Making Sense of the 2012 Social Security Trustees’ Report

Filed Under (Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Jeffrey Brown on Apr 24, 2012

Yesterday, the Trustees of the Social Security and Medicare Trust Funds issued their annual report on the financial status of these entitlement programs.  These annual reports have been published for decades, and are generally recognized as the most credible, unbiased, and objective assessment of the long-run financial situation facing these programs.  I am going to focus on the Social Security program in this post.

Interest groups and policy analysts from across the political spectrum immediately issued press releases trying to spin the findings of the report.  Here are the first two that crossed my virtual desk yesterday:

The National Academy of Social Insurance (of which I was a member for many years before finally resigning over frustration at their defense of the status quo) issued a release spinning the report in the most positive light possible:  The 2012 Trustees Report shows that Social Security is 100 percent solvent until 2033, but faces a moderate long-term shortfall. In 2011, Social Security had a surplus – revenue plus interest income in excess of outgo – of $69 billion. Reserves are projected to grow to $3.1 trillion by the end of 2020 … While the trustees’ projections indicate that major changes are not needed, modest changes should be made in a timely manner and can bring Social Security into long-term balance.

In sharp contrast, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget issued a release stating:  “Today, the Social Security and Medicare Trustees released their 2012 report on the financial status of Social Security and Medicare, showing that reforms will be needed soon to make these programs sustainable … Social Security as a whole is on an unsustainable path … Social Security’s financial status has deteriorated significantly since last year’s report … Currently, Social Security is adding significantly to unified budget deficits. Not counting the payroll tax holiday this year and last year, the program is projected to run a $53 billion deficit in 2012 and $937 billion from 2013 through 2022.”

Both NASI and CRFB are highly respected organizations, yet the pictures they paint could not be more different.  So, who is right?  Is it possible to reconcile these two views?

Like last week’s post, in which I tried to cut through the rhetoric over the cost of the Affordable Care Act, this post tries to cut through the rhetoric over Social Security’s finances by using a fictitious debate.  And just like last week, the answer to “who is right?” is “It depends …”

Let’s focus on what appears to be a factual disagreement.  NASI says “In 2011, Social Security had a surplus.”  CRFB says “Social security is adding significantly to unified budget deficits.”

How can the program be running both a surplus and adding to the deficit?

The answer is that it depends on whether you think about interest on the Social Security trust funds as being income or not.  One’s views about the Trust Funds also help shed light on whether we should view Social Security as being in financial distress now (the CRFB view), or whether we still have two decades before we have any real problems (the NASI view).

How does the Trust Fund work?  (For this post, I am going to ignore the distinction between the retirement and disability trust funds – implicitly, I am assuming that Congress will simply re-allocate the payroll tax revenue across the two programs, as they have done in the past when needed).

Let’s go back a few years to the pre-financial crisis, say, 2007.  Suppose you earned $50,000 that year.  You and your employer each paid 6.2% of payroll into the system, for a total of 12.4%.  This was approximately $6,200 that the U.S. Treasury collected, and this money was designated for the Social Security Trust Fund.

Social Security took most of that $6,200 (just to keep that math easy, let’s say they took $5,200 of it), and paid it out to current retirees and other beneficiaries (such as disabled workers, widows, etc).  The remaining $1,000 was not needed in that year, so it was handed back to the U.S. Treasury.  In return, the U.S. Treasury issued a $1,000 special-issue U.S. Treasury bond to the Social Security trust funds.  Like other U.S. Treasuries, this one was backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government.

Now, back in 2007, like in most years in recent history, the U.S. government was running budget deficits.  Thus, the Treasury department basically took your $1,000 and used it to finance the government spending that we were doing in excess of the income tax revenue we were bringing in.  They did not actually invest the money in financial securities – rather, they spent it.  Of course, they still owe the $1,000 to the Social Security trust fund.

This has been going on for about three decades.  As a result, the Social Security trust fund now owns several trillion dollars’ worth of government bonds.  And the U.S. Treasury pays the trust funds interest on these bonds.

Today, to a first approximation, the entire $6,200 that a $50,000 per year worker and her employer pay into the system is all going to pay benefits.  So there are no more new deposits to the trust fund.  But the balance of the account is quite large, and is spinning off interest.

So here is the key question.  Should the interest that Treasury is paying to the Social Security trust funds be counted as income?  Here is how a discussion might go between NASI and CRFB representatives.  (Any misrepresentations of views are mine alone).

NASI: “Of course the interest should count as income.  The interest grows the trust funds, and the trust funds represent a legal claim by the trust funds that will be backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government.”

CRFB: “Yes, but while these bonds – and their interest – represent an asset to Social Security, they are a liability to the U.S. Treasury.  And because the Treasury spent that money rather than saving it, it is crazy to think that we should count this as income.  The interest payments are just an accounting fiction, not a real flow of money into the government as a whole.”

NASI:  “Ah, but the trust funds do represent real savings.  If the Treasury had not issued this debt to Social Security, they would have had to increase public borrowing.  So the Trust Fund balance represents money that the U.S. did not have to borrow – and that is a form of saving.”

CRFB: “But for decades, Congress used the Social Security surpluses to hide the deficits in the rest of the government.  As a result, Congress spent more money over the past few decades than they would have if they had not been able to hide the true cost of their profligacy behind a unified budget framework.”

NASI: “There is no way to know for sure that the Social Security surpluses led to increased spending by Congress.”

CRFB: “Ah, but there is – at least two academic studies (here and here) have shown that this is exactly what happened.”

NASI: “Academic studies aside, there is no question that we should count this interest.  And if we do count it, it is clear that Social Security is running a surplus.  It is also clear that the program can pay 100% of promised benefits at least until 2033.”

CRFB:  “But that is a narrow perspective.  We care about the government budget as a whole – not just the narrow question of the Trust Funds.  From that perspective, what we know is that the amount of money we are collecting in payroll taxes today is no longer enough to cover the payments to beneficiaries.  The days of cash flow surpluses are gone.  And because interest on the trust fund is just one arm of government (Treasury) making a paper transfer to another arm of government (the Trust Funds), this does not represent real income to the government as a whole.  As such, the program is in dire straits, and needs to be fixed now.”

That fictitious debate roughly captures the economic disagreement underlying these two very different assessments of the latest Trustees’ Report.

I happen to support the CRFB view that the problem is serious, that we need to address it sooner rather than later, and that there is no pain-free solution.  But at the end of the day, it is impossible to fully refute the NASI view because we cannot go back in time and re-run an alternate history to know how spending would have responded in the absence of past Social Security surpluses.

Regardless of which view one holds, it is becoming increasingly difficult to deny the existence of a financing problem.  Even if you take the NASI view that we do not have a problem until the trust funds run dry in 2033, it is worth noting that this date is quite a bit earlier than what has been previously estimated.  Furthermore, 21 years is not a very long time when we are talking about a retirement program.  After all, nearly half of today’s 65-year olds will still be alive in 2033 and relying on Social Security benefits.  Today’s 46-year olds will reach their normal retirement age in 2033.  And today’s college students will be nearly half-way to their own retirement age.  We need to make changes now – so that we have time to phase-in the changes gradually and to allow individuals to adjust.

So, regardless of one’s views about the trust funds, it seems obvious to me that the real story behind the release of the Trustees’ Report is that the problem is real, it may be larger than we previously thought, and that it is not going to go away on its own.

Negative Leakage

Filed Under (Environmental Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Don Fullerton on Apr 20, 2012

What is that, a gastrointestinal disorder?   No, it’s the title of one of my recent research papers  (joint with Dan Karney and Kathy Baylis) about unilateral efforts to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG).   When worldwide agreement is not possible, then the question is whether GHG abatement policy might be implemented by only one country, or bloc of countries (or region or sector).   The fear of any one country or bloc is that they would only raise their own cost of production, make themselves less competitive, and lose business to firms in other countries that may increase production and emissions.  When only one country limits their emissions, any positive effect on emissions elsewhere is called “leakage”.

Yes, that’s a word in economics, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leakage .

In efforts to “abate” or to reduce GHG emissions, the fear of lost business has pretty much deterred any attempt at unilateral climate policy.  That positive leakage might be called a “terms of trade effect” (TTE), because unilateral policy raises the price of exports and reduces the price of imports.   But our recent research paper points out a major effect that could offset part of that positive leakage.  The “negative leakage” term in the equation might be called an “abatement resource effect” (ARE).   That is, one additional thing happening is that the domestic firms face higher costs of their emissions, and so they want to substitute away from GHG emissions and instead use other resources for abatement – such as windmills, solar cells, energy efficient machinery, hybrids, electric cars, and even “carbon capture and sequestration” (CCS).  Thus they have at least SOME incentive to draw resources AWAY from other sectors or other countries.  If that effect is large, the result might shrink those other sectors’ operations overall, and thus possibly SHRINK emissions elsewhere.

I don’t mean to oversell this idea, because it probably does not completely offset the usual  positive “terms of trade effect”.  But in some circumstances it COULD be large, and it COULD result in net negative leakage.  The best example is probably to think about a tax or permit price for carbon emissions only in the electricity generating sector, within one country.  For simplicity, suppose there’s no trade with any other countries, so the only choice for consumers in this country is how much to spend on “electricity” and how much to spend on “all other goods”.   Demand for electricity is usually thought to be inelastic, which means consumers buy almost the same amount even as the price rises.  If firms need to produce almost as much electricity, while substantially reducing their GHG emissions, they must invest a lot of labor AND capital into windmills, solar panels, and CCS.  With any given total number of workers and investment dollars in the economy, then fewer resources are used to produce “all other goods”.

The ability of consumers to substitute between the two goods (electricity vs “all other”) is called the “elasticity of substitution in utility.”  The ability of firms to substitute between GHG emissions and those OTHER inputs is called the “elasticity of substitution in production”.  If the former is bigger than the latter, then net leakage is positive.  If the latter is bigger than the former, then net leakage can be negative.

Okay, too technical.  But the point is that other researchers have missed this “abatement resource effect” and overstated the likely positive effect on leakage.  And that omission has led to overstated fears about the bad effects of unilateral carbon policy.  What we show is that those fears are overstated, in some cases, where leakage may not be that bad.  With some concentration on those favorable cases, one country might be able to undertake some good for the world without fear that they just lose business to other sectors.

Making Sense of the War of Words over the Cost of Obamacare

Filed Under (Health Care, Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Jeffrey Brown on Apr 18, 2012

A war of words (and numbers) has broken out in the policy wonk world over the effect of Obamacare on the deficit.  It is important, entertaining, and confusing.  This blog attempts to bring a bit of clarity to the debate.    

 It began last week with an article, written by Charles Blahous and issued by the Mercatus Center, that argued that Obamacare increased the deficit.  The piece was discussed in the Washington Post (and on my blog) on the day it was issued.

It took almost no time at all for Paul Krugman to denounce the study.  He first began, in typically unfortunate fashion, by attacking the credibility of the author through a suggestion that Blahous was just another Koch-funded crazy who should not be believed.  He then went on to make a slightly more substantive argument about the fact that Blahous’ result rested upon a view (that Krugman called “bogus”) about what Obamacare spending should be compared with.

Blahous publicly responded, defending his position.  A few days later, former CBO Director and former OMB Director Peter Orszag joined the broadside attack against Blahous.  Peter also joined in the credibility attack and went on to also attack Blahous’ choice of baseline. 

So who is right?   The point of this post is to try to provide a bit of clarity on the issue. 

Before proceeding, I should disclose my own personal biases.  First, I consider both Chuck Blahous and Peter Orszag to be personal friends – and I believe both would agree with that assessment.  I have known and worked with both of them for over a decade.  I have an incredibly high level of respect and admiration for both Chuck and Peter as public servants, as intellectuals, and as individuals.  This is not the first time they have publicly tangled (they did so frequently over Social Security reform).  Ideologically, I almost always find myself on the same side of issues as Chuck.  But Peter is an outstanding economist, and when his views are also echoed by other highly respected economists like David Cutler of Harvard (one of the most highly respected health economists in the world, who engaged in a debate with Chuck on my Facebook page), I often find myself temporarily in a state of cognitive dissonance.  When this happens, I try to figure out the core reason for the disagreement.  Is it different values (e.g., perhaps one cares more about redistribution and the other more about economic efficiency)?  Is it different assumptions (e.g., fundamentally different views about how the politics will play out or on how future health costs will evolve?)  In such cases, two very smart people can disagree on policy, without either being “wrong.”

But this debate seems different.  This is – or at least should not be – an ideological debate.  The question here is deceptively simple.  It is a debate over a “fact.”  Either Obamacare increases the deficit, or it does not. 

So who is right?

The correct answer is “it depends.”

To understand the long-term effect of any public policy change, one must first ask the question “compared to what?”  And this is where Blahous and Krugman/Orszag differ.

The following is a FICTITIOUS conversation between Blahous and his critics.  I am trying to be clear on their views.  The material in “quotes” is taken from their writing.  The rest is my own attempt to explain their views, and I alone am responsible for any misattributions.  The Orszag quotes can be found hereThe Krugman quotes are here.  Blahous’ views can be found in his original paper, his follow-up post on Forbes, and a new post at E21.  The use of the term “Obamacare” is mine.    

Me:  “If I look at the new spending programs under Obamacare, and compare that to any spending reductions or tax increases under Obamacare, does the program increase or decrease the deficit?”

Blahous:  Over the next ten years, the increases in spending from Obamacare – Medicaid/CHIP, new exchange subsidies, making full Medicare benefit payments for an additional eight years, etc. – exceed the ways that it reduces spending or raises taxes by $346 billion through 2021.  (This is based on a CBO projection of $352 billion adjusted slightly by Chuck.)

Krugman:  This is just “another bogus attack on health reform.”

Orszag:  Indeed.  The cost savings exceed the new costs by $123 billion through 2021.   

Blahous:  But you are both ignoring the cost of extending the solvency of Medicare!  One of the effects of Obamacare is to extend our full financing commitment to Medicare through 2024.  This costs money.  Add up all the things the legislation does, and it is $346 billion more than the legislation’s cost-savings.

Orszag:  This is a “trick.”  The Blahous analysis “begins with the observation that Medicare Part A, which covers hospital inpatient care, is prohibited from making benefit payments in excess of incoming revenue once its trust fund is exhausted. He therefore argues that the health reform act is best compared to a world in which any benefit costs above incoming revenue are simply cut off after the trust-fund exhaustion date. Then, he argues that since the health-care reform act extends the life of the trust fund, it allows more Medicare benefits to be paid in the future. Presto, the law increases the deficit by raising Medicare benefits.” 

Blahous:  Look guys, this is really simple.  Without the ACA, Medicare would have been insolvent in 2016.  Under the new legislation, we are making a binding commitment to make full benefit payments through 2024.  These are real payments to real people.  How can you ignore the extra commitments through 2024?  After all, you claim the Medicare solvency extension as one of the achievements of the ACA.

Krugman:  “OK, this is crazy. Nobody, and I mean nobody, tries to assess legislation against a baseline that assumes that Medicare will just cut off millions of seniors when the current trust fund is exhausted.”

Blahous:  But under a literal interpretation of current law – which is how most budget scoring is done in Washington – a law that extends Medicare for additional years would be scored as a cost.  Do you acknowledge that under a literal change in law, this legislation puts us $346 billion deeper in the hole? 

Krugman:  The literal law does not matter.  Everyone knows that Congress is not going to allow Medicare benefits to be slashed in 2016.  To suggest these costs are a cost of Obamacare is misleading.  “In general, you almost always want to assess legislation against ‘current policy’, not ‘current law’; there are lots of things that legally are supposed to happen, but that everyone knows won’t, because new legislation will be passed to maintain popular tax cuts, sustain popular programs, and so on.

Blahous: But we have to abide by these budget rules in other contexts.  For example, let’s look at the Alternative Minimum Tax. The Congressional Budget Office counts the revenue from the AMT in its baseline budget projections, even though it knows full well that Congress is likely to continue to provide AMT relief before that revenue is collected.  Similarly with the “doc fix” in Medicare!

Orszag:  Yes, but by your logic, if we just assume that Medicare benefits are cut when the trust fund runs dry, or that Social Security benefits are cut when its trust fund runs dry a few decades later, then we do not have a long term budget problem!  Indeed, Chuck, you are “far too modest. The government is not legally allowed to issue any debt above the statutory limit, so (you) should have assumed the deficit would disappear when we reach that limit at or around the beginning of next year.”

Blahous:  Look, when you make Medicare benefit payments, real money leaves the US Treasury.   We can’t send the same check to Medicare and to Medicaid.  If you want to take credit for all the benefits of the ACA – one of which was to extend Medicare – then you have to account for the Medicare commitments as well as the Medicaid ones.  Even if you don’t think we would have allowed benefits to be suddenly cut, historically Congress has always enacted other savings to avert Medicare insolvency.  And, now that Medicare solvency is extended through 2024, the pressure on Congress to enact further savings is reduced.  So it’s not only as a matter of literal law but as a matter of practical budgetary behavior that the ACA worsens the outlook.  No matter how exactly you think things would have played out under prior law, this legislation still worsens deficits by $346 billion relative to prior law.

Krugman:  Don’t believe any of this.  The Mercatus Center is funded by the Koch brothers.  The Koch brothers, by golly!!

Blahous:  Look guys, I am trying to make a real point here, not engage in character assassination.  If carried to its logical conclusion, this is not only a departure from interpreting actual law, it is also fiscally dangerous.  You guys are basically saying that there are no prior law restraints on Medicare spending.  So every time we extend the program’s solvency, it does not cost anything!  

Me:  Okay, guys, thanks for clearing that up.  I understand it all so much better now. 

—–

So there you have it.  A knock-down, drag-out battle over budget baselines.  The debate is not over the cost of things like the coverage mandate.  It is a debate over the proper way to account for an extension of Medicare’s solvency. 

To summarize:

Relative to a world where Medicare expenditures are brought into balance with revenues within the next few years (which does appear to be required under the literal reading of current law), ACA increases Medicare expenditure and the deficit.  This is the Blahous view.   

Relative to a world in which we project current practice forward, ACA reduces Medicare expenditure and the deficit.  This is the Krugman and Orszag view. 

I think most reasonable people can understand both points.  And I don’t think this really calls for name-calling and credibility-questioning.  But in Washington, that is what passes for debate.

Most ordinary people probably think that what we should be doing is making some cuts, but not cut so deeply as to eliminate the entire Medicare shortfall.  If so, the effect on the deficit is better than if we did nothing, but worse than if we solved the problem. 

So most people probably think the “truth” (whatever that means in this context) lies somewhere in the middle.

How the Supreme Court can Reduce the Deficit: The Fiscal Impact of Ending Obamacare

Filed Under (Health Care, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Jeffrey Brown on Apr 10, 2012

West face of the United States Supreme Court b...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last week’s U.S. news was dominated by the oral arguments before the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) on the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), also known more succinctly as the Affordable Care Act (ACA), or, simply, “Obamacare.”  Most of the news coverage revolved around legal issues, such as how to define a “limiting principle” that would distinguish health insurance from other goods and services.  A few of those analyses, including one by my colleague Nolan Miller at the University of Illinois, provided useful economic insights on these legal questions.

But what I have not seen much of – until now – is a careful analysis of the impact of repeal on the federal budget.  Yes, there is plenty of rhetoric around this topic, with Democrats arguing that PPACA saved money and Republicans arguing that it created a huge new entitlement.  But there has been very little careful analysis.

That changed today, when the Mercatus Center at George Mason University released a meaty new report written by Charles (“Chuck”) Blahous.  His analysis shows quite clearly that the Supreme Court now finds itself in the position of having an enormous impact on the long-run fiscal situation in the U.S.

As background, Chuck Blahous is one of two public trustees of the Social Security and Medicare trust funds, having been appointed to this post by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the U.S. Senate.  Previously, Chuck served all eight years of the G. W. Bush administration at the National Economic Council.  After spending over two decades in both the legislative and executive branches of the U.S. government, Chuck knows the ins and outs of federal budgets.  He is also widely respected on both sides of the aisle as a serious policy analyst.

In a nutshell, here is what Chuck’s careful analysis finds:

  1. PPACA is expected to increase net federal spending by more than $1.15 trillion over the next decade.
  2. PPACA is likely to add more than $340 billion, and perhaps as much as $530 billion, to federal deficits over the next decade.
  3. Despite these realities, government scorekeeping rules lead to deep confusion over the fiscal impact, and have the effect of making PPACA appear less expensive than it really is.

How can this be?  In part, the law “relies upon substantial savings already required under previous law to maintain the solvency of the Medicare Hospital Insurance (HI) Trust Fund.  These do not represent new net savings … but substitutions for spending reductions that would have occurred by law in the absence” of this act.  There are other issues at play as well.

All of this is “public,” in the sense that it has been disclosed in scoring documents by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). But the CBO is constrained to report the effect of government tax and spending programs according to various scoring rules – even when those rules deviate substantially from the likely political or economic reality.  Skilled politicians have learned to use these scoring rules to their advantage.

As Chuck points out in his paper:

“A full understanding of the ACA’s budget effects requires appreciation of the distinction between two important points:

  1. CBO found that the ACAD would reduce federal deficits when a specific scoring convention was applied;
  2. The same analysis shows implicitly that the ACA would substantially increase federal deficits relative to previous law.

The paper is over 50 pages in length (including the helpful Q&A in the appendix), but is well worth a read if you want to know the details behind the calculations.

But if you don’t have time to read it, here is the bottom-line: “Taken as a whole, the enactment of the ACA has substantially worsened a dire federal fiscal outlook.  The ACA both increases a federal commitment to health care spending that was already unsustainable under prior law and would exacerbate projected federal deficits relative to prior law.  This is an unambiguous conclusion …”

Were the Supreme Court to strike down all or part of this Act, we should view it as an opportunity to revisit health care reform in a way that reduces, not increases, public spending.

Privatize, Privatize, Privatize!

Filed Under (Environmental Policy, Finance, Other Topics, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Don Fullerton on Apr 6, 2012

Many advocates of small government have many ideas for how to move activities out of the public sector and into the private sector.  Social Security can be privatized, using fully-funded private retirement investment accounts.  Education can be privatized, with vouchers that can be used by parents to choose the best private school or charter school.  All could save money for the federal budget, by taking advantage of the more efficient operations of the private sector.

In this blog, I’ll describe my new idea for privatization.  Why not privatize the military!  Many rich Republicans want more military spending, and I can imagine that they might well be willing to pay for it.   Why not let them?  Now, they are probably not willing to simply donate money to the federal government, with no recognition, nor any private return on their investment.  But, we could provide the same kind of naming rights as many private operations: FedEx Field is the home of the Washington Redskins, because FedEx paid for the naming rights and they get PR advantages of doing so.  The name of the business school at the University of Texas is the “McCombs School of business”, because Red McCombs paid for the naming rights, and he gets PR advantages of doing so.  The J. Paul Getty Museum is the name of a major art museum in Los Angeles, presumably because somebody in the Getty family or foundation paid for the naming rights and gets PR advantages of doing so.

So, the idea is to write the name of any major donor on any piece of military equipment for which that donor covers at least half the cost.  Pay for half a tank, and it will be the “Your Name Here” Army Battle Tank, with the name engraved on the equipment.  You can even visit it, at certain times of year under certain conditions, and have your picture taken with it.  If you are willing to pay a little more, half the cost of a cruise missile, you can have your name on that instead.

Now I’m not suggesting that the donor ought to be allowed to decide when to push the button.  Nor even make any decisions at all.  The payment is just to help out the U.S. Federal Budget deficit, with recognition for doing so.  I’d bet that a good number of millionaires would really be willing to pay, for that kind of prestige.  It might even be greater recognition if the missile were actually used!  The well-heeled U.S. businessman might even get more U.S. business activity, after the newspaper announces that the “Your Name Here” cruise missile was launched at Tehran, killing 137 innocent civilians, but successfully deterring the Iranian government from pursuing a nuclear weapon that might kill even more.

Cheaper Gasoline, or Energy Independence: You Can’t Have Both

Filed Under (Environmental Policy, Finance, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Don Fullerton on Mar 23, 2012

Politicians like to say they want the U.S. to produce at least as much energy as it consumes – “energy independence”.  And they certainly want to reassure consumers that they are doing something about the high price of gasoline.  But the two goals are inconsistent.  You can’t have both.  Indeed, the current high price of oil is exactly what is now REDUCING our dependence on foreign oil!

We all know the price of gasoline has been increasing lately, now well over $4 per gallon in some locations.  Five-dollar gas is predicted by Summer.  In addition, the New York Times just reported that our dependence on foreign oil is falling.  “In 2011, the country imported just 45 percent of the liquid fuels it used, down from a record high of 60 percent in 2005.”  The article points out that this strong new trend is based BOTH on the increase of U.S. production of oil AND on the decreased U.S. consumption of it.  And both of those factors are based on the recent increases in oil and gasoline prices.  Those higher prices are enough to induce producers to revisit old oil wells and to use new more-expensive technology to extract more oil from those same wells.  The higher prices also are enough to induce consumers to conserve.  Purchases of large cars and SUVs are down.  Many people are driving less, even in their existing cars.  A different article on the same day’s New York Times, on the same front page, also reports that “many young consumers today just do not care that much about cars.”

Decreased dependence on foreign oil does sound like good news.   Actually, it is good for a number of reasons. (1)  It is good for business in oil-producing states, helping raise them out of the current economic slow-growth period.  (2) It is good for national energy security, not to have to depend on unstable governments around the rest of the world.  (3)  It reduces the overall U.S. trade deficit, of which the net import of oil was a big component.  And (4) the reduced consumption of gasoline is good for the environment. 

On the other hand, the increased U.S. production of oil is not good for the environment, as discussed in the same newspaper article just mentioned.   As an aside, I would prefer to do more to decrease U.S. consumption of oil – not only from increased fuel efficiency but also by the use of alternative non-fossil fuels – and perhaps less from increased U.S. production of oil from dirty sources such as shale or tar sands.  But that’s not the point for the moment.

The point for the moment is just that maybe the higher price of gasoline is a GOOD thing!  We can’t take even small steps toward decreasing U.S. dependence on foreign oil UNLESS oil and gas prices rise.  Any politician who tells you otherwise is pandering for your vote.  It is the high price of oil that is both increasing U.S. production and decreasing U.S. Consumption.

 

 

Make the LEAP!

Filed Under (Other Topics, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Don Fullerton on Mar 2, 2012

Academic research is inherently a “public good”, which means that once a professor does all the research work and writes the paper, the social marginal cost of another reader is ZERO!  If the research is useful, then it could be useful to additional readers at no extra cost whatsoever.  Any charge for reading it would discourage those who could benefit while imposing no social cost whatever.  Thus, the optimal price to charge per reader is zero.

But that’s not what journals charge.  Non-profit associations might charge very little to subscribe to their journals, basically enough to cover their printing cost and mailing cost.  Now, however, any research paper can be provided even more cheaply on a website.  One useful purpose of an academic journal, still, is for the editor and reviewers to pass judgment on whether the research is good enough to be published, and to make further suggestions for improvement before publication.   So, each paper to be published has some cost to review it and some cost to post it on the web.  Even then, the social marginal cost of one additional person to read it is still zero!

How can a non-profit journal cover the cost of editing and reviewing the paper, and still provide free access?  Just as for many kinds of “public good”, the nonprofit organization might need donations!

Even worse is the still-huge number of academic journals that are published not by a non-profit research association or by a university press, but by a private for-profit company.  Those private publishers own the copyrights, and so they can charge a high enough price to make money, above and beyond their costs.  And even worse than most private for-profit publishers is Elsevier.

Elsevier had a good idea, years ago, when they founded a large number of field journals in economics and in other disciplines.  Elsevier now owns about 90% of the private for-profit academic journals, a virtual monopoly, so they charge huge prices and make huge profits.  Those journals have become prestigious, and so authors want to publish in them.  In order to “get in good” with the editors, those potential authors are willing to review other submitted papers for free.  Elsevier uses all this free help from university professors who are reviewers, to improve the quality of the product that they sell, in order to make even higher profits.

I don’t blame Elsevier, a private company, for trying to make money.  They have done a good job of it.  But as university professors, we do NOT need to provide free help to them!  I highly recommend reading a paper by Ted Bergstrom called “Free Labor for Costly Journals” in which he points out that we academic researchers at non-profit or state-run universities are helping private publishers make profits.  I would also recommend a new blog by Prof. Jacob Vigdor of Duke University.   

Mathematicians are forming a boycott of Elsevier.  For another example, the nonprofit “Association of Environmental and Resource Economists” (AERE) are discussing whether to break away from Elsevier and start a new non-profit journal (read about all the difficulties in an article starting on page 23 of the AERE Newsletter).   Finally, Ted Bergstrom has lots of info on his website.

We are stuck in a “bad equilibrium.”  University researchers want to publish in the prestigious journals, which are often journals of private publishers like Elsevier.  So those researchers review for free, for Elsevier, and they want their university to subscribe to those good journals of Elsevier.  And profits are made, by Elsevier.  We’d all be better off if we could “leap” to the “good equilibrium” where only non-profit associations and universities publish academic journals, at cost.  Then when we review papers for free for those journals, and when the universities subscribe to those journals, we are all contributing to a public purpose, the provision of a public good.

Is Obama the “Damn Politician” that FDR Warned About?

Filed Under (Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Jeffrey Brown on Feb 17, 2012

As posted on Forbes yesterday …

In 1941, President FDR explained why he chose to fund Social Security through a payroll tax in as follows:

“We put those payroll contributions there so as to give the contributors a legal, moral, and political right to collect their pensions and their unemployment benefits. With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program”

For more than seven decades, FDR’s strategy has proven effective.  Talk to someone in or near retirement – even people who consider themselves small government conservatives – and you will often hear them state that they have a right to their Social Security benefit because they paid for it over their working life.

President Roosevelt knew that the key to the political sustainability of Social Security was the establishment of an entitlement mentality, and the key to establishing an entitlement mentality was the linkage between payroll contributions and benefits.  If Social Security were structured as a means-tested welfare-style program – that is, it if were financed by a progressive income tax rather than through payroll contributions – it might have never lasted this long.

Given this, it is important that President Obama and Congress have just agreed to extend the payroll tax cut and to continue to use budget gimmickry to turn Social Security into a partly general-revenue-financed program.

Here is how it works.  The 2% payroll tax cut reduces revenue to Social Security by about 15 percent.  But Social Security does not have a spare 15 percent of revenue lying around: rather, it is currently running quite close to break-even on a cash flow basis, and faces enormous long-run deficits.  To get around this, President Obama and Congress have decided to replace the lost payroll tax revenue by transferring money from general revenue (which derives primarily from the income tax) into the Social Security trust funds.

This budget gimmick has the short-term political benefit of making the Social Security trust funds seem unaffected by this tax cut.  But it also means that we are deviating substantially from FDR’s vision of a retirement program being paid for (on a pay-as-you-go basis) by participant contributions.  By moving down the path of general revenue financing of Social Security, we achieve the short-term “progressive” aim of increasing the degree of income-based redistribution (because income tax rates rise with income, whereas payroll tax rates do not).

But in the long-run, this has the potential to erode political support for the program.  By shifting the funding burden onto the income tax, the program starts to look more like a welfare program than a contributory social insurance program.

I am not the first to notice the irony of this.  My very good friend Chuck Blahous, who served eight years in the National Economic Council for President George W. Bush, and who was appointed by President Obama as one of two Public Trustees for Social Security, just released a paper explaining why this payroll tax cut is bad policy.  Among the seven reasons he provides is that doing so destroys the “historical Social Security compact.”  In a Washington Post article back in December, Dr. Blahous stated that these budget gimmicks are “a grave step for Social Security.”

This view is not limited to experts on the Republican side: the other Public Trustee of Social Security (a Democrat) – Robert Reischauer, the highly respected president of the Urban Institute — agrees with Dr. Blahous.  While Reischauer was more sympathetic to the tax cut, he also noted that it “could, if it continues for a substantial period of time, undermine one of the foundational arguments that makes the Social Security program inviolate.”

Perhaps the most succinct summary of the irony comes from Jason Fichtner, a Senior Research Fellow at the Mercatus Center and former Chief Economist and (acting) Deputy Commissioner for the Social Security Administration.  He summed it up the situation quite succinctly in an email to me by noting that “in 15 years we might look back on this time in history and discuss how President Obama, as a Democrat, was the president that started the path to killing Social Security.”

So, maybe President Obama really is the Damn Politician that FDR was worried about?

 

Fiscal Sustainability AND Retirement Security: A Reform Proposal for the Illinois State Universities Retirement System (SURS)

Filed Under (Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Jeffrey Brown on Feb 9, 2012

I have released a paper today that proposes a new plan for the State Universities Retirement System.  Co-authored with Robert Rich, the Director of IGPA, the paper proposes a hybrid system that would be partially funded by both workers and universities. It contains several components that reflect some of the ideas that have been publicly discussed by state leaders in recent weeks.

 The proposal has four basic components: 

1) Create a new hybrid retirement system for new employees that would combine a scaled-down version of the existing SURS defined benefit plan with a new defined contribution plan that would include contributions from both employee and employer; 

2) Peg the SURS “Effective Rate of Interest” to market rates; 

3) Redistribute the SURS funding burden to include a modest increase in employee contributions and new direct contributions from universities, thereby reducing state government’s burden on state government; and

4) Align pension vesting rules with the private sector, which would decrease the years new employees hired after January 1, 2011 would need to work for their pension benefit to be vested.

The plan is intended to substantially reduce state expenditures on public pensions, while still providing a reasonable source of secure retirement income to university employees. 

Click here to read the full paper.

Reducing Regulatory Obstacles to Retirement Income Security

Filed Under (Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Jeffrey Brown on Feb 7, 2012

With nearly 80 million baby boomers starting their march into retirement, many policy-makers have begun to focus on how to provide secure retirement income in a fiscally sustainable way.  This is no small challenge in an era of enormous deficits.

Although Social Security plays an important role in providing income that retirees cannot outlive, the benefits provided by Social Security are insufficient to ensure that most retirees can maintain their pre-retirement living standards.  However, increasing these benefits would be horrible fiscal policy: because the pay-as-you-go nature of Social Security has collided with an aging population, this program faces enormous fiscal problems that are going to require reductions – not increases – in the rate at which benefits grow.

Thus we have two opposing forces: a need for more retirement income, and a need to cut government spending on entitlement programs like Social Security.  What can be done?

Fortunately, the private sector can play an important role here, but only if the regulatory environment allows for it.  Presently, the regulatory landscape surrounding employer sponsorship of retirement plans is burdensome and enormously complex.  In many cases, the best thing the government can do to promote a greater role for the private sector in providing guaranteed retirement income is to “get out of the way.”  Ironically, however, there are other instances in which the best way the government can promote private sector solutions is to get more involved – if only by providing guidance on how plan sponsors can improve their plans without running afoul of existing regulations.  Getting guaranteed income options into 401(k)’s and other retirement plans is one such case.

In recent years, the financial services industry has increasingly focused on how to provide plan sponsors and plan participants with products that help to provide guaranteed lifetime income.  The resulting innovation over the past decade has been impressive, as companies have introduced a wide range of insurance and investment products that provide individuals with lifetime income.

However, employers that sponsor 401(k) plans have been slow to adopt.  As a result, most 401(k) participants in the U.S. still do not have access to annuities or other income products in their plans.  Although there are many reasons for this, there is little question that part of the reluctance of plan sponsors to provide annuities is that they have been scared off by regulatory and fiduciary concerns.

Last week, the Treasury Department proposed guidance to help address a few of the many issues that stand in the way of better private sector retirement plans.

In a nutshell, the proposed guidance does three things:

First, it makes it easier for plan sponsors to allow retirees to have a mix of lump-sum and annuity choices.  Put simply, it makes very little sense for most retirees to annuitize either 0% or 100% of their retirement assets.  Annuities provide guaranteed income, help to protect against out-living one’s assets, and help to guard against market volatility.  On the other hand, having some non-annuitized wealth available is extremely valuable when faced with uncertain expenses such as for long-term care.  Given that the optimal financial plan for most individuals would be to have some of both (e.g., annuities and a lump-sum), it only makes sense for our regulatory infrastructure to encourage this.

Second, a number of academic papers have established the potential value of annuity products that have a deferred payoff structure.  That is, with a small fraction of one’s wealth at, say, age 65, one can buy a product that will start paying income at age 85.  In the industry, these are sometimes called “longevity insurance” (although the name is very unfortunate, because all life annuities – whether they are deferred or not – are providing insurance against the financial costs of longevity).  The proposed regulatory guidance would help ensure that these products are more easily available.

Third, Treasury issued two “revenue rulings” that clarify how rules designed to protect employees and their spouses apply when a plan offers an income option.

These rules are useful, but far from sufficient.  Looking ahead, plan sponsors and participants would be better off if policymakers also took at least three additional steps.

First, the Department of Labor needs to provide much greater clarity about how plan sponsors who wish to provide lifetime income options can do so while protecting themselves from fiduciary risk.  This could include providing a “safe harbor” rule for the selection of the annuity provider.  Too many plan sponsors continue to be spooked off by the specter of fiduciary liability if they choose an annuity provider that runs into financial distress in the future.

Second, Congress should reform the Required Minimum Distribution rules to eliminate the various implicit and explicit barriers to lifetime income.  These rules were written by tax lawyers to ensure that the IRS could eventually get its hands on tax-deferred savings.  If these rules were instead written with an eye towards retirement income security, they would look quite different.

Third, we should encourage plan sponsors to report 401(k) and other defined contribution (DC) balances in terms of the monthly income the plan will provide, rather than simply as an account balance.  The Lifetime Income Disclosure Act that received bipartisan sponsorship in the U.S. Senate last year would be a positive step in this direction.  (My Senate testimony on this Act can be found by clicking here).

This need not be a partisan issue.  Republicans should recognize that strengthening retirement income security in our private pension system will give us more freedom to address our burgeoning Social Security deficits.  Democrats should view this as an opportunity to ensure that employers “do the right thing” by providing retirement plans to employees that actually succeed in providing a secure retirement.