MMT FOR AUSTRIANS 3: How Do YOU Propose We Deal with the Elderly, Disabled and their Depts?

John Carney agrees with me that supporting our elderly is not an “affordability” problem,but he claims that I fail to see the “real” burden—the dependency ratios andall that. Actually I’ve been writing about that since the early 1990s. The“real” burden is the only thing that matters.

Here’s justa short list of easily accessible things I’ve written at

PublicPolicy Brief No. 55 | August 1999 Does Social Security Need Saving?

This is justa small sample; the last one listed (PPB 55) and WP 468 are probably the bestthings to read first, then do PN 2006/5.

Now to besure, I think that while his argument that paying benefits to great grandmasomehow makes young women infertile is bit of a stretch, there is a tiny bit oftruth in it. Research shows that the best form of birth control is the risingstatus of women. If you liberate women from the drudgeries of subjugation, youkill two birds with one stone, so to speak. They choose to have fewer kids(better for the environment and long run sustainability of the species—althoughI suspect Carney and the other Austerian Austrians don’t accept the results ofscience) and they get to enjoy greater equality with men.

There couldbe some impact from Social Security as well as all the other progressivegovernment programs that increase women’s security so that they do not feel sodependent on boorish husbands who just want to knock them up and keep thembarefoot in the kitchen. So, OK there is a loose link. As I said, the “publicpurpose” is inherently progressive. Government has an important role inpromoting gender equality. And that’s good for the environment, too. I considerboth of those to be important roles for government to play.

Carney and Iagree 100% on the MMT conclusion that we can always “financially afford”grandma. I think there is a bit of a disagreement on taxes and Social Securityspending, however. We make the benefit payments by keystrokes. The purpose ofthat is to move resources to grandma—we credit her bank account so she can shopat a store rather than dumpster dive.

Now, why dowe tax workers with the payroll tax? Not to pay for the benefits (Carney agreeson this, I think). Rather, it is to prevent current workers from buying up allthe output, competing with grandma’s small benefit checks for scarce goods andservices. That would of course cause inflation once we exhaust capacity.

(I want tobe clear here: I’ve always opposed the payroll tax as a poorly designed way toachieve the goal of ensuring demand doesn’t exceed capacity to produce. Betterto have a progressive tax that hits everyone. And John would probably agreewith Warren Mosler and me that payroll taxes improperly reduce the incentive towork—which is exactly the opposite of what we need if the problem is thatproduction is too low!)

So the worryis about the real resources. The question is about capacity to satisfy workers,their kids and other dependents, and all the grandmas and grandpas and peoplewith disabilities who collect Social Security. Clearly there is no problemtoday, and has been no problem in the postwar period. (WWII was a differentmatter as we had to shift half of all production to the war effort.)

We’ve alwaysoperated way below capacity (US capacity plus the net imports foreigners wantto sell to us). Indeed, our economy would have performed much better if we’dpaid all the grandmas more—to raise aggregate demand, to increase employment,and to let entrepreneurs produce and sell more so they could get more profitsencouraging ever more investment and creation of capacity.

Carney andother enemies of Social Security always claim the problem is in some distantfuture—not today—when dependency ratios rise, when we will have fewer workersper grandma. They say the “fact” is that the burden will become too great.

OK NEP hastwo responses.

1: He’s gothis facts wrong, as we have demonstrated in many publications. There are twoimportant issues here. First the total dependency ratio (old + young) peakedaround 1965 and will (likely) never reach that level again. Remember thatworkers had to support 3.7 kids on average back then—so there were fewergrandmas but more Biffs and Buffys. The kind of support needed is different(and yes, grandma support might possibly be more “socialized” than support ofkids—but even that is questionable, and that is a political not economicconsideration). But kids are a “burden”, too. (Believe me; I’ve got some. Thereare times I’d trade them for a few grandmas.)  Second, on all projections (even pessimisticones) the real living standard of workers will continue to rise even as workersare called on to support more old geezers. In real terms, they will be betteroff than today’s workers.

(As anaside, the presumption always is that gramps and grandmas do nothing tocontribute to production. False. Even if they do not work for pay, they helpout. Indeed, most of the care for the extremely old people is done by womenover age 65—and most of that unpaid. The idea that elderly people are nothingbut a burden is false. I’d go ahead and pay them for some of that work. Cananyone say Job Guarantee?)

2: But moreimportantly: what is the alternative? Soylent Green? Support ‘em or eat ‘em,that is Hamlet’s question. Even if we eliminate Social Security entirely thereal burden remains.

And indeedit most likely gets worse. Here’s why. Workers of each generation will need toset aside more saving (to avoid being turned into canned food or reduced todumpster diving or living with ungracious kids who are resentful that they gotstuck supporting parents who live too long) over their whole lifetime. Soconsumption out of wages will be chronically insufficient for firms to recovercosts. Sales will chronically fall short due to the “sinking fund” of workersaving. The inducement to invest and innovate would be much lower. AND THEN SAVINGWOULD BE LOWER! (Investment creates saving, you know. Trying to save more doesnot actually mean you get more saving—paradox of thrift. So unless budgetdeficits or trade surpluses rise to fill the gap created by lower investment,we end up with less saving to take care of elders thrown off the safety net ofSocial Security.)

And we knowfrom experience (think 1930s before Social Security) that workers never reallysaved enough (surveys at the time showed that huge portions of the elderly hadno visible means of support)—so many will be reduced upon retirement to livingon the fringes of society supported by handouts and fighting with stray dogsfor scraps of food.

I know thatsome Austerian Austrians actually relish such a dystopian future. They love themovie A Boy and His Dog, or Mad Max. It is just the sort of freemarket society they are trying to create.

But theproblem is that it can only be implemented undemocratically. As Carney andothers lay their proposals out on the table so that we can see what kind ofgovernment they want, the reaction by most people is sheer horror.

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