Why Fiscal Responsibility at the Federal Level Is So Difficult

 

The United States faces many challenging problems but the biggest one of all is our national debt, right now 77% of GDP, the largest since right after WWII, and predicted by the Congressional Budget Office to keep getting steadily worse without major changes in current policy.
The only practical way to reduce the debt is to start shrinking our annual deficits, $680 billion for the current 2017, down to a much lower level, ideally close to zero, over a limited time period, perhaps ten years or so. This urgent need will, of course, be very difficult to accomplish.
For example:

  • Military spending. The military analyst, Mark Helprin, makes a cogent argument  that the most effective way to defuse the North Korean nuclear threat is for President Trump to ask Congress “for an emergency increase in funding to correct the longstanding degradation of American military power.” This would, among other things, provide for “a vigorous acceleration of every aspect of ballistic-missile defense.”

  • Omaha Rapid Bus Transit. Omaha NE (where I live) is spending $15 million in local funds for a $30 million bus system upgrade, subsidized by the Federal Transit Authority, which has an annual budget of $8.6 billion. The new ORBT will have sleek 60 foot-long buses as well as 27 individual modern bus stop shelters at a cost of $260,000 each. The system will be operational in 2018 and Mayor Jean Stothert says, “I’m looking forward to being one of the first riders.”

Conclusion. Who can argue with upgrading ballistic-missile defense at a time when we are threatened by a madman in North Korea?  And, it is nice for Omaha to have a sleek modern rapid  transit bus system on Dodge Street but should it be 50% subsidized by the federal government at a time when the U.S. is drowning in debt?  There will always be enormous pressure on Congress to increase funding for popular projects.
Who is going to stand up and say no?

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The Right Way to Deregulate Wall Street

 

The economy has been chugging along at about 2% annual GDP growth ever since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009. Unemployment has been steadily dropping and is now a fairly low 4.4%.  Low wage earners are now even beginning to see bigger gains in pay.
Most people would like to speed up economic growth even more.  Tax reform will help in this regard but so will sensible deregulation.  Barron’s has an excellent article this week about deregulating Wall Street by William D. Cohan.


According to Mr. Cohan:

  • GDP growth is highly correlated with bank lending.
  • The Dodd-Frank Act, passed by Congress in 2010, has disproportionately burdened community banks, despite their having no role in the financial crisis.
  • More than 1700 U.S. banks have disappeared since Dodd-Frank was passed.
  • Senator John Kennedy (R, LA) has introduced a bill which would exempt community banks and credit unions with assets of less than $10 billion from the Dodd-Frank Act.
  • As a result of Dodd-Frank, big banks are now required to have more capital and less leverage. Today a bank’s assets would have to fall about 7% before a bank’s capital would be wiped out, as opposed to only 2% in 2008.  This makes them safer.
  • Prior to 1970 the Wall Street partnership structure ensured that bankers had plenty of skin in the game – essentially their full net worth was on the line every day.
  • Today bankers and traders are rewarded for taking risks with other people’s money. Mr. Cohan recommends that the top 500 traders and executives at every big bank have a significant portion of their net worth on the line.

Conclusion. Mr. Cohan’s program would not only give a big boost to the economy by enabling community banks to lend more freely but would also make our financial system safer by requiring top financiers to have skin in the game.

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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 Growing Skills Gap

 

Donald Trump was elected President because of strong blue-collar support. Many blue collar workers feel left out of the American dream because of stagnant incomes and/or job loss.
At the same time there is a huge national focus on the high cost of college and the associated huge student loan debt.  But student loan debt is a fixable problem and is not what is holding our economy back.
Take a look at the two charts below from recent issues of the Wall Street Journal, here  and here.


The first chart shows the last four growth cycles and how wages eventually tick up as unemployment continues to fall.  Missing this time is hardly any growth in wages towards the end of the cycle (Of course, the current cycle won’t be over until we have the next recession).


The second chart shows that there are now more job openings (6 million) than job hires for the first time since 2001.  Furthermore there were only a low of 138,000 jobs added in May with an average of 121,000 per month for the past three months.  This suggests that employers are having a hard time finding qualified workers.
Obviously, what is badly needed is a renewed emphasis on workforce training.  Interestingly enough, the Business Roundtable has just issued an extensive report  detailing what many major corporations are doing to close America’s skills gap.

Conclusion. Lots of people, certainly including President Trump and the Republican Congress, would like to see faster economic growth.  Clearly there are practical and useful ways to achieve this and many people are already trying to make it happen.

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An Emerging Democratic Agenda

 

I am just as personally embarrassed by President Donald Trump as most other people I know. He is rude towards other world leaders and especially our own allies.  His destructive behavior endangers even his own policy initiatives.  He was elected by blue-collar workers who feel left behind in today’s global economy.  But how can he possibly lead others in implementing policies to help even his most avid supporters?


What is the Democratic Party doing about this?  First of all, they are trying to stop acting so elitist toward the working class.  But more fundamentally a new progressive social agenda apparently is emerging, here and here.  It has many attractive features but there is one big thing missing, namely fiscal responsibility:

  • A “public apprenticeship” jobs program. The idea here is to maintain the employment rate for prime-age workers without a bachelor’s degree at the 2000 level of 79%. This would require the creation of 4.4 million jobs, ideally at a living wage of $15 per hour plus Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes, and therefore at a wage of $36,000 per year. This would cost $158 billion per year.
  • A universal child allowance of $250 per month. This would cost $190 billion per year, although half could be offset by consolidating less-efficient existing programs. This would cut child poverty by 40%.
  • An expansion of the earned income tax credit. A family of four making $40,000 per year would get a tax credit of $6000 instead of the current credit of $2000. This would cost $1 trillion over ten years. The idea here is extra motivation to hold a job.

 

Conclusion. Who is opposed to creating millions of new living wage jobs to put the unemployed and underemployed back to work? Such a program would give our economy a huge boost.  Who is opposed to cutting child poverty in half (or doing even better)?  But how in the world would we make room for such new programs in the federal budget?  With $500 billion annual deficit spending already, we need to curtail federal spending, not increase it.

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The Only Way America Can Be Great Is To Provide Leadership

 

Like many other people I am upset that President Trump has decided to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord.  It’s not that Paris solves the global warming problem but it is a major step in the right direction.  We’re the biggest contributor of carbon emissions  so it is our responsibility to lead in reducing them.


Here are some other major issues that need leadership:

  • Trade. The Trans-Pacific Partnership would have been a big win for the U.S.  But it is with China, responsible for two-thirds of our trade deficit, that we need a major rebalance.
  • NATO. Mr. Trump has withdrawn his campaign statement that NATO is “obsolete.” His criticism of NATO could turn out to be useful if it leads to an increase in NATO defense spending.

  • Faster Economic Growth. Economic strength is the backbone of our influence in world affairs. Lower corporate tax rates will encourage our multinational companies to bring their profits back home for reinvestment in the U.S. Administration efforts already under way to deregulate various aspects of the U.S. economy should soon lead to faster growth.
  • U.S. Budget. Mr. Trump has proposed to balance the U.S. budget within ten years which is hugely important. Unfortunately many of his specific proposals on spending and growth are not realistic.
  • Infrastructure Spending. This is an excellent idea if it is paid for directly and does not add to the federal deficit. Apparently Mr. Trump will soon announce a plan for private industry, cities and states to take the lead in new infrastructure spending with possible contributions from the federal government.

Conclusion. Although Paris is a disappointment, Mr. Trump will have many opportunities to redeem himself.

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PLEASE, Mr. President, Don’t Withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord

 

When Barack Obama was President I described our country’s two biggest long range problems as:

  • Massive Debt, now 77% of GDP (for the public part on which we pay interest) and predicted by the CBO to keep steadily getting worse.
  • Slow economic growth, averaging just 2% since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009. This means fewer new jobs are created and lower raises for existing jobs.

Now, under President Trump, I have modified this list to read:

  • Massive Debt, etc.
  • Global Warming, for which the evidence is overwhelming.

All three of these issues are large and urgent problems but President Obama was insufficiently concerned about both debt and economic growth while President Trump is insufficiently concerned about both debt and global warming.
Today’s Wall Street Journal, “Paris Climate Discord” has perhaps the best possible argument for withdrawing from the Paris Accord but it is ultimately unpersuasive.  Even if full implementation of the Paris standards would have only a tiny effect on global temperatures by 2100, and even if other countries aren’t contributing their fair share, Paris represents a big step in the right direction.
Global warming is real and if the U.S. is the world leader which it needs to be, and often purports to be, then it needs to be part of the Paris Accord.  Adjustments to our own domestic energy policies (such as adopting a revenue neutral carbon tax) will enable us to decrease carbon emissions much more efficiently than we are currently doing.

Conclusion. Global warming presents an opportunity for President Trump to show real leadership. I hope he is up to it.

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