Government Hypocrisy: “Save More”

Photo courtesy of kenteegardin, flickr

Photo courtesy of kenteegardin, flickr

American government is so ubiquitous it even offers advice about New Year’s resolutions. However, its guidance to citizens mainly illustrates ideas government violates. Consider one example from the About site: “Save more.”

That is not a very controversial resolution for an uncertain world. But the massive and still growing government debt and its far larger unfunded liabilities makes it the largest violator of its own resolution. Talk about “do as I say, not as I do.” Further, the main reason people save too little is that government does so much that discourages saving and investment, making the Hippocratic oath –“First, do no harm” — a better means to increase savings.

One huge illustration is Social Security. People have been led to substitute its “contributions” and retirement benefits for funds they would have saved to finance their “golden years.” Its promises also dramatically exceed what funds will be available, making people anticipate richer retirements than they will actually have, reducing savings more. Those who save enough to provide well for retirement also face income taxes on most of their Social Security benefits as well.

Social Security exacerbates the adverse effects of budget deficits, which divert funds that would have added investment into government spending.

Taxes on capital reduce the after-tax return on saving and investment, also reducing saving. These include property taxes that, while relatively small percentages of the capital value, represent sizable fractions of annual income generated. Then state and federal (and sometimes local) corporate taxes take further bites from after-tax returns. The implicit “tax” imposed by regulatory burdens must also be borne before earnings can reach investors.

Personal income taxes at up to three levels of government reduce saving further. Investment income left after other taxes is taxed again if paid out as dividends.  Earnings from saving and investment can also trigger additional tax burdens by triggering phase-outs of income tax deductions and exemptions.

If investment earnings are retained and reinvested, increasing asset values, they are taxed as capital gains. And even increases in asset values from inflation are taxed as real increases in wealth.

Medicare, whose unfunded liabilities are far greater than Social Security’s, reduces incentives to save for future medical costs. Current earners, forced to cover three quarters of the cost, are left with less to save. Medicaid coverage of nursing home costs only after other assets are virtually exhausted undermines another savings motive.

Unemployment benefits, along with food stamps and other poverty programs, also reduce the need for a nest egg, “just in case.” And as illustrated by so many disasters and crises, government steps in to assist those who “need” it, reducing the incentives for financial self-responsibility.

Estate taxes also reduce successful savers’ ability to pass on assets as bequests, eroding another savings motive. And monetary policy that has long kept interest rates near zero have undermined incentives to save as well.

Together, these government policies punish savings heavily, resulting in large numbers without appreciable savings. But fixing that saving problem doesn’t require government to tell us to resolve to save more. It doesn’t require ever more government intervention to “solve” a problem its existing interventions have created. It only requires a government resolution to stop aggressively undermining incentives to save as it does now.

Gary M. Galles is a research fellow with the Independent Institute in Oakland, and a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. His books include Lines of Liberty (2015), Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies (2014), and Apostle of Peace (2013).