Imagine there were no 401(k)s. You wouldn't stop saving for retirement, right? Right? Don't worry, I won't tell Suze Orman. Not that CNBC's personal finance guru would get mad at you -- according to a new paper, most households wouldn't sock away any less for their golden years if we eliminated 401(k)s. Which raises a $100 billion question...
Why subsidize retirement saving if the subsidies don't work?
As far as tax expenditures go, the one for retirement savings is a biggie. Remember, "tax expenditure" is just econospeak for the various deductions, exclusions, and preferential rates -- in other words, subsidies -- that litter the tax code. According to the Congressional Budget Office, excluding pension contributions and earnings from taxes will cost us about 1.2 percent of GDP over the next decade, or an average of $240 billion a year. That's a lot of spending -- that's what tax expenditures are, just disguised spending -- without much bang for the buck. Maybe just a penny's worth.
In fact, one penny's worth is exactly how much extra saving a dollar's worth of retirement subsidies produced in Denmark, according to the recent paper by Raj Chetty and John N. Friedman of Harvard, Soren Leth-Petersen and Tore Olsen of the University of Copenhagen, and Torben Heien Nielsen of the Danish National Centre for Social Research. In other words, we might be spending $240 billion to get people to save $2.4 billion more.