Congress has just postponed the debt ceiling until December 8 but at least they didn’t repeal it. It is crucial to retain regular and explicit debt ceilings as a reminder of the urgency of putting our debt on a downward course (as a percentage of GDP).
As a reminder:
The debt now stands at 77% of GDP (for the public part on which we pay interest), the highest it has been since right after WWII. The $15 trillion public debt right now is essentially “free” money because interest rates are so low. But interest rates will inevitably return to more normal, and higher, historical levels and, when this happens, interest payments on the debt will skyrocket.
The entitlementprograms of Social Security. Medicare and Medicaid are the drivers of our debt problem because their costs are increasing so rapidly. Medicaid costs the federal government almost $400 billion per year. Medicare costs the federal government $400 billion per year more than it receives in FICA taxes and premiums paid.
The attached chart demonstrates the scope and urgency of the problem. By 2032, just fifteen years from now, all federal tax revenues will be required to pay for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and interest payments on the debt. This means that all of ordinary discretionary spending: on defense, various government operations and social welfare programs will be paid for entirely from new deficit spending and, in the process, will almost inevitably suffer huge cutbacks. The lower-income and poor people, who are the most reliant on government programs to get by, will be the most adversely affected.
Conclusion. Such a dreary scenario of drastically tightened government spending does not have to occur. It can be avoided by immediately starting to make sensible curtailments, not actual spending cuts, all along the line. Do our national leaders have the common sense and fortitude to do this?
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.
Several days ago I had a post entitled “A Rational Approach to a National Minimum Wage,” in which I expressed support for a national minimum wage level of somewhere between $8.00 and $9.00/hour combined with an expansion of the Earner Income Tax Credit program to single, childless workers, paid for by tightening up on the EITC payment methods. There is an interesting alternative to this combined minimum wage/EITC approach. It is the so-called wage subsidy program described in the book, “Rewarding Work: how to restore participation and self-support to free enterprise” by the economist Edmund Phelps. Click here for a short summary.
The idea is that low wage work would be directly subsidized by the government to the employer. A firm employing low-wage workers, let’s say from $7.25 up to $10.00/hour, just to be specific, is paid a subsidy for each such employee on a sliding scale. The higher the wage is, the lower is the subsidy, until it has tapered off to zero. The subsidy is paid to the firm once a year as a nonrefundable credit against taxes. Competitive forces would ensure that most of the subsidy would be paid out to the low-income workers as higher wages. Mr. Phelps gives a persuasive argument that his program is a much more efficient way to increase low-income employment than either a minimum wage or the EITC.
It is unrealistic to expect a rollback of our current minimum wage of $7.25/hour. However, a wage subsidy could take the place of an increase in the minimum wage. Raising the minimum wage, even to $9.00/hour, is predicted by the CBO to lead to a loss of 100,000 jobs.
Likewise, as Mr. Phelps says, the EITC “program is not really a tool to reward and stimulate the unemployment of low-wage workers so much as a program of credits for those who, for whatever reason, have low wage incomes.”
Conclusion: a wage subsidy creates low-income jobs and boosts their pay by making it profitable for businesses to hire low wage workers and pay them well. Such a program, a la Phelps, would need to be carefully melded with our current EITC program to achieve maximum cost efficiency.