Federal lawmakers have found many ways to shift the responsibility for today’s spending to tomorrow’s taxpayers. But among the most important is their habit of abandoning the fiscal discipline that should accompany government trust funds.
A new bill, the Bipartisan Trust Act, may focus new attention on this issue. Sponsored by Senators Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Joe Manchin (D-WV), Representatives Mike Gallagher (R-WI) and Ed Case (D-HI), and a bipartisan group of other members of Congress, the proposal would create commissions to recommend changes whenever a trust fund approaches insolvency and has insufficient assets to pay its bills.
The federal government operates a half-dozen major trust funds as well as a number of smaller ones. The biggest, of course, are for Medicare and Social Security, but it also operates trust funds to pay for highways, airports, military and federal civilian retirees, and unemployment insurance.
These funds implicitly obligate the government to serve as trustee for the taxes and payments collected specifically for those programs. But many trust funds chronically fall short of money and rely on the federal general fund to pay obligations.
Unlike privately established trust funds to support specific activities, where assets are accumulated to pay future obligations, programs such as Social Security and Medicare mainly operate through pay-as-you-go financing. The government immediately disburses almost all the dedicated taxes paid by current workers to recipients, generally from older generations; current workers receive benefits by depending upon succeeding generations to pay over the necessary taxes.
For decades, government has allowed the “trust fund” label to perpetuate the myth that the payroll taxes current workers pay are being held in reserve for their own Social Security and health benefits in retirement. While that is largely untrue, it does not exempt policymakers from their obligation to protect future generations by requiring that over time cumulative spending be covered by cumulative dedicated taxes.
When Franklin Roosevelt’s administration was drafting the Social Security bill in 1935, the president opposed an early version that would have left the fund in deficit by 1980. Sylvester Schieber and John Shoven, report on his objection, as recounted by his labor secretary Francis Perkins:
“This is the same old dole under another name. It is almost dishonest to build up an accumulated deficit for the Congress of the United States to meet in 1980. We can’t do that. We can’t sell the United States short in 1980 any more than in 1935.”
Unfortunately, Congress largely has abandoned this Rooseveltian degree of fiscal prudence.
Medicare may be the most striking example of this abandonment. Medicare Part A hospital insurance was funded through a piece of the Social Security payroll tax. But Congress did not want to raise taxes even more to fund Part B that covered doctors’ fees and other outpatient care. So, it funded Part B through general revenues, supplemented by premiums. A half-century later, it did the same thing for Part D drug insurance.
Yet, Congress still applied the label “trust funds” to these programs even though effectively they simply transferred general revenues to doctors, drug companies, and other health providers.
By doing so, Congress turned the public trust fund concept upside down.
Instead of limiting benefits to the amount of dedicated taxes collected on behalf of the program, Congress structured the programs to pay out open-ended benefits that generally rose with costs. Any shortfall would be taken from general funds, often financed through borrowing.
Meanwhile, even for Part A of Medicare and Social Security cash benefits, Congress historically set the tax rate too low to cover future liabilities even on an annual basis, leaving to future elected officials the responsibility to raise taxes or reduce benefits.
Then Congress played accounting games. As the Part A trust fund dwindled, Congress shifted some inpatient costs to Part B. When Social Security’s Disability Insurance trust fund was about to run out of money, Congress transferred funds from the Old Age and Survivors Insurance trust fund, leaving to a future Congress how to fill that program’s growing fiscal hole.
This takes us back to the Bipartisan Trust Act. If it becomes law, one can only hope that its reforms establish new standards for trust fund financing, at a minimum following Roosevelt’s dictum to not “sell the United States short” by requiring future taxpayers to pay even higher tax rates for obligations being incurred today.
This column first appeared on TaxVox on December 3, 2019.
Recent stories in the news raise important questions about the ability of government to impose constraints on abusive government investigations.
I’m not here to judge the credibility of the allegations that President Trump used his office to encourage foreign governments to investigate Joe Biden’s son or that a Treasury Department official interfered with audits of the President’s or Vice-President’s tax returns. Instead I want to turn to the history of the IRS to draw out important lessons in how issues such as these have been addressed in the past and then use that information as a base from which Congress can consider further guardrails to prevent future abuses. Among the possibilities are to further require, not simply offer protection for, whistle-blowing.
The first line of defense, of course, is the integrity of public officials themselves and the norms they help create. More than four decades ago, White House Counsel John Dean gave IRS Commissioner Jonnie Mac Walters a copy of President Richard Nixon’s “enemies list” that included about 200 Democrats whose tax returns he wanted audited. Walters and Treasury Secretary George Schultz agreed between themselves to throw the list into a safe and forget about it.
When Walter’s successor, Donald Alexander, discovered that a handful of IRS staffers had been assigned to investigate the returns of about 3,000 groups and 8,000 individuals, often because of their political views, he disbanded the group. Those of us who knew him are aware of how proud he was for standing up to the White House and protecting the integrity of the IRS.
Interestingly, it wasn’t until 1998 that Congress turned this normative prohibition into law. The Taxpayer Bill of Rights, part of a bill that restructured the IRS that largely came out of a Republican-led Senate, said this:
It shall be unlawful for any applicable person to request, directly or indirectly, any officer or employee of the Internal Revenue Service to conduct or terminate an audit or other investigation of any particular taxpayer with respect to the tax liability of the taxpayer.
Congress said applicable persons include the President, Vice President, and any employee of the White House and most Cabinet-level appointees.
The Taxpayer Bill of Rights made clear that Congress was concerned about protecting potential victims, not just punishing offenders. Each individual is entitled to equal justice under the law, and Congress determined that politically motivated investigations violated that justice standard. The Joint Committee on Taxation staff in their explanation of the law listed another reason: The concern that improper executive branch influence could have a “negative influence on taxpayers’ view of the tax system.”
The 1998 law not only prohibited this improper influence, it explicitly required disclosure:
Any officer or employee of the Internal Revenue Service receiving any request prohibited by subsection (a) shall report the receipt of such request to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration.
It says “shall.” Disclosure is not optional. Congress made it a crime for “any person or employee of the IRS receiving any request” to fail to report it, whether it was direct or indirect. No explicit quid pro quo necessary to get the Inspector General involved.
In the current context, the statute is clear: Anyone in the IRS, including the Commissioner, must report any improper attempt by high-level executive branch officials at interfering with audits of the president and vice-president or anyone else.
Thus, there are at least five bulwarks against inappropriate political interference with IRS investigations.
- Appointment of professionals and strong leaders who will protect the integrity of their offices;
- Social norms that most politicians would feel reluctant to violate;
- Penalties on those who interfere in the investigative process;
- A requirement that those receiving the unlawful request report it;
- Penalties on those who fail to report the request (to go along with the penalties on the requestor).
No law is perfect, and a president or other person could find their way around current law or protect others who abuse it. Still, norms and laws do constrain the quantity and extent of bad actions. So does a transparent disclosure system for revealing abuses. Even if some figure out how to violate legitimate boundaries, fences still can limit trespassing.
As citizens, and taxpayers, we all have rights to equal justice. Enforcing those rights often requires laws, as well as norms. The development of law protecting taxpayers against abuses of the IRS audit process may set an example for Congress to apply to elected officials, officers, and employees beyond the IRS and to investigations undertaken by other agencies.
This column first appeared on TaxVox on October 15, 2019
Under pressure from President Trump and worried about a worldwide economic slowdown, the Federal Reserve recently cut short-term interest rates. By continuing to push rates down, the Fed may be doubling down on a $25 trillion gamble with future costs yet to be covered.
At the same time, the Trump Administration reportedly is considering tax cuts—that would add the deficit– to boost the economy in the short term. It too may be making another giant bet, with interest and debt repayments to be made by future taxpayers.
To understand why, keep in mind that what matters when government tries to spur economic growth is not the current rate of change in fiscal or monetary policy, but the change in the rate of change. For instance, the short-term economy grows (all else equal) when the Fed accelerates the pace of growth in the money supply or when Congress increases Treasury’s rate of borrowing by cutting taxes or increasing spending. Acceleration spurs growth, deceleration dampens it.
Suppose federal borrowing rises to 4 percent of national output. In a steady economy, merely keeping borrowing at 4 percent in future years adds no new stimulus. But raising the deficit to 5 percent of GDP, or more than $1 trillion today, would stimulate growth through a larger budget deficit relative to the size of the economy. To keep the wheel spinning, Congress needs to borrow ever greater amounts—increasing the rate of change in debt accumulation. In an actual downturn, that additional borrowing would be on top of the old rate of borrowing plus the new borrowing forced by the decline in revenues—which is why many economists fear that each new fiscal gamble in good times increasingly deters future fiscal responses to a recession.
The same goes for monetary policy. Though not the only factor involved, the extraordinarily low short-term interest rates the Fed has maintained over recent years has helped promote an increase in the rate of wealth accumulation. The measured wealth of households rose from a long-term average of less than 4 times GDP to well over 5 times GDP. While that ratio fell closer to its historical level in the Great Recession, it has since risen to an all-time high. That’s about a $25 trillion increase that, if history is a guide, could become a $25 trillion loss if the ratio of wealth relative to income merely reverts to its average.
All those additional budget deficits and increases in household wealth, in turn, spur consumption. For instance, a recent NBER working paper by Gabriel Chodorow-Reich, Plament T. Nenov, and Alp Simsek suggests that a $1 increase in corporate stock wealth increases annual consumer spending by 2.8 cents. Building on that estimate, conservatively suppose each dollar increase in all types of wealth boosts annual consumption by about 2 cents. That would mean that a $25 trillion wealth bubble would spur this year’s consumption by about $500 billion, or about 2.5 percentage points of GDP more than had wealth simply grown with income.
What do you do if you’re Congress and an economy operating at full employment starts to slow down a bit? To spur the economy, you need to increase budget deficits at an even faster rate than before. If you’re the Fed thinking about sustaining or increasing consumption based on the wealth effect, then you try to maintain or increase the wealth bubble by not allowing housing or stock prices to fall.
How does this end? Science tells us: Not well. For instance, imagine an insect species identifies a new food source. The insect population will multiply rapidly until the demand from its accelerating birth rate outstrips the supply of food and the insect population crashes.
The economist Herb Stein described this phenomenon as simply and clearly as possible: “If something cannot go on forever it will stop.”
Our fiscal situation may not be that dramatic, but large budget deficits can lead to economic stress, and eventually, a crash. That has been the fear historically, though the recent experience of easy money across the globe, very low interest rates, and associated wealth bubbles may have offered a reprieve of sorts. However, interest rates that turn negative on an after-inflation, after-tax basis can lead to unproductive investments, which, in turn, can slow real economic growth even without a crash.
The modern economy may protect us in some ways. For example, the flow of international trade may mitigate economic slowdowns in any one region. And a service economy may not face some of the tougher business cycles that threaten an industrial one. But none of these factors overcomes Stein’s Law: Fiscal and monetary policy cannot always operate on an accelerating basis. To maintain the flexibility to accelerate sometimes, they must decelerate at other times.
Right now, we’re living with a $25 trillion wealth gamble by the Fed and trillion-dollar deficit bets by the Congress and the President. We’ve yet to see how it all ends and how the bills will be paid. How safe do you feel that your winnings will cover your share of those bills?
This was originally posted on TaxVox on August 29, 2019.
In his 2005 State of the State address, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger sounded like he was being chased by the new Terminator T1000: It is on automatic pilot.
It is accountable to no one. Where will it all stop? How will it stop unless we stop it?
He was not talking about a threatening cyborg but rather a school funding formula added to the California constitution by ballot initiative (Proposition 98) backed by teachers and other public school advocates.
Governors and lawmakers have long decried constitutional and statutory formulas, federal grant requirements, and court rulings that limit how they can spend money. But how much of a state’s spending is actually out of current governors’ and legislators’ control? How much have past budget decisions limited states’ “fiscal democracy”?
Focusing on six states (California, Florida, Illinois, New York, Texas, and Virginia), we estimated that anywhere from 25 to 90 percent of budgets may be predetermined. For example, at the high end of our estimates, 86 percent of California’s spending was potentially restricted in 2015. At the low end, only 40 percent of California spending was restricted in that year.
Why the big range? Because spending constraints fall along a continuum of flexibility, and there is no consistent definition of mandatory spending across states. The federal government explicitly defines “tax expenditures” and “mandatory spending” in law and reinforces these concepts through the annual budget process. But most states do not rigorously or transparently assess the long-term cost of those tax breaks and spending programs that are either fixed in size or grow automatically without policy changes.
All states treat debt service and Medicaid as required spending. But many are more flexible when it comes to how they treat spending subject to federal rules, state revenue earmarks, or court decisions. Still other spending may be tied to changes in caseloads and costs. For example, state contributions to public employee pension plans and the portion of K-12 education funding determined by a fixed formula may be considered restricted. But it depends on an individual state’s constitution and any court decisions that apply.
Then there’s politics. A consistent theme in our interviews with state budget officials was “everything is flexible, especially in a crisis.” But even if the law technically allows it, elected officials may be reluctant to take the heat for changing the rules, reducing built-in program growth, or raising taxes. For example, few elected officials want to be seen as cutting K-12 education, although failing to budget for forecasted enrollment and cost increases happens all the time.
In all, we discovered that governors and legislators must weave their way through a multifaceted and complex maze of restrictions, not just to adopt a budget and make appropriations, but also to set new priorities.
In the end, something’s got to give. Our results suggest that when so much of state budgets are fixed, programs such as poverty assistance or higher education get squeezed. State leaders also may be reluctant to undertake new initiatives, such as expanding pre-K education, that require either new money or shifting funds from more protected programs. State budget restrictions may beget more restrictions, as advocates push lawmakers to lock in spending or earmark revenues for their favored programs.
How can elected officials break this cycle? They could start with more disclosure. Public budgets should show by program the inflation-adjusted cost of maintaining existing services given projected caseload and price increases and project how that cost changes over time. Although state budget officials routinely assemble the information they need for such current services budgets, few prepare multiyear projections, use them as a baseline from which to assess new policies, and make them public.
Only by consistently examining budget commitments over time can governors, legislators, and voters understand how much flexibility state governments have to meet short- and long-term priorities, plan for the future, and, most importantly, respond to new challenges and opportunities.
This column first appeared on TaxVox.
Congress seems about ready to pass a package of about 28 retirement and pension plan changes the House calls the SECURE (Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement) Act. This bill demonstrates bipartisanship, generally good policy, and a willingness to finance its tax cuts with some offsetting tax increases, features that have been in short supply in Congress.
Still, despite its title, the SECURE Act only modestly enhances retirement security. Congress has yet again failed to tackle broad–and badly needed–reforms.
The bill’s most costly provision increases from 70 to 72 the age at which individuals must start to take required minimum distributions (RMDs) from retirement accounts. This is a modest but worthy adjustment since people are living longer than in 1974 when many of the current RMD rules were written. By 2029, this change would cost about $900 million per year.
The bill’s second most-costly provision would make it easier for employers to organize retirement plans covering workers from multiple firms. This should make it easier for smaller firms to offer retirement benefits to their employees, expanding coverage somewhat.
The bill’s biggest revenue-raiser requires children and other beneficiaries to take distributions from their inherited retirement accounts more quickly, thus forcing them to pay taxes that they otherwise would defer. Curbing a tax break that does nothing to enhance the retirement security of deceased persons who did not spend all their pension wealth would generate about $2.5 billion by 2029.
Still, the bill accomplishes very little for the population as a whole.
First, the bill tinkers with several provisions of pension law, worth a few billion in tax subsidies but is likely to have little effect on overall retirement savings in the US. The total amount of tax benefits for pension and retirement savings was about $250 billion in 2018. By 2029, annual Social Security costs are projected to increase by about $500 billion relative to 2018 in inflation-adjusted 2018 dollars. And the total value of pension and retirement accounts of all types in the US is about $25 trillion.
Second, these changes do little to address a major disincentive for people to save through tax-advantaged accounts—their complexity. While some provisions of the SECURE Act do simplify the law, many of the changes would create additional savings options and add administrative costs to savers.
Third, many of these new provisions mainly increase tax benefits that already inure to the benefit of higher income people. Low- and moderate-income people, for instance, often have little retirement saving, and, if they do, they generally can’t wait until age 72 to draw upon them. Michael Doran, in a June 10 Tax Notes article, lays this criticism on almost all recent pension tax legislation.
For decades, Congress has been unable to deal with the great inequality in retirement assets, tax subsidies for retirement, and, more generally, wealth. The result is that most households go into retirement with limited assets to support many years of old age while some households accumulate large amounts in a tax-favored fashion. I hate to criticize the SECURE Act. After all, it does represent modest progress, something sorely lacking on so many legislative fronts. But in the end, it is another missed opportunity.
This column first appeared on TaxVox.
As a long-time baseball fan, I’m happy that my office moved closer to the Washington Nationals ballpark, where I expect to take in more games this year. But I’ll do so with some misgivings, in part because of how the Nationals and their former star Bryce Harper missed an opportunity. Not because Harper left DC for the rival Philadelphia Phillies, but because Harper and the teams he negotiated with whiffed on their chance to send an important message about acting charitably toward their communities.
For months, there appeared to be large dollar differences between the kind of contract Harper sought and the contracts teams were willing to offer. Eventually, Harper signed with the Phillies who paid him $330 million over 13 years. However, there was a missed opportunity to bridge the gap between the parties. For instance, the team could have proposed to donate much of the difference to charities, a foundation or a donor advised fund at a community foundation to support Harper’s charitable efforts. This would not only have benefited others, but likely returned substantial value to Harper and the team’s owners through enhanced goodwill in the community.
The same principle could apply to other sports negotiations. For instance, a team could use a similar charitable transfer to hang onto a popular older player who is less productive than he once was and whose high-dollar re-signing would create potential problems with salary caps and luxury taxes. The team could pay him less in salary and shift some of the difference to his favorite charity.
Even beyond sports, donations to charity can be a great way to mediate differences in all sorts of disputes. It can work for business contracts, lawsuits, or even divorces. Because of their visibility, however, athletes and team owners have a unique opportunity to demonstrate how to convert dollar disputes into charitable benefits.
Yet, a foundation official who previously worked for a major sports team told me that she had never seen charitable giving in the playbook of either teams or professional athletes. But just as Bill and Melinda Gates drove charitable giving among fellow billionaires through their “Giving Pledge” initiative, a group of team owners could do the same among their sports connections. They could even hire famous retired athletes who have a record of generosity to lead the effort.
Let’s face it, communities contribute substantially to these owners and players, not just by buying tickets but through considerable taxpayer support. The federal government exempts Major League Baseball from antitrust laws. State and local governments often grant teams concessions through tax breaks, zoning rules, development of roads or public transportation to ballparks, and much more. And much of the income of successful team owners comes in the form of accrued capital gains that may never be subject to income tax.
Of course, some players and team owners already are generous donors to their communities—often quietly. But the press rarely provides a thorough accounting of owners’ and players’ charitable efforts. Indeed, the pizza joint that donates $10 per home run gets vastly more attention than the charitable giving—or lack of giving—by athletes and team owners.
A charitable gift in lieu of a portion of salary can raise tax and other issues. For instance, the money may be more valuable if it is first given to the player, who would in turn donate it to charity (the IRS might deem the contribution to essentially be the player’s compensation in either event). And, this approach would also raise the issue of whether the donated money would be counted as compensation subject to league rules on salary caps and luxury taxes. Those challenges could be overcome, and the likely outcome favorable because owners would not want to be seen as creating rules that “taxed” charitable contributions.
The real issue, though, is whether some future Bryce Harper will step to the plate and hit a home run for the community. Let’s hope so.
On June 21, the family and friends of Alice Rivlin joined with much of Washington’s public policy community to celebrate her life and extraordinary public service. This note represents only a small addition to the outpouring of tributes made to her.
This column first appeared on TaxVox.
Alice Rivlin, who passed away on May 14, was among the greatest public servants of the modern era. I admired her so much that I once told her I’d quit my job and join her campaign if she would run for president. Even in a likely loss, it would be a winning proposition, I asserted, to finally have someone honest and forthright in a presidential debate.
A few years ago, George Kopits, now at the Wilson Center, asked Alice and me to write chapters on the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) for a book he edited on independent fiscal institutions. Alice was as famous among budget experts abroad as she was in the US for her role as founding director of CBO–widely regarded as the best and most independent fiscal institution in the world.
Along with her immediate successors, Rudy Penner and Robert Reischauer, Alice created two crucial roles for CBO. First, of course, it assessed the macroeconomic and budgetary consequences of existing and new policies. But despite a fair amount of Congressional opposition, CBO did more than cost estimates. It also assessed the efficiency and distributional effects of programs.
Her chapter, “Politics and Independent Analysis,” (Restoring Public Debt Sustainability: the Role of Independent Fiscal Institutions, Oxford, 2013) described how an institution could tell politicians what they didn’t want to hear and still thrive. Few other countries, even the most democratic, have succeeded in creating a fiscal institution with the same degree of independence as CBO. And in today’s political environment, it is risky to take such institutions for granted.
Increasingly, these non-partisan technocratic organizations are threatened by those who want to control the policy narrative. An effort to create an independent fiscal institution in Hungary, first headed up by George Kopits, became one of the first casualties of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government. In the US, CBO is increasingly important as executive branch agencies become more politicized by presidents who want to control the public narrative. In her 2017 keynote speech at an OECD conference, Alice reaffirmed her lifetime devotion to principles of good governance at a time when they are being challenged by governments at home and abroad.
Alice always was being asked to take on new tasks. Fortunately, her commitment to good citizenship often overcame her reluctance. A few years ago, already in her eighties, she agreed to temporarily lead the health policy group at the Brookings Institution– not because she wanted to, but because she thought it was important.
In the late 1990s, Alice reluctantly took on the thankless role of chairing the District of Columbia’s Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority (known as the Control Board). Carol Thompson Cole, now the president and CEO of Venture Philanthropy Partners (an organization that invests in children and youth throughout the Greater Washington area) helped convince Alice to take on the difficult task. Carol told her the board needed her prestige and trustworthiness to establish the stability and stature it needed to get the District’s finances under control. Once she accepted the role, Alice used her skills and good will to help set the District on a solid fiscal path.
One of my fondest Alice stories comes from Bo Cutter. In the early days of Bill Clinton’s presidency, Bo, now at the Roosevelt Institute, was a senior White House economic adviser and Alice was deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.
Like candidates before him, Clinton had promised more in his campaign than he could deliver. In his case, he pledged more spending and tax cuts even as he pled for fiscal sanity. At an early meeting of budget advisers, Clinton was furious that by laying out the fiscal facts, his staff was forcing him to backtrack on his promises. Alice responded, “But Mr. President, you are president and now we have to decide.” As they were leaving, Alice explained to Bo that “the most relevant training [for her job] is being a mother.”
Of course, these are only a few of the many great stories about Alice, one of the most brilliant, modest, resourceful, and effective policy makers and analysts I have had the privilege of knowing.
Thanks to Carol Thompson Cole, Bo Cutter, and George Kopits for sharing these anecdotes.
Federal tax and spending policies are worsening the problem of economic inequality. But the tax breaks that overwhelmingly benefit the wealthy are only part of the challenge. The increasing diversion of government spending toward income supports and away from opportunity-building programs also is undermining social comity and, ironically, locking in wealth inequality.
Many flawed tax policies are rooted in the ability of affluent households to delay or even avoid tax on the returns from their wealth. By putting off the sale of assets, wealth holders can avoid tax on capital gains that are accrued but not realized. At death, deferred and unrecognized capital gains are exempted from income tax altogether because heirs reset the basis of the assets to their value on the date of death.
While individuals and corporations recognize taxable gains only when they sell assets, they may immediately deduct interest and other expenses. This tax arbitrage makes possible everything from tax shelters to the low taxation of the earnings of multinational companies.
Recent changes in the law have further eroded taxes on wealth. Once, the US taxed capital income at higher rates than labor income, today it does the reverse. For instance, the 2017 tax law sharply lowered the top corporate rate from 35 percent to 21 percent, but trimmed the top individual statutory rate on labor earnings only from 39.6 percent to 37 percent.
In theory, low- and middle-income taxpayers could use these wealth building tools as well. But the data suggest that the path to wealth accumulation eludes most of them, partly because they save only a small share of their income. Even those who do save $100,000 or $200,000 in home equity or in a retirement account earning, say, 5 percent per year may never reap more than $1,000 or so in tax savings annually.
To understand what has been happening to the relative position of the non-wealthy, we need to dig a little into the numbers. Economics professor Edward Wolff of New York University discovered that in 2016 the poorest two-fifths of households had, on average, accumulated less than $3,000 and the middle fifth only $101,000. Trends in debt tell part of the story. From 1983 to 2016, debt grew faster than gross assets for most households–except for those near the top of the wealth pyramid.
It’s not that the government doesn’t aid those with less means. But almost government transfers support consumption, and only indirectly promote opportunity.
Consider the extent to which the largest of these programs, Social Security, has encouraged people to retire while they could still work.
Because of longer life expectancy and, until recently, earlier retirement, a typical American now lives in retirement for 13 more years than when Social Security first started paying benefits in 1940.That’s a lot fewer years of earning and saving, and a lot more years of receiving benefits and drawing down whatever personal wealth they hold.
Annual federal, state, and local government spending from all sources, including tax subsidies, now totals more than $60,000 per household—about $35,000 in direct support for individuals.Yet, increasingly, less and less of it comes in the form of investment or help when people are young. Thus, assuming modest growth in the economy and those supports over time, a typical child born today can expect to receive about $2 million in direct assistance from government. In the meantime, however, government has (a) scheduled smaller shares of national income to assist people when young and in prime ages for learning and developing their human capital, (b) reduced support for their higher education in ways that has now led to $1.4 trillion of student debt being borne by young adults without a corresponding increase in their earning power, and (c) offered little to bolster the productivity of workers.
Any number of programs could have a place in encouraging economic mobility, among them beefed-up access to job training and apprenticeships for non-college goers; wage subsidies that reward work; subsidies for first-time homebuyers in lieu of subsidies for borrowing; a mortgage policy aimed more at wealth building; and promotion of a few thousand dollars of liquid assets in lieu of high-cost borrowing as a source of emergency funds — you get the point. However, in one recent study, I found that federal initiatives to promote opportunity—many in the tax code—have never been a large fraction of government spending or tax programs and are scheduled to decline as a share of GDP.
It would be naïve to assume that fixing any of this will be easy. Republicans seem committed to reducing (not increasing) taxes on the wealthy, while Democrats reflexively support redistribution to those less well off, even when their proposals reduce incentives to save and work. But until we fix both sides of this equation, don’t expect government policy to succeed in distributing wealth more equally. After all, simply leveling wealth from the top still will leave the large number of households holding zero wealth with zero percent of all societal wealth.