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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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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Fiscal Policy after the Election

 

As the presidential election tightens and the likely margin of victory for either candidate continues to shrink, it becomes ever more apparent that we need a bipartisan approach to solving our most basic problems.  My last post discusses the need for fundamental tax reform to get our economy growing faster to create more and better paying jobs.  Today I remind my readers of the need for better fiscal policies as well to address our massive and steadily deteriorating debt problem.
As the American Enterprise Institute,  among many other think tanks, makes abundantly clear, we are spending more and more of our federal budget on entitlements  as opposed to all of the many other federal responsibilities which are lumped together as discretionary spending.  In other words, the only way to fix our deficit and debt problems is to achieve better control over entitlement spending.

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AEI has some excellent ideas on how to do this:

  • Social Security should move towards providing a universal flat benefit, set at the federal poverty level, for all U.S. residents aged 65 and older. Social Security would then become a guarantee against poverty in old age rather than a scheme for partially replacing pre-retirement earnings for middle and higher earning households.
  • Health Care. The Affordable Care Act should be replaced with a less regulated system (i.e. no mandates). The federal tax preference on employer plans could be limited to the cost of catastrophic (high deductible) insurance plus a contribution to health savings accounts. Households without employer coverage would receive a comparable tax credit.
  • Medicare would be converted into a premium support system with a fixed level of support comparable to that provided by employers.
  • Medicaid would be converted into a block grant program for the states based on the fixed, per capita costs for enrolled populations.
  • Other Safety-Net Programs should emphasize work as the key to improved economic prospects plus greater state control over resources in order to encourage innovation.

Conclusion. It should be emphasized as strongly as possible that the purpose of entitlement reform is to preserve and strengthen entitlements, not to weaken or destroy them.  Without such action we are headed for a much worse financial crisis than the one we had in 2008-2009 which will put all government social programs at risk.

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It’s Easy to be Pessimistic about America’s Future

 

As I remind readers from time to time, this blog is concerned with America’s fundamental fiscal and economic problems: a slow economy, massive debt, and increasing income inequality. Largely because of these apparently intractable problems, more and more people are becoming pessimistic about the future of our country.
CaptureAlthough I am by nature an optimist, these matters weigh on me as well:

  • The just introduced “Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015” is a sell-out to the status quo. It breaks the agreed upon sequester spending limits by $112 billion over two years with essentially no attempt to create long term spending restraint.
  • As pointed out recently by the Washington Post’s Robert Samuelson, the presidential candidates are talking mainly about new entitlements (the Democrats) or tax cuts (the Republicans). In both cases this represents a flight from reality.
  • Entitlements: The number of people aged 65 or older will increase from 15% of the population today to 22% of the population in 2040. The cost of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid will jump from 6.5 % of GDP today to 14% of GDP in 2040. We simply must control these costs by raising eligibility ages for SS and Medicare and increasing premiums for wealthier recipients.
  • Economic Growth: Annual growth has averaged only 2% of GDP since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009. Slow growth means weaker gains in wages, more unemployment and larger spending deficits. This can be fixed long term with honest tax reform, but not with unrealistic tax cuts.

Conclusion: Isn’t it obvious that we need political candidates who will speak forthrightly with the people about the need for addressing these humongous problems? Americans aren’t dumb.  They will respond to straight talk from their supposed leaders.   

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Debunking Several Social Security Myths

 

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget has just published a new report, “Debunking 8 Social Security Myths on Its 80th Birthday.” Here are several of the “myths” they report on:

  • Myth: Social Security does not face a large funding shortfall. Fact: Social Security’s trust funds are projected to run out of reserves within 20 years. Although the Social Security Trust Fund currently contains $2 trillion, it is being depleted at a rate of close to $100 billion per year. The looming insolvency is a result of the growing costs associated with an aging population.
  • Myth: Today’s workers will not receive Social Security benefits. Fact: Even if policy makers do nothing, the program will still pay about three-quarters of scheduled benefits. Once the trust fund is depleted, benefits would be paid only from incoming payroll tax revenue.

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  • Myth: We don’t need to worry about Social Security for 20 years. Fact: there is a very high cost involved in waiting to reform Social Security. Substantial changes are needed to avoid the benefit cuts referred to above. The sooner we make these changes the less onerous they will be for both recipients and payroll tax payers (see above chart).Capture1
  • Myth: Social Security reform is code for slashing benefits, especially for the poor. Fact: under most reform plans, benefits would continue to grow faster than inflation. Most reform plans do not cut benefits from their current levels but rather slow the growth of benefits to reduce some of the pressure that wage-growth and rising life-expectancy place on the program. Under the Simpson-Bowles Plan, for example, benefits for low-wage earners will grow much faster, proportionally, than for higher-wage earners (see above chart).

Conclusion: It should be clear from the above discussion that Social Security can be fixed so as to continue to provide retirement benefits indefinitely into the future. It should also be clear that the sooner the needed reforms are implemented the less painful they will be for all concerned. We should tell our Congressional representatives that we want them to act now!

Fix It Now: the Political Philosophy of Chip Maxwell

 

I have just recently come across the book, “Fix It Now: Rediscover the Constitution and Get America Out of Its Fiscal Death Spiral” by Chip Maxwell, a candidate for Congress in Nebraska’s Second District May 2016 Republican Primary.
Chip lays out his political philosophy very clearly.  It is to:

  • Adopt a Balanced Budget Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, phased-in over ten years.
  • Phase out Social Security and Medicare for those under age 55.
  • Dismantle over the next decade the rest of the federal welfare/entitlement system.
  • Provide social services at the state or local level.
  • Launch a national effort to build a majority in Congress of crusaders for limited government.
    Capture1There are some attractive features to Chip’s program but overall I think it is too radical to have much chance at implementation.
    I am very much in favor of a balanced budget amendment and a ten year phase-in period is quite reasonable. Furthermore, providing social services at the state and local level would be much more efficient than what we are currently doing and, even with federal support, would be a big help in balancing the budget.
    Social Security and Medicare are lifelines for tens of millions of people. We can and should strengthen these programs in order to make them more financially viable for future retirees. They are now part of our national fabric and are here to stay.
    Chip’s last principle, promoting limited government, has much appeal but I think is not practical in this day and age. From my perspective, simply passing a Balanced Budget Amendment is sufficient to do what is needed. A BBA will force Congress to set spending priorities and eliminate inferior programs.
    Chip Maxwell is to be commended in running for Congress. If elected, he would move the needle in the right direction, even though some of his ideas wont work.

How to Fix Disability Insurance

 

The Trust Fund for Social Security Disability Insurance will run out of money by the end of 2016.  If no changes are made, all SSDI benefits will have to be reduced to 81% of scheduled benefits after that.  Congress must act to avoid this outcome.  The easiest fix would be to merge SSDI into the larger Social Security program in which case both SSDI and SSI would run out of money about 2033.
CaptureBut as the Manhattan Institute’s Scott Winship points out in National Affairs, “How to Fix Disability Insurance,”  “the looming insolvency of the SSDI Trust Fund offers a rare opportunity to fundamentally reform SSDI” to better target assistance to those with debilitating impairments who truly need this support. The share of adults age 25 to 64 receiving SSDI benefits has tripled from 1.6% to 5% between 1970 and 2010 during a time when a shift from manufacturing, agriculture and mining to service work has reduced physical demands on workers.
Mr. Winship suggests the following reforms be implemented in the SSDI program:

  • Raise the 1.8% (out of the total 12.4% of the payroll tax going to SS) going to SSDI slightly to solve the immediate problem.
  • Expand the support options available to able-bodied men and women who can work, at least for a significant number of hours.
  • Reduce the number of people applying for benefits. For example, by increasing employer incentives for taking stricter safety measures, accommodating and rehabilitating those who become disabled and making greater use of claims management.
  • Use a stricter definition of disability. For example, mental and musculoskeletal conditions may be amenable to treatment.
  • Make it less attractive and more difficult to receive benefits for those who, while impaired, are able to work. Conditions likely to improve would be automatically subject to review after a short period of time.
  • Facilitate work among those with serious impairments who would still like to work. The point here is to make sure they benefit from working without feeling threatened with possible termination of benefits.

The point is that there are many practical steps which can be taken to make SSDI more cost efficient while preserving it for those who truly need it.  This is a good example of the sort of changes that need to be made in all entitlement programs to shore them up for future generations by bringing their huge costs under control.

Fix the Debt

 

Recently I have had several posts about our national debt, for example, “Why the National Debt Is Such a Threat to the U.S.,” showing graphically that our current public debt at 74% of GDP is very high by historical standards and rising rapidly under current fiscal policies.
CaptureYesterday I attended a workshop in Washington D.C. put on by Fix the Debt.  All expenses were paid and, in return, the attendees agree to make at least three presentations to local community groups during the following year.  This means that I will soon be sending out a letter to such groups as Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs around the Omaha area where I live, offering my services as a speaker at one of their meetings.  The purpose is to build more public awareness of the threat of a huge and growing national debt to the long-term welfare of our country. Here is a summary of talking points from the workshop:

  • The deficit for the 2013-2014 fiscal year is almost $500 billion.
  • Under current fiscal policies the debt will increase to 270% of GDP by 2080.
  • Reasons for our debt problem:
  1. An aging population which means expanded Social Security spending
  2. Healthcare costs are growing for both Medicare and Medicaid
  3. Interest costs will grow rapidly as the economy recovers and interest rates rise
  • All bipartisan reform plans call for both spending cuts and revenue increases.
  • The benefits of taking action are:
  1. Increased budget flexibility
  2. Lower exposure to changes in interest rates
  3. Reduced risk of another financial crisis
  • The longer we wait:
  1. The older our population gets
  2. The higher the debt will rise
  3. The less time we have to phase in changes
  4. The slower our economy will grow
  5. The fewer tools we will have to fix it
  • How do we bring debt under control?
  1. Enact policies that grow the economy
  2. Health care cost containment
  3. Spending cuts
  4. Tax reform and tax expenditure cuts

Let me know if you’d like a speaker on this topic at your club!

How to Control Federal Spending II. A General Approach

 

“Life’s tragedy is that we get old too soon and wise too late”

Benjamin Franklin, 1706 – 1790

CaptureThe above chart from the  Congressional Budget Office’s latest budget forecast “Updated Budget Projections: 2014 to 2024” shows very clearly how the public debt (on which we pay interest) has climbed dramatically in the last six years, as a percentage of GDP, and is projected to keep on growing indefinitely.  As the economy improves and interest rates return to normal levels, interest payments on the debt will skyrocket and become a permanent drag on future growth.
In a recent post “How to Control Federal Spending: The Highway Trust Fund” I pointed out that thanks to the Budget Sequester Act from 2011, it is unlikely that the $35 billion Highway Trust Fund, supported by an 18.2 cent per gallon federal gasoline tax, will be supplemented by general government revenue, paid for by increasing the deficit. In other words, discretionary spending is under control at the present time due to the ten year sequester limits.
But this makes up less than 1/3 of the federal budget, the rest being “mandatory” entitlement spending, for such programs as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.  This is where the huge projected future growth in overall federal spending comes from and therefore where we need to focus on budget control.  The huge challenge is that the number of Americans who are retired, now about 50 million, is growing rapidly.  Furthermore, older citizens vote in greater proportion than any other age group and don’t want their benefits to be cut. Elected representatives need help to resist the pressure from senior citizens for greater benefits.  Here are two possible ways to provide this help:

  • A Balanced Budget Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It would have to be flexible enough to allow overrides for emergencies by a supermajority vote, but otherwise it would force Congress to either cut spending or else raise taxes to bring in more revenue. The tradeoff between these two alternatives would create the discipline to make the hard choices required.
  • Term Limits for national office. I would choose 12 year limits for both the Senate and the House of Representatives but other choices are possible. Knowing that one’s time in office is limited will help provide the strength to make the difficult decisions to either cut spending or raise tax revenue. New members of Congress are more independent thinking than the careerists whose main goal is to get reelected.

Either of these two possible changes in the rules would help turn things around.  We need to do something before we have another financial crisis much worse than the last one!