Until recently, few Americans knew the names of these three Treasury officials, long-time public servants whose talent and many years of hard work elevated them to prestigious government positions. But many now recognize, if not their names, the issues with which they have been intimately associated. Each has moved into the spotlight recently after putting out a statement, report, or blog dealing with a very controversial aspect of tax administration: employer mandates under the new health care reform law, or Obamacare, in the first case; and tax exemption for social welfare organizations with such labels as “tea party” or “progressive” in the last two.
What Mazur, Lerner, and George also hold in common is the forced assumption of greater responsibility than is warranted, as elected officials and their top appointees—those who wrote or failed to fix the laws in the first place—scramble to secure a position of innocence and fault-finding in the blame game known as Washington, DC.
Mazur is the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury who first revealed in a blog posting the delayed implementation of one important feature of Obamacare, the mandate on larger employers to pay a penalty if they don’t offer health insurance to their full-time employees. Lerner is the IRS official, now threatened with criminal charges by politicians, who first noted that some of those under her had inappropriately targeted “tea party” and other groups for extra review when they applied for tax exemption as social welfare organizations. George is the Treasury Inspector General whose report on the IRS targeting of tea party groups is now being lambasted by Democrats for failing to note sufficiently that the IRS was simultaneously scrutinizing other applicants, such as progressives.
Should we focus so much attention on the talents of Mark Mazur in regulating, Lois Lerner in enforcing, or J. Russell George in inspecting? (I may be influenced by that fact that I know two of them, but I can assure you that many others would say that each is well above average in integrity, ability, and devotion to the public.) Or should we instead turn our attention to how the government turns inward when it functions poorly, the system creaks, and officials remain at an impasse to fix things everyone has long known are broken?
Every expert on nonprofit tax law will tell you that providing tax exemption for organizations operated for social welfare purposes (“exclusively” under Code section 501(c)(4), but “primarily” under the IRS’s more lenient regulations) does not mesh easily with organizations set up to engage in significant political activity. Also, delays in getting exemption have been an issue for years for nonprofits in general because of lack of IRS staffing, extensive abuse of the law, and the difficult-to-enforce boundary lines between exempt and nonexempt activities, the latter including political campaigning. And if there were an easy way to figure out which organizations really devote themselves to social welfare, why hasn’t the White House or any member of Congress come up with one? If things go amuck in some IRS Cincinnati office, wasn’t error built into the system a long time ago?
As for the health care reform law’s employer mandates, of course these were going to put extraordinary pressures on employers to hire part-time rather than full-time employees, on payroll and other reporting systems to devise ways to measure hours of work (however inaccurately), and on an understaffed IRS to somehow enforce the law’s requirements. If things go amuck, how much responsibility rests with Treasury and IRS versus a political system that can only vote thumbs up or thumbs down on Obamacare?
Rest assured, when new benefits are bestowed on citizens, messages spew forth from elected officials and their spokespersons in the White House and Congress. “Look what we have done for you,” they pronounce. Can you remember top White House and Treasury officials ever deferring preferentially to Mark Mazur to make one of these more politically appealing types of announcements?
When things unravel a bit, however, roles reverse. Elected officials and their top cadre quickly disassociate themselves from both the creation of the problem and their past failure to address it.
Wouldn’t it be a lot more honest to share responsibility for successes and failures, more helpful to reveal rather than hide the limits on tax administration, and more productive to spend more time on fixing than blaming? As long as every difficult issue threatens to become political high theatre, the Mazurs, Lerners, and Georges of long government service will be asked to play the role of clown or villain for scripts they can, at best, edit but not write.
No one quite knows what exactly Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) and Ranking Member Orrin Hatch (R-UT) mean when they say they will rely upon a “blank slate” as the starting point for tax reform discussions. But done carefully and with political artistry, taking advantage of their unique power, Baucus and Hatch could revolutionize how members of Congress negotiate the future of taxes.
But it’s all in the practice, not the theory. Done right, the strategy could reenergize the tax reform debate. Done wrong, it will be just another dead-end.
The idea of reforming the tax system from a “zero base” or building up from a blank slate is hardly new. And lawmakers always talk about everything being on the table. The challenge is in making it happen.
Baucus and Hatch must accomplish two goals. First, they must shift the burden of proof from those who favor reform to those who would retain the status quo. Second, they must force members to pay for their favored subsidy, denying them the opportunity to pretend it is free.
As a veteran of the Tax Reform Act of 1986, I always emphasize the crucial role of process. Sure, serendipity smiles or frowns unexpectedly on any endeavor, but the ’86 effort took off when Treasury, President Reagan, House Ways & Means Chair Dan Rostenkowski (D-IL), and Finance Committee chair Bob Packwood (R-OR) all put forward proposals that started with specific rate cuts and removal of many tax preferences.
Their plans were all somewhat different, but each changed the burden of proof. Lobbyists won many later battles, but now they were forced to explain why they needed to retain special preferences when others would not be so favored. Moreover, given a fixed revenue target, restored preferences had to be paid for. Lawmakers had to acknowledge that the price of adding back tax preferences was a higher tax rate.
Baucus, ideally with the support of Hatch, can put forward a “chairman’s mark” from which committee members can debate amendments. As both senators have suggested, that mark can be a relatively clean slate. Further, Baucus can require that amendments must not add to the deficit or change his revenue target, effectively requiring members to offer what are called “pay-fors.”
Normally, members debate items one at a time. Each adds a new subsidy without worrying about who pays for it—perhaps those currently too young to vote or the yet-unborn.
In dark times, politicians try to reduce the deficit by figuring out what tax increases or spending cuts will restore order to the budget. But identifying losers is immensely unpopular among voters, and politicians shy away from it. Worse, they blast those from the other party brave enough to provide details.
But if Baucus sets a revenue target at the beginning of this tax reform exercise, the dynamic shifts—from simply identifying winners and losers to explicit trade-offs. Winners and losers march together. With a blank slate or zero base, every restoration of a tax break requires higher rates (even an alternative tax), especially if there are few or no alternative preferences to sacrifice.
This process not only gives new life to a broad rewrite of the tax code but also makes it much easier to reform specific provisions. For instance, tax subsidies for homeownership, charity, and education can be much more effective and provide more bang per buck out of each dollar of federal subsidy. But politicians largely ignore such ideas because they create losers who scream loudly. Thus, the default for elected officials who fear negative advertising and loss of campaign contributions is to do nothing to improve these tax subsidies.
But when the burden of proof changes, a lobbyist can appear to be helping his masters simply by saving a subsidy, even if the net benefit is smaller than in the old law. After all, preserving a preference in some form is success relative to a zero baseline. Of course, as we learned in 1986, this argument grows stronger as the probability of tax reform grows. Can Baucus and Hatch change the burden of proof and force members to pay with higher rates for the subsidies they want to keep? They can certainly lead their committee and Congress in that direction, but only by specifying precisely a chairman’s mark that sets revenue and rates while slashing tax preferences.
If they do, Baucus and Hatch may force fellow senators to acknowledge that every subsidy must be paid for. And that, in turn, will open a window to design alternative tax subsidies that are fairer and more efficient. This sort of process revolution could remake policy in ways that extend well beyond tax reform.
Charitable organizations form a vital part of America’s safety net. Ideally, foundations would be able to make greater payouts in hard economic times when needs are greatest. Unfortunately, the design of today’s excise tax on foundations undermines and in fact discourages such efficiency.
Under current law, private foundations are required to pay an excise tax on their net investment income. The tax rate is 2 percent, but it can be reduced to 1 percent if the foundation satisfies a minimum distribution requirement. The dual-rate structure and distribution requirements obviously introduce complexity. The stated purpose of the tax in legislative history—to finance IRS activities in monitoring the charitable sector—has never been fulfilled.
In the recent recession, the impact of the excise tax was especially pernicious, as it penalized those that maintained their level of grantmaking.
How? As Martin Sullivan and I first described in 1995, the excise tax penalizes spikes in giving; under the current formula, a temporarily higher payout results in a higher excise tax when payouts fall back to previous levels. A foundation that reduced its grantmaking during the last recession would not be subject to an increased excise tax because the amount the foundation paid out would be measured as a share of current net worth.
One proposal would replace the excise tax with a single-rate tax yielding the same amount of revenue. While a flat-rate tax would remove the disincentive to raise grantmaking in bad times, it still raises taxes for some foundations and not others.
A related law applying to foundations is the required payout rate, now set at 5 percentage points. Many experts have debated how high that rate should be. The current rate is believed to approximate the long-term real rate of return on a foundation’s balanced portfolio of assets. However, if foundations follow a strict rule of paying out the minimum 5 percent every year, they, too, will be operating procyclically, paying out more in good times when stock markets are high and less in bad times.
If we wish foundations to operate more countercyclically—to pay out more when needs are greater—we need to address both the excise tax and the natural tendency, reinforced by a minimum payout requirement, to make grants and payouts as a fixed percentage of each year’s net worth.
Nothing better exemplifies our gridlock over the future of 21st century government, as well as how to recover from the Great Recession, than the false dichotomy of austerity versus stimulus.
The austerity thesis, reduced to its simplest form, suggests that government has been living beyond its means for some time, only exacerbated by the actions that accompanied the recent economic downturn. Sequesters, tax increases, and spending cuts become the order of the day.
The stimulus hypothesis, reduced also to simplest form, suggests that more government spending and lower taxes puts money in people’s pockets and helps cure a country’s economic doldrums. Once the economy is doing better, government spending will naturally fall and taxes rise.
The debate then plays out largely over deficits: do you want larger or smaller ones?
But reduced to this form, the debate is a fallacy, for several reasons.
First, one must define larger or smaller relative to something. Last year’s spending or taxes or deficits? What’s scheduled automatically in the law? The public debate often glosses over these issues. Which is more expansionary when keeping taxes at the same level: an economy whose growth in spending is cut from 6 to 4 percent or one whose growth is increased from 1 to 3 percent?
Second, a country’s ability to run deficits depends on its level of debt. A recent debate over whether at some point higher debt starts to slow economic growth doesn’t change the fact that lenders want to be repaid. People won’t loan to Greece now, but they still find the U.S. Treasury securities a safe haven for their money.
Third, and by far the most important, what timeframe is involved? Is the Congressional Budget Office pro-austerity or pro-stimulus when it concludes that sequestration hurts the economy in the short run, but is better in the long run than doing nothing about deficits? No one on either side suggests that debt can grow forever faster than the economy. Everyone implicitly or explicitly believes that to accommodate recessions when debt grows faster there are times when debt must grow slower.
So where’s the rub? Here you must understand the emotional systems, usually veiled, that lie behind those on both sides trying to force the problem to an either/or solution.
Start with hardline austerity advocates. Many of them don’t just want smaller deficits. They want smaller government—or, at the very least, they want to prevent the government from taking ever larger shares of the economy, even given changing demographics. Essentially, austerity advocates don’t trust their pro-stimulus adversaries, some of whom can almost always find an economy going into a recession, in a recession, coming out of a recession, or attaining a lower-than-average growth rate and, therefore, needing some form of stimulus. Austerity advocates have learned from long experience that once government spending is increased, it’s hard to reduce. So they feel they have to get what deficit reduction they can now that the public’s attention to recent large debt accumulations is creating pressure to act.
Now for many the hardline stimulus advocates, their support for additional temporary government intervention cannot be entirely disentangled from their sympathy for a larger future government. Else why not agree to cut back now on the scheduled acceleration of entitlement programs, particularly fast-growing health and retirement programs? That would bring the long-run budget, at least as currently scheduled, back toward balance. It would simultaneously please many of their austerity opponents and allow for more current stimulus.
The hidden agendas are complicated further by inconsistencies on both sides. Many hardline austerity advocates, at least in the United States, don’t want cuts to apply to defense spending. For their part, many hardline stimulus advocates would be glad to pare growth in tax subsidies.
Regardless, the dichotomy falls apart once one realizes that a solution can involve a slowdown in scheduled growth rates in spending and a higher rate of growth of taxes, accompanied by less short-run deficit reduction and an abandonment of poorly targeted mechanisms such as sequesters.
Consider the buildup of debt during World War II, the last time we saw U.S. levels above where they are today. Debt-to-GDP fell fairly rapidly after the war all the way until the mid-1970s. While the growing economy certainly helped, tax rates that were raised substantially during the war were largely maintained afterward, and spending had essentially no built-in growth (actually huge declines when the troops came home). Just the opposite holds now even with recovery: there are limited tax increases to pay for past accumulations of debt or wartime spending, and spending is scheduled to grow long-term, even after temporary recession-led spending and defense spending on Afghanistan declines.
Both sides—pro-austerity and pro-stimulus—want desperately to control an unknown future, either by not paying our current bills with adequate taxes or by maintaining built-in growth rates in various programs, mainly in health and retirement. The false dichotomy between austerity versus stimulus has fallen by the wayside, and what we see through the veil are two sides in mutual embrace trying to control our future, whatever the cost to the present.
To help clarify whether IRS incorrectly, unfairly, or illegally targeted the Tea Party and other conservative groups, here are the answers to a few basic questions.
1. Is it improper for IRS to target specific groups?
Almost every contact the IRS makes with select taxpayers derives from targeting. Because its resources are constrained, the IRS conducts only limited audits, examinations, or requests for information. For instance, if you give more than the average amount to charity, you’re more likely to be audited since there is more money at stake. If you run a small business, you have a greater ability to cheat than someone whose income is reported to IRS on a W-2 form. The only way the IRS can enforce compliance at a reasonable administrative cost is by targeting.
This is especially true for the tax-exempt arena. Because audits yield little or no revenue, the IRS tax-exempt division examines very few organizations. Therefore, the IRS must use some criteria to “target” which tax-exempt organizations to approach.
2. Does the IRS discriminate?
Picking out which organizations or taxpayers to examine meets the definition of statistical discrimination. Firms do this when they consider only college graduates for jobs; political parties do this when they offer selective access to their supporters. Discrimination is wrong when it implies unequal treatment under the law, such as when unequal punishment is meted out for the same crime, or when people of color have less access to the mortgage market.
3. Why then did IRS say it erred in targeting Tea Party and other organizations?
We don’t have all the data yet but organizations with a strong political orientation have a higher probability of pushing the borderline for what the law allows. The groups at the center of this controversy generally applied for exemption under IRS section 501 (c)(4) which requires, among other things, that its primary purpose cannot be election-related and cannot overtly support political candidates.
However, the IRS could have identified election-related activity as a practice worthy of extra attention without specifying “tea party” or similar labels to identify such organizations. Had it done so, it might not be facing a problem now.
IRS apparently initially thought it was just using these labels as a shortcut for such an identification. Had it been engaged early on, the national office might have been quicker to warn against this practice since it would tend to identify more Republican organizations than Democratic groups with similar motives. Who decided what when is still under investigation.
Remember IRS was under pressure to examine those c(4) organizations after applications grew rapidly in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. If IRS waits until after an election, it’s generally too late to make any difference.
4. Why did IRS start with the exemption process rather than wait and see how the organizations behaved?
Because IRS audits so few tax-exempt organizations, noncompliance is a major problem. But often noncompliance is inadvertent. Organizations trying to do “good” fail to understand legal technicalities or why IRS should be worried about them at all. If the IRS can get these organizations to comply with the rules from the start, it has a better chance of minimizing future problems.
5. Well, then, why the heck is IRS even in this game in the first place?
A question asked by many. Unlike some other nations with charities’ bureaus or other government regulatory agencies, tax-exempt organizations in the U.S. are monitored mainly by IRS at the national level and the state attorneys general at the state level. The IRS efforts generally derive from the Congressional requirement that charitable dollars (for which there are deductions and exemptions) go mainly for charitable purposes and not others such as electioneering.
6. But c (4) or social welfare organizations don’t benefit from the charitable deduction, so why don’t those with political orientation just operate without tax exemption or c(4) status?
They could, but the tax exemption provides several benefits. The least important may be non-taxation of income from assets since many of these organizations don’t have that much in the way of assets to begin with. However, many contributors interpret (often incorrectly) tax exemption to mean that the organization has satisfied legal hurdles, thus making it easier to raise money. Some c(4) organizations are closely connected to charities or c(3) organizations that can accept charitable contributions, and sometimes there’s a synergy between the two. My colleague Howard Gleckman reminds us that c(4)s quickly became favored over an alternative “527” tax-exempt political designation because the former does not need to reveal its donors. Finally, tax exemption provides an easy way to insure that any temporary build-up of donations in excess of payouts is not interpreted as taxable income to the organization or its contributors.
7. What will be the end result of this flap?
Success at agencies like IRS is often measured by their ability to stay out of the news rather than on how well they do their job. I’m guessing this episode will only will increase the bunker-like incentives within the organization. It would be good if Congress used this as an opportunity to figure out how better to monitor tax-exempt organizations, or whether IRS has the capability under existing laws, but that isn’t likely to happen.
Knowing how many of us economists toil away in obscurity on most research, I’m always intrigued by what catches the press’s and public’s attention. Take, for example, the significant attention paid to a 2010 study by Harvard economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff that concluded that countries with debt levels above 90 percent of GDP began showing slower rates of growth. When Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash and Robert Pollin, scholars at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, recently had trouble replicating Reinhart and Rogoff’s results, the debate played out in national news outlet.
Unfortunately, this discussion quickly devolved from substance to politics to arguments ad hominem. Without getting into the extent to which I or others can validate Reinhart and Rogoff’s (R&R’s) original findings, I offer six cautions for anyone witnessing this or a similar statistical debate with significant policy implications: (1) statistics should never be interpreted as showing more than simple but potentially useful correlations; (2) healthy skepticism is required for all social science research, which seldom gets replicated for validity; (3) all empirical economic work is based on history that will not repeat in the exact same form; (4) research can certainly contradict conventional wisdom but not reason; (5) arguments ad hominem, particularly by those with their own agendas, are unhelpful; and (6) be careful with labels and straw men.
- Correlation versus causation. It’s long been stressed that statistical tests never prove causation, not simply because they can’t but because researchers make many choices and assumptions, often of statistical convenience. This doesn’t mean statistics are useless. Just accept that any result merely shows that A and B seem to occur together even after trying to account for other influences under a huge range of never-fully-tested assumptions.
- Skepticism. A growing body of “research on research” shows that few social science experiments, and even many medical studies, are replicated. Also, positive results get published; negative results usually do not. R&R’s study was replicated mainly because it got an unusual amount of attention.
- History. The past never repeats itself exactly—or, as Heraclitus warns, “You could not step twice into the same river.” That historical interpretations are contained and sometimes couched in data analyses doesn’t mitigate this well-known caution.
- Reason versus conventional wisdom. The R&R debate mainly revolves around two reasonable notions. One is the simple arithmetic conclusion that debt can’t rise forever relative to national income, along with the related economic conclusion that higher levels of debt can and have been shown in many places to have consequences for investment, interest rates, ability to borrow, and how government revenues are spent. The other is that institutions, times, places, and circumstances matter greatly, and they affect how one should interpret past data, such as those presented by both R&R and their critics.
- Ad hominem arguments. R&R published some of their work with the Peterson Institute for International Economics, so some of those who attacked R&R may have considered the authors guilty by association because of Peter George Peterson’s concern about deficits and his contributions to that Institute. Peterson’s own “guilt” on budget issues seems to be that he became rich on Wall Street, although he favors higher taxes on what he calls “fat cats” like himself. Still, while many of those who engage in these attacks themselves fail to represent their own or their institution’s sources of funding, let’s be honest. Much social science research is funded in ways that doesn’t necessarily bias how the research is done, but rather what is researched in the first place. So, unless one fully engages and thoroughly analyzes every study, even the careful academic reader must often try to determine trustworthiness in other ways, such as whether the researchers report results only consistent with some special interest or political party.
- Labels and “straw men.” While we all use labels and straw men at times to set up the stories we tell, they at best simplify greatly. In this case, R&R are identified as advocates of “austerity” and their opponents as “Keynesians” advocating stimulus, both of which are nothing more than labels. Most budget analysts I know worry about deficits but vary widely in whether they would engage in more short-term stimulus or in how strongly they believe that a path toward long-term balance even requires austerity. For instance, is reducing some rate of growth of spending, no matter what its level, austerity? Is the Congressional Budget Office an advocate of austerity or Keynesian when it asserts that sequestration hurts the economy in the short run, but has long-run benefits relative to doing nothing about deficits?
The bottom line: use extreme caution no matter which economist you read or believe.
Full disclosure: I have spent most of my career at the Urban Institute or the Treasury Department, brief periods each at the Brookings Institution, American Enterprise Institute, and the Peter G. Peterson Foundation (which differs from the Peterson Institute for International Economics). I also serve or have served on many advisory groups and boards for such organizations as the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and the Comptroller General of the United States. As a consequence, je m’accuse of being among the many economists limited more than I would like by what research is supported by those institutions or their funders.
Arithmetic tells us we must either decrease the growth of Social Security spending or increase taxes as a share of gross domestic product.
But we should do it with an eye on fairness, growth and efficiency. We’re all in this together, so higher-income families must give up something to deal both with Social Security shortfalls and those in the budget more generally. A modest increase in the wage base for Social Security has some justification since that base has eroded in recent years. But if extended too far, it exacerbates the squeeze on other government programs. How? On the tax side, it tends to preempt other tax increases for non-Social Security purposes. On the benefit side, it attempts to maintain a growth rate of Social Security and other elderly programs that absorb more than all of the scheduled growth in government spending for decades to come, thus continuing a downward spiral in the share of the overall budget devoted to children, education and investment more generally.
Under current Social Security formulas, ending the cap on income would mean that some fairly wealthy individuals would get benefits in excess of $1 million. Though no one thinks that that makes sense as a benefit schedule, capping benefits goes against the Social Security tradition of being paid back for additional contributions. On the technical front, an unlimited Social Security tax would also encourage individuals to reclassify labor income as capital income not subject to Social Security tax. This would be a special problem for the self-employed and owners of partnerships, since Social Security now taxes both their capital and labor income as labor income.
Finally, the Social Security Administration’s Office of the Actuary found that even with a cap on benefits, the wage base expansion would still leave the program running future deficits. We shouldn’t pretend that it does otherwise.
This column was reposted from New York Time’s Room for Debate.
While the increase in dementia among the elderly and the president’s proposal to change the index used to provide cost-of-living adjustments (or COLAs) to Social Security recipients have both received prominent headlines recently, the discussions have largely been independent of one another. Yet any principled attempt to reform our elderly programs, including Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid long-term care, should consider them together.
A well-designed reform of elderly programs could and should accommodate some of the cost problems associated with dementia by back-loading a larger share of benefits in Social Security to older ages when these and other needs of old age increase. COLA adjustments, whatever their other merits, front-load the system by cutting back on benefits for the oldest the most and those in late middle age or their 60s hardly at all. That the president and Congress have limited ability to engage in these types of discussions and tackle multiple goals at the same time is yet one more example of how our political processes increasingly block us from fixing what ails us.
In a well-cited RAND study, Michael Hurd and his coauthors estimate that dementia-related care purchased in the marketplace will cost somewhere close to $0.25 trillion in 2040 (in 2010 dollars). That sounds like and is a lot of money, but Social Security and Medicare are expected to rise to cost over $3.5 trillion in that same year. Although I am greatly simplifying by ignoring such factors as how much of the $0.25 trillion would be covered by individuals and not the government or the effect of entitlement reform on costs, the raw comparison speaks for itself.
Simply put, some of the private and public budget problems associated with dementia, Alzheimer’s, and other growing problems for the older among the elderly could be addressed by providing higher cash benefits in older ages. Whatever the aggregate size of Social Security in general, one could pay for this reform by cutting back on benefits in younger ages of Social Security “old age insurance” receipt. This would not solve all the associated problems of dementia, but it would be a simple, effective, easy-to-administer step in the right direction. And, by concentrating benefits more in older ages, it would encourage working longer at a time when employment rates for the population as a whole are scheduled to decline.
But this is not the discussion we’re having. Instead, the president and many budget reformers put forward a proposal to adapt what many believe is a better measure of cost-of-living or price changes and apply it to almost all government programs, including Social Security. As a technical matter, a COLA adjustment doesn’t affect the growth in initial Social Security benefits for those who retire, only the inflation adjustment they get after they retire. At that point, they get a small annual cut—e.g. 3/10 of 1% the first year, 6/10 of 1% the second year, and so forth—that compounds every year in retirement, so that by the time beneficiaries are in their late 80s or 90s, some 25 or 30 years of lower COLAs add up to a cut in benefits of as much as 10 percent.
Social Security has never adjusted upward the earliest retirement age for increases in life expectancy. Instead, it reduced the earliest age from 65 to 62 in 1959 and 1962. As a consequence, the share of benefits going to those with 15 or more remaining years of expected receipt has risen dramatically over time, and the share to those with, say, less than 10 years of remaining life expectancy has declined. The COLA proposal, even with some very old age adjustments suggested by the president, would add to this long-term trend of making the program ever less available in relative terms for those in truly old age.
This is not to say that the COLA proposal should not be adopted. Who can oppose trying to measure something better? But attempts to fix systems like Social Security and other elderly programs one parameter or adjustment at a time cannot easily meet multiple worthwhile objectives. Similarly, efforts to back-load the system to meet the needs of true old age, as suggested here, should be coordinated with further adjustments—say, in minimum benefits—to avoid discriminating against those with shorter life expectancies.
With or without a better COLA, therefore, reform of Social Security and other elderly programs requires a more comprehensive approach if we are to meet the needs of old age as they evolve over time. Shouldn’t dementia be a higher priority than early retirement? If we’re going to spend $3 trillion or more annually on Social Security and Medicare by 2040, do we really think that the allocation of those funds be determined by formulas set in years like 1935 or 1965 or 1977, when much of the current system was cobbled together?