I am a candidate in the May 15 Nebraska Republican Primary for U.S. Senate, against the incumbent Deb Fischer because she is totally ignoring our enormous and out-of-control national debt. In fact she has just recently voted twice to make it worse than it already is.
The major driver of our debt is the entitlement programs, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Social Security is self-funded from the payroll tax and can be shored up long term with some relatively simple adjustments such as raising the income cap on which the payroll tax is levied and/or SLOWLY raising the eligibility age for full benefits. Medicaid costs can be controlled by block-granting it to the states with a fixed contribution from the federal government.
But Medicare will be much harder to reform because it is the most expensive entitlement program of all. The above chart shows that a couple with average wages reaching age 65 in 2015 can expect to receive Medicare benefits that exceed what they put in by $357,000. This subsidy will only increase in the years ahead.
The American Enterprise Institute’s James Capretta has recently described one possible way to get Medicare costs under control. In outline:
Combine hospitalization (Part A), outpatient services (Part B) and drugs (Part D) into a single combined insurance product.
Offer community-rated premiums for beneficiaries, meaning that premiums would not depend on age or health status.
A small, universal entitlement benefit would be paid to all enrollees set to cover about 20% of today’s benefit and equal to about $2600. The Medicare payroll tax of 2.9% would pay for this universal benefit.
Additional financial support would be based on lifetime earnings, with the lowest quartile receiving substantial additional support which would be phased out for middle- and upper-middle class retirees.
Retirees would purchase private insurance plans which could be in the form of high-deductible catastrophic insurance combined with health savings accounts.
Conclusion. “The reform of Medicare outlined above is a plan to substitute higher premiums from the middle and upper classes for the large general-fund subsidies taxpayers now provide to Medicare to finance the majority of Part B and Part D costs. The end goal is a self-financing Medicare program.”
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?
I know that I repeat myself a lot. I am a fiscal conservative and social moderate. This puts me in the middle of the political spectrum from left to right. I support social welfare programs if they are legitimately helping the less fortunate among us. I am especially supportive of programs for African-Americans because of the racial bias they experience.
Unfortunately our national leaders have collectively lost a sense of fiscal responsibility in recent years. Looking at the standard debt chart (above) produced by the Congressional Budget Office, it is clear that indifference to debt commenced under President Reagan and has waxed and waned ever since. The debt has been growing especially fast ever since the Great Recession in 2008 and now stands at 77% of GDP, the highest since the end of WWII. Shrinking the debt (as a percentage of GDP) is now America’s most urgent problem.
As I have discussed before, it is the entitlement programs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, as well as interest payments on our increasing debt which will continue to worsen the debt problem in the coming years without strong corrective action.
All entitlement programs need to be reformed to impose cost control. Right now the two healthcare bills in Congress propose that the funding mechanism for Medicaid be changed so that it will be on a fixed (federal) budget from now on, rather than be continued in its current open-ended form.
Medicare is an even more expensive program than Medicaid. It would be better to fix both of these programs at the same time, but it is better to fix Medicaid alone than to do nothing at all.
It would be even better to replace our employer provided healthcare system with a uniform, but limited, health insurance tax credit for all (including for the self-employed) and to make all of these major changes at the same time. This would be the fairest way to proceed.
Conclusion. The current GOP plan to curtail healthcare costs could be much improved. It is only a small step in the right direction.
As the presidential election tightens and the likely margin of victory for either candidate continues to shrink, it becomes ever more apparent that we need a bipartisan approach to solving our most basic problems. My last post discusses the need for fundamental tax reform to get our economy growing faster to create more and better paying jobs. Today I remind my readers of the need for better fiscal policies as well to address our massive and steadily deteriorating debt problem.
As the American Enterprise Institute, among many other think tanks, makes abundantly clear, we are spending more and more of our federal budget on entitlements as opposed to all of the many other federal responsibilities which are lumped together as discretionary spending. In other words, the only way to fix our deficit and debt problems is to achieve better control over entitlement spending.
AEI has some excellent ideas on how to do this:
Social Security should move towards providing a universal flat benefit, set at the federal poverty level, for all U.S. residents aged 65 and older. Social Security would then become a guarantee against poverty in old age rather than a scheme for partially replacing pre-retirement earnings for middle and higher earning households.
Health Care. The Affordable Care Act should be replaced with a less regulated system (i.e. no mandates). The federal tax preference on employer plans could be limited to the cost of catastrophic (high deductible) insurance plus a contribution to health savings accounts. Households without employer coverage would receive a comparable tax credit.
Medicare would be converted into a premium support system with a fixed level of support comparable to that provided by employers.
Medicaid would be converted into a block grant program for the states based on the fixed, per capita costs for enrolled populations.
Other Safety-Net Programs should emphasize work as the key to improved economic prospects plus greater state control over resources in order to encourage innovation.
Conclusion. It should be emphasized as strongly as possible that the purpose of entitlement reform is to preserve and strengthen entitlements, not to weaken ordestroy them. Without such action we are headed for a much worse financial crisis than the one we had in 2008-2009 which will put all government social programs at risk.
I discuss two fundamental economic and fiscal problems on this website:
The slow growth of our economy, only 2.1% per year since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009. This is largely responsible for stagnant wages for middle- and low-income workers, which is in turn responsible for the rise of the populist presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.
Our massive national debt, now 74% of GDP for the so-called public part, on which we pay interest. This is the highest it has been since right after WWII.
Slow economic growth gets more public attention because of its direct and negative effect on so many people. However massive debt is more of an existential problem. Right now our debt is almost “free” money because interest rates are so low. But with debt predicted (by the Congressional Budget Office, for example) to keep climbing steadily under current policy (see the first chart) and with the inevitability of increased interest rates in the future, interest payments on the public debt are bound to rise precipitously. The second chart just above (from the Concord Coalition) shows that interest payments on the debt will likely soon become the leading source of growth in federal spending. But perhaps surprising is that the three non-interest sources of spending growth are the entitlement programs, Medicare, Social Security and the combined Medicaid, CHIP and ACA exchange subsidies. All other government spending will decrease in relative terms. Is it not readily apparent from this data that the only way to curtail a huge fiscal crisis in the not so distant future is to get entitlement spending under much better control? The last chart, just above, (from the Trustees of SS and Medicare) shows the growth in general fund revenue required for Medicare and SS going forward. In 2016 the discrepancy is 2.1% of GDP which amounts to $401 billion. The discrepancy will double by 2040. Of course, OASDI (SS) and HI (Medicare Part A) have trust funds paid into by payroll taxes. But these trust funds are already paying out more than they take in and will be exhausted in a few years.
Conclusion. Spending on entitlement programs must be brought under much better control. How to do this will be the topic of my next post.
As I remind readers from time to time, this blog is concerned with America’s fundamental fiscal and economic problems: a slow economy, massive debt, and increasing income inequality. Largely because of these apparently intractable problems, more and more people are becoming pessimistic about the future of our country. Although I am by nature an optimist, these matters weigh on me as well:
The just introduced “Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015” is a sell-out to the status quo. It breaks the agreed upon sequester spending limits by $112 billion over two years with essentially no attempt to create long term spending restraint.
As pointed out recently by the Washington Post’s Robert Samuelson, the presidential candidates are talking mainly about new entitlements (the Democrats) or tax cuts (the Republicans). In both cases this represents a flight from reality.
Entitlements: The number of people aged 65 or older will increase from 15% of the population today to 22% of the population in 2040. The cost of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid will jump from 6.5 % of GDP today to 14% of GDP in 2040. We simply must control these costs by raising eligibility ages for SS and Medicare and increasing premiums for wealthier recipients.
Economic Growth: Annual growth has averaged only 2% of GDP since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009. Slow growth means weaker gains in wages, more unemployment and larger spending deficits. This can be fixed long term with honest tax reform, but not with unrealistic tax cuts.
Conclusion: Isn’t it obvious that we need political candidates who will speak forthrightly with the people about the need for addressing these humongous problems? Americans aren’t dumb. They will respond to straight talk from their supposed leaders.
Myth: Social Security does not face a large funding shortfall. Fact: Social Security’s trust funds are projected to run out of reserves within 20 years. Although the Social Security Trust Fund currently contains $2 trillion, it is being depleted at a rate of close to $100 billion per year. The looming insolvency is a result of the growing costs associated with an aging population.
Myth: Today’s workers will not receive Social Security benefits. Fact: Even if policy makers do nothing, the program will still pay about three-quarters of scheduled benefits. Once the trust fund is depleted, benefits would be paid only from incoming payroll tax revenue.
Myth: We don’t need to worry about Social Security for 20 years. Fact: there is a very high cost involved in waiting to reform Social Security. Substantial changes are needed to avoid the benefit cuts referred to above. The sooner we make these changes the less onerous they will be for both recipients and payroll tax payers (see above chart).
Myth:Social Security reform is code for slashing benefits, especially for the poor. Fact: under most reform plans, benefits would continue to grow faster than inflation. Most reform plans do not cut benefits from their current levels but rather slow the growth of benefits to reduce some of the pressure that wage-growth and rising life-expectancy place on the program. Under the Simpson-Bowles Plan, for example, benefits for low-wage earners will grow much faster, proportionally, than for higher-wage earners (see above chart).
Conclusion: It should be clear from the above discussion that Social Security can be fixed so as to continue to provide retirement benefits indefinitely into the future. It should also be clear that the sooner the needed reforms are implemented the less painful they will be for all concerned. We should tell our Congressional representatives that we want them to act now!
The Trust Fund for Social Security Disability Insurance will run out of money by the end of 2016. If no changes are made, all SSDI benefits will have to be reduced to 81% of scheduled benefits after that. Congress must act to avoid this outcome. The easiest fix would be to merge SSDI into the larger Social Security program in which case both SSDI and SSI would run out of money about 2033. But as the Manhattan Institute’s Scott Winship points out in National Affairs, “How to Fix Disability Insurance,” “the looming insolvency of the SSDI Trust Fund offers a rare opportunity to fundamentally reform SSDI” to better target assistance to those with debilitating impairments who truly need this support. The share of adults age 25 to 64 receiving SSDI benefits has tripled from 1.6% to 5% between 1970 and 2010 during a time when a shift from manufacturing, agriculture and mining to service work has reduced physical demands on workers.
Mr. Winship suggests the following reforms be implemented in the SSDI program:
Raise the 1.8% (out of the total 12.4% of the payroll tax going to SS) going to SSDI slightly to solve the immediate problem.
Expand the support options available to able-bodied men and women who can work, at least for a significant number of hours.
Reduce the number of people applying for benefits. For example, by increasing employer incentives for taking stricter safety measures, accommodating and rehabilitating those who become disabled and making greater use of claims management.
Use a stricter definition of disability. For example, mental and musculoskeletal conditions may be amenable to treatment.
Make it less attractive and more difficult to receive benefits for those who, while impaired, are able to work. Conditions likely to improve would be automatically subject to review after a short period of time.
Facilitate work among those with serious impairments who would still like to work. The point here is to make sure they benefit from working without feeling threatened with possible termination of benefits.
The point is that there are many practical steps which can be taken to make SSDI more cost efficient while preserving it for those who truly need it. This is a good example of the sort of changes that need to be made in all entitlement programs to shore them up for future generations by bringing their huge costs under control.
The author and lecturer, David Horowitz, has just published a little pamphlet,”Go for The Heart: How Republicans Can Win” describing how conservatives are being outmaneuvered on the campaign trail. “Year after year the Democrats’ campaign themes are monotonously familiar. They rely on scaring the voters by accusing Republicans of the same imaginary crimes: Republicans are a party that wages war on women, minorities, and vulnerable Americans. They don’t care about the vulnerable and the poor. Their policies inflict pain on working families to benefit the wealthy few.”
“ ’Caring’ is not one among many issues in a democratic election. It is the central one. Since most issues are complex and require too much information, voters care less about policy than about the candidates themselves. Above everything else they want to know who they can trust. Far more important to voters than a particular policy, they want a candidate or party who cares about them.”
“Behind Republican campaign failures lies an attitude that reflects an administrative rather than political approach to election campaigns. Such an approach focuses on policies for running the country and fixing problems rather than the political aspect of the electoral battle.”
In other words, fiscal conservatives must make a compelling moral case why it is so important to stop spending money that we don’t have.
By piling up more and more debt year after year, we are creating a huge burden for future generations. Is this the legacy we want to leave for our children and grand- children?
If we do not control the growth of entitlement programs, we are endangering their very existence. It’s ordinary people with average incomes who will need Social Security and Medicare when they retire. It’s our moral obligation to keep these programs sound for their sake!
Boosting the economy with lower tax rates has nothing to do with helping the rich. In fact, it’s the rich who benefit from the tax loopholes and preferences which must be eliminated to pay for these rate cuts to benefit the people who really need them!
Insisting on a work requirement for welfare recipients is demonstrating the tough love that they need to gain the dignity of becoming productive citizens. We need to give them a hand as well as a handout!
These are just a few examples of ways that conservatives can address the debt and deficit issues in a positive, and non-punitive, manner. Thanks to Mr. Horowitz I will attempt to take this approach consistently from now on.