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Friday, January 25, 2013

'Brave, Honest Conservatives' and Social Insurance

Brad DeLong:

... How long will it be before the likes of Veronique de Rugy stop denouncing Social Security, Medicare, Unemployment Insurance, etc. as programs that have turned us into "a nation of takers", and stop denouncing these programs beneficiaries as "moochers"?
It is in some ways very odd. It used to be that critics of the welfare state pointed to high net marginal tax rates and argued that they had high deadweight losses. Sometimes they had a point. Then, after bipartisan reforms, we got to a point where there were few high net marginal tax rates large enough to induce large deadweight losses.
And then, in the blink of an eye, the problem became not public-finance deadweight losses but, rather, the moocher class, the nation of takers, etc. ...

Paul Krugman on Paul Ryan's (ahem) defense of Social Security and Medicare:

...everyone has noted Ryan’s raw dishonesty here, let’s not let the cowardice pass unmentioned. If you’re a Randian conservative, as Ryan claims to be, then you should consider Social Security and Medicare every bit as much a part of the moocher conspiracy as Medicaid and food stamps. And don’t say that you pay for what you get: Social Security benefits aren’t proportional to payment, so that the system is somewhat redistributionist, and Medicare benefits don’t depend at all on how much you pay in, so that the system is strongly redistributionist. (You might even say that Medicare takes from each according to his ability, and gives to each according to his needs).
All of this is fine with me, but it should be anathema to Ryan. But he knows that Social Security and Medicare are popular, so he pretends that his radical philosophy has nothing bad to say about these programs, and that we can massively downsize government on the backs of the undeserving poor.
But remember, he’s a Brave, Honest Conservative. Everyone says so.

Speaking of social insurance, here's James Kwak:

...Unsurprisingly, most Americans are split between various misconceptions of what Social Security and Medicare are. Many, particularly right-wing politicians and their media mouthpieces, see them as pure tax-and-transfer programs: they gather money from one set of people and give it to another set of people. This feeds easily into the makers-vs.-takers line, with payroll taxes on workers going to fund benefits for non-workers. From this point of view, they are bad bad bad bad bad and should be cut.
Many others, particularly beneficiaries and people who hope to see beneficiaries, see them as earned benefits. The common conception is that you pay in while you’re working, so you earned the benefits you get in retirement..., you’re just getting back “your” money that you set aside during your career.
Both of these perspectives are wrong, the latter more obviously so. Most people, during their working careers, do not pay nearly enough in payroll taxes to pay for their expected benefits. This is most obvious for Medicare...
The problem with the tax-and-transfer argument is only slightly more subtle. Sure, at any given moment some people pay taxes and others collect benefits (and many do both, since Medicare is funded by general revenues). But most of us will both pay and receive at different points in our lives. So both programs are really more like income-shifting arrangements...
In the inaugural address, I think the president got it basically right. They are risk-spreading programs. You don’t get back exactly what you put in: they have a certain degree of progressivity (although less for Social Security than is commonly imagined). Their main function is to protect people against extreme outcomes by pooling a limited share of our resources.
Yes, rich people end up paying payroll taxes for insurance they end up not needing. But that’s how insurance always works: you pay the premiums hoping you won’t need it. And the key fact is that most young people, whey they start paying payroll taxes, don’t know what their own personal outcomes will be. ... Like any insurance scheme, you can make everyone better off simply by moving money around between different states of the world.
These particular insurance schemes, as the president said, have a moral element to them. They are a way of expressing out solidarity with each other as Americans, people united, however loosely, in a common endeavor. They also have an economic element to them. People protected against bad outcomes are more willing to take the risks needed for a vibrant and prosperous society. They are something to celebrate, not something to be embarrassed about whenever the Republicans come after them.

I've written quite a bit about the insurance aspect as well, e.g. see The Need for Social Insurance:

Economic systems differ in their ability to provide goods and services and in the level of economic risk faced by a typical household. Socialism is a low mean, low variance economic system. With a planned economy, cycles in unemployment do not occur unless mandated by planners. Worker income, though low, is not subject to substantial variation over time. Other economic risks, such as access to housing and risks related to healthcare are also very low since these services are provided by the state. Economic risks for workers are low in such a system, but so is average income.

Under capitalism the average level of income is much higher, but economic risk is higher as well. In a capitalist system, workers can be involuntarily displaced as new products are invented, new production techniques are implemented, production moves outside the country, or inevitable business cycle variation occurs. These are shocks that affect workers independent of their own behavior. A worker who has shown up to work every day and worked hard to support a family can be suddenly unemployed for reasons unrelated to anything connected to his or her own behavior.

As the U.S. entered the 20th century, important social changes arising from industrialization were becoming increasingly evident, and these changes exposed the high degree of economic risk under a capitalist system. Migration to cities and the resulting breakup of the extended family, reliance on wage income as a primary means of support, and increasing life expectancy resulted in increased economic risk for the typical worker relative to the more agrarian economy that existed prior to industrialization.

In an agrarian economy, economic security is provided by extended family relationships coupled with the largely self-sufficient nature of farms. On a farm, a recession is a bad harvest, but it generally does not mean a total lack of income. Times can be tough, food can be very scarce and there can be hunger, but generating a subsistence level of income from the farm is usually possible even in the worst of years. For a worker dependent solely upon wage income, the consequences of a recession are much more severe. A recession means a total lack of income, not just hard times. Without the help of others or the existence of some type of social insurance program, abject poverty is a real possibility (see Life After the Great Depression for descriptions of the misery that followed the Great Depression).

Retirement also takes on a different character. On the farm, retirement meant gradually, if often reluctantly, letting the children take over responsibility for the farm, but it did not mean a total loss of income. Children provided for parents. But an aging worker in a city, perhaps disconnected geographically from their children, faces a different circumstance upon retirement. Such a worker may face a complete loss of income, and disability from age is not always an event that occurs according to plan. Even a worker who has diligently saved for retirement can suddenly become impoverished due to events such unexpected health costs, or even a much longer life than expected.

As industrialization progressed, 1920 marks a benchmark year where, for the first time, more than half of the population lived in cities. When the Great Depression hit around a decade later, the social changes the U.S. was experiencing and the need for new ideas regarding the government’s responsibility for the economic security of its citizens became clear. The Great Depression made it evident that in a capitalist system, where the whimsies of the marketplace can wreak havoc on people’s lives, the government has an obligation to provide economic security. It was also evident that the private sector did not provide the needed level of insurance and that government intervention was required to overcome this problem (due to both moral hazard and asymmetric information problems in the private insurance market).

It is important that the economy be allowed to change with new technology and changing preferences, but the consequences for innocent workers affected by such changes is a social responsibility that needs to be addressed. In addition, as extended family relationships are hindered by geography and the social contract between parents and children breaks down, the elderly need a way to avoid poverty. Programs such as Unemployment Compensation, Medicare, and Social Security arose as a means to mitigate these economic risks under capitalism using the least amount of society’s valuable resources.

Drawing a rough analogy, socialism is like investing in T-Bills. Low risk, but low return. Capitalism is like the stock market. There is a higher average return accompanied by higher risk. Financial theory tells how to insure against such risks and there is no reason why this cannot be applied in the social insurance arena to smooth variations in income.

There is a need for social insurance under capitalism.

    Posted by on Friday, January 25, 2013 at 12:33 AM in Economics, Social Insurance, Social Security | Permalink  Comments (117)


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