The other day, I tackled the vexing question of why so few Americans seem able to save enough. Today I’ll tackle the vexing corollary to this question: the assertion that if individuals can’t manage to save, the government must step in. Corporate pensions are dying, the argument goes, and private savings is laughably inadequate. Obviously, what we need is a much more generous Social Security system.
Dylan Matthews is the latest to make this argument: “Instead of trying to repair our broken privatized retirement system, why not give the public sector a shot? Why not expand Social Security so that it functions not just as a backstop but as the primary source of retirement income for ordinary Americans?”1
There are so many reasons “why not.” I’ll get to those. To start with, in fairness, Matthews is highlighting real problems with the current approach, as he argues for junking 401(k)s and corporate pensions.
After all, corporate pensions never covered everyone and turned out to be plagued by risks from market downturns and corporate failures (which tended to happen at the same time, leaving retirees without adequate savings to fund their retirement), and anyway, they’re dying. Matthews is far from the first to suggest that 401(k)s are a laughably inadequate substitute. They primarily benefit the more affluent Americans, and people who have them often (maybe usually) don’t save as much as they should, and 401(k) holders who retire when the market is down end up in deep trouble. The Social Security system, on the other hand, does not depend on the vicissitudes of the market; it relies on the government’s taxing power.
So why not eliminate pensions and 401(k)s and use Social Security to primarily fund everyone’s retirement? Look at how much it would cost, and where the money would come from.
We currently fund Social Security with a roughly 12 percent tax on all payrolls below a low-six-figure income. This tax has some nice features, from the government’s point of view. It ties the payout from the system to the amount that is paid in — yes, yes, you in the back, I know that Generation Xers who retire will, mostly, have paid more into the system than they’ll ever get out. I’m not saying that there is a one-to-one relationship between how much you “contribute” and how much you get back. But there is a relationship. This is thought in many quarters to enhance the program’s political support, by making it seem more like an insurance program than like welfare. And judging by the number of people who respond to any attempt to alter the benefit formulas with an indignant claim that they earned those benefits, that strategy is working.
This sort of payroll tax is also nice because it’s very steady. Other government revenue may be whipsawed by the vicissitudes of the economy, but payroll taxes on middle-class workers deliver about the same amount of revenue, year in and year out. Since that’s also how the benefits have to be paid, this is a nice bit of political economy.
That said, the outflow began to exceed the inflow several years back. The difference is modest, right now, but in 15 years, or thereabouts, when Social Security’s stock of special-purpose government bonds is exhausted, the deficit will be about 20 percent. Making up that deficit is already going to be expensive. Taxing all wage income, instead of just the first six figures, would get us about 75 percent of the way there, but would represent a 12 percent surtax on an awful lot of income. So much so that high earners in high-tax coastal states could be subjected to tax rates that have distorting economic effects on their output, as they decide it’s just not worth it to become a high-earning professional, or to put in those extra hours at the business.
It would also represent just about all of our remaining power to tax high incomes, devoted to a single program which is by no means our biggest fiscal problem. (That honor goes to the health-care entitlements: Medicare, Medicaid and Obamacare.) And of course, it would break the link between contributions and payouts, making Social Security simply another welfare program, with all the political problems that might stem from such a designation.
Alternatively, we could add another 5 percentage points to the existing payroll tax, without raising the cap on income subject to it. That would close the gap even 75 years out, but make a lot of workers very upset.
Okay, but what about the general fund? Our federal tax take remains well below the average in OECD countries; there’s surely room to raise the money from a variety of sources: corporate taxes, capital gains taxes and so forth. This is absolutely true.
However, let’s return to our argument in favor of abandoning corporate pensions and individual savings, which is that … they are too exposed to the market. Guess what’s also highly exposed to the market? That’s right, corporate income taxes and especially capital gains income, which goes off a cliff when the market falls. That’s why tax revenue tends to fall in recessions by much more than the decline in GDP; the payroll taxes are still chugging along, but corporate taxes, capital gains and the performance-driven incomes of high earners plummet.
In other words, if we peg our retirement income to something other than the payroll tax, we aren’t getting rid of the market risk; we’re just sticking it on the government, rather than the corporation or the individual.
Ah, you will say, but unlike the individuals and the corporations, the government can easily borrow during a recession. Just so — for now. But transferring the risk does not end it.