Bob: Like the government, I have promised to help out my family members when they retire.
Mike: Why the grim face? How much did you promise?
Bob: About $1,500,000 above my after-tax income of $50,000, while I repay $210,000 that I have borrowed.
Mike: Just break it to them gently.
( This is Version 3 of this post. What changed?After clicking this link, you can come back here with the "Back" button of your browser. )
Spending Cuts of 1.8%
Republicans have approved cutting $61 billion from government spending of $3,500 billion this year, a 1.8% cut. The government accounting year 2010 (the 2010 fiscal year) is the 12 months ending September 30, 2011.
The numbers are huge and hard to grasp.
|$2,200 billion||in taxes received|
|+||$1,300 billion||of borrowing (the deficit)|
|=||$3,500 billion||in government spending|
The government borrows 60% above its income of $2,200 B.
The government spends 1.6 times its income.
The proposed cut is 4.7% (1/21st) of the borrowed money.
For your reference,
|$1 billion =||1,000||× $1 million|
|$3,500 billion =||3,500,000||× $1 million||= $3.5 trillion|
The numbers above are too big to really understand. Here is what our government's spending and financial situation would be when reduced in proportion to the spending of (say) Bob's family:
|Bob has||$50,000||of yearly income to spend after-tax.|
|He borrows||$29,900||more, 60% of his income.|
|He spends||$79,900||1.6 times his income, not saving anything.|
|Proposed cut||$1,400||is 1.8% of Bob's total spending,|
|or just 4.7% of Bob's yearly borrowing.|
|Bob's debt is||$210,350||at 2.2% interest, a low current rate.|
|Bob pays||$4,550||yearly interest in his spending above.|
Democrat Bob responds: "No way. I can't live with that drastic cut of $1,400. You are threatening my family. Think of my children!"
The proposed cut is only 1/21st of what is needed to balance the current budget and stop increasing U.S. debt.
Bob is a soft-hearted and generous guy. He has made additional promises to his parents, uncles, and cousins for Social Security, Medicare, Prescription Drugs, Medicaid, and more. He hasn't yet set aside $1,525,650 to provide the complete funding for those promises. Bob does not want to disappoint or worry his family, so he has not fully explained the situation to them.
Bob currently spends everything he earns and borrows. He pays $4,550 for the yearly interest on his debt, but he is not paying down the balance of $210,350. Amazingly, he is borrowing $29,900 more each year.
Contributions From the Family
Some of Bob's family pay to him $20,000 (40%) of his income (Social Security and Medicare contributions). He has promised to invest that money wisely for their support later when they retire or become sick. This year, he spent $33,100 on other family members who are already retired or sick.
Bob is currently meeting his obligations to support some of his family. But, Bob is not saving anything and has not planned how to later support the family members who are now paying in. He treats their $20,000 in contributions as part of his current income and spending.
Social Security Trust Fund
Bob collected money in the past which he did not need to spend immediately on family support. He put it into a trust fund, added it up, and immediately withdrew it to spend on other things. If he had saved that money it would now total $60,100 (in proportion to the Social Security trust fund of $2,600 billion). But, he didn't save it.
Worse, Bob's promises to support his family are far greater than all the amounts he collected, even if he had saved. By now, he would need savings of $182,600 dedicated to support Social Security. That is 3.6 times his income from all sources. (That is in proportion to the $7,900 billion unfunded liability of Social Security.)
Mary Meeker and her team (below) have estimated all of the amounts Bob has promised to spend on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid over the next 75 years. They compared this obligation to the payroll taxes that will be collected for those purposes at current tax rates. Bob won't collect nearly enough to meet his promises.
Bob would need $1,525,650 right now in safe investments earning 3% interest to make up the difference. That is Bob's part of the combined "unfunded liability" of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid over the next 75 years. This is a way of valuing and comparing today what those promises will cost in the future.
Bob doesn't have any savings, so those promises will require much more income (much more in taxes). The Social Security Trust Fund will not help, because it only contains more promises. In our analogy, the trust fund is only a promise from Bob to himself to find more income in the future. See Unfunded PromisesAfter clicking this link, you can come back here with the "Back" button of your browser. below for more on this.
We expect that Bob's income will increase by 3% each year. This will not help much, because we also expect almost all of Bob's expenses to increase at that rate.
Taxes × 1.76
Here is the additional income Bob would need to pay for all of his promises.
|Multiple of Income||× 1.76|
This means collecting 1.76 times as much tax as at present. That huge amount must come mostly from the middle class. Only part would come from the rich.
You might think that a growing economy will make it easier to pay these promises. But, the official government analysis already assumes 3% yearly growth in the economy and taxes. Bob needs 76% more income (tax collections) today, and his total income and payments must increase yearly by 3%.
Who Will Pay?
In 2006 the the top earning one-quarter of taxpayers paid 86% of all personal income taxes. They paid an average of 16% of their incomes. That is not their top tax rate, but the total part of their adjusted gross income (AGI) paid in income tax. The figures for 2008 are not much different. I haven't done a detailed analysis for those more recent figures.
They are also paying payroll taxes, state taxes, and sales taxes along with everyone else. To collect an additional 76% from them, they would have to pay 28% of their total income toward income taxes alone, and also increasing payroll taxes as explained below.
The lower-earning three-quarters of taxpayers would also have to come up with 1.76 times their current taxes. This applies to their payroll taxes as well as income taxes. The payroll tax rate would go from about 15.3% of salary up to about 26.9%. This would hurt.
See below You Pay All Payroll TaxesAfter clicking this link, you can come back here with the "Back" button of your browser. for more explanation of this.
The 76% increase on business and "other" taxes (about 20% of tax collections) would discourage investment and raise prices for goods. The general public would pay those increased taxes in an indirect way. The government likes to impose indirect taxes which are hard for the average person to understand.
Taking more tax from the economy and from those who are most productive would lower economic output, and would create unemployment and/or reduced incomes. See also the separate post The Deadweight Loss of TaxesEO 12/2008 - The deadweight loss caused by increasing tax rates above current levels may exceed $2 per $1 of revenue increase. When the government collects $1 more in taxes, the economy loses at least $2 in production and jobs. .
Maybe taxes can't be raised enough. The government might find that raising tax rates brings in far less money than the simple multiplication above. The reduced take-home pay and high unemployment rate resulting from high taxes may make those taxes politically impossible.
This comparison of our government's finances to Bob's income, spending, and obligations is not perfect. But, the amounts are proportional to Bob's $50,000 of spendable income.
We and Bob are in deep trouble.
Rising Interest Expenses
Every family meets sudden expenses. These can be catastrophic when a family is living on the edge. We can predict a large increase in interest payments.
Our government debt is $9,100 billion (4.2 times total tax receipts). These are loans made to the government by Americans, foreign individuals, and foreign governments, but not including other parts of the government. For example, US savings bonds are loans to the government. Most loans are made by paying cash for US Treasury bonds. These bonds are promises by the government to pay back a fixed amount of cash in the future.
|Debt and Interest||Billions||$||%|
|Interest at 2.15%||196||4,500||9%|
|Interest at 3.70%||337||7,800||16%|
The US currently pays an average of 2.15% interest on its debt, an historic low. The average rate over the last 30 years has been 6.4%.
Analyst Mary Meeker (below) estimates that the average rate on the debt will be 3.7% by 2016, requiring a yearly interest payment of $337 billion, (an increase of $141 billion, 7% of income). That will increase the financial pressure on the government.
The proportional burden on Bob would be $3,300 more in interest payments, 7% of his $50,000 spendable income.
Probable inflation would produce interest rates that are even higher, and government interest expenses that are higher than estimated above.
For more details, see Debt and InterestAfter clicking this link, you can come back here with the "Back" button of your browser. below.
Mary Meeker is a partner at Kleiner Perkins, a large and respected venture capital fund. Her work is analyzing and investing in businesses.
She has analyzed U.S finances as she might do for a large corporation. Busines Insider talks about her report A Summary of America's Financial Statements (pdf). A web "slide show" of some of her report is here. My post uses mostly Meeker's figures.
These are charts of U.S. income and spending from page 9 of the report. "B" indicates billions (1,000 million). "T" indicates trillions (1,000 billion, or one million million).
The column for Bob is proportional to the data for the United States. US tax revenue is about 43 million times Bob's after-tax income of $50,000. Bob's numbers are rounded to the nearest $50. You can view or download the Excel 2003 worksheet for these figures.
|Family Budget||$ Billions||$||Income|
|Income to Spend||2,163||50,000||100%|
|U.S. Tax||Bob||% of|
|SocSec / Medicare||865||20,000||40%|
|Interest on Debt||196||4,550||9%|
|Medicare + Medicaid||724||16,750||33%|
The above "Total Unfunded" Promises are the major promises of our government above any current income from taxes. Repayment of the National Debt is required by legal contract; the others are government programs continued from year to year by Congress. All payments to these programs come from current taxes and borrowing. There are no assets or savings set aside to pay for any of these promises.
Many people believe that trust fund "savings" are set aside for the Social Security program and for Medicare. Actually, those trust funds hold only special US Treasury Bonds. These bonds are promises by the government to pay back cash in the future.
Taxes collected for Social Security are first used to pay current Social Security checks. Remaining amounts have bought those special US Treasury bonds and went into the US Treasury. Those amounts plus borrowing have been spent each year on government activities. The situation for Medicare is similar.
This year, payroll tax collections for Social Security are less than the amounts paid out. The government is "cashing in" some of those accumulated bonds. In reality, the government must now find some more real tax revenues (or more borrowing) to write Social Security checks in full.
No Real Assets
There is no gold, corporate stock, or anything of independent value set aside. There is only a promise from the government to repay to itself the money owed to future retirees. Only higher taxes on the public or our children can supply that value.
This is like an insane person saving up for his child's college education. He puts $100 each Friday into his savings account. Each Monday he withdraws that $100 and spends it on wine and entertainment, but he carefully records in his "college trust fund" what he has taken out. He increases the fake-reality of the fund by adding 3% as interest each year to the total on paper.
When his child is 18, he tells him that he saved $50,000 over the years, plus interest. He only has to pay back what he took out, with the help of his child to supply the money.
Amazingly, this is exactly like the government accounting of the Social Security (and Medicare) trust funds. The funds hold only promises from the government, in the form of special Treasury bonds. The government duly issues additional bonds as interest each year, adding more to the total.
CBO: Trust Funds Are Only Promises
Some people argue that these bonds are real assets, as good as any Treasury bond owned by the public. They indeed would be, if the taxing power of the entire government were not in doubt. The promises of the government are so large that all of its bonds may lose some or all of their value, including the bonds in the Social Security and other accounts. The bonds represent a part of the promise, but they don't help to pay for the promise.
Don't take my word for it. Here is the written statement of the Congressional Budget Office - October 2002 [edited from the Summary]:
The money that the government owes to itself has no impact on the economy because it represents debt owed from one Treasury account to another, mostly held in federal trust funds.
Trust fund holdings are not assets of the government and do not represent money owed to program recipients individually. Payments to Social Security recipients (like other social insurance programs) are based on rules set by law unrelated to trust fund holdings.
A federal trust fund is an accounting device that measures the difference between the income designated for a program and the expenditures made to its beneficiaries. The accumulated balance often represents the future "spending authority" for the program, but it is not a reserve of money for making payments.
The National Debt
Meeker reports the National Debt as $9,100 billion. The usual figure in the news is $14,500 billion. $9,100 billion is the "debt held by the public", the amount of Treasury bonds sold to people outside of the US government.
The higher figure includes "inter-governmental debt", the amount of bonds sitting in trust funds within the government as an accounting device.
$9,100 billion is held by people with a legal, formal right to sue the government for payment. The other $5,400 billion is held by government agencies which are a part of the government. The government can not effectively sue itself.
The $5,400 billion of trust fund debt causes confusion. It totals money collected in the past and long since spent on government activities, without any saving. Including this as part of the National Debt is mostly a bad thing. The fixed, definite quality of that figure gives the impression that "this is what we owe". But, government's promises are not much related to that amount.
Government spokesmen point to that relatively small $5,400 billion, but the unfunded promises are approximately $66,000 billion, 12 times as much, according to Meeker's accounting. Other sources calculate the unfunded promises as $86 trillionConcord Coalition - Stop 2011.org - p.18 to $106 trillionNational Center for Policy Analysis - Figure II
This video clip estimates the unfunded promises of the US at $120 trillion, 8 years of total US production.
Why Do We Take Politicians Seriously?
02/22/11 - Cafe Hayek by Professor of economics Don Boudreaux
[edited] The Social Security “trust fund” is indeed filled with ample quantities of interest-bearing U.S. treasuries. But, who pays the principal and interest to Uncle Sam when the treasuries are cashed in? Answer: Uncle Sam, who must raise taxes on flesh-and-blood people to get the dollars that he pays to himself, so that he can then pay out promised Social Security benefits.
Promises written to yourself are not assets. They are only pathetic reminders of gross financial irresponsibility.
An XTraNormal video (2:12) by Prof. Boudreaux.
Fred: You loaned me $10,000. I have $10,000 in bonds in my desk drawer to guarantee that I can repay you.
Mary: What institution wrote the bonds? Are they good for the money?
Fred: I wrote the bonds. I will pay $10,000 to myself when they come due.
Mary: You are an idiot. That is not proper accounting.
Fred: No? It is the accounting our government uses for Social Security.
Obamacare Bails Out Medicare
09/2009 - EasyOpinions
Obama's healthcare reform is a huge increase in taxes combined with rationed medical services.
Who Pays Payroll Taxes?
Why do I say above that your Social Security taxes would rise from 15.3% to 26.9% ?
The Social Security tax is described as 6.2% and the Medicare tax as 1.45% paid by each of the employee and employer. This description suggests that you are paying 7.65% of your income and that your employer is paying an equal amount.
Actually, you generate all of the wealth that pays your salary and the taxes associated with your employment. The employer writes the check, but you earned that money, and it would be part of your take-home pay if the burden did not exist on your employer. Competition for skills sets salary levels and arranges the maximum you can negotiate as your pay.
Here is a rough example. What would happen if the government charged employers an additional $10,000 per employee as a "social benefits" tax?
If your take-home pay was $50,000, employers would quickly shift to offering you only $40,000. Whatever value you were creating would have to support that extra $10,000 expense. You would get less salary because that extra expense would immediately make you less valuable to the company.
Similarly, your value to your company is currently supporting all of the taxes and expenses associated with your employment. The following is how your employer sees it.
|Bob's Yearly Production||$110,000|
|For the Employer||-30,000|
|Expense managing Bob||-10,000|
|Bob's Gross Salary||56,949|
|Bob Pays to Medical Plan||-4,000|
|Social Security Wages||52,949|
|Payroll Taxes 7.65%||-4,051||(1)|
|Bob's Cash Salary||$48,898|
The lines marked (1) are the payroll taxes for Bob and his employer. Both of those payments reduce what Bob receives as a cash wage. They are both subtracted from Bob's total production, which has to pay for everything associated with his employment and also for a profit to his employer.
That is how Bob pays for all of his payroll taxes, even though his employer writes a check for him. If payroll taxes go up, Bob's salary will go down to pay for almost all of that tax, including the "employer's part".
See The Economics of Tax Incidence for a more detailed discussion.
Interest on the National Debt
Our National Debt is $9,100 billion (4.2 times total tax receipts). These are loans made to the government by Americans, foreign individuals, and foreign governments, and not including other parts of the government. For example, US savings bonds are loans to the government. Most loans are made by paying cash for US Treasury bonds. These bonds are promises by the government to pay back a fixed amount in the future.
The US currently pays an average of 2.2% interest on this debt, about $196 billion per year (9% of tax receipts). This interest rate is at an historic low. The average rate over the last 30 years has been 6.4%. Analyst Mary Meeker (below) estimates that the average rate will be 3.7% by 2016, and the yearly interest payments would be $337 billion.
The goverment will pay $141 billion more (7% of income), and Bob would pay $3,300 more in proportion from his $50,000 of spendable income. That will increase the financial pressure on the government and Bob.
The interest rate is not set by the government. It comes from the market price for US government debt at an auction. Yes, the government borrows money by asking a crowd, "What will anyone offer for these Treasury bonds, which will pay back $100,000 in (say) 2 years?". For convenience and efficiency, only certain companies are allowed to buy at these auctions, and the auctions are done electronically. Most bonds are bought for clients.
When there is low inflation, and depending on the world economy, buyers will pay about $96,000 for a $100,000 bond due in 2 years. That is our current situation. This gives the buyer a $4,000 profit in two years, about 2% interest on his investment.
These days, bond buyers see the US government borrowing huge amounts, collecting less tax, having high unemployement, and putting money into the economy as "stimulus". Analysts fear that there will not be enough tax revenue to pay back the huge debt. They expect the value of money to fall as the government prints more money to pay back what it borrowed. So, they want more profit from Treasury bonds to replace the declining value of the dollars they will receive in 2, 5, or 10 years.
When buyers offer only $88,000 for a 2-year, $100,000 bond, the interest rate is about 6%, $12,000 over two years.
Government debt is made up of bonds that come due over time periods from a few months to 10 years or more. The government must pay back the short-term bonds first, and must borrow more to continue (refinance) the debt. As the interest rate increases, short-term debt will first be refinanced at the higher rates. In the following years, all of the debt will be refinanced at higher rates. The average cost of maintaining the National Debt will increase greatly over time.
I used the following parts of Mary Meeker's financial report in this post. Page numbers are to the document, not the PDF display pagination.
9. Pie charts showing income, spending, and entitlements (promises).
71. The effective interest rate on Treasury debt is 2.2% in 2010.
76. There is no economic value in the Social Security trust funds.
77. 08/2004 - Statement by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO): "The Trust funds are basically an accounting device. Their balances provide no resources to the government for meeting future funding commitments, even if they are "invested" in Treasury securities.
82. Definition of the unfunded liabilities of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.
107. Overview of healthcare spending.
143. Effective interest rates are at an historic low of 2.2% in 2010, vs. the 30-year average of 6.4%. The rate will rise with the federal funds target rate and long-term Treasury yield as our economy recovers. Long-term debt (10+ year bonds) in 2010 is only 10% of total debt. The average interest rate on US debt will change quickly following changes in interest rates.
166. Effective interest rates are 2.2% in 2010, and will be 3.7% in 2016.
Federal Hospital and Medical Insurance Trust Funds
8/5/2010 - 2010 Annual Report of the Board of Trustees
Tax Burden of Top 1% Exceeds Bottom 95%
7/29/09 - Tax Foundation - 2007 figures
Income tax paid by AGI threshold
National Taxpayers Union - Tax years 1999 to 2008
Normal Interest Rates Would be a Disaster for U.S. Debt
03/14/11 - LesJones.com
The US currently pays about 2%. If rates were to return simply to that historical average, it would involve an increase to our overall interest bill of $640 billion — to be paid immediately. “An impossible situation,” in US Sen. Coburn’s words.
Social Security and Medicare Liabilities
06/11/09 - National Center for Policy Analysis - NCPA
The estimated Social Security and Medicare liability as of 2009 is $17.5 trillion.
Social Security Administration Trust Fund Assets
01/31/11 - Social Security Administration On-Line
The Social Security trust fund holds $2,600 billion in special US government bonds.
FamBudget.xls - 03/2011 - Excel 2003 worksheet.
The calculations for this post. You are welcome to open or download it.
2006 Tax Comparisons - 04/2009 - Easy Opinions
Analysis of who pays taxes based, on income slices, from the US 2006 tax data.
The Economics of Tax Incidence
08/2010 - Economists View
The government makes businesses pay taxes, but where does the money really come from? Almost all of it comes from offering lower salaries or charging higher prices. The working public pays those taxes, one way or another, and their real prosperity suffers.
The Deadweight Loss of Taxes - 12/2008 - Easy Opinions
The deadweight loss caused by increasing tax rates above current levels may exceed $2 per $1 of revenue increase. When the government collects $1 more in taxes, the economy loses at least $2 in production and jobs.
Version 3 - What Changed?
- The GOP in Congress settled on a $61 billion proposed spending cut, rather than the $70 billion used in Version 2.
- Version 2 calculated a need for 2.6 times current tax revenue to pay for all promises. This post calculates 1.76 times current tax revenue.
This post uses a consistent "3% interpretation". It calculates what tax revenues would need to be today, increasing at 3% yearly, to pay the unfunded promises of the next 75 years. The government and independent analysts use this same interpretation (a 3% discount rate) to calculate the lump-sum amount today that represents government promises in the future.
A payment that increases at 3% yearly over 75 years can start at much less than a fixed payment (like a mortgage payment) that pays off the same amounts in the future.
- This post eliminates some double-counting of future unfunded liabilites. Unfunded liabilities in Social Security and Medicare are estimated above the current revenues from dedicated payroll taxes.
The government is currently paying more for Social Security and Medicare than is collected. So, I assume that the overage is currently applied toward some part of the unfunded amount estimated by analysists. This reduces the remaining unfunded liability which will require increased tax revenue.
- More of the numbers are easier to read and compare in charts, along with general editing, additional sections, and a list of links and referencees.
02/21/11 - V1 Posted
03/03/11 - V2 Expanded without change in figures
03/28/11 - V3 Expanded, new figures as described above