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.

Dave Camp’s Tax Reform Could Kill Community Foundations

House Ways and Means Committee Chair  Dave Camp deserves credit for proposing a tax reform that takes on many special interests,  something  too few other elected officials are willing to do. But one provision mistakenly threatens the survival of most community foundations without improving the tax system or strengthening the charitable community.

The proposal would effectively eliminate most donor advised funds (DAFs), the major source of revenues to community foundations, so they could no longer provide long-term support for local and regional charitable activities. Instead, those funds would need to pay out all their assets over a period of five years.

DAFs support community foundations in two ways. First, donors pay about one percent of asset value to the foundation for sponsoring the fund. Second, community foundations distribute donor gifts to many local charities.  By simplifying giving and reducing costs, they make it possible for people who are not wealthy to  endow charitable activities.

Requiring a community foundation to pay out all its assets over five years is equivalent to telling the Ford Foundation that it, too, must pay out all of its endowment over a short period of time.  But the draft bill only targets those with limited funds, while it leaves the really big guys like Ford alone.

Usually, I analyze tax policy as a disinterested observer. But as chair of a community foundation called ACT for Alexandria, I have a personal interest in this issue.

So let me tell you how this proposal would lead to the demise of many of our activities and, likely, the community foundation itself.

Each year we engage in a one-day fundraising effort for the charities of Alexandria, VA, a city of about 145,000 across the Potomac River from  Washington, DC.  This year we raised over $1 million for 121 local charities, and many contributions to support the effort itself, not just the charitable contributions themselves, came from our donor advised funds.

The fees we earned from the funds supported our program to train  local charities on how to better use social media and do online fundraising. No one else in the community does this coordination and training.

In addition, several of our donors create DAFs, often small, to engage their families in philanthropic efforts. By doing so, they encourage a new generation to make  charitable giving  part of their lifestyles.

DAFs give donors  flexibility to vary their gifts as circumstances  change. For instance, one of our funds provides long-term support for schools in Afghanistan through U.S.-based charities, but  there is no guarantee that any particular Afghanistan project would be strong enough to merit a direct permanent endowment.  Other funds support a long-term examination of early childhood education opportunities in Alexandria, a project likely to change as needs change. DAFs or equivalent funds also allow “giving circles” that combine small gifts to assist an activity without having to create a new charity every time.

Without these funds, we likely would be unable to support a grant program for capacity building and training of local nonprofit leaders.

I doubt seriously that Chairman Camp’s staff saw fully how they would wipe out most community foundations and confine endowment giving only to the rich. By making it more complicated and expensive to engage in such activity, they would move almost all endowment decision-making to elite, often established institutions where the average citizen has little or no voice and where the operational expenses are greater.

Why are critics of DAFs so worried about someone having a say over an annual grant of $5,000 out of an endowment but not when the President of Harvard decides over time how to spend billions of dollars out of the income from an endowment?

There are legitimate concerns over how such donor advised funds should be regulated. It may even be possible to design a proposal for a minimum annual payout, though, if badly designed, such a limitation could curb the ability of some people to build up assets to make a major gift to try to achieve some large charitable purpose.

The very small literature I have seen arguing for this type of proposal entangles DAFs and community foundations with  separable  issues. For instance, one can argue about the extent to which givers to charity should be allowed special capital gains treatment. But those discussions go well beyond DAFs, and removing DAFs as a source of more endowed funds hardly targets the perceived problem.

Still, I also understand why tax staff and policymakers sometimes see charities as just another special interest. The charitable sector needs to go beyond its “we’re all good, leave us alone” mantra, and address real problems as they arise.

There are ways for Congress to reform the tax laws that would raise revenues and strengthen the charitable sector. But this DAF proposal would wipe out most community foundations, increase administrative costs, and raise nothing or almost nothing for Treasury.

This post originally appeared on TaxVoxAn earlier version of this column stated that a fund-raising effort by ACT for Alexandria supported over 200 charities; the corrected number is 121 charities

Why Most Tax Extenders Should Not Be Permanent

This post originally appeared on TaxVox.

What to do about the tax extenders—or, as my colleague Donald Marron calls them, the “tax expirers”? Restoring the current crop (most of which expired on December 31) for 10 years would add about $900 billion to the deficit. House Ways & Means Committee Chair Dave Camp (R-MI) and Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-OR) have pledged to address these extenders, though in very different ways.

Camp would take them on one by one this year, making some permanent and killing others.  Wyden (and senior panel Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah) would restore nearly all of them but only through 2015.

Clearly, as my colleague Howard Gleckman suggests, we need to rigorously examine the merits of each one. But after paring out those we don’t want, should we make the rest permanent as Camp and many lawyers and accountants favor? Or should we keep them on temporarily?

Making them permanent would reduce complexity and uncertainty. But keeping them temporary would allow Congress to regularly review them on their merits. I believe that, with a few exceptions, most should not be made permanent. However, I’d extend most of them for a more than a year at a time according to the purpose they are meant to serve.

Why not make them permanent?  As Professor George Yin of the University of Virginia School of Law has argued, most of these provisions really look more like spending than taxes.  We must distinguish, therefore, between those items that legitimately adjust the income tax base, and those that, like direct expenditures, subsidize particular activities or persons, or respond to a temporary need.

In my forthcoming book, Dead Men Ruling, I lay out the many complications that arise when elected officials make too many subsidies permanent. Over many decades, lawmakers have effectively destroyed the very flexibility government needs to adapt to new needs and demands over time.  Making the extenders permanent would tie even tighter the fiscal straightjacket we have placed on ourselves.

Fiscal reform demands retrenchment, not expansion, of the extraordinary power of permanent programs to drive up our debt and override the ability of today’s and tomorrow’s voters to make their own political choices.

Now onto a more complicated but related issue.  The way Congress handles tax subsidies such as extenders should be treated similarly to the way it handles direct spending subsidies. But doing this requires addressing some tricky budget accounting problems.

Direct expenditures can be divided into two categories: mandatory spending, often called entitlements, and discretionary spending.  Discretionary spending, in turn, has multiyear and single-year spending programs.  Both must be appropriated occasionally.   To simplify, let’s call permanent tax subsidies “tax entitlements” and tax extenders “tax appropriations.”

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) treats direct entitlements and tax entitlements similarly, projecting them perpetually into the future. If legislation enacted decades ago requires those entitlements to grow, CBO will treat that growth as part of the baseline of what the public is promised by “current law.”

But CBO does not treat direct appropriations and tax appropriations similarly.  It assumes that direct appropriations will be extended either according to the program rules in effect (as in the case of most multi-year appropriations) or in aggregate (as in the case of most annual expenditures).  In contrast, CBO assumes that tax extenders or tax appropriations expire at the end of each year. Continuing temporary tax extenders would be scored as adding significantly to the deficit, whereas extending many or most appropriations at current levels would not.

These inconsistent budget accounting rules mean we need to rethink how Congress treats temporary tax subsidies. If they are not going to be made into permanent tax entitlements, then, as far as practical, they should be treated closer to multiyear or annual tax appropriations.    Multiyear often makes more sense for planning purposes.  Of course, subsidies that are truly meant to be temporary, such as anti-recession relief, should be treated as if they end at a fixed date.  The net result would be that when most “tax appropriations” other than those clearly meant to be temporary meet the end of some arbitrary extension period, CBO would no longer project their future costs at zero.

However one slices it, Congress needs to avoid making permanent or converting into entitlements even more subsidy programs, whether hidden in the tax code or not.  At the same time, it must address its inconsistent budget accounting rules for direct appropriations and those extenders that are really little more than appropriations made by the tax-writing committees.

A Camp-ground for Tax Reform

This post originally appeared on TaxVox, the Tax Policy Center blog.

By proposing a far-reaching and detailed rewrite of the Revenue Code, House Ways and Means Committee Chair Dave Camp (R-MI) did something very few elected officials have done in recent years: He stuck out his neck and proposed radical reform. The initial press response has focused on politics and concluded that neither Republicans nor Democrats will be able to take on the special interests, that there is too much partisan gridlock, and that the plan is going nowhere.

But such responses largely ignore the history of successful reforms and forget that some policymakers do care about policy. If the goal is to conquer a mountain, someone has to start by building a common basecamp.

Almost any major systemic reform that does more than give away money creates losers. Someone always has to pay for whatever new use of resources the reform seeks—in this case, tax rate reduction and a leaner code with fewer complications. But politicians hate identifying losers. We voters punish them for their candor, which is why they nearly always increase deficits to achieve their goals and leave it to a future Congress to identify the losers who pay the bill.

With his full-blown tax reform proposal, Chairman Camp decided to lead and proposed repealing many popular tax breaks. There’s a lot I like and some things I don’t like in his proposal, but the simple fact is that a well-designed comprehensive alternative to current law can change the burden of proof. Change a few items, and each interest group argues that it was unfairly picked on. Put forward an alternative that takes on almost all preferences, and each interest then needs to justify why it deserves special treatment not accorded others.

The prospect for any reform is nil if no leaders do what Camp did and step up to the plate. The process is not one of instant epiphany. Rather it slowly builds support. Those who first propose change may increase the odds of success from 5 percent to 10 percent. Others who follow further improve those odds.  If we reject out of hand all ideas that start with less than a 50 percent chance of success, we’d probably never reform anything.

It often takes modest support by others to move the process forward.  In 1985, President Reagan and House Ways & Means Committee chair Dan Rostenkowski started the legislative process that yielded the Tax Reform Act of 1986 by simply agreeing not to criticize each other while the measure went through committee. Like Speaker Boehner today, Speaker O’Neill wasn’t enthusiastic about reform then, but Rostenkowski was able to proceed anyway.

In 1985, Rostenkowski knew he could pass a Democratic bill. But he knew it would go next to the GOP-controlled Senate Finance Committee. Each party would have a turn and a final agreement would come from a bipartisan conference committee. If House GOP leaders let Camp mark-up his bill now, Democrats would have their turn, at least this year, in the Senate. At least so far, both President Obama and senior Ways & Means Democrat Sandy Levin (D-MI)  have avoided any major criticism of Camp’s plan, but one wonders if Democrats aren’t going to forego an opportunity, once again joining Republicans in deciding in advance that nothing substantial can be done, so it won’t.

Leadership is seldom about achieving results that can be predicted with certainly. More often it requires using your clout to change the process or reframe the debate in ways more likely to serve the public. It’s certainly about more than protecting your party’s incumbents in the next election regardless of the policy consequences.

When I served as economic coordinator and original organizer of the 1984 Treasury study that led to the ’86 Act, it was a time when books declared major tax reform the “impossible dream.”  Sound familiar? In the face of that dispiriting commentary, I tried to encourage the Treasury staff with what I call the “hopper theory” of democracy: the more good things you put in the hopper, the more good things are likely to come out. By this reckoning, Chairman Camp has already won.

Finding an Opportune Way to Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit

President Obama announced only one major new proposal during last night’s State of the Union address. Here’s what he said:

I agree with Republicans like Senator Rubio that it [the EITC] doesn’t do enough for single workers who don’t have kids. So let’s work together to strengthen the credit, reward work, and help more Americans get ahead.

Having worked on the EITC and other wage subsidies for a long time (and having introduced them at a crucial stage of tax reform efforts in the 1980s), I say it’s about time they were back on the table. Particularly since the onset of the Great Recession, policy discussions around helping those with lower incomes have focused on unemployment insurance, food stamps, and government-subsidized health insurance. Employment needs to move toward the front of our public policy agenda.

As necessary as these other social safety net programs might be—and am not trying to assess their merit here—they generally do not encourage people to stay in the workforce. Like the welfare of old, before the onset of reform of what then was Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), they provide the greatest benefit to those who do not work at all.  While it’s debatable whether a simple EITC expansion increases total labor supply, there is almost no doubt that per dollar of cost it increases employment more than many other social welfare provisions.

Employment has been a vexing and growing challenge for the American economy. The share of all adults who work—also called the employment rate— was declining even before the Great Recession, particularly among the young and the near-elderly. Indeed, a declining employment rate represents a far bigger and longer-term issue than unemployment, since the NON-employment rate includes both those who are unemployed and those who drop out of or never join the labor force.

Concern over employment makes wage subsidies fertile ground for bipartisan consensus, if—and this is a big “if” in these partisan times—both sides can claim victory from the deal.

Consider the history the EITC. Almost every president since Richard Nixon has signed legislation establishing the EITC, expanding it, or making some provisions permanent. And it’s been bipartisan. The  initial enactment and the largest increases all occurred under Republicans—Ford, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush, while the expansion during the Democratic Clinton administration was also quite significant.

Many who backed these legislative changes did not view the credit in isolation. They often favored it over some alternative—welfare for Senator Russell Long (the EITC’s first champion) and a minimum wage increase for President George H.W. Bush. Or they accepted the EITC as part of a broader tax or budget package. The EITC was never the subject of stand-alone legislative action.

That leads us to today, and what compromises might be supported by both political parties. I suggest two possibilities.

One, following our historical pattern, is to expand the EITC as an alternative to other efforts. At some point, recession-led unemployment insurance expansions will end. A bill to increase the minimum wage might go nowhere. Might an expanded wage subsidy be a compromise?  A broader tax or budget bill always presents possibilities. The EITC offers one way to mitigate the net impact on lower-income populations, whether offsetting  losses from new deficit reduction efforts, or ongoing cutbacks due to sequestration or dwindling appropriations.

The other is to tweak the EITC so it interacts better with other policy goals, such as reductions in marriage penalties—a cause often advocated by Republicans. The childless single workers identified by the president are not the only ones left out of any significant wage support. So also are many low-income married workers. Despite recent changes, the EITC still creates marriage penalties, particularly if a low-wage worker marries into a household already receiving the maximum credit. Such a low-wage worker often fares worse than a single person who gets nothing or almost nothing: once added to the household, the additional worker’s income can phase out his partner’s’ EITC benefits and reduce or eliminate any previous eligibility for other public benefits. Current government policy announces that it is more advantageous to stay unmarried.

Simply expand the current, very small, credit for childless single people, and marriage penalties would multiply in spades. I suggest including in any expansion low-wage workers who decide to marry or stay married, not only those single persons left out. Such an expansion would proceed largely along the same lines as the president’s, but also reduce marriage penalties .

In sum, the president’s best path to bipartisan support for the EITC is to stress more policies that favor employment, offer the expansion as a compromise from other efforts less favored by his opposition, and reduce marriage penalties.

What Should We Require From Large Businesses?

If we want successful companies to contribute to the economy fairly, what should we be asking them for? More corporate income tax? A higher minimum wage? Health insurance for employees? More profit-sharing for employees? Restricted-stock payments of highly paid executives, so they can’t succeed individually when they fail their workers and shareholders?

We’ve tried all these approaches, but at different times and in a discombobulated way.

The corporate income tax, which once raised far more revenue than the individual income tax, now applies mainly to multinational companies, which find ways to hide their income in low-tax countries. Domestic firms often avoid the tax altogether through partnerships or similar organizational structures.

The minimum wage has been allowed to erode substantially. I earned $1.25 an hour while in high school in the mid-1960s; if that amount had grown at the same rate as per capita personal income, high school kids and others would now be earning $20 instead of $7.25.

Health insurance mandates for many employers is our new form of minimum wage. The ACA’s $2,000-per-employee penalty for larger employers that do not provide insurance is essentially an additional “minimum wage” requirement of at least  $10 an hour, either in the form of a penalty or  health insurance.

Profit sharing was at one time touted as the way to instill better work habits and allow employees to share in a firm’s success. Many employees, however, put all their savings in that one investment and got stuck with huge losses when their firms declined.

A 1993 Tax Act limited to $1 million annually the amount of cash and similar compensation that could be paid to top executives and still get a corporate tax deduction. Post-reform, stock options flourished, as did a more uneven distribution of income within firms.

More recent proposals to reform the corporate income tax set minimum taxes on multinational companies, regardless of the country in which the income was earned; increase the minimum wage on all firms; bump up or reducing the mandate on larger employers to provide health insurance (by adjusting either what services the insurance must provide or the size of the penalty for not providing insurance); regulate companies to disclose how unequal their compensation packages are; and require executives, particularly in financial companies, to invest more in the stocks and bonds that couldn’t be sold immediately and would fall in value should their companies falter.

What drives all these proposals, I think, is the notion that large organizations only become that way by being successful and that they owe the public something in return for this success. At some point, almost all companies achieve their size by generating above-average profits and sales growth. The Wal-Marts and Apples and Mercks of today, the General Motors and U.S. Steels and Pennsylvania Railroads of yesterday, have or had more power and money than most. Did they get there only through the hard work and ingenuity of a few people who deserve most of the rewards? Or were they also lucky? The first out of the block? The beneficiaries of scale economies, where only a few companies would survive or the winner would take all? Did they get government help along the way, perhaps taking advantage of the basic research that served as a prelude to their development? Or the protections of a developed legal system, along with a bankruptcy law that limited their losses? If so, doesn’t that legitimize the discussion of how their gains might be shared, either with their own employees or the public?

If we truly want to create a 21st century agenda, I wonder if we could come up with better, more efficient, and fairer policies by asking the broader question than by piecemeal approaches. The corporate income tax, for instance, has been put forward by the chairs of the congressional tax-writing committees, as well as the president, as a ripe candidate for reform. Yet, however much I might favor such reform as a pure tax issue, it’s only a piece of these broader redistributional questions. Might it be better, for instance, to abandon the attempt to assess any extra layer of corporate income tax,  and instead ask larger firms to take a greater role in accepting apprentices, hiring workers during a downturn, sharing profits with workers, providing minimum levels of compensation but not necessarily all in health insurance, and restricting the ability of their higher-paid managers to walk away with bundles even while their firms fail?

Obviously, the devil is in the details. But we should at least have the conversation.

2013 Update on Lifetime Social Security and Medicare Benefits and Taxes

Our updated numbers for lifetime Social Security and Medicare benefits and taxes are now available, based on the latest projections from the Social Security and CMS actuaries for the 2013 trustees’ reports for OASDI and Medicare. Couples retiring today, with roughly the average earnings of workers in general, as well as average life expectancies, still receive about $1 million in lifetime benefits. This number is scheduled to increase significantly for future retirees and is higher for those with above-average incomes and longer life expectancies.

Little has changed on the Social Security side from our previous estimates, as the program has undergone no significant reform in recent years. Our estimates of present values of Medicare benefits for future retirees have decreased slightly from last year as slower health care cost growth has made its way into projections. By 2030, Medicare benefits (net of any premiums paid) are about 90 percent of last year’s estimates, still a significant multiple of Medicare taxes paid. (As in 2012, our numbers incorporate a Medicare cost scenario that assumes the “doc fix” and other adjustments will be extended, not the “current law” scenario in the trustees report.)

We have been publishing these numbers for a long time—and not without controversy over our intent. Our hope is simply that better and more complete information will help elected officials decide whether Social Security and Medicare are distributing taxes and benefits in the fairest and most efficient way possible, a decision we do not believe possible by looking only at annual numbers or how current, not future, retirees and taxpayers might fare. Therefore, we are delighted that in its most recent Long-Term Budget Outlook, the Congressional Budget Office for the first time also published estimates for lifetime Medicare benefits and taxes, as well as Medicare and Social Security combined. Using a slightly different methodology, CBO produces very complementary results. Differences derive from it using median-wage (rather than average-wage) workers, a 3 percent (rather than a 2 percent) real discount rate, and an assumption of Social Security claiming at 62 (rather than 65). As CBO also notes, expected benefits (and taxes, to a more limited extent) have grown over time for a number of reasons, including longer life expectancies, higher incomes, and rising health spending per person.


How Much Should the Young Pay for Yesterday’s Underfunded Pension Plans?

Recent stories about Chicago’s pension crisis represent only the latest in a long series of announcements about poorly funded state and local pension plans. Detroit’s declaration of bankruptcy shows one possible consequence of such neglect, with many of the city’s retirees fearing drastically reduced pension payments. This isn’t the first time that retirees and workers have found their financial stability threatened, either: many private pension plans have failed in such industries as steel production and airlines.

While there’s often no easy or right answer for who should pay for these uncovered burdens, as a society we’ve pretty much decided that in this arena, as in so many others, the young should get the shaft.

Often poorly funded or badly designed to deal with risk, many pension plans need only some catalytic economic change, whether from greater competition or an economic downturn, to start sinking rapidly. A promise for the future, underfunded from the past, shifts liabilities forward in time, where they get passed around like a hot potato. No one—employer, worker, or taxpayer—wants to get burned with the cost of past mistakes, or even part of it. But the money that should have been set aside has long been spent, so someone at some time must cover the shortfall.

Consider why government or private employers underfund a plan in the first place. In a private plan, underfunding allows higher wages to current workers, bonuses to top managers, and cash withdrawals to partners and dividend recipients. In a public plan, elected officials can give higher current compensation to workers or more services to the population while letting taxpayers off the hook–temporarily, of course.

When people see this inadequately supported edifice begin to crumble, they make a run on the bank. Given the increased threats to future wages, job security, and dividend payments, everyone has an incentive to get what they can while the getting is good. Keep wages up as long as possible, even if that means further weakening pension plans. Increase those bonuses to top managers, who suggest their skills are needed now more than ever to dampen the firm’s or agency’s fall. Lobby Congress and state legislators to allow employers to defer better funding of their pension plans so these other cash outflows can continue. And maintain pension payments for current and near-retirees regardless of the hit on those not yet retired.

Traditional actuarial calculations—the formulas by which actuaries determine whether employers adequately fund their plans—make matters worse. These formulas often allow employers to play Wall Street with their pensions. A firm or government borrows at low interest rates on one side of the ledger, then invests in riskier assets with higher expected returns on the other side. Even dodging the question of when such practices generally make sense, employers often push their actuaries to use outrageous assumptions about rates of return on those risky assets.

For instance, many state and local governments today assume a return of around 8 percent on a mixed portfolio of bonds and stocks in a world where interest-bearing bonds often yield only 3 or 4 percent at best and the earnings-to-price ratio (the effective rate of return earned by corporations relative to the price of their stock) is about 6 percent in real terms. If these employers want to play the markets with their pension plans, then the plans should be overfunded enough to handle the risk. Alternatively, governments and firms should make their projections assuming a less risky but lower rate of return. If the risk-taking strategy works, then future (not current) funding payments can be lowered.

When the firm or government declares bankruptcy, many bondholders, pensioners, and remaining workers deserve sympathy. Certainly the retiree who might have to rely on less than expected, the bondholder who accepted a lower rate of return in exchange for what she thought was a less risky investment, and the taxpayer who often gets caught covering everyone else’s problems. Sometimes these are the same people who benefited from the excessive payments (made possible, first, when inadequate funds were put into the pension plan, and then, during the delay between recognizing the problem and taking some later action such as bankruptcy). But often they are not.

While these claimants may battle each other, they almost always collude against the young. The use of unreasonable actuarial assumptions establishes this pattern by forcing future workers and taxpayers to cover shortfalls. In addition to covering some of those losses, new workers for the state or the firm, if it survives, will be granted far fewer pension or retirement plan benefits than even current workers, not merely those already retired.

Unequal pay for equal work becomes the new standard. Age discrimination against the old is illegal, but not the young. State pension plans now typically provide tiered benefits, with successively lower benefits for newer workers. In fact, states are now starting to provide negative employer benefits to the young by giving them back less in benefits than their contributions plus some modest rate of return.

The same holds in different ways in private industry. We are all familiar with the higher cash and pension benefits being paid to older airline pilots and automobile workers, among others. Almost no one addresses the consequences for wealth-building, including retirement adequacy, for today’s young. That’s tomorrow’s problem.

Or is it? Seems like we’ve heard that claim before.