Tag: Center for American Progress

Tuesday Links

Homeownership Before the New Deal

The latest canard offered for keeping taxpayers on the hook for mortgage risk is that, without such, homeownership would limited to the wealthy.  Sarah Rosen Wartell of the Center for American Progress stated before the House Subcommittee on Capital Markets, “The high cost, limited availability, and high volatility of pre-New Deal mortgage finance meant that homeownership was effectively limited to the wealthy.”  Congressman Al Green repeated the point.  As I’ve generally found Sarah to be one of the more reasonable CAP employees, and that this is fundamentally an empirical question, I would have expected her to offer some evidence to support such a claim.  Alas, she did not.  So I will.

According to the US Census Bureau, at the turn of the century in 1900, the US homeownership rate was 46.5%.  I’m pretty sure that even Sarah wouldn’t claim that close to half of US households in 1900 were “wealthy.”  Interestingly enough, homeownership after the first 10 years of the New Deal was lower than before the New Deal.

While 46.5% is about 20 percentage points below the current rate, the population in 1900 was considerably younger, and one thing we do know is that homeownership is positively correlated with age.  In 1900, 54% of the US population was under the age of 25, a reasonable cut-off for homeownership.  Today, that number is 35%.  I don’t think it would be a stretch to say the greatest driver behind the homeownership rate over the last 100 years has been the aging of the US population, probably followed by the increase in household incomes (homeownership and income are also closely correlated).

Hopefully this will put to rest the myth that FDR and the New Deal gave homeownership to the masses.  The fact is that homeownership was fairly widespread long before the New Deal.  I await the next myth from the Fannie Mae apologists.   If they are wise, they will try one that isn’t so easily falsified.

How the Term ‘Tax Expenditure’ Leads to Bigger Government

The Center for American Progress has a new weekly feature examining “tax expenditures” in the Internal Revenue Code.  As I’ve written before, there ain’t no such thing as a tax expenditureOr a tax subsidy.  Targeted tax breaks are bad because, on balance, they expand government’s control over the people.  But they are not “expenditures” or “subsidies.”  Using either of those terms implies that the money not collected by the IRS because of a targeted tax break actually belongs to the federal government, rather than the people who earned it.

The Left would love to convince everyone that, as the Center for American Progress writes, “Tax expenditures are really just federal spending programs administered by the Internal Revenue Service.”  If everyone believes that this is really federal spending, then when Congress eliminates those “tax expenditures” maybe no one will notice that Congress is actually extracting resources from the private sector.

That very deception appears to be the aim of the Center for American Progress’ new feature.  Their first “Tax Expenditure of the Week” is the exclusion for employment-based health insurance.  They use the “tax expenditure” concept to argue that ObamaCare’s 40-percent “Cadillac tax” on high-cost health plans is actually a good thing:

The tax exclusion for employer-sponsored health care benefits is the largest tax expenditure and one of the most important. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act takes steps to make it more targeted and cost effective in the context of overall health care reform. Other tax expenditures should be similarly evaluated and considered in the context of the policy goals they serve.

See?  ObamaCare doesn’t raise your taxes.  It reallocates a tax expenditure.  George Orwell, call your office.

(To be clear: I favor eliminating all targeted tax breaks, even the personal and dependent exemptions, and having everyone pay the same low, low, low rate.  Eliminating tax breaks for health care is essential for bringing medical care within the reach of low-income people.  But the exclusion for employer-sponsored insurance is a particularly sticky wicket, such that reform will need to happen in two steps.  Here’s the first step.)

War on For-Profit Colleges Reeks Even Worse

As I’ve pointed out repeatedly, though the sector is no doubt rife with waste and home to some dirty-dealers, attacks on for-profit colleges are almost certainly driven by politics and ideology, not educational concerns. Were it otherwise, all of higher education would be taking a beating for its bankrupting waste and widespread failure.

A recent symptom of anti-profit witch-huntery was the misrepresentation of GAO reporting on what “secret shoppers” found while visiting select for-profit institutions. At the time the findings were released I thought the main problem was that members of the media and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) – who has been leading the crusade against for-profit schools – were using the results to smear the whole proprietary sector when the GAO was clear about examining a nonrepresentative sample of schools. Unfortunately, it turns out the GAO might actually be in on the demonization.

On November 30 – without making any announcement that I could find on its website – the GAO released a modified version of its report, and according to a comparison between the old report and new one by the Coalition for Educational Success, the new version contains several changes that cast its for-profit targets in better light than they first appeared.

One vignette, for instance, originally said that a school’s admissions representative told an undercover applicant that she “should” take out maximum federal loans even if she didn’t need all the money. The change says the representative told the applicant that she “could” take maximum loans – a pretty big difference.

Another section went from only reporting that a representative told an applicant that the school has graduates making $120,000 to $130,000 in a job that, according to the GAO, typically makes less than $70,00 a year, to reporting that the representative also informed the applicant that she “could expect a job with a likely starting salary of $13-$14 per hour or $15 if the applicant was lucky.” $15 an hour translates into about $30,000 a year, and completely changes the tenor of the vignette.

According to Stephen Burd of the Center for American Progress, career colleges have been self-servingly crying – or at least whispering – foul over the GAO report for months now. Burd has been a leading for-profit basher, but I’d have been inclined to give only limited credence to concerns about dirty pool, too, until this latest revelation trickled out.

Now, though much needs to be determined about why the myriad changes to the report were made, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised to learn that people at the GAO have actually been in on the crusade to demonize proprietary colleges. I also, unfortunately, won’t be surprised if no one pays attention to any of this, and the shameless, responsibility-dodging war on for-profits continues unabated.

What Spending Should the GOP Cut?

Congratulations to the wave of Republicans who successfully ran on promises to tackle rising government debt and cut the hugely bloated federal budget. On the campaign trail, most candidates were not very specific about how they would cut the budget, but when they come to Washington they will be looking for good reform targets.

Newcomers to Congress can find a wealth of budget-cutting ideas in recent plans by various D.C. think tanks:

Cato’s website, www.downsizinggovernment.org, also provides a treasure trove of spending cuts, and I will be publishing a detailed budget-reform plan in coming days. 

Some of the above budget plans include tax increases, but voters gave a resounding message yesterday that they want Congress to focus on cutting spending, not raising taxes.

Out of the starting gate next year, fiscal reformers in Congress should push for an across-the-board cut to discretionary spending for the rest of the current fiscal year. One approach would be for House leaders to propose a continuing resolution that extends spending at last year’s levels, less some substantial percentage cut applied to every program.

For the upcoming fiscal year of 2012, reformers need to carefully target some major program cuts and eliminations. The president and the Democrats in the Senate will likely resist proposed cuts, but the point is to further the national debate that has begun about the proper size and scope of the federal government.

Some initial targets for GOP reformers, with rough annual savings, could include: community development subsidies ($15 billion), public housing subsidies ($9 billion), urban transit subsidies ($9 billion), and foreign development aid ($18 billion). On the entitlement side, initial cuts could include raising the retirement age for Social Security and introducing progressive price indexing to reduce the growth rate of future benefits.

We will not get federal spending under control unless we begin a national discussion about specific cuts. And we won’t get that discussion unless enough members of Congress start pushing for specific cuts. Ronald Reagan was able to make substantial cuts to state grants in the early 1980s because policymakers had discussed such reforms throughout the 1970s. Republicans in the mid-1990s were able to reform welfare because of the extended debate on the issue that preceded it.

The electorate wants spending cuts, and they will support the policymakers who take the lead on cuts if they are pursued in a forthright and serious-minded manner.

A Thousand Cuts

That’s the title of a recent paper from the liberal Center for American Progress, which attempts to demonstrate “what reducing the federal budget deficit through large spending cuts could really look like.”

The authors, Michael Ettlinger and Michael Linden, issue a challenge that I whole-heartedly embrace:

By showing sets of specific spending cuts we hope to deepen the discussion of where deficit reduction is going to come from. The challenge we issue is this: If you think all or most of the deficit problem should be dealt with on the spending side, are you then willing to own the cuts we outline? If not, then it’s time to go public with what your cuts are, with at least the same level of precision we do—no gimmicks, “sunsets,” or other games. No infomercial claims that you’ve got a magic elixir that gets the same results for half the money.

My colleague Chris Edwards anticipated this challenge with his 2005 book Downsizing the Federal Government. The book led to the creation of Cato’s Downsizing Government website, which is going department-by-department to outline specific — and substantial — spending cut recommendations.

The CAP authors lay out specific spending cuts of $255 billion in fiscal year 2015, which is the projected figure necessary to achieve a balanced “primary budget” in that year. (The primary budget is total spending minus outlays for servicing the federal debt). The White House’s most recent projections show “primary” spending of $3.8 trillion in FY2015, so we’re talking about an overall reduction of about 7 percent.

Ettlinger and Linden acknowledge that their proposed spending cuts will invite criticism. For instance, the authors only conjure up $57 billion in spending cuts from “entitlement” programs, which are the chief drivers of our unsustainable fiscal direction. More than 40 percent of the cuts come from defense. While many conservatives will have a problem with defense cuts, it’s definitely something Cato scholars support. In fact, the proposed cuts match up well with defense cuts proposed in a new policy analysis written by my colleagues Ben Friedman and Chris Preble.

Where we part ways with the authors of the paper is the presumption that “most spending cuts are painful, and in some ways, harmful.” There are two sides to the spending coin. As the Downsizing website repeatedly demonstrates, government spending not only inflicts pain on those who are forced to pay for it, but it also has harmful effects on the economy and even those who it purportedly helps.

Ettlinger and Linden also make a claim that is both subjective and obvious: “The truth is that, contrary to popular wisdom, most federal government dollars go to good and popular things.”

Even if one accepts, for the sake of argument, that most federal spending goes to “good things,” there’s still the tiny little question of whether the government should undertake the spending. What about the possibility — we’d say reality — that there are superior private and voluntary alternatives to the federal government assuming responsibility for doing “good things”?

From a moral perspective, it’s important to remember that everything “good” the government does necessarily comes with a “bad” given that government forcibly takes from one to give to another.

The authors claim that federal dollars go to “popular things.” Of course, subsidies are always popular with the recipients. Farm subsidies are popular with farmers, weapons programs are popular with defense contractors, and subsidized student loans are popular with students. As Frederic Bastiat so succinctly put it, “The state is the great fictitious entity by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else.”

Regardless, Ettlinger and Linden deserve credit for moving the ball in the direction of a serious debate on which government programs can be cut. As they correctly note, the position that all we need is “just a little belt-tightening and reductions in wasteful government spending” is “nonsense.”

President Obama’s Speech Czar

President Obama’s Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius is still threatening to bankrupt insurance companies who tell their customers that ObamaCare’s mandates will increase premiums by more than 2 percent, even though her department’s projections show that, starting this week, just one of the law’s new mandates will increase some premiums by nearly 7 percent.

In a CBS News story last week, Sebelius tried to defend those indefensible threats:

But don’t the insurance companies have a right to make their own analyses and claims to their customers?

“Absolutely, they have a right to communicate with their customers,” replied HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. “We just want to make sure that communication is as accurate as possible.”

The government can and should police fraud – but that’s not what Sebelius is doing.  She is suppressing legitimate differences of opinion in the pursuit of political gain.

What if the government had said, “Absolutely, CBS News has a right to communicate with its customers – we just want to make sure that communication is as accurate as possible”?  Should the government be able to put CBS News out of business if it decides those communications are not as accurate as possible? How about the National Rifle Association?  Should the next Republican administration be able to put the Center for American Progress, the SEIU, or The New York Times out of business if it decides their communications are not as accurate as possible?

You don’t have to oppose ObamaCare to see the danger here.