The Economics of Pay-as-you-go Social Security, and the
Economic Cost of Ending It
By: John Mueller
For the National Committee to Preserve Social Security
1. The Inadequacy of "Neoclassical" Economic Theory
Economists are notorious for making assumptions that aren't necessarily
true -- as in the old story about a group of economists stranded on a
desert island with a case of wine, and no way to open it. "I
know!" one economist chirps. "Assume we have a corkscrew."
Rather than assuming things into existence, the debate over the
economic theory of pay-as-you-go Social Security is mostly about assuming
things away that really do exist. Those who seek to end pay-as-you-go'
Social Security base their argument on an economic theory devised about 1
00 years ago, for quite a different purpose. They ignore the fact that
this "neoclassical" theory was challenged nearly 40 years ago as
inadequate to explain economic growth, and disproven by careful research
more than 20 years ago. The trouble with neoclassical theory lies not in
its logic but in its assumptions, which do not match the world in which we
live. The theory entirely ignores the existence and economic value of
investments in people.
The neoclassical economic theory and its policy prescriptions could
accurately be described as follows:
"it seems that economic output and our standard of living can be
explained by three factors: labor, capital, and technical progress.
Frankly, we haven't the foggiest idea of what causes people to raise more
or fewer future workers; nor do we understand where technical progress
comes from. We will therefore suppose that the size of the labor force
grows at some constant rate, and that technical knowledge advances at some
"it follows that the only remaining way to increase output or
raise our standard of living is to increase net investment in business
plant and equipment. If saving responds to the after-tax rate of return
(and this appears to be the case), then the most efficient way to increase
investment in plant and equipment is to reduce or abolish taxes on the
income produced by such investment, while increasing taxes on workers'
incomes. With higher taxes, workers may decide to work fewer hours than
before; but we don't believe that this will be large enough to offset the
positive effect of increased investment in plant and equipment.
"The approach may seem unfair, but it is really in the workers'
own best interest. It is only by reducing workers' consumption for awhile
-- and this should not take more than two decades -- that we can give them
more tools to work with. And by our assumptions, increasing the ratio of
machines to workers is the only sure way to increase workers' wages and
their future consumption."
In a now famous address in 1960, economist Theodore W. Schultz
challenged this "neoclassical" theory as an explanation of
economic growth, pointing out that it was contradicted by the facts:
"The income of the United States has been increasing at a much
higher rate than the combined amount of land, man-hours worked, and the
stock of reproducible capital used to produce the income.... To call this
discrepancy a measure of 'resource productivity' gives a name to our
ignorance but does not dispel it.... Unless this discrepancy can be
resolved, received theory of production applied to inputs and outputs as
currently measured is a toy and not a tool for studying economic
2. Schultz's Thesis: Total Capital, Human and Nonhuman
Schultz went on to present his own hypothesis. It is probable, Schultz
said, that the productivity of labor and capital does not change much over
time, if at all. Rather, the apparent rise in their productivity is due to
the way in which these inputs are measured: "Investment in human
capital is probably the major explanation of this difference. Much of what
we call consumption constitutes investment in human capital. Direct
expenditures on education, health, and internal migration to take
advantage of better job opportunities are clear examples."3
Schultz argued that the main thrust of the neoclassical theory was
therefore wrong: "Laborers have become capitalists not from a
diffusion of corporate stocks as folklore would have it, but from the
acquisition of knowledge and skill that have economic value."4
Schultz's address greatly stimulated interest and activity in efforts
to explain economic growth. Some economists, like Gary Becker, undertook
to refine the theory of what Schultz had called "human capital."
Just as all property income is the return on investment in nonhuman
capital, Becker argued, all labor compensation is the return on investment
in human capital.5
This means that neither growth of the labor force nor rising
productivity due to "technical progress" can be taken for
granted. There can be little technical progress without investment in
research and development. There can be no growth of the labor force
without a prior investment in child-rearing. There can be no increases in
income resulting from education, training, health, safety or mobility,
unless there has been prior investment in education, training, health
safety or mobility. And though public spending on education, safety. etc.,
is far from negligible, more than three-quarters of all investment in
human capital is due to direct investments by families.6
In the meantime, John W. Kendrick, already a pioneer in the field,
decided to test Schultz's hypothesis by careful measurement. In 1976,
Kendrick published The Formation and Stocks of Total Capital, a body of
research which he has periodically updated. After four decades of
research, Kendrick concluded that Schultz's hypothesis was proven:
"the total capital approach... provides an effective explanation of
most of the rate of growth of real (adjusted) GDP."7 Kendrick showed
that, while part of the economic growth left unexplained by neoclassical
economic theory was due to investment in research and development, most
was due -- exactly as Schultz had argued -- to investment in "human
Because this point is so central to the debate over Social Security, it
is worth spending some time examining the facts in more detail.
3. Where Does Economic Growth Come From?
In the first place, Schultz's theory and Kendrick's research indicate
that total (human and nonhuman) saving and investment is much larger than
conventional (and official) measures, which confine saving and investment
to the accumulation of plant and equipment.
In fact, total investment is nearly three times as large a share of the
economy as the official measures suggest. Gross investment (before
deducting depreciation of capital) ranges between 40% and 50% of gross
domestic product, rather than 15% to 20%. Net investment (after
subtracting allowances for depreciation of capital) is in the range of 20%
of net national product -- also nearly three times as high as the
Moreover, while the share of income devoted to investment in plant and
equipment has had a slightly declining trend over time, total investment
has increased substantially as a share of the economy, though the absolute
peak occurred around 1973.9.
The stocks of human and nonhuman capital are the cumulative result of
many years of investment. And the total stock of human capital is larger
than the total stock of nonhuman capital.
Kendrick also showed that the relation between growth of total (human
and nonhuman) capital and growth of total output is essentially
one-for-one. From 1929 to 1990, total capital grew at an average rate of
2.9% a year in real terms, and total real output grew at a 3.0% rate.
In the U.S. business economy (excluding government and households) --
for which the data are usually more reliable, since relatively little has
to be imputed -- the relationship between growth of total capital and
growth of total output is apparent, not just on average, but also during
relatively short time periods, such as a business cycle. Faster or slower
economic growth has coincided with faster or slower growth of total human
and nonhuman capital.
Moreover, the growth rates of human and nonhuman capital speed up and
slow down at the same time. This is because human and nonhuman capital are
both necessary for any increase in output, in roughly constant proportion.
However, human and nonhuman capital do not contribute equally to
output. Human capital produces about two-thirds, and nonhuman capital
about one-third, of output and real income. In the domestic business
economy (excluding government and households), human capital has
contributed about 71 % and nonhuman capital 29% of economic growth (24%
due to investment in plant and equipment, and 5% to investment in research
and development). In the whole U.S. economy (including government and
households), human capital has contributed about 63% and nonhuman capital
37% of economic growth (32% due to buildings and machines, and 5% due to
research and development).10
These relative contributions of human and nonhuman capital to total
output explain why the returns to human and nonhuman capital -- labor
compensation and property compensation, respectively -- are divided as
shares of total national income in about the same proportion.
However, Schultz and Kendrick pointed out that the national income
accounts and the tax code both treat labor compensation and property
compensation disparately. Net property income earned from investment in
nonhuman capital is measured only after subtracting the costs of
maintenance and depreciation. But for labor compensation earned from
investment in human capital, both costs are treated (and taxed) as if they
were net income." The national income would be classified if labor
compensation and property compensation were treated alike: at least half
of labor compensation would be deducted to avoid double-counting of the
Finally, Kendrick worked out average real pretax rates of return on
investment for both human and nonhuman capital. In business cycle peak
years, the real rates of return on net capital in the business economy
averaged about 12.5% for human capital and 10.4% for nonhuman capital; in
the broader total domestic economy, the real rates of return averaged
11.3% for nonhuman capital and 6.9% for nonhuman capital.12
Comparing these real rates of return with growth of the capital stock
indicates that investment in both human and nonhuman capital responds to
changes in the real rate of return. Both seem to be about equally
sensitive to variations in the rate of return.
4. Theories of Pay-as-you-go Social Security
The main difficulty in the debate over Social Security is that most
antagonists on both sides still use the outdated neoclassical theory and
The first serious attempt to explain the economics of pay-as-you-go
Social Security was by Paul Samuelson.13 In 1958, Samuelson developed a
simple theory showing that, in the long run, the rate of return on
pay-as-you-go Social Security would be about the same as the rate of
economic growth. And this rate of return would be higher than the average
interest rate on lending and borrowing. The argument implied that
pay-as-you-go Social Security increases economic welfare. However, in this
simple model, all loans were assumed to be for the purpose of consumption.
In 1966 Henry Aaron, using assumptions more closely approximating those
of neoclassical theory, reached a similar conclusion. 14 Aaron showed that
pay-as-you-go Social Security increases total economic welfare, as long as
the rate of economic growth exceeds the risk-free interest rate on other
investments (which has been the case on average in the past).
In the 1970s, however, Martin Feldstein sought to overturn the
conclusion that pay-as-you-go Social Security increases economic
welfare.15 Feldstein ridiculed Samuelson's theory as one-sided in assuming
that there is no investment in plant and equipment. In its place, he
offered an equally one-sided theory, which assumed that all investment
consists solely of 'plant and equipment. 16
During its start-up phase, Feldstein said, the rate of return on Social
Security is much higher than the return on other investments. This causes
people to save less and consume more, he argued. Feldstein attempted to
measure the decline in saving which he believed Social Security must have
Samuelson was right about one thing, Feldstein said: the average future
rate of return on Social Security must equal the rate of economic growth.
But, said Feldstein, the appropriate rate of return for comparison with
Social Security is not a risk-free interest rate, as Aaron had argued --
but rather the rate of return on plant and equipment before all taxes,
which is higher. Individual investors do not receive this full return on
their financial investments, because of corporate and personal income
taxes. But the value to society, Feldstein said, should be measured by the
total pre-tax rate of return on investment in plant and equipment.
A pay-as-you-go Social Security system must therefore reduce economic
welfare, according to Feldstein: "in reducing private saving, social
security causes the substitution of a low-yielding implicit
intergenerational contract [Social Security] for real capital investment
with a higher social yield" [plant and equipment].18
The economic loss, Feldstein said, must equal the difference between
these two rates of return, multiplied by the (alleged) reduction in saving
caused by Social Security. Therefore, he concluded, there must be an
economic gain from ending pay-as-you-go Social Security, equal to the
present value of this amount, less the original economic gain received by
the first generation of retirees.
Each of the theories just outlined ignores the existence of "human
capital." Before examining why this changes everything, we must note
one more source of confusion.
5. Disagreement Among the "Privatizers"
The debate over the merits of pay-as-you-go Social Security is further
confused by the fact that many who later joined Feldstein in proposing to
end pay-as-you-go Social Security apparently do not understand his
This group includes those associated with the Washington, D.C., based
Cato Institute, who propose to end Social Security and replace it with
individual retirement accounts, while leaving the tax code essentially
Using what they apparently consider a variation on Feldstein's
argument, the Cato group argues that simply replacing pay-as-you-go Social
Security with private individual savings accounts would bring a large
economic benefit. The reason, they argue, is that the return on
investments like common stocks has been higher than the growth rate of the
In a separate paper, we show that this conclusion is untenable when
risk is taken into account.19 In the past, the average rate of return on
financial investments, adjusted for risk, has always been lower than the
average rate of economic growth -- which, as we have seen, approximates
the average long-run return on pay-as-you-go Social Security.
This fact alone is sufficient to explain why replacing pay-as-you-go
Social Security with mandatory financial accounts is a bad idea. But the
Cato group does not seem to understand that, according to Feldstein also,
merely replacing Social Security with financial investments would bring
about an economic loss, not an economic benefit -even if risk could be
The reason, as Feldstein explains, is that "capital income taxes
reduce the net return that individuals receive on private savings to
approximately the implicit rate of return that they earn on social
security tax contributions."20
This means that, even if the risks on Social Security and financial
saving were exactly the same, "privatizing" Social Security
would reduce economic welfare. The after-tax return on saving, the size of
the capital stock and the size of the economy could be no larger than
before. Thus there could be no way to pay for the large transition cost of
ending pay-as-you-go Social Security. At least one generation would have
to pay payroll taxes without receiving Social Security benefits paid by
the following generation -- and also save for its own retirement at a rate
of return no higher than could be realized from payas-you-go Social
6. Essential Feature of Feldstein's Plan: A Tax Hike on Workers
This is why the plan advocated by Feldstein (and a few other
economists) involves two parts: not only replacing pay-as-you-go Social
Security with mandatory financial accounts, but also, at the same time,
"a shift from the current income tax to a consumption tax or a labor
income tax. .21
The details of Feldstein's particular plan are rather impractical.22
However, the main question is not whether Feldstein's plan makes sense,
but whether any plan along such lines could make sense. This is a serious
and intelligent question; and the serious and intelligent answer is
As Feldstein explains, "The essential feature of the transition to
a funded program of retirement benefits is a period of reduced consumption
by employees during the early years of the transition so that a dedicated
capital stock can be accumulated. This dedicated capital is then used to
finance retirement benefits, thereby permitting lower taxes and more
consumption by employees in later years."23
According to Feldstein, the reduction in consumption would be
accomplished by a tax increase on workers' incomes. Abolishing at the same
time all Federal, state and local taxes on the private investment in plant
and equipment funded by retirement saving would raise the return on
retirement saving. The higher rate of return would bring forth additional
saving and increase the size of the economy. In Feldstein's view, the
additional economic growth would pay for the "transition cost"
of ending pay-as-you-go Social Security within a couple of decades.
The problem, as we have seen, is that the economic theory of the "privatizers"
ignores the existence of human capital. The theory defines all income not
spent to purchase machines or buildings as "consumption," not
investment. But as Kendrick's research shows, the majority of such income
is not devoted to "consumption," but rather to investing in and
maintaining human capital.
Feldstein's plan therefore cannot work in any form, because it would
substitute more investment in nonhuman capital for less investment in
human capital -- which yields a higher pretax rate of return. The result
would necessarily be a smaller, not a larger economy.
7. Did Social Security Cause'the Baby Boom?
To understand the effect of ending pay-as-you-go Social Security,
perhaps the most helpful starting point is to consider what happened when
pay-as-you-go Social Security began. And the first question we must ask is
this: Did pay-as-you-go Social Security cause the Baby Boom?
This may seem like an odd question, and one difficult to answer. Social
Security was enacted in 1935, workers began paying payroll taxes in 1936,
the first benefits were paid in 1941, and the Baby Boom began in the
1940s. But the startup of Social Security also overlapped with many other
major economic events: the end of the Great Depression, the Second World
War, and the beginning of the Cold War, to name only a few.
However, the question will not go away. The point on which everyone
agrees is that the first generations of workers covered under Social
Security received extraordinarily high real rates of return on their
Also, demographers like Richard Easterlin have shown that the chief
economic influence on the decision by any generation to have more or fewer
children, compared with the preceding generation, is the real income of
that generation, relative to the preceding generation.24
A simple way to measure the rate at which Social Security affects the
wealth of successive generations is to compare the Social Security
benefits paid to retirees in a given year (as a share of taxable payroll)
with benefits as a share of payroll about 25 years earlier --
approximately the length of a generation. When we compare this "rate
of intergenerational transfer" with the total fertility rate, we find
an uncanny resemblance; moreover, the intergenerational transfer precedes
the fertility rate by a few years.
Whatever other factors may have been important, we at least cannot
reject the theory that the "wealth effect" of pay-as-you-go
Social Security -- which the "privatizers" argue must have had a
large effect on the behavior of American families -- must have played an
important role in the Baby Boom.
This should not surprise us. When working families can expect a higher
(risk-adjusted) average return from Social Security than from nonhuman
capital, they have more wealth to put into an investment they prefer to
any other -- their children.
As Kendrick showed, the economic rate of return on expenses like
child-rearing and education, in terms of increased future labor earnings,
has been about 4.4 percentage points higher than the average return on all
nonhuman capital. This has also been about 5 percentage points higher than
the average real return on common stocks - yet with only a quarter of the
risk caused by variations in return.
But many families, especially poorer families, do not have the means to
finance all the investments in their children that would yield this
return. And we can expect that this will always be the case (barring a
return to the barbarities of human slavery or indentured servitude). It
will always be harder to borrow for an investment that is embodied in a
human being instead of a piece of property.25
Of its nature, therefore, pay-as-you-go Social Security is a method of
financing more investment in human capital than could otherwise occur.26
This expansion of investment in human capital, in turn, makes the
economy larger than it would otherwise be. To see how this happens, let's
consider the effect of the Baby Boom on investment and economic growth,
using Kendrick's figures.
The rise of the birth rate during the Baby Boom coincided closely with
an acceleration in investment of all kinds from 1948 to 1973 -- which
caused an acceleration in growth of real GDP (Graph 17). The strongest
acceleration in investment occurred in human capital. But, according to
the figures we examined earlier, investment in nonhuman capital also
increased -- both as a share of the economy and in its rate of growth.
Relatively more investment went into human capital. But both human and
nonhuman capital are necessary for increases in output. As a result, there
was an acceleration of investment even in nonhuman capital.
Thus, Feldstein is correct in arguing that pay-as-you-go Social
Security profoundly affected the savings habits of American households. He
is also correct to believe that it caused a substitution away from
investment in nonhuman capital. But he is wrong to assume that the result
was an increase in the share of the economy devoted to
"consumption." Consumption increased in absolute terms as the
economy expanded. But the fact that total investment (as well as
investment in nonhuman capital alone) increased as a share of the economy
means that the share of national income devoted to consumption declined
sharply after the introduction of Social Security, above all during the
The evidence is unambiguous: pay-as-you-go Social Security financed
more investment and more economic growth than could otherwise have
8. The Economic Cost of Ending Pay-as-you-go Social Security
Any effort to end pay-as-you-go Social Security must throw this process
into reverse -resulting in a smaller population, lower total investment as
a share of the economy, and a smaller economy.
Raising taxes on labor compensation, as Feldstein and other
neoclassical theorists propose, cannot increase investment by reducing the
consumption of workers -- any more than raising taxes on property income
would reduce the consumption of physical capital. What is taxed in each
case is the return on investment in human or nonhuman capital; what is
reduced in each case is investment in human or nonhuman capital.
Therefore, the notion that it is possible to abolish taxes on
"investment" and tax only liconsumption" is a pipe-dream.
Every penny of income in the economy is the return on some kind of
investment: there is nothing to tax but the return on investment. Removing
all taxes from investment would mean abolishing taxes altogether. This
means that the best fiscal policy is to make government spending as
efficient as possible, and to levy any necessary taxes on the returns to
investments in human and nonhuman capital as equally as possible.
Just as starting up pay-as-you-go Social Security caused a substitution
toward more investment in human capital relative to nonhuman capital,
ending pay-as-you-go Social Security would cause a substitution toward
more investment in nonhuman capital relative to human capital.
But in the first case, the result was a larger economy; in the second
case, the result would be a smaller economy. The reason is that human
investment is responsible for about three times as much economic growth as
investment in buildings and machines; and because the pretax rate of
return on human capital is higher than the pretax rate of return on
To grasp this point, let's consider the arithmetic of ending
pay-as-you-go Social Security as Feldstein sees it.
Feldstein adopts the projections of the Social Security actuaries, who
assume that, largely because of reduced future population growth, the
average rate of economic growth over the next 75 years will be less than
half the rate observed in the past -- about 1.4% instead of about 3%.
If this happens, the next 75 years will amount to an Economic Ice Age.
Yet, judging by the past relation between the fertility rate and economic
growth, this projection about economic growth is not unreasonable -- as
long as the birth rate behaves as the actuaries assume. On the other hand,
the birth rate has defied official projections for most of the past 60
years. And according to Easterlin, the same economic factors that
contributed to the rise and fall of the birth rate during and after the
Baby Boom should cause the birth rate to rise again in the future.27
However, we don't need to question the actuaries' projections to show
why Feldstein is wrong in believing that pay-as-you-go Social Security
incurs a net cost rather than a net benefit.
If real GDP growth in the business economy averages 1.4% a year, then
we can expect that 1.0% percentage point (71%) of the growth will be
accounted for by investment in human capital; about 0.3% percentage point
(24%) by investment in equipment and buildings; and about 0.1% percentage
point (5%) from investment in research and development.
Feldstein estimates that, as the result of raising taxes on workers and
abolishing taxes on new investment in plant and equipment, the stock of
tangible business capital would row over the next 75 ears by about 34%
more than otherwise. Total real output and national income would be about
8% higher (a 34% increase in plant and equipment, times the 24%
contribution of plant and equipment to economic growth). This represents
an average increase in real GDP growth of 0.1% per year.
However, these calculations assume that the size of the stock of human
capital would be unaffected.28 The conclusion reverses once we recognize
that a tax increase on workers would reduce investment in child-rearing,
education and other kinds of human capital.29
Let us conservatively suppose that the tax increase on labor
compensation proposed by Feldstein would reduce investment in
child-rearing, education, etc., by 17% -- only half as much as Feldstein
claims the stock of nonhuman capital would increase. Because human capital
contributes about three times as much to economic growth as plant and
equipment, the tendency for less investment in human capital must outweigh
any tendency for more investment in nonhuman capital. Since both types of
capital are necessary for production in roughly constant proportion, the
value of both human and nonhuman capital would have to decline. After 75
years, the economy would be 4% smaller, not 8% larger, as a consequence of
The future economic loss from ending pay-as-you-go Social Security can
also be measured in another way. Feldstein claims that ending
pay-as-you-go Social Security would reap an economic benefit equal to at
least $3.2 trillion in today's dollars.31 This calculation assumes that
the average future return on investment in plant and equipment will be 8
or 9 percentage points higher than the average future return from Social
The trouble with this calculation is that Feldstein is comparing the
pre-tax return on nonhuman capital with the after-tax return on human
capital. Just as the return on financial assets to individual investors is
reduced by taxes already levied on the underlying investment in nonhuman
capital, so also the return on Social Security received by workers is
reduced by the taxes already paid on the underlying investment in human
capital.32 To be consistent, therefore, Feldstein must use either the
pretax or the aftertax rates of return for both human and nonhuman
capital, but not mix them.
A tax increase on labor income, combined with a tax cut on property
compensation, would reduce investment in human capital, in an effort to
increase investment in nonhuman capital. But the average pre-tax real rate
of return on human capital is significantly higher than the corresponding
rate of return on nonhuman capital -- as we have seen, about 4.4
percentage points higher in the total domestic economy.33 Moreover, this
difference in rates must also be adjusted for the fact that the average
volatility risk of investing in nonhuman capital is more than twice the
risk of investing in human capital.
Correcting this inconsistency reverses Feldstein's calculation: Far
from producing an economic gain, ending pay-as-you-go Social Security
would cause an economic loss of about $3 trillion in today's dollars.34
9. Conclusion: Keep Social Security Pay-as-you-go
The conclusions of our analysis are straightforward:
1. Neoclassical economic theory is totally inadequate for guiding
policymakers on issues like pay-as-you-go Social Security -- particularly
since a better theory, confirmed by decades of careful research, has long
2. The argument for abolishing pay-as-you-go Social Security rests on
assumptions which are contradicted by the facts -- particularly the
neoclassical theory's assumption that there is no such thing as investment
in "human capital."
3. Ending pay-as-you-go Social Security must incur a large economic
cost, not an economic benefit.
1. "Pay-as-you-go" means that each generation pays the
retirement benefits of its parents' generation.
2. Schultz (1961), 6.
3. Schultz (1961), 1.
4. Schultz (1961), 3.
5. "Particularly in developed economies but perhaps in most, there
is sufficient investment in education, training, informal learning, health
and just plain child rearing that the earnings unrelated to investment in
human capital are a small part of the total. indeed, in the developmental
approaches to child rearing, all the earnings of a person are ultimately
attributed to different kinds of investment made in him." Becker (1
6. Becker (1994), 209.
7. Kendrick (1994), 16.
8. Since most economists are familiar with the idea of "human
capital," it seems that ignorance of the research done by Kendrick
and others is the only explanation as to why so many prominent economists
continue to define saving as plant and equipment, excluding investment in
human capital (and in R&D).
Michael Boskin seems representative of this attitude: "such
investment [in human capital] is likely to be important. However, those
who argue for inclusion of human capital expenditures in savings figures
ignore the depreciation of the stock of human capital. . . . While further
refinements of measures of human investment expenditures and depreciation
of the stock of human capital are desirable, they are unlikely to raise
the net saving rate more than a small amount (perhaps 1% or so) and are
unlikely to cause us to alter the conclusion that currently the net
national saving rate in the U.S. is low, falling, and well below its
optimum." Boskin (1986), 28.
Yet Kendrick's work, published 10 years earlier, carefully accounted
for depreciation of human capital, and showed that including investment in
human capital raises the net saving rate by about 10 percentage points --
roughly doubling Boskin's estimate. In fact, the actual net saving rate
measured by Kendrick equals or exceeds Boskin's calculation of the
"optimal net saving rate" for the U.S. economy.
9. "In contrast to the declining secular trend shown by the
conventional series, all of our measures of total capital formation show a
significant rise in the proportion of income and product saved and
invested between 1929 and 1969." Kendrick (1976), 127. This
conclusion remains true in the light of more recent data; Kendrick (1994).
10. The reason for the lower contribution of human capital to output in
the total economy, strange as it may seem, is that households and
governments employ relatively more nonhuman capital -- houses, cars,
natural resources, defense equipment -- than businesses.
11. Schultz (1 961), 13. Kendrick (1976), 30, 122.
12. Average real rates of return on gross capital (before subtracting
depreciation) were slightly higher. Kendrick (1976), 118-125; Kendrick
(1994), 7, 13-15.
13. Samuelson (1958).
14. Aaron (1966).
15. Feldstein (1977).
16. Feldstein called Samuelson's argument about pay-as-you-go Social
Security "brilliant but mischievous." "I say mischievous
because the economy that Samuelson considered has no capital stock and
indeed no nonperishable goods. A social security system, or a system of
money, was therefore the only way in which individuals could provide for
their old age. In an actual economy, as I have emphasized, the unfunded
social security program displaces private saving and real capital
accumulation." Feldstein (1994), 21.
The point is well taken: nonhuman capital contributes about a third of
GDP. But of the two simplifications, Samueison's is the less unrealistic,
because it ignores investment in the factor responsible for only
one-quarter of economic growth (plant and equiment), while Feldstein
ignores investment in the factor that provides three-quarters of economic
growth (human capital). By saying that pay-as-you-go Social Security
"displaces private saving and real capital accumulation,"
Feldstein assumes that investment in "human capital" is not
saving or "real" capital accumulation.
17. Feldstein (1974).
18. Feldstein (1 977), 119. We note that, in Feldstein's theory,
investment in human capital is not "real capital investment."
19. "Can Financial Assets Beat Social Security? Not in the Real
World," companion paper.
20. Feldstein (1994), 15-16. By "capital income taxes"
Feldstein means taxes paid by corporations before interest and dividends
are paid to individual investors: chiefly taxes on corporate profits.
But Feldstein also includes state and local property taxes, which
violates standard accounting practice. Since "indirect" taxes
are paid before any "factor income" -- labor compensation or
property compensation -- there is no reason to believe that they fall more
heavily on property income than on labor income. To be consistent,
indirect taxes should either be omitted or else attributed proportionately
to labor and property income. At the very least, if property taxes are
attributed entirely to property income, all other (sales-type) indirect
taxes should be attributed to pretax labor compensation.
21. Feldstein (1994), 14. In economic terms, a "consumption"
tax and a tax on labor income are essentially the same.
22. Feldstein proposes to rebate all Federal, state and local taxes on
investment in nonhuman capital financed by retirement saving. This', he
argues, would provide a real rate of return of about 9% on retirement
saving. But Feldstein has yet to grapple with the practical difficulties
that this would involve. In its current form, Feldstein's plan, taken
literally, amounts to the Federal government guaranteeing each and every
individual investor a 9% real return on any financial investment, without
restriction. If so, the Federal governnment would suddenly find itself
borrowing at a Treasury bill rate 9 percentage points above the inflation
rate, while simultaneously guaranteeing a 9 percent real return on any
private financial investment, regardless of risk -- and, incidentally,
freezing the relative prices of all private capital in place. The
possibilities for making a financial killing at public expense, by legal
or fraudulent means, would make the 1980s savings and loan fiasco look
like a Sunday-school picnic. It seems highly likely that any future
evolution of Feldstein's plan must be in the direction of ever more
complex and minute regulation of permissible investments and permissible
rates of return on private investments.
23. Feldstein and Samwick (1997), 32.
24. Easterlin (1 980). Gary Becker points out that this is not
necessarily always the case. A rise in wealth will tend to cause young
couples to have more children. But a rise in the cost of raising each
child works in the opposite direction. Becker (1991), 135-178. Therefore,
young couples will raise more children than their parents only if the
"wealth effect is stronger than the "price effect." As we
will see, however, the "wealth" effect appears to have been
considerably stronger, at least since pay-as-you-go Social Security began.
25. "[U]nderinvestment in knowledge and skill, relative to the
amounts invested in nonhuman capital, would appear to be the rule and not
the exception for a number of reasons.... Where the capital market does
serve human investments, it is subject to more imperfections than in
financing physical capital. I have already stressed the fact that our tax
laws discriminate in favor of nonhuman capital." Schultz (1961), 14,
26. "By combining publicly subsidized schooling with a social
security system, countries may have found a very crude and indirect, but
perhaps reasonably effective, way to provide loans to children that get
repaid when the parents are old and collect retirement benefits."
Becker (1994), 22. Of course, public schooling is only one of many forms
of investment in human capital, financed in this way.
27. Easterlin (1 980), 295.
28. Feldstein sometimes assumes that higher tax rates on labor
compensation would cause workers to work fewer hours, but he does not
account for the fact that there will be fewer workers, less educated
workers, etc. Feldstein and Samwick (1997).
29. "Even a modest tax on births can have a large negative effect
on the number of children." Becker (1994), 23.
30. The weighted effect on output of nonhuman capital would be an
increase of 8% (.24 times .34) -- if human capital were unchanged; but the
weighted effect of human capital would be a decline of 12% (.71 times .17)
-- if nonhuman capital were unchanged.
31. "Consider an unfunded [pay-as-you-go] social security program
that begins with an initial tax of T dollars that is then transferred to
the then current retirees. If the marginal product of capital is r and the
real growth rate of aggregate wages is g (the sum of the growth rates of
the labor force and productivity per worker), the annual welfare loss in
year t is (r-g)Teg' and the present value of this stream of welfare losses
is f (r-g)Teg, = (rg)T/(d-g) where d is the appropriate discount
rate." Feldstein (1994), 22n.
Feldstein uses values ranging from .09 to .12 for r, from .02 to .04
for d, from .01 to .03 for g, and from 5% to 6% of GDP for T. In Feldstein
(1994), using r = .12, g = .03, d = .04 and T = $400 billion, he
calculates the welfare loss due to pay-as-you-go Social Security to be
$3.2 trillion [=(.12-.03)($400 billion)/(.04-.03)=$3.6 trillion, plus
losing the original $400 billion gain]. With other assumptions, he
calculates the welfare loss at up to $20 trillion: Feldstein (1997).
32. Feldstein is correct to observe that the return on financial
investments to individual investors is reduced by corporate profits taxes.
He ignores the fact that the return on Social Security is also reduced by
the taxes paid on the underlying investment in human capital that produced
such labor income.
Labor compensation is not subject to a separate corporate profits tax,
but it is subject to at least two layers of tax not paid by owners of
nonhuman capital: the costs of capital maintenance and depreciation are
tax-exempt for nonhuman capital, but fully taxable for workers. As a
result, the burden of personal income taxes alone, ignoring the payroll
tax, falls more heavily upon human capital than the combined burden of
personal income and corporate profits taxes falls upon nonhuman capital.
This can be proven by laborious calculation (for example, the author's
testimony to the National Commission on Economic Growth and Tax Reform,
June 21, 1995). But the simplest way to see this is to recall Feldstein's
statement that the return on private saving for individual investors is
about the same as the return on Social Security -- and compare this with
Kendrick's calculations showing that the pretax rate of return on human
capital is higher than on nonhuman capital.
33. Kendrick (1976), 124, 240. Most economists would accept -- even
insist [Boskin (1986), 28] -- that depreciation is as real a cost for
workers as for machines. But some would argue against Schultz's and
Kendrick's deduction of human "maintenance" costs (essentially,
the cost of keeping body and soul together) from net labor compensation,
on the ground that staying alive affords satisfaction, and so should be
considered "consumption" (Eisner [1 989), 16).
Such an assumption would add about 10 percentage points to the real
rate of return on human capital, meaning that its real rate of return is
up to three times as high as the return on nonhuman capital. "The
fact that the adjusted rate is much closer to the rate of return on
nonhuman capital helps support the theoretical arguments for adjusting
human as well as property returns to exclude maintenance expenses"
(Kendrick , 122).
34. We recall that Feldstein's formula for calculating the gain or loss
due to pay-as-you-go Social Security is (r-g)T/(d-g), where r is the
pretax return on nonhuman capital, g (= real economic growth rate) is the
return on Social Security, d is the discount rate, and T is the initial
gain from starting up Social Security.
To be consistent, the first "g" in the equation should be
replaced with "w," signifying the pretax rate of return on the
human capital displaced by the tax increase on labor income that Feldstein
advocates. The pretax rate of return on net human capital, according to
Kendrick, has been about 4.4 percentage points higher than the return on
nonhuman capital in the total domestic economy. Moreover, the average
volatility of the return to nonhuman capital (approximated by a balanced
portfolio of stocks and bonds) is about three times the corresponding risk
on nonhuman capital (approximated by the volatility of GDP). This further
widens the risk-adjusted difference, by about 2 percentage points.
Since only the difference in rates of return on human and nonhuman
capital matters, we will use the difference in Kendrick's rates of return
(adjusted for the difference in risk) to ensure comparability. We will
leave the other numbers as in Feldstein (1994). For the total domestic
economy r - w = -.063. In this case, ending pay-as-you-go Social Security
incurs an economic loss of $2.92 trillion [=[-.063)($400
billion)/(.04-.03)=$2.52 trillion, plus returning the original $400
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