Why Fiscal Responsibility at the Federal Level Is So Difficult

 

The United States faces many challenging problems but the biggest one of all is our national debt, right now 77% of GDP, the largest since right after WWII, and predicted by the Congressional Budget Office to keep getting steadily worse without major changes in current policy.
The only practical way to reduce the debt is to start shrinking our annual deficits, $680 billion for the current 2017, down to a much lower level, ideally close to zero, over a limited time period, perhaps ten years or so. This urgent need will, of course, be very difficult to accomplish.
For example:

  • Military spending. The military analyst, Mark Helprin, makes a cogent argument  that the most effective way to defuse the North Korean nuclear threat is for President Trump to ask Congress “for an emergency increase in funding to correct the longstanding degradation of American military power.” This would, among other things, provide for “a vigorous acceleration of every aspect of ballistic-missile defense.”

  • Omaha Rapid Bus Transit. Omaha NE (where I live) is spending $15 million in local funds for a $30 million bus system upgrade, subsidized by the Federal Transit Authority, which has an annual budget of $8.6 billion. The new ORBT will have sleek 60 foot-long buses as well as 27 individual modern bus stop shelters at a cost of $260,000 each. The system will be operational in 2018 and Mayor Jean Stothert says, “I’m looking forward to being one of the first riders.”

Conclusion. Who can argue with upgrading ballistic-missile defense at a time when we are threatened by a madman in North Korea?  And, it is nice for Omaha to have a sleek modern rapid  transit bus system on Dodge Street but should it be 50% subsidized by the federal government at a time when the U.S. is drowning in debt?  There will always be enormous pressure on Congress to increase funding for popular projects.
Who is going to stand up and say no?

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The Major Challenges Facing the U. S. II. National Debt

 

My last post, “The Major Challenges Facing the United States,” came to the conclusion that, while the U.S. has many big problems to address, our national debt is the biggest problem of all, because it will be so hard to deal with through the political process.
Our total national debt is now $19.9 trillion. The so-called public debt, on which we pay interest, is $15 trillion, or 77% of GDP, the highest it has been since right after WWII.  Furthermore it is predicted by the Congressional Budget Office to keep getting steadily worse, reaching 90% of GDP by 2025 and 150% of GDP by 2047 unless current policy is substantially changed.
Right now our debt is almost “free” money since interest rates are so low.  But when interest rates return to more normal levels, interest payments on the debt will skyrocket by hundreds of billions of dollars per year, likely leading to a new fiscal crisis, much worse than the Financial Crisis of 2008.
The only sane solution to this humongous problem is to start shrinking our annual deficits, this year at about $685 billion, down close to zero over a period of several years.  This will require a painful combination of spending curtailments and perhaps some tax increases as well.


One possible way to accomplish this herculean task has been laid out by Barron’s economic journalist Gene Epstein, see here and here.  Mr. Epstein’s plan would balance the budget in ten years by decreasing projected spending by $8.6 trillion, with 60% of spending curtailments coming from the entitlement programs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and the rest from both military and domestic discretionary programs.
It needs to be strongly emphasized that under the Epstein plan spending would not actually decrease from one year to the next, but would rather grow at a slower rate, from $3.9 trillion in 2016 to $4.7 trillion in 2026.  His plan would decrease the public debt from 77% of GDP today to 58% in 2026.

Conclusion. The U.S. faces the very unpleasant problem of excessive debt which will just keep getting worse and worse without making some relatively unpleasant adjustments in the way that the federal government spends money. The sooner we get started in this process the better off we will be.

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The Major Challenges Facing the United States

 

As I frequently remind my readers I am a fiscal conservative and a social moderate. I usually write about particular economic and fiscal problems facing our country.  But every now and then I like to step back and view our overall situation at one time.  The last time I did this was here.
Let’s take another look:

  • The economy is puttering along at 2% annual growth with a relatively low unemployment rate of 4.3% and a good indication that faster growth, up to 2.5% annually, is right around the corner, see here and here.  The economy, at least, is headed in the right direction.
  • Foreign policy. Long term our biggest problem is China, which has four times as many people as we do and is growing economically three times as fast. China will soon surpass us in both economic and military strength. Our best insurance for this inevitable day is to have lots of democratic friends around the world.
  • Global warming is real and getting worse. Our best strategy for dealing with it is a revenue neutral carbon tax, rather than depending on ad hoc regulations like the Clean Power Plan and ever increasing auto emission standards. If the U.S. demonstrates its seriousness with a carbon tax, it is likely that the U.S. and China (which is highly polluted) could work together to establish world-wide carbon emission standards.
  • National debt, currently 77% of GDP (for the public debt on which we pay interest), is predicted by the CBO to keep getting steadily worse (see chart)  without major changes in current policy. Right now our approximately $14.3 trillion public debt is almost “free” money because interest rates are so low. But sooner or later interest rates will return to more normal levels and, when this happens, interest payments on the debt will rise by hundreds of billions of dollars per year. This will inevitably lead to a severe fiscal crisis, far worse than the Financial Crisis of 2008.

Conclusion. I am relatively optimistic that we can maintain good relations with China and will have the good sense to better control carbon emissions. But our debt problem is politically very difficult to address because it will require spending curtailments.  How do we successfully address such a huge problem?

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The Democrats and the Economy II. A Path Forward

 

On Monday the Democratic Congressional leadership held a rally in rural Berryville, Virginia. They laid out a program designed to appeal to the middle class and blue-collar workers who voted for Donald Trump.  However many of their proposals involve expensive government programs and therefore would add significantly to the national debt.


What is needed is a greater emphasis on free-market ways of helping middle- and low-income workers such as:

  • Increasing basic economic growth which has stalled to a relatively slow 2% per year of GDP since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009. For example:
  • Revenue neutral tax reform, lowering rates for both individuals and corporations, paid for by closing loopholes and shrinking deductions, would have many benefits. It would stimulate business investment, create new demand by lowering the taxes paid by the approximately 2/3 of taxpayers who do not itemize deductions, and provide an incentive for multinational corporations to bring their foreign profits back to the U.S. for reinvestment.
  • Targeted deregulation of the financial sector by exempting main street banks from the onerous requirements of the Dodd-Frank Act would enable these smaller banks to lend more money to small businesses.
  • Fundamental healthcare reform to lower costs from the current 18% of GDP to the approximate 12% average of other developed countries. This would save the American economy $1 trillion annually which could be spent far more productively. The Democrats are on the right track here by refusing to accept Republican half measures.
  • Improve educational opportunities such as early childhood education for low-income families, expanded career education and job training in high school and community colleges, and more emphasis on income-based repayment for student college debt. There would be some cost involved here.
  • Modest increase in the national minimum wage from the current level of $7.25 per hour to perhaps $10 per hour and then index it to inflation going forward. The Democratic proposal for a national $15 per hour minimum wage would put too many people out of work.

Conclusion. This collection of proposals involves both Democratic and Republican ideas and should be implementable with a bipartisan effort.

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Time to Start Over on Healthcare Reform

 

The Affordable Care Act, established in 2010, greatly expanded access to healthcare in the U.S. However, in spite of its name, it has done nothing to control the rapidly increasing cost of healthcare which is the core of our debt problem.


The new Senate plan, struggling to gain enough support to pass, puts Medicaid on a budget but doesn’t even attempt to address wider aspects of the healthcare cost problem.
A wider approach is the best way to proceed and perhaps now it is the only way to succeed in getting something done. Mr. Peter Suderman, who writes for Reason magazine, proposes several principles for a new approach:

  • Work for broader coverage but not necessarily universal coverage. This allows focusing on other important features such as:
  • Unification, not fragmentation, is what should be emphasized. Medicare and Medicaid are paid for directly by the government. Employer provided coverage, subsidized through the tax code and costing $250 billion per year, is the biggest problem in the U.S. healthcare system. It incentivizes employers to provide ever more generous insurance while insulating individuals from the true cost of care. It discourages job switching and entrepreneurship. Medicare ends up paying out far more than individuals have paid in.
  • Health insurance coverage is not the same as healthcare. For non-catastrophic, non-emergency expenses, affordability should be emphasized, rather than subsidies. Health savings accounts are a good way to accomplish this.
  • Focus on government assistance for the poorest and sickest. This means upgrading Medicaid, and coverage for pre-existing conditions, at the same time as putting Medicaid, Medicare and employer provided care all on a fixed, but reasonable, budget.

Conclusion. The cost of American healthcare is a huge problem. Hopefully the Senate will begin to address this fundamental problem as it struggles to pass a healthcare reform bill.

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America’s Most Serious Problem: Excessive and Growing Debt

 

I know that I repeat myself a lot. I am a fiscal conservative and social moderate.  This puts me in the middle of the political spectrum from left to right.  I support social welfare programs if they are legitimately helping the less fortunate among us.  I am especially supportive of programs for African-Americans because of the racial bias they experience.


Unfortunately our national leaders have collectively lost a sense of fiscal responsibility in recent years.  Looking at the standard debt chart (above) produced by the Congressional Budget Office, it is clear that indifference to debt commenced under President Reagan and has waxed and waned ever since.  The debt has been growing especially fast ever since the Great Recession in 2008 and now stands at 77% of GDP, the highest since the end of WWII.  Shrinking the debt (as a percentage of GDP) is now America’s most urgent problem.


As I have discussed before, it is the entitlement programs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, as well as interest payments on our increasing debt which will continue to worsen the debt problem in the coming years  without strong corrective action.
All entitlement programs need to be reformed to impose cost control. Right now the two healthcare bills in Congress propose that the funding mechanism for Medicaid be changed so that it will be on a fixed (federal) budget from now on, rather than be continued in its current open-ended form.
Medicare is an even more expensive program than Medicaid.  It would be better to fix both of these programs at the same time, but it is better to fix Medicaid alone than to do nothing at all.
It would be even better to replace our employer provided healthcare system with a uniform, but limited, health insurance tax credit for all (including for the self-employed) and to make all of these major changes at the same time.  This would be the fairest way to proceed.

Conclusion. The current GOP plan to curtail healthcare costs could be much improved.  It is only a small step in the right direction.

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The Need to Put Medicaid on a Budget II. Our Growing Debt

 

Most of the controversy generated by the healthcare bill passed by the House, and the one now being considered by the Senate, concerns the way Medicaid is funded. The current system whereby states are reimbursed by the federal government for a percentage (national average 53%) of their Medicaid expenses would be replaced by putting the federal contribution on a strict per-capita basis, indexed to the annual rate of inflation.
Medicaid is a vast program now serving 73 million low-income and disabled Americans and is doing a good job especially for the elderly and the disabled with special needs. But it costs the federal government nearly $400 billion per year and the cost is growing rapidly.  It is essential to get open-ended Medicaid spending under much better control and one good way to do this is to put the federal contribution on a fixed budget.


The Congressional Budget Office has just issued its latest Budget and Economic Outlook report.  It shows the ever-worsening fiscal condition for the U.S., unless current policy is changed.


For example:

  • The deficit for 2017 is predicted to be $693 billion or 3.6% of GDP.
  • Deficits will grow dramatically over the next decade with trillion dollar deficits returning by 2022.
  • Debt held by the public (on which interest is paid) will grow by $11.2 trillion between now and 2027, from $14.3 trillion today.
  • Spending will grow from 20.9 percent of GDP in 2016 to 23.6 percent in 2027, while revenues will rise from 17.8 percent in 2016 to 18.4 percent by 2027.
  • The vast majority of spending growth over the next decade (83%) is the result of rising costs for health care, Social Security, and interest on the debt.

    Conclusion.  
    The national debt is growing much too fast. The only way to turn this dangerous situation around is to reform all entitlement programs, including Medicaid, to get their costs under much better control.

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