Compromise

We are a country of citizens with a range of views on how our community should guide and regulate our interactions. But we are all anchored in our commitment to our Constitution and its Bill of Rights. What is the nature of the compromises that enable us to live, work and flourish together?

Views on the proper role of government in supporting and improving our lives are dangerously widening. To simplify the discussion with stereotypes and not always appropriate labels I will characterize Republicans as more interested in individual freedom and Democrats as more interested in helping the poor. The two parties want both but there are clear differences in emphasis and approaches. “The great divide-who decides?”

Everyone wants to help families. But consider the difference in the approach of the Democrats with Bidens American Families Plan and the Republicans with Mitt Romney’s Family Security Act. Among many other benefits, Biden’s “plan will provide a government-paid family leave program for employees who need extended paid time off for family issues… will help working families by providing government-subsidized child care… [and] will provide free universal government-run preschool, which it claims will help children academically far into the future.” These would be run by the government or pursuant to detailed government regulations. “The American Families Plan will do more harm than good”

“Romney’s Family Security Act would replace the Child Tax Credit with a $3,000 yearly benefit per child — $4,200 for kids under the age of 5 — spread out in monthly installments that begin four months before a child’s due date,…” “Romney child care benefit democrats”

The overriding difference between Biden’s and Romney’s family plans is who makes the decisions about how the assistance is used. The same overriding difference can be seen in Democrat and Republican approaches to financing education. Charter schools and, even more so, tuition vouchers favored by Republicans leave the power of choice with parents rather than public school districts (government).  Democrats distrust the judgement of individual families to decide how best to use government assistance and want to impose conditions that insure (in their minds) that it is well spent.

How can these two conflicting approaches be reconciled? Each side will need to give up something to gain what is most important to them. Democrats want to help the poor. Republicans want to protect their freedom of choice. If Democrats are willing to give up their regulation and control of how their financial assistance is used (i.e., set aside their distrust of the poor’s ability to make wise decisions for themselves) and if Republicans are willing to give up their commitment to self-sufficiency that keeps the social safety net as small as possible, Democrats can gain a more generous safety net and Republicans can gain greater freedom of choice by coming together to enact a Universal Basic Income (UBI) in place of the large number of specific government controls assistance programs.  “Our social safety net”

In addition to allowing individual recipients to determine how best to use this assistance, two broad differences between a UBI and the existing approach stand out. The first is the difference in the financial incentive to work. Unemployment insurance, for example, ends when a recipient takes a job. Most welfare programs, such as food stamps, end when the recipient’s income increases beyond some minimal level. The incomes of many now helped by Covid-19 support programs will fall if and when they return to work. A UBI is paid to everyone whether they are working or not, so any extra income earned in any way adds fully to their income. There is no financial disincentive to work.

The second major difference is the lower administrative cost and greater simplicity of a UBI compared to those of the multitude of assistance programs with their qualification criteria that it would replace. Consider the administrative challenges faced when sending checks to those qualifying under the CARES Act as part of the Covid-19 assistance. Some intended recipients were missed. Some who were not meant to receive payments received them. It took time to set up the system of payments. But with UBI monthly payments are made to everyone without further question or investigation once they are enrolled in the system (most likely administered through the Social Security System).

My proposal would also replace all income taxes (personal and corporate) with a uniform consumption tax. This combination of UBI and consumption taxation would result in the financing of government that is progressive relative to income and would resolve the dilemma of how to tax companies operating globally. For more details see my earlier blog:  “Replacing Social Security with a universal basic income”

Democrats would gain more efficient and extensive help to the poor but would have to give up oversight and control over how that help is used. Republicans would increase their control over how they live, but would have to relax their insistence on self-sufficiency. This is a compromise whose time has come.

The Corporate Income Tax

Should the U.S. Corporate Income Tax be increased from its current 21% (plus state corporate income taxes that average about 5%) back to 28%? No, it should be reduced to zero. The corporate income tax should be abolished. Only people pay taxes, either workers from their wages, consumers in the prices they pay goods and services, or shareholders from their business incomes. The corporate income tax, taxes these people twice.  So who really pays a corporate income tax?

One of the standards applied by economists for a “good” tax is that it does not distort the allocation of resources. If tax treatment encourages investments that are less productive than otherwise, output will be lower, and we will be poorer. This is called the tax neutrality principle. “Next up: tax-reform”  The corporate income tax violates this principle because it taxes the same income twice contributing to a bias toward debt rather than equity financing. The activities of corporations generate wage income to its workers, which is taxed as income of its workers. Their purchases of supplies and services from other companies generate income for those companies, which are taxed there. The difference between a corporation’s revenue on its sales and these expenditures–its profit–is paid to its owners (shareholders) and is taxed as part of their incomes.

But corporate income is taxed again in the name of the company itself–double taxation. That tax must come from some combination of reduced employee remuneration (wages and benefits) and shareholder income.  Studies indicate that it comes largely from reduced wages. https://www.forbes.com/sites/johngoodman/2021/04/02/who-pays-the-corporate-income-tax/?sh=4eb92e9b58ab

Another problem with this double tax on corporate income is that many corporations operate in many countries. It is not easy (if even possible) to agree with each of these countries, which have their own tax policies, which income to tax in which country. Companies have become expert at shifting their activities and attributing income to the lowest tax jurisdictions.  Where, for example, is the intellectual property, which can be an important source of company’s income, owned for tax purposes? The answer is often Ireland.

Economists agree that the most neutral tax is a flat rate consumption (sales) tax.  “The Principles of Tax Reform” Consumption would be taxed were it takes place thus avoiding the issues in current income taxes of where the income is produced. In our global, internet linked world, the applicable consumption tax would be the one levied on the residence of the consumer as it finances the government services provided there.

In an earlier note on a Universal Basic Income, I presented back-of-the-envelop estimates of the consumption tax rate required to finance a UBI of 18,000 dollars per year for each and every adult and half of that amount for children (under 20 years old) if we abolish all income taxes (individual and corporate) and replace existing entitlement programs (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, unemployment insurance, etc.) with that UBI. The combination of a flat rate consumption tax and a UBI produces an interesting degree of tax progressivity relative to income. I hope that you find it interesting. “Replacing Social Security with a universal basic income”

Replacing Social Security with a Universal Basic Income

The idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) in place of existing entitlement programs (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, unemployment insurance, etc.) that is financed by a flat rate income or consumption tax calls for a deeper discussion of its financing. “Our-social-safety-net”

For purposes of illustration, lets assume a UBI of 18,000 dollars per year for adults and half that for children (under 20 years old). This is somewhat above the current average Social Security benefit for someone retiring at age 65.  The current American population of 330 million consists of about 82 million children and 248 million adults. Thus, the total cost of such a UBI would be about 5.2 trillion dollars. This would exceed total expenditures in 2019 of 4.4 trillion dollars, of which 2.7 was for the social safety net (entitlements–social security and welfare). Total Federal tax revenue in 2019 was 3.5 trillion dollars of which 36% or 1.26 trillion dollars was from payroll taxes (social security and Medicaid and Medicare). This left a staggering deficit in 2019 of almost one trillion dollars that had to be borrowed from China and others when our economy was at full employment and should have been in surplus. And now look at our shocking deficit in this pandemic year! But that is another story.

The goal of this note is to illustrate the significant progressivity that would exist with a flat rate consumption tax in place of the corporate and personal income taxes and the payroll tax when replacing existing safety net expenditures with a UBI.

The original rational for the regressive payroll tax to pay for social security pensions was that social security was a traditional retirement program funded from the savings of each pensioner. The assumption was that the pension it paid reflected the money that each worker paid into the so called but misnamed social security trust fund. In short it was characterized as what we call a defined contribution system (you get what you saved) when it was in fact structured as a defined benefit system (you get a defined amount no matter what you actually paid in). In fact, as Americans lived longer and longer, thus enjoying more and more retirement years, the system collapsed into a basically pay as you go system (today’s workers were paying for today’s retirees’ pensions). The trust fund has very little savings in it. So instead of the payroll tax funding the worker’s future pension it became a regressive tax funding current retiree pensions. The payroll tax should be abolished. “Saving Social Security”  

A flat tax (whether on income or consumption) has many economic virtues, with simplicity at the top of the list.  But a flat rate rubs some people the wrong way who think that the wealthier should pay more tax than implied by a flat rate. My sense of fairness calls for someone with twice the income (if we are focusing on an income tax) to pay twice the tax. That is exactly what a flat rate tax (the same tax rate for everyone whatever their income level is) provides.  Whether we go for an income tax or a consumption tax we should forget about the corporate income tax. It is more trouble than it is worth in a world in which many if not most companies operate globally (i.e. in many different tax jurisdictions). It only contributed 7% of total Federal tax revenue in 2019 and unfairly taxes the company incomes of company owners twice. “Principles of Tax Reform

A flat personal consumption tax that would raise the same revenue as raised by all Federal taxes in the U.S. in 2019 (3.5 trillion dollars) would require a 24% rate. But that revenue did not cover all of the government’s expenditure as noted above. In addition, replacing existing safety net expenditures of 2.7 trillion dollars with a UBI of 18,000 dollars per adult and 9,000 dollars per child (5.2 trillion dollars) would result in total Federal government expenditures in 2019 of 6.9 trillion dollars or 2.5 trillion dollars higher (5.2 – 2.7). A flat consumption tax rate of 47% would be needed to raise 6.9 trillion dollars. This seems very high for two important reasons. First it assumes a balanced budget for the actual level of defense and other non-entitlement expenditures in 2019, i.e. it raises almost one trillion dollars more than the government actually collect in 2019.  Secondly it is financing the additional 2.5 trillion dollars for the UBI from which the higher tax would be paid, i.e. the net tax would be lower.

Though the marginal tax rate would be flat (the same for everyone), the resulting tax burden would actually be quite progressive. To provide a rough idea of the net progressivity of the UBI with a 47% consumption tax, assume that all income is consumed (this would overstate consumption some for higher income families). The poorest families, those who have no income other than the UBI, and assuming a family of two adults and two children, would pay no net tax and receive a net income subsidy of $28,620 or $2,385 per month. For the median family in 2019 (50% income level) the average income was $63,030. But including their UBI their total tax payments would be $55,004 or an excess of $1,004 over their UBI for a tax rate on their (pre UBI) income of 1.6%. For the family at the 80% income level, the average income was $130,000 and their total tax payments would be $86,480 or an excess over their UBI of $32,480 for a tax rate on their earned income of 25%.  This is a significantly progressive outcome while preserving the flat marginal rate.

Individual states may well choose to provide assistance for individual specific purposes, as they do now, for example, for education at various levels. But at the Federal level every effort should be made to prevent such add-ons to our social safety net. If as we become richer as a whole, we choose to be more generous, the amount of the UBI can be raised (or lowered) but only for everyone equally. This would prevent individual interest groups from tacking on special assistance for themselves. The ability of such special interests to gain special favor is a major reason for the slippery slope of the creeping welfare state we now enjoy.

It is important that policies, whatever their good intentions might be, also provide good incentives for outcomes that are desirable for society as a whole. A danger with progressive marginal tax rates, is that the majority of taxpayers have an incentive to raise the rate on those with incomes greater than their own. Or at best there is no incentive for them to resist such a temptation. Soaking the rich is not only an unfair treatment of those who have prospered inventing and delivery goods and services we liked enough to buy, but it will drive them away to tax jurisdictions that better respect their property rights. One of the many virtues of a UBI financed with a flat rate consumption (or income) tax is that the only way to increase the average tax rate on the wealthy is to increase the UBI for everyone.

A UBI would fulfill our desire to help those in real need but would return the responsibility of individual decisions of how that assistance is to be used to the individuals involved. It would simplify and depoliticize the determination of who gets help and how much and would remove the burden of determining our proper tax obligation for most of us. It would thus greatly simplify the administration of such a combined program. It would better align the political incentives for the level of assistance with the preferences of society as a whole. While most people work for more than the income it generates–the self-esteem of being a useful member of society is also important–a UBI would remove the economic disincentive of many current welfare programs of working resulting from the loss of benefits when income reaches a modest level.

Our Social Safety Net

Virtually every country provides assistance to their poorest citizens–to those who fall for one reason or another from normal employment. Approaches to fulfill this objective differ widely. The Federal safety net spending in in the United States in 2019 was 2,600 billion dollars. Total government (Federal, State, and local) entitlement spending was 2,900 billion dollars. Of this, about one third was for Social Security and one third for Medicare and Medicaid.

“The federal government funds 126 separate programs targeted towards low‐​income people, 72 of which provide either cash or in‐​kind benefits to individuals. (The rest fund community‐​wide programs for low‐​income neighborhoods, with no direct benefits to individuals.) State and local governments operate more welfare programs.”[1] This year, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Federal Government has added about $3 trillion dollars ($3,000,000,000,000) for temporary one-time assistance for the impact of the forced interruption of production, and is likely to add more.

The goal of these programs is, or should be, to adequately support those needing it without creating disincentives to work and with minimal abuse (corruption). The CARES Act and other pandemic assistance programs were quickly created in an emergency. It is thus understandable that mistakes were made. As time goes on charges of corruption (politically motivated expenditures) are multiplying. The administrative challenges of suddenly making millions of individual payments quickly and correctly were and are huge.

There is a dramatically better way to do this. We might characterize our existing approach of government directed assistance (e.g. food stamps) as the Socialist Model. It is top down and dictates how the assistance is to be used. Replacing all of these programs with a Universal Basic Income (UBI) leaves the decisions on how its recipients use it with each individual. This might be characterized as the Individualist Model. It has many advantages over our existing approach.

A UBI would eliminate all government discretion over who receives assistance and how much they receive.  Every adult citizen would receive that same amount monthly (and every legal child would receive the same smaller amount). The government could not favor one group over another on any bases other than age. This removes political considerations from defining and administering the payments. Every birth and death in the country is recorded in a county hall of records and every legal immigration is recorded with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS). Thus, the records upon which payments would be based already exist. Using them would remove my need every year to submit a certified document to my pension plan stating that I am still alive. No special measures or supplements would have been needed to address the personal income shocks of covid-19.

One carveout would be required for medical insurance. Every person or family should be required to use part of its monthly UBI to buy a health insurance policy that at a minimum includes catastrophic care coverage. At the launch of UBI and this insurance mandate, insurers would not be allowed to refuse coverage to people with preexisting conditions and the government would cover the actuarial estimate of the extra cost of such conditions.

As the UBI would replace Social Security pensions, another modification would be for the unlikely case that the UBI would be less than ones current Social Security pension (which in 2017 was $13,824 for someone who retired at age 65). So, for such a person who has already retired or is, say, within five years of retirement, their UBI should not be less than their existing Social Security pension. But a UBI of $1,500 per month ($18,000 per annum) for everyone seems reasonable, which would make this case mute.

Those with a welfare state mentality argue that people can’t be trusted to spend such income wisely (from their perspective). I reject such thinking. There are among us, of course, those individuals with addictions and mental illnesses who are indeed not capable of making their own decisions and thus caring for themselves. Our laws and practices already provide for such special cases and would continue to supersede the rights of such individuals to make their own decisions about the uses of their UBIs.

But can we afford it? Today’s American population is about 330 million, of which about 80 million are under the age of 20. To get a rough sense of what is possible, if we replaced today’s safety net expenditures of 2.9 trillion with a UBI to the 33% poorest (110 million people, of whom 25% or 26 million are under 20 years old) in the U.S. in 2019 each person could received about $26,000 per year or about $2,200 per month. If children (those under 20) are paid half what is paid to adults, existing safety net expenditures could finance about $15,000 per child per year and $30,000 per adult if a UBI is given to the lowest third of the population in terms of income. For a family of four this would be an annual income of $90,000, which is above the median household income of about $64,000 in 2019, and is clearly excessive.

But a UBI must be universal. It must be paid to everyone for several simple reasons. Most importantly, it would eliminate the disincentive to work in the existing programs, which end if a person’s income rises above a specified level. With a UBI, every additional dollar of income joins an irreducible UBI. Every additional dollar earned make the recipient that much better off (the UBI amount plus the earned income). This is a very important feature. In addition, it would remove any political question over the level of income at which it should be withdrawn. It would be paid to everyone regardless of their income.

But paying the UBI to everyone, not just the lowest one third, would triple its cost. Can we afford it? Clearly those who pay taxes will have to pay more to cover this additional cost. But as the additional cost is to cover payments to these taxpayers, they would not pay more on net (depending on the nature and structure of our tax systems).  For reasons of equity and tax efficiency I have long advocated a flat tax, meaning the same marginal tax rate for everyone paying taxes. “My-political-platform-for-the-nation-2017” I would go even further and replace income taxation (both corporate and personal) with a flat rate, comprehensive consumption tax.  When a flat rate tax, whether income or consumption, is combined with a UBI, the net result is mildly progressive. Low income people pay no tax on net and in fact receive net income via the UBI (what Milton Friedman called a negative income tax). Middle income families might break even (receive a UBI sufficient to pay for their extra taxes) and for higher income families their extra taxes would be greater than their UBI, hence a progressive average tax rate system even with flat marginal rates.

A UBI with a flat rate consumption tax would enormously simplify our tax and welfare system while improving the financial incentives to work and returning more control over our lives to individuals from the state. Covid-19 dramatically demonstrates that the time has come to replace existing welfare systems with a Universal Basic Income (UBI).


[1] Michael Tanner, “When Welfare Pays Better than Work” CATO Institute, August 19, 2013.

Heath Care Reform Fatigue

On average, Americans spend about twice as much on medical care as do Europeans and with poorer results. About half of that cost is paid for by government. If we could get the cost of medical care down to European levels either the government (i.e., tax payers) could stop paying for any of it with no change in the cost to patients, or patients could stop paying anything with no change in the cost to government. Of course it wouldn’t work like that and is much more complicated but it does focus the mind about the issues concerned.

Both the Affordable Care Act of Obama and the current drafts of its replacement by the Republicans are limited to what can be considered budget authorizations so that they can be passed with simple majorities. In June 2015, when the Supreme Court rejected challenges to the constitutionality of parts of the ACA (the insurance mandate), Chief Justice Roberts complained that: “Congress wrote key parts of the Act behind closed doors. . . . Congress passed much of the Act using a complicated budgetary procedure known as ‘reconciliation,’ which limited opportunities for debate and amendment, and bypassed the Senate’s normal 60-vote filibuster requirement. . . . As a result, the Act does not reflect the type of care and deliberation that one might expect of such significant legislation.” Now the Republicans are doing the same thing. Once again George Will is right on target: Why-repeal-and-replace-will-become-tweak-and-move-on/2017/06/27/

This means that the most important elements of health care reform in America—reducing supply side costs—must await other legislation. However, limited market forces are already eating away slowly at the American Medical Association’s (the doctors’ union) self protective strangle hold on the delivery of medical services. The information technology now exists to dramatically improve the quality of service while lowering its cost. Nurse practitioners have already taken over some routine functions previously preserved for MDs. With a growing shortage of doctors, more restrictive practices are likely to be relaxed such as phone consultations, etc.

The focus of the ACA and the current Republic efforts to “repeal and replace” it, has been how best to finance these costs for those financially unable to pay them. The two overriding challenges for this effort should be to adequately target those who need such assistance and in the process to avoid undermining to the extent possible the incentives for both doctors and their patients to provide and to seek the most cost effective care.

There are many small and large details in ACA and proposed Republican replacements that could be changed to improve targeting of financial assistance and the incentives for seeking and delivery cost effective care. See my earlier discussion: A-mistitled-tax-proposal. The largest issues are how best to remove the unfair tax treatment of employer provided health insurance vs. the “private” market and how to insure that the risk pools in the private insurance market include both healthy and sick premium payers.

The point of insurance is to pool the cost of the risk of bad things happening, like breaking a leg or getting sick. Thus the lucky (healthy) share the costs of the unlucky (sick or injured). The group as a whole must pay the total medical costs of all members of the group. It follows that health insurance should be mandatory for every one in a properly defined group. The risk pool of employer provided health insurance consists of the company’s employees, and premiums are set on the basis of the average medical costs of that group. There is no such predefined risk pool for those who buy insurance in the “private” market. The logic of insurance suggests that everyone within each age group should be required to buy insurance at a cost to each that reflects the total medical costs of the full group. The-individual-health-insurance-mandate.

The simplest, cleanest, and most comprehensive way to insure that those unable to pay for whatever medical care they need can do so is to require that all people in their group buy insurance so that those who later don’t need it finance those who do. I have earlier advocated that this approach be integrated as part of a guaranteed minimum income (GMI). A GMI would provide the basis for eliminating most government welfare programs from Social Security and food stamps, to disability and unemployment insurance. But first a brief word about minimum wage laws.

Charles Lane has proposed a sensible approach to balancing the political attraction for legal minimum wages with the economic case against them. He proposes that the issue be removed from the political arena by legislating an automatically adjusting formula for a legal minimum wage that closely matches actual historical wage experience so as to minimize the harm to low skilled and inexperienced (teenagers) workers that would be hurt by higher minimum wages. Forget the $15 minimum wage–here’s what a sensible compromise would look like/2017/06/28

A legal minimum wage does not help the unemployed. A Guaranteed Minimum Income would. It should be paid to every man, woman, and child but the amount might vary with age (but not with income). It could be administered by the Social Security Administration, which it would replace. Saving-social-security. Fixed shares of the GMI would be placed in an individual health insurance account, a pension account, and an education account (school tuition or college fund). The amount deposited to the health savings account would be required to be used to purchase general health insurance and would be sufficient to do so.

The GMI would be paid for from general tax revenue. Clearly our existing, hole riddled income tax laws (both personal and business) are a mess and need to be cleaned up. As I have argued earlier the fairest, least distorting and easiest to administer tax is a consumption tax. I should replace all income taxes, wage taxes and existing sales taxes with one uniform Value Added Tax (VAT). My-political-platform-for-the-nation-2017.

Let’s try for better health care that costs less for both patients and tax payers.

A Modest Proposal—Helicopter Money and Pension Reform

It is possible to fix the bankrupt Social Security System and the Federal Reserve’s failure to achieve its inflation target painlessly. Yes, really.

The Fed has failed to raise inflation to its 2% target because over regulated banks can’t find over regulated firms wanting to borrow and invest. As a result, the increases in the Fed’s base money from its Quantitative Easing and other efforts to stimulate the economy has piled up as bank excess reserve deposits at the Federal Reserve Banks.[1] If the Fed pushes too hard (e.g., by lowering the interest it pays on these bank reserves, potentially even to negative levels) it feeds asset price bubbles (stock and housing prices), which do great damage when they burst.[2] If the Fed just printed more money and sprinkled it around to the general public—what Milton Friedman called helicopter money—there is no doubt that the public would spend more and drive up prices.

Leaving aside whether it is really a good idea to create a steady 2% rate of inflation, there is an easy way of doing it that would also facilitate badly needed reform of the government’s retirement system. Contrary to the myth that our Social Security pensions reflect what we paid in (saved) to the system, Social Security pension payments are now fully pay as you go. This means that the revenue from payroll taxes approximately matches the outflow for current pensions, i.e. nothing is being saved for the future. As our population continues to age and the number of retired pensioners increases relative to the shrinking number of workers paying into the system, the modest amounts that have been accumulated in the Social Security “Trust Fund” will be drawn down to zero in about 15 years at which time the government will not be able to meet existing promises.[3]

The following proposal combines helicopter money sufficient to bring the inflation rate to its target with badly needed reform of our government pension system. Under this proposal all individuals will receive a minimum government guaranteed pension for life whether they paid in anything or not. This might be implemented as part of a Friedman like negative income tax and other badly needed tax reforms,[4] or stand alone. Before retirement, individuals who are working but with incomes below the poverty level (to be politically established) will not pay a wage tax as they do now. The subsequent pensions of such people will be paid with helicopter money (the Federal Reserve will print the money to buy government bonds sufficient to finance these expenditures). All workers with incomes above the poverty level will be required (as they are now) to set aside the amount of income needed to finance their minimum guaranteed pension on a fully funded basis. They are free to save more if they would like a higher pension. The funds set aside must be invested in government licensed and approved private pension funds chosen by each worker rather than in the almost fictitious Social Security Trust Fund.

This would establish the three pillars of good pension policy proposed by the World Bank in 1998: a means tested minimum pension financed by the government’s general revenue, a mandatory minimum pension paid for and privately invested by all working individuals, and additional, optional, supplemental retirement saving privately invested. Such a model was first adopted in Chile over 35 years ago with great success. Central and Eastern European countries have adopted similar models as part of their transition from centrally planned to market based economies. Financing income subsidies to the poor from general revenues (via printing money), and a user fee approach to mandatory saving (mandatory saving matched to the actuarial value of the pension received), conforms more closely to the principles of good tax policy.[5] The alternative sometimes proposed of raising the income cap on the payroll tax is closer to general revenue financing (if the government guaranteed minimum is only paid to the poor), but leaves out non-wage income and thus fails the good tax criteria.

As new workers would be truly saving for retirement, their savings would not be available to finance those currently retired, as is now the case with our pay as you go system. Thus transitional arrangements will be needed (for several decades) to deal with existing unfunded promises. If the promises remain unchanged, the money to pay for them will have to come from somewhere (higher taxes or reduced defense or other expenditures). Usually, in such cases the government spreads the burden around (burden sharing). Two simple and sensible changes to the current promises would absorb the greater part of the shortfall. The first is to adjust the pensionable retirement age to the fact that the average person lives much longer than when the current retirement ages were fixed. People are living longer and can (and most would like to and do) work longer. The other is to change the index to people’s pensions from a wage index (which generally increases pensions in real terms over time) to the cost of living (CPI), which would preserve their real value against any inflation over time.

For today, this means that the wage tax on the poor would be abolished and paid for with new Fed money that would thus be put in the hands of those who would spend it, increasing employment (though we are really at full employment now) and/or wages and prices. It would both raise inflation a bit and launch a genuine, long over due pension reform.

[1] “US Monetary Policy–QE3” Cayman Financial Review, January 2013

[2] “The D E Fs of the Financial Markets Crisis” CATO Institute, September 26, 2008.

[3] https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2008/08/28/saving-social-security/

[4] http://www.compasscayman.com/cfr/2009/07/07/US-federal-tax-policy/

[5] http://www.compasscayman.com/cfr/2013/07/12/The-principles-of-tax-reform/

Greece—how could they?

Today Greece is voting whether its government should accept the conditions required by the “Institutions” (EU/ECB/IMF) for the final installment of its second “bailout” package—a yes vote, or to reject them—a no vote. No one is quite sure what it all means. The program to which these conditions and the final installment of $8 billion applied expired on June 30 and those funds are no longer on offer. A yes vote would presumably indicate support by the majority of Greek voters for accepting the conditions (a modest primary budget surplus by the Greek government in coming years and structural reforms to improve the quality of government services and the productivity of Greece’s economy) likely to be offered for a third bailout program. The alternative—no more financial assistance from the Institutions—would force even greater “austerity” on the Greek government even after repudiating all of its external debt and thus saving the funds that it would otherwise needed to pay to service it. If Greek tax payers won’t cover the cost of the government’s promises and the market will no longer lend the shortfall, the government is likely to resort to augmenting its Euro tax income with IOU claims on Euros, i.e. introducing and inflating its own currency.

What were the Greek government and the Greek people thinking when they borrowed all that money in the first place, and it must be added, enjoyed spending it on an inflated, unsustainable lifestyle rather than investing it in a more productive future? But Greek politicians (and public) are hardly the only ones in the world to ignore future costs when making current promises they have no way to keep.

Take the United States, for example. For decades, the U.S. Congressional Budget Office has forecast ever-increasing deficits from American entitlement programs (Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security) as expenditures increasingly outstripped revenue. This reflects both the growth in the generosity of these programs and demographics (increasing life expectancy and the baby boomer bulge in retired people relative to those working to pay for them—anyone who still thinks that the retired are receiving what they paid in while working just hasn’t been paying attention). I have written about this from time to time such as four years ago in: https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2011/04/23/thinking-about-the-public-debt/

The future unsustainability of Social Security promises has been the subject of public debate for at least fifty years. The “future” retirement of the WWII baby boomers and their pension expectations has been known since the end of WWII. But one congress after the other has kicked the ball down the road. Seven years ago I outlined the issues and the relatively simple solutions to Social Security deficits in: https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2008/08/28/saving-social-security/ Since then Medicare and Medicaid promises have only increased.

President Obama established the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (the so called Simpson-Bowles Commission) in early 2010 to develop bipartisan proposals for reducing future entitlement driven deficits. He ignored their modest proposals made in the Commission’s final report on December 1, 2010.

The Economist magazine last week reported that the assets available to cover U.S. public sector pensions covered only 75% of their obligations. In fact, the short fall is much greater than that because they are computed assuming a 7.6% return on their assets, which greatly overstates the actual experience of recent years. Private pensions are in much better shape. “But if public plans used the same discount rate as private ones, the deficit would increase to $3.9 trillion and the funding ratio fall to 45%.”

So what are our elected representatives thinking? “Deficits have eventually to be closed. That means lower benefits for the retired, bigger contributions from existing employees (a pay cut) or higher contributions from the employer—which means tax increases for state or city residents, or cuts to other services.

Why is it that our political representatives have such shorter policy horizons than does the public in general? The Economist provides a reasonable summary for the U.S..

“No wonder that no one is getting to grips with the problem. Unions do not like to draw attention to the deficits, for fear benefits will be cut. Politicians do not want to pick a fight with the unions, or increase taxes and annoy voters. Instead, states and cities tend to hope that rising markets will make the problem disappear.”

http://www.economist.com/news/finance-and-economics/21656202-betting-equities-has-not-eliminated-americas-pension-deficit-wishful-thinking?frsc=dg%7Ca