Tag: simpson

Debt Commission Reform Proposals – What Are Their Chances?

It’s kudos to President Obama’s Debt Commission co-chairs for clearly outlining the gargantuan size of the fiscal problem facing the United States.  The reforms will re-direct the exploding debt trajectory downward by reforming taxes and cutting spending – reminiscent of recent fiscal reforms in the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, history is likely to repeat itself: Even if they are enacted soon – which seems unlikely – chances are bleak that we’ll stick with them for long enough to achieve their stated goals.

The Debt Commission co-chairs have done a stellar job in framing the nation’s fiscal challenge and placing it squarely before the American public. The contrast between the current trajectory that increases the national debt beyond 80 percent of GDP by 2040 and one of declining debt under their reforms likely to be consistent with long-term economic growth because the Commission also proposes limiting government spending to 21 percent of GDP – is striking.

The Commission has marked wide-ranging reforms – to broaden the federal tax base, reduce income tax rates and simplify the tax system; cut discretionary expenditures that are unaffordable and antiquated in all spheres; reduce long-term health care cost growth, and restore Social Security to financial solvency through a combination of benefit cuts and revenue measures.

It’s sad but true that the political barriers stacked up against this promising approach appear to be insurmountable.  Given the make-up of Congress and with Obama as President, the chance that something even remotely resembling the Commission’s proposals would be enacted is negligibly small.  With the Democratic majority in the Senate, President Obama is unlikely to even have to use his veto.

But what if my conjecture is proved incorrect and a roughly similar set of reforms is enacted in 2011?  Remember that our fiscal problem is of a long-term nature.  It is produced by an aging population; rapid health care cost growth; slower revenues from a flagging economy as a large cohort of experienced workers retires; slowing education and skill acquisition by younger workers; and slower capital formation as more resources are consumed by an aging population.  The commission’s reforms have to be enacted and maintained for at least 30 years to deliver its “target” debt-to-GDP ratio of 40 percent.  History tells us that such an outcome is quite unlikely.  For example, the Budget Enforcement Act of 1990 – that helped President Clinton accumulate his now much touted laurel as a fiscal conservative – was maintained for just 12 years – until Congressional Budget Office projections revealed “budget surpluses as far as the eye could see” in 2002.  With those projections in hand, lawmakers raced to the exits: the BEA was abandoned and federal spending shot through the roof.  Even as conservative a policy maven as Alan Greenspan shone a green light to adopt budget busting tax cuts.

To improve the chances that history does not repeat itself, the commission’s proposals need to be combined with proposals to reform the budget process.  The first thing to consider on that score is to use better budget measures to assess if reforms are achieving their goals. Stating those goals in terms of the national debt and annual cash flow deficits is unlikely to work – just as those measures have not worked for the European Union in the context of their now defunct Stability and Growth Pact.

Federal debt and the current budget deficit that is reported on the government’s books is the result of past policies and outcomes.  They summarize where we came from, not where we’re going.  If the commission’s reforms are enacted, a better method would be to anchor judgment about their success on the size of prospective debt—the value in today’s dollars of all future deficits that the federal government would incur under the new policies; alternatively under premature abandonment of those policies – as happened in 2002 when the BEA was abandoned.  It is also important to know whether the sacrifices that the commission’s policies require from today’s generations are fairly distributed and are being invested for the future rather than being dissipated.  For example, will the Social Security surpluses that the reforms generate be effectively saved and invested, or would they promote additional government spending as in the past? Without a budget process that delivers real investments for the future, and without metrics to measure their operation properly, chances are that even if Congress and the President enact them into law next year, the reforms will be abandoned too soon.

Obama’s Fiscal Commission: The Good and Bad

The co-chairs of President Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform released a draft report yesterday on how to reduce federal budget deficits.

Despite the liberal savaging the report is taking as some sort of conservative plot, its proposals are really center-left in orientation. That said, there is some good stuff in the report, which will be useful for incoming Republicans looking to tackle the budget mess.

Good Ideas and Positive Directions

The report provides a menu of possible spending cuts for incoming Republican members of Congress to consider, particularly Tea Party members, who proposed to cut the budget during their campaigns.

The report proposes to reduce spending from 25 percent of GDP currently to 21 percent over the long run. That’s a good start, but we need to pursue deeper cuts, as discussed on www.downsizinggovernment.org. After all, federal spending was just 18 percent of GDP in President Clinton’s last two years in office.

I like that the report suggests a broad array of budget cuts, including defense, nondefense, and entitlement programs. Everything needs to be cut, including programs traditionally defended by both liberals and conservatives.

The report proposes to cut $200 billion from discretionary spending by 2015 from Obama’s proposed spending that year of $1,309 billion. That’s a 15 percent cut. However, the word “cut” needs to be qualified because discretionary outlays were $1,041 billion in the pre-stimulus year of 2007, and they were just $615 billion in the pre-Bush year of 2000.

The report recommends an array of Medicare and Social Security cuts. That’s great, but the report doesn’t include the fundamental structural reforms—such as Social Security individual accounts and Medicare vouchers—that are needed to reduce costs and provide benefits to the broader economy, such as boosting savings and improving health care quality.

The direction of the proposed tax reforms is positive. The co-chairs propose to reduce or repeal narrow deductions and other special tax benefits, while reducing marginal tax rates. The idea to treat capital gains and dividends as ordinary income, however, reveals a faulty understanding of the proper tax treatment of capital.

The report proposes to cut the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 26 percent, while moving to territorial treatment for foreign investment. It suggests making “America the best place to start and run a business and create jobs.” That’s a laudable goal, but to fulfill it we need to bring the rate down to, say, 15 percent.

The report’s goal of reducing the damaging buildup of federal debt is laudable. Government overspending is the nation’s primary fiscal problem, but spending financed by debt creates an array of problems that are additionally troubling.

Bad Ideas and Shortcomings

The report proposes to raise taxes by $1 trillion over the next decade. But the federal budget crisis is caused by overspending not undertaxing. The election results showed that most Americans understand that, but the message hasn’t penetrated the beltway yet.

The report’s discretionary spending cuts are timid. For example, farm subsidies are cut by just $3 billion, just a fraction of their annual cost of about $20 billion. Farm prices and farm incomes are at high levels these days, so now would be a good time to repeal farm subsidies completely.

The report characterizes tax deductions and exemptions as “spending in the tax code.” That is becoming common parlance in Washington, but it is incorrect. Yes, the mortgage interest deduction and other narrow benefits distort the economy and ought to be abolished, but they also reduce the flow of revenues to Washington, which is a good thing.

The report makes faulty and naïve arguments often heard from centrists about government “investments.” While we need to cut spending, we also need to “invest in education, infrastructure, and high-value R&D” the report says. But why does the federal government need to be involved in education? Why can’t we privatize infrastructure investment? If certain R&D is so “high-value,” wouldn’t the private sector do it?

Along the same lines, the report calls for the creation of a “Cut-and-Invest Committee” to move spending from “outdated” programs to “high-priority long-term investments.” That’s just naïve. The government will never be an efficient allocator of resources, and that’s why we need to shrink it, not just make it run better.

Finally, the commission should have placed more emphasis on fundamental restructuring of government, and not just spending trims. This is true with the entitlement proposals. But also with areas such as infrastructure spending—we don’t need higher gas taxes and government spending for infrastructure, we need privatization.