Make High Earners Save Social Security

In these days of presidential interregnum, the American public has seen newspapers and digital media filled with discussions of tax cuts, increased military and infrastructure spending, economic growth proposals, regulatory relief, immigration reform, repealing Obamacare, reducing the national debt, keeping deficits on a short leash, draining the swamp of political and economic favoritism and other domestic traumas.

Social Security, however, has received little attention. How the new administration will accomplish all these promises without yielding to the temptation to cut programs like Social Security is an open question. President-elect Trump, who enjoyed the support of working class Americans, promised during the campaign not to cut Social Security. Speaker Paul Ryan said he has no plans to change Social Security, although he has been outspoken on the need for entitlement reform.

Funny how a politician can forget campaign promises after election day. Loyalty appears to be paramount for these folks until all of a sudden it isn’t. Politicians all too frequently forget, to put it in the cant language of the ‘hood, that a deal is a deal.

Social Security is a promise to all eligible Americans that they will not live in abject poverty if they become disabled or when they get old, but the Social Security 2015 Trust report finds that the fund has enough money to pay full benefits until 2034. After that it will collect only enough in taxes to pay 79 percent of benefits.

With the number of workers available to pay for Social Security benefits falling rapidly, there will inevitably be calls for benefit cuts, higher taxes or both. But there is a better way.

Social Securityis not an entitlement program; it is a “pay-as-you-go” system funded by the payroll tax. Companies and nearly 168 million working people pay into it to provide benefits to about 60 million retirees. Each generation pays for current retirees in return for a commitment that the next generation will do the same.

It is the backbone of retirement planning for millions of Americans. Almost a third of retirees receive practically all their retirement income from the system and about two thirds receive the majority of their retirement income from Social Security.

The top 100 CEOs, in contrast, have platinum pension plans. On average, their massive next eggs are large enough to generate about $253,000 in monthly retirement payments for the rest of their lives. Heaven for them, hell for the ordinary American worker.

Dealing with the coming Social Security funding crisis by raising the payroll tax places a significant burden on low-wage workers, especially when the Federal Reserve has kept interest rates so low that their saving accounts are yielding next to nothing, forcing baby boomers to work longer and retirees to rely even more on Social Security income.

An alternative that merits serious consideration is to increase the ceiling on annual wages subject to Social Security payroll taxes, which is currently at $118,500. All annual income above that amount is exempt from the tax, meaning that 94 percent of Americans pay Social Security tax on all their income but the wealthiest 6 percent do not.

Expanding the payroll tax to all earnings above $118,500 would wipe out funding issues. According to Social Security actuaries, it would keep the Trust solvent for the next 45 years.

Since Social Security began, the need for retirement income has risen as life expectancy has increased by 17 years. This is particularly true for top earners who need Social Security the least and whose jobs are less physically demanding than those of construction workers, janitors, etc.

Political leaders have time to decide how to address Social Security’s long-term funding problems. As they contemplate potential solutions, they should consider expanding the payroll tax to include all earnings. It’s a fair way to rescue the program from financial limbo and provide lasting stability without taking draconian measures that would harm tens of millions of hard-working Americans.

Originally Published: December 23, 2016

Infrastructure Yes, But Not Just Any Infrastructure

The American public is routinely bombarded with messages about the need to spend vast sums of money on infrastructure, drumming the subject into the public consciousness, promoting an often rehearsed-sounding catalog of new capital projects. The need is indeed great, but so is the importance of spending wisely. That means emphasizing the lifecycle management of infrastructure assets.

President-elect Trump says his plan to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure projects over 10 years would be paid for by leveraging public-private partnerships and encouraging private investment through tax incentives. Infrastructure spending is a priority Trump shares with congressional Democrats, who have said they believe they can work with him on the Augean task of renewing America’s infrastructure.

What is often overlooked is that infrastructure spending is not just about new construction, but the maintenance of existing assets. Timely lifecycle management and maintenance is needed to extend the service lives of infrastructure assets in a state of good repair and significantly reduce overall costs. The rationale is to avoid the high cost of reconstruction and replacement that results from deferred maintenance.

Political leaders frequently say that stewardship of infrastructure assets is essential for economic growth. But the evidence suggests that many of them don’t believe it. They are predisposed to defer maintenance because their concept of the future extends no further than the next election cycle, and initial timeframe for infrastructure assets to show the effects of irreversible deferred maintenance is much longer than their likely terms in office.

Consider, for example, that large sections of the Washington D.C. transit system are out of service because maintenance has been shortchanged over decades. Service quality declines substantially when maintenance is deferred. Here in Boston, MBTA maintenance has been underfunded for so long that it will take years to eliminate a $7.3 billion maintenance backlog even though the T plans to devote $870 million to the cause this year.

Also, public officials all too frequently understate the true costs of infrastructure projects by focusing on what they cost to build and ignoring operation and maintenance.

Another factor contributing to the failure to maintain infrastructure assets is that highway funding arrangements, for example, traditionally favored capital expenditures for new construction. As originally established by Congress, the Federal-Aid Highway Funding Program specified that Federal Trust Fund grants would cover up to 80 percent of the cost of new construction and subsequent reconstruction or replacement.

But state and local governments had to bear operating and maintenance costs. When highway links inevitably wore out before their time, state and local governments only had to worry about coming up with 20 percent of the total sum from their capital budgets since federal construction grants covered the rest, so maintenance was not a priority.

All but forgotten in this dubious calculus were costs incurred by motorists who had to struggle with increasingly decrepit highways, as well as plenty of congestion when highway lanes were closed for restoration; an inconvenience, any driver knows, that always last much longer than advertised.

Although later reauthorization bills made federal funds available for rehabilitation, renewal, and reconstruction at levels comparable to new construction, the damage had already been done. Today the advanced deterioration of the nation’s highway system is testament to the consequences of deferred maintenance.

The price tag for renewing America’s infrastructure is astronomical, and comes at a time when a federal funding regime dependent on insufficient fuel tax revenues is least able to afford escalating construction and maintenance costs.

Going forward with a big infrastructure package and setting aside, for the moment, the issue of finding the cash to do it, there needs to be an emphasis on the lifecycle management of infrastructure assets. The health care industry understands that it is far less expensive to keep a patient well than to treat them once they become sick; the same is true for our nation’s infrastructure.

Originally Published: December 10, 2016