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Social Security's Treatment of Postwar Americans: How Bad Can It Get?

Author

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  • Jagadeesh Gokhale
  • Laurence J. Kotlikoff

Abstract

As currently legislated, the U.S. Social Security System represents a bad deal for postwar Americans. Of every dollar postwar Americans have earned or will earn over their lifetimes, over 5 cents will be lost to the Old Age Survivor Insurance System (OASI) in the form of payroll taxes paid in excess of benefits received. This lifetime net tax rate can also be understood by comparing the rate of return postwar contributors receive from OASI and the return they can earn on the market. The OASI return -- 1.86 percent -- is less than half the return currently being paid on inflation-indexed long-term government bonds, and the OASI return is much riskier. Of course, Social Security is an insurance as well as a net tax system. But, viewed as an insurance company, the insurance OASI sells (or, rather, forces households to buy) is no bargain. The load charged averages 66 cents per dollar of premium. These findings, developed in an extensive micro simulation study by Caldwell, et al. (1999), assume that current law can be maintained through time. But Social Security faces a staggering long-term funding problem. Meeting the system's promised benefit payments on an ongoing basis requires raising the OASDI 10.8 tax rate immediately and permanently by two fifths! How bad can Social Security's treatment of postwar Americans get once adjustments are made to save' the system? This paper examines that question using the machinery developed in Caldwell, et al. Specifically, it considers Social Security's treatment of postwar Americans under alternative tax increases and benefit cuts that would help bring the system's finances into present value balance. The alternatives include immediate tax increases, eliminating the ceiling on taxable payroll, immediate and sustained benefit cuts, increasing the system's normal retirement ages beyond those currently legislated, switching from wage to price indexing in calculating benefits, and limiting the price indexation of benefits. The choice among these and other alternatives have important consequences for which postwar generations and which members of those generations will be forced to pay for the system's long-term financing problems.

Suggested Citation

  • Jagadeesh Gokhale & Laurence J. Kotlikoff, 1999. "Social Security's Treatment of Postwar Americans: How Bad Can It Get?," NBER Working Papers 7362, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:7362
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    1. Anthony Pellechio & Gordon Goodfellow, 1983. "Individual Gains and Losses from Social Security before and after the 1983 Amendments," Cato Journal, Cato Journal, Cato Institute, vol. 3(2), pages 417-442, Fall.
    2. Lee, Ronald & Tuljapurkar, Shripad, 1998. "Uncertain Demographic Futures and Social Security Finances," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 88(2), pages 237-241, May.
    3. Ronald Lee & Shripad Tuljapurkar, 1997. "Death and Taxes: Longer life, consumption, and social security," Demography, Springer;Population Association of America (PAA), vol. 34(1), pages 67-81, February.
    4. Steven Caldwell & Melissa Favreault & Alla Gantman & Jagadeesh Gokhale & Thomas Johnson & Laurence J. Kotlikoff, 1999. "Social Security's Treatment of Postwar Americans," NBER Chapters, in: Tax Policy and the Economy, Volume 13, pages 109-148, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    5. Boskin, Michael J. & Kotlikoff, Lawrence J. & Puffert, Douglas J. & Shoven, John B., 1986. "Social Security: A Financial Appraisal Across and Within Generations," CEPR Publications 244432, Stanford University, Center for Economic Policy Research.
    6. Julia Lynn Coronado & Don Fullerton & Thomas Glass, 1999. "Distributional Impacts of Proposed Changes to the Social Security System," NBER Chapters, in: Tax Policy and the Economy, Volume 13, pages 149-186, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    7. Michael D. Hurd & John B. Shoven, 1985. "The Distributional Impact of Social Security," NBER Chapters, in: Pensions, Labor, and Individual Choice, pages 193-222, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    8. Peter Diamond & Jonathan Gruber, 1997. "Social Security and Retirement in the U.S," NBER Working Papers 6097, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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    1. Is Social Security a Ponzi Scheme?
      by Alex Tabarrok in Marginal Revolution on 2011-09-10 21:47:19

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    Cited by:

    1. Julia Lynn Coronado & Don Fullerton & Thomas Glass, 1999. "Distributional Impacts of Proposed Changes to the Social Security System," NBER Chapters, in: Tax Policy and the Economy, Volume 13, pages 149-186, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    2. Stanislav Klazar & Barbora Slintáková, 2012. "How Progressive is the Czech Pension Security?," Prague Economic Papers, Prague University of Economics and Business, vol. 2012(3), pages 309-327.
    3. Jagadeesh Gokhale & Laurence J. Kotlikoff & Alexi Sluchynsky, 2002. "Does It Pay to Work?," NBER Working Papers 9096, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    4. Tosun, Mehmet Serkan, 2008. "Endogenous fiscal policy and capital market transmissions in the presence of demographic shocks," Journal of Economic Dynamics and Control, Elsevier, vol. 32(6), pages 2031-2060, June.

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    JEL classification:

    • H55 - Public Economics - - National Government Expenditures and Related Policies - - - Social Security and Public Pensions

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