Tag: debt crisis

ObamaCare—The Way of the Dodo

In the latest issue of Virtual Mentor, a journal of the American Medical Association, I try to capture the multiple absurdities that make up ObamaCare. An encapsulation:

During the initial debate over ObamaCare, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) famously said, “We have to pass [it] so you can find out what’s in it.” One irreverent heir to Hippocrates quipped, “That’s what I tell my patients when I ask them for a stool sample.” The similarities scarcely end there…

ObamaCare supporters are ignoring the federal government’s dire fiscal situation; ignoring the law’s impact on premiums, jobs, and access to health insurance; ignoring that a strikingly similar law has sent health care costs higher in Massachusetts; ignoring public opinion, which has been solidly against the law for more than 2 years; ignoring the law’s failures (when they’re not declaring them successes); and ignoring that the law was so incompetently drafted that it cannot be implemented without shredding the separation of powers, the rule of law, and the U.S. Constitution itself. Rather than confront their own errors of judgment, they self-soothe: The public just doesn’t understand the law. The more they learn about it, the more they’ll like it…

This denial takes its most sophisticated form in the periodic surveys that purport to show how those silly voters still don’t understand the law. (In the mind of the ObamaCare zombie, no one really understands the law until they support it.) A prominent health care journalist had just filed her umpteenth story on such surveys when I asked her, “At what point do you start to question whether ObamaCare supporters are just kidding themselves?”

Her response? “Soon…”

(For more proof that ObamaCare supporters can draw from an apparently bottomless well of denial, see this article by Politico.)

Why Slovakia May Not Support Europe’s Bailout Plan

Slovakia is set to vote today on the European bailout plan and may well become a holdout. As my colleague David Boaz noted yesterday, this is due to Slovakia’s libertarian speaker of the house, Richard Sulik, who spoke at a Cato Institute conference in Bratislava last year, and who opposes bailouts of Greece and other EU countries based on sound ethical, political, and economic reasoning. Greece is already bankrupt and a bailout will only add to the country’s debt; an EU “rescue” will continue to create moral hazard, thus encouraging bad policies by reckless governments; relatively poorer and better behaved Slovakia should not be forced to support the irresponsible governments of richer European countries; the EU’s response to the Greek debt crisis has led to blatant violations of EU and European Central Bank rules, thus undermining democratic principles and the EU itself; the scare stories of not approving the bailout should not be believed; the best solution is for Greece is to declare bankruptcy once and for all.

In this document by his Freedom and Solidarity Party, Richard Sulik lays out his party’s opposition to the bailout fund. It is consistent with the views of other leading scholars including that of John Cochrane of the University of Chicago (and a Cato adjunct scholar) as expressed in his recent Wall Street Journal op-ed on how to save the Euro.

Sulik has tapped into popular sentiment among Europeans about the “democracy deficit,” or huge gap between the designs of Europe’s ruling elites and the desires of the region’s citizens. The widespread (and accurate) perception of Eurocrats imposing their agenda on Europe to the benefit of their cronies (e.g., big business, labor unions, and politicians in power) and at the expense of the majority is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. The Slovak government, which supports the bailout, may well fall on account of this vote, but the prime minister has already indicated that the vote on the bailout fund will be held repeatedly until it is approved. (No doubt there will be little possibility of a repeat vote repealing the bill.)

On a related note, a new Finnish think tank, Libera, provides more evidence that Europeans are rethinking big government. It published a study today which reassesses the record of the Swedish welfare state and praises the numerous market reforms that country has introduced out of necessity since the 1990s.

Budget Plans: Gang of Six and Senator Coburn

The “Gang of Six” senators has released an outline of budget reforms that would supposedly reduce deficits by $3.7 trillion over 10 years. Revenues would rise by at least $1 trillion, while spending would be theoretically trimmed by various procedural mechanisms. The plan promises to “strengthen the safety net,” “maintain investments,” and “maintain the basic structure” of Medicare and Medicaid, which doesn’t sound very reform-minded to me.

The Gang of Six plan is a grander version of Sen. Mitch McConnell’s recent debt-limit proposal, which was aimed at putting off any spending cuts. The Gang outline has a few specific cuts, but the document mainly consists of promises to restrain spending and raise taxes in the future.

I’m surprised that Sen. Tom Coburn supports the Gang plan because his office has just released a massive study chock-full of specific spending-cut ideas. The Gang plan is all about avoiding specifics, while Coburn’s plan has 621 pages of details.

Coburn’s “Back in Black” plan would reduce deficits by $9 trillion over the next decade. The plan includes some tax increases, but the core of the document is a line-by-line analysis of every department’s budget, with lists of programs to cut and terminate. The plan includes a wealth of useful information that will aid policymakers interested in cutting spending for years to come.

So congratulations to Roland, Joelle, and the whole Coburn team for their late nights spent pouring through the budget, and for their great job documenting their findings with more than 3,000 endnotes.

Every Senate and House office should perform a similar exercise of proposing specific cuts. The government faces a debt crisis, yet only Coburn, Sen. Rand Paul, and perhaps a few others in Congress have put any effort into identifying unneeded programs.

Look on the official websites of most members of Congress and you will see discussions in support of spending on education, seniors, energy, research, highways and many other activities. When members are in front of TV cameras, they sound like they take the debt crisis seriously, but most congressional websites reveal a different mindset where federal spending is always wonderful and helpful to society.

Coburn’s staff tells me that about a dozen staffers chipped in on its Back in Black effort in recent months. If other House and Senate offices went through such an exercise, it would help members clarify their positions about the role of government and help them think about spending trade-offs.

My summer homework assignment for every congressional office is to go through a Coburn/Paul-style budget downsizing exercise. That could lead to more serious spending debates and more concrete proposals than the generally meaningless bullets points issued by the Gang of Six.

Christina Romer’s Naïve Keynesianism

President Obama’s former head of the Council of Economic Advisers has taken to the pages of the New York Times to warn us against pursuing “fiscal austerity just now,” particularly not spending cuts.

Christina Romer’s views are Keynesian. She doesn’t use that word, but she is focused on juicing “demand” with optimally-targeted and well-managed government “investments.”

Economics has numerous schools of thought, but Romer’s writing reflects nothing but the most simplistic Keynesian framework. The fact that the huge Keynesian stimulus of recent years that she supported has coincided with the slowest economic recovery since World War II seems to be of little concern to her.

She also doesn’t seem to be interested in how government spending actually works in the real world. She assures us that “government spending on things like basic scientific research, education and infrastructure … helps increase future productivity.”

That view has a veneer of economic authenticity, but it leaves many issues unaddressed:

  • Most federal spending is on transfers and consumption, not investment. The debt crisis we face is driven mainly by entitlements, which is consumption spending. Romer’s talk of investment spending is a rhetorical bait-and-switch.
  • Romer doesn’t distinguish between average and marginal spending. If some federal investment spending has created positive net returns, that doesn’t mean that additional spending would. Governments already spend massive amounts on education, for example, so the marginal return from added spending is probably very low.
  • If the government investments that Romer touts are so valuable, then why hasn’t the government done them already? After all, federal, state, and local governments in this country already spend 41 percent of GDP.
  • If science, education, and infrastructure investments have the high returns that Romer seems to think they do, then why does the government need to be involved? Private firms seeking higher profits would be all over such investments.
  • Romer mentions that the “social returns” on some investments might be higher than purely private returns. However, that doesn’t mean that the government should automatically intervene. For one thing, the government suffers from all kinds of management failures and other pathologies.
  • Romer also ignores that the government imposes substantial deadweight losses on the economy when it commandeers the resources it needs for its “investments.”

So my reading assignment for Romer is www.DownsizingGovernment.org so she can get a better understanding of how federal programs actually operate.

And readers interested in all the economics of government spending that Romer doesn’t tell you about can consult Edgar Browning’s excellent book, Stealing From Each Other.

Tuesday Links

  • Republicans have a big opportunity to undo Obamacare and reform Medicaid and Medicare all at once.
  • It’s a good thing, too, because we’re facing a big debt crisis and if we don’t change course, federal spending will crest 42% of GDP by 2050.
  • There’s also a big elephant in the room in an excessively complicated tax code.
  • One has to wonder if the Republicans intend to put the big sacred cow of defense spending on the table.
  • Unrelated to the budget, education choice proponents scored a big victory in the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday in ACSTO v. Winn, a decision that upheld education tax credits:

How the Debt Crisis Will Stop

The economist Herb Stein famously said, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” That’s a good riposte when people wring their hands over something unsustainable. Of course, that fact doesn’t tell you how unsustainable situations will stop, and some ways are less pleasant than others.

I thought of “Stein’s Law” when I read former California Assembly speaker Willie Brown’s response to a question about whether California’s lavish public-employee pensions would bankrupt the state:

No, it’s not going to bankrupt the state. My guess is that the State of California, like most places involved with pensions, is going to cease to pay them.

Congress Grows Fed Up

The Wall Street Journal reported that Congress likes Fed Chairman Bernanke, but not the institution that he heads. There is growing consensus that the Fed needs to be reformed and restructured.  Most notably, there are calls to strip the Fed of its supervisory authority.  In practice, the new sentiment reflects the failure of the Fed to rein in risk taking by the largest banks.

The Fed is pushing back.  One reserve bank president said that removing the Fed’s supervisory authority “would affect our ability to conduct monetary authority effectively.” He went on to say that without the supervisory authority, the Fed wouldn’t know enough about risks brewing in the economy.  This argument is shop worn. The Fed had the authority. It fueled the housing boom with its monetary policy and failed to head off the banking crisis with its supervisory powers. And let us not forget the regional banking crises of the 1990s; the fallout of the Latin American debt crisis for Citibank; and others (e.g., the failure of Continental Illinois National Bank).  All on the Fed’s watch.

Around the world, some central banks have supervisory authority over banks and some do not.  There is no clear pattern for either monetary policy or bank regulation with respect to how the powers are structured and distributed.  Other factors seem to matter much more. It would be useful to identify what they are.

Congress is moving a few deck chairs around as the ship sinks. No fundamental rethinking of bank regulation is occurring. The Fed is probably being made a scapegoat for Congress’s own failings.  But that is how Washington works.