Nowhere to Cut? II. Are You Really Trying?

The New York Times has a story today, “A Dirty Secret Lurks in the Struggle Over a Fiscal ‘Grand Bargain’”, suggesting that there are really two reasons why the House-Senate Budget Conference Committee, chaired by Representative Paul Ryan and Senator Patty Murray, is unlikely to accomplish very much.  The simple reason is that the Republicans will not support tax increases, on which the Democrats insist, and the Democrats will not support major changes to entitlement programs, on which the Republicans insist.
But the “dirty secret” (according to the NYT) is that Republicans don’t really want to trim either Social Security or Medicare, which many Tea Partiers receive, and Democrats don’t really want to raise taxes on the upper income individuals who support them.  Furthermore, the deficit for 2013 was “only” $680 billion, and is expected to drop further in the next few years, while interest rates are so low that borrowing hundreds of billions of dollars each year is not expensive.  In other words, just kick the can down the road.  Let somebody else worry about the problem in the future.
My previous post “Nowhere to Cut”, based on the report from the Congressional Budget Office, “Options for Reducing the Deficit: 2014 – 2023”, picks 14 possible budget cuts or revenue enhancements out of a total of 103 such items listed.  Just these 14 items alone amount to a savings of $566 billion over ten years, more than enough to offset half of the entire sequester amount.
For example, raising the eligibility age for Medicare to 67 would save $23 billion (over 10 years), using the ‘chained’ CPI to measure inflation for all mandatory programs would save $162 billion, tightening eligibility for food stamps would save $50 billion, taxing carried interest as ordinary income would save $17 billion, limiting highway funding to expected highway revenues would save $65 billion, reducing the size of the federal workforce through attrition would save $43 billion, limiting medical malpractice torts would save $57 billion, and modifying Tricare fees for working-age military retirees would save $71 billion.  Just these eight savings total $456 billion and would offset almost half of the entire sequester.
What is so difficult about making a tradeoff deal like this?  Isn’t this what we send people to Washington to do?

Is Expanding The Social Safety Net Compatible With Fiscal Restraint?

Yesterday’s New York Times addresses this issue with an article “Ohio Governor Defies G.O.P. With Defense of Social Safety Net”.  It describes how Republican Governor John Kasich has maneuvered to expand Medicaid coverage in Ohio to 275,000 low income Ohioans under the new healthcare law, over the objections of his own Republican dominated state legislature.
Mr. Kasich is a former congressional deficit hawk and there is little doubt about his fiscal conservatism.  He recently balanced his state budget by cutting revenues to local government by $720 million.  But he has also expanded state aid for the mentally ill and supported efforts to raise local taxes for improving education.  He says “for those who live in the shadows of life, for those who are the least among us, I will not accept the fact that the most vulnerable in our state should be ignored.”
Especially after the disastrous debt ceiling debate, with Tea Party Republicans willing to default on our national debt in order to defund Obama Care, it is critical for fiscal conservatives to publicly demonstrate that they are not opposed to helping the poor in a reasonable manner, as long as it is cost effective.
To be in favor of controlling entitlement spending is not the same thing as wanting to abolish entitlement programs.  In fact, it is just the opposite.  We must control their costs so that the government will have the means to continue to support them.  It is just plain ordinary common sense.  If our national debt continues to grow unchecked, we risk not only entitlement programs but our entire way of life.
Take Medicaid as a concrete example.  Right now the federal government pays a percentage of the costs incurred by state governments in running the program.  The more a state spends for Medicaid, the greater the reimbursement from the federal government. This increases spending for both the states and the federal government.  A more cost effective approach is to give each state a block grant from the federal government and enough leeway to operate its own program as efficiently as it can.  Exactly this approach is being used in Rhode Island and is working very well at a much lower overall cost.
Being a fiscal conservative is not the same thing as being mean spirited!  The future of our country depends on getting this crucial message out far and wide!

Can We Solve Our Fiscal Problems by Taxing the Rich? II. Robert Reich’s View


One of America’s foremost liberal writers, Robert Reich, a Professor of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, argues in his latest book, “Beyond Outrage”, that “America’s economy and democracy are working for the benefit of ever-fewer privileged and powerful people.”  He presents “a plan for action for everyone who cares about the future of America.”  Mr. Reich’s tax policy:

  • Raise the tax rate on the rich to what it was before 1981

“Sixty years ago Americans earning over $1 million in today’s dollars paid 55.2 percent of it in income taxes, after taking all deductions and credits.  If they were taxed at that rate now, they’d be paying at least $80 billion more annually.”

  • Put a two percent surtax on the wealth of the richest one-half of one percent

“The richest on-half of one percent of Americans, each with over $7.2 million of assets, own 28 percent of the nation’s total wealth.  Given this almost unprecedented concentration, and considering what the nation needs to do to rebuild our schools and infrastructure, as well as tame the budget deficit, a surtax is warranted.  It would generate another $70 billion a year.”

  • Put a one-half of one percent tax on all financial transactions

“This would bring in more than $25 billion per year.”

These new tax provisions would together raise tax revenue by $175 billion per year.  But our deficit this fiscal year, ending September 30, 2013, is about $700 billion.  In a few years, without significant changes in either discretionary or entitlement spending, annual deficits will be back up over a trillion dollars per year and climbing.  Mr. Reich’s steep taxes on wealth and wealth creation are not enough to seriously tame deficit spending, let alone end it.
Let’s be honest and admit that some new tax revenue is probably going to be necessary in the future if we are ever going to be able to eliminate the deficit.  But it makes no sense to start out with a tax increase which will be strongly opposed anyway.  It is far more sensible to first wring out the hundreds of billions of dollars in wasteful federal spending which now exists.  After this is done there likely will still be a big deficit.  Then, and only then, would it be appropriate to generate significant new revenue by raising taxes.

Can We Solve Our Fiscal Problems by Taxing the Rich? I. The Third Way

“I enjoy your blogs and always look forward to the next one.”
“I am amazed when listening to my liberal friends, who could care less about any of the arguments you are making. Their basic belief is that any deficit can be solved in short order by simply raising taxes on the rich. One of these friends just bought a home in Palm Springs and came back declaring, ” Jerry Brown solved the financial problem in California. He raised taxes on the rich and the deficit is gone. California no longer has a financial problem.” He then went on to say that with 40 million people, California will set a good example for the country. After listening to this, I think you should address the issue of why simply increasing taxes will never work. I would start with Simpson Bowles and then go on to more recent findings. I think this argument has to be made over and over again. There are precious few Democrats who think we have a serious or fundamental financial problem that cannot be solved by simply raising taxes on the rich. I believe Obama is leading the charge.”

One response to this argument is provided by the President, Jon Cowan, and the Senior Vice President for Policy, Jim Kessler, of the Third Way, a center-left think tank, in a June 2013 memo, “The Four Fiscal Fantasies” .

  • Fantasy #1: Taxing the rich solves our problems.

Mr. Cowan and Mr. Kessler look at a plan that “completely soaks the rich.”  They stipulate that the top tax rate increases ten points to 49.6%.  They impose the Buffett Rule requiring all millionaires to pay at least 30% in taxes (after deductions).  They raise the estate tax to allow a $3.5 million exemption with a 45% rate.  “If we leave entitlements on auto-pilot in this scenario, our deficit in 2030 will be close to a stunning $1.3 trillion in 2013 inflation-adjusted dollars.”
The authors then show that to keep our finances even roughly in check, a middle income family with a $65,000 income, for example, would have to pay several thousand dollars a year in new taxes.
Conclusion:  We cannot keep entitlements on auto-pilot.  Something has to give!

How To Do Intelligent Budget Cutting in Washington


The July/August 2013 issue of the Atlantic Magazine has an article “Can Government Play Moneyball?”, by two former budget officials, Peter Orszag (under President Obama) and John Bridgeland (under President Bush), which describes the very careless spending atmosphere in the federal government in recent years.  “Based on our rough calculations”, they write, “less than $1 out of every $100 of government spending is backed by even the most basic evidence that the money is being spent wisely.”  They describe in great detail their efforts to introduce mechanisms to evaluate the performance of social service programs of various types and how difficult this has been to accomplish.
“Since 1990, the federal government has put 11 large social programs, collectively costing taxpayers more than $10 billion a year, through randomized controlled trials, the gold standard of evaluation.  Ten out of the eleven – including Upward Bound and Job Corps – showed “weak or no positive effects on their participants.”  Here’s another example.  “The federal government’s long running after school program, 21st Century Community Learning Centers, has shown no effect on academic outcomes on elementary-school students – and significant increases in school suspensions and incidents requiring other forms of discipline.  The Bush administration tried to reduce funding for the program” but was overruled by Congress.  “Today the program still gets more than $1 billion a year in federal funds.”
Lots of people complain that the sequester is a “dumb” way to cut federal spending.  Of course, it would make far more sense to cut back spending in a rational way by evaluating all programs, keeping the effective ones and eliminating the ineffective ones.  As the sequester takes bigger and bigger across-the-board spending cuts each year for nine more years (it’s a program to cut $1 trillion over ten years), the big spenders in Congress are going to start crying “Uncle”! because their own favorite programs will be effected more and more deeply each year.  Maybe then, hopefully sooner than later, Congress will gain some collective common sense and accept the fact that there is a better way to make the significant budget cuts that are necessary.
Let’s hope so!

Federal Cutbacks Suggest State and Local Expansion


A front page article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, “An Ohio Prescription for the GOP:  Lower Taxes, More Aid for Poor”, describes how Ohio’s Republican Governor, John Kasich, a former congressional spending hawk, has expanded Medicaid coverage in Ohio and steered millions more dollars into local food banks.  Mr. Kasich says, “When you die and go to heaven, St Peter is probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small.  But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor.”
There are good reasons why we should shift programs and responsibilities from the federal government back to states and localities.  At the federal level there is little fiscal restraint and therefore little incentive for making sure that governmental programs operate efficiently and effectively.  Study after study by the Government Accounting Office, as well as by private think tanks, demonstrate enormous waste and duplication in virtually all areas of federal government.  This long lasting fiscal irresponsibility at the federal level has now led to a massive national debt which will have a perverse effect on our nation’s prosperity for many years to come.
At the same time, all state and local governments are required to balance their budgets.  This means that they have to pay attention to the costs of all programs and set spending priorities.  They have to make sure that all functions of government are effective and be prepared to cut back or eliminate any program which is performing poorly.  States such as Illinois and California, and cities such as Detroit, Chicago and Philadelphia, which have huge operating deficits year after year, will eventually be forced to declare bankruptcy (such as Detroit has just done) in order to reorganize their finances and make a fresh start.
It has long been a practical axiom that government should be as close as possible to the people.  But now it is a fiscal necessity as well to shift as much as possible from federal control back to state and local control.

The A+ Method to Reform Federal Education Policy


The Heritage Foundation’s Lindsey Burke has recently described, in “A-Plus: A Conservative Alternative to NCLB”, a new bill, The Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success Act, recently introduced into both houses of Congress.  A+ would allow states to completely opt out of all programs which fall under No Child Left Behind and send NCLB funding back to the states in the form of block grants to be used for the most pressing educational needs.
Under such an arrangement, states would have to describe how they plan to improve education for disadvantaged students.  Performance data for various student demographic groups would be disaggregated and states would have to demonstrate how they have narrowed achievement gaps.  Many other safeguards would also be in place.
The problems with NCLB are well known.  The Adequate Yearly Progress requirement, that all students be proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014, is unrealistic and has led to the watering-down of proficiency standards.  The Highly Qualified Teacher mandate is too rigid and should be under the purview of local education leaders.  Standards and assessments, such as the Common Core and national tests, would no longer be dictated by the U.S. Secretary of Education.
There are huge budgetary ramifications of A+.  At the present time there are over 80 individual grant programs under NCLB, which have a total annual budget of more than $25 billion.  Consolidating all of these numerous individual programs into a single K-12 block grant to each state would easily allow a 20%, or $5 billion, annual savings to the federal government as well as saving states and local school systems much expense in administering the newly streamlined federal education policy.
Here is an example of a good way of improving one particularly large and expensive federal program.  This sort of retrenchment needs to happen throughout the federal government.  Let’s get started in doing what needs to be done!

The New York Times and Fiscal Austerity

The New York Times is devoting a lot of space recently to debunking the Republican’s supposed campaign to inflict fiscal austerity on the United States.  My May 10, 2013 blog entry responded to an NYT article on May 9 entitled “Emphasis on Deficit Reduction Is Seen by Economists as Impeding Recovery”.  Now they’re at it again!  Today there’s an Op Ed entitled “How Austerity Kills”, by David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu.  The authors state that “Recessions aren’t necessarily deadly.  But harsh spending cuts are”.
It needs to be pointed out over and over again, as often as necessary until it sinks in, that the current year’s federal budget does not represent a cut.  In 2012 actual expenditures were $3,538 billion while the 2013 federal expenditure budget, as estimated three months ago (in February 2013) by the Congressional Budget Office, is $3,553 billion.  This represents an increase of $15 billion from last year’s (2012) expenditures to this year’s (2013) estimated expenditures.  Holding down budget increases from one year to the next, at a time of enormous deficits, is exactly what our elected representatives ought to be doing.  If Mr. Stuckler and Mr. Basu want to argue that the sequester adjustments represent a poor way of holding back on large spending increases, then many Republicans, including myself, would agree with them.  Let’s definitely reduce spending increases in a more intelligent way!
But the larger issue is the question of austerity itself.  We’ve now had four years in a row of trillion dollar deficits and this year’s deficit is predicted by CBO to be $845 billion.  CBO projects deficits of $616 billion for 2014, $430 billion for 2015, and then annual deficits which start growing again (under current policy) and returning to the trillion dollar level by 2023.  This represents $7 trillion in additional debt by 2023 beyond the $6 trillion in debt already accumulated in the last five years.  To continue on this projected path is the height of irresponsibility!  And for the New York Times to refer to this amount of excessive spending as austerity is ludicrous, simply ludicrous!