Tag: social security system

The Two GOPs

As the fall elections approach, two factions within the congressional GOP have emerged. The first faction, which generally controls the Republican leadership, is short-term oriented and just wants to return the GOP to power in Congress. Riding the wave of voter discontent over the government’s finances is a means to an end – the end being power.

The second, and considerably smaller faction, is more ideas driven and views the upcoming election as an opportunity to push for substantive governmental reforms. Whereas the “power first faction” offers platitudes about smaller government, the “ideas first faction” isn’t afraid to offer relatively bold suggestions for confronting the federal government’s unsustainable spending.

The ideas first faction is willing to publicly recognize that runaway entitlement spending must be reigned in and offer solutions to address the problem. Representatives Ron Paul, Michelle Bachmann, and Paul Ryan, for example, aren’t shying away from advocating a phase-out of the current Social Security system, which is headed for bankruptcy. In contrast, the power first faction lambasted Democrats for wanting to “cut Medicare” during the recent legislative battle over Obamacare.

In Ryan’s case, he has given the power first faction heartburn by pushing his “Roadmap for America’s Future,” which confronts the entitlement crisis head-on. Although Ryan’s Roadmap is not the ideal from a limited government standpoint, it’s a credible offering with ideas worth discussing. Even though the Ryan plan has received some favorable notice by the mainstream media, the power first faction would probably prefer Paul and his Roadmap went away.

From the Washington Post:

Of the 178 Republicans in the House, 13 have signed on with Ryan as co-sponsors.

Ryan’s proposals have created a bind for GOP leaders, who spent much of last year attacking the Democrats’ health-care legislation for its measures to trim Medicare costs. House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has alternately praised Ryan and emphasized that his ideas are not those of the party.

Ryan has not helped to make it easy for his leaders. He is a loyal Republican, but he is also perhaps the GOP’s leading intellectual in Congress and occasionally seems to forget that he is a politician himself.

At a recent appearance touting the Roadmap at the left-leaning Brookings Institution, someone asked Ryan why more conservatives weren’t behind his budget plan. “They’re talking to their pollsters,” Ryan answered, “and their pollsters are saying, ‘Stay away from this. We’re going to win an election.’”

His remarks illustrate the tension among Republicans over their fall agenda. Some strategists say the GOP should focus on attacking the Democrats; others want the party to offer a detailed governing plan.

Ryan’s ideas can be contrasted with those of the House Republican Conference Committee, which is a key power first organization. The HRCC just released a platitude-filled August recess packet for Republican House members to recite in talking to their constituents. Entitled “Treading Boldly,” the cover prominently features Teddy Roosevelt, which should immediately send chills down the spines of anyone believing in limited government.

The document is not “bold.” Take for example the five proposals to “Reduce the Size of Government”:

  • Freeze Congress’ Budget. This has populist appeal but does virtually nothing to reduce the size of government. The legislative branch will spend approximately $5.4 billion this year. That’s less than the federal government spends in a day.
  • Eliminate Unnecessary or Duplicative Programs. This proposal is so vacuous that even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi supports it. If the GOP isn’t willing to name a dozen or so substantial “unnecessary” programs to eliminate, then this promise can’t be taken seriously.
  • Audit the Government for Ways to Save. Yawn. Isn’t that what the $600 million Government Accountability Office does? The document says “Congress should initiate a review of every federal program and provide strict oversight to uncover and eliminate waste and duplication.” Nothing says “not serious” like calling for the federal government to eliminate “waste.” Waste comes part and parcel with a nearly $4 trillion government that can spend other’s people money on pretty much anything it wants to.

To be fair, there are sound proposals contained in the document such as privatizing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. But on the issue of entitlements, the HRCC punts:

The current budget process focuses only on about 40 percent of the budget and just the near-term – usually the next twelve months. We know that we have significant medium and long-term fiscal challenges fueled by the demographic changes in our country. The Government Accountability Office estimates that we have $76 trillion in unfunded liabilities. Rather than simply ignoring these challenges, Congress should reform its budget process to ensure that Congress begins making the decisions that are necessary to update our entitlement programs to secure them for today’s seniors and save them for future generations.

Had the Republicans not swept into office in 1994 on a promise to reduce government only to make it bigger, the power first faction’s “trust us” argument might be more credible. However, given that it already views the GOP’s ideas first faction as skunks at the party, voters who are expecting a new Republican congressional majority to downsize government might not want to hold their breath.

Fiscal Imbalance and Global Power

Over at National Journal’s National Security Experts blog, this week’s question revolves around the health of the U.S. economy, and its relationship to U.S. power. 

The editors ask

How serious a threat is the mounting debt to the nation’s standing as the world’s only superpower? Can the U.S. continue to spend more than all other countries combined on its military forces given burdensome debt levels? In what other ways does the mounting debt undermine the country’s strategic position? […]

My response:

Our long-term fiscal imbalance, which increasingly amounts to a massive intergenerational wealth transfer, is clearly a sign of our decline. But it is a decline that has been a long time coming. (I first wrote about the insolvency of the Social Security system as a college sophomore, 23 years ago.) As such, it is tempting for people to assume that we’ll figure our way out of this mess before a complete collapse. Let’s call them, at the risk of a double negative, the declinist naysayers. And, even if they are willing to admit to the problem in the abstract, the naysayers can point to the more serious, and urgent, imbalances between pensioners and those who pay the pensions in Europe or Japan and say “At least we aren’t them.”

That is a pretty shoddy argument, but it seems to be ruling the day. We can talk about the obvious unsustainability of using taxes on current workers to pay benefits for retirees until we’re blue in the face. And my second grader can do the math on a system that was designed when workers outnumbered beneficiaries by 16.5 to 1, and in which, by 2030, that ratio will fall to 2 to 1. It simply doesn’t add up. (For more on this, much more, see my colleague Jagadeesh Gokhale’s latest.)

But this isn’t a math problem; this is a political problem. The incentive to kick the can down the road is overwhelming. The pain in attempting to deal with the problem in the here and now is, well, painful. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that members of Congress / Parliament / Bundestag / Diet, etc, have become very good at avoiding the issue altogether. And many of those who have chosen to tackle it are “spending more time with their families.”

What does all this mean for the United States’s standing as the world superpower? Less than you might think. Our difficulties in two medium-sized countries in SW/Central Asia have done more to puncture the illusion of American power than our political inability to deal with domestic problems. Our fiscal insolvency might convince other countries to play a larger role, if they genuinely feared for their safety. But other countries, especially our allies, are cutting military spending, while Uncle Sam continues to bear the weight of the world on his shoulders. In other words, our ability to maintain our global superpower status isn’t driven by our economic problems. But it is strategically stupid.

It is here that I take issue with Ron Marks’s contention that we spend less today than during the Cold War. While technically accurate, measuring military spending as a share of GDP is utterly misleading (as I’ve argued elsewhere.) If the point is to argue that we could spend more, I agree. But the measure doesn’t address whether we should do so.

We should think of military spending not as a share of the American economy, but rather relative to the threats we face. In real terms (constant current dollars), we spend today more than when we were facing down a nuclear-armed adversary with a massive army stationed in Eastern Europe and a navy that plied the seven seas from Cam Ranh Bay to Cuba. We spend more than during the height of the Vietnam or Korean Wars. Today, terrorist leaders are hunkered down in safe houses somewhere in, well, somewhere. In other words, what we spend is utterly disconnected from the threats we face, a point that is easily obscured when one focuses on military spending as a share of total output.

We spend so much today not because we are facing down one very scary adversary, but because we are facing down dozens or hundreds of small adversaries that should be confronted by others. After the Cold War ended, our strategy expanded to justify a massive military. Since 9/11, it has expanded further. Our fiscal crisis alone won’t force a reevaluation of our grand strategy. It will take sound strategic judgement, and a bit of political courage, to turn things around.

In the cover letter to his just-released National Security Strategy, President Obama acknowledged that it doesn’t make sense for any one country to attempt to police the entire planet, irrespective of the costs. Unfortunately, the document fails to outline a mechanism for transferring some of the burdens of global governance to others who benefit from a peaceful and prosperous world order. We should assume, therefore, that the U.S. military will continue to be the go-to force for cleaning up all manner of problems, and that the U.S. taxpayers will be stuck with the bill.

Social Security: Debating the Ostriches

Over at Salon, Michael Lind takes me to task for raising the alarm about the latest Social Security Trustees report showing that a) Social Security’s insolvency date is growing closer, and b) the system’s unfunded liabilities have increased dramatically since last year’s report.

Like most of those who resist having an honest debate about Social security’s finances, Lind relies on a combination of economic flim-flam and political sophistry to obscure the true problem. For example, Lind points out that when I quote the Trustee’s assertion that the system’s unfunded liabilities currently top $17.5 trillion, that “assumes there are no changes made between now and eternity.” Well, duh! All estimates of US budget deficits assume that spending won’t be cut or taxes raised enough to eliminate the deficit. In fact, when I get my Visa bill and it shows how much I owe, it doesn’t tell me anything about whether I will or can pay that bill in the future. Obviously, if we raise Social Security taxes, cut Social Security benefits (or create personal accounts), we can reduce or even eliminate the program’s unfunded liabilities.

Lind then returns to the hoary idea of the Trust Fund. He objects to my characterization of the Trust fund “contains no actual assets. Instead, it contains government bonds that are simply IOUs, a measure of how much the government owes the system.” This, he says, is the same as saying “government bonds backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government, a government that has never defaulted on its obligations in its entire existence since 1776, are not actual assets?” He points out that millions of Americans invest in government bonds through their retirement programs and consider them assets. “Are U.S. government bonds “actual assets” when they are part of IRAs but not “actual assets” when they are owed to the Social Security system?” he asks.

That’s right. If I write you an IOU, you have an asset and I have a debt. If I write an IOU to myself, the asset and debt cancel each other out. I haven’t gained anything, else it would be a whole lot easier to pay my bills. When Lind invests in a government bond, he has an asset and the government has a liability. But when the government issues a bond to itself (ie. Social Security), the asset and liability cancel each other out. There’s no net increase in assets.

But don’t take my word for it. This is what Bill Clinton’s budget had to say about the Trust Fund in FY2000:

These Trust Fund balances are available to finance future benefit payments…but only in a bookkeeping sense….They do not consist of real economic assets that can be drawn down in the future to fund benefits. Instead, they are claims on the Treasury that, when redeemed, will have to be financed by raising taxes, borrowing from the public, or reducing benefits or other expenditures. The existence of Trust Fund balances, therefore, does not by itself have any impact on the government’s ability to pay benefits.

Lind then switches course and says, ok, forget about the Trust Fund. Think about Social Security like we do about defense spending. “Why do we never hear of the “unfunded liabilities” of Pentagon spending – the third of the big three spending programs (Social Security, Medicare, defense) that take up most of the federal budget? Defense spending comes out of general revenues, not a dedicated tax.”

Actually, that is a valid comparison. Both defense and Social Security spending for any given year are ultimately paid for out of that year’s tax revenue. The composition of the tax revenue is largely irrelevant. And, when taxes don’t equal expenditures, we get budget deficits. Those deficits will eventually have to be paid for by raising taxes or cutting spending.

Current projections by the Congressional Budget Office suggest that unless we reform entitlements programs, government spending will reach 40 percent of GDP by mid-century. Paying for all that government will be a crushing burden of debt and taxes for our children and grandchildren.

No amount of obfuscation by defenders of the status quo can obscure that fact.

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