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Confronting The Entitlement Conundrum – Why Social Security May Be America’s Financial Weapon of Mass Destruction

April 18, 2010 67 comments

By Marquis Codjia

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Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor and long-time Chairman of conglomerate colossus Berkshire Hathaway, emphatically stated in 2002 that derivatives were “time bombs, both for the parties that deal in them and the economic system”. Given the deleterious role these securities had in the recent economic crisis, the “Oracle of Omaha” certainly evinces prescience in addition to his mythic business acumen.

Yet, what will likely choke off economic growth in the U.S., and by percolation, usher in global economic disequilibria, is managing mammoth entitlement benefits due to – or rather, promised to – millions of Americans over not only a year or two, but decades in their lifetimes, once they face thorny existential episodes such as illness, old age, disability, or loss of employment.

Of all government-steered social schemes, Social Security – the federal Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI) program – is the largest, claiming 20% of the national budget in 2009 or $678 billion, right after defense (23%). Other known schemes are unemployment benefits, Medicare and Medicaid.

A conceptual understanding of Social Security is helpful to gauge the dynamics at work in the entitlement debate. Simply explained, Social Security allows retirees to earn pension income from contributions made by current workers – via specific payroll taxes. Understandably, the system remains balanced if contributions made exceed benefits paid – as is currently the case.

However, current projections posit a funding gap starting in 2016 – in other words, expenses will outrun revenues, thus coercing the country into seeking external funds (from new loans or cuts in other programs). Worse, successive governments have borrowed and used up over the years cumulative surpluses held in the Social Security Trust Fund.

The funding deficit is caused by a panoply of factors, the most important of which are the increase in life expectancy, the lowering birth rate, and aging baby-boomers (resulting in fewer workers paying for more retirees).

What’s flummoxing is that the current political elite – like their forerunners in both parties – seem to be voluntarily embroiled in partisan ramblings, and gladly enjoying esoteric rhetoric that renders the populace obtuse, and discredits the urgency and criticality of the social security debate. Consequently, our most intellectually dynamic citizens do not give this topic the socio-economic import it deserves.

The ensuing status quo threatens to turn a tractable conundrum into a veritable crisis – a “time bomb” into a “financial weapon of mass destruction” against America’s social fabric. Former and current Fed chairmen, fortunately, fathom the essence of the matter; thus, Alan Greenspan advocates a mix of measures to bring entitlement programs under control and ensure long-term economic prosperity, while Ben Bernanke warns that “Americans may have to accept higher taxes or changes in entitlements… to avoid staggering budget deficits.”

Several elements form the disquieting body of thoughts that justifies the hyperbolic, or apocalyptic, formulation used in this analysis.

First, the absence of a real, serious forum to gauge the merits of viewpoints engaged in the Social Security overhaul disputation. As noted earlier, this status quo seems to be furthered, at the very least, by consecutive administrations for the past three decades, because either the issue is thorny and politically unpalatable to constituents or elected officials deem it of lower priority. In sum, they dare not venture topics that may derail re-election prospects.

To fill the rhetorical void, snippets of partisan parlance are interjected here and there, mainly to polarize citizens and eschew a thorough debate. One such snippet is the notion that Social Security should be privatized and entrusted with professional portfolio managers because the government should let free-market decide and any form of public management of the behemoth fund is a type of communist intervention intolerable in capitalist America. In this article, the pros and cons of this argument cannot be evaluated with granularity but factual observations reveal the latter’s practical limits. It’s easy to wonder what financial devastation the country would have suffered had the Fund been invested in the stock market before the recent mini-crash. It’s also easy to observe how effective a manager the government can be by analyzing operational results at the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS), the Army Medical Department, Medicare, and Medicaid, all of which remain sound programs.

Second, the much needed overhaul of the IRS and the country’s tax collection scheme is taking longer to occur, and this delay, coupled to the ongoing government waste at the federal, state, and legislative levels, annihilates any serious endeavour to cut budget deficits.

Next, the systemic spectre of a vicious cycle looms. If the ratio of retirees to active workers grows excessively, there will be fewer contributions to pay pension benefits, and such a reduced purchasing power will yield lower private consumption. Companies will then be forced to cut their workforce if sales are lethargic, and the smaller remaining workforce will contribute even less to the Social Security Fund, and so forth.

Fourth, the Fed – as the lender of last resort – can lend to the U.S. Treasury should public finances deteriorate but it can’t sustainably keep printing money via its quantitative easing tactic lest the dollar tumble on defiance from capital markets and heightened inflation.

Fifth, the country’s incapacity to lower its trade deficits will likely not be solved in the near future because the American industrial complex is currently unable or disinclined to produce superior goods affordably, and opening up U.S. markets to foreign suppliers serve as geostrategic levers in international discussions.

In the end, entitlement specialists and those well-versed in the Social Security issue ask the following: why aren’t authorities implementing the Social Security Trust Fund’s proposal (2009 Report) to marginally raise the tax rate or the salary cap on payroll tax in order to fix the funding gap? For example, raising the payroll tax rate to 14.4% in 2009 (from 12.4%) or cutting benefits by 13.3% would fix the program’s gap indefinitely, while these amounts increase to ca.16% and 24% if no changes are made until 2037.

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Obamanomics vs. Reaganomics – Which Can Save the Economy?

April 2, 2010 70 comments

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By Marquis Codjia

President Reagan in the Oval Office delivering his Tax Reduction televised address in July 1981 (Photo courtesy of the Reagan Library, Official government record)

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan asserted emphatically that “government is not a solution to our problem,” but rather, “government is the problem.” Nowadays, many specialists revisit the soundness of such avowal in light of the mammoth government-engineered bailouts that questionably helped safeguard the global economic fabric.

Those experts are not alone. The current White House chief denizen, who uttered openly during the 2008 presidential campaign his admiration for Reagan’s political persona – much to the ire of some diehard Democrats – , has so far spearheaded policies overmuch adversative to Reaganomics.

Many Americans remember President Reagan for his debonair, articulate and Hollywoodian public posture; yet, the former leader had developed a sophistication in economic analysis that served him throughout the recession that hallmarked his presidency.

Faced with a dysfunctional economy at the onset of his mandate, President Reagan ingrained his policies in supply-side economics, advocating a quartet of measures that revolutionized America’s social dynamics and reignited its growth machine.

First, he proposed vast tax cuts on labor and capital to incentivize corporations and entrepreneurs to invest and innovate, whereas citizens, freshly cash awash due to increased savings, were heartened to spend. Next, deregulation in targeted economic sectors aimed at eschewing unnecessary costs to investors. Third, he steered a package of major budget cuts approximating – from 1981 onwards – a 5% reduction in government expenses (circa $150 billion today). Fourth, Reagan sought to tighten monetary policy to combat inflation.

The late president’s plan delivered mixed results.

Inflation experienced a spectacular fourfold decrease from 1980 to 1983 (13.2% vs. 3.2%), federal receipts grew higher than outlays (at an average rate of 8.2% vs. 7.1%), and the 16 million new jobs created helped shrink unemployment by 3 points (to 7.5% from a 1982 peak of 10.8%). Other accolades from the Cato Institute, a libertarian think thank, include a real median family income rise of $4,000 and a higher productivity.

This said, Reaganomics and its no holds-barred canons structurally devastated parts of America’s socio-economic fabric: fiscal cuts coupled with a surge in Cold War military spending created a yawning abyss in the nation’s finances (e.g.: large budget deficits, trade deficit expansion). In addition, some culpability can be attributed to the Republican leader vis-à-vis the 1987 stock market crash and the Savings and Loans crisis, merely because, at a minimum, both pandemonia occurred under his watch. In order to cover budget shortages, the administration then embarked on a borrowing spree that catapulted the national debt to $3 trillion from $700 billion, part of which (circa $125 billion) subsidized an S&L industry crippled by the failure of 747 thrifts.

The portmanteau Obamanomics – used to depict economic policies espoused by current U.S. President Barack Obama – is a new concept, which understandably needs more time to develop before a studious analysis can be conducted on its merits.

Clearly, the current administration – also faced with a chaotic economy – has so far adopted, or is envisaging, policies diametrically opposed to Reagan’s precepts: higher taxes, increased regulation, more spending, and a loose monetary policy.

President Obama’s plan to save banks was the correct initiative for two reasons: decrepitude in capital markets would have metastasized into a more costly, general chaos, and the fact that banks are now relatively stable attests to the program’s effectiveness, notwithstanding the remaining work to be accomplished in the bank bailout’s scheme.

Even if the current economic recovery plan will take a while to reach its desired goals, preliminary results so far are altogether mixed: banks are loath to lend, the mortgage sector is still lethargic, the lackluster private consumption is hampering corporate investments and the global economic productivity. The economy is gradually adding thousands of jobs but the unemployment rate still stands at 9.7%.

So, which of Reaganomics or Obamanomics can save the economy today?

The answer is none.

No economy policy ingrained in political partisanship can save the economy; to be efficient, authorities must use a combination of ideologies, extirpating the best areas of each and amalgamating them into a coherent plan deep-rooted in sound economics.

First, the government must balance its budget by reining in bureaucratic waste at the federal and state levels, seeking higher efficiency in its social programs and maintaining a tax base able to provide sufficient inflows. The recent nomination of Jeffrey Zients as U.S. Chief Performance Officer is a welcome decision.

Second, the government and the legislative branch must agree to suppress or significantly reduce pork-barrel spending; even if some of the projects subsidized are valid, the lack of transparency and the fact that too much power lies in the hands of one lawmaker are troubling. Citizens Against Government Waste, a private, nonpartisan watchdog, estimated in its latest report that 2009 pork-barrel spending amounted to $19.6 billion, up from $17.2 billion the previous year.

Third, the government must invest in education, sciences, health, and recreation services to assure a productive labor force and educated populace. Every citizen appreciates a good local school system, an efficient police, and functional social services. Fourth, a gradual and well-balanced regulatory framework for critical sectors is needed to level the playing field for all economic agents and eschew the negative effects of systemic risks.

Finally, the tax code should be more efficient and easier to understand so more revenues are collected. Currently, it is estimated that it costs the IRS between 25 and 30 cents for every tax dollar collected, without counting the billions spent by citizens in tax compliance and planning. We have a simplified property tax code in our cities; why can’t we engineer a similar scheme at the federal level?