Building Or Not

March 13, 2016

There are some upcoming changes to claiming rules for Social Security (SS) that take effect at the end of April.  A few weeks ago, Vanguard posted an article explaining some of the changes.

1) The end of “file and suspend,” the strategy where one half of a married couple, “John” we’ll call him, files for SS, then requests that those benefits be suspended.  The spouse, “Mary”, claims a spousal benefit while John’s benefits continue to grow at 8% per year until John is 70 years old.

2) The end of the “restricted application” strategy that allowed a person between the ages of 62 and 70 to collect benefits based on either their work history or their spouse’s history.  This allowed married couples to suspend taking benefits so that they could grow as under the file and suspend strategy.

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You Didn’t Build That
In a 2012 campaign speech, President Obama infamously said, “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

With the aid of teleprompters (only $2700) Mr. Obama  is a stirring orator, unlike his predecessor, Mr. Bush, who struggled with pronunciation, cadence and tone.  In contrast to his sweeping rhetoric, impromptu remarks by Mr. Obama are notoriously equivocal or inartful.  This remark was one of those.  Later on in the speech, Obama clarified his sentiments, “we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.”

In the 2012 election, Republican nominee Mitt Romney used Obama’s own words against him many times.  Many small business start-ups fail and when they do, the bank does not say, “you don’t need to pay your business loan back.  Somebody else made that failure happen.”  In Obama’s philosophy, failure is our personal responsibility but success is not?  It doesn’t play well in the small business community.

In response to February’s job report released last week, Mr. Obama is quite willing to take credit for the jobs created in the past seven years: “the plans that we have put in place to grow the economy have worked.” (Video and transcript) Mr. Obama doesn’t specify what plans.  The President and Congress, Democratic and Republican, have failed to enact fiscal policies that will help American businesses grow.  These leaders, these lifeguards of the economy, can not swim.  The Federal Reserve has had to implement extraordinary monetary policy to keep Americans from drowning.  0% interest rates for SEVEN years and $4 trillion of asset purchases by the Fed have reinflated the stock market and housing prices, the life raft of wealth for most Americans.

A fundamental theme of many elections is “It’s the economy, stupid,” a core mantra of the 1992 Clinton campaign coined by strategist James Carville.   Race and bigotry, defense and security play a part in a candidate’s appeal, but jobs, wages, benefits and taxes motivate voters to pull the lever in a voting booth.  The two outsider candidates, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, play to these economic concerns by promising jobs, or free college and medical care. Both candidates have been accused of being unrealistic and dangerous.

Once in office, most Presidents come to realize the reduced power they have in a Constitutional framework of checks and balances.  Each President must cooperate with a Congress easily swayed by lobbying interests, and fifty state legislatures with varying priorities and interests.

FDR exerted king-like powers during the multiple tenures of his Presidency thanks to the unprecedented majorities in both the House and Senate during the 1930s.  In the 1937-38 session, the Senate was dominated by 76 Democrats out of 100 members.  334 Democrats overwhelmed the 88 Republican members in the House.  During those years, the Supreme Court radically shifted the permissible Constitutional role of the Federal government in our lives.  The four generations that have lived since those policies were enacted continue to struggle with the social and financial consequences of those policies.

We are unlikely to repeat the lopsided majorities of that era simply because we recognize that unrestrained legislative power is dangerous and unhealthy for both our society and economy.  The Parliamentary systems of other developed countries allow a minority of citizens to have it their way, to dominate the policy choices of the majority.  The republican (small ‘r’) and federalist values embedded in the U.S. Constitution make it so much more difficult for a group of American citizens to get their way.  While this is often a source of frustration to policy advocates, we don’t veer off center as easily as other countries.

Focused on the 2016 election, voters may not notice the creeping dangers implicit in the extraordinary monetary measures and debt accumulation of the past twenty years.

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