical, Magical Social Security Trust Fund
The Real Social Security Issue
Social Security — Myth and Reality
Nonsense and Sense about Social Security
More about Social Security
Social Security Privatization and the Stock Market
Social Security: The Permanent Solution
Social Security Transition Costs, in a Nutshell
A Market Solution to the Social Security Mess?