The 81% Tax Increase
Bruce Bartlett, 05.15.09, 12:00 AM EDT
To pay for government's promises on Social Security and Medicare.
This week, the federal government published two important reports on long-term budgetary trends. They both show that we are on an unsustainable path that will almost certainly result in massively higher taxes.
The first report is from the trustees of the Social Security system. News reports emphasized that the date when its trust fund will be exhausted is now four years earlier than estimated last year. But in truth, this is an utterly meaningless fact because the trust fund itself is economically meaningless.
The 2010 budget, which was finally released this week, confirms this fact. As it explains in Chapter 21, government trust funds bear no meaningful comparison to those in the private sector. Whereas the beneficiary of a private trust fund legally owns the income from it, the same is not true of a government trust fund, which is really nothing but an accounting device.
Most Americans believe that the Social Security trust fund contains a pot of money that is sitting somewhere earning interest to pay their benefits when they retire. On paper this is true; somewhere in a Treasury Department ledger there are $2.4 trillion worth of assets labeled "Social Security trust fund."
The problem is that by law 100% of these "assets" are invested in Treasury securities. Therefore, the trust fund does not have any actual resources with which to pay Social Security benefits. It's as if you wrote an IOU to yourself; no matter how large the IOU is it doesn't increase your net worth.
This fact is documented in the budget, which says on page 345: "The existence of large trust fund balances … does not, by itself, increase the government's ability to pay benefits. Put differently, these trust fund balances are assets of the program agencies and corresponding liabilities of the Treasury, netting to zero for the government as a whole."
Consequently, whether there is $2.4 trillion in the Social Security trust fund or $240 trillion has no bearing on the federal government's ability to pay benefits that have been promised. In a very technical sense, it would lose the ability to pay benefits in excess of current tax revenues once the trust fund is exhausted. But long before that date Congress would simply change the law to explicitly allow general revenues to be used to pay Social Security benefits, something it could easily do in a day.
The trust fund is better thought of as budget authority giving the federal government legal permission to use general revenues to pay Social Security benefits when current Social Security taxes are insufficient to pay current benefits--something that will happen in 2016. Effectively, general revenues will finance Social Security when the trust fund redeems its Treasury bonds for cash to pay benefits.
What really matters is not how much money is in the Social Security trust fund or when it is exhausted, but how much Social Security benefits have been promised and how much total revenue the government will need to pay them.
The answer to this question can be found on page 63 of the trustees report. It says that the payroll tax rate would have to rise 1.9% immediately and permanently to pay all the benefits that have been promised over the next 75 years for Social Security and disability insurance.
But this really understates the problem because there are many people alive today who will be drawing Social Security benefits more than 75 years from now. Economists generally believe that the appropriate way of calculating the program's long-term cost is to do so in perpetuity, adjusted for the rate of interest, something called discounting or present value.
Social Security's actuaries make such a calculation on page 64. It says that Social Security's unfunded liability in perpetuity is $17.5 trillion (treating the trust fund as meaningless). The program would need that much money today in a real trust fund outside the government earning a true return to pay for all the benefits that have been promised over and above future Social Security taxes. In effect, the capital stock of the nation would have to be $17.5 trillion larger than it is right now. Alternatively, the payroll tax rate would have to rise by 4%.
To put it another way, Social Security's unfunded liability equals 1.3% of the gross domestic product. So if we were to fund its deficit with general revenues, income taxes would have to rise by 1.3% of GDP immediately and forever. With the personal income tax raising about 10% of GDP in coming years, according to the Congressional Budget Office, this means that every taxpayer would have to pay 13% more just to make sure that all Social Security benefits currently promised will be paid.
As bad as that is, however, Social Security's problems are trivial compared to Medicare's. Its trustees also issued a report this week. On page 69 we see that just part A of that program, which pays for hospital care, has an unfunded liability of $36.4 trillion in perpetuity. The payroll tax rate would have to rise by 6.5% immediately to cover that shortfall or 2.8% of GDP forever. Thus every taxpayer would face a 28% increase in their income taxes if general revenues were used to pay future Medicare part A benefits that have been promised over and above revenues from the Medicare tax.
But this is just the beginning of Medicare's problems, because it also has two other programs: part B, which covers doctor's visits, and part D, which pays for prescription drugs.
The unfunded portion of Medicare part B is already covered by general revenues under current law. The present value of that is $37 trillion or 2.8% of GDP in perpetuity according to the trustees report (p. 111). The unfunded portion of Medicare part D, which was rammed into law by George W. Bush and a Republican Congress in 2003, is also covered by general revenues under current law and has a present value of $15.5 trillion or 1.2% of GDP forever (p. 127).
To summarize, we see that taxpayers are on the hook for Social Security and Medicare by these amounts: Social Security, 1.3% of GDP; Medicare part A, 2.8% of GDP; Medicare part B, 2.8% of GDP; and Medicare part D, 1.2% of GDP. This adds up to 8.1% of GDP. Thus federal income taxes for every taxpayer would have to rise by roughly 81% to pay all of the benefits promised by these programs under current law over and above the payroll tax.
Since many taxpayers have just paid their income taxes for 2008 they may have their federal returns close at hand. They all should look up the total amount they paid and multiply that figure by 1.81 to find out what they should be paying right now to finance Social Security and Medicare.
To put it another way, the total unfunded indebtedness of Social Security and Medicare comes to $106.4 trillion. That is how much larger the nation's capital stock would have to be today, all of it owned by the Social Security and Medicare trust funds, to generate enough income to pay all the benefits that have been promised over and above future payroll taxes. But the nation's total private net worth is only $51.5 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve. In effect, we have promised the elderly benefits equal to more than twice the nation's total wealth on top of the payroll tax.
Of course, theoretically, benefits could be cut to prevent the necessity of a massive tax increase. But how likely is that? The percentage of the population that benefits from Social Security and Medicare is growing daily as the baby boom generation ages and longevity increases. And the elderly vote in the highest percentage of any age group, so their political influence is even greater than their numbers.
The reality, which absolutely no one in either party wishes to face, is that benefits are never going to be cut enough to prevent the necessity of a massive tax increase in the not-too-distant future. Those who think otherwise are either grossly ignorant of the fiscal facts, in denial, or living in a fantasy world.
Bruce Bartlett is a former Treasury Department economist and the author of Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action and Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy. He writes a weekly column for Forbes.