Don’t Let Bernie’s Craziness Distract from Warren’s Radical Tax Plans

By: Daniel J. Mitchell

Social Security is projected to consume an ever-larger share of America’s national income, mostly thanks to an aging population.

Indeed, demographic change is why the program is bankrupt, with an inflation-adjusted cash-flow deficit of more than $42 trillion.

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Yet Senator Elizabeth Warren wants to make a bad situation even worse.

In a blatant effort to buy votes, she is proposing a radical expansion in the old-age entitlement program. Here’s how USA Today describes her proposal.

Warren’s strategy would make major changes to Social Security, boosting benefits for all and imposing new taxes on high-income earners to finance them. …Under the proposal, everyone would get a $200 increase in monthly payments from Social Security, including both retirement and disability benefits. 

…Certain groups would see even larger increases. …In order to cover these benefits and shore up Social Security’s future finances, Warren would impose two new taxes. First, a new payroll tax would apply to wages above $250,000, with employees paying 7.4% and employers matching with 7.4% of their own. This is above the 6.2% employee rate that applies to current wages up to $132,900 in 2019, …Second, individual filers making more than $250,000 or joint filers above $400,000 would owe a heightened net investment income tax at a rate of 14.8%. …The Warren proposal breaks new ground by largely disconnecting the benefits that Social Security pays from the wages on which the program collects taxes.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, John Cogan of the Hoover Institution explains why the proposal is so irresponsible.

It’s a strange campaign season, loaded with fantastical promises of government handouts for health care, college and even a guaranteed national income. But Sen. Elizabeth Warren ’s Social Security plan takes the cake. With trillion-dollar federal budget deficits and Social Security heading for bankruptcy, Ms. Warren proposes to give every current and future Social Security recipient an additional $2,400 a year. She plans to finance her proposal, which would cost more than $150 billion annually, with a 14.8% tax on high-income individuals. …the majority of Ms. Warren’s proposed Social Security bonanza would go to middle- and upper-income seniors. …The plan would cost taxpayers about $70,000 for each senior citizen lifted out of poverty.

Cogan also explains that Warren’s scheme upends FDR’s notion that Social Security should be an “earned benefit.”

The cornerstone of FDR’s Social Security program is its “earned right” principle, under which benefits are earned through payroll-tax contributions. …in a major break from one of FDR’s main Social Security principles, the plan provides no additional benefits in return for the new taxes. …Such a large revenue stream to fund unearned benefits, aptly called “gratuities” in FDR’s era, would put Social Security on a road to becoming a welfare program. …Ms. Warren’s proposal returns the country to an era when elected officials regularly used Social Security as a vote-buying scheme.

For all intents and purposes, Warren has put forth a more radical version of the plan introduced by Congressman John Larson, along with most of his colleagues in the House Democratic Caucus.

And that plan is plenty bad.

Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute wrote about the economic damage it would cause.

…the Social Security 2100 Act consists of more than 100% tax increases – because it not only raises payroll taxes to fund currently promised benefits, but increases benefits for all current and future retirees. …Social Security’s 12.4% payroll tax rate would rise to 14.8% while the $132,900 salary ceiling on which Social Security taxes apply would be phased out. Combined with federal income taxes, Medicare taxes and state income taxes, high-earning taxpayers could face marginal tax rates topping 60%. …Economists agree that tax increases reduce labor supply, the only disagreement being whether it’s by a little or a lot. Likewise, various research concludes that middle- and upper-income households factor Social Security into how much they’ll save for retirement on their own. If they expect higher Social Security benefits their personal saving will fall. Since higher labor supply and more saving are the most reliable routes to economic growth, the Social Security 2100 Act’s risk to the economy is obvious. …an economic model created by a team based at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School…projects GDP in 2049 would be 2.0% lower than a hypothetical baseline in which the government borrowed to fund full promised Social Security benefits. The logic is straightforward: when taxes go up people work less; when Social Security benefits go up, people save less. If people work less and save less, the economy grows more slowly.

And the Wall Street Journal opined about the adverse impact of the proposal.

Among the many tax increases Democrats are now pushing is the Social Security 2100 Act sponsored by John Larson of House Ways and Means. The plan would raise average benefits by 2% and ties cost-of-living raises to a highly generous and experimental measure of inflation for the elderly known as CPI-E. The payroll tax rate for Social Security would rise steadily over two decades to 14.8% from 12.4% for all workers, and Democrats would also apply the tax to income above $400,000. …The proposal would also further tilt government spending to the elderly, who in general are doing well. …Democrats are also sneaky in the way they lift the income cap on Social Security taxes. The Social Security tax currently applies only on income up to $132,900, an amount that rises each year with inflation. But the new payroll tax on income above $400,000 isn’t indexed to inflation, which means the tax would ensnare ever more taxpayers over time. …The new 14.8% Social Security payroll-tax rate would come on top of the 37% federal income-tax rate, plus 2.9% for Medicare today (split between employer and employee), plus the 0.9% ObamaCare surcharge on income above $200,000 and 3.8% surcharge on investment income. …As lifespans increase, the U.S. needs more working seniors contributing to the economy. Yet higher Social Security benefits can induce earlier retirement if people think they don’t have to save as much. Higher marginal tax rates on Social Security benefits and income also discourage healthy seniors from working.

Now imagine those bad results and add in the economic damage from a 14.8 percentage point increase in the tax burden on saving and investment, which is the main wrinkle that Senator Warren has added.

Last but not least, using Social Security as an excuse to push higher taxes is not a new strategy. Back in 2008 when he was in the Senate and running for the White House, Barack Obama proposed a Warren-style increase in the payroll tax.

Here’s a video I narrated that year, which discusses the adverse economic effect of that type of class-warfare tax hike.

By the way, Hillary Clinton supported a similar tax increase in 2016.

Though it’s worth noting that neither Obama nor Clinton were as radical as Warren since they didn’t propose to exacerbate the tax code’s bias against saving and investment.

And don’t forget she also wants higher capital gains taxes and a punitive wealth tax.

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Her overall tax agenda is unquestionably going to be very bad news for job creation and American competitiveness.

The “rich” are the primary targets of her tax hikes, but the rest of us will suffer the collateral damage.

P.S. Instead of huge tax increases, personal retirement accounts are a far better way of addressing Social Security’s long-run problem. I’ve written favorably about the Australian system, the Chilean system, the Hong Kong system, the Swiss system, the Dutch system, the Swedish system. Heck, I even like the system in the Faroe Islands.

Originally published at International Liberty

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