President Obama’s Middle-Class Tax Message in the State of the Union

President Obama’s tax proposals for the middle class were a key element of his State of the Union address. But they represent only relatively modest efforts to create subsidies through the tax code rather than through other departments of government. Looked at broadly, many only tinker around the edges of tax policy and count on an overloaded and troubled agency, the IRS, to administer them.

Will $320 billion of tax increases finance very much?

The President proposes $320 billion in tax increases on the wealthy. It sounds like a lot. But how much would it finance in expenditures and additional tax breaks, assuming it is all spent rather than used to reduce the deficit?   Well, there are approximately 320 million Americans, so the proposal would garner about $1,000 per person. But, then again, the $320 billion would be raised over ten years, so that’s about $100 per person per year that could be financed.

Now compare the $100 per year with what we already spend. Add together federal, state, and local spending plus tax subsidies (and the President would “spend” a good deal of his additional revenue on new tax subsidies), and the figure comes out to more than $20,000 per person.  And that spending is scheduled to rise by an average of several thousand dollars per year over the same ten year period, due more to (hoped for) economic growth than anything else.

None of these observations speaks for or against the proposals. I like some of them, don’t like others. But if you want to have a significant impact on the budget and on the well-being of citizens, concentrate on where the money is.

Should we throw even more subsidies into the tax code?

Like almost all his recent predecessors, the President talks in his State of the Union address about tax simplification, but in almost the same breath he proposes a range of new tax subsidies. It’s an old story. Tax cuts show up as “smaller” government to those who simply count up net government revenue as a measure of government size. According to that theory, we could achieve dramatically limited government or no government at all if we put all expenditures into the tax code, thereby collecting negative taxes on people, at least as long as we run deficits.

Huge jurisdictional problems also lead to more and more being put into the tax code. Discretionary spending is capped; tax subsidies are not. Congressional tax committees can use increased revenues to pay for increased tax subsidies, but they do not have the jurisdictional authority to spend additional tax revenues on higher levels of spending, or, on the flip side, to reduce many items of direct spending to pay for lower tax rates.

Now I’m not suggesting that a new tax subsidy is necessarily more complex than a new expenditure. But it does raise the issue of whether the IRS is the right agency to administer the subsidy. All of this is coming at a time when the IRS has lost significant resources, the Taxpayer Advocate suggests we should be ready for a horrible filing season in which taxpayers will have difficulty getting ahold of someone in IRS to advise them, and many in the IRS remain disheartened and have been pushed into a bunker mentality that fears bad publicity more than bad administration.

This column originally appeared on TaxVox.


America’s Can-Do New Year’s Resolution

How about a national new year’s resolution for 2015? Here’s my suggestion: let’s resolve to restore our can-do spirit, sense of destiny, and vision of frontiers as challenges rather than barriers. Let’s remember that fear and pessimism multiply the negative impact of bad events, whereas optimism reinforces positive outcomes. Think of Louis Howe, who added “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first inaugural address, or Henry David Thoreau, who wrote that “nothing is so much to be feared as fear.”

Now, seven years after the start of the Great Recession, it’s a good time to reflect on just how lucky we are as a nation and on the vast ocean of possibilities that lie before us. If we don’t see those possibilities, we’ve simply turned our back to them—and forgotten how America became America in the first place. In Dead Men Ruling, I attack viciously both the notion that we live in a time of austerity and the politics that sells pessimism as a way of clutching onto our piece of the national pie.

No one knows the future, of course. But the evidence points strongly toward the potential of a people whose can-do spirit helped it establish the first and now longest-lasting modern democracy, conquer frontiers of land and space alike, enhance freedom at home and abroad, and lead in the industrial, technological, and information revolutions.

Though income tracks only some of our general gains in well-being, we’re hardly poor. Our GDP per household is about $145,000, and real income per person is more than 75 percent higher than when Ronald Reagan was first elected president. We are richer than before the Great Recession. And, even projections of slower growth imply that average household income will rise by around $24,000 within roughly a decade.

We have available goods and services of which kings and queens of old could not have dreamt: not just the very visible gains in ways of communicating and entertaining ourselves, but fresh fruit and vegetables year round, life expectancies and health care far beyond those of our parents and grandparents, and continually improving automobiles, shelter, clothing, travel options, plumbing, and building architecture.  And much more to come.

Of course, it’s part of our human condition to focus on the next problems, the ones we haven’t solved. Such striving provides the very basis for continued growth. Your hard labors, your dedication and sacrifices, and your everyday efforts to care for older and younger living generations may not make news. But they do make the world go around.

Our mistake comes from paying attention to those in politics, the media, or our own community who turn our mutual problems into excuses for personal attacks or a sense of helplessness rather than calls for further joint and individual efforts. We know the temptations: for the media, if it bleeds, it leads; for the politician, if it smells, it sells; for the business, if it deceives, it succeeds. But there’s no reason that either they or we need fall prey to such tricks.

If some current debates aren’t as enlightened as they might be, we can still sense progress from where they might have been a generation ago. We don’t debate whether cops should discriminate against different groups—an issue my brother-in-law confronted while working for the FBI in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957—but instead how to pay proper respect to each person, civilian and cop alike. We don’t debate whether people should have enough food to eat but whether graduate students should collect food stamps. We don’t debate whether to help the disabled but how to extend efforts toward the mentally ill, the autistic, and those who are too old to be treated in school settings. We don’t debate whether to protect the old but whether our old age programs emphasize too much middle-age retirement rather than the needs of the old. When we engage these debates, whether on the same or different sides, most of us concentrate on how to do better, how much government efforts help or hinder progress, and how to shift our resources toward more effective or productive efforts.

In the end, the case for progress rests not on some wild-eyed dream but on the simple notion that we stand on the backs of those who went before us. Available knowledge expands. It doesn’t recede—even if at times we let our minds recede through laziness, prejudice, and fear of the new, or we reinforce political institutions that protect their power or status by blocking advancement.

That’s where we Americans are especially lucky. The can-do spirit, the entrepreneurial urge, and the freedom to try new things have been among the greatest strengths of our people, who continually find new paths forward and ever-broader vistas.

So my optimism is easy to explain: I trust in you. Happy New Year.


An April 15 Deadline for Charitable Giving Would Be a Boon to Nonprofits

Many years ago, I began to suggest that taxpayers should have the opportunity to give to charity all the way until April 15 and then take a deduction against their previous year’s taxable income.

Now the idea is getting attention from lawmakers—but it needs the support of charities to make possible the increase in charitable giving it would foster.

In previous years, Congress approved a post-December adjustment to stimulate certain kinds of behavior: Taxpayers who add to individual retirement accounts have been offered a similar option since the mid-1970s, and Congress has occasionally extended the charitable-giving deadline to April 15 for disaster relief, as in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

A great deal of evidence suggests that simply changing the charitable-deduction deadline could increase giving significantly.

Nonprofits like the Jewish Federations of North America support the option, but some other charities have expressed concern about whether it would harm end-of-year appeals.

I would suggest that these charities avoid thinking of charitable giving as a fixed amount—what I call the “clump of charity” thesis.

All the research, plus some real-life fundraising experience, suggests that the April 15 option would lead to an overall increase in the sums Americans give annually.

Just for a minute, however, let’s suppose that the clump-of-charity thesis is right and that the amount of charitable giving nationwide is the same every year. If that’s the case, then it’s unwise to add this new wrinkle to the tax system. But consider the corollaries: If giving is immune to incentives or circumstances, then both the charitable deduction and fundraising more broadly are superfluous, if not wasteful.

I doubt that most fundraisers believe the clump-of-charity thesis, so the real question is whether an April option would increase giving. Here are six pieces of evidence suggesting it would be a wise policy:

Taxpayers tend to underestimate the incentive to give. Several scholarly papers, including by researchers associated with the Federal Reserve Board and the National Bureau of Economic Research, have examined how well taxpayers understand and respond to tax provisions.

It turns out that many taxpayers, particularly middle-class ones, possess only a limited idea of their marginal tax rate—that is, the rate of subsidy they would get for additional charitable gifts if they itemized. They tend to equate the marginal rate with the average rate of tax they pay on all income, not recognizing that tax law looks differently at the first dollar and the average dollar earned than at the last one.

For example, a taxpayer who earns $50,000 might owe $5,000, or 10 percent of income on average. So she might imagine at year’s end, without formally doing her taxes, that donating $100 more before April 15 would save her that average percentage, or just $10 in taxes. But if she prepared her taxes under an April 15 option, she would get a formal notice from her tax software or tax preparer telling her such a gift would save her $25 and cost just $75 out of pocket.

If people saw this information laid out clearly with a first draft of their tax return, they would quickly grasp the real benefits of an increase in giving.

Few people know their tax and income circumstances until they get that information in January and beyond. Many Americans reconcile their books when preparing their tax returns. At this time, they see whether they’ve met goals and what options they’ve passed up but should have considered. That’s why the April 15 proposal should appeal to organizations that are working to attract gifts of all sizes, not just those that get more modest contributions from the broad middle class.

Advertising works best when it is closely timed to the activity you want to promote. Marketers understand this: That is why grocery stores send flyers out near weekend shopping time, not months in advance.

There is absolutely no time like tax time, not even the end of the year, when people are so tuned into taxation after toting up their annual income and charitable gifts. What better time to promote an opportunity to them?

Charities would get tons of free marketing from influential players. Hundreds of thousands of tax preparers and tax-software designers would promote the idea of charitable giving to their clients. Tax software already walks people through ways to reduce their taxes, and my discussions with people who deal with the interaction between technology and fundraising indicate that people preparing their tax returns could easily be encouraged to make a gift with just a few clicks of a mouse while filling out their returns.

Many trained tax preparers, in turn, would give special attention to the April 15 option for reducing taxes. They want to make clients happy, and they, too, want to improve their communities and the nation.

The April 15 option would be an even better deal for the federal treasury than the basic charitable deduction.

While the charitable deduction on average increases giving by 50 cents to $1 or a bit more for every dollar of revenue lost to the government, the April 15 option would provide $3 to $5 on average to charity for every dollar of revenue loss.

Why? Much of the existing deduction subsidizes giving that would occur anyway, but the additional cost with the April 15 idea applies only to added giving. For a taxpayer in a 25-percent marginal tax bracket, for instance, each additional $100 of giving costs the Treasury just $25.

People don’t like paying taxes. Alex Rees-Jones, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, has found that taxpayers seek to minimize the amount they owe when they file.

The April 15 option would allow them to pay less to Uncle Sam when they haven’t withheld enough money over the year, and it would be a good way to use some of their refund when they have. They could also avoid penalties at times by simply giving more to charity.

To be sure, people who worry about the April 15 idea do have a legitimate concern: While giving over all would almost assuredly go up, some people would simply change when they give.

Still, while some people might delay one year’s end-of-year giving until the first months of the following year, others might accelerate each year’s end-of-year giving to the beginning of the same year.

This adjustment, I believe, is a small price to pay for the gain to charities over all. And charities can maximize the benefits by promoting giving both at the emotional time when people are thinking about helping others during the holidays and then again at tax time when people are focusing on taxes and how tax incentives help them stretch their own finances to aid those in need.

The debate over the April 15 option reminds me of when I served as a cofounder of a community foundation in Alexandria, Va. Initially, a few charities expressed anxiety about competition, but once they saw how the foundation’s activities raised money for them and helped expand their management capacity, any fear turned to broad-based support.

The April 15 option deserves the full advocacy of all nonprofits. It would be among the most cost-efficient ways possible to increase giving.

At a time when we depend so heavily on nonprofits, that’s exactly what we need.

This post originally appeared in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.


Pushing on Air in a Balloon: Health Cost Growth and $1,000 Pills

Numerous recent articles have tried to address whether health cost growth is slowing more permanently. Though I have entered that debate at times , I must admit that it’s a complex question for which there is no definite answer. Policymakers and private practitioners have improved some of the ways that health care is priced and delivered, and more improvements are no doubt forthcoming. But the stories of Gilead and its $1,000-a-pill Hepatitis C drug make one point entirely clear: improving health care costs selectively is like making indentations in a full balloon. Pushing down the air in one place merely makes it pop out somewhere else.

Consider how the government has designed health insurance, particularly Medicare. Essentially, it has delegated its constitutional powers of appropriation to private individuals and companies like Gilead. Congress doesn’t vote to spend more on hepatitis cures. It lets Gilead, along with patients and doctors, make that decision and then shift the costs back to other citizens. As long as Congress refuses to exercise its appropriations responsibility, every cost-saving measure could be nullified by a new Gilead.

The original sin of health insurance, public or private, has been to allow patients to demand and providers to supply more health care while pushing charges onto others. In the extreme, at a zero price to the patient per service received and a potentially unlimited supply of services for which more compensation and profits can be made, it is not surprising that health costs in this country have grown from about 5 percent of GDP in 1960 to around 17 percent today.

Many efforts aim to limit some of our bites of the forbidden apple but not others: fixed payments to accountable care organizations, health maintenance organizations, and preferred provider organizations; bundling of payments; limits on payments for re-admitted patients to hospitals; and so forth. Yet, yet… without absolution from the original sin.

Hospitals and doctors adjust in newer ways not restricted by selective limits. They add extra treatments and service providers. The ability to add on services is often voiced as the problem with fee-for-service medicine, where the quantity of services increases even for those whose prices are regulated or constrained. But there’s more to it than that; adding services is only one way that the air pops out somewhere else. In an industry with significant technological breakthroughs—and make no mistake, Gilead’s hepatitis drug is a major breakthrough—costs can be increased simply by charging a lot more for the new item or shifting services quickly toward areas of high profitability or compensation.

Even where a health improvement might be well worth the cost in one sense, it might still be unreasonable in another. In a typical open-market industry, we might be willing to pay a lot more for any particular good or service than we do, but competition among suppliers helps reduce costs. With the current design of health insurance, competition is fairly limited. My own brief examination of growth industries in the United States shows health is the one sector where above-average growth in the quantity of goods and services sold was accompanied by above-average growth in prices. Think of electronics, or telephones, or other advanced industries as examples of how increasing quantity usually pairs with decreasing prices.

The hepatitis C drug debate often confuses this value proposition in another way. Let’s accept that the $84,000 treatment with Sovaldi—or the newer, perhaps only $63,000 Hepatitis-C treatment with Harvoni (Gilead’s latest offering)—improves patient well-being and even life spans substantially. If the improvements make retirement years happier and longer, rather than being matched by greater productivity and more years of work, then Gilead and its beneficiaries still shift costs onto society, and health costs rise as a share of GDP.

Now, you might ask, what constrains the costs of inventions in non-health industries during those initial years when patents provide a potential monopoly? You and I do. If the cost is too high, many of us simply don’t buy the good or service. The company keeps prices lower to expand market share before competitors come along when the patent runs out. If the government says it will buy the new good or service for us, the limited-demand constraint that we otherwise provide is removed. Government simply cannot promise both that an inventor can charge what he wants for an invention and that the government will buy it for anyone who wants or needs it.

Thus, regardless of the rate at which health costs rise, it will remain unreasonable as long as the original sin of health insurance remains. Without true budget constraints, improvements will be limited because incentives are limited. With government programs, my own view is that every health care subsidy must be put into a budget, with limits raised over time by Congress but in a fair competition with other societal demands, be they education, defense, or currently unsubsidized forms of preventive health care.

Let Democrats use price controls. Let Republicans use vouchers. Let both work on other efficiency improvements that are more likely to be adopted when budgets are constrained. There is no one-time, permanent solution to how best to regulate this rapidly changing industry. With a constrained budget for each government program, however, Gilead would be unable to charge $1,000 a pill, or other health care providers would face a more rapidly declining price for their services, or both.


Is it Time to Make Kids a Higher Budget Priority?

When it comes to how we spend our money, we seldom dwell on what we’re not buying. But money spent in one place cannot be spent in another. With the release of Kids’ Share 2014, the eighth in an annual series, my fellow Urban Institute researchers and I assess what share of the federal budget goes for kids and what shares go to other priorities. The word “share” is chosen deliberately: it forces us to recognize that a larger piece of the pie for someone must mean a smaller piece for someone else.

One major conclusion: despite several years of modest economic recovery and some budgetary successes for kids in previous decades, our elected officials—Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals alike—have decided that kids must take it on the chin for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, the rest of us will continue to gain, mainly when we hit older ages. Our retirement and health benefits will continue to grow, and we will continue to keep our taxes too low to pay for these benefits and the rest of government, no matter how well the economy is doing. Not that we or our elected officials would ever say this directly: you’ll be lucky to hear any discussion of these choices in any 2014 campaign.

No one votes formally to cut the kids’ share of the pie. They simply allow other shares to increase, driven by laws set in motion years and decades ago. Our priorities mainly revolve around ever more money for health, retirement, and tax subsidies, along with taxes so low that our children also get left with those bills and the higher interest costs that accompany them.

Let’s be clear: this scheduled hit on the kids’ budget does not derive from living in an age of austerity, an idea vying for first place on the list of really stupid interpretations of our current circumstances. We live in an age of extraordinary opportunity, not austerity. Despite the Great Recession, our total GDP per household (over $140,000) has never been higher. Ditto for measures of our national wealth, though those are perhaps inflated by current monetary policy. And there’s more to come. Within a little over a decade, despite lower economic growth, the budget offices project an increase in GDP per household of another $25,000 or so and increases in total government spending and tax subsidies of more than $10,000 per household.

And the kids? Well, they get close to none of it. Actually, less than none if you count out their very modest sharing in the large growth in health care spending.

It doesn’t have to be that way. For over twenty years, a consensus of sorts has developed that early educational and similar interventions, if done well, are a solid investment in our future. Yet progress here has been extremely slow. Child advocates are told that even $20 billion a year is out of reach in our “time of austerity.” But $20 billion is only about 1/40th of the expected growth in annual spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid (excluding the children’s share) by 2024. There’s also a growing consensus on creating a budget more oriented toward mobility and opportunity, but it’s still mainly rhetoric.

The simple question I’d like to ask is whether the numbers below, taken from Kids Share 2014, represent the direction that you want the government to take with the total increase in spending scheduled by 2024, a large share of which is made possible by economic growth. You can up that total or reduce it, depending upon your view of the optimal size of government. But either way, consider how you would assign the shares over the next 10 years or so. My guess is that almost none of you would allocate them this way.

Share of Projected Growth in Federal Outlays from 2013 to 2024 Going to Children and Other Major Budget Items (billions of 2013 dollars, except where noted)

Major budget items

2013 2024 Growth, 2013–2024 Share of growth
Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid 1,472 2,259 +787 58%
Interest on the debt 221 714 +493 36%
Children 351 377 +26 2%
Defense 633 590 -43 -3%
All other outlays 777 881 +104 8%
Total federal outlays 3,455 4,821 +1,366 100%

Federal Expenditures on Children as a Share of GDP, by Category, 2013 and 2024

ks2014


If I Care About Economic Mobility, Should I Vote for MIT or… MIT?

I’m pleased that politicians from both sides of the aisle are focusing on economic mobility. In life, the deck gets stacked fairly early and connections play a big role. In an open and democratic society like the United States, it’s not so much that a person can’t get a hit; it’s that one person steps up to the plate with three balls and no strikes, and the next with no balls and two strikes. The odds that the second person ends up with a higher batting average than the first after 10 times at bat is just about nil.

One reminder of how connections and early stacking of the deck reinforce each other came in the mail a few days ago: a chance to cast my vote for the officers of the American Economic Association (AEA). I’m supposed to select five people from nine candidates. The list shows some diversity along lines now somewhat demanded by society—that is, three women and one person of color. But, seven of the nine—and all six white males—have a connection with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT (five PhDs and two faculty), so I have to vote for three MIT-connected economists at a minimum. Harvard lost its usual spot; only five of the nine have a major connection, including three with bachelor’s degrees from there. In fact, only one of the nine does not have a Harvard or MIT connection—though she has taught at Princeton, which usually gets at least token representation in this annual vote.

I know many of these candidates and have great respect for them. But I doubt that most of them believe fully in the hierarchical system from which they are now beneficiaries.

A number of years ago I had two colleagues who had done all but dissertations (ABDs) in history at the University of Virginia, ranked as one of the better schools in the country for that subject. Both were told by an adviser it wasn’t worth the trouble to write their dissertations. Jobs teaching college history and requiring a PhD, they learned, were so rare that they were already doomed: they were from too low-ranked a high-ranked university.

The financial industry has an extensive old boy (and occasionally old girl) network with the Ivy League. One of my daughters went to Princeton; though a biology major, she was recruited to join Wall Street (she didn’t accept). A former research assistant I knew got an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin when it became well-known for its rigor. Despite doing quite well, he later complained that without the Ivy League connection he couldn’t even get interviews with  Wall Street firms.

Richard Perez-Pena recently penned a piece for the New York Times detailing the lack of progress among elite colleges in enrolling low-income students (not yet a standard along which politically correct diversification levels are expected). For instance, studies out of the University of Michigan and Georgetown University find that at 82 schools rated most competitive by a Barrons profile, only 14 percent of the student population comes from the poorer half of the nation’s households.

Look at top appointees under this president and former ones. Many come from a very few colleges— particularly the ones with which the presidents are connected (Obama loves Harvard; his predecessor, Yale), or have parents who owned banks, or other crucial connections. Even in sports, which is relatively competitive, think of the quarterbacks (RGIII) or golfers (Tiger Woods) who got a start even before age 10 learning from a parent or other close contact. And do you really think that all the current Hollywood stars with famous actresses or actors as parents just came out of genetically superior material?

I could go on, and I’m sure there is not a reader among you who couldn’t expand the list. In fairness, I should add some of my own early and lucky links, such as attending St. Xavier in Louisville, KY, perhaps the top high school in the state, where my family had gone for generations.

Researchers today work long and hard at trying to figure out which policies could help create a more mobile society, one where of starting at the bottom still left decent odds of making it to the top, or where success didn’t get defined so intensely by early connections or the track on which one started. So far we haven’t been very successful, though there are clearly some government steps that can be made, such as creating more equal access to subsidies for saving. But much is still determined by how we organize ourselves socially outside of government and just what we expect from our institutions. And, in truth, a thriving society should want successful parents to teach their kids all that they can, so simplistic leveling policies can easily start to threaten both their freedom and the wider societal growth that their successful kids can generate.

Still, I think it clear that many of the ways we select and discriminate hurt our society and hinder many from achieving their potential. So do I vote for MIT, or for MIT, or not at all?


Jim Brady and a BOGGSAT

Jim Brady, who died on August 4, 2014, will be remembered for many things. He taught elected officials, analysts, and citizens alike not to take ourselves so seriously when engaging in policy.  He brought humor to many situations, even at a cost to himself, as in the famous anecdote when he shouted “killer trees” while pointing out the window from the Reagan campaign plane after the candidate had questionably argued that trees caused air pollution.

The lesson from Brady I never forgot was BOGSAT—“Bunch of guys sitting around a table.” Brady was the first from whom I heard this quip, though I cannot track down the occasion(s). BOGGSAT (I’ve removed the sexual bias in the acronym by adding an additional “G” for “gals.”) is the best description I know for how most policy, at the end of the day, is decided. Often I write about Republicans or Democrats, liberals or conservatives, adhering to some position that I believe violates some core principle such as efficiency or equal justice under the law. There’s just a better way, I suggest, to achieve the goals that the adherents seek. But reflecting back a bit, much of the existing policy I criticize did not derive from some elaborate analysis of what was best for the country or even for the favored constituency, but as an almost accidental byproduct of a BOGGSAT.

Examples are common, and I’m sure you could come up with many. Here are some of my favorites. Social Security’s current imbalance? Some BOGGSAT of early Social Security reformers and bill developers failing to adjust the retirement age for increased life expectancy. Today’s farm bill support for corn, soybeans, and cotton, but not many other crops, in the name of “food security?” Some Depression-era congressional BOGGSAT trying to support their favorite farmers. The largest tax subsidy? Some IRS BOGGSAT determining that health insurance was compensation that shouldn’t be taxed. The continued allocation of state “economic development” subsidies to a few businesses? BOGGSATs in almost every state deciding whom to favor and whom to exclude. A rule that one shouldn’t have to pay more than 10 percent of income for health insurance? A BOGGSAT that worked this parameter into Obamacare despite the fact that health costs absorb almost one-quarter of all personal income.

When it comes to new policy design, the BOGGSATs continue their wily ways. Washington is full of think tanks that purport to provide new agendas for each major political party. Some advocates propose to convert pensions subsidies to simple credits for deposits to retirement accounts without accounting for the simple fact that a one-time deposit that withdrawn one second later doesn’t really represent saving. Others want to expand low-income access to home mortgages without worrying about the regulatory tendency to engage such efforts when market valuations are high and to discourage them when market valuations are low. Many want to cut taxes without cutting spending, which is simply a shifting of the spending burden to future taxpayers. A BOGGSAT likes to feel it is moving policy in some particular direction but often fails to consider all the alternatives or worry about the unintended consequences.

In both current law and many proposals to change it, a BOGGSAT loves to use nice round numbers with limited or no analytic justification. Think of “10-5-3” (the new cost recovery or depreciation system for deducting costs of investments, as enacted in 1981) or the 50 percent Social Security spousal benefit (the percentage added to a worker’s benefit that is paid out freely to the couple and paid for partly small part by single people and even abandoned spouses who can’t get the benefit) or “9-9-9” (a tax system with three taxes with a rate of 9 percent each, proposed by Herman Cain in the 2008 Republican primaries).

When I’m honest about it, I have to admit that many of my family’s decisions to spend or give away money come about through the BOGGSAT method. I’m guessing the same is true for you. But the BOGGSAT doesn’t have to operate purely on instinct, or the emotion of the moment, or the bargaining power of those at the table. The next time you’re engaged with others in deciding something for yourself or promoting something for the broader community, think back to Jim Brady and his quip about how decisions are made. And consider the consequences not just of the decision but the way it was decided.

Thanks, Jim. Just one more item to add to your list of lifetime gifts to us.


Why Delayed Social Security Reform Costs Us

This morning, I testified before the House Ways and Means subcommittee on Social Security. Below is a lightly edited transcript of my spoken remarks. A full copy of my written testimony can be found here.

Contrary to the popular argument that we live in an age of austerity, we live in an age of extraordinary opportunity. Yet, as I argue in a new book, Dead Men Ruling, we block progress by refighting yesterday’s battles and trying to control too much an uncertain future.  As one reflection, in 2009 every dollar of revenue had been committed before that Congress walked in the doors of the Capitol.

Looking to Social Security, after three quarters of a century of continual growth, it has largely succeeded in providing basic protections to most, though not all, older people.  Now, as psychologist Laura Carstensen at the Stanford Center on Longevity suggests, we should be redesigning our institutions around the new possibilities that improved healthcare, reduced physical demands, and long lives provide.  But the eternal automatic growth of Social Security is not conditioned on any assessment of society’s opportunities or needs.  Not making best use of the talents of people of all ages.  Not child poverty or educational failures or the incidence of Alzheimer’s or autism.

Let me focus on three problems caused by this past, rather than future, focus:

Unequal Justice

Social Security redistributes in many ways, both progressive and regressive.  And in many ways, it fails to provide equal justice.

Among the most outrageous, working single parents, often abandoned mothers, are forced to pay for spousal and survivor benefits they cannot receive, often receiving at least $100,000 fewer lifetime benefits than some who don’t work, pay less Social Security tax, and raise no children.

Similarly, the system discriminates against two-earner couples, spouses who divorce before ten years of marriage, long-term workers, and those who beget or bear children before age 40.

Middle Age Retirement

People today retire for about a decade longer than they did when Social Security first started paying benefits.  The biggest winners of this multi-decade policy have been people like the witnesses at this table and members of Congress, who, if married, now get at least $300,000 in additional lifetime benefits.

But there are other consequences: a decline in employment, the rate of growth of GDP and personal income, as well as lower Social Security benefits for the truly old.

Meanwhile, within a couple of decades, close to one-third of the adult population will be on Social Security for one-third or more of their adult lives.  There is no financial system, public or private, that can provide so many years of retirement for such a large share of the population without severe repercussions for individuals’ well-being in retirement and the workers upon whose backs the system relies.

The Impact on the Young

Today, lifetime Social Security and Medicare benefits approximate $1 million for a couple with average incomes throughout their working lives, Rising by about $18,000 a year, benefits for a couple in 2030 a couple are scheduled to grow to about $1 1/3 million.

Meanwhile, the rate of return on contributions falls continually for each generation.  Each year of delayed reform shifts more burdens to younger generations from older ones, with the largest impact on groups like blacks and Hispanics, in part because they comprise a larger share of those future generations with lower returns.

Summary

In summary, each year of delay in reforming Social Security:

  • Continues a pattern of unequal justice under the law;
  • Threatens the well-being of the truly old;
  • Increases the share of benefits paid to the middle aged;
  • Leads government to spend ever less on education and other investments;
  • Contributes to higher nonemployment, lower personal income and revenues; and
  • Increases the burden that is shifted to the young and to people of color.