Thursday, December 31, 2009

New York Times on Health Plan Double Counting

Robert Pear of the New York Times has a good discussion of the "double counting" issue with regard to the Medicare (and by extension, Social Security) trust funds in the Senate health reform bill:

At the heart of the fight over health care legislation is a paradox that befuddles lawmakers of both parties. Separate bills passed by the Senate and the House would squeeze nearly a half-trillion dollars from projected spending on Medicare over the next 10 years. These savings would help offset the cost of providing coverage to people who are uninsured. At the same time, federal accountants say the money would shore up the Medicare trust fund, so the program could continue paying hospitals to treat older Americans in the future. In other words, Medicare savings mean both more money available to spend now and the appearance of more money to spend later on Medicare. How is this possible?

Click here to read the whole story. Also look to the Sunday Washington Examiner, where I'll have an article about this issue.

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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Wall Street Journal on the deficit commission trap

The Wall Street
Journal
editorializes today against prospects for a bipartisan deficit commission, such as proposed by Sens. Conrad and Gregg and Reps. Cooper and Wolf. The commission, the Journal argues, is a sucker's bet for those who believe in small government.

Democrats now want Republican cover for their tax increases. After signing a $787 billion economic stimulus and embracing two annual blowout budgets that will double the national debt over 10 years even before ObamaCare, President Obama is poised to pivot next (election) year and denounce the horrors of deficit spending. So the White House is now floating a bipartisan commission to reduce federal borrowing, and much of the political class is all for it. We only hope Republicans aren't foolish enough to fall down this trap door, though some are already tempted. A budget deficit commission is nothing more than a time-tested ploy to get Republicans to raise taxes. In the 2009 version, Republicans are being teed up to hold hands with Democrats and agree to become the tax collectors for Obamanomics.

As evidence, they cite the 1983 Social Security reform commission headed by Alan Greenspan:

In 1983 Ronald Reagan and Congressional Republicans agreed to decades of job-destroying increases in payroll taxes to "fix" Social Security, which you may have noticed still isn't fixed.

The 1983 deal is hardly what I'd prefer, in particular the unintended "prefunding" through the trust fund. But overall I'm not sure it was a terrible deal for conservatives.

  • The increased retirement age reduces expenditures and keeps people working and boosts the economy.
  • While the average return on payroll taxes is bad, payroll tax increases are actuarially fair at the margin (meaning, if we increase them you'll get more or less the same amount back in benefits). It's not clear to me how many jobs they'd destroy so long as individuals are aware of the relationship between taxes and benefits.
  • The taxation of retirement benefits can also be interpreted as an effective benefit cut, which is better than raising some other types of taxes (say, the maximum taxable wage).

Certainly, the 1983 reforms were a better split between tax increases and benefit cuts than, say, the Diamond-Orszag plan, which is at the conservative end of what most Democrats would accept.

That said, there's an understandable temptation, from both a political and policy point of view, to let the left sleep in the bed they've made. As the Journal points out, it's a bit ironic to call for a deficit commission after pushing through stimulus and health plans that are likely to push the deficit and debt to record levels. They passed the stimulus bill with their own votes and their own priorities, so there's not a ton of reason to give them political cover. Even more tempting is to force Democrats to pass the Medicare cuts necessary to fund their own health care expansion. I'm all for cutting Medicare, since we don't have much of a choice, but it's not clear why Republicans should supports the left's ideas of how to cut Medicare and what to use the proceeds for. If cutting Medicare is to fund other spending rather than reduce the deficit, it's not clear conservatives should care much about the outcome.

Overall I'd favor Republicans taking part in a commission, since inaction leads to disaster and the other choices seem even worse. But they'd have to be very careful not to buy into certain tax increases and uncertain spending cuts. Yet, as I've argued elsewhere, it's really pretty discouraging that our form of government seems wholly unable to get on top of the entitlement financing problem.

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Saturday, December 26, 2009

New releases from AARP’s Public Policy Institute

Economic Security Update

December 2009

  

The following 2009 publications and more information about economic issues facing older Americans are available at www.aarp.org/ppi/econ-sec/.  Hard copies may be obtained by contacting us at ppi@aarp.org or (202) 434-3910.  We hope that you find this information useful and look forward to working with you in 2010.

  

Recent Research and Policy Analysis

 

The Employment Situation, November 2009:  Welcome Drop in Overall Unemployment Does Not Extend to Older Workers

Sara Rix highlights the employment and unemployment situation for persons aged 55 and older as of November 2009.  The unemployment rate for the total aged 16+ workforce fell.  However, the picture was not a rosy one for older job seekers, who saw their unemployment rate, duration of unemployment, involuntary part-time employment rate, and job-seeking discouragement rise.  Look for an update in January, with a detailed description of how older workers have fared over the course of the 2008/2009 recession.

  

Federal and State Income Tax Incentives for Private Long-Term Care Insurance

To help make long-term care insurance more affordable and to encourage purchases, both federal and state governments provide tax subsidies for private long-term care insurance.  David Baer and Ellen O'Brien describe these subsidies, their value to taxpayers (by age and income), and where possible, their cost to federal and state governments.

  

The Social Compact in the Twenty-First Century

A shrinking proportion of Americans enjoy long-term job security and robust, guaranteed retiree health and pension benefits.  Moreover, millions of workers have never had this kind of security.  The AARP Public Policy Institute describes the history of and trends in the provision of employee benefits, and uses surveys of employers and employees and expert commentary to shed light on the current state of the Social Compact and how it has changed over time.

  

Employer-Provided Pensions:  Less to Count On

Sandy Mackenzie and Ke Bin Wu assess the extent and type of pension coverage for workers and families in 2007 and over time.  The authors find that the coverage of the employer-provided pension system is limited and there are marked disparities in coverage between rich and poor, Hispanic and white, well- and less well-educated and other social groups. The Automatic IRA would broaden coverage substantially, and improving the Saver's Credit would provide incentives for low- and moderate-income workers to save for retirement.

  

The Consumer Price Index:  How It Impacts the Federal Budget and Social Security Benefits

Selena Caldera describes the four consumer price indexes and discusses how they impact the federal budget and benefit programs. The Fact Sheet explains the calculation of cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) to monthly Social Security benefits and why there are no COLAs projected for 2010 and 2011.

  

Providing Income for a Lifetime:  Bridging the Gap Between Academic Research and Practical Advice

Workers and families nearing retirement face a number of increasingly complicated decisions.  These include when to claim Social Security, how to allocate a portfolio of financial assets, whether to purchase an annuity (and if so, when and what type), how quickly to spend unannuitized wealth, and whether to pay off any outstanding mortgage or purchase a reverse mortgage.  Tony Webb of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College describes, for each of these decisions, what most households actually do, the conventional wisdom as to what they should do, and what a careful economic analysis suggests that most people should do.  Three short campanion papers discuss making your nest egg last a lifetime, the case for investing in bonds during retirement, and whether you should carry a mortgage into retirement.

  

Social Security Disability Insurance: A Primer

Social Security Disability Insurance provides protection against a key source of economic insecurity—the loss of earnings due to disability. Today, 9.3 million Americans rely on SSDI to replace lost wages. Ellen O'Brien provides an overview of SSDI, including who is covered, what benefits they receive, how the program is administered, and how it is financed.

  

Social Security: Ten Facts that Matter

Selena Caldera discusses ten important facts about Social Security, highlighting the program's long-term solvency problem and the critical role it plays in securing the income of many Americans.
Web update available soon at www.aarp.org/ppi/econ-sec.

  

Older Workers on the Move:  Recareering in Later Life

Career change may become more common as more individuals continue to work past retirement age. Richard W. Johnson, Janette Kawachi, and Eric K. Lewis of The Urban Institute examine the characteristics of workers who change careers in later life.

  

Social Security Financing: Automatic Adjustments to Restore Solvency

Many countries are facing social security solvency problems as longevity increases and birthrates fall.  A growing number are adopting automatic mechanisms to improve solvency, rather than changing taxes or benefits in an ad hoc manner.  In this paper, John Turner discusses the experience of 12 countries that have adopted auto-stabilization mechanisms.

  

A New Perspective on Savings for Retirement

John Gist explains how our standard measure of saving provides little insight into household retirement wealth accumulation and draws implications for understanding retirement preparation.

  

Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in 2007

Ke Bin Wu finds that between 2001 and 2007, real median incomes were stagnant or falling, and poverty rates were level or rising for most age groups.  Older households lost less ground; however, median incomes were lower for household headed by persons aged 65 and older than for any other group.

 

19 Million Working Age Americans Have a Disability that Limits or Prevents Work.  Most Are Poor or Low-Income.

Ellen O'Brien and Carlos Figueiredo explain why people with disabilities are often at a disadvantage in the labor market and call on insurance and assistance programs to provide more timely and adequate support.

  

Employment Support for the Transition to Retirement:  Can a New Program Help Older Workers Continue to Work and Protect Those Who Cannot?

David Stapleton of Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., proposes a program to encourage later retirement by helping older workers increase their earnings and postpone reliance on their retirement benefits until the benefits are larger.

  

The Earned Income Tax Credit and Older Workers 

Janet McCubbin explains why the age limits that prevent workers over age 64 or under 25 from qualifying for the earned income tax credit should be eliminated.

 

Upcoming Publications

 

Hybrids and Other Alternatives to Traditional Defined Benefit and Defined Contribution Plans

The decline of the traditional defined benefit pension (whose effective coverage was never particularly broad) and the rise of the 401(k) plan leave many Americans entering retirement without a steady lifelong stream of income.  Sandy Mackenzie examines the role of hybrid pensions and less conventional alternatives to the traditional pension in mitigating this problem and providing insurance against living an unexpectedly long post-retirement life.

  

The Effect of Resource Tests and Eligibility for Federal Assistance Programs:  Effects of Current Rules and Options for Change

 
Millions of poor and low-income older Americans are not eligible for public programs that supplement income or provide assistance with the costs of necessities, including food and health care.  Resource tests in some public programs have not been updated in decades and prevent low-income people from keeping even modest savings--or deter them from seeking assistance.  Mark Merlis provides estimates of the number of people excluded by asset tests today and examines the impact of several options for reforming asset tests in the Supplemental Security Income program, Food Stamps (now called SNAP), the Medicare Savings Programs, and the Medicare Part D Low Income Subsidy.

Read more!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

More on trust fund double counting

Only you don't have to take it from me this time. Over at AEI's Enterprise blog

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Chuck Blahous on Social Security and Work

The Hudson Institute's Chuck Blahous has a new article in National Affairs looking at Social Security reforms that would improve incentives to work and delay retirement. These include altering the factors used to calculate benefit reductions and increases for claiming before or after the full retirement age; changes in the way Social Security calculates workers' average earnings, upon which benefits are paid; reductions in payroll taxes for older workers; and possible repeal of the Retirement Earnings Test.

In addition, Chuck discusses recent experience with Social Security reform, the effect of market downturns and budget deficits on the case for personal accounts, and other issues. It's a good piece that's well worth checking out.

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Longer lives, bigger deficits?

Some experts are predicting life spans dramatically higher than those projected by Social Security. If people do live longer, how will that affect Social Security's finances? Check it out over at the Enterprise blog.

One factoid I probably should have included in my post: SSA's projections for life expectancy in 2050 are lower than those for Japan today. I'm not saying we'll necessarily exceed expectations, but if any area of the Trustees projections seems pessimistic this could be it.

That said, this shouldn't have any effect on the personal accounts debate (or what's left of it). Increased life spans affect personal accounts in exactly the same they affect the traditional DB program. The real issue here is how large the problem could get if we don't start working on it early.

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Understanding the Earnings Test

My Research Assistant Adam Paul over at AEI's Enterprise Blog

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Friday, December 11, 2009

Presentations from NASI event: Demystifying the Deficit, Social Security Finances, & Commissions

Presentations:

  • Jim Horney, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities [download]
  • Nancy Altman, Consultant and former Executive Assistant to Chairman Alan Greenspan, 1982-83
  • Eric Kingson, Syracuse University and former staff, Greenspan Commission [download]
  • Ashley Carson, OWL-The Voice of Midlife and Older Women [download]
  • Janice Gregory, NASI
  • Tom Bethell [download]
  • Statement Of Staff To The 1981-83 National Commission On Social Security Reform (33K)
    [download]

Speaker Biogaphies (84K) [download]

Read more!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

My opportunity to use the word “youthquake”

Writing for the Johns Hopkins student newspaper, Prateik Dalmia tells young folks to get their political priorities in order:

The majority of young Americans today are liberal idealists moved by a visceral reaction against the Bush era. The numbers speak for themselves: Nearly half of 18-29 year olds (47 percent) identify as Democrats compared to 28 percent who identify as Republicans (according to Young Democrats for America). For the last three general elections we have been the Democratic Party's most supportive age group. However, the social reforms of the Democratic Party which we so fervently support do not benefit us. In fact, the exorbitant cost of reforms such as Obamacare, when added to those of Social Security and Medicare, will only damage our chances for prosperity.

Click here to read the whole article, which is very good.

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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Interesting new Disability Insurance demonstration project

Social Security has awarded a contract to Abt Associates to run an experiment allowing disability insurance (DI) recipients to have higher earnings before their benefits are withdrawn. Currently DI beneficiaries can earn only $1,640 per month without risking their eligibility. The following draws from Abt's press release:

For many years, there has been concern about the low rate at which SSDI beneficiaries return to work. Although SSA encourages employment for workers with disabilities who receive these benefits, program rules that reduce benefits to zero after earnings reach the threshold of Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA) create a financial disincentive to employment. Congress mandated this study to test the effect of reducing the SSDI benefit by $1 for every $2 of countable earnings above the SGA threshold. In addition to offering this positive financial incentive, the demonstration will also test whether offering BOND participants enhanced counseling—to assist them in understanding the rules changes and taking advantage of them—will lead to higher earnings than only eliminating the "SGA cash cliff."

"We are pleased to have this opportunity to undertake a project of such significance for the Social Security Administration," said Katie Heintz, Division Vice President for Social and Economic Policy at Abt Associates. "We have a strong team in place to conduct and complete this important work."

The $121 million contract is for a period of nine years. Because of its complexity, it requires a diverse collection of skills and capabilities, including experience designing and executing large-scale random assignment impact studies, expertise in disability and employment policy, and ability to implement secure data systems and manage complex data collection. The project also involves designing a communications strategy, operating a call center, and providing training and technical assistance to local agencies.

After a pilot period to test important implementation procedures, the full demonstration is scheduled to be launched in April 2011 and will involve approximately 90,000 participants in ten large, randomly selected sites around the U.S. SSDI beneficiaries will be randomly assigned to treatment and control groups for the purpose of testing the incentives. The results will be followed over the course of the nine-year period.

The Abt Associates team for this project includes: Mathematica Policy Research; Cherokee Information Services; HTA Technology; LionBridge Technologies, Inc.; Convergys; the Virginia Commonwealth University Rehabilitation Research and Training Center; Palladian Partners; the Center for Essential Management Services; MEF associates; Institute for Public & International Affairs (University of Utah); Proia Associates; TransCen; and Rick deFriesse Consulting.

In theory you should get both more work and more DI applicants, since the current earnings limit is presumably a disincentive for some folks to apply, but it will be interesting to see how things balance out. The US doesn't really allow for partial disability, so there are some DI beneficiaries who probably could work more but are prevented from doing so by program rules.

Read more!

New articles from Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 69 No. 4

The latest issue of the Social Security Bulletin is available online. Here's the table of contents:

The Age-18 Redetermination and Postredetermination Participation in SSI by Jeffrey Hemmeter and Elaine Gilby

This article describes the outcomes of the redetermination of Supplemental Security Income (SSI) eligibility when a child recipient reaches age 18. Statistics on the characteristics of youth whose eligibility is redetermined are presented using 8 years of administrative data, and the relationship between these characteristics and both an initial cessation decision and a successful appeal or reapplication for SSI are discussed.

The Retirement Research Consortium: Past, Present, and Future by Paul S. Davies and T. Lynn Fisher

This article provides an overview of the Retirement Research Consortium (RRC) from the Social Security Administration's perspective, including a brief history of the development of the RRC, a discussion of the aims of the RRC, and some thoughts on its future. The mission of the RRC is to plan and conduct a broad research program to develop Social Security and retirement policy information to assist policymakers, the public, and the media in understanding the issues. The RRC has been a remarkably successful extramural research venture that has advanced the knowledge base on Social Security and retirement issues, trained new scholars to become the next generation of Social Security and retirement policy experts, and provided objective, research-based input to the policymaking process.

The Research Contributions of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College by Steven A. Sass

This article reviews the research contributions of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College over its 10-year history and their implications for Social Security and retirement income policy in three major areas: (1) Social Security's long-term financing shortfall, (2) the adequacy of retirement incomes, and (3) labor force participation at older ages as a means to improve retirement income security. The center has received substantial funding support from the Social Security Administration (SSA) in each area and has also successfully leveraged SSA's investment by attracting funding from other sources.

Social Security Research at the Michigan Retirement Research Center by Richard V. Burkhauser, Alan L. Gustman, John Laitner, Olivia S. Mitchell, and Amanda Sonnega

The Office of Retirement and Disability Policy at the Social Security Administration created the Retirement Research Consortium in 1998 to encourage research on topics related to Social Security and the well-being of older Americans, and to foster communication between the academic and policy communities. The Michigan Retirement Research Center (MRRC) has participated in the Consortium since its inception. This article surveys a selection of the MRRC's output over its first 10 years and highlights several themes in the Center's ongoing research.

Social Security in a Changing Environment: Findings From the Retirement Research Center at the National Bureau of Economic Research by David A. Wise and Richard G. Woodbury

Since September 2003, the Retirement Research Center at the National Bureau of Economic Research has conducted a coordinated series of investigations on Social Security in a changing environment and the potential routes to sustainable solvency. The Center supports extensive collaborative research over a multiyear horizon to achieve a more fully integrated understanding of Social Security's challenges and the changing environment in which it operates. This article is an overview of the studies completed since the Center's inception.

Several features from our Web site are also reprinted in the Bulletin each quarter. These include

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How I could have gotten confirmed by the Senate…

Slightly off-color, but I have to admit this is what I thought when I read about Sen. Baucus's recent troubles…

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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

New paper: “The Swedish Pension System and the Economic Crisis”

The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College has released a new paper by Annika Sundén titled "The Swedish Pension System and the Economic Crisis." Here's the abstract:

The steep drop in financial markets in 2008 coupled with the ongoing economic recession pose immediate challenges for some public pension systems, particularly those that rely partly on equity investments.  In the case of Sweden, the crisis provides an initial 'stress test' for a major pension system reform implemented earlier this decade.  The new system created by the reform was designed to be fiscally sustainable by including automatic adjustment mechanisms to maintain balance in response to short-term economic and financial fluctuations and long-term demographic changes.  Last fall's plummeting stock market produced a decline in Sweden's pension reserve funds and triggered a first-time automatic reduction in the pension indexation scheduled to occur in 2010.  In response, policymakers decided to spread out the required adjustment over a longer period.

This brief is organized as follows.  The first section describes how the Swedish pension system is designed to maintain fiscal stability.  The second section documents trends in the system's financial status.  The third section explores the potential impact of the economic crisis on pension benefits under the system's original rules.  The fourth section describes the policy response.  The final section concludes that even automatic adjustments may produce offsetting political considerations.

Click here for the full paper.

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Monday, December 7, 2009

Chuck Blahous: Social Security deficits into 6th month

Over at e21, the Hudson Institute's Chuck Blahous points out that Social Security's cash deficits, which began in May, have now continued for six months. This makes the chances of a strong revival in program cash flows less likely.

Data recently made public by the Social Security Administration confirm that in October, 2009, the program reached a grim milestone:  six consecutive months of operating cash deficits.  This is the first time Social Security has faced this situation over the entire time period, dating back through 1987, for which SSA posts the monthly data online.

From May through October inclusive, Social Security's outgoing payments have exceeded incoming program revenue, generated mostly by the payroll tax (with a smaller amount coming in via the taxation of benefits).  When a cash-deficit situation develops during a period that the program is still technically solvent, full benefits continue to be paid.  The operational deficit is effectively made up with general revenues, putting additional strain on a sagging federal budget.

The primary reason for the early arrival of Social Security's deficits is the recession, which is depressing payroll tax revenue.  The drop in employment, and its corollary effect on payroll taxes, is coinciding with a long-anticipated surge in benefit claims as the Baby Boomers begin to hit the retirement rolls.  These factors have combined to accelerate Social Security's financial difficulties relative to previous projections.

You can track Social Security's month-to-month finances at SSA's website here.

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New working paper: Using Inflation to Erode the U.S. Public Debt

The National Bureau of Economic Research released a new working paper, titled Using Inflation to Erode the U.S. Public Debt by Joshua Aizenman by Nancy Marion. Here's the abstract:

As a share of GDP, the U.S. Federal debt held by the public exceeds 50 percent in FY2009, the highest debt ratio since 1955. Projections indicate the debt ratio may be in the 70-100 percent range within ten years.    In many respects, the temptation to inflate away some of this debt burden is similar to that at the end of World War II. In 1946, the debt ratio was 108.6 percent. Inflation reduced this ratio about 40 percent within a decade. Yet there are some important differences -shorter debt maturities today reduce the temptation to inflate, while the larger share held by foreigners increases it. This paper lays out an analytical framework for determining the impact of a large nominal debt overhang on the temptation to inflate. It suggests that when economic growth is stalled, the U.S. debt overhang may trigger an increase in inflation of about 5 percent for several years. This additional inflation would significantly reduce the debt ratio, even with some shortening of debt maturities.

Given where things seem to be heading, this is pretty useful information.

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Friday, December 4, 2009

Dean Baker’s “practical” solution to health reform…

In railing against an entitlements reform commission, Dean Baker writes:

serious people would focus on fixing the country's health care system, but the Peterson crew focuses on cutting Medicare. One obvious way to both cut Medicare costs and start to get U.S. health care costs under control would be to allow beneficiaries to buy into more efficient foreign health care systems, but the Peterson crew doesn't seem interested in proposals that don't cut benefits for working people.

Okayyyy… Look, Dean's argument that people would be better off under foreign health care plans is a good one – I'm not one who hides behind the "America has the best health care system in the world" talking point. (Best quality? Probably – when you throw massive amounts of money at a problem it's hard not to get something back in exchange. But best quality for the price? I'm not at all sure about that.)

But does Dean really think we'll get very far asking the Canadians, Brits, etc. to take over our health coverage? Leaving aside travel costs and adverse selection, those systems have problems of their own and I doubt they're looking to solve ours. But if Dean thinks this is the way to go maybe he should contact their embassies and see what they think.

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Video from recent AEI conference, "Keeping Granny On the Job."

I've managed to embed video of the recent AEI event at which Estelle James and I discussed incentives to delay retirement in the U.S. and Chile. Take a look.

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Upcoming event: Demystifying the Deficit, Social Security Finances, & Commissions

This sounds interesting, though given a less-than-fully-rounded panel I get the feeling that tax cuts will get more blame for future deficits than they deserve – click here for my take on that question.


 

Demystifying the Deficit, Social Security Finances, & Commissions

 

December 11, 2009 10:00 AM–11:30 AM


 

Event Information  

Location  

Capitol Visitor Center, Senate side, Room 209/208; see below for details  

Registration Deadline

12/09/2009 

Contact  

Elizabeth Lamme


A briefing that will demystify...

...The general fund deficit:

  • How big is the problem?
  • What is the role of tax cuts and entitlements? 
  • How does health care spending fit?

...Social Security & the budget:

  • How does Social Security fit in the budget?
  • What is the shortfall and how can we fix it? 
  • How do taxpayers feel about Social Security?

...Commissions:

  • How do commissions fit in the democratic process? 
  • What lessons can we learn from the Greenspan Commission?

Speakers include:

  • Jim Horney, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
  • Nancy Altman, Consultant and former Executive Assistant to Chairman Alan Greenspan, 1982-83
  • Eric Kingson, Syracuse University and former staff, Greenspan Commission
  • Ashley Carson, OWL-The Voice of Midlife and Older Women
  • Janice Gregory, NASI

~ Refreshments will be served.~


 

LOCATION DETAILS: The Capitol Visitor Center, the new main entrance to the U.S. Capitol, is located on the East front at First Street and East Capitol Street, NE. This event is being held in SVC Room 209/208. To see a map, click here

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

New working papers from the Michigan Retirement Research Center

The Michigan Retirement Research Center Working Papers has released three new working papers.

************************************************************

Gain and Loss: Marriage and Wealth Changes Over Time by Julie Zissimopoulos

Abstract:

Family composition has changed dramatically over the past 25 years. Divorce rates increased and remarriage rates declined. While considerable research established a link between marriage and earnings, far less is empirically understood about the effect of marriage on wealth although wealth is an important measure for older individuals because it represents resources available for consumption in retirement. In this paper we employ eight waves of panel data from the Health and Retirement Study to study the relationship between wealth changes and marital status among individuals over age 50. This research advances understanding of the relationship by first, incorporating measures of current and lifetime earnings, mortality risk and other characteristics that vary by marital status into models of wealth change; second, measuring the magnitude of wealth loss and gain associated with divorce, widowing and remarriage and third, estimating wealth change before and after marital status change so the change in wealth change is not the result of individuals entering or leaving the household and other sources of unobserved differences are removed from estimates of the effect of marriage on wealth. Our results suggest no differences in wealth change over time among individuals that remain married, divorced, widowed, never married and partnered over 7 years. In the short-run there are substantial wealth changes associated with marital status changes. Divorce at older ages is costly, remarriage is wealth enhancing and people appear to change their savings in response to changes in marital status.

Key Findings:

* Married people over age 50 save more out of their lifetime earnings than remarried, divorced, widowed or partnered individuals.

* Changes in wealth at older ages is similar for married couples and single men who do not change marital status, but divorced and widowed women save less.

* Individuals who divorce experience a loss of wealth two to four years before the divorce and during the divorce, and wealth recovery from increased savings after divorce.

* Divorced individuals that remarry accumulate wealth at higher rates than those who remain divorced.

View/Download Working Paper (PDF):

http://www.mrrc.isr.umich.edu/dl.cfm?pid=651&type=102

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What Replace Rates Should Households Use? by John Karl Scholz and Ananth Seshadri

Abstract:

Common financial planning advice calls for households to ensure that retirement income exceeds 70 percent of average pre-retirement income. We use an augmented life-cycle model of household behavior to examine optimal replacement rates for a representative set of retired American households. We relate optimal replacement rates to observable household characteristics and in doing so, make progress in developing a set of theory-based, but readily understandable financial guidelines. Our work should be a useful building block for efforts to assess the adequacy of retirement wealth preparation and efforts to promote financial literacy and well-being.

Key Findings:

* Common financial planning advice calls for households to ensure that retirement income fall between 70 and 85 percent of pre-retirement income in order to maintain pre-retirement living standards.

* However, the common rules of thumb do not consider important factors that impact lifetime earnings and consumption, such as marital status, level of education, race, and number of children.

* We find that 48 percent of married couples have an optimal replacement rate of less than 65 percent of pre-retirement income.

View/Download Working Paper (PDF):

http://www.mrrc.isr.umich.edu/dl.cfm?pid=652&type=102

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Proximity and Coresidence of Adult Children and their Parents: Description and Correlates by Janice Compton and Robert A. Pollak

Abstract:

The ability of family members to engage in intergenerational transfers of hands-on care requires close proximity or coresidence. In this paper we describe and analyze the patterns of proximity and coresidence involving adult children and their mothers using data from the National Survey of Families and Households (NSFH) and the U.S. Census. Although intergenerational coresidence has been declining in the United States, most Americans live within 25 miles of their mothers. In both the raw data and in regression analyses, the most robust predictor of proximity of adult children to their mothers is education. Individuals are less likely to live near their mothers if they have a college degree. Virtually all previous studies have considered coresidence alone, or else treat coresidence as a limiting case of close proximity. We show that this treatment is misleading. We find substantial differences in the correlates of proximity by gender and marital status, indicating the need to model these categories separately. Other demographic variables such as age, race and ethnicity also affect the probability of coresidence and close proximity, but characteristics indicating a current need for transfers (e.g., disability) are not correlated with close proximity.

Key Findings:

* While intergenerational coresidence has been declining in the United States, most Americans live within 25 miles of their mothers.

* Individuals are less likely to live near their mothers if they have a college degree.

* Adult children are more likely to live with their mother when the mother is older, in poor health, and unmarried.

* Compared to whites, black Americans are more likely to live near and to live with their mothers, while Hispanic Americans are no more likely to live close to their mothers, but are twice as likely to live with their mothers.

View/Download Working Paper (PDF):

http://www.mrrc.isr.umich.edu/dl.cfm?pid=656&type=102

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Monday, November 23, 2009

First we raid Social Security, then we raid Medicare…

I argued in this piece for AEI's The American online magazine that the health reform bill proposed by Sen. Max Baucus would reduce the 10-year budget deficit only through an accounting trick by which increased Social Security taxes – which should, you know, be saved for Social Security – would be counted against the cost of the plan's increased health coverage.

But it seems that no entitlement is left un-raided: the legislation put forward by Senate Majority Leader Reid, which contains the raid on the Social Security trust fund, would also impose some accounting tomfoolery on Medicare. It's well-known by now that Reid's plan would increase the Medicare payroll tax to help offset the costs of the plan. What I didn't know, though, is that these new taxes would first be laundered through the Medicare trust fund, creating an entirely fictitious improvement in Medicare's financial health. The new taxes are credited to the Medicare trust fund, created an entitlement to new revenues from the rest of the budget. But the actual revenues will immediately be used to cover non-Medicare health costs. Looks like double-counting to me. The folks over at e21 explain.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

AEI event presentations/video available online

Keeping Granny on the Job: Pension Reform and Labor Force Participation in the United States and Chile

In an era of increased life expectancies and underfunded pensions, longer work lives may be the best way to increase retirement income security. But what incentives does Social Security present to Americans thinking of working longer? What could reform do to encourage longer work lives?  

At this AEI conference, AEI resident scholar Andrew G. Biggs will discuss research on Social Security's incentives to delay retirement, while Estelle James, a pension consultant and former World Bank economist, will present findings on how Chile's 1980 pension reform affected labor force participation by seniors. Jagadeesh Gokhale of the Cato Institute will comment.

Documents and Links
Speaker Biographies
Video

Audio

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Sunday, November 15, 2009

New working papers from the Center for Retirement Research

The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College has released a number of new working papers:

Work Ability and the Social Insurance Safety Net in the Years Prior to Retirement
by Richard W. Johnson, Melissa M. Favreault, and Corina Mommaerts

Dutch Pension Funds in Underfunding: Solving Generational Dilemmas
by Niels Kortleve and Eduard Ponds

Fees and Trading Costs of Equity Mutual Funds in 401(k) Plans and Potential Savings from ETFs and Commingled Trusts
by Richard W. Kopcke, Francis M. Vitagliano, and Zhenya S. Karamcheva

An Update on 401(k) Plans: Insights from the 2007 Survey of Consumer Finances
by Alicia H. Munnell, Richard W. Kopcke, Francesca Golub-Sass, and Dan Muldoon

Insult to Injury: Disability, Earnings, and Divorce
by Perry Singleton 

Medicare Part D and the Financial Protection of the Elderly
by Gary V. Engelhardt and Jonathan Gruber

The Role of Information for Retirement Behavior: Evidence Based on the Stepwise Introduction of the Social Security Statement
by Giovanni Mastrobuoni

Social Security and the Joint Trends in Labor Supply and Benefits Receipt Among Older Men
by Bo MacInnis

The Wealth of Older Americans and the Sub-Prime Debacle
by Barry Bosworth and Rosanna Smart

The Asset and Income Profile of Residents in Seniors Care Communities
by Norma B. Coe and Melissa Boyle

Pension Buyouts: What Can We Learn from The UK Experience?
by Ashby H.B. Monk

What Drives Health Care Spending? Can We Know Whether Population Aging Is A 'Red Herring'?
by Henry J. Aaron 

Read more!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Thursday, November 12, 2009

New working papers from MRRC

The Michigan Retirement Research Center released three new working papers:

Investor Behavior and Fund Performance under a Privatized Retirement Accounts System: Evidence from Chile by Elena Krasnokutskaya and Petra Todd

Abstract: In the U.S. and in Chile, there have been heated debates about the relative merits of a decentralized privatized pension system relative to a more traditional social security system. On the firm side, there are concerns that pension funds engage in anticompetitive behavior and take advantage of consumers' by charging high fees and account maintenance changes. On the consumer side, there are concerns that consumers do not select wisely among funds and take on too much risk. Any pension system with insurance features to protect against low levels of pension accumulations is potentially subject to moral hazard problems, in the form of consumers' taking on too much risk. In the case of Chile, the government provides a minimum pension benefit to those with low pension accumulations, which can make some consumers more willing to take risks. For these reasons, the Chilean government introduced regulations on pension fund firms' investments designed to limit risk. This paper analyzes the determinants of consumers' choices of pension fund and of pension fund characteristics (performance and fees), taking into account governmental regulations. In particular, it estimates a demand and supply model of the pension fund investment market using a longitudinal household dataset gathered in 2002 and 2004 in Chile, administrative data on fund choices, and longitudinal data on cost determinants of pension funds. We find that the existing regulation actually increases the level of risk in the market, reduces heterogeneity across firms, and reduces incentives for consumers to participate in the pension fund program. We suggest alternative more effective forms of regulation.

Key Findings:

* Low participation in the Chilean pension system, which is mandatory only for full-time workers in the formal sector, is due in part to the large informal sector of the economy.

* Regulation requiring that pension fund administrators deliver a return within 2% of the industry average encourages more risk taking than if portfolio risk were regulated.

* Fewer people also participate in the pension plan because of the risk taking by pension firms.

* Older and younger individuals are more averse to risk.

* The market is efficiently served by more than one firm.

Social Security Literacy and Retirement Well-Being by Hugo A. Benítez-Silva, Berna Demiralp and Zhen Liu

Abstract: We build upon the growing literature on financial literacy, which studies the prevalence of lack of knowledge about various financial issues, and analyze how much people know about the Social Security rules using a small pilot survey conducted in 2007, and a follow-up and extended survey funded by MRRC conducted in December of 2008. We then assess the consequences of the apparent prevalence of lack of information by individuals about the rules governing the Social Security system using a realistic and empirically-based life-cycle model of retirement behavior under uncertainty. We investigate the individual's retirement and savings decisions under incomplete information and unawareness, in which a portion of the population does not know some or all of the rules of the system. We compare the outcomes in these cases to the outcome under full information, computing the welfare gain resulting from the acquisition of information regarding the Social Security system. Our analysis can illuminate the need for policies that foster knowledge of the system, which can improve welfare, and can result in better policy outcomes.

Key Findings:

* Lack of basic knowledge about rules for obtaining Social Security benefits is widespread.

* Younger people are less informed than older people, however, only 70% of individuals aged 55 to 64 are aware of the minimum retirement age.

* Individuals who are reinterviewed show a large increase in knowledge about Social Security.

* The benefits of being fully informed about Social Security vary by age.

* Awareness could be increased by targeting messages pertinent to individuals based on their age or income level.

The Displacement Effect of Public Pensions on the Accumulation of Financial Assets by Michael Hurd, Pierre-Carl Michaud and Susann Rohwedder

Abstract: The generosity of public pensions may depress private savings and provide incentives to retire early. While there is plenty of evidence supporting the latter effect, there remains considerable controversy as whether or not public pensions crowd out private savings. This paper uses international micro-datasets collected over recent years to investigate whether public pensions displace private savings. The identification strategy relies on differences in the progressivity or non-linearity of pension formulas across countries. We also make use of large heterogeneity in earnings across education group and country. The evidence we present is consistent with previous studies using cross-sectional and time-series variation in savings and pensions. We estimate that an extra dollar of pension wealth depresses accumulated financial assets at the time of retirement by 23 to 44 cents and that an extra ten thousand dollars in pension wealth reduces the average retirement age by roughly 1 month.

Key Findings:

* The generosity of public pension systems affects both private saving rates and the timing of retirement.

* Our study of 12 countries shows that generous public pensions depress lifetime asset accumulation.

* For every dollar of pension wealth, financial assets are reduced by 23 to 44 cents.

* Higher public pension levels also induce earlier retirement.

* Retirement comes one month earlier for every $10,000 of pension wealth.

Read more!

Do seniors deserve that extra $250?

David Francis of the Christian Science Monitor
says yes.

To seriously answer this question, I'd think you'd have to ask:

  • Are they being treated worse by Social Security than other participants? The answer to that is no: receiving a zero COLA when inflation has been negative is much better than receiving a positive COLA that merely keeps up with inflation.
  • Are seniors suffering more due to the recession than other Americans? Again, I'd say the answer is no: they're not affected by higher unemployment, most low-income seniors have relatively few assets to be affected by financial markets, and their biggest source of income – Social Security – is continuing to pay benefits.
  • Will the payment to seniors stimulate the economy better than other uses of the money? Probably not – I'd rather focus on job creation – but that's an open question.
Read more!

Social Security Online Benefit Calculator Leads to Faulty Conclusions

Over at AEI's Enterprise Blog, I commented on a Washington Post article by MIT professor Simon Johnson and Yale law student James Kwak arguing that Social Security and 401(k) plans won't provide for a decent income in retirement. While they have a good qualitative case – after all, Social Security is facing insolvency and 401(k) plans face problems regarding participation rates and investment choices – their estimates of Social Security benefits just seemed too low.

As it turned out, the problem was that they relied on one of SSA's online benefit calculators. As I pointed out last year regarding the Social Security Statement, while the calculator claims to show benefits "in today's dollars" it actually doesn't. It shows benefits in "wage indexed" dollars, which can make for a big difference. Johnson and Kwak were quick to acknowledge the error, which after all wasn't their fault, and discussed the issue further on their Baseline Scenario blog. But it's the source of the error that I'm interested in.

Johnson and Kwak estimate benefits for individuals retiring in 2051. Let's say that the nominal benefit – meaning, the dollar amount that's actually paid each month – was $4000. To inflation adjust that back to today, we multiply $4,000 by the ratio of today's CPI to the projected 2051 CPI: based on this table from the 2009 Trustees Report those numbers are 100/315.37, meaning that the inflation adjusted value of $4,000 is $1,268.

Now let's look at the wage-indexed value, which is what the Social Security Statement will give you and what you get when you choose "in today's dollars' from the online calculator. To get that, you multiply $4,000 by the ratio of today's average wage to the average nominal wage in 2051, which from the same table is $42,042/$209,615, which gives you only $802.

Now, one big problem is that the calculator doesn't even tell you you're getting wage-indexed dollars. So when your scheduled benefit is actually worth $1,268 in today's dollars you'll think you're only getting $802. The fact that an MIT professor and a Yale law student couldn't figure this out seems like pretty good evidence that it's confusing. When I raised this issue last year with regard to the Statement, the agency's solution was to take the phrase "in today's dollars" out to the Statement. That eliminates one problem, but leaves the reader to only guess in what form their benefits might be expressed.

Second, even if there were full disclosure that benefit estimates were in wage-indexed dollars, it's not clear to me whether there's any usefulness in the number. I understand how to calculate wage-indexed dollars, but these figures don't mean anything to me (and I'd guess not to other people either). Moreover, anyone who's actually trying to plan their retirement – which, presumably is what the Statement and the online calculators are for – would express their retirement income either in today's dollars (to show their real purchasing power) or in nominal dollars, to make them comparable to benefit estimates from 401(k) plans or DB pension plans. (If anyone can find me a retirement calculator that expresses income in wage-indexed dollars I'll send you a bottle of wine to celebrate.) Throwing wage-indexed dollars into the mix serves only to confuse people or give them mistaken estimates of their retirement income.

As you might have noticed, this is an issue that ticks me off. There's very little substantive case for showing benefits in wage-indexed dollars – try to explain to someone what they mean and you'll see the blank look on their face. That's probably why there's no effort to explain any of this either on the web sites or in the Statement. While it would be a simple task to fix the calculator and Statement so they would show benefits in inflation adjusted dollars, I suspect the reason this isn't done is that people would ask questions why their benefit estimates had changed from last year to this year. What most people would see as an improvement some people in the agency would perceive as an admission that they'd previously been wrong, and some folks don't like to do that. But that mis-serves the public: Social Security is the largest form of retirement income for most Americans and the only way the typical person can know what they're going to get is if they're told. We should do a better job of telling them than we are.

Read more!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Updated Social Security Fix-It Book Available

The Center for Retirement Research has updated their very nice Social Security Fix-It Book. Check it out here.

Read more!

The Fiscal Wake Up Tour Takes to the Airwaves

This afternoon I appeared with other members of the Fiscal Wake Up Tour – the Concord Coalition's Bob Bixby; the Brookings Institution's Isabel Sawhill; and the Peter G. Peterson Foundation's David Walker – on Southern California Public Radio's Patt Morrison show to talk about the fiscal challenges facing the country.

I was a bit downbeat today, maybe because the health reforms that were supposed to fix our budget problems will more than likely make them worse. But some things have to get worse before they can get better; let's hope this is one of them.

In any case, tune in online by clicking here.

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Presentations from APPAM session on the challenges of entitlement growth

On Friday I was lucky enough to moderate a great session at the annual APPAM conference on Aging, Health and the Challenge of Entitlement Growth, featuring a presentation by CBO director Doug Elmendorf and comments by Gene Steuerle of the Urban Institute and Jim Klumpner, a long-time Capitol Hill economist who now teaches at Princeton and George Washington. While nothing can replace the actual presentations and the discussion that followed, which was of course moderated to perfection, I've posted the PowerPoints by Elmendorf, Steuerle and Klumpner. Thanks to CBO's Joyce Manchester for landing the big fish for the session.

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New paper: “Marital History, Race, and Social Security Spouse and Widow Benefit Eligibility in the United States”

SSRN turns up a new paper, "Marital History, Race, and Social Security Spouse and Widow Benefit Eligibility in the United States," by Christopher R. Tamborini, Howard Iams and Kevin Whitman, all of the Social Security Administration. Here's the abstract:

Large-scale changes in American family structures over the past decades have important implications for the retirement experiences of women. In this study, the authors use a restricted-use file of the Marital History Module of the U.S. Census Bureau's Survey of Income and Program Participation to investigate changes in the marital histories of women aged 40 to 69 years between 1990 and 2004, with a focus on outcomes relevant for Social Security spouse and widow benefit eligibility. Multinomial and binary logistic regression analyses show significant changes in women's marital patterns since 1990, with more substantial shifts occurring among recent cohorts. Due to downward trends in marriage, the authors find a modest decline in Social Security spouse and widow benefit eligibility in 2004, particularly among Black women born toward the end of the baby boom generation.

This made me think of two things: first, about the only way to get a truly good return from Social Security going forward is for one member of a household to receive spousal benefits; but second, changes in marital patterns by race could mean that spousal benefits become predominantly for white people. I prepared the chart below from Census data a few years ago and so the data isn't completely up to date, but the changes in black/white marriage rates since the 1950s are pretty extreme.

Back in 1950 blacks had roughly the same marriage rate as whites, but since then patterns have sharply diverged. In 2000 around 25 percent of whites over age 15 had never been married, which is only a few percentage points higher than the 1950 level. But around 44 percent of blacks had never been married in 2000, compared to only around 25 percent in 1950. As a result, fewer and fewer black retirees in the future will tend to be eligible for spousal benefits.

I'm not a huge fan of Social Security's spouse benefits, which seem to reward neither contributions nor need, and – as I'll point out in Friday's sure-to-be-fantastic AEI panel on Social Security's effect on work incentives – impose high marginal tax rates on women's labor. But these racial disparities might be another reason to give spousal benefits the heave-ho.

Read more!

Monday, November 9, 2009

New paper: Literacy and Financial Sophistication Among Older Americans

The National Bureau of Economic research has released a new paper, titled "Financial Literacy and Financial Sophistication Among Older Americans" by Annamaria Lusardi, Olivia S. Mitchell and Vilsa Curto. Here's the abstract:

This paper analyzes new data on financial literacy and financial sophistication from the 2008 Health and Retirement Study. We show that financial literacy is lacking among older individuals and for the first time explore additional questions on financial sophistication which proves even scarcer. For this sample of older respondents over the age of 55, we find that people lack even a rudimentary understanding of stock and bond prices, risk diversification, portfolio choice, and investment fees. In view of the fact that individuals are increasingly required to take on responsibility for their own retirement security, this lack of knowledge has serious implications.

Click here to access the NBER page (subscription required, but I believe a free version is available here.)

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Friday, November 6, 2009

Upcoming event: Social Security reform and labor force participation of seniors

On Friday November 13 at AEI we'll be holding a panel discussion titled "Keeping Granny on the Job" looking at the ways in which Social Security and Social Security reform can affect incentives for individuals to delay retirement.

I will present a paper co-authored with David Weaver and Gayle Reznik of SSA titled "Social Security and Marginal Returns to Work Near Retirement" that analyzes the increase in benefits that accompanies an additional year of work for near-retirees. (The short answer is 'not much', but the reasons are interesting.)

The second paper will be presented by Estelle James, a pension consultant and lead author of the World Bank's "Averting the Old Age Crisis." The paper, co-authored with Alejandra Cox Edwards of California State University, Long Beach, is titled "Do Individual Accounts Postpone Retirement: Evidence from Chile." It looks at the labor force participation of individuals under Chile's reformed pension plan, which is generally actuarially neutral with regard to additional work, relative to individuals who remained under the previous defined benefit program.

Jagadeesh Gokhale, senior fellow at the Cato Institute, will provide commentary. It should be an interesting event.

The panel is from 12 to 2 pm; lunch will be provided. Click here to register.

Read more!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Law Review Articles on Social Security

TaxProf Blog links to comments by Benjamin Templin on an earlier Cornell Law Review article by Neil Buchanan. Buchanan argues that we shouldn't take projections of Social Security's insolvency all too seriously; Templin replies that it makes sense to diversify the Social Security trust fund into stocks, even if we aren't yet sure if/when insolvency will take place. I commented on some of Buchanan's arguments here.

While I enjoyed both articles, it does strike me that there's a qualitative difference between law review articles on Social Security and those in policy or economic journals. There's more footnoting in law review articles, to be sure – I was shocked at how much extra citation work was requested when an article of mine was adapted for a law journal – but overall the presentation of evidence and argument strikes me as generally sloppier than what you'd find in a policy article. Maybe it's because lawyers see themselves as proponents of arguments with less obligation to present contrary evidence – I guess the opposition is supposed to supply that.

For instance, Buchanan notes "the overwhelmingly regressive effect of the Bush tax cuts." Being curious, I checked the cite: it simply references the 2001 and 2003 tax legislation, as if that's enough to establish overwhelming regressivity. Overall it just doesn't seem at the level you'd expect from a good economics or policy article, be the author from the left or the right.

Read more!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Fall newsletter from Michigan RRC

The University of Michigan's Retirement Research Center has released its fall newsletter. Here are links to the main stories – check 'em out, wonks (and others).

Top of Form

Director's Corner
The August Retirement Research Consortium (RRC) conference at the National Press Club was well-attended and provided a stimulating exchange of ideas on retirement benefits, disability, Medicare, and health insurance in general...

2009 RRC Conference
The Retirement Research Consortium (RRC) held its 11th annual conference August 10-11, 2009, focusing on "Issues for Retirement Security" at the National Press Club in Washington, DC...

RRC Conference Photo Gallery
Photos of the August RRC conference presenters and attendees...

How Older Americans Are Faring in the Recession
Older Americans have weathered the financial crisis relatively well, although many now expect to work longer than they did just a year ago...

Using Matched Survey and Administrative Data
The July 2009 Social Security Bulletin includes an article titled "Measurement Issues Associated with Using Survey Data Matched with Administrative Data from the Social Security Administration"...

IRS Site Helps Employers Manage Retirement Plan Options
The Internal Revenue Service has launched a site to help employers navigate through tax-favored retirement plan options...

Did You Know?
SSA paid benefits to about 55.8 million people in 2008...

2009 Working Papers Available
The 2009 MRRC Working Papers are now available on our website with Key Findings...

Social Security Holds Compassionate Allowances Hearing on Early-Onset Alzheimer's Disease
On Wednesday, July 29, 2009, Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, hosted the agency's fourth public hearing on Compassionate Allowances...

AARP Offers 'Doughnut Hole' Calculator
Each year, an estimated three million-plus older Americans fall into the "doughnut hole" -- a coverage gap in Medicare's prescription drug program...

MRRC's New Awards
The University of Michigan Retirement Research Center is pleased to announce its research awards for 2009-2010..

Bottom of Form

Read more!

Bad signs on entitlements

Over at AEI's Enterprise Blog

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Why is there so much waste in health care?

My short answer: too many incentives point in that direction. My longer answer is over at the Washington Examiner.

Read more!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

New paper: “Obama’s $250 Bonus Turns Social Security into Welfare”

The Heritage Foundation has released a new paper by Senior Fellow David John titled "Obama's $250 Bonus Turns Social Security into Welfare." Here's a taste:

Since Social Security recipients will get no cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) next year, President Obama wants to give each of them $250, a move supported in principle by the Republican House and Senate leadership. However, this move is not only unjustified; it makes a fundamental change to Social Security's structure and starts the process of converting the program from an earned benefit funded by a worker's own contributions to a welfare program.

While there will be no Social Security COLA, benefits will not decrease, despite the fact that the cost of living has gone down, thus increasing the amount that recipients can buy with their existing benefits. And the benefit would mean even larger spending in a year with record deficits. This new $250 payment would follow the earlier $250 payment that each Social Security recipient was paid through the stimulus package this year.

Check out the whole paper here.

Read more!

Savings and Retirement Forum Featuring Mark Warshawsky

On Monday, October 26th, 2009 the Savings and Retirement Forum will be held at The Brookings Institute: 1775 Massachusetts Ave, NW, Washington, DC 20036, at 8:30am. Mark J. Warshawsky, Ph.D., Director of Retirement Research Watson Wyatt Worldwide will be discussing "TDF Assett Allocations Risk vs Reward Tradeoffs"

The purpose of the Forum is to bring together academics, interested industry professionals, policy wonks, and government staffers who work on issues related to Social Security, pensions, savings, and general retirement issues for a monthly seminar and an annual half-day conference. Our website,  www.savingsandretirement.org   contains the dates of future meetings, links to relevant papers, and a few miscellaneous links that people doing research on these issues may find useful.

If you plan on coming please RSVP. Coffee, juice, and pastries will be served.

Read more!

NASI event: Fixing Social Security: Adequate Benefits, Adequate Financing

Security will be the next big issue in the political forefront. Be ready for the debate. This event will bring you up to speed with policy options from NASI's new report addressing adequacy and solvency of the U.S. Social Security system as well as poll findings on Americans' views on Social Security from the Benenson Strategy Group.

Copies of the reports will be available at the event.

Friday, October 30, 2009, 9:30 – 11:00 am

H-137 Capitol Building, E Capitol St, NE & 1st St, NE, Washington, DC

(Use the Independence Avenue Entrance)

Coffee and Snacks Provided

Panelists:

  • Janice M. Gregory, National Academy of Social Insurance
  • Kenneth Apfel, Former Commissioner of the Social Security Administration
  • Danny Franklin, Benenson Strategy Group
  • Virginia Reno, National Academy of Social Insurance

For more information and to register, please visit the event page on our website.

Register Now

National Academy of Social Insurance
1776 Massachusetts Avenue, NW • Suite 615 • Washington, DC 20036
Phone: (202) 452-8097 • Fax: (202) 452-8111
www.nasi.org

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Watch the Fiscal Wake-Up Tour Online

Concerned About America's Fiscal Future?
Watch a Live Webcast of the Fiscal Wake-Up Tour

The Fiscal Wake-Up Tour

The Fiscal Wake-Up Tour is rolling into Denver tomorrow, October 22, and you are welcome to watch as national experts discuss how the country can plan for a better economic future in the face of skyrocketing federal debt, an aging population and rapidly rising health care costs. The Wake-Up Tour, which is making its second stop in Denver, has been profiled in "60 Minutes" and the highly acclaimed documentary I.O.U.S.A.. David Walker, President and CEO of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation and the former U.S. Comptroller General, and Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition are set to speak — view other speakers and the agenda here.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

7:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m. MDT (9:00 p.m. - 11:00 p.m. EDT)

To join the live webcast tomorrow, visit http://www.concordcoalition.org.

  

Paying for America - A Student Summit on the Fiscal Health of America

Also featured in the live webcast is "Paying for America," a student summit presented by the University of Denver and The Concord Coalition as part of Concord's Fiscal Stewardship Project. The summit will give college students an opportunity to learn more about our nation's fiscal and economic difficulties. There will be panel discussions on the causes of these problems, how they could affect the students for the rest of their lives, and potential solutions.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

9:00 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. MDT (11:00 a.m. - 6:30 p.m. EDT)

To join the live webcast tomorrow, visit http://www.concordcoalition.org.

Read more!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

More on the “new Social Security notch”

I've been meaning to flesh out what I wrote last week in Forbes regarding a new "Social Security notch," in which individuals who turned 62 in 2009 are disadvantaged because – while they did not receive the over-large 5.8 percent COLA paid in January of this year – they will be subject to the "no COLA" years in 2010 and 2011. (See this new AEI paper for details on the COLA.)

This seems to be a good time to discuss it more, since SSA's Chief Actuary Steve Goss has circulated a memo on the Hill (available here) discussing the notch issue. (Steve's been very helpful to me in understanding a really tricky issue.) Since the memo is short I'll paste in the text and then give a quick response.

Social Security Benefits for Those Born in 1947

October 14, 2009

Andrew Biggs recently noted (Forbes Commentary, October 9, 2009) that retired workers who were born in 1947, and will reach age 62 in 2009, did not receive the 5.8 percent cost of living adjustment (COLA) awarded to Social Security beneficiaries eligible in December 2008. This is true. However, the workers born in 1947 did receive a 4.54 percent increase in their benefits through the wage-indexed benefit formula. And this increase will not be applied for retirees born before 1947. Therefore, the difference of about 1.2 percent is the amount by which benefits will be lower for life for a worker 62 in 2009, compared to a similar worker reaching 62 in 2008.

Is this a "notch", and is it unusual? Unfortunately, consumer prices and the average wage level do not rise smoothly over time. The increase in the CPI that caused the 5.8-percent COLA for December 2008 just happened to be bigger than the 4.54-percent increase in the average wage that retired workers age 62 in 2009 will receive instead of the COLA. So yes, this is a small "notch". Is this unusual? Actually, the COLA received by existing beneficiaries has been larger than the average wage increase applied for newly-eligible beneficiaries in 9 of the 30 prior years. And in 5 of these years the difference was greater than it is for 2009. So the 1.2-percent difference between benefits for those age 62 in 2008 and those age 62 in 2009 is neither very large nor very unusual.

Steve Goss, Chief Actuary

Social Security Administration

The first thing to remember is that I didn't argue that a notch existed because individuals in the 1947 cohort would receive lower dollar benefits than individuals in the 1946 cohort (although they may). I argued that unusual changes in prices over the course of 2008, interacting with the benefit formula, mean that individuals aged 61 in 2008 will receive lower benefits than they otherwise would have.

However, comparing two cohorts may nevertheless be useful so long as we bear in mind how Social Security intends benefits to change between cohorts. Social Security is a wage-indexed program, meaning that initial benefits rise from cohort-to-cohort along with average wages. This maintains a roughly constant replacement rate – the ratio of initial benefits to average pre-retirement earnings. (Social Security calculates pre-retirement earnings as the wage-indexed average of the highest 35 earning years.) As a result, we'd expect the 1947 cohort to receive higher benefits than the 1946 cohort, assuming they had higher average lifetime earnings. The fact that benefits are lower is notable.

Typically the replacement rate for a medium wage earner is around 40 percent; since the retirement age isn't currently increasing, let's assume the replacement rate would ordinarily be 40 percent for both the 1946 and 1947 birth cohorts. To make things simpler still, let's think of the numerator and the denominator of the replacement rate separately; in other words, imagine as if a person received a benefit of $40 (say, per day) and had pre-retirement earnings of $100 (again, per day).

OACT's memo points out that a typical person in the 1947 birth cohort received benefits 1.2 percent lower than a similar person in the 1946 birth cohort. So, using our simplified formula, that $40 daily benefit falls to $39.52. The memo also notes average wage growth of 4.54 percent in 2007, the year the 1947 birth cohort turned 60. This, in turn, increases the wage-indexed average of lifetime earnings by around 4.54 percent, since the Social Security benefit formula indexes past earnings to wage growth through age 60. So that $100 daily pre-retirement earnings for the 1946 birth cohort increases to around $104.54 for the 1947 cohort. Divide it out and you get a replacement rate of 37.8 percent.

Now calculate the percentage differences in replacement rates: 1 – 37.8%/40% = 5.5%. In dollar terms, benefits for the 1947 cohort are around 5.5 percent lower than needed to maintain the same replacement rate received by the 1946 cohort. This was the point I attempted to make in the Forbes article.

Now, there are many possible "notches" that can be created by the benefit formula and there are other things going on that might reduce the cut for the 1947 cohort a little. I'll get into them as I write on this more.

Read more!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Would the Baucus health plan “raid” Social Security?

I say yes, over at National Review Online.

Baucus Plan Would Raid Social Security   


 

The health legislation sponsored by Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus (D., Mont.) received an apparent boost when the Congressional Budget Office stated it would reduce the budget deficit by $81 billion over the next ten years. Obama administration budget director Peter Orszag crowed that the CBO scoring "demonstrates that we can expand coverage and improve quality while being fiscally responsible."

But the CBO analysis actually leads to a very different conclusion: that in a classic "raid" on Social Security, Baucus's ostensible fiscal responsibility depends on raising Social Security taxes today to paper over new health spending, ignoring that those increased Social Security taxes imply higher benefit costs down the road. This marks yet another gimmick in a health-reform debate defined by contrivances.

Orszag recently outlined the Obama administration's standards for health-care financing, saying that "health care reform must be deficit neutral over the next decade (as well as being deficit neutral in the tenth year alone)." Balancing revenues and costs over the next ten years purportedly addresses short-term deficit concerns, while balancing in the tenth year signals that a plan won't generate longer-term shortfalls. President Obama says he will not sign legislation that fails these tests.

Unlike other congressional proposals, the Baucus legislation appears to meet Obama's criteria. Baucus's plan purportedly would improve the budget balance by $81 billion from 2010 through 2019, and in 2019 itself would cut the deficit by $12 billion. It's no surprise the media treats Baucus's plan as if it belongs to Obama himself.

But the devil is in the details of the CBO memo. CBO breaks down the Baucus plan's budgetary effects into those occurring "on budget" (where the substantive policy changes are) and those "off budget" (meaning through the Social Security program). The Baucus plan's on-budget provisions would reduce the ten-year budget deficit by a tiny $1 billion and in 2019 would increase borrowing by $6 billion. In the real world, where entitlement costs rise faster than projected and Congress fails to implement promised cuts to Medicare spending, the Baucus plan will doubtless generate significant deficits.

Meanwhile, the Baucus plan's fiscal skullduggery takes place off-budget. Social Security revenues would increase by $80 billion over ten years, with an $18 billon increase in 2019 alone. Around 3 million individuals would leave employer-sponsored health coverage — which is exempt from taxes — to purchase insurance through a subsidized "exchange." Leaving employer-sponsored coverage would raise workers' taxable wages and thereby boost Social Security revenues. Millions more would trade a portion of their insurance benefits for higher wages to avoid a new tax on high-cost policies. By skimming the new Social Security taxes, the Baucus plan appears to significantly cut the deficit when, in truth, it balances only by the skin of its teeth.

This is perhaps the clearest example of "raiding the trust fund" on record. Democrats and Republicans have long believed that Social Security surpluses encourage the rest of the budget to run larger deficits, as borrowing from Social Security does not increase the measured budget deficit or the publicly-held national debt. But it's difficult to tell whether any particular legislation comprises a "raid," since the legislation might be passed even in the absence of Social Security surpluses.

In the case of the Baucus proposal, however, it is incontrovertible. The plan does not simply rely on existing Social Security surpluses but creates new ones to offset higher spending on health coverage. Without new Social Security revenues the plan would not balance and, if the president is to be believed, would face a presidential veto. It's that simple: no new Social Security taxes, no new spending.

A health debate that began with earnest claims that we could "bend the cost curve" to cut costs while increasing quality has devolved to a farce in which vastly increased government spending is papered over with implausible spending cuts and dubious bookkeeping.

— Andrew G. Biggs is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and former principal deputy commissioner of the Social Security Administration.


 

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