Why We Cannot Wait to Fix the Debt

 

A Letter from Birmingham Jail   Why we cannot wait  Martin Luther King, Jr., April 16, 1963

Yesterday was Martin Luther King Day and every year at this time we are reminded of his eloquent letter from the Birmingham Jail, “Why we cannot wait,” written to some of his hesitant supporters in the Spring of 1963.
African-Americans were tired of waiting so long for equal rights in their own country.  On my own personal scale, I am so frustrated by the inability of our political system to address our massive debt problem, that I am getting organized to enter the 2018 Nebraska Republican Senate Primary against the incumbent Deb Fischer who has just voted (with the new tax law) to increase our debt by $1 trillion over the next decade.
Basically I am saying that our debt is so large and growing so fast that it will soon be out of control if we don’t take action to start reducing it very soon.


Consider:

  • The public debt (on which we pay interest) is now 77% of GDP, the highest since WWII, and projected by the Congressional Budget Office to keep getting steadily worse. It will grow by $11.5 trillion in just 10 years to almost 100% of GDP and will reach 150% of GDP, double the current level, by 2047, without major changes in current policy.
  • A fiscal crisis, much worse than the Financial Crisis of 2008, will occur long before 2047 if nothing is done to greatly shrink our annual deficits which are again rapidly approaching the trillion dollar per year level.
  • The new tax law increases deficits by an average of $100 billion per year, and therefore makes it that much harder to shrink them down substantially. It is imperative for the two parties, Democrats and Republicans, to work together to figure out how to do this.

Conclusion. Our national debt is so large and growing so fast that it is virtually out of control. We need prompt and fairly strong action to turn the situation around.  I have often discussed one major way to do this.

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It Is Awfully Easy to Get Discouraged about Our Debt Problem

 

Six years ago I was a candidate for the Republican nomination for Nebraska’s Second District Congressional seat. I lost in the May 2012 Primary.  After the November 2012 national election I began writing this blog It Does Not Add Up focused on fiscal and economic issues, mainly our large and rapidly growing national debt. I have now been blogging on this issue for over five years and the debt problem is just getting worse and worse.  Here is where we are right now:

  • All 52 Republican Senators voted for the new tax law which, in spite of its beneficial tax reforms, adds $1 trillion to our debt over the next decade (after growth is taken into account).
  • The Congressional Budget Office projects our debt to grow by $11.5 over the next ten years. In FY2019, just one year from now, CBO projects the deficit will exceed  will exceed $1 trillion and equal 4.7% of GDP.  By 2047 federal debt will reach 150% of GDP, almost double the current 77%.

  • In our polarized Congress, Republicans insist on increasing defense spending, Democrats insist on increasing domestic spending and trying to put any limits on entitlement spending is very difficult. Republicans are willing to cut taxes but there is little enthusiasm for raising them.
  • The present stalemate will eventually lead to a new fiscal crisis, much worse than the Financial Crisis of 2008, without major changes in current policy. The thought of having to drastically cut many different spending programs in the middle of a huge fiscal crisis is horrifying.
  • Are there any alternatives? Calling a Constitutional Convention for balancing the budget, establishing term limits and/or limiting Congressional power (Convention of States), have created much interest but are long shots which may never happen.

Conclusion. Somehow or other we need to light a fire under enough members of Congress to persuade them to take our rapidly accumulating debt very seriously. Let me know (jackheidel@yahoo.com) if you are willing to work with me to do something along these lines!

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What Do I Mean When I Say I’m a Fiscal Conservative?

 

Americans are a very fortunate people. We are protected by two oceans and friendly neighbors to our north and south.  We are the strongest country in the world, both economically and militarily.  We provide the world with cutting edge leadership in many areas such as technology, finance, energy production, scientific research and university education.
In short we live in a very successful, prosperous and complex society.  We do have serious problems but they are being addressed by our elaborate legal and governmental processes and structures. Slowly but surely life in America is getting better and better all the time.
Given our country’s size, complexity and dominance in the world, it is inevitable that government will also grow in size and structure in order to take on new responsibilities. It is completely unrealistic to think that we can return to a more limited form of government that existed in the past.
When I say, then, that I’m a fiscal conservative, I am not advocating for less government but merely that we pay for the government that we have, in other words, act in a fiscally responsible manner.


And we are not doing this at the present time:

  • Our national debt, now 77% of GDP (for the public debt on which we pay interest), is the highest since right after WWII. It is predicted by the Congressional Budget Office that it will keep steadily getting worse without major changes in current policy.
  • The urgency of the debt problem is based on the fact that interest rates are now so low that it is almost “free” money. But interest rates will inevitably return to more normal historical levels and, when this happens, interest payments on the debt will skyrocket. Eventually this will lead to a Fiscal Crisis, much worse than the Financial Crisis of 2008.
  • The solution to this problem need not be drastic. Federal spending is growing by 5% per year while tax revenues are growing by 3% per year. If we would just hold spending increases down to 2.5% per year, the federal budget would be balanced in a few years and our debt would start shrinking as a percentage of GDP.

Conclusion. Spending restraint, with very few actual spending cuts, is all that it will take to put our debt problem on a path to solution. Surely we are capable of acting in a fiscally responsible manner like this!

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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 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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The Folly of Building a Streetcar System in Omaha

 

The City of Omaha is now considering building a Streetcar System for an estimated cost of $156 million. Both of the two mayoral candidates have endorsed this proposal.

Here are the basic facts about the project:

  • It would run from TD Ameritrade Park in downtown Omaha to 42nd and Farnam Streets in midtown Omaha, a distance of about four miles. It would cost about $7.5 million per year to operate the line and would generate about $700,000 a year in annual revenue with a fare of $1.25 per ride. Adding a fee of $1.50 per ticket per College World Series event (at TD Ameritrade Park) would generate about $500,000 per year in additional income.

  • The financial assessment of the project by HDR suggests that the Federal Transit Administration could be asked for a grant of $78 million, or one-half of the total cost. The FTA is already contributing $15 million towards a $30 million Bus Rapid Transit system along Dodge Street approved by the City Council. The BRT involves 27 sleek, modern bus stop shelters along the route at a cost of $260,000 each.
  • The FTA has an annual budget of $19 billion. The Trump Administration is asking for a $2.4 billion cut in the FTA budget for 2018.  Congress has not yet taken any action on the Trump Budget proposal. But the FTA budget is clearly funding extravagant local projects around the country and is ripe for a major budget cut.

Conclusion. Omaha is simply not large enough, nor with a sufficiently dense population base, to support a downtown street car system aimed at the tourist trade. It could only be financed with massive federal support at a time when the federal government is rightly trying to cut back on unnecessary and wasteful spending. Don’t do it, Omaha!

Nebraska Senator Deb Fischer Is a Big Spender

 

Senator Fischer is up for re-election in 2018 and she starts out a recent fund raising letter (see below) as follows: “My goals are clear: stronger national defense, safer roads and bridges, healthcare that is accessible and affordable, protection of our fundamental liberties, less government, and a fairer, simpler tax code.” Here’s the breakdown:

  • First, and most important: national security.
  • Second, our roads and bridges must be repaired and rebuilt.
  • Third, Obamacare must be repealed and replaced.
  • Fourth, our fundamental liberties must be protected.
  • Fifth, government must shrink and the tax code must be simpler and fairer.

I don’t disagree with the specifics of any of these five goals but rather where the emphasis is placed. Her first two goals are to greatly increase spending for both the military and for infrastructure projects.  Her last goal is to shrink the federal government which is a good idea but very hard to accomplish in practice.

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Here is the basic problem our national debt (the public part on which we pay interest) is now at 77% of GDP, the highest it has been since right after WWII, and steadily getting worse.  Right now this approximately $14 trillion debt is essentially “free” money because interest rates are so low.  But when interest rates inevitably rise to more normal levels, interest payments on the debt will soar by hundreds of billions of dollars per year and eat much more deeply into tax revenue.
It should be a very high priority for Congress to establish a plan to bring government spending more closely in line with tax revenue.  I have previously described how this could be accomplished over a ten year period without cutting hardly anything but simply using restraint for spending increases.

Conclusion. If Senator Fisher feels that it is necessary to make big spending increases in areas such as national defense and infrastructure repair, then she should be equally adamant about the need to hold down the growth of government spending overall.

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