Free Markets, Free People

Social Security

Debt Commission–harsh medicine?

The chairs of the Obama Debt Commission – charged with putting a blueprint together to reduce the deficit and put the government’s finances on sound footing – have released their preliminary recommendations.   And their recommendations are, as most who have monitored this situation should know, harsh.  Of course they must be – because the government has spent itself into a position where harsh and drastic measures are both necessary and called for.

Expect those that compose much of that government, at least on the left, find such austerity “unacceptable” in the words of Nancy Pelosi (whose PAYGO has been so instrumental in preventing this situation from being worse /sarc).  Before we get into the recommendations, let’s get one thing clear:

Those changes and others, none of which would take effect before 2012 to avoid undermining the tepid economic recovery, would erase nearly $4 trillion from projected deficits through 2020, the proposal says, and stabilize the accumulated debt.

That’s $4 trillion from a projected $10+ trillion in projected deficit spending over the next 8 years.  So we’re still talking about years of deficit spending.  And not one dollar will come off the debt – it will only “stabilize” it.

The point is that if doing what is necessary to cut the deficit spending of the next 10 years by 40% is “unacceptable”, imagine what any solution given to tackle the debt will be.  Paul Krugman calls the recommendations “unserious”. 

Really?  Is there anyone out there who doesn’t understand that there is absolutely nothing “unserious” about the problems we face or the fact that to solve them drastic spending cuts are necessary?   Krugman is apparently incensed that the recommendations involve 75% spending cuts and 25% tax increases (the tax increases are essentially the elimination of deductions, the lowering of taxes across the board and the broadening of the tax base).

But how in the world do you stop deficit spending if you don’t drastically cut spending itself?

The commission chairs recommend cuts or changes is all areas – entitlements, defense, non-discretionary spending, discretionary spending.  Some thing sure not to please anyone.   For instance, they recommend raising the retirement age on Social Security for future retirees, as well as cutting benefit increases.  In defense, their goal is 100 billion in cuts.  As I’ve said before, defense cuts can be made and should.  Just so it is fat and not muscle that goes.

The plan is harsh medicine for the minority that believe that government is the answer to everything.  And, as you’ll see (just watch) they will fight these recommendations tooth and nail.  Republicans, on the other hand, have reacted cautiously.  I’m not sure why.  They’ve talked about cuts in spending and simplifying the tax code for years.  Here’s a commission talking about both and recommending they be done.

Politics, fingers in the wind, and ideology begin to emerge.  What the chairmen have done is taken the discussion from a nebulous “we’d like to see spending cuts” to “put up or shut up” with specific recommendations.

It is going to be instructive to see how both parties and the president react.  It is the latter, in particular, I’m interested in watching:

Mr. Obama created the commission last February in the hope it would provide political cover for bold action against deficits in 2011. His stance now, in the wake of his party’s drubbing, will go a long way toward telling whether he tacks to the political center — by embracing such proposals — or shifts to the left and leaves them on a shelf.

Anyone – who votes for “leaves them on the shelf?”

~McQ

[ad] Empty ad slot (#1)!

The political class – how did we end up with these people?

Any political junkie worth his salt has at some time or another looked around at the wreckage that was once a proud country and asked, “how in the world did we get here”?

Simple – we allowed a malignant political class to arise and we, for some reason, chose to allow them to handle our affairs of state without close monitoring that is the job of any responsible citizenry.  The bottom line is we’ve been badly represented by that political class and we’re getting very close to “paying the piper” time.

So how did we get here?  Well I’ve been of the opinion that the perks and power that today’s politics promise are so heady and attractive that they draw a particular type person to pursue such positions.   Maybe not as much at local levels, but certainly at state and most definitely at a national level.  And for the most part this personality type is not who we want in those positions.

At one time, holding office was seen as a public duty, a service and temporary in nature.  A person served their time, did their duty – usually at a loss earnings-wise – and then went back to their former life.

Not anymore.  Now we have the Bill Clinton-type personalities whose entire focus in life is to become a politician.  It isn’t about duty or service anymore, it’s about a career and the trappings of power that go with it.  Couple that with a belief that they know better than you what your priorities and responsibilities in life should be and how you should live it, and we end up where we are today.

When the priority changes from being about service to being about a career, the incentives change as well.  Under the first scenario, a politician would consider it his or her duty to be a careful steward and do the people’s business with an understanding that his decisions will effect him and his family too.  He’d also have an incentive, then, to face difficult problems and solve them quickly before they get out of hand.  He’d also be less inclined to worry about the “political” effect of tough decisions since he had no designs on staying in the position of power any longer than necessary to fulfill his obligation to serve.

However, when the focus is on a career in politics, then the focus is decidedly not on the people’s business, but instead on that person’s business – their career.  And maintaining that career and lifestyle and the power that comes with it becomes the first and dominant priority.

Those wishing to get elected and stay elected must be prepared to break every moral rule they have ever known if the ends justify it. Economist Frank Knight notes that those in authority, "would have to do these things whether they wanted to or not: and the probability of the people in power being individuals who would dislike the possession and exercise of power is on a level with the probability that an extremely tender-hearted person would get the job of whipping master in a slave plantation."

That paragraph describes, with exceptions, the dominant political class in charge of our country’s politics today.  It also helps explain why they’re so out of touch with the rest of the country.  Their focus is inward, their constituency is within the party and the beltway, not the populace and they attempt to keep power by throwing out just enough bones to keep the populist dogs at bay.  They ensure reelection through devious device only open to incumbents known as  “constituent services” which in reality means they offer the only remedy to a situation or law they helped create and propagate to those caught up in its consequences.

In other words, all our politics now are about serving special interests and using those special interests to maintain elected office or advance to higher ones.  The issues themselves are somewhat incidental to the process of maintaining or advancing in office.  If it is useful to that end, then we’ll see politicians blather on about fixing this or doing that. 

For the most part, however, not much really gets done.  Oh some money may be thrown at a ”problem” and some bureaucracy set up or a study done.  But no solution is really ever forthcoming.  Look at how long Medicare and Social Security have been identified as future fiscal black holes.  Show me where anyone – anyone – has seriously addressed the real problems we face with them (and no, ObamaCare doesn’t address the Medicare problem, it instead exacerbates it) and taken steps to solve them?  We’ve seen them talked about endlessly.  We’ve seen accusations fly from one side to the other and back.  But when all is said, nothing is done, and the can is once again kicked down the road while politicians point fingers at everyone but themselves.

Meanwhile, those in power stay in power and the only thing that changes is the amount of money you and your family owe due to their profligacy.

Is it any wonder the Tea Parties have arisen?  My only question, looking back over the years, is why did it take so long?

~McQ

[ad] Empty ad slot (#1)!

Krugman in Bizarro land

Paul Krugman has written some bizarre columns in his day but none more bizarre than his column on Social Security today.

It is stunning in its ignorance and simply appalling in its logic.  In it he tries so hard to prove his premise that Social Security proves government isn’t always the problem and is sometimes the solution that he’s left to use “facts” that have been refuted for, well, decades.

For instance:

Legally, Social Security has its own, dedicated funding, via the payroll tax (“FICA” on your pay statement). But it’s also part of the broader federal budget. This dual accounting means that there are two ways Social Security could face financial problems. First, that dedicated funding could prove inadequate, forcing the program either to cut benefits or to turn to Congress for aid. Second, Social Security costs could prove unsupportable for the federal budget as a whole.

But neither of these potential problems is a clear and present danger. Social Security has been running surpluses for the last quarter-century, banking those surpluses in a special account, the so-called trust fund.

There may “legally” be a “trust fund”, but there’s nothing in it but government IOUs.  The federal government has borrowed every dollar that was ever in the “surpluses”, put them in the general fund and spent them.  Now this isn’t even arguable.  This has been known for literally decades.

But Krugman insists that all the money that’s been taken from us for Social Security (FICA) is in a tidy heap in the “trust fund” which has run surpluses for decades. 

Lord, anyone with the IQ of a penguin knows that there isn’t a dime of real revenue sitting in that account – it is stuffed to the gills with treasury bonds.  To this point that hasn’t been a problem – because it has always taken in more than it paid out.  That’s no longer going to be the case – especially when the baby boomers retire.  So where will the money to pay their retirement come from? 

Debt.  Borrowing.

Oh, and this strawman:

Meanwhile, an aging population will eventually (over the course of the next 20 years) cause the cost of paying Social Security benefits to rise from its current 4.8 percent of G.D.P. to about 6 percent of G.D.P. To give you some perspective, that’s a significantly smaller increase than the rise in defense spending since 2001, which Washington certainly didn’t consider a crisis, or even a reason to rethink some of the Bush tax cuts.

Well yeah, we’ve been in two wars – or hadn’t he noticed?  Defense spending will go down.  Social Security spending won’t.  Add to that health care spending and other entitlements and you can imagine the chunk of GDP those will consume.

Instead, what you’re seeing here is the end of the life-cycle of a Ponzi scheme.  Bill Gross gives you an indication of what I’m talking about:

First of all, capitalistic innovation fostered productivity, and an increasing standard of living through technology and innovation. Debts could be paid back via profits and higher wages if only because of rising prosperity itself. Secondly, the 20th century, which fathered the debt supercycle, was a time of global population growth despite its interruption by tragic world wars and periodic pandemics. Prior debts could be spread over an ever-increasing number of people, lessening the burden and making it possible to assume even more debt in a seemingly endless cycle which brought consumption forward – anticipating that future generations could do the same.

But while technological innovation – much like Moore’s law – seems to have endless promise, population growth in numerous parts of the developed world is approaching a dead end. Not only will it become more difficult to transfer high existing debt burdens onto the smaller shoulders of future generations, but the overlevered, aging “global boomers” themselves will demand a disproportionate piece of stunted future goods and services – without, it seems, the ability to pay for it. Creditors, sensing the predicament, hold back as they recently have in Greece and other southern European peripherals, or in the U.S. itself, as lenders demand larger down payments on new home mortgages, and other debt extensions.

So there it is – when the population was expanding, the Ponzi scheme worked.  Now that it is stagnating and contracting, the bill has come due.  This isn’t rocket science, although to read Krugman you’d think he thinks it is.

It is absurd for any knowledgeable person to write that Social Security is just fine and dandy, but that’s precisely what Krugman does.  And the pretzel logic and pure and outright nonsense he strings together to justify that conclusion are astounding.  And it all has a point:

Conservatives hate Social Security for ideological reasons: its success undermines their claim that government is always the problem, never the solution.

Really – is that the reason Mr. Krugman? Or is it because the so-called trust fund doesn’t have two real dimes to rub against each other, the government spent it all and is broke, baby boomers are retiring and there aren’t enough workers left to support them and we’re in a deep recession?

Yeah, can’t be any of that – must be they hate it for ideological reasons.

Amazing.

~McQ

[ad] Empty ad slot (#1)!

[tweetmeme only_single=”false”]

Is the US bankrupt?

A good number of voices are beginning to say that technically, if not in fact, the country is bankrupt.

For instance:

America is a "Mickey Mouse economy" that is technically bankrupt, according to Jochen Wermuth, the Chief Investment Officer (CIO) and managing partner at Wermuth Asset Management.

"America today looks like Russia in 1998. Consumers, companies and the government are all highly indebted. America as a result is a bankrupt Mickey Mouse economy," Wermuth told CNBC.

Wermuth goes on to say that if the same IMF team that managed the 1998 Russian financial crisis in Russia were to walk into the US Treasury today, “they would withdraw support for current US policy”.

And don’t forget Mort Zuckerman who called the present policies our “economic Katrina”.

But as bad as present policies are, they aren’t solely the reason we’re in the awful economic shape we’re in.  We have a history of that.

"Even before the (Troubled Asset Relief Program) and the expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet, total US public and private debt as a percentage of GDP in the US stood at 290 percent, that figure is now far higher," Wermuth added.

Laurence Kotlikof explains it in terms of a “fiscal gap”. 

The fiscal gap is the value today (the present value) of the difference between projected spending (including servicing official debt) and projected revenue in all future years.

The IMF pointed out in its last report that the US must close this fiscal gap to “stabilize the debt to GDP ratio”.  The IMF estimates ““closing the fiscal gap requires a permanent annual fiscal adjustment equal to about 14 percent of U.S. GDP.”

So what does that mean in dollars?

To put 14 percent of gross domestic product in perspective, current federal revenue totals 14.9 percent of GDP. So the IMF is saying that closing the U.S. fiscal gap, from the revenue side, requires, roughly speaking, an immediate and permanent doubling of our personal-income, corporate and federal taxes as well as the payroll levy set down in the Federal Insurance Contribution Act.

Note the two words – “immediate” and “permanent”.  In order to pay off the huge debt our “betters” in Washington DC have run up over the years, strictly from the revenue side, our taxes would have to see an “immediate” and “permanent” doubling.

Sounds like bankruptcy to me.

Kotlikof also tells us about the shady book keeping Congress has been engaged in for decades and what the books probably really look like:

Based on the CBO’s data, I calculate a fiscal gap of $202 trillion, which is more than 15 times the official debt. This gargantuan discrepancy between our “official” debt and our actual net indebtedness isn’t surprising. It reflects what economists call the labeling problem. Congress has been very careful over the years to label most of its liabilities “unofficial” to keep them off the books and far in the future.

But of course, “official” or “unofficial” it is still debt.  Whether Congress will admit to it doesn’t change the fact that it is future debt that Congress has incurred through its profligate policies.

And what’s going to bring this all crashing down, despite the smooth and reassuring words of politicians without a clue?  Promises made with no fiscal ability to keep them because, in reality, they’re Ponzi schemes:

We have 78 million baby boomers who, when fully retired, will collect benefits from Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid that, on average, exceed per-capita GDP. The annual costs of these entitlements will total about $4 trillion in today’s dollars. Yes, our economy will be bigger in 20 years, but not big enough to handle this size load year after year.

Got that – government promised $4 trillion a year that it doesn’t have and never has had.  And, thanks to Congressional Democrats, it just expanded that bill under ObamaCare.  The system, much like an engine running at hight RPMs with no oil, is going to stop and stop abruptly:

The first possibility is massive benefit cuts visited on the baby boomers in retirement. The second is astronomical tax increases that leave the young with little incentive to work and save. And the third is the government simply printing vast quantities of money to cover its bills.

The result of any of those, of course, would be economically catastrophic.  And the results among the citizens of this country would be horrible:

Most likely we will see a combination of all three responses with dramatic increases in poverty, tax, interest rates and consumer prices. This is an awful, downhill road to follow, but it’s the one we are on. And bond traders will kick us miles down our road once they wake up and realize the U.S. is in worse fiscal shape than Greece.

For years and years, politicians have claimed all is well with these programs, that we can afford them and that they’ll always be there for those who need them.  None of the above is or has been true since their inception.  If any private business operated as these programs have, the CEOs would be under the jail and wouldn’t see daylight until our sun exploded.

For years, the left and Democrats have made war on corporations and businesses all the while it has been government leading us to financial ruin.  This debt isn’t debt run up by the private side of the economy.  It is purely government’s doing.  Now, given the gravity of the situation, we have very few options and the future does not look bright.

Next time you see your Congressional representative or Senator, thank him or her for the mess they’ve had a hand in creating and ask them how they are going to fix it.  Don’t be surprised by the blank stare you receive in return.  They haven’t a clue.

~McQ

[ad] Empty ad slot (#1)!

[tweetmeme only_single=”false”]

Political fiction of "Trustees’ report" too much for CMS actuary

You remember last week when the supposed “good news” was released – Social Security wasn’t in as dire shape as we’d been told and Medicare was going to be fine too?  Yeah, since ObamaCare passed and the doc fix was sure to be implemented, not to mention the half trillion in cuts to Medicare, why we were on the road not only to solvency but to deficit reduction.

And the yearly bit of political theater played out as planned:

The normal process with the annual Trustees’ Reports is for the Trustees to develop and publish the best available projections for the future finances of Social Security and Medicare. The respective Social Security and Medicare actuaries then sign a pro forma blessing of those projections, which is tacked to the back of the report when released to the public.

“Pro forma” is the key.  Usually, whether they believe the rosy projections or not, their signatures appear on the report.

But this year, one of them just couldn’t do it in good conscience.  The Medicare Chief Actuary just couldn’t sign his name to the fiction without adding a memo of his own.

The actuary’s alternative memo explains that “the projections in the report do not represent the ‘best estimate’ of actual future Medicare expenditures.” Worse than that, they are not even in the ballpark of reasonability. The official 2010 Trustees’ Report tells us that total Medicare expenses will be total 6.37% of GDP by 2080. The CMS actuary’s alternative memorandum explains that 10.70% of GDP is a more reasonable estimate for that year – though one that is roughly 68% higher.

The two reasons the actuary cites are the “doc fix” – a formula the actuary describes as "clearly unworkable and almost certain to be overridden by Congress” (both the Obama administration and leaders in Congress are on record opposing them – yet there they are in the report on the “plus” side of the ledger).

The other assumption the actuary dismisses as unrealistic is the assumption that future program cost will be contained by “downward adjustments in annual price updates reflecting in turn the assumption that health service productivity growth will parallel “economy-wide productivity.”  The actuary flatly states there is no evidence to support this assumption and, on the contrary, much to call it deeply into question.

E21 notes:

This is a key point; the glowingly optimistic projections in the official Trustees’ Report assume that we as a nation will be content to have 40% of our medical facilities go under within the next 40 years, and that we will happily accept these severe constraints upon beneficiaries’ access to health care. If that is not in fact the societal will after the enactment of health care reform, then the official cost estimates should be tossed into the nearest receptacle.

Bad though all of this is, none of it is actually the worst gimmick in the official report’s advertised improvement in Medicare solvency. That involves the double-counting of Medicare savings. Earlier this year, Congress passed a health care bill containing various new Medicare taxes and constraints on program expenditures. Such savings are assumed in the official report to extend the solvency of Medicare. But Congress chose instead to spend the savings on a new health care entitlement.

Remember, the Trustees’ report, like CBO projections, must be based on current law.  So they must include the assumptions contained within those laws.  What the actuary says very bluntly is the assumptions are a fantasy and that the reality of the situation is far from that included in the report.

“(T)he financial projections shown in this report for Medicare do not represent a reasonable expectation for actual program operations in either the short range. . . or the long range. . . . I encourage readers to review the ‘illustrative alternative’ projections that are based on more sustainable assumptions for physician and other Medicare price updates.

You can read that “illustrative alternative” here.  Needless to say the Trustees’ report, as published, belongs on the same shelf in your library as “The Wizard of Oz.”

~McQ

[ad] Empty ad slot (#1)!

[tweetmeme only_single=”false”]

Entitlement irony, agenda priority

Just as the Democrats add another massive new entitlement to the laws of the land, one of the oldest entitlements “officially” goes into the red:

This year, the system will pay out more in benefits than it receives in payroll taxes, an important threshold it was not expected to cross until at least 2016, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Stephen C. Goss, chief actuary of the Social Security Administration, said that while the Congressional projection would probably be borne out, the change would have no effect on benefits in 2010 and retirees would keep receiving their checks as usual.

The problem, he said, is that payments have risen more than expected during the downturn, because jobs disappeared and people applied for benefits sooner than they had planned. At the same time, the program’s revenue has fallen sharply, because there are fewer paychecks to tax.

Three things to be gleaned from this excerpt. 1) CBO numbers are static numbers based on nothing changing over the years in which their “scoring” takes place. Obviously that’s not reality and the CBO numbers for health care reform will prove that again soon. 2) Democrats will have to eat their words about Social Security being solvent and not in trouble. Many of the same one’s who made that claim recently also gave you the “numbers” in the health care bill scored by the CBO. And finally, 3) this isn’t a can Obama can kick down the road is it?

Not that he won’t try.

Because according to the NY Times, Cap-and-trade is the next legislative item the administration wants Congress to act upon.

Jobs?  The economy?

What in the world are you smoking – they don’t give a rip about jobs, the economy or you. There’s an agenda at stake here. The window’s closing fast. And what the citizens of America need or want aren’t important right now. Don’t believe me? Read the article cited above – it’s another economy killing tax slated for an April introduction into the legislative process.

Are the scales perhaps beginning to fall from a few eyes yet?

~McQ

[ad] Empty ad slot (#1)!

Right Policies: Opting Out

Yesterday Jon Henke challenged the Right to come up with policies that are popular, viable, workable, transformational and sustainable. (Follow the link to see what he means by each of those.) I’ve previously suggested a broad-based agenda that I thought could be sold as an alternative to the Democrats’ agenda, but I think a few of the specific policies are particularly strong, and they stick to a consistent theme.

Libertarian paternalism — which means that certain initial decisions are made for you, but you are left a way to opt out — can be a good or a bad thing, depending on the status quo. If the status quo is freedom, I’d just as soon not add in an element of paternalism in virtually any case. But if the status quo is paternalism, then libertarian paternalism is a step in the right direction.  Fortunately, giving people more options is much more popular than changing their status quo decision.

I propose that the Right should target existing paternalism and offer as many opportunities to opt out as we can devise. My main two examples are education and entitlements.

Education

I consider education to be any political coalition’s #1 long-term priority. If your opponents control education, chances are you will eventually lose on everything else. So, what policies should the Right pursue on education?

Vouchers aren’t a new idea, but we on the Right could be pursuing them in much more creative ways than we are now, to build a broad working alternative to state schools.  With variable-cost vouchers and pilot programs that target the “victim classes”, the Right can play full court press on vouchers in every school district.

Variable-Cost Vouchers

In every school district across the country, we should have vouchers at least equal to the variable cost of sending one extra child to public school. Democrats have argued for a long time that we need more spending per student to give kids smaller class sizes and better materials such as textbooks, and have used that to justify countless bond measures and tax increases to increase public school funding.

If a voucher just covers the variable cost of an extra student, then a voucher helps create smaller class sizes and increases the amount of money the public school can spend on each student.

You can see how a voucher for variable costs puts the Left in a Catch-22: Every extra dollar they want to spend per student is an argument for a bigger voucher, and an opportunity for the private sector to spend the dollar more efficiently than the public sector.

Make Friends in Low Places

We can do even better: pilot voucher programs should very openly target kids who are performing worst in the current system, in part because proposing vouchers for them undercuts the argument that vouchers just skim the cream of the crop.

Voucher proponents have already focused on several low-income and minority populations, using needs-based criteria and simple geography; the Right should be pushing this smart strategy much more aggressively – it undercuts Democrats’ arguments against vouchers beautifully, and makes a direct play for the Left’s base. The apparent success of the DC voucher system has made attempts to cut the program very embarrassing for Democrats; we need more of that.

Moreover, the Right should propose vouchers that help children who score on the bottom half of the test-score distribution. The research I’ve read indicates that these children show the greatest gains from voucher programs.  For the same reason, target kids with histories of disciplinary problems and special-needs children (paging Sarah Palin).

It would be a bridge too far for the Democrats to argue that these kids enhance the performance of public schools after using the opposite argument to fight vouchers for so long.

And finally, the Right should propose voucher programs to target the many minors who have already dropped out of school.  Kids who have outright given up on the public school system, or who rarely show up, aren’t doing anything to improve the performance of those schools.  If Democrats want to keep up the pretense that they care about these kids, they shouldn’t have any problem with helping these kids become part of a new private education market.

Those are just a small number of ways we can turn the Left’s most popular arguments against them and start to build a real market in education. In the meantime, the Right would be demonstrating that markets can work better than state-administered programs, and help the “little guy” who’s been screwed by the public system.

Where necessary to make the policy viable, the Right could be flexible on the matter of vouchers for church-founded schools (like Catholic schools); the first priority is building a broad education market outside of the state.

Entitlements

Here’s another place where reform would be truly transformational. The Right should push for an opt-out for the major entitlements – Medicare and Social Security. A reform doesn’t have to be a full privatization to accomplish a great deal of good.

Many people are currently collecting benefits from Medicare and SocSec, and we can assume that they will turn out to vote against anything that takes away those benefits. The Right can start making progress on reducing our crushing long-term obligations by (once more for effect) giving everyone as many opportunities to opt out as possible.

Social Security

Why not allow people to adjust their expected benefits, with higher or lower individual taxes to compensate for the change from the “standard” level?  The SSA could set a minimum level of contributions to guarantee its promised benefits, so that the legislation becomes non-threatening to beneficiaries, and thus politically viable.  To get the greatest tax cut, you opt out of all retirement benefits; you can change your mind later, but your benefit and/or tax level must be adjusted appropriately.  And the more people who opt out, the lower the minimum tax rate can go; that rate could be adjusted at periodic intervals, perhaps once a year.

Similarly, why not allow people to adjust their expected retirement age, again paying higher or lower taxes to compensate?

Both of these adjustments would introduce flexibility along with a price mechanism.

Yes, this means that some people might choose to pay the minimum tax and find themselves at age 67 regretting their earlier decisions, but everyone would know that they made a conscious choice to change from the status quo.  And in the meantime, those who opt out don’t feel like such direct stakeholders.

Medicare and other state medical benefits

To get more people off the rolls, allow them to opt out of Medicare eligibility and other state medical benefits in exchange for some mix of:

    • lower payroll taxes
    • tax-free health savings accounts
    • a tax cut on their individual health insurance
    • vouchers for private insurance and private disability coverage

… as long as the total cost of the mix is lower than the expected cost of Medicare benefits.  This way, the Right can not only cut into the massive expected costs on the near horizon, but also get fewer people to feel like stakeholders in the future of the state-administered system.

Conclusion

The most effective arguments against reform are allegations that people will lose the benefits they have now. Psychologically, we regret losing a dollar more than we regret not acquiring that dollar in the first place. That’s a big part of how the Right beat universal health care under Clinton: by telling the American people that they would lose their current insurance, with which most of them were satisfied.

Whether we like it or not, it is stupid to do a frontal assault on a hardened position. Instead, we should apply libertarian paternalism to divide and conquer by giving our opponents as many chances to defect as possible.

Your Sunday Morning Wakeup

Bruce Bartlett gives you a different way of looking at the mess your political leaders, over a number of generations, have gotten us into and what it will cost, at a minimum, to fulfill the promises they’ve made over the decades.

To summarize, we see that taxpayers are on the hook for Social Security and Medicare by these amounts: Social Security, 1.3% of GDP; Medicare part A, 2.8% of GDP; Medicare part B, 2.8% of GDP; and Medicare part D, 1.2% of GDP. This adds up to 8.1% of GDP. Thus federal income taxes for every taxpayer would have to rise by roughly 81% to pay all of the benefits promised by these programs under current law over and above the payroll tax.

Since many taxpayers have just paid their income taxes for 2008 they may have their federal returns close at hand. They all should look up the total amount they paid and multiply that figure by 1.81 to find out what they should be paying right now to finance Social Security and Medicare.

To put it another way, the total unfunded indebtedness of Social Security and Medicare comes to $106.4 trillion. That is how much larger the nation’s capital stock would have to be today, all of it owned by the Social Security and Medicare trust funds, to generate enough income to pay all the benefits that have been promised over and above future payroll taxes. But the nation’s total private net worth is only $51.5 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve. In effect, we have promised the elderly benefits equal to more than twice the nation’s total wealth on top of the payroll tax.

We again have a new crop of political leaders making similar promises about a range of things, from energy to the environment to health care. Look at what they’ve done with the portion of health care they were given previously?

Someone – anyone – tell me how, given the performance of government to this point with Medicare and Medicaid, it is going to provide lower cost health care when it is obvious that it has been instrumental in doing just the opposite?

For some reason, I just can’t get past that negative and inconvenient truth enough to suspend disbelief and decide that once government is running the whole show, everything will fall in line and we’ll have world-class health care at a much lower price – all managed by government.

And one other point Bartlett makes – this mess was made by politicians and, as our laws are written, can only be fixed by politicians. But politicians rarely, if ever like to make decisions which will be unpopular and cause them to have to find new employment. No one likes to be the bad guy. So don’t expect much in the way of “fixing” this mess. You’re more likely to see the whole house of cards collapse because it is unsustainable and the administration in charge at the time blame the previous one (kind of like what you’re seeing now on just about everything else) than to see any political leader actually make the hard decisions necessary (and then win over the Congress) to actually take care of these looming problems.

Enjoy your Sunday.

~McQ

“Suddenly”, Social Security Is In Trouble

Turbo Tax Tim Geithner tells us:

Social Security’s annual surpluses of tax income over expenditures are expected to fall sharply this year and to stay about constant in 2010 because of the economic recession, and to rise only briefly before declining and turning to cash flow deficits beginning in 2016 that grow as the baby boom generation retires.

Of course what Geithner and the Democrats want you to believe is this sudden problem with both Social Security and Medicare has been brought on by the recession and, of course, that means it’s Bush’s fault.

But I took the opportunity to hit the QandO archives and found a couple of interesting live blogs Dale did. The first was the State of the Union address from February 3, 2005.

Thirteen years from now, in 2018, social Security will be paying out more than it takes in. And every year, the annual shortfall will get larger…By 2042 the system will be bankrupt.

That line, of course, was met by Democratic jeers.

A couple of months later at one of his rare news conferences, Bush again emphasized the point and adjusted the dates. As Dale live blogged it:

—Social Security will start spending more than it take in 2013. By 2040, it’ll be bankrupt. Like, you know, it’s not bankrupt now, really.

Again, that was met by Democratic jeers. That’s because Bush mentioned private accounts. Incredibly, much to the horror of many on the right, he also mentioned means testing. But still, the Dems were more interested in blowing off the impending crisis as fiction than addressing it.

The same story was told the next year with the same results.

Our boy Harry Reid in May of ’06:

In a statement released Monday, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said the trustees’ report “confirms that, despite White House scare tactics, Social Security remains sound for decades to come.”

According to Reid, “The real threat to Social Security comes from Republicans, most of whom support and voted for privatizing Social Security.”

As it turns out Medicare/Medicaid is in much worse shape than Social Security, and deserves some discussion as well – but the Social Security question is instructive. This isn’t some ‘sudden’ problem brought on by the recession. This is one that was identified years ago and ignored by the very same people who are now trying to lay blame elsewhere. Just something to remember when they stand in front of the microphones, look directly into the cameras and lie through their teeth.

~McQ

King Eddie’s Funeral (Updated)

Let me clarify something in the previous post.  Some commenters are saying that they don’t understand how government will allow private money to be created, and relinquish the death hold they want to keep on the economy.  The short answer is, I don’t think they’ll have a choice.  We’ll concentrate  on the US here, but keep in mind that the rest of the developed nations are in even worse shape than we are.

What allows the government–any government, but democratic ones in particular–to operate as they do is the consent of the people.  Even totalitarian governments have to worry about that, ultimately, although they can keep the lid on for a time, even for a couple of generations. But even totalitarian regimes often run into explosions which topple them, eventually.

But the loss of faith in a liberal, democratic government is the kiss of death for that government.  It doesn’t take a full scale revolution.  it just takes people to stop cooperating.  India was liberated through non-violent action.  So was South Africa.  nce the people say, “You’re done.” the government is done.

Right now our economic system is built on nothing more than the “full faith and credit” of the US Government.  And that will last only as long as we, the people, have faith in it.

Now this particular recession may not be the one that kills that faith.  It may be just one of the warning signs of a coming collapse.  But a crash is coming, and, I think sooner, rather than later.  We cannot continue indefinitely to fund the spending of the richest country on earth with the savings of one of the poorest.

Consider:

The total debt and future obligation of the US government now exceeds, by a substantial percentage, the total with of the country’s assets.  We have a mountain of debt and payment obligations that exceeds our ability to  meet, even if we were able to liquidate the entire country.

If we wish to retire those obligations we have essentially two alternatives:  We can repudiate them, or we can pay them off through hyperinflation, which, as a practical matter, amounts to the same thing.

For instance, let’s take social security and medicare.  We simply don’t have enough money to pay those obligations.  We can slash benefits, or eliminate cost of living increases, which is nothing more than  repudiating the debt.  We can raise the payroll tax to 30% or more, but that will slow economic growth so much that the increase in revenue will be more than offset by the increased unemployment  and slower GDP growth that would result, which would make it even more difficult to pay off other obligations, such as Treasury Bonds.  Or we can simply print the money, and pay off the paper obligation with money that has signifigantly less purchasing power than the face value of the obligation.

However we go about it, it amounts to a repudiation of all or part of our obliations, and reveals that the government is both faithless and, as investors take note of the repudiation and decide not to buy government paper any more, creditless as well.  What paper they have, they will attempt to unload on any idiot stupid enough to take them.

The dollar will collapse to the point that imported goods, even cheap, shoddily made Chinese ones, might as well be made of unobtainium.

The life savings of million upon millions of Americans will evaporate overnight.

There will be serious hardship, and massive unemployment.

That’s the kind of hardship I’m talking about.

So, how much trust will there be in a government who, after all that, comes back and says, “We’ve learned our lesson.  Trust us now.  It’ll all be different this time.” among a people who’ve watched the government repudiate all of the promises made over the last 70 years?

And how much more will this be true if there is a feasible, private alternative, consisting of hundreds, perhaps thousands of independent sources of money, and credit?  One whose reliability can be publicly judged every minute of every day, and which has no coercive power?

It wouldn’t take a revolution to force the government out of the money and economics business.  Or the retirement or health care business.  All it will take is a lack of trust. Who will want to do business with an entity that has utterly failed to deserve any trust?

The collapse itself will be the revolution.

UPDATE:  By the way, the government’s repudiation of its obligations has already begun, in regards to Social Security.  If you are in my age cohort or younger, you are not allowed to retire at age 65.  Your retirement age is now 72.  The government changed the deal.  For us, we have to wait an additional 7 years to begin collecting our benefits.  Those of us who do not die before age 72, that is.

That wasn’t the deal we had when we started our working lives.  The government unilaterally changed the terms of our Social Security compact.  They didn’t call it “repudiation” but, that’s certainly what it was.