Andrew Biggs, who was Deputy Commissioner of Social Security during part of the George W. Bush Administration, has written an article for the National Review giving reasons why the cap on wages covered by the F.I.C.A. tax that supports Social Security shouldn't be raised. Here are the arguments and my take on them:
- There's always been a cap on wages covered by F.I.C.A. So what? Full retirement age used to be 65. It's now 66 and heading to 67. Biggs would undoubtedly prefer it be raised to 70, if not 80. He's being selective about what changes he opposes. We have to change something.
- The cap is necessary so that Social Security won't be considered a "welfare" program. That's rich coming from Biggs who wants to means test Social Security. Why would increasing the wage cap make Social Security into a "welfare" program anyway? And what's wrong with programs devoted to improving the welfare of the American people?
- Raising the cap wouldn't solve the entire long term Social Security funding problem. No one proposal will. Biggs has no one solution for Social Security's long term funding problems. He favors a series of massive benefits cuts. Why does one proposal have to solve the entire problem?
- We ought to solve the problem of rising health care costs before we do anything about Social Security. What does that have to do with the F.I.C.A. cap? Anyway, Biggs undoubtedly opposes the Affordable Care Act which is actually doing something about health care costs.
- Most other countries have wage caps on the their Social Security taxes. Why is that important? I thought the right was big on American exceptionalism.
- It's a big tax increase. It will make U.S. tax rates higher than those is Scandinavia. It's a tax increase only for the wealthiest Americans, a group that has fared extremely well in recent years while the rest of the country has fared poorly. The wealthy can afford it. On Scandinavian tax rates, Biggs is citing income tax rates that don't include Social Security charges. Here's what I'm finding as the maximum tax rates in Scandinavia: Denmark 61%, Finland 61.96%, Norway 47.2%, Sweden 57%. I think we'd be well below those rates even if we remove the wage cap. Besides, Scandinavians have a high standard of living and much better social security than the U.S.. Why should we fear that?
- When we fix Medicare and Medicaid tax rates are going to go up. Glad to hear that Biggs supports higher taxes to support Medicare and Medicaid but how is that relevant to this discussion?
- An economic study shows that a rise in the wage cap won't generate as much revenue as predicted. That's not exactly what the study cited by Biggs says. In fact, the study makes no bold prediction about the effect of an increase in the wage cap. It suggests more study which is always the way with these studies. If anything, the study suggests the opposite of what Biggs is representing it to say. Anyway, here's what the report actually said so you can judge for yourself, if you can stay awake as you read it: "We have eight main findings. First, the workers who would experience an increase in marginal tax rates from an increase in the taxable maximum are mostly married males – a group thought to have relatively small elasticities. There are, however, a significant number of self-employed workers among this population which could suggest somewhat higher responsiveness. Second, the recent empirical evidence showing large behavioral responses to taxation is largely irrelevant to this question as it mostly focuses on broader concepts of income for which elasticities are likely to be higher and on demographic groups such as wives of high earners that are not particularly common in the subset of the population whose incentives would be altered by an increase in the taxable maximum. In the few studies that have also focused on narrower concepts, elasticities fall dramatically when the tax base is something closer to earnings. Third, the earnings distribution of workers around the current taxable maximum is inconsistent with a model in which people are highly responsive to the payroll tax rate. Fourth, this is true even for the self-employed, a group that is often thought to have significant control over its reported earnings. Fifth, in panel data on high-earnings married men, we see a tremendous increase in earnings over the 1980s and 1990s, but no break in the trend around the TRA86 or OBRA93 tax acts. Sixth, the rise in earnings for the high earners is so much greater than for other income groups that it seems completely implausible that the other income groups could serve as reasonable control groups for the high earners. Seventh, the overall weight of our evidence does not support the Eissa (1995) finding of a large behavioral response to taxation by wives of high earners. Eighth, we think there remains considerable uncertainty about the relevant elasticities for high earners – uncertainty that will be very difficult to eliminate without much larger samples of such taxpayers than are available outside the U.S. Treasury. Our policy simulations suggest that with an earnings elasticity of 0.5, lost income tax revenue and increased deadweight loss would swamp any benefits from the increase in payroll tax revenue. In contrast, with an elasticity of 0.2, the ratio of the gain in OASDI revenue to lost income tax revenue and deadweight loss would be much greater. Thus, knowing whether the elasticity is closer to 0.2 (or below) versus 0.5 is critical to deciding on whether this would be a wise policy."