The Choice Between Two Unconstitutional Options is Not Constitutional

Filed Under (Other Topics, Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Nolan Miller on May 29, 2012

As I’ve said before, I’m not a lawyer.  But, since the Illinois House Democrats have decided to move into incentives, why not?  The details of the pension reform proposal that passed an Illinois House committee today are still vague, but here is a write up about it.

Simply put: the proposals currently under consideration in which members are offered a “choice” between options, as currently constructed, are not constitutional.  Here’s why.

The Illinois Constitution says that membership in a state pension program is a contractual relationship the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired.

Any contractual relationship has to have, well, a contract.  In this case, the terms of the contract are spelled out in the Illinois Pension Code.

The Illinois Pension Code specifies the way in which pension benefits will be calculated.  The details are slightly different for different pension funds, but I’ll talk about the part that pertains to Tier I participants in the State Universities Retirement System (SURS).  In particular, the amount of the retirement annuity is specified in Section 15-136 of the Pension Code.  Here it is:

Rule 1: The retirement annuity shall be … for persons who retire on or after January 1, 1998, 2.2% of the final rate of earnings for each year of service.

That seems pretty clear.  The “final rate of earnings” is defined in Section 15-112.  For a person who first becomes a participant before Jan. 1, 2011 (i.e., Tier I participants), the final rate of earnings is defined as:

For an employee who is paid on an hourly basis or who receives an annual salary in installments during 12 months of each academic year, the average annual earnings during the 48 consecutive calendar month period ending with the last day of final termination of employment or the 4 consecutive academic years of service in which the employee’s earnings were the highest, whichever is greater. For any other employee, the average annual earnings during the 4 consecutive academic years of service in which his or her earnings were the highest. For an employee with less than 48 months or 4 consecutive academic years of service, the average earnings during his or her entire period of service.

That also seems pretty clear.

One more excerpt from the Pension Code.  This one has to do with annual cost of living adjustments (COLAs).  From Section 15-136

The annuitant shall receive an increase in his or her monthly retirement annuity on each January 1 thereafter during the annuitant’s life of 3% of the monthly annuity provided under Rule 1, Rule 2, Rule 3, Rule 4, or Rule 5 contained in this Section. The change made under this subsection by P.A. 81-970 is effective January 1, 1980 and applies to each annuitant whose status as an employee terminates before or after that date.

Beginning January 1, 1990, all automatic annual increases payable under this Section shall be calculated as a percentage of the total annuity payable at the time of the increase, including all increases previously granted under this Article.

This part of the Pension Code also seems clear: COLAs are to “include all increases previously granted under this Article.”  In other words, COLAs compound rather than being based on the original amount of the annuity.  And, COLAs start the January after retirement.

So, let’s review.  The Illinois Constitution says that membership in a pension system is a contractual relationship. The terms of that contract are given by the Pension Code, and the Pension Code specifies the way in which final pension benefits should be computed.  In particular, it specifies that the final rate of earnings is average earnings over the final 4 years of service, or the 4 consecutive years in which earnings were the highest.  Thus, the Pension Code states that future pay raises will be included in future pension benefits.  The Pension Code also states that COLAs are to begin immediately after retirement and be computed on a compound basis.

So, let’s return to the “choice” that would be offered to members of the pension system under the proposal.  Details are sparse, but the basic choice to be offered to members will be:

(A)  Keep the current pension plan, but give up the state subsidy for retiree health benefits and having future raises be included in pension benefits, and

(B) Keep the state subsidy for retiree health benefits, but receive a less generous cost of living adjustment (COLA) where annual increases are based on the pension payment at the time of retirement rather than the most recent year’s pension.  That is, the COLA is not compounded over time.  Further, the COLA will not kick in until 5 years after retirement or age 67, whichever comes first.  There is also language in at least the governor’s proposal that will limit the COLA to a simple 3% or ½ the increase in the consumer price index, whichever is lower.

Now, supporters of this approach claim that is constitutional because it offers participants a choice.  This claim is invalid.  While a choice might be constitutional, in order for this to be the case, it must be that one of the options does not impair or diminish the benefits of the current pension system.  This is not true here.  Option (A) denies members their contractual right to have the final annual rate of earnings be based on their highest 4 years of earnings, which would include future raises.  Option (B) denies members their contractual right to have COLAs be 3% compounded each year.  Since both options impair and diminish the benefits of the pension, if members are forced to make a choice between A and B, their pension benefits will necessarily be reduced.

Constitutionally speaking, two wrongs don’t make a right.

Consequently, to me it seems clear that the proposals are not constitutional.  Given that so many of our legislators are backing these proposals, there must be an argument for why the proposal is constitutional.  I can’t see it, though.

ADDENDUM (5/30/12):  This isn’t a post about whether it is right or fair to reduce retiree health benefits (it isn’t), but rather whether it is constitutional (it probably is).  Retirees who began working for the State of Illinois before April 1986 (at least in the case of SURS) may not be eligible for Medicare Part A.  In this case, removing health insurance benefits would leave workers exposed to significant financial and health risk even after the age of 65.  The state also does not contribute to Social Security, so state workers who retire are also not eligible for Social Security (unless it is by virtue of having worked for another employer).  Obviously, removing employer-sponsored health benefits and reducing the COLA is going to expose retirees to substantial new risks, and the proposal becomes much more complicated and controversial in this case.

Why YOU may LIKE Government “Theft”

Filed Under (Finance, Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Don Fullerton on May 18, 2012

Or, alternatively, “Why I Love Teaching”!  First, teaching lets me grandstand a bit, if that help students really think about the world around us.  Second, it lets me pretend to be an expert in fields other than economics, even fields such as philosophy (see below).  Third, trying to teach about a topic forces me to think hard about that topic myself!  A case in point is the standard lecture on “Justifications for Government Policy to Redistribute Income”, otherwise known as “Robin Hood”, otherwise known as government “theft” from the rich to give to the poor.   

One thing currently happening in the world around us is a heightened political debate about whether the top income tax rate is too low or too high.  See the diagram below.  So this “lecture topic” is not just textbook irrelevance.  It might even help YOU to think about what you read in the newspaper!  Then please decide for yourself.

I see four possible justifications, any one of which may or may not ring true to you.  If one or more justification is unconvincing, however, then perhaps a different justification is more appealing. 

1.)    As described below, some in the field of “moral philosophy” have found ethical justifications for extra help to the poor.

2.)    Even if the poor are not deemed special in that way, and all individuals receive equal weight, it may still be that a dollar from a rich person is relatively unimportant to that rich person, while a dollar to a poor person is very important to that poor person (higher marginal utility).  If so, then equal weights on everybody would still mean that total welfare could increase by taking from the rich in order to help the poor. 

3.)    If incomes are generally uncertain, so that any individual might do well in some years and not in other years, then government might actually make all of us happier by the provision of implicit “insurance” – taking premiums in good times in order to help any person who suffers bad times.

4.)    A reduction in income equality could be a “public good”, like the classic example of a lighthouse that benefits all ships whether they have helped to pay for it or not.  Everybody’s individual incentive is therefore not to pay (to “free ride”).  The private market never exists.  But government can raise welfare for all shippers by taxing all ships and using the funds to build and operate the lighthouse.  Similarly, if many people would LIKE to have more income equality in society, they could “free ride” on others who do give voluntarily to help the underprivileged. If so, then government could fix that market failure by taxing everybody and using the funds to improve income equality.

Having used up several paragraphs already, I will miss the chance to explain all four of these important points adequately in this one blog, and so I’ll save a few for the next blog.  Let’s just start with the first one.

In the field of moral philosophy, some libertarians such as Robert Nozick believe that theft itself is ethically wrong, that each person is morally entitled to the fruits of their own labor.  No person is allowed to steal from a rich neighbor, even to give to the poor, so why would government be allowed to do so?  If theft is morally wrong in itself, then government should not be redistributing from rich to poor, no matter how needy the poor nor how worthy the cause.  On the other hand, by the way, government steals from individuals through taxes in order to build highways and provide for national defense, and so one may wonder why theft is justified for some purposes and not others.  One way out of that problem is to decide that a tax for public purposes is not in fact “theft”.

In contrast, John Rawls argues that the moral choice is to help the poor.  Actually he has two important ideas.  One is that those who are already rich have no moral justification to argue for reducing taxes on the rich, just as those who are poor have no moral justification to argue for raising taxes on the rich.  Such positions are merely self-interested.  Therefore, a useful thought experiment is to put yourself in what Rawls calls the “Original Position”, at the beginning of the World, before places have been assigned in the wide distribution of incomes and well-being.  That is, suppose resources are limited, and that the world will inevitably have a distribution of different human abilities and disabilities.  You don’t yet know your IQ, or whether you will have any particular talents in music, sports, the arts, or management.  Our job in this “original position” is to write a constitution, a set of rules for government and human interaction.

The purpose of this thought experiment is to try to strip away self-interest and think about how rules “ought” to be designed.  And then, Rawls’ second idea is about what any of us would likely decide to do in such a position.  He argues that the only natural choice, indeed the only logical choice, is to be extremely risk averse.  We are not talking about twenty bucks you might lose at the Casino, where risk is fun.  Instead, we are talking about your entire life’s prospects, where risk is not fun.  It must be great to be Brad Pitt, but what if you end up with little talent or ability.  You could end up homeless, or worse.   Given that risk, he argues, one should design the rules such that society would take good care of those who are disadvantaged, unlucky, or disabled.  You might well be the person on the bottom of the totem pole.

His treatise, called “A Theory of Justice” is 600 pages, so I haven’t even read it all!  So I won’t try to explain all the reasoning, but the interesting point is the connection between risk aversion and redistribution.  Rawls himself is extremely risk averse, saying we ought to maximize the welfare of the poorest person with the minimum income – the “maximin” strategy.  That does not mean perfect equality, as he points out that the poorest person’s welfare might be improved by giving the most talented individuals plenty of incentive to work hard and invent new technology that generates plenty of profits, market success, and economic growth.  But cutting the tax rate on the rich is only justified for Rawls if that really does improve the welfare of the poorest.

Well, out of space for today, so I’ll save the other justifications for next time.  But in case you don’t like the justifications of Rawls, those other justifications (#2 through #4) are completely different!

Thinking Waaaaaaaaaay Outside the Box on Public Pensions

Filed Under (Other Topics, Retirement Policy) by Nolan Miller on May 16, 2012

I’ve written over the past couple of weeks about public pensions in Illinois.  Short version: they’re a possibly-unfixable mess.  Since the state constitution forbids reducing promised benefits for current employees (or increasing contributions) and the state has failed to plan for their pension promises in a timely manner, the state is stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

With this in mind, over the past few days I’ve been trying to think of unconventional ways in which the state can save money.  This is a bit tricky, since in the case of public employees the state pays their salary when they’re working AND their pension when they retire.  It’s the overall cost that matters.  So, for example, when the University of Illinois had an early retirement program last year, the University stopped paying them and SURS, the state university retirement system, started paying them.  But since both are ultimately using state dollars (but less-so in the case of the University, whose state appropriation as a fraction of overall cost has fallen drastically in recent years), this is really just a reshuffling of which pocket the money comes from.  The state is still on the hook.

Thinking outside the box leads to some crazy ideas.  And here’s one of them.  I make no promises about whether it will work in practice.  But it does point to some of the strange features of state finance.

Here’s the idea: to help the state’s pension system’s finances, the state should pay its workers more as they near retirement.  That’s right.  More.

As I started to play around with the idea, I had a dim recollection of reading something related.  It turns out that a couple of weeks ago, Andrew Biggs wrote in the Wall Street Journal about how cutting the Social Security payroll tax for workers nearing retirement could actually help the system’s finances.  The idea is simple: if older workers get to keep more of their wages, they’ll work longer.  And, if they’re working, they’re not collecting Social Security.  Lowering the payroll tax pushes back retirement, and this helps the system’s finances.  The idea is also related to my post from two weeks ago, where I discussed research showing that retiree health benefits induce early retirements.  If the state can’t pay retirees less and can’t ask them to contribute more, the only thing it can do to reduce pension costs is induce them to retire later, and it needs to do so in a way that costs less than the potential savings from delayed retirement.

So, how does it work?  Consider a worker near retirement age who has been working for the state his whole career, or at least long enough to reach the earnings cap on the state’s retirement system.  This worker, let’s call him Charlie, will earn 80% of his final salary after retirement.  And, assuming this worker was actually fulfilling a necessary function (e.g., teaching students finance), that worker will have to be replaced after retirement by a new worker.  Let’s call him David.  New workers tend to earn less than senior workers, so David will earn less than Charlie did.  Maybe David earns 80% of Charlie’s final salary.  But, essentially, after Charlie retires the state will be paying both Charlie and David – two people – to do work that could be supplied by one person.  While the state paid 100% of Charlie’s salary for that work before retirement, it pays 160% of Charlie’s salary after retirement!

So, the state has the potential to save a lot of money overall – 60% of Charlie’s salary per year – if it can induce Charlie to delay retirement.  Due to the non-impairment clause, a lot of the ordinary ways of doing this such as increasing the full retirement age are off the table.  One thing the state can do is increase Charlie’s salary.  This could be done through an actual wage increase or, as Biggs suggests, by reducing the 8% of wages that Charlie must pay into the retirement system as he nears retirement.

It is easy to see how it might be worth it to the state to spend more money on Charlie’s wages in order to delay his retirement.  But, let’s make up some simple numbers.  I’m going to ignore things like the fact that pension payments increase 3% per year and other details of the retirement system. They don’t change the basic insight, and the uncertainty involved with the other numbers that I’M JUST GOING TO MAKE UP is a much bigger deal than details like this.  I’m illustrating – not proposing policy.

So, suppose that increasing Charlie’s wage by 10% per year leads him to delay retirement by 3 years.  Suppose Charlie makes $50,000 per year and has maxed out his service so he’ll earn 80% of that ($40,000) after he retires.  Assume that David will earn $40,000 after he’s hired.

There are two things that should be taken into account.  If Charlie’s wage goes up, the basis for his pension will go up as well.  Roughly speaking, pensions are based on average earnings over the last four years of work.  Over these years, Charlie earns 50,000 for one year (the year before he gets the raise) and 55,000 for three years (after he gets the raise).  His final pension is 80% of the average, or 0.8 * 53,750 =  $43,000 per year.  Again, there are subtleties to the formula, but too many details obscure the main idea.  And, if Charlie works additional years, he will pay an additional 8% of salary into the pension system.  This would seem to be money that the state gets back.  But, as far as I can tell, these “excess contributions” are refunded to the employee at retirement.  So, in the case of a worker who has maxed out his pension, there would be no additional benefit to the state.  (For a worker who has not maxed out their pension, the state would receive additional contributions from the worker who delays retirement, but it would also have to pay an additional 2.2 percent of final earnings for each additional year of work, so it is unclear that this would benefit the state.)

Total 10 year cost if Charlie retires now:

Charlie’s pension payments: 10*40,000 = 400,000
David’s wages: 10*40,000 = 400,000
Total Cost:   $800,000


Total 10 year cost if Charlie retires in 3 years:

Charlie’s wages (years 1 – 3): 3*55,000= 165,000
Charlie’s pension (yrs 4 – 10): 7*43,000= 301,000
David’s wages (yrs 4 – 10): 7*40,000= 280,000
Total Cost:   $746,000


So, the total savings over 10 years from my COMPLETELY MADE UP numbers is $54,000, or 6.75% of the cost under the current system.  And, this savings occurs in the first three years from not having to pay David.  Although I’ve ignored the time-value of money to keep things simple, the fact that the savings come up front would favor giving Charlie the raise if there were a positive interest rate.

Whether a scheme like this could actually save money would depend on a lot of things.  Among them are how much more near-retirees need to be paid to delay retirement, how long the delay retirement for, the relative cost of replacement workers, the length of time over which retirees draw pensions, and the time-value of money. Again, for the purposes of illustration, I COMPLETELY MADE UP THE NUMBERS ABOVE.  Economists invest a lot of time and energy in estimating quantities like these, though, and they’d need to do so before anything like this could go forward.

One crucial factor would be how well the state can target workers who are really on the margin of whether or not to retire.  While a wage increase across the board would be extremely unlikely to save the state money, one that is targeted at workers who are thinking about retiring and induces them to delay retirement just might.  One thing’s for sure: it wouldn’t run afoul of the non-impairment clause!

Incredible Pension Promises

Filed Under (Other Topics, Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Nolan Miller on May 8, 2012

in•cred•i•ble (adjective): too extraordinary and improbable to be believed.

I wrote last week about the Illinois public pension mess and how ceasing to offer fully-paid retiree health benefits might help to address the problem by causing workers to delay retirement.  The reason why such a convoluted route to reducing pension costs is needed is because of the non-impairment clause of the Illinois state constitution, which prevents the state from reducing benefits for current employees.  In short, the non-impairment clause says that membership in a state pension system is a contractual relationship between the worker and the state.  And since contracts cannot be unilaterally renegotiated by one of the parties, the state is in a situation where it would seem to have no way out of its obligation to pay promised benefits to its current and future retirees.

In his proposal to reform the state pension system, Governor Quinn has tried to avoid the non-impairment clause by offering workers a choice.

On the one hand, current workers can keep their current pension plan but lose the right to have future pay increases be included in their final pension benefits and lose the subsidy that the state currently pays for retiree health benefits.  (Now, the first part of this plan clearly violates the non-impairment clause because the formula used to compute final benefits is specified in the Illinois Pension Code and clearly includes future pay raises.  But, that’s not today’s topic.)

On the other hand, employees can accept a significantly less-generous pension plan but maintain the employer subsidy toward retiree health benefits.  (Now, the less-generous pension plan pushes full retirement to age 67, when employees would be eligible for Medicare anyway, so it is unclear how valuable this promise would be to retirees.  But, that’s not today’s topic either.  There is also the real question of whether this would be considered “coercion” by the state.  In the past the Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that an employee cannot be coerced into giving up his pension benefits.  But, that’s also not today’s topic.)

This would be the time to ask ourselves why the non-impairment clause was included in the Illinois Constitution in the first place.  An analysis by Eric Madiar, Chief Legal Counsel to Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, confirms what you might suspect.  Public workers in the state of Illinois were concerned about whether the state would pay the pension benefits that it had promised them.  State and local workers generally receive lower cash wages than their private-sector counterparts, but higher benefits, including more generous pensions.  Thus, when an employee accepts a job working for state or local government, promised future pension benefits play a major role in making that job attractive enough for them to accept.  In light of this it is not surprising that they would be concerned about whether the state could be trusted to pay those future benefits.  This led state and local workers to propose that pension benefits be guaranteed in the Illinois constitution, and this proposal ultimately became the non-impairment clause.

Economists think a lot about commitment.  That is, we wonder about things like how it is that an agent can commit to take an action in the future that is not it its own short-term interest.  Or, we wonder how it is that an agent can be given incentives to take actions today that do not benefit it until the distant future.  Both of these issues arise in the context of pension funding.  In order to induce an worker to take a government job that pays less today, that worker must believe that the state will actually fulfill its promise to pay higher pension benefits in the future.  Similarly, in order for current legislators to cut current spending and use the money to fund future pension payments, there must be consequences.  The non-impairment clause addresses both of these issues.  The highest law of the state guarantees that the state will make the future payments.  This guarantee is so strong that a state that fails to properly plan for these payments will face fiscal collapse – as we do now.  Even in the face of fiscal collapse, the non-impairment clause suggests that pension payments must take precedent over many other payments.  With these promises in place, workers should be confident that the state will fulfill its future obligations.  Ideally, knowing that failure to plan for the future will jeopardize the entire state, legislators will make appropriate funding decisions to avert disaster.

Consequently, the non-impairment clause plays a vital role in the state’s finances.  Over the years it has been used to induce workers to accept a lower wage today in exchange for the seemingly-credible promise to provide higher benefits in the future.  In other words, the non-impairment clause has allowed the state to push the cost of paying current workers onto future taxpayers.  Kicking the can down the road in this manner has been a major tool in the state’s fiscal toolbox.

Let’s think about the role of commitment in regards to Governor Quinn’s proposed choice.  The plan says that those who want to keep their current pension will lose retiree health benefits.  The governor can take away retiree health benefits because they are not guaranteed by the non-impairment clause.  An employee who accepts the governor’s proposal would get a less-generous plan but keep the state’s promise of retiree health benefits.

In order for an employee to voluntarily accept this plan (if they believe that current pensions cannot be impaired), it must be because the employee values retiree health benefits.  But, even an employee who values retiree health benefits would have to believe that, when they retire in the future, the state would actually provide the promised benefits, and would continue to do so even if times were tough.  In fact, when times are tough that’s when people need their pensions the most.  So workers might be particularly concerned about whether a state under fiscal pressure would continue to fulfill their promises.  Sound familiar?

This is where things become a bit tricky for the state.  Times are tough right now, and the state has responded by threatening to take away retiree health benefits.  This has occurred both in the governor’s proposal and in the state legislature, where pending legislation would eliminate the state’s subsidy for retiree health premiums, which amounts to about $7400 per retiree per year.  So, the state is, on the one hand threatening to take away retiree health benefits and on the other hand asking workers to believe that their promise that those who accept the governor’s proposal will continue to receive these benefits in the future.  And, all of this is taking place in a situation that was brought about by the state’s failure to adequately plan to meet its constitutional obligation to pay pension benefits.

This brings us to the big question: Why should workers expect the state to honor its commitment to provide a non-guaranteed benefit when it isn’t even honoring the benefits that it is constitutionally obligated to provide? While the governor’s plan should be commended for attempting to address the pension crisis through asking workers to voluntarily accept a change in benefits, in the end I would be surprised if workers are willing to give up their constitutionally guaranteed pension benefits for an incredible promise to provide health benefits.

Practically speaking, any proposal that asks for voluntary acceptance by workers is going to have to exchange currently promised benefits for some promise of future benefits, and any such promise of future benefits is going to face this same credibility problem.  The state, by finding a way around its constitutional promise of future benefits, may find that it loses the ability to induce people to work today for lower wages and promises of higher payments via pensions in the future.  If workers respond to this by insisting on higher wages today, the state may find itself facing a choice between higher wage costs or lower-quality workers.  Even if the state can find a way around the non-impairment clause, it will not be without its costs.


ADDENDUM (5/30/12):  Retirees who began working for the State of Illinois before April 1986 (at least in the case of SURS) may not be eligible for Medicare Part A.  In this case, removing health insurance benefits would leave workers exposed to significant financial and health risk even after the age of 65.  Obviously, removing employer-sponsored health benefits is much more complicated and controversial in this case.

What is “Sustainability”?

Filed Under (Environmental Policy, Finance, Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Don Fullerton on May 4, 2012

My own research area is environmental and natural resource economics, which others often call “sustainability”.  That’s actually embarrassing, because I don’t know what it means.  For a renewable resource like timber, it seems pretty easy:  you just plant trees, let them grow, cut them down, and then plant trees again.  For a nonrenewable resource like oil, it’s impossible: once a barrel of oil is consumed, it’s gone forever.  The only way to make oil “sustainable” is not to use it, which does not make any sense, because oil has no value at all if it can’t be used.

So, sustainability is either obvious or impossible.  The concept seems to be of no use whatever.  So I turn to people smarter than me, to get some answers.  By “smarter than me”, in this case, I mean (1.) Nobel-Prize winning economist Robert Solow, and (2.) whoever writes for Wikipedia.

Way back in 1991, Robert Solow wrote “Sustainability: An Economist’s Perspective”, in which he says:  “It is very hard to be against sustainability. In fact, the less you know about it, the better it sounds.”   He says he has seen various definitions, but they all turn out to be vague.  So his essay is an attempt to make it more precise.  “Pretty clearly the notion of sustainability is about … a moral obligation that we are supposed to have for future generations.”   But you can’t be morally obligated to do something that is not feasible!  He notes UNESCO’s definition:  “… every generation should leave water, air, and soil resources as pure and unpolluted as when it came on earth.”   But taken literally, that injunction “would mean to make no use of mineral resources; it would mean to do no permanent construction, … build no roads, build no dams, build no piers.”  That is neither feasible nor desirable!

Instead, he suggests that sustainability might be both feasible and desirable if it is defined as “an obligation to conduct ourselves so that we leave to the future the option or the capacity to be as well off as we are.”   In the final analysis, what that means is that we don’t necessarily have to leave all the oil in the ground, if we leave something else of equal or greater value, some other investment that can be used by future generations to produce and consume as we do, and which they can leave to other generations after them.  It is a holistic concept, both simple and operational.  We only need to add the value of all assets, subtract all liabilities, and make sure that the net wealth we bequeath is not less than we inherited. 

We can use oil, but we should not simultaneously be running huge government budget deficits that reduce the net wealth left to our children and their children.  The measure of “net wealth” should include the value of ecosystems, fresh water supplies, biodiversity, and oil, as well as productive farmland, infrastructure, machinery, and other productive assets.   All those values are extremely difficult to measure, but at least the concept is clear.

Has that message been adopted since 1991?  It certainly does not seem to be part of the thinking of the U.S. Congress and the rest of our political system.   What are they using for guidance?

Wikipedia says  “Sustainability is the capacity to endure. For humans, sustainability is the long-term maintenance of responsibility, which has environmental, economic, and social dimensions, and encompasses the concept of stewardship, the responsible management of resource use.”  Okay, well, that’s still pretty vague, by Solow’s standards.  Let’s see if they make it more specific: “In ecology, sustainability describes how biological systems remain diverse and productive over time, a necessary precondition for the well-being of humans and other organisms. Long-lived and healthy wetlands and forests are examples of sustainable biological systems.”

I’m sorry, that kind of specificity does not make it more operational.   They haven’t read Solow.  In fact, the whole entry seems to read like it is intended to maximize the number of times it can link to other Wikipedia entries!

“Moving towards sustainability is also a social challenge that entails, among other factors, international and national law, urban planning and transport, local and individual lifestyles and ethical consumerism. Ways of living more sustainably can take many forms from controlling living conditions (e.g., ecovillages, eco-municipalities and sustainable cities), to reappraising work practices (e.g., using permaculture, green building, sustainable agriculture), or developing new technologies that reduce the consumption of resources.”

Actually, the only phrase in the whole entry that really struck me was “more sustainably.”  Now, I REALLY do not know that THAT means.  Our current trajectory is either sustainable, or it’s not!  If future generations can live forever, how can they live longer than that?  And if not, well, …

Retiree Health Insurance, Early Retirement and the Illinois Pension Mess

Filed Under (Health Care, Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Nolan Miller on May 2, 2012

Ever since Governor Quinn proposed his plan to reform government employee pensions in Illinois, I’ve been thinking about how to blog about it.  The problem is, my primary opinion is a legal one – that the proposal clearly violates the non-impairment clause of the Illinois state constitution because it threatens current employees with excluding future pay raises from pensionable earnings in contradiction of the “contractual relationship” laid out in the Illinois Pension Code – and I’m not a lawyer.  Better to stick with what I am supposed to know.

So, let’s turn to economics.  While the non-impairment clause prevents the state from reducing pensions, it does not affect other benefits.  In particular, the state would seem free to reduce or remove subsidies for retirement health benefits without running afoul of the non-impairment clause.  New research from by Steven Nyce, Sylvester Schieber, John B. Shoven, Sita Slavov, and David A. Wise suggests that doing so might be a way to lower pension costs.  In short, they show that removing the employer subsidy for health benefits for early retirees would cause people to work longer.  And, when people work longer they contribute more toward the pension fund and draw pensions for less time, improving the overall finances of the pension system.

In the new article, entitled “Does Retiree Health Insurance Encourage Early Retirement,” the authors investigate the relationship between employer subsidies for health insurance to retirees.  The paper begins by noting that many Americans delay retirement until they reach age 65 because employment gives them access to health insurance at far better prices than they could receive in the private market (if such insurance is even available).  When an employer offers subsidized health insurance to those who retire before age 65, it makes it possible for people to retire earlier than they otherwise would.  Using newly-available data, the paper finds that retiree health coverage significantly increases retirements among people in their early 60s.  In fact, when employers subsidize 50 percent or more of the cost of retiree health insurance (as the state of Illinois does), retirements increase by “1-3 percentage points at ages 56-61, by 5.9 percentage points (33.7 percent) at age 62, and by 6.9 percentage points (43.7 percent) at age 63. Overall, an employer contribution of 50 percent or more reduces the total number of person-years worked between ages 56 and 64 by 9.6 percent relative to no coverage.”

What does this mean for the state of Illinois?  Take, for example, SURS, the State Universities Retirement System.  In this system, a worker’s total retirement benefit is limited to 80% of final salary.  This means that, after about 36 years of working for the state, the worker’s pension no longer increases with additional years of service.  Further, state law provides that the state will pay 5% of retiree health premiums for each year of service.  (Importantly, the applicable law is not the Pension Code!)  So, a person who started working for the state at age 25 would, by age 62, be eligible for the maximum pension and free health benefits.

Given this deal, it is no wonder that people choose to retire before age 65.  This costs the pension system, since early retirees do not contribute and they draw their pension for longer.  Removing retiree health benefits would have a significant financial impact on early retirees.  Back in 2006, the most recent data I could find in a quick search, the average health insurance premium for an adult age 60 – 64 on the non-group health insurance market was around $360/month.   A family policy would cost about twice that.  Such policies are usually less generous than employer-provided insurance and feature higher deductibles and coinsurance rates.  So, a near-elderly state employee contemplating retirement might face expected monthly costs of $500 – $700 or more if they had to pick up their own health insurance, and even more if they had a dependent spouse or children.

So, suppose the state were to eliminate retiree health benefits.  Faced with such costs, many people would choose to work until age 65 (or at least until age 63.5 when the COBRA law would allow them to continue to purchase health insurance under the state plan until they become eligible for Medicare at age 65).  And, when people retire later, they draw pensions for less time.

Now, I am not necessarily advocating this, and certainly not across the board.  There are strong arguments why for some government employees – in particular police and firefighters –the physical demands of the job make early retirement reasonable.  For other government employees, such as professors, there is no strong reason why the state should be subsidizing early retirement through providing free health benefits after I stop working.

My broader point is that whatever the state does, and it must do something, it must be done in a way that does not violate the constitution.  While the state cannot touch pension benefits, it is free to reduce health insurance.  And, since retiree health insurance makes retirement more attractive, reducing or removing retiree health benefits would seem to be a constitutional and, based on recent research, effective way to delay retirement, which would improve the ailing pension systems’ finances.

ADDENDUM (5/30/12):  Retirees who began working for the State of Illinois before April 1986 (at least in the case of SURS) may not be eligible for Medicare Part A.  In this case, removing health insurance benefits would leave workers exposed to significant financial and health risk even after the age of 65.  Obviously, removing employer-sponsored health benefits is much more complicated and controversial in this case.

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.

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.

The Risk of Ignoring Risk: The Case of Pensions

Filed Under (Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Jeffrey Brown on Feb 29, 2012

Several news stories about pensions have crossed my desk in recent days, each of which made me realize how poorly the vast majority of individuals – even many highly educated individuals – understand financial risk.  It might not be so surprising if this lack of understanding was limited to the “general population.”  What is more surprising is how often highly educated financial market participants and regulators exhibit their ignorance of fundamental finance principles.  Unfortunately, these misunderstandings can have real consequences.

Let me give two examples.

Yesterday, a piece appeared on the Reuters MuniLand blog under the (confusing) title of “Greece is not Germany, and California is not Vermont.” In the piece, the author made the following statement, in which she refers to research by Joshua Rauh of Northwestern University:

“Rauh insists that when projecting pension fund returns, the interest rate for 10-year Treasuries must be used. Pensions do not allocate their assets 100 percent into Treasuries, though.”

This is an example where you can take two true statements, put them side-by-side, and end up with a false implication.  It is true that Joshua Rauh and his co-author Robert Novy-Marx use a Treasury rate to discount pension liabilities.  It is also true that pensions do not allocate their assets 100 percent into Treasuries.  The problem is that the second statement is 100% irrelevant to the first!

As any individual who receives a passing grade in my finance courses should be able to explain, the appropriate discount rate to use when computing the present value of a stream of cash flows depends on the riskiness (generally defined as the correlation of those cash flows with the market) of those cash flows.  In the context of pensions, the discount rate depends on the risk of the pension payments to beneficiaries.  In many states – such as Illinois and California – there are strong constitutional protections in place that make already-accrued benefits risk free.  Thus, what Novy-Marx and Rauh do in their research is to apply basic finance principles to come up with a more accurate measure of pension liabilities than what one gets from using official government statistics.  Cate Long fell into the same trap that so many others have – including the Government Accounting Standards Board (about which I have previously blogged here and here) – of thinking that the right discount rate is a function of the risk fo the assets, instead of the risk of the liabilities.  As a result, she – like GASB – completely ignores an enormous implicit put option that is being dumped onto taxpayers.  Her piece also contained other problems that are discussed Josh Rauh’s response.

A second example comes from the ongoing debate about pension funding policy for corporate pensions. In January, the American Benefits Council put out a press release (which you can read here) basically arguing for “relief” from fully funding pensions (“funding relief” is a political euphemism for not meeting the required funding obligations.)  At the core of the American Benefits Council’s case is that interest rates change, and that the result is that pension liabilities look “artificially high” when interest rates are “artificially low.”  What this argument ignores, however, is that any firm could choose – if they so desired – to nearly completely immunize themselves against interest rate fluctuations by investing in a fixed income portfolio that has the same interest rate sensitivity as do the pension liabilities.  Firms choose not to do this for a variety of reasons, but it is a choice.  Some firms – most recently, Ford Motor Company – appear to understand this.  Most other companies choose to expose themselves to risk in the pursuit of higher returns.  That is their right and their choice, but they should not expect a back-door government bail-out in the form of funding relief when the risk then materializes.

In both of these examples – the choice of discount rates and the choice of asset allocation – the common element is a lack of understanding of risk, how to measure it, and how to manage it.  Unfortunately, such a misunderstanding has real economic consequences, and it always seems to be the taxpayer who ends up paying for it.

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?