Tag: Entitlements

Dramatic Increase in Poverty Rate: One Small Step for Obama, One Giant Step for the So-Called War on Poverty

The Census Bureau has just released the 2010 poverty numbers, and the new data is terrible.

There are now a record number of poor people in America, and the poverty rate has jumped to 15.1 percent.

But I don’t really blame President Obama for these grim numbers. Yes, he’s increased the burden of government, which doubtlessly has hindered the economy’s performance and made things worse, but the White House crowd legitimately can argue that they inherited a crummy situation.

What’s really striking, if we look at the chart, is that the poverty rate in America was steadily declining. But then, once President Lyndon Johnson started a “War on Poverty,” that progress came to a halt.

As I’ve explained before, the so-called War on Poverty has undermined economic progress by trapping people in lives of dependency. And this certainly is consistent with the data in the chart, which show that the poverty rate no longer is falling and instead bumps around between 12 percent and 15 percent.

This is bad news for poor people, of course, but it’s also bad news for taxpayers. The federal government, which shouldn’t have any role in the field of income redistribution, has squandered trillions of dollars on dozens of means-tested programs. And they’ve arguably made matters worse.

By the way, just in case you think I’m being too easy on Obama, read this post about how the Administration is considering a terrible plan to re-define poverty in order to justify ever-larger amounts of redistribution.

I fully agree that the president’s policies definitely have made—and will continue to make—matters worse. But the fundamental problem is 40-plus years of a misguided “War on Poverty” by the federal government.

Social Security Demagoguery from Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann: Economically Wrong, Politically Wrong

Governor Rick Perry of Texas is being attacked by two rivals in the GOP presidential race. His sin, if you can believe it, is that he told the truth (as acknowledged by everyone from Paul Krugman to Milton Friedman) about Social Security being a Ponzi scheme.

Here’s an excerpt from Philip Klein’s column in the Examiner, looking at how Mitt Romney is criticizing Perry.

Mitt Romney doubled down on his attack against Texas Gov. Rick Perry this afternoon, warning in an interview with Sean Hannity that his critique of Social Security amounted to “terrible politics” that would cost Republicans the election. Romney’s decision to pile on suggests that he’s willing to play the “granny card” against Perry if it will help him get elected, a tactic more becoming of the likes of DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz than a potential Republican nominee.

And here’s a Byron York column from the Examiner looking at how Michele Bachmann is taking the same approach.

…another Republican rival, Michele Bachmann, is preparing to hit Perry on the same issue. “Bernie Madoff deals with Ponzi schemes, not the grandparents of America,” says a Bachmann adviser.  “Clearly she feels differently about the value of Social Security than Gov. Perry does.  She believes Social Security needs to be saved, that it’s an important safety net for Americans who have paid into it all their lives.” … “She strongly disagrees with his position on that…”

Shame on Romney and Bachmann. With an inflation-adjusted long-run shortfall of about $28 trillion, Social Security is a Ponzi scheme on steroids.

But as I explain in this video, that’s just part of the problem. The program also is a terrible deal for workers, particularly young people and minorities.

Here’s what’s so frustrating. Romney and Bachmann almost certainly understand that Social Security is actuarially bankrupt. And they probably realize that personal retirement accounts are the only long-run answer.

But they’re letting political ambition lure them into saying things that they know are not true. Why? Because they think Perry will lose votes and they can improve their respective chances of getting the GOP nomination.

Sounds like a smart approach, assuming truth and morality don’t matter.

But here’s what’s so ironic. The Romney and Bachmann strategy is only astute if Social Security is sacrosanct and personal accounts are political poison.

But as I noted last year, the American public supports personal accounts by a hefty margin. And former President Bush won two elections while supporting Social Security reform. And election-day polls confirmed that voters supported personal accounts.

I’m not a political scientist, so maybe something has changed, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Perry benefited from the left-wing demagoguery being utilized by Romney and Bachmann.

P.S. This does not mean Perry has the right answer. As far as I know, he hasn’t endorsed personal accounts. But at least he’s telling the truth about Social Security being unsustainable.

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.

Health Care Entitlements Are the Real Debt Bomb

I’m a few days behind on this, but over at The Corner Yuval Levin has written an important post about how health care entitlements are the real cause of the debt crisis facing the federal government. Using Congressional Budget Office projections, Levin creates this magnificent chart, which I plan to steal over and over again:

If Republicans want to conquer the federal debt, they need to embrace health policy like they embrace tax cuts.

How Your Government Deceives You, ‘Social Insurance’ Edition

From my former Cato colleague, Will Wilkinson:

The trick to weaving an effective and politically-robust safety net for those who most need one is designing it to appear to benefit everyone, especially those who don’t need it. The whole thing turns on maintaining the illusion that payroll taxes are “premiums” or “insurance contributions” and that subsequent transfers from the government are “benefits” one has paid for through a lifetime of payroll deductions. The insurance schema protects the main redistributive work of the programme by obscuring it. As a matter of legal fact, payroll taxes are just taxes; they create no legal entitlement to benefits. The government can and does spend your Social Security and Medicare taxes on killer drones. But the architects of America’s big social-insurance schemes, such as Frances Perkins and Wilbur Cohen, thought it very important that it doesn’t look that way. That’s why you you see specific deductions for Social Security and Medicare on your paycheck. And that’s why the government maintains these shell “trust funds” where you are meant to believe your “insurance contributions” are kept.

Alas, like Social Security and Medicare themselves, the deceptions that protect these entitlement programs cannot go on forever.

Generally, liberals are profoundly conservative about the classic Perkins-Cohen architecture of America’s big entitlement programmes, which they credit for their remarkable popularity and stability. Yet that architecture offers very few degrees of freedom for significant reform. Crunch time is coming, though, and sooner or later something’s got to give.

If Wilkinson’s overlords at The Economist demand that he misspell program, they should be consistent and allow him to abandon the American convention of mislabeling leftists as liberals.

Block-Granting Medicaid Is a Long-Overdue Way of Restoring Federalism and Promoting Good Fiscal Policy

This new video, based in large part on the good work of Michael Cannon, explains why Medicaid should be shifted to the states. As I note in the title of this post, it’s good federalism policy and good fiscal policy. But the video also explains that Medicaid reform is good health policy since it creates an opportunity to deal with the third-party payer problem.

One of the key observations of the video is that Medicaid block grants would replicate the success of welfare reform. Getting rid of the federal welfare entitlement in the 1990s and shifting the program to the states was a very successful policy, saving billions of dollars for taxpayers and significantly reducing poverty. There is every reason to think ending the Medicaid entitlement will have similar positive results.

Medicaid block grants were included in Congressman Ryan’s budget, so this reform is definitely part of the current fiscal debate. Unfortunately, the Senate apparently is not going to produce any budget, and the White House also has expressed opposition. On the left, reducing dependency is sometimes seen as a bad thing, even though poor people are the biggest victims of big government.

It’s wroth noting that Medicaid reform and Medicare reform often are lumped together, but they are separate policies. Instead of block grants, Medicare reform is based on something akin to vouchers, sort of like the health system available for Members of Congress. This video from last month explains the details.

In closing, I suppose it would be worth mentioning that there are two alternatives to Medicaid and Medicare reform. The first alternative is to do nothing and allow America to become another Greece. The second alternative is to impose bureaucratic restrictions on access to health care—what is colloquially known as the death panel approach. Neither option seems terribly attractive compared to the pro-market reforms discussed above.

Freedom vs. Entitlements

A new World Bank working paper by Jean-Pierre Chauffour (author of the Cato book, The Power of Freedom: Uniting Human Rights and Development) finds that freedom is the root cause of development. In contrast to economic, political and civil freedoms, Chauffour finds that “beyond core functions of government… the expansion of the state to provide for various entitlements, including so-called economic, social and cultural rights, may not make people richer in the long run and may even make them poorer.”