Tag: debt

Obama’s Failed Response to the Downgrade and the Outlook for Fixing America’s Spending Crisis

President Obama just spoke about the downgrade and his remarks were very disappointing. He uttered some empty platitudes, offered no plan, (amazingly) called for more government spending, and continued his advocacy of class-warfare taxation.

So what does this mean? Other than expecting volatility, I have no idea what will happen in financial markets over the next few days. But I can opine about the downgrade, Obama’s unserious response, and what it means in terms of public policy over the next few years and into the future.

Notwithstanding the President’s cavalier attitude, America is in trouble. But while the crisis is severe, we have some breathing room.

Our fiscal crisis is akin to a very dangerous, but slow-developing cancer. It is not a car wreck with immediate life-threatening injuries.

And there are solutions, as explained in this good news-bad news-bad news-bad news-good news-good news analysis.

1. There is virtually zero chance of the United States defaulting in the next 10 years (heck, probably the next 20 years). Yes, fiscal policy has been reckless and irresponsible during the Bush-Obama spending binge, but I’m guessing it will take another 10-20 years of additional over-spending to bring America to the point of Greek-style collapse. Simply stated, the U.S. economy is so large and so rich that it can’t be destroyed quickly.

…but…

2. The United States does not deserve a triple-A rating, at least for long-term debt. The nation has a giant fiscal problem, but it’s not the annual deficit or the national debt. The true crisis is the $100-trillion-plus unfunded liability for entitlement programs - especially Medicare and Medicaid. This is why America deserved to be downgraded.

…and…

3. The left in America, as exemplified by Obama’s vapid press statement, has no serious intention of addressing this problem. The President has failed to present any sort of plan. His budget early in the year was a business-as-usual document with no reforms and even the Democratic-controlled Senate rejected it 97-0. But while Senate Democrats joined Republicans in deep-sixing Obama’s joke budget, they have failed to produce a budget of their own for more than two years.

…moreover…

4. The left is treating America’s fiscal crisis is an opportunity to trick Republicans into a tax increase. That would be smart politics, to be sure, since it would automatically give Democrats the upper hand, but higher taxes would probably worsen the problem of excessive government since politicians would spend any additional revenue. And the kind of class-warfare taxes Obama has in mind would further undermine growth, adding to the nation’s fiscal woes.

…however…

5. After eight years of being corrupted by “big-government conservatism,” the GOP may finally be sincere about reducing the burden of government. Led by Congressman Paul Ryan, House Republicans  approved a very serious budget plan that would have reformed both the Medicare and Medicaid and substantially reduced the long-run burden on the U.S. economy.

…fortunately…

6. America is not at the point of no return. I’ve periodically commented about the dangers of a nation reaching a tipping point, which occurs when the people riding in the wagon outnumber those pulling the wagon. But even though dependency has jumped in America, the national spirit of self-reliance, independence, and freedom remains strong. Indeed, I think that’s what the Tea Party largely represents.

But none of this should suggest optimism. We know the solutions, but that does not mean that the politicians will do the right thing. As I said in the beginning of this post, America is at a crossroads. We can either continue a descent into Greek-style fiscal morass or, at some point in the next few years, we can implement reforms.

But, barring some remarkable change in attitude,  Obama is mostly irrelevant except to the extent that he can make matters worse by luring Republicans into a phony tax-hike deal.

Deconstructing the Revenue Side of the Debt-Ceiling Deal: Yes, There’s a Real Threat of Higher Taxes

Politicians last night announced the framework of a deal to increase the debt limit. In addition to authorizing about $900 billion more red ink right away, it would require immediate budget cuts of more than $900 billion, though “immediate” means over 10 years and “budget cuts” means spending still goes up (but not as fast as previously planned).

But that’s the relatively uncontroversial part. The fighting we’re seeing today revolves around a “super-committee” that’s been created to find $1.5 trillion of additional “deficit reduction” over the next 10 years (based on Washington math, of course).

And much of the squabbling deals with whether the super-committee is a vehicle for higher taxes. As with all kiss-your-sister budget deals, both sides can point to something they like.

Here’s what Republicans like:

The super-committee must use the “current law” baseline, which assumes that the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts expire at the end of 2012. But why are GOPers happy about this, considering they want those tax cuts extended? For the simple reason that Democrats on the super-committee therefore can’t use repeal of the “Bush tax cuts for the rich” as a revenue raiser.

Here’s what Democrats like:

There appears to be nothing in the agreement to preclude the super-committee from meeting its $1.5 trillion target with tax revenue. The 2001 and 2003 tax legislation is not an option, but everything else is on the table (notwithstanding GOP claims that it is “impossible for Joint Committee to increase taxes”).

In other words, there is a risk of tax hikes, just as I warned last week. Indeed, the five-step scenario I outlined last week needs to be modified because now a tax-hike deal would be “vital” to not only “protect” the nation from alleged default, but also to forestall the “brutal” sequester that might take place in the absence of an agreement.

But you don’t have to believe me. Just read the fact sheet distributed by the White House, which is filled with class warfare rhetoric about “shared sacrifice.”

This doesn’t mean there will be tax increases, of course, and this doesn’t mean Boehner and McConnell gave up more than Obama, Reid and Pelosi.

But as someone who assumes politicians will do the wrong thing whenever possible, it’s always good to identify the worst-case scenario and then prepare to explain why it’s not a good idea.

Republicans Employ Education Weapons, Too

A couple of days ago I blasted President Obama for, in repugnant tradition, using “education” as a political weapon, invoking it to scare Americans into demanding increased taxes for “the rich.” House Speaker John Boehner, thankfully, did not abuse education similarly in his rebuttal. But his proposal for raising the debt ceiling illustrates just how weak the GOP’s commitment is to returning the federal government to its constitutional – and affordable – size. And I say this not because of the relative puniness of his proposed cuts, but what the proposal would do in education, the only area it specifically targets: increase funding for Pell Grants.

Now, I know what many people will say to this: Pell is a de facto entitlement; it has a big shortfall; and Boehner’s bill would offset the Pell increase by eliminating federal student loan repayment incentives and grad student interest subsidies. And do you just hate education, McCluskey, or poor people?

On the first points, yes to all of those, and the CBO even projects that over ten years Boehner’s bill would achieve some savings from his student-aid moves. But ten years is a long time, during which a lot of things – especially spending increases – could happen. And the seemingly forgotten fact of the matter is that we have a $14.3 trillion debt and are sooner or later going to need big, tough cuts. And though Pell Grants sound so nice – they give poor kids money to go to college! – they should be eliminated for several reasons well beyond  frightening fiscal reality:

  1. They are unconstitutional: None of the Federal government’s enumerated – and only – powers say anything about paying for college.
  2. They are inflationary: Maybe Pell Grants, because they target low-income students better than federal loans and tax-based aid, aren’t the biggest drivers of tuition inflation, but research suggests they are a driver, especially at private institutions. There is also good reason to believe that schools target their own aid dollars to other, better-off students when they can use taxpayer dough for low-income ones.
  3. They take money from real human beings – taxpayers – to make others rich: Okay, maybe not rich, but as higher ed advocates will quickly tell you, on average a person with a college degree will make roughly $1 million more over her lifetime than someone without one. There’s a lot of play in that number, but the point is generally correct: A degree helps to significantly increase earnings. How, then – even absent a mind-blowingly colossal debt – can we justify taking money from taxpayers, many of whom did not go to college, and just giving it away to others so that they can get a lot wealthier? At the very least Pell should be made into a federally backed loan program – recipients should at least have to return taxpayers’ “investment” – which Boehner could have put into his bill.

Republicans might not be as quick as Democrats to rattle education-tipped missiles, but they’re fully committed to keeping them in their arsenal.

You Should Support a Value-Added Tax…if You Want Bigger Government and More Debt

I testified before the House Ways & Means Committee yesterday. As always, my trip inside the belly of the beast was an interesting adventure.

The tax-writing committee was holding a hearing on the value-added tax. I was on a panel with five other witnesses, and all of the other people testifying were sympathetic to a VAT. But since I had truth on my side, that made it a fair fight (though it did cross my mind that it’s not a good sign when a Republican-controlled committee stacks the witnesses in favor of a European-style tax system).

I made two points. First, a VAT is less destructive than the current income tax. As such, if we somehow repealed the 16th Amendment and replaced it with something ironclad that would prevent the income tax from ever again haunting the land, I would gladly make a trade.

But that’s not going to happen, so my second point was to warn that the VAT would be a recipe for bigger government. And even though some of my fellow witnesses said the revenue could be used to reduce deficits, I pointed out that Europe adopted VATs beginning in the 1960s and that hasn’t stopped welfare states such as Greece and Portugal from spending themselves into a fiscal crisis.

This chart, which is similar to what I included in my testimony, compares spending and debt levels in EU-15 nations (Western Europe) and the United States. As you can see, the burden of spending and debt is onerous in America (red columns), but even worse in Europe (blue columns).

That doesn’t prove that a VAT causes bigger government and more debt, to be sure, but it certainly seems to suggest that the other side is smoking dope when they claim a VAT will lead to deficit reduction. Instead, it seems like Milton Friedman was right when he warned that, “In the long run government will spend whatever the tax system will raise, plus as much more as it can get away with.”

I made some of these points in my VAT video.

P.S. Here are three very good cartoons on the VAT (here, here, and here).

The Gang of Six Is Back from the Dead: Contemplating the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in Their Budget Plan

The on-again, off-again “Gang of Six” has come back on the scene and is offering a “Bipartisan Plan to Reduce Our Nation’s Deficits.”

The proposal is quite similar to the one put forth by the President’s Simpson-Bowles Commission, which isn’t too surprising since some of the same people are involved.

At this stage, all I’ve seen is this summary (A BIPARTISAN PLAN TO REDUCE OUR NATIONS DEFICITS v7), so I reserve the right to modify my analysis as more details emerge (and since I fully expect the plan to look worse when additional information is available, the following is an optimistic assessment.

The Good

  • Unlike President Obama, the Gang of Six is not consumed by class-warfare resentment. The plan envisions that the top personal income tax rate will fall to no higher than 29 percent.
  • The corporate income tax rate will fall to no higher than 29 percent as well, something that is long overdue since the average corporate tax rate in Europe is now down to 23 percent.
  • The alternative minimum tax (which should be called the mandatory maximum tax) will be repealed.
  • The plan would repeal the CLASS Act, a provision of Obamacare for long-term-care insurance that will significantly expand the burden of federal spending once implemented.
  • The plan targets some inefficient and distorting tax preference such as the health care exclusion.

The Bad

  • The much-heralded spending caps do not apply to entitlement programs. This is like going to the doctor because you have cancer and getting treated for a sprained wrist.
  • A net tax increase of more than $1 trillion (I expect that number to be much higher when further details are divulged).
  • The plan targets some provisions of the tax code – such as IRAs and 401(k)s) – that are not preferences, but instead exist to mitigate against the double taxation of saving and investment.
  • There is no Medicare reform, just tinkering and adjustments to the current system.
  • There in no Medicaid reform, just tinkering and adjustments to the current system.

The Ugly

  • The entire package is based on dishonest Washington budget math. Spending increases under the plan, but the politicians claim to be cutting spending because the budget didn’t grow even faster.
  • Speaking of spending, why is there no information, anywhere in the summary document, showing how big government will be five years from now? Ten years from now? The perhaps-all-too-convenient absence of this critical information should set off alarm bells.
  • There’s a back-door scheme to change the consumer price index in such a way as to reduce expenditures (i.e., smaller cost-of-living-adjustments) and increase tax revenue (i.e., smaller adjustments in tax brackets and personal exemptions). The current CPI may be flawed, but it would be far better to give the Bureau of Labor Statistics further authority, if necessary, to make changes. A politically imposed change seems like nothing more than a ruse to impose a hidden tax hike.
  • A requirement that the internal revenue code maintain the existing bias against investors, entrepreneurs, small business owners, and other upper-income taxpayers. This “progressivity” mandate implies very bad things for the double taxation of dividends and capital gains.

This quick analysis leaves many questions unanswered. I particularly look forward to getting information on the following:

  1. How fast will discretionary spending rise or fall under the caps? Will this be like the caps following the 1990 tax-hike deal, which were akin to 60-mph speed limits in a school zone? Or will the caps actually reduce spending, erasing the massive increase in discretionary spending of the Bush-Obama years?
  2. What does it mean to promise Social Security reform “if and only if the comprehensive deficit reduction bill has already received 60 votes.” Who defines reform? And why does the reform have to focus on “75-year” solvency, apparently to the exclusion of giving younger workers access to a better and more stable system?
  3. Will federal spending under the plan shrink back down to the historical average of 20 percent of GDP? And why aren’t those numbers in the summary? The document contains information of deficits and debt, but those figures are just the symptoms of excessive spending. Why aren’t we being shown the data that really matters?

Over the next few days, we’ll find out what’s really in this package, but my advice is to keep a tight hold on your wallet.

I’m Willing to Go Along with President Obama’s ‘Balanced Approach’ to Deficit Reduction, but Only if We Use Honest Math

The President has issued an ultimatum that more tax revenue must be part of budget negotiations. Indeed, he endlessly repeats his desire for a “balanced approach,” implying that as much as 50 percent of the deficit reduction in any agreement should come from higher revenues.

Because I am a thoughtful, middle-of-the-road, pragmatic guy, I’m willing to accept the President’s ultimatum. I do have one tiny request, however, and that is for any such deal to be based on honest math.

What I mean by this is that I don’t want politicians to approve a budget that results in more spending, but then claim that they “cut spending” because the budget didn’t grow even faster. I want a spending cut to mean less spending (gee, what a novel idea).

And when they talk about new revenue, I want to see how much revenue the IRS is collecting this year, and measure revenue increases against that number. After all, the crowd in Washington should be happy to get more money, even if it is the result of benign factors such as more jobs being created, companies earning higher profits, and people getting more pay.

I assume these are reasonable requests. After all, this is how businesses and households operate their budgets, and I’m sure the political insiders wouldn’t want to use dishonest numbers to mislead voters (perish the thought!).

So what would a balanced approach look like, assuming we want to use honest math? The answer isn’t that complicated. I started with the latest estimates from the Congressional Budget Office for spending and revenues for this fiscal year (FY2011). I then assume, in the interest of a “balanced approach,” that spending should be cut by 5 percent each year and that revenues should climb by 5 percent each year.

The results, as illustrated by the graph, are remarkable. If we use a 50-50 deal of higher revenue and lower spending, we balance the budget in just five years. The President is right!

Taxpayers will be happy to know the “balanced approach” gets rid of red ink and also leaves enough room to make the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts permanent. Heck, there would be enough left-over revenue to enact additional tax cuts. After all, since we’re looking for balance, there’s no need to let revenues grow by 7 percent or 8 percent each year.

So, Mr. President, do we have a deal? Should we use your “balanced approach” and eliminate today’s big deficit by cutting spending and raising revenue by equal amounts? You were serious about your request, right? Hello, is anybody there?

As you already realize, I don’t think the President actually means what he says about a “balanced approach.” Or, to be more specific, I think he’s happy to do a 50-50 deal, but only if “spending cuts” and “revenue increases” are defined in ways that enable the growth of government.

Inside the beltway, this is known as “baseline budgeting” or “current services budgeting.” But whatever it’s called, it is a dishonest way of presenting information to the American people, as explained in this video.