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National Saving

I complain about the quality of the free ice cream Greg Mankiw offers at his weblog, and get results. Greg Mankiw explains how he would increase national savings:

Greg Mankiw's Blog: How to Increase National Saving: Brad DeLong (econ prof at Berkeley, former ec 10 student and assistant prof at Harvard, and super-blogger) welcomes me to the blogosphere at his blog and then complains about my post on the trade deficit. He thinks that I am being "elliptical" for saying I would like to see an increase national saving. I thought that my statement was pretty clear, but I am happy to explain to Brad what I mean.

I suppose Brad wants to know how I would increase national saving. Part of the answer is that tax policy could do more to encourage private saving. I have long been an advocate of moving the tax system in the direction of a consumption tax. The Hall-Rabushka flat tax or the Bradford X tax would be ideal. But one can also do incremental reform within the current tax structure. I would, for example, vastly expand the opportunities for tax-deferred saving, such as IRAs and 401k plans. I would like to move toward allowing corporations to expense all capital investments.

I also think there is some compelling evidence coming out of the behavioral economics literature that the details of savings plans matter a lot for how successful they are. My colleague David Laibson has put together some persuasive evidence that the default is crucial. If workers are automatically enrolled in 401k plans, and have the option of opting out, participation is much higher than if workers have to actively opt-in, as is usually the case today.

The other piece of the national saving picture is public saving. A smaller federal budget deficit would mean more national saving, less reliance on foreign capital flows, and a smaller trade deficit. The trade deficit and the budget deficit are not twins, but they are cousins.

As anyone who has looked at the numbers knows, the federal government's current budget deficit is, in a sense, only the tip of the iceberg of the fiscal problems to come. The federal budget is on an unsustainable path. When the baby-boom generation retires and becomes eligible for Social Security and Medicare, all hell is going to break loose. The policy options aren't pretty--either large cuts in promised benefits or taxes vastly higher than anything ever experienced in U.S. history...

To summarize: Greg wants to: (i) raise taxes, (ii) cut government spending, and so (iii) balance the budget, (iv) shift the tax code to be yet more friendly toward savings, and (v) reform ERISA so that employer-sponsored defined-contribution pension plans are the default option rather than requiring opt-in. I would buy into all four of those, with a footnote about how (iv) needs to be implemented in a way that does not reduce progressivity and make America a yet more unequal place.