A Transfer on the Road to Serfdom


As an emblem of what Walter Russell Mead calls, “the Blue Social Model,” there’s almost no place Bluer than New York.  So it seems fitting to pay homage to the home of the modern patronage state in a post devoted to transfer payments.

We all know that transfer payments – Welfare, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Unemployment Benefits – have been growing at an unsustainable pace, and are the source of our long-term structural problems.  We’re also aware that once a program acquires a sufficient constituency, it’s almost impossible to reduce, let alone do away with.  Thus the concern when the top few percent of earners pay 40% of all income tax, and when half the country pays no income tax at all.

This dramatic Calculated Risk post about recession measures has gotten a number of people’s attention, but what struck me was the qualifier on the Personal Income chart: less transfer receipts.  Transfer receipts don’t count towards GDP, with good reason, but they certainly subtract from the country’s capital available for investment or spending.  They’re also the key, most public, most obvious way of obtaining a constituency for higher taxes and continued spending.  We’re now reaching the point where almost $1 out of every $5 of personal income comes from transfer payments (the scale on the left is in $ billions):

You can see the large boost given as Medicare and Medicaid took hold in the late 60s and early half of the 70s.  Through the 80s and 90s, the numbers continued to slope upwards, but a robust economy kept them largely between 12% and 14%, or between 1/7 and 1/8 of personal income.  Then, with the financial crisis and the preceding recession, they went through the roof.  For the first time, a boost in transfer payments was also accompanied by a year-over-year drop in aggregate personal income.  It’s that spending percentage that Obama and the Democrats want to lock in as the floor for the economy.

Colorado has it a little better, or maybe is just lagging behind the rest of the country (the scale on the left is in $ millions) :

In the 90s, as Colorado recovered from the commodities bust and attractive tech talent from around the country, the percentage of income derived from transfer payments fell just barely above 8%.  The recession of the early ’00s hit, and the slower growth of that decade, while real, was only enough to just balance the increase in transfers.  Some of this was a result of Colorado’s generosity to its own citizens, as the legislature loosened rules for Medicaid.  The state, of course, followed the rest of the country in a near-vertical climb in ’09.

The number is starting to decline gently as unemployment benefits run out, and incomes begin to slowly recover.

The chart, although the time scale is different from the one for the country as a whole, points out the main lesson of all this: growth is the only way out of this problem.  It can’t be healthy for $13 of every $100 of personal income to come from an unearned government check.  It’s even worse for the country as a whole.  And the deepening dependency of more and more people is only going to make the political will necessary to break this cycle harder to find.

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