A Letter from Birmingham Jail Why we cannot wait Martin Luther King, Jr., April 16, 1963
Yesterday was Martin Luther King Day and every year at this time we are reminded of his eloquent letter from the Birmingham Jail, “Why we cannot wait,” written to some of his hesitant supporters in the Spring of 1963.
African-Americans were tired of waiting so long for equal rights in their own country. On my own personal scale, I am so frustrated by the inability of our political system to address our massive debt problem, that I am getting organized to enter the 2018 Nebraska Republican Senate Primary against the incumbent Deb Fischer who has just voted (with the new tax law) to increase our debt by $1 trillion over the next decade.
Basically I am saying that our debt is so large and growing so fast that it will soon be out of control if we don’t take action to start reducing it very soon.
The public debt (on which we pay interest) is now 77% of GDP, the highest since WWII, and projected by the Congressional Budget Office to keep getting steadily worse. It will grow by $11.5 trillion in just 10 years to almost 100% of GDP and will reach 150% of GDP, double the current level, by 2047, without major changes in current policy.
A fiscal crisis, much worse than the Financial Crisis of 2008, will occur long before 2047 if nothing is done to greatly shrink our annual deficits which are again rapidly approaching the trillion dollar per year level.
The new tax law increases deficits by an average of $100 billion per year, and therefore makes it that much harder to shrink them down substantially. It is imperative for the two parties, Democrats and Republicans, to work together to figure out how to do this.
Conclusion. Our national debt is so large and growing so fast that it is virtually out of control. We need prompt and fairly strong action to turn the situation around. I have often discussed one major way to do this.
In 2012 I was a candidate in the Republican Primary for U.S. Congress, Nebraska District 2. My platform at that time was to “Eliminate the Deficit.” Today I am about to enter the 2018 Nebraska Republican Primary for the U.S. Senate. My platform will be to “Fix the Debt.” (http://www.fixthedebt.org/)
Our current debt ($15 trillion for the public part on which we pay interest) is now 77% of GDP, the highest since right after WWII, and steadily getting worse. At the present time it is essentially “free” money because interest rates are so low. But that is already starting to change. Every 1% increase in interest rates will increase interest payments by $150 billion per year. A huge upsurge in inflation (which can happen at any time), followed by a corresponding rise in interest rates, will become a huge drain on the federal budget and likely lead to a new crisis much worse than the Financial Crisis of 2008.
With healthcare spending, both public and private, now almost 18% of GDP, and growing rapidly, there is really only one practical way of getting our national debt under control: stabilize the cost of healthcare in the U.S.
Consider the following data:
Our national health expenditure grew 4.3% (much faster than inflation) to $3.3 trillion in 2016, $10,348 per person, and accounted for $17.9% of GDP.
National health spending is projected to grow at an average rate of 5.6% for 2016 – 2015, and reach 19.9% of GDP by 2025.
FederalMedicare Outlays were $588 billion in 2016 or 15% of federal outlays.
Federal Medicaid outlays were about $390 billion in 2016 or 10% of federal outlays.
The federal tax exclusion for employer provided health insurance was $250 billion in 2016.
Summary: the federal government spent almost $1.23 trillion on healthcare in 2016, over 30% of all federal spending of $3.9 trillion.
Conclusion. The only practical way to get our nation’s debt under control is to limit the growth of healthcare spending. Right now federal spending on healthcare is defined benefit (i.e. open ended). We simply must move to a defined contribution system where all of us as healthcare consumers assume responsibility for our own healthcare spending. Detailed proposal forthcoming!
Donald Trump was elected President a year ago because the white working class is angry about a lot of things, including slow wage growth. The tax burden in the U.S. is lower than in other developed countries and wages are higher in the U.S. even if they are not rising fast enough. The Brookings Institute has carefully analyzed the wage growth issue, here and here, and has delineated several reasons for wage stagnation:
Compensation has lagged behind productivity growth. This is largely due to globalization and technology which has put upward pressure on skills and downward pressure on wages.
Benefits have grown faster than wages, thus holding down wages. The skyrocketing cost of healthcare is mostly responsible for this.
Labor’s share of income, compared to capital’s, has been shrinking. Technology needs less low skill labor. Also, market concentration, i.e. monopoly power, has been increasing, which increases profits and therefore return on capital.
Wage gains have been higher in the higher wage quintiles. This is explained by the increasing wage benefit of more education and higher skill levels.
Manufacturing output is up and employment is down. High technology needs fewer low skill workers and high skill workers are in short supply.
Entrepreneurship, i.e. new business formation, has declined over the past several decades. This is caused by increased business consolidation and would also be relieved by more immigration of high skilled workers.
Labor market slack has declined since the Great Recession. This bodes well for wage increases which are now starting to occur.
Labor productivity growth since the Great Recession has been especially slow. What is needed is increased business investment which is the justification for the current push for lower corporate and business tax rates.
Conclusion. In short, what is needed to boost wages is better education and skills, more business investment, control of the surging cost of healthcare, better trust busting to break up monopolies, and more high level immigration.
Not only is Washington politics already hyper-partisan, but both parties are continuing to move to even greater extremes, see here and here.
Here are two examples of extreme positions now being espoused by major elements of one or the other of the two parties:
Single payer healthcare. The failure of the GOP effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act this past summer means that (the goal of) universal healthcare is here to stay. The ACA expands access to healthcare but does nothing to control costs. Single payer, Medicare for All, would control costs but then we end up with socialized medicine. The only way to establish a cost efficient free market healthcare system is to remove, or at least limit, the tax exemption for employer provided care and to set up high deductible catastrophic care supplemented by health savings accounts to pay for routine expenses. This would compel everyone to pay close attention to the cost of their own healthcare.
Tax cuts instead of tax reform. Tax reform, i.e. lowering both corporate and individual tax rates, paid for by closing loopholes and shrinking deductions, is an excellent way to speed up economic growth and thereby create more and better paying jobs. But it is imperative to do this in a revenue neutral manner, i.e. without increasing our annual deficits. Our debt (the public part on which we pay interest) now stands at 77% of GDP, the highest it has been since the end of WWII, and is predicted by the Congressional Budget Office to keep getting larger without major changes in public policy.
Conclusion. The U.S. badly needs a more cost efficient healthcare system and a simpler and more efficient tax system. But there are right ways and wrong ways to do both of these things. Single payer healthcare and (unpaid for) tax rate cuts are the wrong way to proceed. In each case, no action at all is much better than getting it wrong.
Granted that it is hard to implement good policy with a populist President like Donald Trump who is most interested in stirring up his base, nevertheless the Republican Congress is making some serious policy mistakes:
Healthcare. The GOP should accept the fact that universal healthcare is a desirable societal goal and is here to stay. The Graham-Cassidy bill is bad policy because some states, such as debt-ridden Illinois, can’t possibly handle healthcare on their own. The fact that the ACA needs operational fixes gives the Republicans leverage for insisting on cost lowering changes in a bipartisan bill.
Tax Reform. The GOP should focus on the most serious problems in our tax system. The complexity of the tax code is partly responsible for the fact that taxes paid lag true tax liabilities by an estimated 16% or $406 billion per year. As an example of waste, the IRS has paid out $132 billion in EITC benefits over the last decade to people who were ineligible.
Our uncompetitive corporate tax rate of 35% encourages multinational companies to leave their profits overseas rather than bringing them back home for reinvestment. Even so, corporate tax revenue as a share of GDP is less than in most other developed countries.
Republicans claim to be the party of fiscal responsibility and should therefore be highly uncomfortable with any tax plan which reduces federal revenue and increases our already very large annual deficits. With a low unemployment rate of 4.4%, any additional artificial (deficit financed) fiscal stimulus is likely to kick off a new round of inflation.
Conclusion. Republicans have a relatively short window of opportunity to enact policy changes beneficial for the country. They need to get serious about what is really important before time runs out.
With Donald Trump expanding the culture wars and the Democrats lining up with the progressive policies of Bernie Sanders, the national political scene seems to be getting more confusing all the time.
And yet there is remarkable consensus on many levels about what the country really needs:
Faster economic growth would help provide more jobs and better paying jobs for the blue-collar workers which both parties are trying to appeal to.
Tax reform meaning to reduce tax rates, shrink deductions and generally simplify the tax code has widespread bipartisan support, as one way to provide the growth which everyone wants.
Shrinking the debt as a percentage of GDP is widely recognized as critical to the future well-being of our country and especially for the poor who are most dependent on social welfare programs. How to curtail spending sufficiently to get this done is inevitably a highly contentious issue.
Healthcare for (almost) all is now the law of the land, given that the GOP has failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act. The emphasis going forward should be to control healthcare costs for both individuals and families as well as for the federal government (the taxpayers).
Immigration and DACA. There appears to be strong bipartisan support in Congress for giving the Dreamers legal status in the U.S. With a very low (4.4%), and still dropping, unemployment rate, a huge labor shortage is developing in many states, including Nebraska. What the U.S. needs is an expanded guest worker visa program so that all employers are able to find the (legal) employees they need to conduct business. Perhaps DACA reform will lead to broader immigration reform as well.
Conclusion. The above issues should be largely amenable to bipartisan consensus. Both parties would benefit from putting aside petty differences and working together to solve them.
U.S. healthcare policy is now in limbo. The Affordable Care Act has withstood Congressional attempts to repeal it, but it has many flaws which need to be repaired. Primarily, the ACA expands access to healthcare in the U.S. (good) but does nothing to control burgeoning costs for both individuals and the federal budget (bad).
One option for both further expansion of access as well as cost control is Bernie Sanders’ single-payer “Medicare for All” plan. A different option is universal catastrophic care for all Americans not already covered by Medicare or Medicaid (including those receiving employer provided health insurance).
A different perspective is provided by an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine. According to the authors, Eric Schneider and David Squires, the U.S. also faces (in addition to the challenge of much better cost control) several performance challenges such as:
Lack of access to affordable and comprehensive insurance coverage for too many people.
Relative underinvestment in primary care. Other developed countries have a higher percentage of their professional workforces dedicated to primary rather than specialty care and deliver a wider range of services at first contact.
Administrative inefficiency of the U.S. healthcare system. The solution here is to change our reimbursement systems to use global payments, fee schedules, formularies and defined benefits.
Disparities in the delivery of care. People with low incomes, low educational attainment, and other social and economic challenges face greater health risks and thus need even greater access to primary healthcare.
Conclusion. The U.S. compares poorly with other advanced countries in both the quality and cost efficiency of its healthcare system. Healthcare costs in the U.S, are a huge drain on the economy and will ultimately cause huge fiscal problems if not brought under much greater control.