After five years of enormous deficits, our national debt now stands at over $17 trillion. The only spending restraint that Congress has been able to achieve so far is an approximately one trillion dollar “sequester” over ten years, therefore amounting to about $100 billion per year in spending cuts. Federal expenditures have actually dropped for two years in a row now so the sequester really does work. Of course, almost everyone complains about cutting spending in such a “dumb” way. Why not make intelligent budget cuts by eliminating the least effective programs instead of having to make small percentage cuts in all discretionary spending, good and bad alike? Well, this really should not be all that difficult to do if Congress would try a little harder.
The Congressional Budget Office has just released a helpful report, “Options for Reducing the Deficit: 2014 to 2023”, which lists 103 ways for either decreasing spending or increasing revenues over the next decade. Amazingly, enacting all of these proposals would amount to a budget savings of $13 trillion over 10 years, ten times what is required by the sequester! Here are some examples of what could be done (along with the 10 year savings):
Eliminate direct payments to agricultural producers $25 billion
Increase federal insurance premiums for private pensions $5 billion
Reduce the amounts of federal pensions $6 billion
Tighten eligibility for food stamps $50 billion
Use more accurate measure of inflation for all mandatory programs $162 billion
Replace some military personnel with civilian employees $19 billion
Limit highway funding to expected highway revenues $65 billion
Eliminate grants to large and medium sized airports $8 billion
Eliminate subsidies for Amtrak $15 billion
Reduce the size of the federal workforce through attrition $43 billion
Tax carried interest as ordinary income $17 billion
Limit medical malpractice torts $57 billion
Raise the age of eligibility for Medicare to 67 $23 billion
Modify Tricare fees for working-age military retirees $71 billion
Total $566 billion
Right here is more than enough to offset half of the sequester. You don’t like these cuts? Then replace them with others from the CBO report. There are lots of options to choose from!
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal by the expert on the economics of higher education, Richard Vedder, “The Real Reason College Costs So Much”, points out the similarities between the government’s higher education and housing policies. “In housing we had artificially low interest rates. The government encouraged people with low qualifications to buy a house. Today we have low interest rates on student loans. The government is encouraging kids to go to college who are unqualified just as it encouraged people to buy a house who are unqualified.”
The federal government is now spending $105 billion on student loans each year. The average student loan debt is $26,000 but goes much higher for millions of students. The maximum annual Pell Grant (intended for low income students) is now $5350 and 20% of the recipients come from families making over $60,000 per year.
President Obama suggests capping monthly loan repayments at 10% of discretionary income and forgiving outstanding balances after 20 years. This creates a moral hazard. It signals to current and future loan borrowers that they don’t have to take loan repayment very seriously. It encourages students to major in “soft” academic areas which have poorer job prospects rather than “hard” areas like engineering and technology which have good job prospects.
Innovation in higher education is not coming from government programs but from private initiatives such as massively open online courses (MOOCs). These have the potential to greatly reduce college costs. Community colleges have rapidly growing enrollments and prepare students for skilled jobs in high demand areas such as truck driving, machine technology and health careers.
The cost of higher education is going up much faster than the rate of inflation and the infusion of federal money is making the situation worse by encouraging students to take on excessive amounts of debt. A cap should be placed on the amount of government money which can be borrowed by an individual student. There are plenty of low cost options available for obtaining postsecondary education and government policy should support, rather than subvert, such common sense options.