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?
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?
President Trump’s budget for 2018 presents a plan to achieve a balanced federal budget in ten years, by 2027. This is a highly desirable goal but there is much skepticism about whether or not his budget is realistic, see here and here.
My thoughts on this important matter are:
Fiscal restraint is a common sense necessity, and is not austerity. Our public debt (on which we pay interest) now stands at 77% of GDP, the highest since WWII, and will continue to increase without major changes in public policy. Right now the debt is almost “free” money because interest rates are so low. As interest rates inevitably go up in the near future, interest payments on the debt will skyrocket and become a huge drain on our federal budget and make annual deficits even worse than they already are.
3% annual GDP growth, as assumed in the Trump budget, is almost certainly too optimistic. However the Trump Administration is on track to achieve significant deregulation and averaging 2.5% growth over the next ten years is doable.
Insufficient entitlement reform is a big drawback for the budget. It will be very difficult, essentially impossible, to achieve and sustain a balanced budget without modifying Social Security and Medicare to make them self-financing. Turning Medicaid into a block grant program to the states would finally put Medicaid on a sensible budget.
Requiring able-bodied welfare recipients to work is a good idea and is the basis for cutbacks in social welfare programs.
The Departments of State, Interior, Education and Justice should be able to absorb cutbacks and operate more efficiently.
Conclusion. There are many good initiatives built into the Trump budget. Unfortunately there are also some invalid assumptions and glaring omissions. It does not represent a bona fide plan to balance the budget in ten years but at least it recognizes the importance of doing so.
One of the major problems facing the United States today is the high cost of healthcare. We spend almost 18% of GDP on healthcare, both public and private, almost twice as much as any other developed country. A big reason for the high cost is the low out-of-pocket consumer spending on health services in the U.S.
My last post discusses a general plan, involving catastrophic health insurance and health savings accounts, for getting the overall cost of healthcare under control.
Once we have a handle on the overall problem, we then need to focus on the cost of the Medicare entitlement program for retirees. The problem here is easy to understand. In just 15 years enrollment in Medicare will increase to over 80 million beneficiaries from 57 million today. Likewise there are 3.1 workers per beneficiary today and there will be only 2.4 in 2030 (see above chart).
The second chart demonstrates that Medicare will be the major component of increases in federal spending in the coming years (with the other entitlements of Social Security and Medicaid following right behind).
So the question is: how do we control Medicare spending within the context of overall health-care reform? Here is a proposal from James Capretta of the American Enterprise Institute:
Medicare recipients would receive fixed payments toward the coverage option of their choice, based on their age, income and health status. The traditional Medicare program would be one of the choices. Enrollees choosing less costly coverage options would see a reduction in their premiums.
Premium payments would be comparable to subsidies and tax credits received from the reformed Affordable Care Act.
Privately run managed care plans provide benefits at far less cost than traditional Medicare. Beneficiaries would share in the savings.
Conclusion. It needs to be emphasized as strongly as possible that the point of Medicare reform is to lower costs to both individuals and the government, sa that Medicare can be preserved indefinitely into the future.
President-elect Donald Trump is on record as favoring tax and regulatory reform in order to speed up economic growth and I have made it clear that this can be accomplished without increasing our debt.
But what is really needed is to grow our economy faster and actually shrink our debt at the same time. It will be very difficult, essentially impossible, to accomplish this with growth alone or even by raising taxes because the magnitude of our debt, 76% of GDP and rising, is so great.
There is really only one way to begin to shrink the debt and this is to get entitlement spending under control. The above chart shows that, without major changes, by 2032 all tax revenue will go towards healthcare, Social Security and net interest. Here is what needs to be done:
Social Security is already paying out $100 billion per year more than it collects in payroll taxes. Its Trust Fund will run dry in 15 years unless major changes are made and all benefits will drop by about 25% when this happens. We need to either increase the eligibility age for full benefits and/or raise the income cap on payroll taxes. These changes can be phased in but the sooner we get started the less painful it will be.
Medicare is an even bigger problem than Social Security. Either we have government rationing, i.e. “death panels,” or else rationing by price meaning some form of premium support. This simply means that we will all have more “skin in the game,” in the sense that we will all have a financial incentive to minimize our own healthcare expenses.
Medicaid should be block granted to the states so that the federal government is not obligated to a fixed match for all state Medicaid expenses. Again, cost control is the object of such a change.
Conclusion. It needs to be emphasized as strongly as possible that the reason for stringent cost control of entitlement programs is to preserve them for posterity, not destroy them. Our prosperous way of life is severely threatened by our unwillingness to recognize this problem.
I want to emphasize that I voted for Hillary Clinton on Tuesday because Donald Trump has such a sleazy and mercurial personality. But Mr. Trump was clearly the change candidate and we need change big time. His strongest base of support is the white working class which has not really recovered from the Great Recession of 2008-2009 and he will surely try to help out these people.
Here are the changes we need in order of importance:
Grow the economy faster. Tax reform, individual and corporate, and regulatory reform are what are most needed. Mr. Trump and the House Republicans are in rough agreement on both of these major initiatives and hopefully the new Republican led Senate will go along. The best kind of tax reform means to lower tax rates and shrink deductions enough to avoid losing tax revenue. This can be accomplished if a real effort is made to do it this way.
Begin to shrink our massive debt. This can only be done by major entitlement reform, meaning to control the costs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Medicare should be transitioned over from a single payer system to a premium support system, consistent with a reformed Affordable Care Act. Healthcare costs can only be contained by giving consumers more skin in the game, meaning higher deductibles supplemented with health savings accounts.
More assertive foreign policy. Worldwide peace and stability depend on our own economic and military strength. Right now China, Russia and Iran think they can push us around. President Trump will not let this happen.
Trade and immigration policy. Most knowledgeable people agree that international trade is generally beneficial. We simply have to do a better job of retraining American workers who lose their jobs to foreign competition. The key to immigration reform is tougher border security plus an effective guest worker visa program.
Conclusion. The Republican House of Representatives has an excellent plan, “A Better Way,” for American economic, fiscal and social renewal and Mr. Trump is largely supportive of it. This augers well for fundamental progress in the next four years.
I’ve been saying for several months that I would endorse one of the two main presidential candidates before the election and that “Donald Trump Should Withdraw from the Presidential Race” because of his personal sleaziness and that, in any case, I could not vote for him.
But it is worse than this. As the Wall Street Journal stated recently, “Mr. Trump would start out with more than half of the country disliking him, and most of his advisors lack governmental experience. Too many blunders or an early recession (especially one caused by trade restrictions) could cause voters to sweep out the GOP Congress in 2018, setting up a return to an all-progressive government in 2020.” In other words the disaster of 2009-2010, when President Obama had a filibuster-proof Congress, could easily happen all over again.
Mrs. Clinton has said that she wants, ”higher taxes, more spending on entitlements, more subsidies and price controls in ObamaCare, more regulations on business, more limits on political speech, and more enforcement of liberal cultural values on schools and churches.” The likely result of such an agenda would be more lost years of slow economic growth. And “the costs of slow growth are corrosive. Flat incomes lead to more social tension and political enmity. The fight to divide a smaller pie would get uglier in a country that once was accustomed to rising possibilities.” This is a highly conceivable result of four years of a Clinton presidency. Conclusion. I am not exactly enthusiastic about Mrs. Clinton. But she is predictable and much less risky than Mr. Trump. As long as the House of Representatives remains under Republican control, which is very likely, Mrs. Clinton will have to negotiate with it to implement much of her agenda. This could conceivably lead to bipartisan progress on such major issues as tax reform and entitlement cost control.