Tag: 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.

Continue reading “What Is Social Insurance? Take Two”

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.

Continue reading “What Is Social Insurance?”

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.

Continue reading “Yet More CEO Hypocrisy”

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.

Continue reading “Social Security and the National Debt”

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:

Continue reading “Should Social Security Be Progressive?”

Black Is White

By James Kwak

I wasn’t sure what the Social Security wage base was (it’s $106,800, by the way), so I Googled “payroll tax cap.” The number one hit is a post at a blog modestly called The American Thinker. I wouldn’t ordinarily want to bring more attention to it, but it was the #1 hit, and according to Quantcast it has a million unique visitors per month, so nothing I do will affect it one way or another.

Anyway, the thrust of the argument is that we shouldn’t eliminate the cap on wages subject to the payroll tax because “America simply can’t afford it.”

Such plans for expanding an already-huge entitlement are beyond irresponsible, they’re frightful.  Klein and Weller aren’t serious men.  When reading their ideas for Social Security expansion in this time of trillion-dollar federal deficits, one realizes that progressives are unconcerned about America’s fiscal crisis.

You read that correctly. The argument is that increasing the wage base, which would bring in more revenues and reduce the deficit, is a bad thing—because of our fiscal crisis.

Continue reading “Black Is White”

Ponzi Schemes for Beginners

By James Kwak

On the theory that the best defense is a good offense, Rick Perry has been insisting to anyone who will listen that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme. Probably hundreds of people have already explained why it isn’t, but I think it’s important to be clear about why Rick Perry thinks it is—or, rather, why his political advisers think he can get away with it.

A Ponzi scheme, classically, is one where you promise high returns to investors but you have no way of actually generating those returns; instead, you plan to pay off old investors by getting new money from new investors. Social Security is obviously not a Ponzi scheme for at least two basic reasons. First, there’s no fraud involved: all of Social Security’s finances are right out in the open for anyone who cares to look, in the annual report of the trustees of the Social Security trust funds. Second, a Ponzi scheme by construction cannot go on forever; no matter how long you can keep it going, at some point you will run out of potential new investors and the whole thing will collapse. I’m sure there are other obvious differences, but that’s enough for now.

Continue reading “Ponzi Schemes for Beginners”

Understanding the Budget Deficits

By James Kwak

Today’s Atlantic column is a follow-up to last week’s on the size-of-government fallacy. In the column, I break down the projected 2021 deficit into three components: Social Security, Medicare, and Everything Else. (It’s important to use 2021, or some year out there, because most of the current spike in deficits will go away as the economy recovers.) I wanted to explain here how I came up with the numbers and talk a bit more about this approach.

Continue reading “Understanding the Budget Deficits”

Social Security for Beginners

By James Kwak

In Monday’s Atlantic column, the part that upset the most people was (not surprisingly) the following paragraph on Social Security:

“The dollars are in programs like Social Security ($740 billion), which, per dollar, has a relatively small impact on the economy. Social Security doesn’t say what businesses can or can’t do, and it doesn’t say what people can do with their money: it mainly moves money from people’s working years to their retirement years, which means that in part it’s doing something that they would have done anyway.”

One commenter, for example, said that Social Security does tell you what you have to do with your money: you have to buy an annuity. Another said that if he could opt out of Social Security right now, he would, since he thinks it is a losing proposition for him.

I don’t think that any of the criticisms really addressed the main point I was trying to make: that Social Security has a smaller per-dollar economic impact than a regulatory agency like the CFPB. They are fairly typical of criticisms of Social Security, however, so I want to address them in a little more detail.

The debate is really about what Social Security is. A lot of people take the starting point that Social Security is an individual investment vehicle, and then they decide they don’t like it because it doesn’t look like the other individual investment vehicles they are familiar with (brokerage accounts, 401(k) plans, etc.). Other people think that Social Security is a welfare program, and since they don’t like welfare, they don’t like Social Security. But it isn’t either.

Continue reading “Social Security for Beginners”

“The Elderly” for Beginners

By James Kwak

As the AARP says that it is open to modest cuts in Social Security benefits, it’s worthwhile asking a more fundamental question: are Social Security and Medicare programs that benefit the elderly?

The answer may seem obvious. After all, the bulk of Social Security Old Age and Survivors Insurance benefits go to people over 62, and almost all Medicare beneficiaries are over 65. So it’s often observed in passing that our long-range budget issues are the product of transfers to the elderly. For example, in Restoring Fiscal Sanity 2005, Alice Rivlin and Isabel Sawhill write, “These big programs, which benefit primarily the elderly, will drive increases in federal spending in the longer run” (p. 36). Other commentators have occasionally argued that the problem is that the elderly have become too powerful and therefore claim too large a share of government spending, especially compared to the very young.* When you add to that the frequent complaint that, by running budget deficits, we are imposing burdens on our grandchildren, this age-based inequity seems even greater.

But the problem with this framing is that “the elderly” change every year. There’s nothing inherently wrong or unfair with a program in which you pay insurance premiums while you work and collect benefits when you retire. Saying such a program benefits the elderly is like saying that life insurance doesn’t benefit the insured, only the beneficiaries: it’s true in a trivial sense, but people still want and buy life insurance anyway.

Continue reading ““The Elderly” for Beginners”

Taxes and Spending for Beginners

By James Kwak

Over the long term, we are projected to have large and growing federal budget deficits. Assuming that is a problem, which most people do, there seem to be two ways to solve this problem: raising taxes and cutting spending. Today, the political class seems united around the idea that spending cuts are the solution, not tax increases. That’s a given for Republicans; Paul Ryan even proposes to reduce the deficit by cutting taxes. But as Ezra Klein points out, President Obama and Harry Reid are falling over themselves praising (and even seeming to claim credit for) the spending cuts in Thursday night’s deal. And let’s not forget the bipartisan, $900 billion tax cut passed and signed in December.

The problem here isn’t simply the assumption that we can’t raise taxes. The underlying problem is the belief that “tax increases” and “spending cuts” are two distinct categories to begin with. In many cases, tax increases and spending cuts are equivalent — except for the crucial issue of who gets hurt by them.*

Continue reading “Taxes and Spending for Beginners”