Retirement, NZS and all that

How the years fly by.  My youngest child headed off to high school for the first time this morning.  Only five years of the school system to go.

But it was the other end of the age spectrum I wanted to write about today, in particular the recent report of the Retirement Commissioner (in this case the interim one), reviewing –  as required by law to do  –  retirement income policies.    Very conveniently for a government going into an election with the key party (Labour) campaigning against (its own previous policy, not that many years ago) any idea of raising the age of eligibility for New Zealand Superannuation, the Interim Retirement Commissioner has come out in support of that conclusion.  Apparently, according to Mr Cordtz, the age that was chosen in 1898 –  when the new age pension was hard to get –  is still appropriate into the indefinite future now when (a) health standards are so much better, (b) most jobs are less physically demanding, and (c) the benefit is universal.   Take a look at theterms of reference for this latest review and it looks as though the government was looking to the Commissioner to steer away from any suggestion that raising the NZS age might be a good idea.  So they will be pleased –  not so much by the substance of the report (there isn’t much there) as by the headlines, which are all most will see.

I’ve never been persuaded that taxpayers get any real value out of having a Retirement Commissioner, or the supporting staff in the “Commission for Financial Capability”. That has been so whether or not, from time to time, I might have agreed or disagreed with particular suggestions they were making.    It is a classic make-work bureaucracy, costing quite a bit of money, serving no useful purpose, and typically run by people with no particular relevant expertise, other (presumably) than appealing to the government of the day.  That was true of the previous troubled Retirement Commissioner (who seemed to know about marketing), the current Interim Retirement Commissioner appointed by the current government who seems to know quite a bit about rugby league, and also of the incoming commissioner Jane Wrightson, whose expertise seems to consist in getting a succession of small government chief executive roles.   The money spent on this body could almost certainly be more effectively spent…..almost anywhere in government (health, educations, statistics, whatever).  And at very least it is time to rethink whether we really need a triennial report on these issues (as I noted in a previous post, Parliament should also revisit the current statutory requirement for a Long-Term Fiscal Statement every four years).

But if one is going to write about a report one should actually read it.  Perhaps the low point of the entire document was the Interim Retirement Commissioner’s opening statement.   It was headed “Forward”, but I have to assume he really meant “Foreword” –  especially as he ends his comments  with a pithy quote

“I walk backwards in the future, with my eyes fixed on the past”

that seems singularly inapt when even the government’s terms of reference asked the Commissioner to focus on the future.

Much of the “Forward” reads like something a zealous 22 year old might have written, but which his or her boss would have sent back for a rewrite.  The Retirement Commissioner had no boss, no Board (for example) to which he was accountable.

And so we read

In approaching this review as Interim Retirement Commissioner, I have of course brought my own views and experience to bear, which are naturally different to those of previous commissioners – and no doubt, of future ones also. I come with perhaps less direct experience of the inner workings of government or of the financial sector than some previous commissioners, but believe I have brought a more hands-on view of how a diverse array of lower income and vulnerable New Zealanders experience material hardship.

So, he’ll be out of the job again in a few weeks, knows little or nothing about the policy issues, but he has apparently had a bit to do with poor people.

Then we get a rant about how in his view differing average life expectancies  of Maori and other New Zealanders is somehow a breach of the Treaty of Waitangi.  Err, but…

But I am also aware it is not the role of the Retirement Commissioner to make
findings about breaches of the Treaty, and accordingly my recommendations focus on improving the system for all New Zealanders.

Might have been better to skip the rant then.

Then we get a little essay (“A Note on Language”) about how uncomfortable he is with the term “retirement”, but is constrained by the Act and has to use it to some extent.     It seems never to have occurred to him that an age benefit might originally have had in mind people who were doing exactly that –  retiring –  generally because they had got to the point where it was physically difficult to work.   The fact that “retirement” might not describe the experience now of many 65 year olds should probably be a hint that we shouldn’t be paying a universal welfare benefit to everyone at 65.  But Mr Cordtz shows signs of being keen on a UBI, so I guess that thought didn’t cross his mind.

Then we are told that “NZ is good value”, and with a dig at his predecessors, Corditz claims to offer “a more nuanced point of view” than they did –  this despite earlier suggesting himself that he limited expertise in this area.   He quotes a net fiscal cost of NZS, and then a few lines later goes on to claim that there is a significant offset to the NZS cost because NZS recipients pay tax on their NZS (hint: that is how you get to net numbers).

The benefits abound apparently

NZS also enables many NZ Superannuitants to undertake unpaid, voluntary work in their community. This is a huge contribution relied on in many communities and which should be accounted for in considering the costs and benefits of NZS.

Well, no doubt, except that as he noted lots of people  in their late 60s are still in paid work, and more would be if the NZS age was raised.  There are benefits in paid work too, including in the additional tax revenue.  And the relevant debate isn’t whether we should have an NZS but whether it should be all-but universal at 65, even as life expectancy has increased a lot.   And there is no hint from the Interim Retirement Commissioner that he recognises that NZs universal at 65 also helps to pay for more than a few European holidays in New Zealand winters (probably quite a few good quality European cars as well).

I”m pretty sure that not once in the report did I see any mention of the trend in so many other OECD countries to raise the age of public pension eligibility beyond 65.  And while there are repeated references to how NZS lifts the material living standards of quite a few people who transition onto it (NZS is paid at higher rate, and with fewer conditions, than other benefits), this is presented as a good thing, rather than as incidental feature of a universal system.  You get the impression that Mr Cordtz would be a champion of higher benefits all round.

Now, I’m not suggesting that are no useful –  if unoriginal  –  lines in the report.  Ruinous land use and housing policies are making things ever harder for a ever-larger proportion of the population, including now the newly-old. But it isn’t as if the Retirement Commissioner has anything useful to add to debate around the best policies in that area, other than more roles for government.   And there is little or no rigour in what is there. The report touches on growing life expectancy, but offers nothing on (for example) ideas for sharing the gains of life expectancy increases by progressively (but not necessarily fully) raising the state pension age.   And it barely mentions at all issues around the easy eligibility for NZS of people who haven’t spent much of their working lives in New Zealand (whether migrants or New Zealanders working –  and paying taxes –  abroad).

And, as it happens, I don’t totally disagree with Mr Cordtz that fiscal considerations alone do not compel us to change our NZS policy.  We could afford to keep the system as it is.  But we shouldn’t do so.   Here was the last few paragraphs of a post on these issues late last year

As for NZS itself, personally I’m not overly interested in arguing the case for reform on fiscal grounds but on a rather more moral ground.    Even if we could afford it, even if there were no productive costs from the deadweight costs of the associated taxes, there just seems something wrong to me in providing a universal liveable income to every person aged 65 or over (subject only to undemanding residence requirements).    45 per cent of those 65-69 are now in the labour force –  suggesting they are physically able to work –  which is substantially greater than the 30 per cent of those aged 60-64 who were in the labour force 30 years ago when NZS eligibility was at age 60.

I don’t consider myself a welfare hardliner.  I think society should treat quite generously those genuinely unable to work, especially those who find themselves in that position unforeseeably.  Old age isn’t one of those (unforeseeable) conditions, but personally, I have no particular problem with something like the current flat rate of NZS, or even of indexing it to wage movements (which would be likely to happen over time anytime, whether it was the formal mechanism from year to year), from some age where we can generally agree a large proportion of the population might not be able to hold down much of a job.  I don’t have a problem with not being overly demanding in tests for those finding work increasingly physically difficult beyond, say, 60.   But what is right or fair about a universal flat rate paid – by the rest of the population – to a group where almost half are working anyway?  It is why I would favour raising the NZS age to, say, 68 now (in pretty short order) and then indexing the age in line with further improvements in life expectancy, and I’d favour that approach even if long-term fiscal forecasts showed large surpluses for decades to come.    At the margin, I’d reinforce that policy change with a provision that you have to have lived in New Zealand for 30 years after age 20 to be eligible for full NZS (a pro-rated payment for people with, say, between 10 and 30 years of actual residence).  Why?  Because in general you should only be expected to be supported by the people of New Zealand, unconditionally, in your old age, if most of your adult life was spent as part of this society.

Reasonable people can, of course, debate these suggestions.  But they are where I think the debate should be –  about what sort of society we should be, what sort of mix between self-reliance and public provision there should be, even about what mix of family support and public support there should be, or what (if any) stigma should attach to be funded by the taxpayer in old age –  not, mostly, about long-term fiscal forecasts.

And it doesn’t seem as though the Retirement Commissioner –  interim or otherwise –  has much to add to those inherently political, even moral, debates.   The latest report seemed particularly poor, but I guess it (those headlines) will have been welcomed in the Beehive.

In truth, the Treasury’s Long-Term Fiscal Statement –  due, I think, in March –  is also not likely to add much new, but it is at least likely to be a bit more rigorous.  And if there is an opening comment from the chief executive, the title is more likely to be Foreword.