Social Security a Ponzi Scheme?, 09/08/11

Far from it.  Political rhetoric aside, retired citizens need Social Security, and they desperately need to continue to receive it.  The latest (2008) breakdown of IRS data on personal income sources reveals that 46% of retirement age taxpayers depend upon Social Security for a quarter of their income, and a quarter of Social Security recipients depend upon their benefit for 99% of their income.  Clearly, Social Security serves a fundamental and necessary purpose.  But, there is an inherent flaw in the funding concept and it needs to be addressed.

The System has been stressed by the declining ratio of workers to beneficiaries in support of the system on a pay-as-you-go method.   These paid insurance premiums have gone into the Social Security Trust Fund (SSTF), which has paid benefits to retirees and the balance has been “accumulated.”  As of 1969, however, the SSTF surplus was consolidated with the nation’s general revenues, and these funds have been borrowed to reflect a smaller annual deficit.

As more of the ageing population retires, the burden is borne by a decreasing ratio to workers.  The System is not bankrupt, and has been saved from projected deficits by increases to the income tax base and the percentage tax against that base.   (See the following table.)

Ratio: Income Base % Income Base Total
Workers/ (Combined Employer Combined
Retirees + Employee) Contribution









































We cannot blame the actuaries who projected the Social Security cash flow in 1937.   Statistically in 1940, the average life span was 54 years for men and 61 years for women.  While it is true that only half the population was projected to collect their benefit (at age 65), the projections were based upon accurate average payments of 12.7 years for men and 14.7 years for women.

Lifespan after retirement has improved, but the increase in longevity is not the major reason for future projected Social Security outlay deficits.  (One cannot look to the life-span data from birth in 1937 and compare that to today, when so many childhood diseases have been defeated.  Adult life beyond retirement age has improved and lengthened due to advances in medicine.  The average man reaching 65 years of age in 1990 can expect to live another 15.3 years and the average woman 19.6, an average increase of 5 years since 1940.) The big problem in the funding forecast is the shrinkage in the numbers of retired individuals vs. the worker tax base, and the pay-go method of funding conceived at the beginning of the program.   The ratio of workers to retirees has dropped from 159 in 1937, to 16.5 in 1950, to 5.1 in 1960 to 2.9 and shrinking in 2010.

Returning to the revenue shortfall, according to the Congressional Budget Office, “In calendar year 2010, Social Security’s outlays will exceed tax revenues (that is, the trust funds’ receipts excluding interest) for the first time since the enactment of the Social Security Amendments of 1983. Over the next few years, CBO projects,the program’s tax revenues will be approximately equal to its outlays. However, as more of the baby-boom generation (that is, people born between 1946 and 1964) enters retirement, outlays will increase relative to the size of the economy, whereas tax revenues will remain at an almost constant share of the economy. Starting in 2016, CBO projects, outlays as scheduled under current law will regularly exceed tax revenues.

CBO projects that the DI trust fund will be exhausted in fiscal year 2018 and that the OASI trust fund will be exhausted in 2042.”

What’s to be done?  Changing the tax base from worker income to a VAT consumption tax would benefit the economy.  Workers would expect to receive an increase in pay equal to their contributions, which would no longer be collected.  Employers would no longer have a significant add-on drag to employment.  Everyone would have an incentive to save more rather than spend.  Imports would carry an equal burden to domestic production and exports would not be burdened, so U.S. goods and services would be more competitive at home and abroad.

Yes, this is a game change, a redistribution of the burden from the youth to the elderly.  A legitimate argument can be made that retirees would be paying twice for their benefit, but this could be resolved by an increase in Social Security payments to offset the VAT for the majority of taxpayers.  It is a fact that most of the wealth of the country is in the hands of the older citizens, and it is unfair to burden the youth of this country for the benefit of those with means.  Wealthier citizens of retirement age should be willing to sacrifice to not unfairly indenture the youth and workforce of the country.

Alternatively, Social Security could again be saved by lifting the cap on the tax base and increasing the percentage of the Payroll Tax.   Far better that we use this challenge as an opportunity to make the U.S. more competitive in this era of globalization.


NRF Distorts Domenici-Rivlin Sales Tax, 11/18/10

The National Retail Federation has it in for consumption taxes and wrongly opposes the Domenici-Rivlin plan, “Restoring America’s Future” from the Bipartisan Policy Center. NRF fears the short-term losses that might occur from an increase in prices. Fair enough. But, the Ernst & Young study they funded looks only to the effect of an ADD-ON value added tax, and that is not what the Domenici-Rivlin deficit reduction package is all about. (E&Y cannot be faulted; they were given the assignment to look only at an add-on VAT and not a VAT substitute for other taxes.)

First and foremost, D-R is intended to get the economy on a firm footing for growth, and they do this with an initial stimulus for jobs that puts money in the hands of consumers. NRF should really like that. The Deficit Reduction Sales Tax proposed in D-R is 3% in the first year, and rises to 6.5% thereafter, but it is offset in the first year by a payroll tax holiday for both employers and employees (combined 12.4%). Employers will have a reduced burden for employment, and that should help stimulate jobs. Employees will have extra cash in their pockets which when spent will be an off-budget stimulus to the economy. will be a boost to the economy and retail sales.

NRF is simply wrong-headed on this. The payroll tax cut and increase in consumer income in the Domenici-Rivlin plan will be good for retail business, jobs, and the economy.

Domenici-Rivlin, “Restoring America’s Future,” The Debt Reduction Task Force,, 11/17/10

“Phase-in a Debt Reduction Sales Tax (DRST)

The tax reforms described above greatly simplify the income tax system, and make it fairer and more economically efficient. The combination of reduced tax expenditures and lower individual and corporate rates, however, leaves federal revenue roughly unchanged through 2020 and does not raise enough revenue to reduce the debt sufficiently in the long term, as population aging and rising healthcare costs drive up the cost of entitlements. Building on the base of a greatly improved income tax, with strengthened provisions that support low- and moderate-wage working families and retirees, the nation can add an additional source of revenue to reduce the debt without sacrificing fairness or economic growth.

The Task Force proposes a new broad-based tax on goods and services, the Debt Reduction Sales Tax (or DRST), that will phase in over two years to a rate of 6.5 percent (3 percent in 2012, and 6.5 percent from 2013 onward). A national sales tax has many advantages compared to increases in income tax rates. It does not tax the return to saving and investment, so it will not provide a disincentive for long-run wealth accumulation or for the capital accumulation needed to generate economic growth. Unlike an increase in the corporate income tax rate, the sales tax does not provide an incentive to shift investment overseas. Because a sales tax is based on domestic consumption instead of production (see below), preferences for some goods and services, unlike income tax preferences, will not affect the relative costs of producing different goods and services in the United States, and therefore does not place some industries at a competitive disadvantage. The proposed DRST will be consistent with international norms and easy to coordinate with the tax systems of other countries, while allowing the United States to set whatever specific exemptions it deems appropriate.

The DRST will be designed roughly like the national sales taxes in effect in over 150 countries around the world, including all of our major trading partners. Businesses pay tax on all of their sales, but receive credits for taxes that their suppliers pay when they purchase materials and capital goods from other firms. Final consumers in the United States, however, will not be able to claim credits on their purchases. The resulting total tax will be the same as for a tax collected from retailers only, but collecting the tax in stages from all businesses has two very large advantages over the form of retail sales tax used by most states in the country.

First, collecting it in stages facilitates tax compliance because businesses that try to operate outside the system will lose their ability to claim credits for purchases from other firms. By contrast, under a retail sales tax, if the retailer fails to pay the tax, the tax that should have been imposed on the entire value of the goods and services he or she sells is lost to the government.

Second, collecting the tax in stages reduces the “cascading” that occurs with a retail sales tax, under which sellers have difficulty distinguishing between sales to other businesses and sales to final consumers. Under most current state retail sales taxes, an estimated 40 percent of receipts come from business-to-business sales; consequently, some goods and services bear several levels of tax, first when sold to a business and then when resold to the final consumer. In contrast, under a multi-stage tax, there is no need to separate sales to different purchasers; all sales are taxable, but business purchasers can wipe out the tax liability from the prior sale by claiming a credit for the tax that the supplier pays.

Following international practice, the DRST will exempt exports (allowing exporters to claim credits on purchases, but pay no tax on sales) and tax imports (requiring importers to pay tax on sales, but allowing them no credit on purchases). Contrary to some assertions, these rules do not amount to either an export subsidy or an import tax (and they are allowed under international trade agreements). These “border adjustments” merely ensure that the tax base is domestic consumption only. Goods and services produced for domestic use bear the same tax burden whether produced in the United States or overseas. Goods and services produced for foreign consumers bear no U.S. sales tax, whether exported from the United States or produced overseas.

The tax will fall on a very broad base that includes most goods and services. However, government services, services produced by charitable organizations, educational activities, the imputed value of financial services (services that financial institutions finance by paying reduced interest to depositors instead of charging them explicit fees – like free checking) and government subsidies to health care (Medicare and Medicaid expenses, for example) will be exempt from the tax. Housing rents will be untaxed, but sales of new homes and rental properties will be taxable. All other consumer goods and services, including privately funded healthcare costs, food and beverages, clothing, legal and accounting services, and many other items not typically captured by state retail sales taxes, will be included in the tax base. Overall, about 75 percent of personal consumption expenditures will be subject to tax.

Using a broad base to tax consumption follows the practice of countries that have recently adopted national sales taxes (Australia, Canada, and New Zealand), compared with those that enacted such a tax earlier (the United Kingdom, France, and other European countries), whose tax bases are typically riddled with exemptions. A broad base allows lower rates to raise the same revenue as a narrow-base tax with higher rates. The broad base also creates many fewer compliance problems, because it avoids many issues that exemptions raise in determining which items are taxable and which are not. Exemptions for items that are considered necessities (food and clothing) – intended to make the tax less regressive – have little effect on the distribution of the tax burden because higher-income people generally consume the same broad classes of products and services, just higher-quality and more-expensive versions. Thus, exemptions are typically ineffective. A better way to make a sales tax less regressive is to give taxpayers a broad-based rebate, either as a lump-sum grant or an earnings subsidy – as the Task Force plan does.

The main objections raised to a national sales tax of this type are that it is regressive; it interferes with a revenue source that has historically been used exclusively by the states; and it would be a hidden tax that would facilitate excessive growth in government spending. However, these problems are either overstated or surmountable:

• Regressive Burden of the Tax: Merely substituting a sales tax for our current income tax would make the tax system less progressive, raising tax burdens on low- and middle-income families and lowering tax burdens on high-income families. But a more-modest sales tax can be one component of a tax system that is, on balance, even more progressive than today’s, just as the regressive payroll tax is part of our currently progressive federal tax system. The Task Force plan offsets the burden of the DRST on lower-income families through enhanced tax benefits in the form of new refundable credits for children and for the first $20,300 of each worker’s earnings.

• Competition with the States: States may object to a new multi-stage federal sales tax on the ground that it interferes with a tax base that has to date been reserved for them. But state retail sales tax bases have been eroding over time, as untaxed services account for a growing share of economic activity, and more and more products sold on the Internet have escaped state sales tax collections. States will benefit from piggy-backing their taxes on top of a broad-based federal sales tax. State tax authorities will benefit from access to IRS data from sales tax returns, just as they now rely on the IRS to help them enforce state income taxes. The recent experience with Canada’s goods and services tax suggests that sales taxes of sub-national governments can co-exist with a national multi-stage sales tax within a federal system.

• A Sales Tax as a “Money Machine”: A sales tax need not be hidden; the law can require that the amount of tax be itemized on sales receipts, as is now the practice in Canadian provinces and in many U.S. states. It would be no easier for Congress to raise the DRST than to raise income tax rates. Moreover, the 6.5 percent level of the DRST will be sufficient to keep the public debt stabilized below 60 percent of GDP for the foreseeable future.”