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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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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There Is Really Only One Way to Reduce Our Debt

 

In 2012 I was a candidate in the Republican Primary for U.S. Congress, Nebraska District 2. My platform at that time was to “Eliminate the Deficit.” Today I am about to enter the 2018 Nebraska Republican Primary for the U.S. Senate.  My platform will be to “Fix the Debt.” (http://www.fixthedebt.org/)
Our current debt ($15 trillion for the public part on which we pay interest) is now 77% of GDP, the highest since right after WWII, and steadily getting worse.  At the present time it is essentially “free” money because interest rates are so low. But that is already starting to change.  Every 1% increase in interest rates will increase interest payments by $150 billion per year.  A huge upsurge in inflation (which can happen at any time), followed by a corresponding rise in interest rates, will become a huge drain on the federal budget and likely lead to a new crisis much worse than the Financial Crisis of 2008.


With healthcare spending, both public and private, now almost 18% of GDP, and growing rapidly, there is really only one practical way of getting our national debt under control: stabilize the cost of healthcare in the U.S.
Consider the following data:

  • Our national health expenditure grew 4.3% (much faster than inflation) to $3.3 trillion in 2016, $10,348 per person, and accounted for $17.9% of GDP.
  • National health spending is projected to grow at an average rate of 5.6% for 2016 – 2015, and reach 19.9% of GDP by 2025.

  • Federal Medicare Outlays were $588 billion in 2016 or 15% of federal outlays.
  • Federal Medicaid outlays were about $390 billion in 2016 or 10% of federal outlays.
  • The federal tax exclusion for employer provided health insurance was $250 billion in 2016.
  • Summary: the federal government spent almost $1.23 trillion on healthcare in 2016, over 30% of all federal spending of $3.9 trillion.

Conclusion. The only practical way to get our nation’s debt under control is to limit the growth of healthcare spending. Right now federal spending on healthcare is defined benefit (i.e. open ended).  We simply must move to a defined contribution system where all of us as healthcare consumers assume responsibility for our own healthcare spending.  Detailed proposal forthcoming!

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The GOP Congress Needs to Get Back to Fundamentals

 

Granted that it is hard to implement good policy with a populist President like Donald Trump who is most interested in stirring up his base, nevertheless the Republican Congress is making some serious policy mistakes:

  • Healthcare. The GOP should accept the fact that universal healthcare is a desirable societal goal and is here to stay. The Graham-Cassidy bill is bad policy because some states, such as debt-ridden Illinois, can’t possibly handle healthcare on their own. The fact that the ACA needs operational fixes gives the Republicans leverage for insisting on cost lowering changes in a bipartisan bill.
  • Tax Reform. The GOP should focus on the most serious problems in our tax system. The complexity of the tax code is partly responsible for the fact that taxes paid lag true tax liabilities by an estimated 16% or $406 billion per year.  As an example of waste, the IRS has paid out $132 billion in EITC benefits over the last decade to people who were ineligible.
    Our uncompetitive corporate tax rate of 35% encourages multinational companies to leave their profits overseas rather than bringing them back home for reinvestment.  Even so, corporate tax revenue as a share of GDP is less than in most other developed countries.
    Republicans claim to be the party of fiscal responsibility and should therefore be highly uncomfortable with any tax plan which reduces federal revenue and increases our already very large annual deficits.  With a low unemployment rate of 4.4%, any additional artificial (deficit financed) fiscal stimulus is likely to kick off a new round of inflation.

Conclusion. Republicans have a relatively short window of opportunity to enact policy changes beneficial for the country. They need to get serious about what is really important before time runs out.

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Why Is Political Progress So Difficult in the United States?

 

 

 

With Donald Trump expanding the culture wars and the Democrats lining up with the progressive policies of Bernie Sanders, the national political scene seems to be getting more confusing all the time.


And yet there is remarkable consensus on many levels about what the country really needs:

  • Faster economic growth would help provide more jobs and better paying jobs for the blue-collar workers which both parties are trying to appeal to.
  • Tax reform meaning to reduce tax rates, shrink deductions and generally simplify the tax code has widespread bipartisan support, as one way to provide the growth which everyone wants.
  • Shrinking the debt as a percentage of GDP is widely recognized as critical to the future well-being of our country and especially for the poor who are most dependent on social welfare programs.  How to curtail spending sufficiently to get this done is inevitably a highly contentious issue.
  • Healthcare for (almost) all is now the law of the land, given that the GOP has failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act. The emphasis going forward should be to control healthcare costs for both individuals and families as well as for the federal government (the taxpayers).
  • Immigration and DACA. There appears to be strong bipartisan support in Congress for giving the Dreamers legal status in the U.S. With a very low (4.4%), and still dropping, unemployment rate, a huge labor shortage is developing in many states, including Nebraska. What the U.S. needs is an expanded guest worker visa program so that all employers are able to find the (legal) employees they need to conduct business. Perhaps DACA reform will lead to broader immigration reform as well.

Conclusion. The above issues should be largely amenable to bipartisan consensus. Both parties would benefit from putting aside petty differences and working together to solve them.

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A Different Perspective on U.S. Healthcare Reform

 

U.S. healthcare policy is now in limbo. The Affordable Care Act has withstood Congressional attempts to repeal it, but it has many flaws which need to be repaired.  Primarily, the ACA expands access to healthcare in the U.S. (good) but does nothing to control burgeoning costs for both individuals and the federal budget (bad).


One option for both further expansion of access as well as cost control is Bernie Sanders’ single-payer “Medicare for All” plan.  A different option is universal catastrophic care for all Americans not already covered by Medicare or Medicaid (including those receiving employer provided health insurance).


A different perspective is provided by an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine.  According to the authors, Eric Schneider and David Squires, the U.S. also faces (in addition to the challenge of much better cost control) several performance challenges such as:

  • Lack of access to affordable and comprehensive insurance coverage for too many people.
  • Relative underinvestment in primary care. Other developed countries have a higher percentage of their professional workforces dedicated to primary rather than specialty care and deliver a wider range of services at first contact.
  • Administrative inefficiency of the U.S. healthcare system. The solution here is to change our reimbursement systems to use global payments, fee schedules, formularies and defined benefits.
  • Disparities in the delivery of care. People with low incomes, low educational attainment, and other social and economic challenges face greater health risks and thus need even greater access to primary healthcare.

Conclusion. The U.S. compares poorly with other advanced countries in both the quality and cost efficiency of its healthcare system. Healthcare costs in the U.S, are a huge drain on the economy and will ultimately cause huge fiscal problems if not brought under much greater control.

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Moving Forward on Healthcare Reform: Single payer?

 

It is frequently stated that the current Republican Congress is ineffective in getting anything done. That is not entirely true.  A big issue was decided this past summer.  The failure of Congress to repeal and/or replace the Affordable Care Act means that the goal of universal healthcare for all Americans is here to stay.


The question now is the best way to implement universal healthcare.  Senator Bernie Sanders (D, VT) has just introduced a single payer universal plan, “Medicare for All.”  Here are some of the problems associated with such a plan:

  • At least three states, Vermont, Colorado and California have recently rejected state-wide single-payer plans because of the huge costs involved.
  • The Urban Institute estimates that Medicare for All would increase federal spending by $32 trillion for the first ten years (compared to a very high current total national debt of $20 trillion).
  • Medicare is an inefficient hidebound system with over 140,000 procedure codes where private sector cost-saving measures, like competitive bidding for routine services, are rarely used.
  • There are now 155 million Americans who receive and like their employer provided health insurance and who will resist moving to a Medicare for All plan especially at the cost of a huge tax increase.

On the other hand the cost of healthcare in the U.S., public and private, now eats up 18% of GDP, almost twice as much as for any other developed country, and major changes need to be made to give individuals more direct responsibility for the cost of their own healthcare.
One attractive alternative is to limit the tax deduction for employer provided care to the cost of catastrophic coverage, at a cost of about $3000 per person per year.  It could be made progressive by tying deductibles to income.

Conclusion. Healthcare spending in the U.S. is way too high and something major needs to be done. Universal catastrophic care for all Americans not already covered by Medicare and Medicaid is an attractive alternative to single-payer Medicare for All.

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