Friday, February 04, 2005

Hilarious idiocy, part 2

As my previous post noted, the White House's claim that people would keep every penny in their private accounts, rather than losing the amount of payroll taxes diverted into the accounts plus 3% percent annual interest, is arithmetically equivalent to their preferred description, which is that you keep the entire account but lose an identical amount via your traditional-system benefits. Despite this arithmetical equivalence between the description they dislike and what they concede is the reality, they have succeeded in getting the Washington Post to publish a retraction, headlined with the words: "An earlier version of this article incorrectly described how new private accounts would work under President Bush's Social Security plan. This article has been corrected."
What's next? If the Post reports that President Bush's second term is scheduled to last for 4 years, must it issue a retraction if the White House says no, the term is actually 48 months?
Further merry shenanigans in the "corrected" retraction article include the following:
"In effect, said Democratic economist Peter R. Orszag of the Brookings Institution, the system works like a loan, in which the government grants workers 4 percentage points of their payroll tax to invest in stocks and bonds. The loan would have to be paid back with interest out of workers' monthly Social Security checks.
"But Robert Pozen, an investment executive who served on the president's 2001 Social Security Commission disputed that characterization. A worker is simply paying less into the system so he gets less back.
"This is in no way a loan," Pozen said."
A word on Pozen. At the law firm where he was a partner when I was a young cub associate, he was most famous for reputedly screaming "I don't give a f--- about your baby!" to an associate with a young child whose help (hers not the child's) he needed over the weekend. The only time I almost worked for him (since I did tax and he didn't) was the occasion, at 6 pm on a Friday, when he asked me to do a 50-state ERISA law search over the weekend. Even at this late date, I probably ought to send a bottle of champagne to the partner I was working with at the time who very kindly got me out of the assignment. But I digress.
I'm not sure if I want Pozen as my investment executive, although I don't think I could afford him anyway. If he wants to say that something isn't a loan even though it is arithmetically equivalent to a loan, that's fine if it makes him feel good, but it's not the type of insight (or candor) that I would want from someone who was handling my money.

52 comments:

Anonymous said...

The Washington Post's decision to retract Jonathan Weisman's original Feb. 3 column wasn't the idiotic capitulation that your entry suggests, Dan. Weisman's original column claimed that not only would the private account holder give up some of his/her SS benefits in exchange for having a private account, but would ALSO have to literally repay the federal government the diverted payroll tax money plus three percent interest upon retirement. (Don't believe me? Here's the original article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A60749-2005Feb3.html) That's an ugly error on the WP's part, and "correcting" the article was the least the WP should have done.

But, ignoring that error, I'm not so sure Peter Orszag’s characterization of private accounts (though technically correct) is as profound as he and you think.

Orszag correctly argues that workers who exercise the option would give up a portion of their Social Security benefits equal to the money diverted to their personal accounts plus interest. This, he says, is no different than borrowing money in order to invest. Hence his cutting description of personal accounts: “It’s not a nest egg. It’s a loan.”

I suppose that conceptualization is valid. What's more important is that it's trivial.

All Orszag's uncovered is that redirecting money to personal accounts has an opportunity cost in foregone SS benefits. OK, fine, but so does ANY sort of spending or saving. If I receive a year-end bonus and I put the money into my 401(k) instead of my IRA, Orszag would say I’ve taken out a loan against my IRA. If I put the money in my IRA instead of paying down my mortgage, he’d claim I increased the borrowing on my house. If I used the money to pay down my mortgage, then . . . well, you get the idea.

It's kind of hard to get worked up over that line of thinking.

For the sake of argument, let’s grant Orszag his point and say the creation of personal accounts is the same as taking out a loan from Social Security. But his knife cuts both ways: Just as money diverted to personal accounts would be “borrowing” against Social Security, so sending payroll taxes to Social Security would be “borrowing” against personal accounts.

And, given the historical returns on private investment vs. the trust fund's nontradable government securities AND the fact that SS is insolvent over the long term anyway, which form of "borrowing" is preferable?

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