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Monday, March 07, 2011

Social Security is *Not* Welfare

Robert Samuelson is making the same wrong argument about Social Security being welfare that he's been making for years:

Why Social Security is welfare, by Robert J. Samuelson: ...Here is how I define a welfare program: First, it taxes one group to support another group, meaning it's pay-as-you-go and not a contributory scheme where people's own savings pay their later benefits. And second, Congress can constantly alter benefits, reflecting changing needs, economic conditions and politics. Social Security qualifies on both counts.

Since he is rolling out the same old column (and apparently getting paid for it), I'll just roll out the same old response. This is from March, 2005, just a few weeks after I started this blog:

Fire Insurance is not Welfare and Neither is Social Security: Robert Samuelson, and many others, appear to believe that any time there is a transfer of income between individuals or groups it is welfare. This is wrong. According to Samuelson:

Welfare is a governmental transfer from one group to another for the benefit of those receiving. The transfer involves cash or services (health care, education). We have welfare for the poor, the old, the disabled, farmers and corporations. Social Security is mainly welfare...

Not it isn’t. Social Security is mainly a means of insuring against economic risk. It is fundamentally an insurance program, not a saving program, and as such it is not "mainly welfare."

Just because an economic activity transfers income from one person or group to another does not make it welfare. Fire insurance transfers income. Some people pay premiums for their whole lives and collect nothing. Others, the unlucky few who suffer a fire, collect far more than they contribute. Does that make it welfare? Of course not.

Social Security is no different, it is an insurance program against economic risk as I explain in this Op-Ed piece. Some people will live long lives and collect more than they contribute in premiums, some will die young and collect less. Some children will lose their parents and collect more than their parents paid into the system, others will not. But this does not make it welfare.

Is gambling welfare? Gambling transfers income from one person to another. Does that make it welfare? Loaning money transfers income when the loan is paid back with interest. Are people who receive interest income on welfare?

There is an important distinction between needing insurance ex-ante and needing it ex-post. Insurance does redistribute income ex-post, but that doesn't imply that it was a bad deal ex-ante (i.e., when people start their work lives). ...

Angry Bear agrees with me on this and the two of us have been independently saying the same thing (in fact, I first encountered AB in a Google search on Social Security, insurance, and risk). As AB said (the full text is well worth reading):

What does all of this have to do with Social Security? Those who are hard-working, fortunate, and not too profligate will have a large nest egg at retirement and Social Security will account for only a small portion of their retirement portfolio. This is tantamount to paying for insurance and then not needing it. This happens all the time -- every year someone fails to get sick or injured and, while surely happy in their good health, would have been better off not buying insurance. That's the nature of insurance: if you don't need it, then you'll always wish you hadn't purchased it. Only in the context of retirement insurance is this considered a crisis.

On the other hand, those with bad luck or insufficient income will not have a nest egg at retirement. Because of Social Security, instead of facing the risk of zero income at retirement, they are guaranteed income sufficient to subsist.

This is precisely like the insurance example I worked through above: people with good outcomes will wish they hadn't paid into the insurance fund; those with bad outcomes will be glad they did. Ex-ante, everyone benefits from the insurance. Overall, society is better off because risk is reduced; because people are risk-averse, the gains are quite large.

When I think of welfare, I think of pure money transfers from one group to another without any economic basis for the transfer. In such cases, one person’s gain arises from another’s loss. But economic activity that results in the exchange of goods and services is different. It is not a zero sum game. One person’s gain does not come at the expense of someone else.

The main feature of Social Security is not welfare as Samuelson asserts. The main feature is insurance against economic risks and as such it makes us collectively better off. Calling it welfare when it isn’t is misleading and causes unnecessary class distinctions and resentments from the losers ex-post. More importantly, it ignores and obscures the important role Social Security plays in society as insurance against the economic risks we all face.

If you think you are so rich and powerful that you don’t need such insurance, consider this. The stock market collapse of 1929 at the onset of the Great Depression wiped out substantial quantities of wealth. The typical stock was worth only one sixth its pre-crash value once the bottom was reached. Whatever insurance existed in the stock market evaporated as the crash unfolded.

It wasn’t the poor jumping out of windows on Wall street. If you think it can’t happen to you, think again.

    Posted by on Monday, March 7, 2011 at 04:32 PM in Economics, Social Security | Permalink  Comments (75)

          


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