Friday, August 21, 2015

Means Testing Social Security

Chris Christie's recent comments about means testing Social Security benefits set off a torrid of accusations of Republican cuts to Social Security. Leaving aside the obvious fact that Governor Christie is only one of more than a dozen candidates running for the Republican nomination, critics nonetheless seized the opportunity to indict the entire party for mistreating senior citizens. Social Security reform has been called the third-rail of American politics, and Christie received quite a jolt.

But what is means testing about and can it help restore the solvency of the Social Security Trust? As discussed in previous blog posts, the 2015 report of the Trustees of the Social Security Administration clearly spells out the trouble ahead for Social Security. By their estimates, Social Security will be insolvent by 2034, with the Disability Insurance component becoming insolvent next year. The Trustees point to the present value deficit of the Trust Fund, now running $10.7 trillion. Argue all you will about what to do, but clearly something must be done, unless our intent is to bury our heads in the sand and simply leave the mess to future generations.

With a deficit that large, there are only two possible avenues to cure the problem: increase payroll taxes to boost the income side of the equation, or reduce outflows. Those leaning left advocate the former, those leaning right, the latter. We've pointed out in other blog posts, though, the limitations and consideration with raising the payroll tax rate. So let's spend a few moments examining other options.

Means testing, as discussed by Governor Christie is an attempt to gradually reduce outflows of Social Security by reducing benefits for those who need them least: the wealthy. The idea is test the means of financial support of retirees, before providing scarce resources from an impoverished and soon insolvent Social Security Trust Fund. Left leaning opponents of this plan are quick to characterize means testing as a Republican attempt to cut benefits, when in reality, it is simply attempt to limit benefits to the wealthy. 

Paul Krugman blogged about this earlier this week from his platform as acting-editor of the New York Times in a sensational piece entitled, "Republicans Against Retirement". Catchy, no?  In bolstering his argument that means testing is impractical, he and other Democrats with political aspirations, point to just one study on the topic, a sloppy bit of economic research by Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. That study based upon 2009 data, concluded that means testing would save very little, as "more than 75% of Social Security benefits go to individuals with non-Social Security incomes of less than $50,000 per year". Sounds reasonable.

But let's stop and think about this. First, this is 2009 data, that comes at the depth of the greatest recession since the Great Depression. Second, Baker is not referring to those individuals with pre-retirement annual incomes of less than $50,000, but rather those in retirement claiming income for tax purposes of less than $50,000. So he is measuring retirement income from a combination of pension income, private investment income and capital gains, and taxable distributions from 401(k) and IRA accounts.

As you might imagine, retirees, like everyone else in America, are doing their best to manage their tax liability. Thus, retirees are only reporting investment income to the extent they must, often choosing tax-exempt investments like municipal bonds, and avoiding capital gains on stock investments. Thus, someone who has $10 million invested in tax-exempt bonds, and earned $500,000 in annual investment income, would record non-Social Security income of $0.00 (assuming they had no pension or other income). Similarly someone with an IRA of this same amount may choose to take distributions of $50,000, as a prudent way of managing income and tax liability.

But let's leave these obvious considerations aside (as does Mr. Baker in his analysis). Let's also ignore the fact that we're working with income data that is six years old. The point is, Baker's study still reports that 3.4% of Social Security benefits are provided to retirees with greater than $80,000 per year in non-Social Security income. With total benefit outflows of Social Security last year of just over $706 billion, were these benefits means tested and reduced, the annual savings to Social Security would thus be in the range of $24 billion per year. It may not fix the entire problem, but that ain't chump change to a system with a $10.7 trillion deficit.