Tag Archives: Social Security

What Is Social Insurance? Take Two

By James Kwak

More than a year ago I wrote a post titled “What Is Social Insurance?” about a passage in President Obama’s second inaugural address defending “the commitments we make to each other – through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security.” In that post, I more or less took the mainstream progressive view: programs like Social Security are risk-spreading programs that provide insurance against common risks like disability, living too long, poor health in old age, and so on.

Since then, I undertook to write a chapter on social insurance for a forthcoming Research Handbook in the Law and Economics of Insurance, edited by Dan Schwarcz and Peter Siegelman. In writing the chapter, I decided that things were somewhat more complicated.

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Yet Another Proposal To Raise My Own Taxes

By James Kwak

In chapter 7 of White House Burning, we proposed to eliminate or scale back a number of tax breaks that I benefit from directly, including the employer health care exclusion, the deduction for charitable contributions, and, most importantly, tax preferences for investment income. We did not, however, go after tax breaks for retirement savings, on the grounds that Americans already don’t save enough for retirement.

Well, in my latest Atlantic column, I’m going after that one, too. I changed my mind in part for the usual reason—the dollar value of tax expenditures is heavily skewed toward the rich. But the other reason is that the evidence indicates that this particular subsidy doesn’t even do what it’s supposed to do: increase retirement savings. Instead, we should take at least some of the money we currently waste on tax preferences for 401(k)s and IRAs and use to shore up Social Security, the one part of the retirement “system” that actually works for ordinary Americans.

Of course, this isn’t going to happen anytime soon. President Obama proposed capping tax-advantaged retirement accounts at $3.4 million, which is a step in the right direction. ($150,000 would be a better limit, since most people reach retirement with far less in their 401(k) accounts.)* But even that was attacked by the asset management industry as theft from the elderly.

* Yes, I know about the issue of small business owners who only set up accounts for their employees because they want to benefit from them themselves. It’s a red herring. First, if an employer doesn’t have a 401(k), employees can contribute $5,000 to an IRA—and $5,000 is a lot more than most middle-income, small business employees are currently contributing. Second, the right solution would be to default everyone into a retirement savings account instead of relying on employers to decide whether or not to set up 401(k) plans.

What Is Social Insurance?

By James Kwak

“We do not believe that in this country, freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other – through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security – these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”

Many liberals have been heartened by these words, spoken by President Obama during Monday’s inaugural address. Indeed, they represent one of the few times when anyone, including the president, has even attempted to defend our major social insurance and safety net programs. The usual posture among the type of centrist Democrats who make it into the administration is some combination of (a) simply attacking, as self-evidently evil, anyone who proposes benefit cuts and (b) saying in serious tones that we will have to cut spending one way or another.

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Yet More CEO Hypocrisy

By James Kwak

Several weeks ago, I wrote a column criticizing the “Fix the Debt” CEOs for saying that we should raise taxes while not mentioning the one tax break that means the most to them as individuals—the preferential rate for capital gains—and, in many cases, giving money to the presidential candidate who promised to protect that tax break for them.

A friend pointed out another glaring example of these CEOs’ hypocrisy. Of the CEOs in Fix the Debt, 71 lead public companies; of those, 41 have employee pension funds. Of those, only two pensions are fully funded; the other pensions are underfunded by an average of $2.5 billion, according to the Institute for Policy Studies.

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Social Security and the National Debt

By James Kwak

In this season of fiscal brinksmanship, the topic of Social Security has once again come to the fore. Republicans are generally in favor of cutting benefits, although they are bit afraid to say so after the demise of George W. Bush’s privatization “plan”; Democrats are generally in favor of not cutting benefits. But many liberals have another argument: Social Security is irrelevant to the whole issue of deficits and the debt, since the program cannot have any impact on either.

I generally count myself as a liberal, but I think this is a misleading argument. This could take some time to explain, as I’ll try to go through it carefully.

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Social Security Matters

By James Kwak

Catherine Rampell wrote a post last week about how Americans expect to retire later and how more elderly Americans are working. Her last chart also showed that a growing proportion of nonretirees expect Social Security to be a major source of their income in retirement.

That shows that Americans are becoming more realistic. But still, just 33 percent?

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Should Social Security Be Progressive?

By James Kwak

My earlier rant on the Social Security wage base made me think of a more important question (actually, I was already thinking of it, hence the need to Google the earnings cap): Should Social Security be more progressive than it already is? The most common ways liberals want to make it more progressive are (a) eliminating the cap on taxable earnings altogether and (b) reducing benefits for high earners. For part of my brain the automatic answer is “yes,” but I think there is a reasonable argument for leaving things roughly the way they are.

First, there’s a straight-up political argument. Social Security is popular because people feel like they earn their benefits. If people thought it was a covert redistribution program, then the high earners would definitely be against it, and most of the middle class probably would be too because of the American allergy to welfare. In fact, there are certainly people who think it is “pure welfare”, like the author of the post I criticized last time around. But it isn’t:

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