Why Our National Debt Is a Very Serious Problem for All Americans, but Especially the Poor

 

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 entitlement programs 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?

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Why Entitlement Spending Is So Difficult to Control

 

The readers of this blog know that my favorite topic is our very large national debt, now 77% of GDP (for the public part on which we pay interest) and predicted by the Congressional Budget Office to keep steadily getting worse, without major changes in current policy.


It is also well documented (see chart)  that our entitlement programs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are the drivers of the huge annual budget deficits which make the accumulated debt so much worse and worse.
The economist John Cogan has an informative interview in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal explaining why entitlement spending is so difficult to control. First of all, according to Mr. Cogan, only three modern presidents have made any effort to control entitlement spending:

  • FDR who persuaded Congress to repeal unjustified disability entitlements to 400,000 WWI, Philippine War and Boxer Rebellion veterans.
  • Ronald Reagan “slowed the growth of entitlements like no other president ever had.”
  • Bill Clinton’s welfare-reform plan not only reduced welfare’s burden on taxpayers but also benefitted the recipients, whom the old program had been harming.

 

Mr. Cogan identified three necessary political conditions for any entitlement reform. They are:

  • Presidential leadership “without which there has never been a significant reduction in an entitlement.”
  • Significant agreement among the general public and the elected representatives that there’s a problem.
  • Bipartisan consensus on the solution for correcting the problem.

Conclusion.  Think about it.  This is a quite a gloomy assessment.  Nothing will get done on the primary reason for our huge debt problem without both presidential leadership and bipartisan political support. When is this going to happen?

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Getting Started on Fiscal Responsibility

 

This blog is devoted to fiscal and economic issues facing the U.S. Both the Trump Administration and the Democrats are working to speed up economic growth and I believe there is a good chance that this will happen.
However there is not nearly enough interest in addressing an even bigger problem:  our national debt, is now larger, in relative terms, than at any time since the end of WWII.


This is a very difficult political problem because elected representatives would much rather say yes than say no to new programs and more spending.  It is even more difficult to try to restrain the growth of, let alone cut, existing programs.
The Congressional Budget Office has recently published a long list of possible ways to decrease federal spending (or increase federal revenues) over the next ten years. It is interesting to pull out several of these suggestions to see what can be accomplished:

Program                                                                                              10 year savings

  • Eliminate concurrent receipt of retirement pay and disability              $139 billion for veterans.
  • Use an alternative measure of inflation to index mandatory               $182 billion
    programs.
  • Reduce funding for International Affairs Programs.                            $117 billion
  • Limit highway funding to expected highway revenues.                          $40 billion
  • Reduce the size of the federal workforce through attrition                     $50 billion
  • Reduce funding for grants to state and local governments                    $56 billion
  • Impose caps on federal spending for Medicaid                                    $680 billion
  • Increase premiums for Medicare Parts B and D from 25% to              $331 billion 35% of cost.
    Total     $1595 billion

Conclusion. This brief list of budget restraints would reduce deficit spending by about $160 billion per year.   This is significant but not nearly enough compared to the projected deficit of $685 billion for just the 2017 fiscal year alone.  About 2/3 of the savings come from the two entitlement programs of Medicare and Medicaid. The idea here is to give specific examples of the sort of changes which will be necessary to seriously confront our debt problem.

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Moving Forward on Healthcare Reform: Emphasize Cost Control

 

Now that the Republicans have failed to replace the Affordable Care Act with a poor substitute, it is likely that a bipartisan plan will emerge.  Both sides want changes in the existing structure of the ACA.  The Democrats want to hold down the rapidly growing costs for individuals who purchase insurance through the exchanges.  The Republicans want to hold down the overall cost of American healthcare which now exceeds 18% of GDP.


There should be plenty of room for compromise:

  • Medicaid. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services project that under the House bill, which caps federal spending growth for Medicaid and saves hundreds of billions of dollars, total Medicaid enrollment will stay roughly constant above 70 million for the next decade, compared to 55 million before the ACA was enacted.
  • A Bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus would fund cost-sharing payments to insurers, proposes curtailing the mandate on employers to provide health insurance to their workers, advances states’ ability to band together into regional compacts for selling insurance across state lines, and expands the opportunity for states to experiment with different ways of providing coverage.
  • Medicare. Just letting Medicare negotiate for drug prices and reducing the variation in the costs for post-acute care would provide huge savings, without even addressing inefficiencies in Medicare’s basic design.

Conclusion. The above plan holds down the cost of insurance purchased by individuals on the exchanges as well as taking significant steps to control the costs of both Medicare and Medicaid. It doesn’t address the huge inefficiency of employer provided care but nevertheless represents a big step forward towards implementing cost control in healthcare.

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It’s Time for a Bipartisan Approach to Healthcare Reform

 

The Affordable Care Act was passed by a Democratic Congress in 2010 with no Republican support. It expands access to healthcare but does nothing to control costs which have now reached 18% of GDP and climbing.
The current Republican Senate bill to replace the ACA does attempt to control costs but is unable to attract enough support to pass.
The problem is to achieve both broad access and much lower costs at the same time.  In general, Democrats prefer a single payer system while Republicans want to retain a free market approach.  So compromise will be required.


For example:

  • The tax exemption for employer provided health insurance should be replaced by a universal (and refundable) tax credit for all limited to the cost of catastrophic health insurance (with a high deductible). This will preserve expanded access as well as requiring everyone to pay attention to costs.
  • Tax preferred health savings accounts for routine healthcare expenses should be authorized and further subsidized for low-income families through the ACA exchanges.

  • Medicaid (for poverty-level families) should be put on a fixed federal budget to control runaway costs. States should be given much greater flexibility to direct resources to those with the greatest needs.
  • Redesign of Medicare. Medicare is currently being subsidized by the federal government (after FICA taxes and premiums paid) at over $400 billion per year.  Introducing a defined contribution element into this single payer program will help to hold down costs.

  • Pre-existing Conditions can be covered with suitable enrollment windows and state-run high-risk pools.

Conclusion. The ACA has achieved nearly universal access to healthcare in the U.S. But costs continue to rise sharply.  A universal tax credit combined with health savings accounts for the private market combined with a defined contribution single payer Medicare system has a good chance of getting overall healthcare costs under much better control.

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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

The GOP healthcare plan, both the House version and the Senate version, are highly imperfect. Yet they each do one thing which is badly needed. They put Medicaid on a budget. The current open-ended Medicaid program, whereby each state is reimbursed by the federal government for a percentage of its costs (the average is 53%), would be replaced by an annual per-capita payment which would increase only at the rate of inflation. It is estimated that the new per-capita budget would reduce federal Medicaid payments by about 25% after 10 years.


In order to get the federal debt under control, all three major entitlement programs, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, must be reined in and the current GOP plan would start doing this for Medicaid.
Reining in spending like this will force states to alter the way they regulate and administer Medicaid and the New York Times columnist Ron Lieber points out some of the challenges which will arise if Medicaid has to operate more efficiently:

Nursing homes. One third of people who turn 65 will eventually end up in a nursing home. Furthermore, 62% of nursing home residents cannot pay for nursing homes on their own. The average annual cost of a semi=private room is $82,000.
Home and community-based care. Medicaid is required to pay for nursing homes and may also pay for home and community-based care which is much less expensive and lets seniors stay in their own homes.
Optional services for low-income people and the disabled. Optional services besides long-term home care include dental care for adults, therapy for disabled children at school, prosthetic limbs and prescription drugs.

Conclusion. Changing Medicaid from open-ended funding to a strict federal budget which grows at the rate of inflation will put a large burden on state Medicaid administrators and require some difficult tradeoffs to control spending. But this is absolutely essential as a first step towards controlling the rapid increase of entitlement spending.

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