We all want something for nothing. That’s how con artists make a living.
Yes, including Paul Ryan.
Megan McArdle debuts at Newsweek/Daily Beast with a reflection on con artistry and self-deception.
One thing Megan doesn’t note: the “equity premium” – the virtually-guaranteed 8% return on diversified stock portfolios – was the whole premise of Paul Ryan’s Social Security privatization plan. And of course “dynamic scoring” is jsut another version of something for nothing.
Wouldn’t it be nice if the con artists got out of politics and went back to just fleecing individuals?
Author: Mark Kleiman
Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out.
Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken)
When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist
Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993)
Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989)
View all posts by Mark Kleiman
15 thoughts on “Can’t-cheat-an-honest-man Dep’t”
Speaking of political fraudsters: “CalPERS eked out a 1.1% investment return in 2011, far short of its goal of a 7.75% rate of return assumption.”
That doesn’t prove fraud, Dave. Just over-optimistic assumptions. There is a difference.
What’s fraudulent is, when holding a position of public trust, to continue to advertise your “optimistic assmuptions” as established fact after you know they are false.
I will defend reasonable assumption-setting even if it doesn’t work out (life isn’t as predictable as one might wish), but funding pensions assuming rates of return that have not been seen in 30 years or more is not reasonable getting-the-assumptions-wrong. That’s true whether it’s CalPERS or Bain making the overly-optimistic assumptions.
I think that Jeremy Gold (“Is a dollar’s worth of stock worth more or less than a dollar’s worth of bonds?”) Gold won the argument with Andy (“Oh you mushrooms and sheep!”) Lang.
Good point, but it really goes beyond SS privatization. McArdle writes, accurately IMO, that,
The best con men succeed mostly because we are so desperate to believe them.
The treatment of Paul Ryan as some sort of budget genius is an excellent example of this. I wonder if McArdle reallizes that?
She forgot to add ‘and because many people are paid good money to lie and BS on behalf of lies and BS’, because she’d be a prime example of that.
Does the Daily NewsBeast have something against RSS Feeds? I didn’t see a single one on their whole site.
If they all did that and stayed out, I suppose we could turn D.C. and state capitals into museums.
So, I have a Big Question for people here: is McArdle trying to say that the post-WWII expansion was some kind of unique economic period, during which somehow we could afford for old people to retire with dignity, but now we can’t? And if so, is there even the tiniest truth to it? My gut instinct tells me that there’s no reason to believe we couldn’t restore middle class security if we wanted to, and she is just basically an apologist for rampant inequality. (Though admittedly, things do look bleak just now.) Especially if we were to roll back the disgraceful attempt to shove everyone into 401ks that they don’t know how to use. I say, everyone ought to get a pension instead and yes, I’ll take CalPERS returns, if I can get them. (They usually do pretty well.)
But without doing the math, I don’t know for sure. Hoping someone else already did it!!
Or, is she just making general observations about there being a new sucker born every minute? ‘Cause *that* I’ll agree with.
McArdle is trying to say that first, the economic growth rates of the postwar period simply may not recur (before you start saying that we could do it if we just implemented a more generous safety net & good union jobs, note that the post-1973 slowdown was worldwide, not local to the US. Whatever it was that caused the slowdown–I think the oil shock is the most plausible–it wasn’t falling unionization.) That makes it more difficult to provide for retirements: if the retiree population is growing faster than the worker population (it is), then the easiest way to finesse that is rapid economic growth: workers can pay more to support retirees, but still get higher incomes.
If the economy is stuck at only 1% a year for the next decade (plausible projection from an economist I respect), then both politically and economically, supporting those retirees is more difficult.
She is trying to say, second and more importantly, that the higher the ratio of retirees to workers, the harder it is to support them. When there was one retiree for every twenty workers, or even one for every five, supporting those retirees was relatively painless. When it’s one-to-two, each worker has to support a whole lot of expenditure on the part of a retiree. And something that many people don’t understand is that *as a percentage of your income*, the move from 4:1 to 2:1 is bigger than the move from 20:1 to 4:1. Say we’re equalizing incomes among everyone. At 20:1, each person has to contribute 4% of their income; at 4:1, they have to contribute 25%, a shift of 21% of income.
But the shift from 4:1 to 2:1 means going from 25% of income to 50% of income. It’s a 25% decline in your gross income, and a 33% decline in your net spendable income. Note that this is true whether the retirement funding comes through the private asset markets, or the government.
Of course, we don’t actually equalize spending, but the principle remains. At baby-boomer birth rates and growth rates, gold-plated pensions and generous social security benefits were basically sustainable. At current demographics and growth rates, they’re not–and worse, there’s some reason to believe that an aging society inherently has lower growth rates, because of rising risk aversion and the entrenchment of existing economic interests.
Hey, thanks for explaining!! Unlike a lot of what gets thrown around out in the public discourse, these are actual important issues. So, I thank you for raising them in a non-hysterical way. A lot of people think that just cutting entitlements is going to solve the problem, forgetting that the actual people will still exist.
There are so many awful things about the prospect of sustained 1% growth that it’s hard to know where to start. So, I sure hope that economist is wrong. As for the demographic trends you site, I don’t have an opinion on them. I just know that we don’t even have jobs for the all the people here now, so they can’t contribute to anyone’s retirement. And a big chunk of the populace doesn’t even think it’s a problem. Somehow they imagine that 401ks will save them. Which as you point out, is nonsense.
We may not get 1%, but to keep things in line with historical expectations–i.e. to make this feel relatively painless–growth would have to be higher than it’s been in a while. Unfortunately, this does not strike me as very plausible. Which means retirees either work longer, or they/workers take income cuts, or both.
Well, being as you and I are more or less on the opposite sides of things, I wouldn’t expect total agreement. I am not sure that having people work longer makes much sense when younger people are getting royally bleeped by unemployment already, for example. Also, there is also the question of … sorry but I have to say it, redistribution and less inequality. This is still a very very rich country. It is only our government that is kept deliberately broke. I’m sure we’ll get into these ideas again in the future.
I’m with you as far as the notion of conservative predictions on returns though. That’s no place to be getting exuberant! I just see so much BS in the current discussion of pensions. Also, people confuse them with retiree healthcare, which really should be a separate subject.
The problem is, you can’t do a straight one-for-one transfer of rich people stuff to stuff seniors need. A lot of the incomes of the wealthy get spent on securities, tax lawyers, and expensive appreciated real estate. Severely cutting those expenses would not generate more resources to provide the stuff that middle class people need: a Lambourghini may cost five times what a Toyota does, but that doesn’t mean that we could stop making the lambourghini and produce five Toyotas instead. Nor can you redistribute the view from a Central Park apartment. Taxing away the money spent on these things would lower the price of luxury goods and reduce nominal inequality, but it would not generate any more resources to support middle class retirees–indeed, to the extent that those dollars now flow to middle class workers/purveyors of those goods, you might produce less.
The other problem is that it’s very, very hard to tax your capital base without destroying it, which is why even Scandinavia has relatively low capital taxes (and one family, the Wallenbergs, owns a jaw-dropping percentage of Sweden’s wealth).
That’s not to say that you couldn’t close some of the gap by taxing rich people. But ultimately, the constraint is not little green pieces of paper, or accounting entries; it’s how much stuff gets produced. The rich tend to consume a lot of stuff with high price tags because it’s scarce, not because it has massive labor/resource inputs. There’s no way to transform those goods into the massive amount of stuff that America’s 50 million middle-class retirees are going to need.
Even if the equity premium is real, it’s real only over fairly long timescales. But people retire all the time, not just during propitious market periods. And having half your senior citizens eating dog food is not acceptable even if the other half get to sip champagne a few times a month.
Meanwhile, dynamic scoring is actually a pretty good idea. It just has to be done with some semblance of careful assumptions. If you do purely static scoring, you’ll always be wrong, and usually in a direction you don’t want.
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