social security

The Demographics of Social Security

I have a new article up in The Family in America on one crucial element of the looming fiscal crisis — Social Security: 

The Social Security program has been the subject of a nearly continual political and policy debate for the better part of fifteen years—although no significant changes to the program have been enacted since 1983. It is now almost forgotten that President Bill Clinton took initial steps toward a Social Security overhaul in the late 1990s, engaging in a series of nationwide "open forums" on the future of the program before abandoning the effort in favor of the more rhetorical—and politically safe—"Save Social Security First!" slogan. While notionally aimed at "saving" the Social Security surpluses, in the end, the Clinton Social Security effort meant little more than "Don't Cut Taxes!"

In 2005, President George W. Bush, having campaigned on Social Security reform in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, attempted to put the issue on the national agenda. His proposal to introduce voluntary personal accounts set off a heated debate among reformers and program advocates, with scores of experts queuing up to advocate a politically diverse range of recommendations, with a number of these recommendations taking form as competing bills before Congress. Despite the intense level of activity, the president was never able to get traction for his ideas, as there was little momentum or consensus for reform.

With so much discussion and political debate in recent years, one might think that every possible diagnosis of and remedy for Social Security's long-term financial challenges has been offered and debated. Yet there has been very little mention of the central issue in financing Social Security—namely, the long-term fertility rate. Indeed, if the U.S. fertility rate were expected to return to the levels seen in the 1950s and through the mid-1960s, the subject of Social Security reform would likely never come up at all. With higher birthrates, there would be no financing crisis, as the projected workforce in the decades ahead could support the growing numbers of elderly Americans. With no financing shortfall, politicians would gladly leave the program alone.

Unfortunately, fertility is not projected to rise to the levels seen in earlier eras, and, consequently, Social Security does indeed face a substantial long-term financial shortfall. As Social Security again takes center stage in the national debate, policymakers need to take time to understand the critical relationship between fertility and Social Security financing, as well as the potential implications of different reform options for indirectly improving or worsening the American fertility problem over time.

Read the full article here.

posted by James C. Capretta | 8:22 pm
Tags: Social Security, fertility rate
File As: Health Care

The House Bill: A $10 Trillion Unfunded Liability

Amid all the flurry of news in the hectic last days before the House recessed for the August break, something important went largely unnoticed — a development that should be the knockout blow to the kind of sweeping health-care bill the Obama administration is pushing, at least as it has been cobbled together in the House.

In a July 26 letter to the Ranking Republicans on four key committees (Ways and Means, Energy and Commerce, Education and Labor, and Budget), the Director of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), Doug Elmendorf, made it clearer than he ever had before that the bill, in its original July 14 form, would dramatically widen the already large gap between long-term government revenue and spending. Here’s the key paragraph:

Looking ahead to the decade beyond 2019, CBO tries to evaluate the rate at which the budgetary impact of each of those broad categories would be likely to change over time. The net cost of the coverage provisions would be growing at a rate of more than 8 percent per year in nominal terms between 2017 and 2019; we would anticipate a similar trend in the subsequent decade. The reductions in direct spending would also be larger in the second decade than in the first, and they would represent an increasing share of spending on Medicare over that period; however, they would be much smaller at the end of the 10-year budget window than the cost of the coverage provisions, so they would not be likely to keep pace in dollar terms with the rising cost of the coverage expansion. Revenue from the surcharge on high-income individuals would be growing at about 5 percent per year in nominal terms between 2017 and 2019; that component would continue to grow at a slower rate than the cost of the coverage expansion in the following decade. In sum, relative to current law, the proposal would probably generate substantial increases in federal budget deficits during the decade beyond the current 10-year budget window.

In other words, CBO expects the spending in the bill would grow at a rate of least 8 percent annually into the indefinite future, while the revenue to pay for it will only grow at about 5 per cent per year. Hence the “substantial increases” in federal budget deficits beyond 2019.

Although CBO declined to specify any actual deficit numbers beyond 2019, they can be easily calculated, in rough terms, from the information provided in Elmendorf’s letter.

By 2030, if the spending associated with the coverage provisions rises 8 percent per year after 2019 and the revenue rises by 5 percent, the bill would add more than $200 billion per year to currently projected budget deficits. By 2048, the annual deficit increase would top $1 trillion — and only go up from there.

Of course, the federal government is already in a deep hole due to the projected rapid cost increases in Social Security and Medicare. The trustees for those programs reported earlier this year (see here and here) that Social Security’s seventy-five year unfunded liability stands at $5 trillion, while Medicare’s has reached at an astounding $36 trillion.

It is possible to do a similar “unfunded liability” calculation for the new entitlement spending in the House bill. Assuming a discount rate of 5.7 percent per year, the bill would add more than $10 trillion over seventy-five years in new unfunded government obligations.

Of course, some amendments were adopted to assuage the Blue Dogs in the Energy and Commerce Committee. The fate of those amendments is uncertain at best, however, as Speaker Pelosi has indicated the contents of the yet-to-be-written merged bill from the three committees will be decided later (to attract votes of course). But even if the Blue Dog amendments survive, they would do very little to change the basic direction of the bill’s long-term costs.

CBO recently projected that the federal budget deficit is already on track to reach nearly 15 percent of GDP in 2035, well above the historical average of about 2 to 2.5 percent. The last thing Congress should be doing is making the problem worse with new runaway costs. Indeed, the president himself has said he won’t accept a bill that makes our long-term budget problem worse. How he squares that with full support for the emerging House bill is anybody’s guess.

posted by James C. Capretta | 5:44 pm
Tags: House bill, projected costs, Doug Elmendorf, CBO, spending, deficit, Medicare, social security, Blue Dogs, Nancy Pelosi
File As: Health Care