The Oracle of Omaha Speaks on American Progress

 

“In the years of growth that certainly lie ahead, I have no doubt that America can both deliver riches to many and a decent life for all. We must not settle for less.”            Warren Buffett, Time Magazine, January 15, 2018

As the readers of this blog know well, the two main topics I discuss are: 1) our massive debt, now 77% of GDP (for the public part on which we pay interest), the highest it has been since WWII, and predicted by CBO to get much worse without major changes in current policy, and 2) slow economic growth, averaging just 2% of GDP annually ever since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009.  Naturally I am always interested to relate the views of others to my own.


In the current issue of Time,  Mr. Buffett makes the simple argument that, with .8% growth in population each year (births minus deaths plus immigration), 2% GDP growth overall leads to 1.2% annual growth of GDP per capita.  This means that in just 25 years, or one generation, our current $59,000 GDP per capita will increase to $79,000 GDP per capita. This is very impressive.  The problem, of course, is that the average GDP per capita is not evenly distributed.
Here are the two most common political reactions:

  • Democratic. 2% growth is creating plenty of GDP per capita. It just needs to be distributed more evenly by raising taxes on the wealthy and spending it on more generous welfare programs for the less fortunate.
  • Republican. We can do better than 2% annual growth. If growth could be increased to 3% per year or maybe even just 2.5%, then the labor market will stay tight and produce more jobs and better paying jobs. Everyone will prosper, not just the well-off.

Conclusion. I greatly admire Warren Buffett. He is right about many things.  But I think we can do better than 2% annual growth.

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After the New Tax Law: Debt Is an Even Bigger Problem

 

The Republicans in Washington are exuberant because passing the new tax law means that they finally have gotten something done. And the new law will have at least one highly beneficial effect:

  • The new 21% corporate tax rate will increase profits for domestic corporations and encourage multinational corporations to bring their foreign profits back home. Even if these profits are used to buy back company stock or are paid out in larger dividends, the new money will be put to use in the U.S. economy one way or another. This will give the economy a boost and create new and better paying jobs. This is how private enterprise works and it is the best economic system ever invented.

But at the same time the new law has two huge deficiencies which make it a net minus on the whole:

  • It adds $1 trillion to our debt over the next ten years, as scored by the joint Committee for Taxation, the official scorekeeper. And this is after the positive economic effect is taken into account.  Our debt is already 77% of GDP (for the public part on which we pay interest), the highest it has been since right after WWII, and will continue to get worse without major changes in public policy. As interest rates rise and return to normal historical levels, interest payments on the debt will increase quickly, creating a huge drain on the federal budget.

  • The trillion dollar artificial stimulus created by the new tax law, i.e. the trillion dollars in new debt, is likely to overheat the economy, which is now already growing at a 3% annual clip.  This means that inflation is likely to gain increased momentum, thereby causing the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates faster than it otherwise would. This means that interest payments on the debt will be pushed up even faster than otherwise. Without fiscal retrenchment, a new fiscal crisis is virtually inevitable in the relatively near future.

Conclusion. Fiscal restraint in Congress is now more urgently needed than ever, and it is going to be even harder to accomplish than before the new tax law was passed. I am an eternal optimist but it sure would be easy to get discouraged!

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Fixing Our Broken Healthcare System

 

As I get organized to enter the 2018 Nebraska Republican Primary for U.S. Senate, I want to make it clear why I would challenge the apparently popular incumbent Senator Deb Fischer who is running for reelection. The reason is very simple and clear cut.  The new tax law which she voted for will raise our national debt by $1 trillion over the next ten years and likely overheat our already vigorously growing economy in the process.  In other words:

  • Our national debt, already sitting at 77% of GDP (for the public part on which we pay interest), is the highest it has been since right after WWII and already slated to get worse, even before the new tax law supported by Senator Fischer. When interest rates inevitably rise in the near future, interest payments on the debt will become a huge burden on our economy.

  • Controlling the cost of healthcare, which already eats up 18% of our GDP (and is growing much faster than GDP), is the key to shrinking our annual deficits and therefore being able to shrink our debt as well.

But is it possible to control healthcare costs within the framework of a free market? I think it is and here is one way to do it:

  • For private healthcare, repeal the employer mandate and replace the ACA income based tax credits with age based tax credits (which then apply to everyone). This will allow healthy employees to migrate away from employer provided health insurance towards individually underwritten health insurance (including Health Savings Accounts) at much lower cost. This saves money for employers and rewards healthy life styles. High risk pools for unhealthy people would receive federal and state subsidies.
  • Medicaid recipients would also be able to migrate into this new private system.
  • Medicare Advantage (Medicare Part C) would be required to offer Medical Savings Accounts which were authorized in 1997 but have not been widely utilized. This will make Medicare Advantage highly attractive to healthy people and encourage migration from regular Medicare (Part B) to Medicare Advantage.

Conclusion. The point here is not to try to insist on one particular way of controlling the cost of healthcare but to demonstrate that it can be done within a relatively free market framework.

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Shall I Enter the Nebraska Republican Primary for U.S. Senate?

 

The tax bill was signed by President Trump on Friday and is now law. In spite of many good individual features, including the reduction of the corporate tax rate from 35% to 21%, it has the overall negative effect of adding $1 trillion to the national debt over the next decade, and this is after allowing for new growth.
Every Republican Senator voted for this new law.  That means every single one of them is responsible for increasing our debt by $1 trillion.  This includes Nebraska Senator Deb Fischer, who is up for reelection in 2018.  She needs to be chastised for voting for this atrocious law.
I am seriously thinking of entering the Republican Primary against her, if there is sufficient support for my candidacy.  Here is a summary of my views on the most important issues.  Roughly in order of importance:

  • Debt. Now worse than ever with the new tax law, we will soon be back to trillion dollar annual deficits.  The only real solution is to curtail the growth (no actual cuts needed!) of entitlement spending.  Otherwise a new fiscal crisis will soon occur.

  • Global Warming. The evidence for man-made global warming is overwhelming,  including warmer and more acidic oceans, shrinking artic sea ice, and rising sea levels. The best solution is to impose a (refundable!) carbon tax to replace all sorts of ad hoc and arbitrary regulations.
  • Economic growth. The U.S. is the most prosperous large country in the world and prosperity equates to economic growth. But our economy is now growing at a 3% annual clip and the new tax law is likely to overheat it and cause inflation to take off.  This will force interest rates up prematurely.
  • Trade Policy. Withdrawing from NAFTA would be a disaster for the whole country and especially Nebraska with its export based ag economy. It is China’s mercantilist policies, restricting imports from other countries, which need to be opposed.
  • Immigration Reform. With a national unemployment rate of 4.1% (2.7% in Nebraska), a severe labor shortage is developing. The solution is to establish an adequate guest worker visa program so that employers can be assured of having the employees they need.

Conclusion.  Senator Deb Fischer is simply unwilling to make the tough decisions necessary to shrink annual deficits and thereby control our burgeoning debt.  I would be a sensible replacement for her.  Will you support me if I run?  Let me know at jackheidel@yahoo.com.

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The Republican Party Is Putting its Reputation for Fiscal Responsibility at Great Risk

 

The final Republican tax bill has now been passed by both the House and the Senate and awaits the President’s signature which is expected soon. It dramatically lowers the federal corporate tax rate from 35% to 21%.  This is highly beneficial as it will provide a big incentive for U.S. multinational companies to bring their foreign profits back home for spending and reinvestment.


The huge problem, of course, is that the tax rate cuts are not paid for by other offsets and will add $1 trillion over ten years to our already exploding national debt. In fact, we are likely to see trillion dollar deficits again as soon as FY 2019.


Here is a cogent analysis of the bill’s weaknesses by the Wall Street Journal’s Greg Ip:

  • Distortionary business tax breaks still remain such as for oil and gas drilling, electric cars and renewable energy. Also the “carried interest” loophole largely remains intact.
  • New breaks are created, most importantly a 20% deduction for businesses which pay taxes as individuals (pass throughs). This introduces “grave complexity” and creates huge incentives for tax avoidance.
  • The challenge of constraining entitlement growth has become much more difficult. The soaring cost of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid is the main driver of our debt problem. The Democrats, having been excluded from developing the tax plan, will be far less likely to cooperate on entitlement reform.

Conclusion. Corporate tax rate reform, as desirable as it is, as been badly handled by the Republicans. The new tax law not only makes the debt much worse by itself but poisons the atmosphere for actually figuring out a way to effectively address entitlement reform, the key to getting debt under control.

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The New Tax Bill Is Likely to Take Us over a Fiscal Cliff

 

The Republican tax bill has now come out of conference and will soon be voted on by both the House and the Senate. It is expected to easily pass both chambers and be signed by the President. As I have discussed extensively on this blog, I have no argument with the individual features of this bill.  They will definitely increase economic growth which is highly desirable.
The problem is that the tax bill will also add $1 trillion to the debt over ten years (as scored by the JCT).  It is simply outrageous for the GOP to consciously add $1 trillion to our already $15 trillion debt (the public part on which we pay interest), which at 77% and climbing, is the highest it has been since right after WWII.


But the damage will be even worse than this.  The trillion dollar artificial stimulus is likely to overheat an already briskly growing economy.  As the Economist reports in its latest issue:

  • Second quarter growth of 3.1% and third quarter growth of 3.3% are very strong.
  • Median household income grew 5.2% in 2015 and 3.2% in 2016.
  • The average net worth of households in the middle income quintile grew by 34% between 2013 and 2015.
  • The wages and salaries of production workers grew at a 3.8% pace in the third quarter of 2017.
  • The unemployment rate at the end of 2018 is likely to be between 3.4% and 3.8%.

Economic growth is good because it raises living standards across the board. But faster growth also means higher inflation which means higher interest rates as the Federal Reserve responds.  Higher interest rates mean higher interest payments on our massive debt. Every time the Federal Reserve raises interest rates by ¼ %, the interest payments on our debt will increase by about $38 billion per year.  A 2% increase in interest rates, likely within two years, means a $300 billion increase in annual interest (on top of the $266 billion paid in FY 2017).  Our massive debt will soon become a huge burden for the federal budget.

Conclusion. Adding $1 trillion to the debt on top of the existing debt is a terrible idea. Such artificial stimulus at a time when GDP growth is already picking up will drive up interest rates all the faster and greatly speed up the day of reckoning for extreme fiscal irresponsibility.

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What Are the Good Features in the Republican Tax Bill?

 

I have made very clear in recent posts that one negative feature of the tax bill, increasing national debt by $1 trillion over ten years, greatly outweighs its good features.  For this reason I ask Nebraska Senator Deb Fischer to put the welfare of our country ahead of the demands of her Republican colleagues and vote against the bill.


Nevertheless, the tax bill does have beneficial features and I would like to acknowledge them here.  Major ones are:

  • Lowering the corporate tax rate from 35% to 21% and moving to a territorial system, making us far more internationally competitive and encouraging our multinational corporations to bring their foreign profits back home.
  • Establishing immediate expensing of capital investment, thereby speeding up business investment and increasing economic growth.
  • Reducing itemized deductions for state and local taxes and mortgage interest, but not eliminating them as should be done for much greater revenue savings.
  • Increasing the standard deduction to $12,000/$24,000 (for singles/couples) which will reduce the number of individual taxpayers who itemize deductions from 30% to just 6%. This single feature alone achieves major simplification.
  • Measuring inflation adjustments for income thresholds by the Chained Consumer Price Index (CCPI) rather than the current CPI. CCPI takes consumer behavior into account when computing inflation and will lead to an increase in tax revenue over time.
  • Eliminating the individual mandate for the ACA which will lead to fewer healthy people signing up for health insurance. This begins a process of healthcare cost reform which must continue much further to significantly reduce the cost of American healthcare. Much more later.

Conclusion. The good features in the tax bill do not nearly outweigh the awfulness of adding $1 trillion to our debt over the next ten years. The Republican Party should be ashamed of itself for such poor fiscal and economic stewardship.  What is it thinking?

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