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Why not growth?

August 4th, 2014

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Democrats’ intense focus on income inequality is understandable, but why not the same obsession over economic growth?

From 2001 to 2013, a span of thirteen years, average annual growth in the United States came out to a lumbering 1.8 percent. That is half the average annual growth rate we experienced from 1950 to 2000 —a period during which the middle class shined and the poverty rate declined.

Yes, the Great Recession contributed to substandard growth rates, but since 2001, the U.S. economy has exceeded 3 percent growth only twice. In the half century prior, we surpassed 3 percent growth per year 34 times. What was once “normal” growth is now a rarity.

Economists predict that America’s future growth rate will settle somewhere between mediocre and sickly. The Congressional Budget Office projects an average of 2.5 percent annual growth over the next ten years, while PricewaterhouseCoopers projects an average of 2.4 percent growth through 2020. Middling growth like that just won’t make an appreciable difference in the lives of average working people.

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More on our Minimum Pension

April 10th, 2014

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We appreciate EPI’s comments on our New York Times op-ed in which we unveil a new proposal for a minimum pension. Ms. Morrissey poses several questions and calculations that we wish to answer.

Ms. Morrissey argues that a life-cycle account with its mix of stocks and bonds is too aggressive an investment for worker pensions. We respectfully disagree. However, this is immaterial because investors in our Savings Plan for Universal Retirement (SPUR) accounts would have a choice of fund options just as federal employees have today under the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP). Individuals could choose less aggressive or more aggressive options, but each fund would be well-diversified. The TSP, with fees only a fraction of those charged for 401 (k) plans, is working well for millions of current and former federal employees. A similar set-up, with low fees and diversified funds, should work well for everyone else.

Ms. Morrissey’s estimated cost to business is wildly inflated. She asserts the plan would generate new costs for the employers of all 165 million workers covered by Social Security. To reiterate from the op-ed, any employer that provides a retirement plan that is at least as generous as our proposal would face no new requirements. That would include virtually every public employee, teacher, cop, nurse, firefighter, municipal trash collector, and congressional employee. Practically any private company that provides a defined benefit or defined contribution to a plan would fulfill the requirement. That includes most white collar jobs, most union jobs, as well as jobs at think tanks like Third Way and, presumably, EPI. And as our forthcoming idea brief will explain, those who have already reached retirement age, would not have to participate.

According to the Employee Benefit Research Institute, 43 million full-time, full-year workers ages 21-64 are not currently enrolled in an employer-sponsored plan. Another 30 million part-time or part-year workers in the same age group would be affected, but their enrollment would be less expensive since the cost is based on hours worked. So in total, the magnitude of required new contributions would be about one third of what Ms. Morrissey estimates. More importantly, this is not a lost cost to businesses. It will improve the quality of their employment packages and raise the compensation of their workers. And, unlike health premiums, a minimum pension is a fixed, predictable, cost.

Still, the cost to business is real, particularly in the near-term, because wages are “sticky-down.” That is, employers are averse to cutting wages in nominal terms. So they are likely to bear most of the cost in the early years. To help employers start contributing—and to keep even modest downward pressure on working people’s wages at bay—government can pick up some of the tab. For example, modest adjustments to the maximum allowable contributions to 401 (k)-type plans would raise nearly $100 billion, according to the CBO. This revenue could be applied to help offset the costs to small and medium-sized businesses.

Ms. Morrissey also writes that workers could still outlive their savings if they opt out of an annuity and take their nest egg in a lump sum at retirement. Our plan’s default option is an annuity, which would last for the life of the owner, because we think that’s best. But if a worker prefers to take a lump sum or withdraw at her own pace, she should have that right. After all, it’s her money.

Finally, there is Social Security. Our proposal has no more impact on Social Security than private sector retirement plans do now. And nothing in our proposal will change the fact that Social Security is scheduled to become insolvent in 2031. Some believe solvency should be achieved by raising taxes alone. Some believe it should be achieved solely by cutting benefits. And some believe it will require a combination of the two. We fall into the latter category and believe it can be done while increasing benefits for low-income seniors. But that is separate and apart from our minimum pension proposal.

Capitalize Workers!

April 7th, 2014

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Raising the minimum wage has justifiably captured policy makers’ attention, but if the goal is to materially raise living standards for every American worker, we should also be calling for a minimum pension. Done right, this would not only create real wealth for the middle and working classes, it would use the power of financial markets to reduce wealth disparity instead of widening it.

There is a vast difference in the way the wealthy and the rest of Americans earn their money. In 2010, 60 cents of every dollar earned by those in the top 1 percent came from investments and businesses they owned. For the middle class, it was 6 cents.

For decades, the returns to capital have far outstripped the returns to labor. Before the mid-1980s, worker salaries constituted 65 percent of national income. In 2012, they were 58 percent. Economists rightly fret over how this contributes to wealth inequality. Well, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. If all working people, whatever their wage, could get a piece of these gains, it would improve their financial well-being exponentially. This is where the minimum pension comes in.

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Response to “Conscience of a Liberal”

December 6th, 2013

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In a recent blog post, Paul Krugman writes of Third Way’s “fact-free denunciations of progressives for not being willing to cut entitlements.” In response, I offer three points.

First, Mr. Krugman says the “[Social Security] system might possibly have to pay lower benefits in the future.” If you believe the Congressional Budget Office or the Social Security Actuaries, there is no “might possibly” about it. Without changes to either benefits or revenue, the Social Security Trust Fund will be insolvent. The only question is whether that occurs in 2031 (CBO) or 2033 (the actuaries).

Second, our support for balanced fixes to Social Security and Medicare is not to reach some magic budget number, but based on the fact that over the past five decades the balance of federal spending has shifted. At the dawn of the Great Society in the 1960s, federal investments (as defined by the Office of Management and Budget) outstripped federal entitlement spending three-to-one. While that balance obviously needed to change to address poverty and elderly health care, by last year the ratio flipped to one-to-three. In ten years, the ratio will be five dollars for the three major entitlement programs for every one dollar in federal investments. As we’ve seen with the recent budget deals and sequestration, investment programs are the first on the chopping block and entitlements are treated as sacrosanct.

Third, Mr. Krugman says that it is his “strong guess” that Third Way means “raising the retirement age” to address Medicare cost containment. That is incorrect. We do not support raising the retirement age for Medicare eligibility. He also says that we do not offer any ideas to reduce Medicare spending, but on our website are several ideas to do so. They include means testing Medicare premiums for high income seniors, dealing with end of life care, bundled payments to improve care and reduce duplicative treatment, and medical homes. And of course, we fought alongside other progressive groups in Washington to pass the Affordable Care Act.

To be sure, Republicans have been intransigent in their refusal to consider new taxes and their opposition to the Medicare cost saving measures in the ACA. But we believe that Democrats must also be willing to take on some sacred cows if we are going to be able to invest in the future and meet our obligations to our seniors and our poor.

Economic Populism Is a Dead End for Democrats

December 3rd, 2013

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If you talk to leading progressives these days, you’ll be sure to hear this message: The Democratic Party should embrace the economic populism of New York Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Such economic populism, they argue, should be the guiding star for Democrats heading into 2016. Nothing would be more disastrous for Democrats.

While New Yorkers think of their city as the center of the universe, the last time its mayor won a race for governor or senator—let alone president—was 1869. For the past 144 years, what has happened in the Big Apple stayed in the Big Apple. Some liberals believe Sen. Warren would be the Democratic Party’s strongest presidential candidate in 2016. But what works in midnight-blue Massachusetts—a state that has had a Republican senator for a total of 152 weeks since 1979—hasn’t sold on a national level since 1960.

The political problems of liberal populism are bad enough. Worse are the actual policies proposed by left-wing populists. The movement relies on a potent “we can have it all” fantasy that goes something like this: If we force the wealthy to pay higher taxes (there are 300,000 tax filers who earn more than $1 million), close a few corporate tax loopholes, and break up some big banks then—presto!—we can pay for, and even expand, existing entitlements. Meanwhile, we can invest more deeply in K-12 education, infrastructure, health research, clean energy and more.

Social Security is exhibit A of this populist political and economic fantasy. A growing cascade of baby boomers will be retiring in the coming years, and the Social Security formula increases their initial benefits faster than inflation. The problem is that since 2010 Social Security payouts to seniors have exceeded payroll taxes collected from workers. This imbalance widens inexorably until it devours the entire Social Security Trust Fund in 2031, according to the Congressional Budget Office. At that point, benefits would have to be slashed by about 23%.

Undeterred by this undebatable solvency crisis, Sen. Warren wants to increase benefits to all seniors, including billionaires, and to pay for them by increasing taxes on working people and their employers. Her approach requires a $750 billion tax hike over the next 10 years that hits mostly Millennials and Gen Xers, plus another $750 billion tax on the businesses that employ them.

Even more reckless is the populists’ staunch refusal to address the coming Medicare crisis. In 2030, a typical couple reaching the eligibility age of 65 will have paid $180,000 in lifetime Medicare taxes but will get back $664,000 in benefits. Given that this disparity will be completely unaffordable, Sen. Warren and her acolytes are irresponsibly pushing off budget decisions that will guarantee huge benefit cuts and further tax hikes for Gen Xers and Millennials in a few decades.

As for the promise that unrestrained entitlements won’t harm kids and public investments like infrastructure, public schools and college financial aid, haven’t we seen this movie before? In the 1960s, the federal government spent $3 on such investments for every $1 on entitlements.

Today, the ratio is flipped. In 10 years, we will spend $5 on the three major entitlement programs (Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid) for every $1 on public investments. And that is without the new expansion of entitlement benefits that the Warren wing of the Democratic Party is proposing. Liberal populists do not even attempt to address this collision course between the Great Society safety net and the New Frontier investments.

On the same day that Bill de Blasio won in New York City, a referendum to raise taxes on high-income Coloradans to fund public education and universal pre-K failed in a landslide. This is the type of state that Democrats captured in 2008 to realign the national electoral map, and they did so through offering a vision of pragmatic progressive government, not fantasy-based blue-state populism. Before Democrats follow Sen. Warren and Mayor-elect de Blasio over the populist cliff, they should consider Colorado as the true 2013 Election Day harbinger of American liberalism.

This piece was originally published via The Wall Street Journal. 

A Deal on Social Security Hiding in Plain Sight

October 23rd, 2013

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Starting this year, seniors new to Social Security can expect to be pickpocketed. While Congress was fighting over default, the Congressional Budget Office quietly moved up its projected date for Social Security insolvency to 2031. In that year, without a fix to the program, recipients will take an immediate and draconian 23 percent cut in benefits.  So a majority of new retirees today will face a meaningful cut in payments in their lifetime.

We need to fix this, and the newly created budget conference appointed at the conclusion of the debt ceiling crisis is the place to do it. It may seem impossible for a dysfunctional Congress to touch the “third rail” of politics given its disappointing performance in all areas. But a deal on Social Security may not be as far-fetched as it seems.
First, there is more agreement on Social Security solutions among Democrats and Republicans than meets the eye. And second, a deal to fix Social Security may be the only way to make progress on every fiscal issue that concerns Democrats and Republicans—from sequester to the debt ceiling—providing an incentive for both parties to act.

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