Category Archives: Redistribution

Government says it’s OK to break social security agreement, but not pension agreements.

Barack Obama’s debt commission proposed several changes to Social Security to help reduce the deficit. The New York Times reports:

The plan would reduce cost-of-living increases for all federal programs, including Social Security. It would reduce projected Social Security benefits to most retirees in later decades, though low-income people would get higher benefits. The retirement age for full benefits would be slowly raised to 69 from 67 by 2075, with a “hardship exemption” for people who physically cannot work past 62. And higher levels of income would be subject to payroll taxes.

I have no idea how much these measures will contribute to reducing the deficit or paying off the debt. My complaint is more ideological.

When employees contribute to social security, they are doing so with the understanding that they will receive certain benefits starting at a certain date. Currently, an American expects to pay a certain amount each year into the system, retire at age 67. and receive cost of living adjustments (COLA) each year. The proposals by the debt commission would violate this agreement, forcing people to pay more each year if they earn over a certain amount, retire at a later date than originally agreed to, and receive less in benefits than promised as the COLA is reduced. In effect, the government is unilaterally canceling its contract with each American and replacing it with a less attractive one.

In reality, I am not opposed to these changes, especially the retirement age which will not fully take effect for 65 years, thus having little effect on anybody working today. The reduction in COLA would have a much greater effect on everybody starting in the near future while the removal of the cap on social security taxes would have an even larger effect, but only the wealthy. But while these are necessary changes, contrast this with the government’s stance on pension funds.

In a Q&A titled The pension time bomb, The Week asks:

Can benefits be scaled back?

Only for future employees. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie recently signed legislation reducing pension benefits for new state employees. In California this month, voters in nine municipalities approved ballot measures to limit benefits for future public employees. And governments are starting to take a harder line in collective bargaining with public unions. “I’ve seen a sea change in the local collective bargaining process,” said Dwight Stenbakken, deputy executive director of the League of California Cities. Some analysts recommend following the lead of Georgia, which requires that prior to being enacted, any changes to retiree benefits be studied for long-term impacts. According to the Pew Center on the States, the policy has helped Georgia avoid “costly and irreversible” mistakes.

These pension liabilities have already been promised to employees and retirees. The government has a contractual obligation to pay the pensions as promised.

So why are the pension obligations sacrosanct while money can be taken from Social Security beneficiaries? Social security is just as much a contractual obligation as public union pensions. If social security benefits are to be reduced for those who have already paid in, public union pension benefits should be as well.

* Though I have not yet read this (too busy writing my next book), Robert Graham discusses this topic in much more detail in his Job Killers: The American Dream in Reverse. How Labor Unions are Destroying American Jobs and the Economy. If you’ve read it, leave a comment here or send me an email, tweet, or facebook message letting me know what you think of it.

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The Absurdity of Minimum Wage Laws

The current minimum wage in the United States is $7.25 per hour. However, many states have imposed their own minimum wages because living in those states is more expensive. California, for example, has a minimum wage of $8.00. So why not get rid of the national minimum wage and let the states set their own? The Constitution gives the federal government no such power and this should be left to the states.

But even the states have a problem with minimum wages. Within a state, it may be more expensive to live in one city than another. For example, it is much more costly to live in San Francisco, where the minimum wage is $9.79, than in Fresno. So why not have each city set their own minimum wage as is being done in San Francisco? Why hasn’t New York City raised its minimum wage as it is certainly more expensive to live in  New York City than in Buffalo.

But wait. Even within cities there can be a big disparity in the cost of living based on neighborhood. It is much more expensive to live in Manhattan than it is in Queens. Even within Manhattan, it is more expensive to live in the Upper East Side than in Washington Heights. Even within neighborhoods, the cost of living in different buildings varies.

All this may seem quite absurd, but so is the minimum wage. Each person is an individual with their own needs and wants, their own cost of living. Broken down logically, each person has their own minimum wage at which they are willing to work. In other words, no government law can boost the minimum wage of all people. Or more accurately, we would need millions of minimum wage laws to help each state, each city, each neighborhood, each street, and each person or small group of people.

In reality, minimum wage laws creates winners and losers. Those whose incomes increase will benefit from the minimum wage, but at the same time those who can no longer produce enough profit at the increased wage will lose their jobs because of the minimum wage. And all consumers will pay more for goods and services as the government forces up wages.

The minimum wage sounds great in theory (for employees, not employers). Unfortunately we live in a reality where a minimum wage does more harm than good.

Estate tax destroys small business, encourages corporatism.

The estate tax returns on January 1, 2011. While liberals, anti-capitalists, and haters of the wealthy applaud this development, they do not realize that the tax they favor encourages the corporatism they despise so much.

When the owner of a successful small business or small farm passes away, he would love to leave his profitable business to his children, if they want it. However, with the return of the estate tax, the inheritors of the business will have to turn over to the government 55 percent of the value of the business over one million dollars. Not many business owners have 55 percent of their wealth sitting in cash available to cover the estate tax. The heirs are now left with few choices. The easiest solution for the business owner before his death or the heirs after they inherit the business is to sell the business and the most likely buyer would be a large corporation. Another option would be to close the business entirely, also benefiting the corporation competing with it. Other options include selling part of the business or taking a loan, though these are just short-term solutions that add nothing to the business’s ability to succeed.

As a result, many small businesses are shut down or sold to corporations upon the death of its founder because of estate taxes. Furthermore, this discourages many individuals from starting their own businesses because they know it will be very difficult to pass it on to their children and all their success will end up in the hands of some large faceless corporation.

If we want a nation of entrepreneurs, small business, and a thriving Main Street, we need to permanently eliminate estate taxes. If you want a world where those with brains, energy, and drive are discouraged from developing their ideas and talents, big businesses dominate, and Wall Street is more important than Main Street, we should let the estate tax return as is currently planned. The choice is yours.

Tax and intervention uncertainty killing the economy.

Everybody is talking about the impending largest tax increase in history due on January 1, 2011. In addition to the cost this imposes on the economy, there is the uncertainty this creates. The Giant Wakes writes:

The Bottom Line: Until the uncertainty surrounding the future Federal tax rates is resolved, it will remain yet another factor conspiring to keep businesses sitting in the economic sidelines, waiting for clear signals before committing capital to growth – and, the uncertainty had better be resolved in favor of sustaining the current rates rather than increasing them, if we hope to see an end to the ‘jobless recovery’ and any kind of broad-based improvement in consumer economic circumstances any time soon.

While The Giant Wakes may write about government intervention in a future post within his ten-part series called “Ten Tyrants of Uncertainty,” I thought I’ll jump ahead and add to the discussion.

Which is a bigger deterrent to economic activity: tax uncertainty or the uncertainty of government intervention? When government steps in to bail out one company at the expense of another, economic calculation is thrown out the window. And this does not just apply to corporations where our government may bail out GM thus hurting Ford or give billions to large banks while letting small banks fail. It also applies to each of us an individual. Those of us who are responsible, paying our mortgages each month or not buying a house knowing we cannot afford one, are now paying for those who irresponsibly bought more house than they could afford but whose mortgages have been “modified” by the government.

As a result, we now have a bipolar economy. We have those who have abandoned all risk taking, not knowing what the government will do. And we have those who take extreme risks, believing the government will bail them out if they fail. In the mean time, nobody is taking the reasonable calculated risks that are essential to a productive and profitable economy.

Enumerated Powers Amendment for the Constitution

In addition to repealing the 16th and 17th Amendments and getting rid of the Federal Reserve (all of which began in 1913), I propose this new Amendment:

The federal government shall have no powers beyond those specifically enumerated in the Constitution or absolutely required for the enforcement of those enumerated powers.

The general welfare and commerce clauses do not give the federal government any powers beyond those specifically expressed elsewhere in the Constitution.

All commitments and liabilities of the United States must be honored and paid out either immediately or in their due course. No new commitments or liabilities from unconstitutional programs may be added after the ratification of this amendment.

If anybody has suggestions to improve this amendment, feel free to comment below or email me from the contact page.

Britain takes action to save country from bankruptcy. United States still has its head in the sand.

Marketwatch reports:

Britain will stick to its timetable for making the largest cuts in government spending in decades, the chancellor of the exchequer said Wednesday, vowing that the sweeping measures would bring the country “back from the brink” of bankruptcy.

Critics charge that the plan to cut spending by 83 billion pounds ($130.4 billion) between 2011 and 2015 threatens to send the economy back into recession, just as a recovery is losing steam.

Delivering the long-awaited, comprehensive spending review to parliament, Osborne said the austerity plan “is a hard road, but it leads to a better future.”

The plan will reduce spending across government departments by an average of 19% over four years and is expected to result in 490,000 public-sector job losses over that period.

There is no doubt about it; these cuts will be painful, but not nearly as painful as doing nothing and going bankrupt. Too many governments, political leaders, and populations have their heads in the sand. Action needs to be taken to stave off a credit crisis. Those countries that do so may feel some short-term pain, but they will be at a competitive advantage five or ten years from now.

Meanwhile, the US has not cut a dime from its budget. Instead, all the talk in the current Congress and the White House has been about more stimulus. Hopefully, this will change on November 2.

Sovereign debt crisis spreading to first world countries.

I’ve written about the sovereign debt crisis numerous times already. See here, here, here, here, and here. But so far, I’ve only written about those “at-risk” countries such as Portugal, Greece, Spain, and Ireland or individual states such as Illinois. In other words, the sovereign debt crisis has so far been limited to “small” countries or states. Debt defaults among these countries or states certainly would cause problems and a sharp decline in financial markets, but likely wouldn’t break the bank. But if this crisis spreads to larger, more financially important countries, it would obviously have a much larger impact, possibly one similar to the stock market crash of 1929.

Marketwatch reports that the sovereign debt crisis may in fact be spreading to a first world nation:

There’s no ‘B’ in PIIGS, but Belgium could eventually cause headaches of its own for the euro zone if a bitter and protracted political fight prevents the country from hitting its deficit-reduction targets.

Belgium, in northern Europe, has seemed an unlikely candidate for sovereign-debt troublemaker. From a fiscal perspective, the country, whose capital Brussels is the home of the vast EU bureaucracy, has been associated more with the so-called core of the euro zone than the troubled “periphery.”

But an increasingly bitter political divide along linguistic lines has left Belgium without a government since April and is beginning to raise some concerns.

Belgium, which has enjoyed solid growth, appears on track to reduce its budget deficit to 4.8% of gross domestic product this year from 5.6% in 2009, economists said. The nation’s deficit is among the lowest in the euro zone and compares well with other core countries, including Germany at 4.5% of GDP, France at 8% and the Netherlands at 6%.

But if a government isn’t formed soon, the 2011 fiscal target of a reduction to 4.1% could be in jeopardy, said Philippe Ledent, an economist at ING Bank in Brussels. That in turn would make it all the more difficult for Belgium to meet its target of bringing its deficit down to 3% of GDP, the EU limit, in 2012.

In reality, a 4.1%, 4.8%, or 5.6% don’t seem too bad, especially considering the 10.6% deficit here in the US for 2010 and 8.3% deficit expected for 2011.

Belgium’s deficit figures raise few alarms, but government debt stands at around 100% of GDP, which compares more closely with Greece and Italy.

U.S. debt, by comparison, also stands at about 100% of GDP.

The financial markets are starting to notice Belgium’s problem:

Belgium has had no problems selling its government bonds. Borrowing costs have risen, however, with the yield premium demanded by investors to hold 10-year Belgian debt over benchmark German bunds standing at around 0.8 percentage point, up from around 0.4 percentage point around the same time last year.

But borrowing costs are far from problematic, Ledent said. Belgium’s premium remains nowhere near comparable to Spain’s, for example, which is at around 1.6 percentage points, much less Ireland’s at around 4 percentage points.

The cost of insuring Belgian debt against default is up sharply since the April elections, but well off the peak seen in mid-June. The spread on five-year sovereign credit-default swaps was at 119 basis points last Thursday, according to data provider CMA. That means it would cost $119,000 a year to insure $10 million of Belgian government debt against default for five years.

The spread stood at around 60 basis points in mid-April before the latest round of political turmoil and peaked at 149 basis points in late June.

“Up to now, there has been no strong impact [on borrowing costs], but I’m not sure it will continue like that,” Ledent said. “If in two, three, four months we still don’t have any government, financial markets will consider that we won’t reach the [budget] target and then there could be an impact on the spread.”

How long can countries like Belgium or the United States continue to borrow at low interest rates? These are countries with deficits exceeding 4% of GDP, in Belgium’s case, or 8-10%, in the United States, with debts equal to 100% of GDP. Logic tells us that in these countries, either taxes have to rise significantly or government spending has to fall sharply. Neither Belgium nor the U.S. is doing much to reduce their deficits and even less to cut government spending. Both countries, along with all other nations, are hoping for and relying on an economic recovery to lift their finances. What if we enter another recession? What if the recovery is slower than they expect, as it has been so far? All this talk of deficit reduction will be gone and we’ll be looking at even larger deficits and debt levels.

Worse yet, what happens when investors demand higher interest rates? As mentioned above, Belgium is already paying an extra 0.4% interest on its debt. That does not sound like much, but with government debt at 100% of GDP, the deficit increases by 0.4% just from the interest payment. This is an additional cost on government at a time when it needs to reduce its costs. It increases the deficit just as the country is trying to reduce it. Furthermore, this creates a self-fulfilling prophecy: worries of a debt crisis will cause a country’s interest payment to rise and deficit to increase, thus increasing the chances of a crisis.

So I will repeat what I’ve written many times: The sovereign debt crisis is far from over. In fact, it is just beginning.