Posts tagged ‘social security’

From My Vantage Point, Social Security Disability is Totally Corrupt

Nicole Kaeding of Cato has an article on the SSD system heading for bankruptcy.  I can tell you from my experience that a week does not go by when someone doesn't come to me looking for work and saying something like, "I am on full disability but I am fully able to work.  However, I can't take any pay because that would screw up my disability payments.  Can I work for you and have you write my payroll checks to my wife?"

The easy answer to that is "no".  With a backlog of 25000+ people who want a job, why am I going to help them cheat, particularly when it would be me taking the legal risk?

I once had an ex-employee who was applying for a SS disability.  You may not understand that for many folks, getting a Social Security lifetime disability is like hitting the lottery.  This employee knew that if asked, we would have to tell the SS investigator that she seemed fully able to do her job and never demonstrated any reduced functionality.  So to pre-empt that, she and her attorney sent me a letter saying that if we in any way testified to her being able to work and prevented her from getting her disability payment, she would tie me up in court for years, suing me for sexual harassment, discrimination, and everything else she could think of.

Disability Fraud

Today I have yet another person with a full disability settlement (e.g. from Social Security) telling me that they are fully capable of working and pestering me to hire them.  The rub is that paying them any money would endanger their disability payments, so they ask me to pay the money to someone else (husband, child) or to pay them off books in cash.  Essentially, they are asking me to violate the law in order the help them violate the law.

Why would I take this risk?  Last year I had 21,000 people sign up on a mailing list looking for work.

Perhaps I am somehow an outlier because I hire so many older folks, but I get dozens of request like this a year.  You can't convince me that the disability system is not broken.

2014 Obamacare Headlines

Here are a few shoes that are left to drop for Obamacare:

  1. Millions complain about their doctor no longer being in-network
  2. Thousands of companies are finding it cheaper to drop coverage and pay Obamacare penalties than continuing to provide health care coverage under new rules
  3. Despite fewer exchange enrollments than expected, total Federal subsidy payments higher than expected
  4. Emergency rooms overflow with new Medicaid patients that no private doctor will take on
  5. Exchange-sold health policies, particularly the unsubsidized ones, were mainly bought by the old and sick
  6. Obama Administration works to bail out health insurers via a number of different avenues
  7. Small to mid-size companies are shocked as Obama Administration finally reveals new record-keeping requirements
  8. After 5 years of 3-4% growth, health care spending skyrockets in 2014
  9. ________ health insurance company dropping coverage in  ____(state)_______
  10. Hackers steal tens of thousands of names and social security numbers from health care exchange computers.

I will score myself as the year progresses to see how many of these we actually see.  I would not be surprised to see every one of these.

The Two Lame Answers Obama Supporters Are Giving Those of Us Who Have Had Our Health Insurance Cancelled

1.  The first Obama Administration response to people (like myself) who have had their health insurance cancelled because of Obamacare and who are facing much higher future premiums is that many of can expect a subsidy.  Do you realize how awful this is?  Basically they are acknowledging that millions of people who paid for their own health care in the past will now be getting taxpayer money.  Essentially, a huge and unnecessary increase in government dependency.

2.  The other equally awful Obama Administration answer is that our new health coverage will be more expensive because it will be "better".  First, there is no evidence of this -- early returns are that people are paying more for less.  Second, though, this is horribly arrogant.  A $200,000 Maserati sedan is likely "better" than my car I am driving, but given its price I would consider myself worse off if forced to buy a Maserati.  In the same sense, forcing me to by expensive insurance options I don't want is not "better", even if I am making choices Obama's advisers would not make for themselves.  I spent a lot of time shopping for health insurance and running numbers on various cases and picking the best plan for me, and am insulted that Obama does not respect my decision.

By the way, I will remind you of what I said way back in 2007 about government health care proposals

Americans are unbelievably charitable people, to the extent that they will put up with a lot of taxation and even losses of freedoms through government coercion to help people out.

However, in nearly every other case of government-coerced charity, the main effect is "just" an increase in taxes.  Lyndon Johnson wants to embark on a futile attempt to try to provide public housing to the poor?  Our taxes go up, a lot of really bad housing is built, but at least my housing did not get any worse.  Ditto food programs -- the poor might get some moldy cheese from a warehouse, but my food did not get worse.  Ditto welfare.  Ditto social security, unemployment insurance,and work programs.

But health care is different.... what is different about many of the health care proposals on the table is that everyone, not just the poor will get this same crappy level of treatment.  It would be like a public housing program where everyone's house is torn down and every single person must move into public housing.  That is universal state-run health care.  Ten percent of America gets pulled up, 90% of America gets pulled down, possibly way down.

Obamacare Not Only Raising My Rates, But Making The Process Much Harder

On September 26 of this year, President Obama said this of the new Obamacare exchanges:

“If you’ve ever tried to buy insurance on your own,” he said, “I promise you this is a lot easier.”

Well, let's see.  Here are some notes on my previous health insurance buying decision

  • I was able to price shop policies online without creating an account, without giving up my social security number.  The websites to do so worked and operated quickly
  • A broker who had decades of experience in health care (rather than being a former Obama campaign worker with a few hours of training) walked me through the options and how they worked.
  • Once we chose a policy, the application process online was quick and easy

Here is one thing that was likely worse

  • I had to provide medical history information, which probably is not required under Obamacare because of community rating (though I am not sure)

And here is one thing that was better for me but I guess must be worse for the Left since they complain about it so much

  • There was a lot more choice.  If the process was "harder" in any way before, it was because there were far more choices.  It was harder in the same way that it is generally harder to shop in the US than, say, in the old Soviet Union.  Obamacare circumscribes policies such that a large package of benefits are mandated, not optional (I have to pay for mental health coverage and probably aromatherapy) and the size of one's deductible is capped.

It is also this latter difference that will make my next policy substantially more expensive.  In standardizing options, the Congress standardized on the most expensive options (broadest possible benefits, smallest possible deductible).

By the way, this is not proven yet but there is probably one other way my Obamacare policy will be worse than my last one:  the doctor network in my policy will very likely be a LOT smaller.  We could almost be sure this would happen precisely because Obama promised it wouldn't  (his promises on health care are pretty good "tells" that the opposite will happen).

This Minimum Wage Conversation is Not a Hypothetical -- I Have It All The Time

Don Boudreax writes:

Here’s a project for all unemployed young people – say, ages 18 through 21 – in America today.  Go to a nearby supermarket or restaurant or lawn-care company or pet store and ask for a job at the minimum wage.  If you are denied, offer to work for $4.00 per hour.  The owner or manager will almost surely decline, saying that it’s against the law.

“Would you like to hire me at $4.00?” you ask.

“Well yes I would” is the answer you’re likely to get in reply.

“So, hire me at that wage.  I’m an adult, I’m sober, and I have no mental issues.  I’m willing to work for $4.00 per hour.”

“You don’t get it, kid.  I can’t hire you at that wage.  I’ll get fined, or worse.  Go away.”

“Ok, I’ll leave.  But no one – including you – will hire me at $7.25 per hour.  What am I supposed to do?”

“Look kid.  That’s your problem.  I’m sorry.  I don’t make the laws, but I gotta follow them.  Go away now.”

I know that this is a realistic scenario because I have this conversation with employees all the time.  Except in my case, applicants are generally not 18 years old but 70 years old.

A bit of background:  My company operates campground and other recreation areas mainly using retired people who live on-site in their own RV's.  Few of my 400+ employees are under 65 and several are over 90.

There are several reasons this conversation occurs:

  • As my employees get older, and perhaps sicker with various disabilities, their work slows down to the point that it falls under our productivity expectations.  Employees may come to me saying they want to stay busy but they know they don't work very fast but they would be happy to work for $5 or $4 an hour if they could just keep this job they love.  (There is a Federal law that allows waiving of minimum wages for disability situations.  We tried it -- once.  The paperwork was daunting and the approval came 7 months after the application -- 2 months after the seasonal employee had already gone home for the year).
  • Many people like to stay busy but face wage caps where they begin to lose their Social Security.  They want to keep their total income under the wage cap.  We try to create some jobs that require fewer hours so they can get their wages down that way, but in many cases we have a limited number of on-site living spots and a fixed amount of work such that each person occupying a living spot must do a certain amount of work to make sure it all gets done.  So at some point we can't give them fewer hours, and then they will ask for lower pay.

I frequently have to tell people I simply cannot pay them less.  They ask if they can sign a paper saying they want to be paid less, and I tell them something like "no, the law assumes you are a gullible rube and that I am evil and infinitely powerful so that if you sign a paper, it just means I forced you to do it."  Which is all true, that is exactly the logic of the law.

People look at me funny sometimes when I say the minimum wage law limits employee rights by putting a floor on what they may charge for their labor.  This is an odd way of putting it for them, because minimum wage laws are generally explained in the oppressor-oppressed model, but it makes perfect sense from my experience.

Trading $1 in Debt for 85 cents of Economic Activity

UPDATE:  Mea culpa.  One point in the original post was dead wrong.  It is possible, contrary to what I wrote below, to get something like a 0.7%  difference in annual growth rates with the assumptions he has in the chart below (Drum still exaggerated when he called it 1%).  I don't know if the model is valid (I have little faith in any macro models) but I was wrong on this claim.  Using the 0.7% and working more carefully by quarter we get a cumulative GDP addition a bit lower than the cumulative debt addition.  There is still obviously a reasonable question even at a multiplier near 1 whether $1 of economic activity today is worth $1 of debt repayment plus interest in the future.  

I am not a believer, obviously, in cyclical tweaking of the economy by the Feds.  To my thinking, the last recession was caused by a massive government-driven mis-allocation of capital so further heavy-handed government allocation of capital seems like a poor solution.  But what really drives me crazy is that most folks on the Left will seductively argue that now is not the time to reduce debt levels, implying sometime in the future when the economy is better will be the appropriate time.  But when, in any expansion, have you heard anyone on the Left say, "hey, its time to reduce spending and cut debt because we need the fiscal flexibility next time the economy goes wrong."

I will leave the stuff in error below in the post because I don't think it is right to disappear mistakes.  For transparency, my spreadsheet reconstruction both confirming the 0.7% and with the updated numbers below is here:   reconstruction.xls.

 

Kevin Drum is flogging the austerity horse again

I see that Macroecomic Advisors has produced a comprehensive estimate of the total effect of bad fiscal policies. Their conclusion: austerity policies since the start of 2011 have cut GDP growth by about 1 percentage point per year.

Something seemed odd to me -- when I opened up the linked study, it said the "lost" government discretionary spending is about 2% of GDP.  Is Drum really arguing that we should be spending 2% of GDP to increase GDP by 1%?

Of course, the math does not work quite this way given compounding and such, but it did cause me to check things out.  The first thing I learned is that Drum partook of some creative rounding.  The study actually said reductions in discretionary spending as a percent of GDP reduced GDP growth rates since the beginning of 2011 by 0.7% a year, not 1% (the study does mention a 1% number but this includes other effects as well).

But it is weirder than that, because here is the chart in the study that is supposed to support the 0.7% number:

click to enlarge

Note that in the quarterly data, only 2 quarters appear to show a 0.7% difference and all the others are less.  I understand that compounding can do weird things, but how can the string of numbers represented by the green bars net to 0.7%?  What it looks like they did is just read off the last bar, which would be appropriate if they were doing some sort of cumulative model, but that is not how the chart is built.  If we interpolate actual values and are relatively careful about getting the compounding right, the difference is actually about 0.45%.  So now we are down to less than half the number Drum quoted see update above (I sent an email to the study author for clarification but have not heard back.  Update:  he was nice enough to send me a quick email).

So let's accept this 0.45% 0.7% number for a moment.  If GDP started somewhere around 16 trillion in 2010, if we apply a 0.45% the quarterly growth numbers from his chart, we get an incremental economic activity from 2011 through 2013:Q2 of about $333 billion.

So now look at the spending side.  The source says that discretionary spending fell by about 2% of GDP over this period.  From the graph above, it seems to bite pretty early, but we will assume it fell 1/12 of this 2% figure each quarter, so that by the end of 2013 or beginning of 2014 we get a fall in spending by 2% of GDP.  Cumulatively, this would be a reduction in spending over the 2.5 years vs. some "non-austere" benchmark of $388 billion.

Thus, in exchange for running up $677 billion $388 billion in additional debt, we would have had $445 billion $333 billion in incremental economic activity.  A couple of reactions:

  1. Having the government borrow money and spend it definitely increases near-term GDP.  No one disputes that.  It is not even in question.  Those of us who favor reigning in government spending acknowledge this.  The question is, at what cost in terms of future obligations.  In fact, this very study Drum is quoting says

    Economists agree that failure to shrink prospective deficits and debt will bestow significant economic consequences and risks on future generations. Federal deficits drive up interest rates, “crowding out” private investment. If government borrowing supports consumption (e.g., through Social Security and major health programs) rather than public investment, the nation’s overall capital stock declines, undermining our standard of living. The process is slow but the eventual impact is large.2 In addition, accumulating debt raises the risk of a fiscal crisis. No one can say when this might occur but, unlike crowding out, a debt crisis could develop unexpectedly once debt reached high levels.

    High deficits and debt also undermine the efficacy of macroeconomic policies and reduce policymakers’ flexibility to respond to unexpected events. For example, in a recession, it would be harder to provide fiscal stimulus if deficits and debt already were high. Furthermore, fiscal stimulus might be less effective then. Additional deficit spending could be seen as pushing the nation closer to crisis, thereby forcing up interest rates and undercutting the effects of the stimulus. With fiscal policy hamstrung, the burden of counter-cyclical policy is thrust on the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) but, particularly in a low interest-rate environment, the FOMC may be unable (or unwilling) to provide additional monetary
    stimulus.

  2. I guess we have pretty much given up on the >1 multiplier, huh?  Beggaring our children for incremental economic growth today is a risky enough strategy, but particularly so with the implied .66 .85 multiplier here.

This is not the first time Drum has taken, uh, creative data approaches to cry "austerity" during a mad spending spree. 

A Third of Government is Shutting Down and The Only Lost Function Anyone Can Name is Parks

First, you did not read the title wrong.  A government shutdown means only about a third of the government actually shuts down.  But the more amazing thing is that given multiple opportunities to name what we would lose if this one third goes away, all anyone can name is parks.  This is from a Q&A by the Associated Press via Zero Hedge, which says we would lose parks and have some delays in new disability applications and, uh, we would lose parks.

About one-third of the government will shut down. About 800,000 of about 2.1 million federal employees will be sent home without pay. National parks will close.

NASA will continue to keep workers at Mission Control in Houston and elsewhere to support the International Space station, where two Americans and four other people live. Aside from that only about 3 percent of NASA's 18,000 workers will keep working.

The military and other agencies involving safety and security would continue to function. These include air traffic controllers, border patrol and law enforcement officers. Social Security, Medicare and veterans' benefits payments would continue, but there could be delays in processing new disability applications.

A partial shutdown that lasts no more than a few days wouldn't likely nick the economy much. But if the shutdown were to persist for two weeks or more, the economy would likely begin to slow, economists say.

Extended closures of national parks would hurt hotels, restaurants and other tourism-related businesses. Delays in processing visas for overseas visitors could interrupt trade. And the one-third of the federal workforce that lost pay would cut back on spending, thereby slowing growth.

So there you have it -- we lay off 800,000 government workers and the only two losses the AP can come up with is that national parks will close and those 800,000 people will have less to spend.    Since the NPS employs about 22,000 people, this means that the other 778,000 have a contribution to the economy that consists mainly of drawing and then spending a salary?

I would love to see the government shutdown rules modified to add National Parks to the critical assets that remain open in a shutdown, since this seems the only thing anyone cares about.  Then it would be fascinating to see how the downside of the shutdown would be spun.  I can see the headlines now.   "AP:  Millions of TPS reports go unfiled".

Update:  My company runs parks under concession contract in the National Forest and for other government agencies.  In all previous shutdowns, we have remained open, since we pay money into the government budget rather than draw money out, and since the parks we operate employ no government workers.  This time, though, we are starting to get notices we have to shut down too.  This may be an attempt by the administration to artificially make the shutdown worse than it needs to be.  I will update you as I learn more.

Raise Medicare Taxes

I have made this argument before -- your lifetime Medicare taxes cover only about a third of the benefits you will receive.   Social Security taxes are set about right -- to the extent we come up short on Social Security, it is only because a feckless Congress spent all the excess money in the good years and has none left for the lean years.

But Medicare is seriously mis-priced.  I have always argued that this is dangerous, because there is nothing that screws up the economy more than messed up price signals.  In particular, I have argued that a lot of the glowy hazy love of Medicare by Americans is likely due to the fact that it is seriously mis-priced.  Let's price the thing right, and then we can have a real debate about whether it needs reform or is worth it.

A recent study confirms my fear that the mispricing of Medicare is distorting perceptions of its utility.

As debate over the national debt and the federal budget deficit begins to heat up again, an analysis of national polls conducted in 2013 shows that, compared with recent government reports prepared by experts, the public has different views about the need to reduce future Medicare spending to deal with the federal budget deficit. Many experts believe that future Medicare spending will have to be reduced in order to lower the federal budget deficit [1] but polls show little support (10% to 36%) for major reductions in Medicare spending for this purpose. In fact, many Americans feel so strongly that they say they would vote against candidates who favor such reductions. Many experts see Medicare as a major contributor to the federal budget deficit today, but only about one-third (31%) of the public agrees.

This analysis appears as a Special Report in the September 12, 2013, issue of New England Journal of Medicine.

One reason that many Americans believe Medicare does not contribute to the deficit is that the majority thinks Medicare recipients pay or have prepaid the cost of their health care. Medicare beneficiaries on average pay about $1 for every $3 in benefits they receive. [2] However, about two-thirds of the public believe that most Medicare recipients get benefits worth about the same (27%) or less (41%) than what they have paid in payroll taxes during their working lives and in premiums for their current coverage.

Update:  Kevin Drum writes on the same study.  Oddly, he seems to blame the fact that Americans have been trained to expect something for nothing from the government on Conservatives.  I am happy to throw Conservatives under the bus for a lot of things but I think the Left gets a lot of the blame if Americans have been fooled into thinking expensive government freebies aren't really costing them anything.

Vagrant Economy, Dodging Garnishments

I have zero desire to comment on Tawana Brawley, but this article raised an issue at the end that has always been interesting to me.  After literally decades of court action, Brawley finally had a garnishment order enforced on her paycheck to start making good on a defamation suit by the man she victimized with her false rape allegations  (Which in fact demonstrates another point I have made before -- you can win a judgement in court but that can often be less than half the battle.  It can be harder to get the judgement actually paid).

Anyway, apparently as soon as the garnishment order was applied by her employer, she quit the job without a forwarding address (the headline says "loses her job" as if she was fired but the text seems to say she quit, presumably to dodge the garnishment).  This happens in my business all the time.  On our 400+ employees, we probably get 5-10 new garnishment orders a year, often tax liens or child support payments.  These take a while to catch up with people, so while the orders may be years old, the employees might work for me 3-6 months before the order shows up in our office to enforce.  (For those who don't know, each state typically requires some sort of new employee notification by our business to the state, so they can run the employee's name and social security number against various data bases to generate these orders).

Once the first garnishment hits their paycheck, at least 80% quit immediately, moving on like Brawley to get another 6 months of work somewhere else before the garnishment presumably catches up to  them again.  I have no idea how large this group of job vagrants is that are constantly moving to dodge garnishments, but from our sample it is pretty large.

Social Security Worse Than Even the Most Corrupt Private Funds

Kevin Drum and Matt Yglesias think that 401-K's are a total ripoff.

After the new fee disclosure statements went out, roughly the same percentage—half!—of participants said that they still do not know how much they pay in plan annual fees and expenses, according to a recent survey by LIMRA, an association of insurance and financial services organizations.

....For those 401(k) participants who said they thought they knew how much they paid in fees, most of them were way off base. One out of four participants thought they paid 25% or more in fees, 16% thought they paid between 10% to 24% in fees, and 30% thought they paid between 2% and 9% in fees. Only 28% of participants thought their fees were less than 2%.

That group is the closest to reality. On average fees and expenses range between 1 to 2 percent, depending on the size of the plan (how many employees are covered) and the employees’ allocation choices (index funds versus actively managed funds), says LIMRA.

First, this is bizarre, as the indictment here of private fund management seems to be that people are *gasp* paying fees that are much lower than they think they are.   Also, it may well be that these people are not mistaken, but just using a different mental definition for fee percentage.  After all, why is total assets necessarily the best denominator for this calculation?  Obviously the fund industry likes it that way because it gives the lowest number, but it could be that people are thinking about annual fees as a percentage of the annual income.  Thus a fee of 1-2% of assets could well be 25% of annual income.  Hell, since I invest for income growth, I could argue that this is a MORE rational way to think about fees.  Obviously Drum and Yglesias are just captive mouthpieces of big Mutual Fund.

Second, and perhaps more importantly -- do you know what retirement fund has higher implicit fees and a lower lifetime total return than nearly any private fund in existence?   Social Security.  Read your statement you get and do the math.  You will find that the total you will likely get out will be less than you put in, even BEFORE present value effects, even if you have put money in for 30 years.  In other words, the internal rate of return on your and your employer's taxes is less than zero.

Ahh, but you say, that is because your Social Security taxes are going to subsidize people who don't work.  Fine, but then don't be surprised if there is strong support for a retirement system that does not pass the money through government hands.  Even getting a crappy rate of return from some hack investment manager is likely still better than putting your money in a government system where cash is skimmed off to feed whatever political constituency has the clout to grab it.

Postscript -- by the way, I leave aside the issue of whether it is a productive thing to tax-subsidize.  I am generally against tax preference for selected behaviors, even relatively popular  ones like savings.  But Yglesias wants to replace 401-K's with some kind of coerced government system (the note about fees above is to make the case that the average person cannot be trusted and that our masters need to do the savings for us).  Image one giant Calpers.  Ugh.

My Retirement Rant

First, I will say that I am perfectly happy for folks who are either good earners or good savers or both and who choose to use their accumulated wealth to stop working at some age.

However, I am completely lost as to how we have somehow decided that multi-decade end-of-life paid vacations, starting as early as age 50, is somehow an inalienable right that must be guaranteed by government.  I suppose I can see a safety net for folks who, though age and disability, simply get too old to be productive (but remember that I have nearly 500 people mostly over 65 who work for me, mostly doing manual trades, so don't tell me older people can't be productive).  And that was what Social Security initially was -- the age 65 was chosen as a retirement age not because it guaranteed 10-15 years of senior leisure but because it matched the life expectancy at the time.  The equivalent age would be well into the 70's today.

Of course, others think differently.  A group is now proposing an expanded Social Security program that would guarantee nearly 100% of earnings to low-income retirees (there are smaller increases for higher income workers but most all the change is for low-income folks).

While they are proposing higher taxes to support this, my guess is that it will not be long before a wealth tax is suggested.  After all, they are hoping to replace 401K's as a savings vehicle.  If so, why not seize those funds to help pay for the plan.  The other day, Kevin Drum mocked those who fear a government seizure of 401K's as the tinfoil hat brigade.  I would be willing to bet him that within the decade, it will become a mainstream idea in the progressive community to fund shortfalls in Social Security and Medicare with a full or partial seizure of 401K's.

Arrogance and Coercion

Years ago I had an argument with my mother-in-law, who is a classic Massachusetts liberal  (by the way, we get along fine -- I have no tolerance for the notion that one can't be friends with someone who has a different set of politics).  The argument was very clarifying for me and centered around the notion of coercion.

I can't entirely remember what the argument was about, but I think it was over government-mandated retirement programs.  Should the government be forcing one to save, and if so, should the government do the investment of those savings (ie as they do in Social Security) even if this means substantially lower returns on investment?

The interesting part was we both used the word "arrogant."  I said it was arrogant for a few people in government to assume they could make better decisions for individuals.  She said it was arrogant for me to assume that all those individuals out there had the same training and capability that I had to be able to make good decisions for themselves.

And at the end of the day, that is essentially the two sides of the argument over government paternalism boiled down to its core.  I thought coercion was immoral, she thought letting unprepared people make sub-optimal decisions for themselves when other people know better is immoral.  As with most of my one on one arguments I have with people, I left it at that.  When I argue face to face with real people, I have long ago given up trying to change their minds and generally settle for being clear where our premises diverge.

I am reminded of all this reading Bruce McQuain's take on Sarah Conly's most recent attempt to justify coercive paternalism (the latter is not an unfair title I have saddled her with -- it's from her last book).  Reading this I had a couple of other specific thoughts

  1. I am amazed how much Conly and folks like her can write this stuff without addressing the fundamental contradiction at its core -- if we are so bad making decisions for ourselves, why do we think the same human beings suddenly become good at it when they join government?  She would argue, I guess, that there are a subset of super-humans who are able to do what most of us can't, but how in a democracy do we thinking-impaired people know to vote for one of the supermen?  Or if you throw our democracy, what system has ever existed that selected for leaders who make good decisions for the peasants vs., say, selected for people who were good generals. 
  2. Is there any difference between Conly's coercive paternalism and Kipling's white man's burden?  Other than the fact that the supermen and the mass of sub-optimizing schlubs are not differentiated by race?  It's fascinating to see Progressives who are traditionally energized by hatred of colonialism rejuvinating one of imperialism's core philosophical justifications.

Forgetting the Fed -- Why a Recovery May Actually Increase Public Debt

Note:  I am not an expert on the Fed or the operation of the money supply.  Let me know if I am missing something fundamental below

Kevin Drum dredges up this chart from somewhere to supposedly demonstrate that only a little bit of spending cuts are needed to achieve fiscal stability.

Likely the numbers in this chart are a total crock - spending cuts over 10 years are never as large as the government forecasts and tax increases, particularly on the rich, seldom yield as much revenue as expected.

But leave those concerns aside.  What about the Fed?  The debt as a percent of GDP shown for 2012 in this chart is around 72%.  Though it is not labelled as such, this means that this chart is showing public, rather than total, government debt.  The difference is the amount of debt held by federal agencies.  Of late, this amount has been increasing rapidly as the Fed buys Federal debt with printed money.  Currently the total debt as a percent of GDP is something like 101%.

The Left likes to use the public debt number, both because it is lower and because it has been rising more slowly than total debt (due to the unprecedented growth of the Fed's balance sheet the last several years).  But if one insists on making 10-year forecasts of public debt rather than total debt, then one must also forecast Fed actions as part of the mix.

Specifically, the Fed almost certainly will have to start selling some of the debt on its books to the public when the economy starts to recover.  That, at least, is the theory as I understand it: when interest rates can't be lowered further, the Fed can apply further stimulus via quantitative easing, the expansion of the money supply achieved by buying US debt with printed money.  But the flip side of that theory is that when the economy starts to heat up, that debt has to be sold again, sopping up the excess money supply to avoid inflation.  In effect, this will increase the public debt relative to the total debt.

It is pretty clear that the authors of this chart have not assumed any selling of debt from the Fed balance sheet.  The Fed holds about $2 trillion in assets more than it held before the financial crisis, so that selling these into a recovery would increase the public debt as a percent of GDP by 12 points.  In fact, I don't know how they get the red line dropping like it does unless they assume the current QE goes on forever, ie that the FED continues to sop up a half trillion dollars or so of debt every year and takes it out of public hands.

This is incredibly unrealistic.  While a recovery will likely be the one thing that tends to slow the rise of total debt, it may well force the Fed to dump a lot of its balance sheet (and certainly end QE), leading to a rise in public debt.

Here is my prediction:  This is the last year that the Left will insist that public debt is the right number to look at (as opposed to total debt).  With a reversal in QE, as well as the reversal in Social Security cash flow, public debt will soon be rising faster than total debt, and the Left will begin to assure us that total debt rather than public debt is the right number to look at.

Counting Coup

The fiscal settlement passed last night did absolutely nothing to improve the deficit or the financial sanity of government.  Its only purpose, as far as I can tell, was to let Democrats count coup on rich people as a reward for winning the last election.  It's like telling your kids that on their birthday, you will take them to do absolutely anything they like, and Democrats chose to display their disdain for rich people as their one act of celebration.    A few other observations:

  • I had expected that they would gen up a bunch of fake savings and accounting tricks to pretend there were spending cuts in proportion to tax increases, but apparently they did not feel the need to bother.  Essentially only trivial spending cuts were included.
  • At what point can we officially declare that the reduction in doctor reimbursement rates that supposedly paid for much of Obamacare is a great lie and will never happen?  Congress once again extended the "doc fix" another year, eliminating the single largest source of savings that was to fund Obamacare.  Congress has been playing this same game  -- using elimination of the doc fix to supposedly fund programs and then quietly renewing the doc fix later -- for over a decade
  • The restoration of the FICA tax is probably a good thing.  Though I think the reality is something else, people still think of these as premiums that pay for future benefits, so in the spirit of good pricing, the premiums should reflect the true costs.  And FICA premiums have always been set about at the right level (it is only the fact that past Congresses spent all the money supposedly banked for future generations that Social Security has a financial problem).  In fact, we should raise Medicare premiums as well.
  • Apparently, though I have not seen the list, this last minute deal was chock full of corporate cronyism, with a raft of special interst tax preferences thrown into the mix.

And so ends, I suppose, the 12-year saga of the Bush tax cuts, with tax cuts for the rich revoked and the rest made permanent.   The establishment media decided early on that it was going to run with the story line that these cuts were "for the rich."  The irony, that will never get any play, is that now, at the end, it is all too clear that this was far from the case.  Reversing the tax cuts to the rich only reversed a small percentage of the original tax cuts.  In fact, if the Bush tax cuts had been mainly for the rich, then the Democrats would not have even bothered addressing the fiscal cliff.

More California Idiocy -- Calpers Scam to Run Private Pension System

A new California mandate on employers I completely missed:

California Governor Jerry Brown signed a law that permits as many as 6.3 million private workers without a pension plan to set aside retirement money for management by the state.

It is the first state-run pension program for nongovernment employees and may add as much as $6.6 billion to funds managed by the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, the biggest U.S. pension. Calpers, as the fund is known, has assets of $242 billion.

The law is aimed at businesses with five or more employees that don’t offer pensions or 401(k) savings programs. The law requires companies to contribute 3 percent of a worker’s salary to a retirement account. Workers will be enrolled in the program unless they choose to opt out.

This is just insane, and I don't remember any public debate on it.  Given that the government already has a forced retirement program with a much higher percentage contribution (Social Security with 16% of wages when including the employer piece), my guess is that this is meant as a bone for or a bailout of Calpers.  Calpers wields enormous political power in the state, and it is entirely believable that they alone are behind this.  Calpers is about to be forced to acknowledge that it is billions short of what it needs to cover future pension obligations because it has been assuming unrealistically high returns form its investments.  Without those high returns, more money needs to be put in the fund to cover public employee pensions that march to ridiculous levels.

I have skimmed the law, and there is nothing in there about what returns will be paid to these new private employees.  My guess is that private contributions will be used as a slush fund to make sure public employees get paid, because they DO have defined benefits, as well as a justification to pay Calpers managers more money.  I can absolutely guarantee that when push comes to shove and Calpers is short of money, private employees will see their benefits rolled back and their contributions going to public employees' pockets.

This is also insane for two other reasons:

  1. In California, there has probably been a zillion lawsuits with the state punishing private entities for running "opt-out" rather than "opt-in" systems.   Having to explicitly opt out to keep ones money is a scam only the government is allowed to get away with
  2. In our company, all but a few of our workers are already retired, working part-time for us to keep busy.  The vast majority of our employees, for example, are on Social Security and many also have private pensions.  So why am I forced to set up all the expensive infrastructure to provide 401K contributions to people who are all drawing down their 401k's?

Raising Medicare Taxes

Glen Reynolds writes:

The concern is that when people perceive the cost of government to be cheaper than it really is, they will demand ever more government benefits because they either don’t feel the cost directly or believe that others will be paying those costs.”

Social Security taxes are set at about the right level - the reason we have a problem with the program is that we spent the "trust fund" ages ago on everything but Social Security.  But Medicare is a different story.  Medicare taxes cover just a third of the benefits a participant can expect to eventually receive.  Of course everyone thinks it's a great deal, it's like they are buying Mercedes sedans for $15,000.

Update:  I know there are people who are horrified I would suggest raising a tax, that we should work the spending side or eliminate the program all together or replace it with a hybrid voucher system.  I would like to see any and all of that.  But there is absolutely no momentum for doing so.  Even Paul Ryan only fiddles around the edges in a barely meaningful way, and he is labelled as one step away from Hitler for doing so.

If the government is going to offer an "insurance" program, then the "premiums" need to be priced correctly.  If those "premiums" rise to absurd levels because the government is incompetent at management, then we might have some pressure to replace the program with something else.

If the post office were still charging 15 cents for a stamp, and then burying the resulting deficits in the budget somewhere, there would be a hell of a lot less pressure for reform.

The Medicare Problem -- A Reminder

There is no free lunch.

As I have written before, the problem with Social Security is not a mismatch of taxes and benefits - it's simply that 40 years of Congresses have spent the premiums, and now they no longer exist to pay benefits.

The problem with Medicare is actually more difficult.  By these numbers, Medicare taxes are not even a third of what they need to be to pay for actual benefits.  There are only two solutions that don't involve running up Federal debt:  1)  Triple Medicare taxes.  or 2) Cut back benefits and/or eligibility by 2/3.

Interestingly, neither party is suggesting either of these solutions, which makes all the light and noise from the Conventions totally meaningless on this issue.  The Left's notion that cost control will close the gap is sheer fantasy -- already Medicare is getting an effective cross-subsidy from non-Medicare customers and price controls have gone about as far as they can.  In fact, the cost mismatch above is understated as many Medicare costs (e.g. buildings, revenue collection) are actually not charged to the program but to other agencies.  The Right's pitch that small cuts around the edges that Grandma won't notice at all will balance the budget are equally a fantasy.

Believe it or not, I have come around to the solution that we need to raise the Medicare tax.  I would like to privatize the whole thing, and in particular see a reintroduction of individual shopping and out-of-pocket expenditure to the system.  But in the interim we have to acknowledge that there is no way substantial changes to Medicare benefits or delivery is going to happen.  The program remains incredibly popular, though one reason for this is that it is priced wrong.  I am sure Aston-Martin sports cars would be staggeringly popular if sold for a third of their true cost.  In my mind, there is nothing more dangerous to an economy than an artificially incorrect price, and Medicare prices are WAY off.  We need to raise taxes to match the current benefits package, and THEN let's talk about reforming the program.

Medicare Taxes are Too Low

If Medicare is really an insurance program, than as I wrote last week, the premiums are absurdly low.  And this isn't even a rich-poor transfer issue - the premiums are too low for everyone.  See the bar chart about halfway down on this page at the NY Times.  Here is a screenshot:

Take Social Security first.  Taxes come fairly close to covering benefits, with some rich-poor redistribution.  These numbers look sensible (leaving aside implied annual returns on investment and whether the government should be running a forced retirement program at all) -- the main reason social security is bankrupts is that in the years when premiums exceeded benefits, Congress raided and spent the funds on unrelated things.

Medicare, though, is a huge problem.  Even for high income folks, premiums cover only 43% of the expected benefits (I am not sure how they treat present values and such, but again lets leave that aside, I don't think it affects the underlying point).  Assuming we end up with some rich-poor transfer, it looks to me that premiums are low by a factor of three.

Everyone seems to think Medicare is a great deal.  Of course it feels that way -- premiums are only covering a third of the costs.  There is no way we can have intelligent debate on these programs when the price signals are corrupted.  Its time to triple Medicare premiums.

 

Raise the Payroll Tax

Yesterday, Congress agreed to extend the payroll tax reductions for another period of time.  I have been thinking about this for a while, and I am slowly coming to the conclusion these taxes should be raised.  I am still thinking this through so I welcome feedback.

I don't think I have to convince regular readers of this site that I am against government-run and mandated-for-all retirement funds (income via Social Security, medical via Medicare).  But if we are going to have such programs, and maintain the pretense that they are insurance programs and not welfare/transfer programs, then the "premiums" we are forced to pay should reflect true costs.

I don't think Medicare premiums are covering anywhere near the actuarial-expected costs of one's future medical care.  And while Social Security rates may be set correctly if trust funds were truly held securely, the fact of the matter is that past Social Security premiums that were paid to support future benefits have all been spent by a corrupt Congress.  Rates are going to have to be raised to replace this theft.

I don't like raising taxes.  I wish these two programs would go away or else be restructured drastically.  If they exist, though, there is nothing more dangerous than an incorrect price.  Prices help consumers make price-value tradeoffs -- the Keanu Reeves lifetime DVD collection may be a deal at $6.99 but not at $99.99.  So charging the wrong prices for these programs not only royally screws up the government's finances, but it also misleads Americans about the value of these programs in comparison to what they pay for them.

Thinking About Medicare and Social Security

Neither Medicare nor Social Security should be government programs.  The government essentially takes on two roles in these two insurance programs:  1) To subsidize the premiums of low income Americans; and 2) To use its power of coercion to force everyone to participate.  I have no stomach for the latter role and the former could be much more cheaply achieved with some sort of voucher or credit program.

But these programs are not going away.  While both need reform, it may turn out to be politically impossible to even reform them.

But if we take off the table for a moment their existence and their basic structure, there is still an enormous problem we might fix:  pricing.  There is absolutely nothing more deadly to an economy than a false or corrupted pricing signal.  But that is clearly what we have with these two programs.  The Medicare "premium" (tax) taken out of every paycheck is clearly way too small to cover true actuarial costs of this program.  And while Social Security rates may have been set right if the premiums were really being kept in escrow for the future, the fact is that the so-called trust fund has been raided into oblivion by past government spending programs  -- Social Security taxes need to be reset to reflect that fact.

The result, of course, will be a substantial increase in both payroll taxes.  I am not a big fan of tax increases, and find taxes on labor to be among the worst.  But as long as we hold on to the collective notion that these are insurance programs and the taxes we pay are premiums, its time to stop fooling Americans into thinking that the premiums they are paying are truly sufficient to fund their benefits.  Maybe after we reprice the "premiums" to their true actuarial value, we can then have a real debate about the structure and existence of these programs.

Wow, Don't The Emperor's Clothes Look Awesome?

More nominally intelligent people talking seriously about a Social Security trust fund as if such a thing exists.

The only thing supporting our ability to pay future Social Security benefits in full is the government's ability to print currency.

Guess the Source

Social Security is a Ponzi Game:

Social Security is structured from the point of view of the recipients as if it were an ordinary retirement plan: what you get out depends on what you put in. So it does not look like a redistributionist scheme. In practice it has turned out to be strongly redistributionist, but only because of its Ponzi game aspect, in which each generation takes more out than it put in. Well, the Ponzi game will soon be over, thanks to changing demographics, so that the typical recipient henceforth will get only about as much as he or she put in (and today's young may well get less than they put in).

Paul Freaking Krugman, 1997.  Incredible how much his beliefs change depending on which party occupies the White House.

That Wonderful, Magical Social Security Trust Fund

Several blogs have pointed out this February editorial in the USA Today by Jacob Lew, head of Obama's OMB.  In February he told us, no, in true Obama Administration fashion, he lectured us like little kids that:

Social Security benefits are entirely self-financing. They are paid for with payroll taxes collected from workers and their employers throughout their careers. These taxes are placed in a trust fund dedicated to paying benefits owed to current and future beneficiaries.

When more taxes are collected than are needed to pay benefits, funds are converted to Treasury bonds — backed with the full faith and credit of the U.S. government — and are held in reserve for when revenue collected is not enough to pay the benefits due. We have just as much obligation to pay back those bonds with interest as we do to any other bondholders. The trust fund is the backbone of an important compact: that a lifetime of work will ensure dignity in retirement.

According to the most recent report of the independent Social Security Trustees, the trust fund is currently in surplus and growing. Even though Social Security began collecting less in taxes than it paid in benefits in 2010, the trust fund will continue to accrue interest and grow until 2025, and will have adequate resources to pay full benefits for the next 26 years.

As many have pointed out this week, if this is the case, why does the debt limit even affect the ability to pay or not pay Social Security to grandma?  Because Lew was spouting complete BS.  Social Security has generated surpluses in the past, but these have been spent and replaced with IOU's.  And we are finding out right now how much those IOU's are worth - zero.

 

Medicare and Social Security Trustee Reports

Here is some analysis of these reports. A few things I found interesting

  • I have always understood the "trust funds" for these programs were a crock, that we had spent the money in these funds years ago.  But the accounting fiction is important for a reason I did not know - when the trust fund is used up from an accounting standpoint  (vs. a cash standpoint, where it is not only already used up but never existed) in 2036 or whenever, statutory authority for spending is capped at annual tax collections, which at that point will be way, way below programmed spending levels.
  • Medicare alone is projected to grow to 6% of GDP.  wow.
  • The reality of Obamacare's promises of cost reductions is starting to appear, as already these supposed cost reductions are being discounted by folks who have accountability for getting the numbers right.

One thing to note -- Social Security actually has some shot at being repaired, because benefits are a fixed, predictable amount (as long as your actuarial tables are right).  Medicare and Medicaid are far harder, because the benefits are open ended, and every recent "fix" has tended to shift incentives to encourage rather than discourage more spending.  Note, for an example, the political pressure to eliminate the part D donut hole that actually is there to provide incentives to camp drug spending and prices.