Saturday, August 18, 2012

Retirement: Always a Dream

The dream of retirement as it has been sold in the West is gone.  It is not quite accurate to say it has vanished in a puff of smoke; for it to have thusly vanished requires that there was a time that the dream was possible.  It did not vanish – the dream was never real because the dream was never plausible.

What was the dream?  The government would provide a safety net of income – social security as it is called in the U.S.  The government would provide medical care for all retirees.  But even the programs not directly tied to the government were a dream – pensions from your employer; private retirement savings in the form of 401(k) and IRA plans; stock market investments, mutual funds, bonds for income, real estate booms.

On top of this retirement dream was the idea that the government would also take care of the poor, through welfare of all forms: public housing, food stamps, support payments, unemployment benefits.

Everyone could live off of some combination of savings and transfer payments.  This idea might work for a time as long as the number living from savings and transfer payments remained relatively small as compared to the number involved in producing the goods and services necessary.  I recall thinking during the late ‘90s tech boom, “who is going to do all the work when we all get to retire at age 30?”  I almost grasped the problem…but not quite.  I understand it a little better today.

Dr. North recently wrote a piece that captures this – in this commentary he specifically points to the promises of the U.S. federal government: Social Security and Medicare.  Underlying Dr. North’s commentary is an analysis by Prof. Lawrence Kotlikoff of Boston University, demonstrating the true rate of growth of the U.S. government’s debt and deficit – with unfunded liabilities the amounts are staggering, and impossible to overcome: over $200 trillion debt, and an annual deficit of over $10 trillion.  These numbers represent the present value of the promises made by government towards its constituents.  As is obvious, the promises are much more expensive than the current out of pocket cash expenditures.

The issue is not that the amounts will someday become reality (they cannot), but that there is no way possible for the promises behind these amounts to be kept.  Dr. North’s point, and it is a correct one, is that mass inflation or hyperinflation will not solve the problem of this debt.  Implement inflation, and this will certainly lesson the burden of repaying the on-the-books debt.  However, remaining on the other side of the destruction of inflation we will still find government promises to provide a retirement and medical lifestyle.  A significantly devalued currency does not change this fact.  A new currency does not make it more possible. 

I will add that the problem is compounded as a) the rolls of welfare recipients and otherwise un(der)employed grows, b) the involvement in and allocation of economic activity by the government continues to increase, and c) as the rolls of retirees with legitimate savings grows – expecting to use the savings to buy product from those still in the productive workforce.

The issue is a simple one, and one I have suggested several times in the past: there are too few productive supporting too many non-productive, and the ratio is worsening as time marches on. 

What do I mean by productive and non-productive?  This requires some clarification, as often people read these phrases and believe I am making a value judgment.  I make no value judgment: I do not mean to suggest that all working people are productive while all non-productive people are lazy bums.  I am speaking completely in terms of economic production.  To clarify, I will offer some examples and further comments.

Productive: individuals performing tasks (providing goods or services) that would be valued in a free or relatively free market, and valued at a level of compensation more or less equivalent to what is realized today.  The best way to elaborate further on this is to move on to my definition of non-productive….

Let’s start with the easy one: anyone receiving state aid, equivalent to the net amount of state aid received.  Welfare, food stamps, unemployment benefits, etc. 

Next on the food chain would be government jobs, held in quantities that would either not exist or even be non-existent in a free-market environment.  Federal Reserve economists, drone pilots, anyone participating in overseas military and covert operations, staff in welfare and most other state offices.  The list is quite long, given the amount of state intervention in the economy.  Pensions received by retirees from these positions would also qualify.

Another rung up the ladder would be individuals who work in private industry, but in such industries that mostly if not completely exist in their current form due to government intervention in the market.  Banking and finance and military contractors are two such industries, as examples.

Now we come to your everyday retiree – even the one who properly saved money and is funding his own leisure lifestyle.  Certainly such a person had a very productive life; however, now that he has “gone fishing,” he is counting on someone else’s productivity to feed him in his leisure. 

It is in this manner that I am thinking when I group individuals in either the productive or non-productive category.  Those who are currently engaged in a productive activity and in a manner that would have a similar remuneration as it would in a free market as opposed to those who are not.

Hopefully it is clear that I do not view all non-productive as leaches – those who have rightly saved and planned demonstrate a good example for us all.  Yet they are no less dependent on the productivity of society to support their leisure than is the welfare recipient.  I can even hold some sympathy for those dependent on Social Security given that the government has stripped most people of the possibility to save, due to a lifetime of taxes and especially inflation.  Finally, it should be clear that I do not view all those who draw a paycheck as productive.

With this categorization, I come back to the idea of retirement.  For one to retire or live on transfer payments someone else must be willing to work and be able to produce for more than his own immediate needs.  This is true whether the non-productive individual is a welfare recipient or a 60 year old with a $10 million portfolio.  The idea that the baby boom generation could retire or retire early thanks to the dotcom boom or the real estate boom or in the “market” was never plausible: as I asked myself at the time of the dotcom boom, who will do the work? 

Even worse, the problems presented by the increasing costs of the government commitments of current and future retirees – Social Security and Medicare, as indicated in Kotlikoff's figures.  On an accrual basis, this liability has increased over $10 trillion in one year!

Finally, the numbers of unemployed, welfare, food stamps, disabilities, etc., are increasing – at a pace far greater than the general population.  From where will these receive support?  The proportion in the truly productive class is shrinking.  (As an aside, I consider that one reason the West became so amenable to China and India was in an attempt to improve the ratio by bringing in hundreds of millions of new “productive” into the mix.  At best, the politicians might have bought a few years, nothing more.)

This brings me back to Dr. North’s commentary:  mass inflation and hyperinflation cannot solve this problem.  The numbers are so staggering that even the magic of “growth” cannot solve it – where will the opportunities come to invest $200 trillion today and earn a 5% or better return, such that the annual deficit can be funded?  Even if the numbers were half of the projection, such numbers are overwhelming in a country with an annual GDP of approximately $15 trillion. 

The West has never seen a sustained period of 5% growth, and certainly not in a time horizon of 75 years as covered in Kotlikoff's analysis.  And to make the numbers work, the investment of $220 trillion must be made today – every year of delay only adds to the mountain of liabilities to be climbed tomorrow.  The United States is an economy of $15 trillion.  Where will such large investments be made with sustained returns never experienced before?

Ignore money and the value of the currency: in order for one to live without working, someone else must produce enough to support both himself and someone else.  It is not a question of value in money – it is a question of production given an ever-shrinking productive base, in relative (and perhaps absolute) terms.

Think about the image of Atlas shrugging; however replace Atlas with an ever-shrinking percentage of the population providing productive output.  Eventually, the weight of the non-productive will prove overwhelming.

The problem is in the ratio of non-productive to productive – and this ratio does not change even if inflation adds six zeroes to every Federal Reserve note in circulation (and to every digital account).  What is important to the retiree is not the nominal value of the FRN, but that it can buy food and shelter for the month.  What is important to the elderly is the ability to have access to health care.  More zeroes do not solve this problem – both the income and expense becomes inflated, and sadly for most, the expense side seems to inflate more.

The government promises will break because the ratios do not work and are getting worse.  There is no way around the fact that the promises for retirement and medical care will not be kept – certainly not for those who look to government to provide these benefits, and even to many who have saved privately toward this end.  There are not enough productive in proportion to non-productive to provide the excess production necessary to support the retirement and / or the welfare of this growing class.  Sadly, this problem will also impact those who have properly saved for retirement as well.  They are competing for resources with those who are also receiving government support.

Government can hyper-inflate away the current on-the-books debt – this amounts to perhaps $15 trillion or so in the U.S.  Given that the present value of the liabilities is increasing at almost this amount EVERY YEAR, this is no solution other than perhaps the one final kick-the-can.  And, as previously mentioned, hyperinflation does nothing to change the ratio.

There will be a reset – but the big reset will not be in the currency, it will not be in the banking system.  Yes, these will reset and the reset will be painful.  The big reset will be in the expectations that so many can live at the expense of so few – whether those “so many” have honestly saved or are living on the back of a government promise.

Too many non-productive hoping to live off of too few productive, with the ratio only worsening.  This is the ultimate problem, and there is no solution possible other than to hit the reset button – the big reset button of completely rewriting the rules regarding the social welfare state that has come to represent virtually all Western states.

This day of reckoning is coming.  


  1. I value Dr. North's commentary, and yours. I fully understand the point you are making regarding producers vs. non producers. I wonder, however, in the case of the retirees who do have savings, if the international division of labor is the answer. Demographics in the western world do not support the idea of the production necessary. However, if the "non western world" were to industrialize, then production to match consumption, at least for the savers, is possible. I guess we have to think of Islam and Africa. A thought provoking article, as are all of yours.

    1. Thank you for the kind words.

      I think the industrialization of the non-western world might help for a time, but it is difficult to imagine that the model used with China can be extended over a long term. For how long can the U.S. lifestyle be maintained on the backs of workers making a few dollars (at best) per day? It doesn't seem a sustainable model.

      Having said that, I agree that a retiree with his own savings will be in better shape than one counting on the government for support.