Stephen Moore Visits UIUC

Posted by on Apr 28, 2017

Filed Under (Uncategorized)

On Thursday, April 20, 2017, Stephen Moore, Contributing Editor for The Wall Street Journal and Senior Economic Advisor to the Trump administration, visited his Alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to present on Economic Policy within the new administration.

His presentation can be seen here.

Job lock versus moral hazard

Posted by on Feb 10, 2014

Filed Under (Health Care)

A new CBO report on the Affordable Care Act was recently released. One of the findings, described in an Appendix, is that the implementation of the ACA would result in about 2.3 million fewer full-time jobs by the year 2021. Most of this would be due to workers voluntarily cutting back on work. This has created quite a stir, with some arguing that the ACA is bad for the economy while others arguing that as long as it’s the workers making the decision, there’s nothing wrong with lost jobs.

Jon Stewart tried to point out the hypocrisy of Republicans who rallied against “job lock” in previous years, but are now pointing to the CBO report as evidence that Obamacare is bad for the economy. But Jon appears to have misunderstood (as probably other many people do) the exact meaning of “job lock” and the difference between it and what the CBO finds.

Job lock arises because health insurance on the individual market is much more expensive than what an employer typically pays for it, partly because of the tax deductibility of employer premiums and partly because adverse selection used to be a bigger problem on the individual market (we’ll see if that remains true now). Moreover, workers with pre-existing conditions may have not been able to get health insurance at all if they left their jobs. These conditions create incentives for workers to keep working at their current job mainly for the purpose of maintaining their health insurance coverage ( = “job lock”).

It’s certainly likely that the Affordable Care Act eliminates some job lock. But it also does something else. By tying premium subsidies to income, the government is effectively creating incentives to work less. This has nothing to do with job lock – it’s called “moral hazard,” and most economists would agree that it’s a bad thing. And it’s not a hypothetical effect that evil people made up as an excuse to not help people get health insurance. Several empirical studies, cited by the CBO, find that it exists and is significant. Most of the estimated reduction in employment appears to be coming from moral hazard rather than the elimination of job lock. Thus, the voluntary reduction in employment is not something to cheer about, but something to view as a cost of the Affordable Care Act.

For more, see Casey Mulligan’s discussion of how to think about this loss of jobs.

Why I Support Illinois Pension Reform but Oppose S.B. 1

Posted by on Dec 3, 2013

Filed Under (Retirement Policy)

I am writing this piece the morning of December 3, the first day of a special session of the Illinois General Assembly.  I have little faith that anything I say will shake the legislative leaders from their plan – a delicate political compromised worked out behind closed doors in recent weeks.  But I am taking the time to write anyway because even a small chance of influencing the debate seems worthwhile, given how much is at stake.

I co-wrote an op-ed in the Champaign News-Gazette nine days ago expressing my deep concern about how the proposed reform would affect higher education in Illinois – especially our ability to retain our best people.  Most of my worst fears in that op-ed were realized when the text of S.B. 1 was released yesterday.  In the interim, I was quoted in several news articles as reporters were looking for insight as bits and pieces of information leaked out of Springfield.  In one article, I was quoted as saying that if I had to choose between this reform, and doing nothing, I would do this reform.  That surprised many of my colleagues, so another motivation for this piece is to clarify this statement.

The easy answer is to say that if I had to choose between dying and having both of my legs amputated, I would choose the latter.  But this should not be interpreted as suggesting that I think leg amputation is necessarily a good idea, particularly when equally effective but far less damaging treatments are available.

Similarly, we need pension reform in Illinois.  Doing nothing is simply not an option, at least in the medium and long run.  So I do believe that bad reform may, on net, be better than no reform.  But that assumes bad reform is our only option.

S.B. 1 is bad pension reform because it will lead to an exodus of top intellectual talent from our universities.  (More details below.)

Is it our only option?  From any reasonable perspective – for example, actuarial, economic, financial, etc. – the answer is clearly “no.”  There are many ways to closing the fiscal gap, and S.B. 1 is only one, and particularly flawed at that.

But from a political perspective, the answer is harder.  I worry greatly that this may be our only option, given how dysfunctional our state political system is.  If it really is S.B. 1 or nothing, then I might hold my nose and support it, knowing that universities will have to go to extraordinary lengths to undo some of the extensive damage this will cause.  That would come at a steep price – during the transition, we will lose some of our very best people.  It could literally destroy the pre-eminence that has taken decades for the University of Illinois to achieve.

I am not a political scientist.  But I do understand incentives, and I have followed the politics of Illinois pension reform closely for many years.  And I was struck by a particularly insightful question that one of my politically-experienced and insightful friends asked me: “What leads you to expect that if you could and did kill this bill, that those same politicians would be likely to produce a better outcome the next time?”  (I have edited the question a bit).  My answer is that we should be able to do better. But I am not sure we really can.

Even so, this reform is so poorly designed that, as a pension expert and employee of the University of Illinois, I feel compelled to oppose it.

Because the General Assembly may vote as early as today, I don’t have time to go into a lot of detail or polish my writing.  Nor do I have time to fact check every single detail in this post.  I am writing with a sense of urgency.  I will post corrections later if I find any substantive mistakes.  But here are a number of thoughts on the bill, in the form of a simple Q&A.

First, why does this problem exist?

The answer is easy: for many decades, Illinois did not pay its bills.  Our pensions have been underfunded every single year for decades.  We hid behind flawed government accounting, pension funding “holidays,” and found temporary cover in the rising equity markets during the technology bubble.

-          This is the fault of our politicians.  The problem is bipartisan – Republican and Democrat Governors have underfunded our pensions, and both Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate have voted to do so.

-          Public workers are not to blame.  They paid their share and were promised constitutionally protected pensions in return for lower salaries.

Why do we need reform?

-          Regardless of whose fault it is, the pension costs are fiscally unsustainable.  We have dug a hole so deep that we have no choice but to partially default on some of our promises.  It is a sad truth.  But it is the truth.

-          We have a pension funding hole that is officially about $100 billion.  But these official statistics drastically understate the problem.  It is only a $100 billion hole if you think we can generate 7.5% to 8% returns on the pension assets every single year without any risk.  No economist believes that.  When valued the way any financial economist would value the liabilities, the funding shortfall is more on the order of $250 billion.

-          Illinois has the lowest bond rating of any state in the country.  This drives up our borrowing costs, and sends a clear signal to companies and entrepreneurs that taxes will be higher in the future.  Few things drive away business more quickly than an unstable fiscal environment.

-          We have enormous structural deficits that show no signs of abating.  Even with the “temporary” tax increase (when the individual rate rose from 3% to 5% of income and the corporate rate increased proportionately), we still are running deficits.  We cannot just keep raising taxes, or we will start an economic death spiral in the state as mobile capital and labor flee the state.

Is it possible to do this in a sensible way?

-          Yes, but it will not be free from pain.  Put simply, there is only one way to solve this – somebody must pay.  The question is how to share that burden equitably.  Taxpayers benefitted for the last several decades by receiving public services at a substantial discount because we borrowed against the pensions to pay for those services.  Retirees benefitted from pensions that were larger than we were paying for.  Unions benefitted from bargaining for greater benefits when it was hard to get salary increases.  Universities and school districts benefitted by not having to directly pay the full cost of their hiring.  Everyone – knowingly or unknowingly – was complicit.  Everyone benefitted.  So everyone should have to share the pain of the solution.

-          No matter how much the Wall Street Journal may wish it to be so, there really is no conceivable way to eliminate the existing unfunded liability right away.  One would have to violate the state constitution by defaulting on 60 percent or more of all benefits that have already been earned by current retirees and current workers.

-          With several other experts, I co-authored a pension reform proposal that outlined Six Simple Steps to reform pensions in a rational way.  It spread the pain, aligned incentives, and solved the state’s problem in the long-run.  Details can be found at the IGPA website.

How would S.B. 1 affect bondholders?

-          Bondholders are clear winners.  Any substantial reduction in pension benefits is great news for bondholders.  After all, they simply care about their debt being repaid, and pensions are competing for scarce dollars.

How would S.B. 1 affect participants in the Self-Managed Plan?   

-          Participants in the Self-Managed Plan are totally unaffected.

How would S.B. 1 affect low income state employees in the Traditional or Portable Plan?

-          If someone close to retirement has earned a pension of $30,000 per year or less, and worked for the state for 30 years, the changes will be small.   Younger workers still many years from retirement will have to work more years before being eligible, and you would not receive the cost of living adjustment in up to 5 of the first 10 years you are retired.

-          All workers would benefit from the 1% reduction in employee contributions.  So given how small the benefit cuts are for low income workers, they may actually come out ahead.

How would medium earning state employees in the Traditional or Portable Plan be affected?

-          By medium earners, I am referring to those with annual salaries from about $45,000 to about $110,000.  In addition to the increase in retirement age, these workers will see a cap on their cost of living adjustment in retirement.  Instead of getting a 3% per year increase on their total pension, they will receive an inflation adjustment only on the first $1000*X dollars, where X is the number of years they worked.  So, for a 30 year worker making above $45,000 per year (which roughly corresponds to a $30,000 pension), you will see smaller future cost-of-living increases.  If you are earning $90,000 per year, and earning a pension of around $60,000 after 30 years of service, you will essentially be getting a cost-of-living increase on only half your pension.

How would high earners in the Traditional or Portable plan be affected?

-          This is where the substantial pain comes in.  The key provision – the one that takes a meat-axe to pensions – is the cap on pensionable salary.  If you earn above approximately $110,000, all future salary increases will be disregarded for purposes of calculating your pension.

-          To see how much this matters:  Suppose you have worked here for 5 years already, and expect a 3% per year salary increase (this is 3% nominal, so if inflation runs 3%, this means you are getting no increase in real terms).  Given the miracle of compounding, this means that your salary will more than double in nominal terms over 25 years.   So if you were to retire after 30 years, you will be getting 66% of your current salary rather than your doubled salary.  This is a 50% cut in pension benefits.

-          This 50% cut is ON TOP OF the reductions from the increase in retirement age and the COLA reduction.  All in all, I have estimated that the total cut could be as much as 65% for some workers.

-          The cut is steeper the more years you have left ahead of you, and the steeper your salary trajectory.

-          Even if you are not subject to the cap now, if your salary grows faster than the cap, you could become subject to the cap later.

-          In present value, this is equivalent to a substantial cut in future total compensation – on the order of 10-15% of salary now and forever.

Is this constitutional?

-          It depends on how the Courts interpret the non-impairment clause.   Under the strictest interpretation, any cut would be a violation.

-          But I continue to think the most reasonable interpretation of the clause is that the state cannot cut benefits already accrued as of the date of reform.  Under this interpretation, the retirement age increase would be a violation, but the other provisions would not be because they apply only to future benefit accruals.

-          It appears that lawmakers want to argue that a 1% reduction in contribution rates will be sufficient “consideration” to offset the benefit cuts, thus making this legal.  That seems absurd to me – a 12% reduction in contributions does not compensate for a 60% cut in benefits.  But I am not a lawyer, so who knows?

What will the long-run impact on U of I be?

-          The university is going to face a tough problem – how to prevent an exodus of top talent without “breaking the bank” already-strained institution.

-          Don’t be surprised if this translates into a long-run reduction in hiring plans as a way to come up with the funds to pay for any attempt to retain existing people.

How will the University of Illinois respond?

-          First, the University is officially opposing the legislation, as it should.

-          Second, University leadership seems well aware that they are going to have to do something to partially offset these changes or we are going to lose our very best people – especially in higher earning units like Medicine, Engineering, Business and Law.  I would anticipate some effort to provide employer contributions to a 403(b), or something similar, to partially offset these changes for those most affected.

What should I do now?

-          Call your lawmakers and ask them to vote no.

-          Then, if it passes, do NOT take any irreversible actions.  Give the Courts time to sort out the constitutionality.  And give the University time to come up with a partial remediation plan.

-          Perhaps talk with a financial planner or advisor about steps you can do to increase retirement savings on your own.

Crop Insurance in the News

Posted by on Sep 19, 2013

Filed Under (Environmental Policy)

Bloomberg recently published a series of articles criticizing the United States crop insurance program. Given my own interest in insurance generally and crop insurance specifically, I wanted to address some of the claims made by the articles.

There is no doubt that the federal crop insurance program is very flawed, with the largest flaw, by far, being the insane premium subsidies. Farmers currently pay less than half of their premiums, on average, with the rest being covered by the government. Moreover, between 1990 and 2009, Congress has routinely passed additional legislation giving special payments to farmers who suffered crop losses due to disasters.

However, there two features of crop insurance that Bloomberg portrayed as negatives but that are actually positive. First, one article quotes an “uneasy” beneficiary as saying, “I like to think of myself as an independent who’s willing to take risk. [...] With insurance, it takes the risk out of it.” This is actually a good thing from society’s point of view. No one goes around saying, “Man, things are just not fun anymore now that I have health insurance. If I fall down and break my leg, I no longer have to spend thousands of dollars.” The notion that farming should remain risky is simply misguided (of course, farmers are free to forgo insurance if they wish).

Second, the fact that “more than seven in 10 policies guarantee income rather than yield” is actually a good thing from an insurance point of view. Farmers care about their income rather than just about how much corn they have. They face both the risk that their yields will be low and the risk that prices will be low. Considering the two in combination rather than focusing on yields alone is preferable from the point of view of risk reduction.

So the real problem with crop insurance is not that it takes the risk out of farming, but that it is heavily subsidized by the government and supplemented with extra disaster payments. The subsidies have previously been justified by the adverse selection that would result if premiums were not subsidized. However, a much cheaper way to deal with adverse selection is to mandate that every farmer buy insurance. There are probably better things to do with taxpayer money (for example, see this recent National Review article).


Illinois SURS Pension Reform: A Review Two Offsetting Critiques

Posted by on Aug 20, 2013

Filed Under (Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy)

Earlier this year, I co-authored a proposal with four colleagues to reform the Illinois State Universities Retirement System. My motivation for doing so was quite simple: the fiscal crisis facing the state of Illinois is very real, “doing nothing” is not an option, the politicians seemed to be making little headway on a solution, and the ideas that were under consideration appeared to be driven far more by ideology than by concern about good retirement policy and good fiscal policy.  Given that I have spent the past 15 years of my life developing academic, policy and practical expertise on issues related to retirement income security, I thought I owed it to Illinois taxpayers to make a serious attempt to bring some balanced, centrist thinking into the discussion.  My four co-authors brought exceptional expertise in areas of university administration, benefits design, state and local public finance, and other highly relevant topics.  Together, we proposed six specific reforms to the SURS system.

Our “Six Simple Steps” proposal was subsequently endorsed by the Presidents and Chancellors of all of the public universities in Illinois.  It has also received favorable feedback from many participants and retirees. Over the summer, our proposal gained serious political traction when the bicameral, bipartisan pension committee of the Illinois General Assembly began to treat it as a leading possibility for breaking through the political logjam that had stifled prior attempts at reform.

Now that our proposal – which is sometimes referred to by others as the “Universities Plan” or the “IGPA Plan” – has gained traction, the political knives are coming out on both sides of the ideological divide.  This is not surprising: under our proposal, faculty are being asked to contribute more, retirees are being asked to receive less, the universities are being asked to take on greater financial responsibility for future costs, and the state is being put on the hook for paying down the enormous unfunded liability.  There is plenty of pain to go around.

We did not cause the pain, of course.  The pain was caused by many generations Illinois General Assembly members who failed to behave with even a modicum of fiscal responsibility.  We are just asking legislators, participants, retirees and taxpayers to be honest about the severity of the problem and to take meaningful steps to stop the fiscal bleeding.  But, in a highly politicized environment, with billions of dollars at stake, I am not at all surprised that ideologues and interest groups are pulling out their knives and trying to cut down our proposal.

So allow me to let you in on a little secret – I don’t love our proposal either.  A few aspects of it leave a bad taste in my mouth, in the same way that some life-saving medicines do.  However, I honestly consider to be the best – by far – of a wide range of distasteful options.

Let’s be honest: If I lived in a state where the state government was not dysfunctional, where we did not have strictly binding constitutional constraints, and where we could draw up our pension system from a relatively clean slate, I would NOT design a system exactly like the one we are proposing.  Rather, I would commit the state to a credible funding path; I would raise the normal retirement age to be in line with Social Security; I would fully index benefits to inflation and, if needed, pay for it through downward adjustments to initial benefits; and I would align incentives by making the entities responsible for hiring decisions (e.g., the universities) also be responsible for paying the full benefit costs associated with those hiring decisions.  While I am dreaming, I would also require the state to use accounting rules that transparently communicated the real economic cost of pensions, rather than hiding the true costs behind intellectually flawed government accounting standards.  Then again, if I lived in such an ideal world, we probably would not be facing the worst pension funding crisis of any state in the nation, and our proposal would have been unnecessary in the first place.

But we, the residents of Illinois, do not live in such a world.  Rather, we live in a state where for many decades our political leaders have failed to make good on the state’s most basic financial obligations.  As a result, the time has come for us to take our fiscal medicine: everyone must make sacrifices.  Unfortunately, the very constitutional protections that were intended to protect retirees now prevent us from enacting the most sensible reforms (such as raising the retirement age, which nearly every serious analyst agrees is a good idea): instead, we are forced to use second-best policy tools (such as reducing COLAs) simply because they have a better chance of passing constitutional challenge.  And we live in a state where after several unproductive years of debate, various powerful politicians have made it crystal clear that certain types of reform are political “must haves” and others are “cannot haves,” a situation that further narrows the realm of politically feasible options.

With these and other painful realities in mind, my colleagues and I set out to design a plan that made the best of a truly terrible situation.  We settled on a plan that:

  1. Has a reasonable chance (although not guaranteed) of being deemed constitutional;
  2. Has a reasonable chance of being politically feasible (as demonstrated by the recent support the plan has received from the bicameral bipartisan pension commission);
  3. Will substantially improve the state’s long-term fiscal situation;
  4. Preserves a smaller defined benefit (DB) element to recognize that many public workers in Illinois are not in Social Security, but also creates a defined contribution (DC) account, in an attempt to balance the various strengths and weaknesses of the two types of plans and create a better system than the Tier II system in place for new employees;
  5. Improves the retirement security of new employees through more favorable vesting rules (that are also more closely aligned with private sector practice);
  6. Provides real – if imperfect – inflation protection by linking increases to the CPI, rather than providing an arbitrary annual nominal increase that leads to enormous fluctuations in retirees’ real standards of living;
  7. Substantially increases the likelihood that the state will begin to pay down the unfunded liability, both by reducing the state’s share of future costs and by providing the stakeholders with a legal right to enforce state funding;
  8. Appropriately aligns incentives so that universities bear the full cost of their hiring decisions;
  9. Suggests many other features that attempt to bring some rationality and transparency to a complex and opaque system (such as reducing the hidden subsidy provided via a financially inappropriately high Effective Rate of Interest);

In recent weeks, once it became clear our plan was gaining political traction, two different analyses came out criticizing our Six Step Plan.  There are two things to note about these criticisms:

First, neither critique provides a truly serious alternative that is politically, legally and fiscally realistic.

Second, the criticisms are striking in the extent to which they are mirror-images, taking precisely opposing views to one another.  The first of these critiques was offered by the Illinois Policy Institute.  They criticize our plan for preserving the DB system, not moving fully to a DC world, not eliminating COLAs, not saving enough money, and taking too long to phase in the changes.  The second of these critiques is by a researcher at University of Illinois at Chicago and the head of Keystone Research Center.  They criticize our plan for not preserving the DB system in its entirety, for suggesting the introduction of a DC element, for partially reducing COLAs, for asking the state to pay down the unfunded liability too quickly and for cutting benefits too much.  And, in an amazing feat of mental gymnastics, they also suggest that by reducing  spending the plan will somehow raise costs to the state.

To the extent we were trying to design a proposal in the “sensible center” of this debate, I will take these completely offsetting criticisms as confirmation that we are on the right track.

Here is a brief table summarizing how the two critiques often negate each other, in their own words (followed by my parenthetic and italicized remarks summarizing their view in my own words).

Our Proposal

Illinois Policy Institute

KeyStone Research

COLA: Switch from 3% automatic annual increase to 50% of CPI “The IGPA plan fails to achieve the savings necessary to reform Illinois’ pension system by only partially reducing cost-of-living adjustments, or COLAs”

(in other words, we should completely eliminate the COLA)

“It would undermine the retirement security of Illinois public‐sector retirees, and especially harm those who live a long retirement”

(in other words, we should make no changes to the COLA)

Hybrid DB/DC system for new employees “The IGPA plan takes reform in the wrong direction by maintaining the defined benefit pension system for current workers”

(in other words, we should totally eliminate the DB and have only a DC)

The plan would “be as bad as or worse than Tier 2 because of the

reduction in the defined benefit portion of the plan from a 2.2% multiplier to 1.5%.”  and “DC plans are less cost effective”

(In other words, we should totally preserve the existing DB and not have any DC)

Force the state to pay down the unfunded liability “this plan allows the pension systems and their members to take legal action to compel the state to make the pension payment. Pension guarantees similar to this plan prioritize pension payments above all other government services, jeopardizing funding for those who rely on it the most.”

(in other words, we should not provide additional tools to force states to pay down the unfunded liability)

“This could be coupled with extending the time

taken to get to 100% funding.”

(In other words, we should not actually reduce benefits, but simply stretch the payments over a longer period of time)

Reduces state’s overall cost as much or more than other proposals “Savings this small not only fail to solve the problem, but will also require lawmakers to revisit Illinois’ pension crisis again in just a few short years.”

(In other words, we simply did not slam workers and retirees enough)

“the Universities proposal could result in higher costs to taxpayers”

(In other words, even though they think we are cutting benefits too much, they falsely claim that somehow this risks increasing costs)

I can understand why those who advocate for the smallest possible government would be disappointed with a plan that does not squeeze out even more savings from the pockets of public sector workers.  I can also understand why some public sector workers and retirees would oppose any benefit reduction.  But such extreme views, while potentially useful for advocacy purposes, do not make for good public policy.  The above comparison make it self-evident that these two critiques are attempts to bolster opposing untenable positions: the Illinois Policy Institute would prefer that we decimate retirement security, and the KeyStone group naively acts as if we can solve this crisis without meaningful changes to benefits.  Supporters of both positions will be disappointed with any realistic proposal that actually solves Illinois’ pension problem while preserving retirement security of public workers.

You may not like our plan.  As I noted earlier, I am not in love with it either.  But I still think it is the best idea out there so far.  Very little in the Illinois Policy Institute or Keystone critiques alters my view with the exception of continuing the existing Self-Managed Plan as a voluntary option for some new employees, as suggested by the Illinois Policy Institute, although I do not think it is the best choice for the median employee.

I am totally open to the possibility that better ideas than ours may still be out there – and if either of these two groups (or any other group or individual) have substantive suggestions that are fiscally responsible AND politically feasible AND constitutional AND not unduly harmful to public employees, I would love to hear them.  So far, however, I continue to believe our Six Step proposal is the most serious proposal on the table.

 Prof. Jeffrey R. Brown, 8/19/2013

 (Author’s note: the opinions expressed here are those of the author – Prof. Jeffrey Brown – alone, and do not necessarily represent the views of any of my co-authors or the University of Illinois.)

Separate Accounts

Posted by on Mar 8, 2013

Filed Under (Finance, U.S. Fiscal Policy)

That a large percentage of individuals in the US do not paying income tax is a matter of concern, and not just to conservatives.  There is an underlying  sense that the paying of taxes is a duty, an act of solidarity with the collective goals of a democratically constituted nation.  While fairness requires that those best able to do so provide more of the financial support for those collective goals, fairness also requires everyone provide a share, even if that share is small.

In fact, this decline in tax-paying is partly connected with one of the programs often argued to be the most effective at reduction of poverty–the earned income credit.  Under this program, recipients’ credits are often greater than the total taxes they would have paid.

Many of the features of the earned income credit are desirable from the point of view of economic theory. The program entails virtually no overhead costs for its running. Its relatively low marginal rates distort decisions less than many alternatives (such as a minimum wage or food stamps). It can be targeted fairly accurately to those it is intended for (the working poor with children).

From the point of view of the economist, there is no difference between having a program in which an individual receives $5,000 from the government and pays $500 in taxes, or a program which just nets it all out and pays the individual $4,500.  From the point of view of the voters, and possibly from the point of view of the recipient, there is a big difference between the two. 

Beside the moral, even quasi-religious, sense to this–that paying taxes imparts a dignity to the payer (like the “widow’s mite”; also compare the rabinnic teaching that the poor are also required to give charity), there is of course also an astute political sense to this: if government coffers are filled by “others,” there is no limit to what we demand of government; if they are filled by “us” then we weigh the costs versus the benefits.

We probably need a name for the psychological quirk that causes us to regard such two-way passage of moneys as different from a one-way passage of a net amount. I recommend the term “budgeting illusion” — the sense that when sums are arbitrarily divided into different accounts, the separate pots take on a reality of their own.

Budgeting illusion also lies behind some of the difficulties we have in dealing sensibly with social security. Ultimately the money goes into the government in whatever form–payroll tax, income tax, gasoline tax–and the money comes out in national defense, social security, highways.  There is no economic sense in which the dollars collected “for” one purpose are separable from the dollars collected “for” another. For social security recipients the fungibility is fortunate, since, in particular, the present value of most people’s social security contributions is not sufficient to pay for their benefits.  Nonetheless,  most taxpayers feel that the social security payments are “their” money and the benefits are “their” compensation for it.

Even if there is no economic distinction between different dollars, there is a political distinction: Having the social security’s trust fund in a separate pot allows the social security administration some political autonomy.  It enables SSA to pay benefits without resort to the Congress even in years when they are not bringing in enough revenue to cover their costs.  The system was intentionally set up this way, of course, to ensure that changes would be close to politically impossible.  But the problem that arises is just the flip side of the earned income credit problem: in each case our awareness of the magnitudes of the payments are altered when we separate or combine the different pots of funding. 


Schoolyard Sanctions

Posted by on Feb 26, 2013

Filed Under (Finance, U.S. Fiscal Policy)

So now Congress is trying to get the European Central Bank to tighten up its restrictions on Euros that go indirectly to Iran through its Target payment system. (See for example this article in the Financial Times). The whole thing begins to sound a little like high school drama: The angry junior refuses to talk to her enemy, and also to anyone disloyal enough to talk to her enemy. Soon that’s not good enough; anyone who talks to someone who talks to her enemy is also on the hit list.  In the end, of course, her standards become so high that she ends up talking to no one but herself.

To be fair, the sanctions against Iran have been much more effective than a skeptical economist would have believed:  trade is much reduced–and what does get through is much more expensive, which, from the point of view of the economist was the real point anyway.  But over time, sanctions are of diminishing effectiveness, as the target learns to devise evasions, and as the countermeasures to the evasions begin to disrupt the lives of more and more third parties.

In their DC bubble, congressmen are likely to believe that the regulatory power of the US is absolute: To their way of thinking the European Central Bank should tighten its requirements because it is the right thing to do, but there is always the implicit threat of restrictions to Europeans’ use of the dollar payments system and resources. The only catch with the logic is that the dollar payment system is not the only one in town.  The Euro is already an important alternative, and the Chinese, while still waiting in the wings, are seriously considering the advantages they can reap from opening their payment and currency systems to the world.  Certainly, there is a way to go before the typical commercial transaction can be carried out as safely, cheaply and reliably through renminbi as through dollars, but American restrictions that hit non-combatants in the economic warfare with Iran can bring that day a lot closer.

What the NRA is Assuming (and Why They are Wrong)

Posted by on Dec 21, 2012

Filed Under (Other Topics, Uncategorized)

Like millions of Americans, I was deeply shaken by the horrible tragedy that unfolded at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown Connecticut one week ago today.  As a father, as an American – simply, as a human being – I was horrified by the thought that anyone could be capable of gunning down innocent and helpless children.  My rage toward the killer was outweighed only by the terrible sadness for the children and deep sympathy for their families.

As the hours and days have gone by, however, my raw emotional response has slowly – if not fully successfully – made some room for my inner economist to begin to examine the situation from an analytical perspective.

Today, Wayne LaPierre, the head of the NRA, stated that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” This is a provocative statement, so I thought it was time to examine this issue more closely.

So let me ask a simple question: “Would America’s children be safer if we had more guns, or fewer guns?”

I would like to assume that, with the exception of a few sociopaths, everyone wants our children to be safer.  I do not subscribe to the extremist rhetoric from either side that assumes they are the only ones with the moral high ground and that the “other side” is somehow anti-kids.  Rather, I think both sides agree on the goal – to keep our kids safe – but have a very different view of how to get there.

But who is right?  Would our children be safer with more guns or fewer guns?

To provide some insight, I would like to adapt a simple model that is used to discuss tax policy (stay with me here!) – the “Laffer curve.” (Click here for information on the Laffer curve). 

If there were zero guns available in the U.S., then by definition there would be zero gun-related deaths.  Starting from zero, as the number of guns increases, the frequency of gun related deaths would surely rise, at least initially.  But it probably would not rise forever as shown in this graph.

gun graph

Why?  Consider the other extreme – the vision of the NRA – where virtually every citizen was armed.  Teachers, professors, airline pilots, nurses, truck drivers, accountants … everyone.

According to the NRA, in such a world, criminals would be reluctant to commit a crime because they know that they would be putting themselves in grave danger.  Or even if they did, an armed good guy would stop them.

What this means is that if gun violence is low at low levels of gun ownership, and also low at high levels of gun ownership, then there must be a horrible “peak” in between where the number of gun-related deaths is at its highest (the peak).

We have over a quarter of a billion guns in the U.S. The question is whether this is above or below the peak.  If it is below the peak, then more guns cause more gun-related deaths, and deaths would decline if we had more effective gun control laws.  In contrast, if we are above the Peak, then small decreases in the number of guns can actually cause more deaths.  Relatedly, if we are above the Peak, then increasing the number of guns can reduce the number of gun-related deaths.  This is what the NRA seems to believe.

This is a simplistic model.  But it does provide an important insight: theoretically, gun control could make us safer or it could make us less safe.  Gun control advocates are implicitly assuming we are to the left of the peak.  Gun rights advocates are implicitly assuming we are to the right of the peak.

So, what does the evidence say?

The good news is that it is possible to test this.  The bad news is that it is very hard to do it well.  One cannot simply assert that “in country X, they have tighter gun control laws and also fewer gun deaths, so therefore fewer guns causes fewer deaths.”  To do so would be to ignore countless other factors – cultural, religious, legal, economic, demographic – that might cause country X to have fewer deaths and also cause them to pass more stringent gun control laws.

Fortunately, some economists have written good papers on gun control.  (Sadly, other economists have written bad papers on gun control, meaning that they are sloppy, confuse correlation with causation, and therefore should not be used to guide policy debates.)

University of Chicago economist John Lott is the most well-known researcher on the issue.  His findings are easily summarized by the name of his book “More guns, less crime.”  In other words, Lott believes we are way past the peak and that people would likely be safer if we had fewer restrictions on guns.  As is often the case when someone writes something so provocative, Lott’s research has come under attack.  A summary of the controversies and criticisms can be found here.

Aside from just attacking Lott’s work, others have tried to examine this issue on their own.  In my opinion, the single best study on this topic was conducted by Prof. Mark Duggan, a Harvard-trained Ph.D. in economics who is now a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.  His paper, “More Guns, More Crime” was published in one of the most elite peer-reviewed economics journals in the world.  He finds that “changes in homicide and gun ownership are significantly positively related” (thus, his title – more guns lead to more crime.)  Importantly, he also finds that “this relationship is almost entirely driven by the relationship between lagged changes in gun ownership and current changes in homicide.”  This is really important because it is evidence that this correlation comes about because guns lead to more homicides, rather than an increase in homicides leading more people to buy guns.

The Duggan study also specifically examines the Lott study.  He agrees that, theoretically, concealed carry laws could increase the likelihood that potential victims could carry a gun, and thus reduce the homicide rate (my simple model above).  However, he concludes that he finds “no evidence that counties with above-average rates of gun ownership within CCW states experienced larger declines in crime than low-ownership counties did, suggesting either that gun owners did not increase the frequency with which they carried their guns or that criminals were not being deterred.”  In other words, there is no evidence to support the NRA’s view.

I came into this debate over the past week with an open mind.  My reading of the evidence, however, suggests that more guns cause more crime, and that concealed carry laws would not reduce crime.

Our nation may still decide not to restrict guns because of the Second Amendment.  But if so, let’s at least do it with our eyes open.  We should not be pretending that we are helping kids by promoting gun ownership.

Why Retirement Plan Tax Preferences are Not as Expensive as You Might Think

Posted by on Dec 13, 2012

Filed Under (Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy)

Retirement plans such as the 401(k) receive favorable tax treatment under the U.S. income tax system.  Historically, this favorable tax treatment was provided to increase individual saving.  Recent research has called the efficacy of this approach into question, suggesting that individual saving rates may not be all that responsive to marginal tax rates.

Last week, I wrote about the danger of drawing the conclusion that tax incentives do not matter and that we should therefore look to eliminate the tax preference for retirement saving.  My focus was on the role that tax preferences play in providing an incentive for employers to offer plans, and to design them in a way that uses behavioral nudges to increase saving.

This week, I want to focus on a different aspect of this issue, the public discussion of which has been misleading – how much this tax preference costs the U.S. Treasury.  My contention is that the cost figures being bandied about (including my own use of the $100 billion figure in last week’s post) are substantially overstated.  The point of today’s post is to note that the amount of revenue that the government would receive by eliminating the preferential tax treatment for retirement saving would be much less than what it might appear.

To understand this, one must understand (1) how retirement plans are treated under U.S. tax law, (2) how the government actually accounts for the foregone revenue, and (3) how the government ought to account for the foregone revenue.  These are complex topics, but some simple exposition is sufficient for seeing the main point.

(1)   How are retirement plans treated under U.S. tax law?  In a nutshell, the income tax on retirement plan contributions is deferred, not eliminated.  This is an important distinction.  If I receive an additional $1000 in cash salary, and I am in a 35% tax bracket, I owe the government an additional $350 in taxes.  If, however, I receive this additional $1,000 in the form of a contribution to a 401(k) plan, I owe no taxes today.  However, I will owe taxes on the money when I withdraw it during retirement.  Of course, there is financial value to deferring my taxes (what we economists call tax free “inside build-up”), but it is not as if the initial contribution escapes the tax system entirely.

(2)   How does the government account for the foregone revenue?  The U.S. Department of Treasury and the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation prepare annual estimates of what they label “tax expenditures.”  These tax expenditures are basically just an estimate of how much additional tax would be collected if a particular activity went from being untaxed to being taxed, assuming no behavioral response to the tax.  (As an aside, the fact that they do not account for a behavioral response is why they are careful to always note that “a tax expenditure estimate is not the same as a revenue estimate.”)  In the case of retirement plan contributions, they roughly calculate the amount of money being deferred, apply the relevant marginal tax rates to it, and obtain a rough estimate of how much revenue is not being collected as a result of this tax preference.  However, a key point is that they do not estimate this over the entire life of the account, but rather use an arbitrarily truncated time horizon to estimate the effects.

Going back to my simple example: suppose I contribute an additional $1,000 today to a 401(k) plan.  That saves me $350 in taxes today, and costs the government $350 in foregone revenue in the current tax year (assuming I would save the same amount either way).  So far, so good.  But suppose that I plan to pull the money out in 20 years.  I will pay income taxes on the amount I withdraw.  The present discounted value of the tax that I pay in 20 years will likely be less than $350, but it will be much greater than zero.  For the sake of example, suppose it is worth $150 in present value.  If so, then the net gain to me (and the net cost to government) over my lifetime is $200.  The problem is that the government does not use a present value method.  Instead, it looks at just the front end, and thus overstates the value of the deduction.

(3)   How should the government account for tax expenditures?  Ideally, the government would compute these tax expenditures using the “present value” concept just explained.  A number of experts have made this suggestion.  For example, a paper by the American Society of Pension Professionals and Actuaries (ASPPA) boldly states “tax expenditure estimates for retirement savings provisions should be prepared on a present-value basis” because this “would allow an ‘apples to apples’ comparison” with other tax deductions.

What does all this imply?  A paper written by two Treasury Department officials and published in the December 2011 National Tax Journal found that “the long-run NPV cost can be dramatically different if measured using relatively short time horizons.”  The calculations are a bit tricky because one must make assumptions about rates of return, the appropriate discount rate, current and future marginal tax rates, and so on.  And the extent to which estimates differ depends on the time horizon being examined.

But, these caveats aside, the ASPPA study concludes that “the present-value tax expenditure estimates of contributions made in the first five years are 55 percent lower than the JCT five-year estimates and 75 percent lower than the Treasury five-year estimates.”  That is a huge wedge.

How does all this matter for policy?  The fiscal cliff has DC policymakers scouring the four corners of the earth looking for ways to boost revenue without raising marginal tax rates.  One way to do this is to eliminate tax expenditures.  However, some of those tax expenditures exist for good economic reasons, and the provision of favorable tax treatment for retirement saving is one of them.

As noted last week, the elimination of this provision could have serious unintended consequences for the availability of retirement savings programs through employers.  Now add to that the fact that any revenue implications of such a policy change are substantially overstated and what you get is the potential for good intentions (closing the fiscal gap) to lead to bad policy.

Relevant Disclosures:  I serve as a trustee for TIAA, a provider of retirement plans to the not-for-profit sector.  I have also received compensation as a consultant or speaker for a wide range of other financial services institutions.  The opinions expressed in this blog (and any errors) are my own.


A Time to Act on the Illinois State Universities Retirement System (SURS)

Posted by on Dec 12, 2012

Filed Under (Retirement Policy)

Earlier this week, I released a report co-authored with Avijit Ghosh and Scott Weisbenner (both of the University of Illinois) and Steve Cunningham (Northern Illinois) that – yet again – tries to make the case for pension reform.  The news release can be found here and the full paper (including a one page summary) can be found here.

In a nutshell, the plan has three components:

1.  Change some of the SURS rules to reduce costs and increase transparency.  This includes pegging the SURS’ effective rate of interest to long-term bond rates.  For my prior musings on this topic, click here to see the blog I wrote on this back in June of 2010, entitled “A Hidden Pension Subsidy in SURS.”

2.  Providing participants with an opportunity to opt out of their automatic annual adjustment (sometimes called the COLA) in exchange for a lump-sum that is calculated to give participants a bit of a “haircut.”  We consider this to be a reasonably fair exchange, especially given its voluntary nature, in sharp contrast to the forced choice that has been proposed in other legislation (for example, see Nolan Miller’s post entitled “The Choice Between Two Unconstitutional Options is Not Constitutional.”)

3.  Expand the Illinois state income tax base to include retirement income.  There is really no compelling economic reason to exempt retirement income from the Illinois state income tax, and this may be the only way to get the retired generation to be able to contribute to solving our fiscal problems.

Whether or not our proposal has an influence on the debates in Springfield is anybody’s guess.  But one thing is clear: absent some time of substantial reform, Illinois is teetering close to a true fiscal cliff, one that will make the Washington DC fiscal cliff look like a small step down.