Feeding the Swamp

During his filibuster leading to last week’s brief government shutdown, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) stated that: “When Republicans are in power, it seems there is no conservative party…. The hypocrisy hangs in the air and chokes anyone with a sense of decency or intellectual honesty.” He was protesting the compromise two-year budget just passed by the Senate and awaiting passage in the House. This budget, now signed into law by President Trump, adds over $300 billion in additional government spending this year alone on top of the $1 trillion dollar deficit created by the recently passed tax cut. “Why-did-the-GOP-vote-for-a-budget-busting-spending-bill-because-voters-dont-seem-to-care”

A few congressmen reacted with more principle. “’I’m not only a ‘no.’ I’m a ‘hell no,’ ” quipped Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), one of many members of the Tea Party-aligned Freedom Caucus who left a closed-door meeting of Republicans saying they would vote against the deal.

“It’s a “Christmas tree on steroids,” lamented one of the Freedom Caucus leaders, Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.).” “Right-revolts-on-budget-deal”

Why should we worry about adding to the public debt? The “deficit” is the shortfall of tax revenue below expenditures in one year. This is now forecast to average about one trillion dollars in each of the next two years. “Bipartisan-budget-act-cements-return-trillion-dollar-deficits”. Each year these annual deficits add to the outstanding U.S. national “debt” currently at $20.6 trillion dollars. Even before the recent tax cuts and last week’s expenditure increases, the Congressional Budget Office projected Federal debt held by the public at $25.5 trillion or 91.5% of GDP by 2027. But that figure omits debt held by the Federal Reserve, Social Security “trust” fund, and other government entities, which must also be serviced and repaid. When these are included as they should be, gross federal debt is projected to be $30.7 trillion or 110% of GDP by 2027 and 150% of GDP in thirty years and climbing. And to repeat, this is before the recent tax cuts and budget increases.

As our economy grows so does the government’s capacity to carry and service (pay the interest on) the debt. But on the basis of existing laws and policies our debt will grow faster than the economy forever. But of course that is impossible. At some point taxes must be increased or expenditures cut, or the government defaults on its debt. In fact the problem is worse than these figures suggest because they fail to include the future taxes or borrowing needed to cover unfunded government liabilities. These are commitments, such as future Social Security pension payments, for which existing financing falls short. For example, Social Security payments already exceed its annual revenue from the wage taxes of current workers and the so-called trust fund will run dry in fifteen years. That will add still more to the deficit and the debt.

Indeed, there are times when deficits are ok and even helpful. When the economy goes into recession the government should allow the deficit that naturally results from falling tax revenue and increasing safety net spending. These are referred to as automatic stabilizers. However, we are currently not now in that phase of the business cycle. We are now at its peak and if the government is to achieve fiscal balance over the cycle it must run budget surpluses at the peak to pay for the deficits during the slumps. The U.S. should now have a budget surplus and not the huge deficit presently experienced and projected. The White House’s announcement today (Monday) that it is giving up on the traditional Republican goal of a balanced budget in ten years is hardly a surprise when we are starting with a large deficit at the peak of the business cycle. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/white-house-budget-proposes-increase-to-defense-spending-and-cuts-to-safety-net-but-federal-deficit-would-remain/2018/02/12/f2eb00e6-100e-11e8-8ea1-c1d91fcec3fe_story.html?utm_term=.514757e9c8de&wpisrc=al_news__alert-politics–alert-national&wpmk=1

Senator Paul was rightly angry that not only was the need to face and correct this untenable future kicked down the road yet again, but the process of doing so was corrupt. Votes were bought by sticking in special tax and spending breaks for the constituents and friends of individual congressmen—the old earmarks by another name. “Budget-deal-retroactively-extend-several-expired-tax-provisions”. While it is true that the bipartisan budget deal wouldn’t have passed without these bribes, it shouldn’t have passed. Instead of draining the swamp the Republicans have joined with the Democrats to feed it. “In-big-reversal-new-trump-budget-will-give-up-on-longtime-republican-goal-of-eliminating-deficit”. And more repulsive is the fact that these are the same Republicans who rallied against spending during the Obama years. This is the hypocrisy Senator Paul lamented.

Congress has failed yet again to prioritize it’s spending to match the resources that taxpayers are willing to pay. The moral corruption of this way of doing business was reestablished and reinforced. As another example of blatant corruption, Presidents have rewarded (paid off) large contributors with Ambassadorships to nice places like London, Paris, and Rome (to name a few) for decades. This is pure corruption for which the country pays with lower quality representation and diplomacy than would be provided by Foreign Service professionals. Unfortunately we have grown used to it and barely notice it. This is dangerous.

All individual government expenditures and programs look worthwhile to at least some people, but at the expense of what? What do taxpayers or investors or other government programs give up to finance them. These are not easy choices and decisions but it is the job of our representatives to make these judgments in the best interests of the country as a whole. That is probably expecting more than they are capable of delivering, but it is their job. Those of you of Generation X, Y and Z will have to pay for this so you are the ones with an incentive to do something about it. We need more Rand Pauls. “The-5-biggest-losers-from-the-2018-budget-deal-are…”

Crony capitalism and the Export Import Bank

An important and fundamental principle of the rule of law is that laws should have wide or universal applicability to everyone. This principle is generally violated when governments subsidize specific activities. These subsidize might take the form of tax breaks, loans at preferential interest rates or even grants to favored enterprises or activities. The Export Import Bank is a government program for granting such favors in the name of promoting exports.

If the EX-IM Bank only provided information to American firms that helped them satisfy foreign requirements for selling their products abroad or to connect with services available for marketing such produces—following the model of the Small Business Administration or the Agricultural Extension Services provided by many states—their continued existence might be defensible. However, like so many government intrusions into the private sector, it provides huge subsidize to a limited number of customers (about 30% of the total to Boeing to subsidize the sale of its planes to foreign carriers) at the expense of others. American carriers like Delta complain that EX-IM Bank subsidies to Boeing benefit their foreign competitors, who are able to buy Boeing planes more cheaply than they are. “The Airline Pilots Association of America estimates that the bank’s subsidizing of Boeing airline purchases abroad has forced our domestic airlines to cut about 7,500 jobs – decreasing the airline workforce by almost 2 percent.” (The Blaze, May 29, 2015)

While the cost of the EX-IM Bank to U.S. taxpayers is trivial, it is one more drop in the growing pond of crony capitalist connections to the government. Boeing moved its headquarters from Seattle, where most of its production was traditionally located, to Chicago and has diversified its production and suppliers around the country precisely to have more representatives in congress with an interest in its well being. Like many other large companies seeking government favors, it has hired key people from government such as Kevin Varney, former chief of staff at the Ex-Im during Obama’s first term. The stakes for Boeing are large so you can be sure it is spending a lot of money one way or another to protect its interests. This is the nature of crony capitalism, which gradually diminishes real market competition and chokes productivity.

Creating programs that grant favors also creates strong incentives for less subtle and more overt, traditional style corruption. “For example, Johnny Gutierrez, an Ex-Im Loan Specialist, pled guilty on April 22, 2015 of accepting up to $78,000 in bribes in return for recommending the approval of unqualified loan applications to the bank, among other misconduct. During this period, Ex-Im gave Gutierrez nearly a 20 percent pay hike and paid-out thousands in performance bonuses. “ (Adam Andrzejewski, Forbes, http://www.forbes.com/sites/adamandrzejewski/2015/05/31/the-export-import-bank-and-the-art-of-picking-losers/ )

The Ex-Im Bank and dozens of programs like it are economically unsound and wasteful and politically corrupting. It and others like it should be killed when ever possible. Here is a rare case where congress can do good by doing nothing (i.e. by not renewing the Bank at the end of this month).

Comments on the All-Volunteer Military

My friend and former University of Chicago classmate sent the following comments on my All-Volunteer Force note. From 1989-93 Chris Jehn was the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Force Management and Personnel.

Warren–
I read with interest your recent essay on unintended consequences of ending conscription in the U.S. Having spent a large part of my career on issues surrounding implementation of the All-Volunteer Force. I was curious to learn what consequences you had in mind. I was disappointed to read, “the top 20-30 percent of income earners in the United States provide almost none of their sons and now daughters” to the military. Where did you hear this? It is a commonly held view of liberal critics of the military, but, like many persuasions of the left, it is not based on fact. (You could have looked it up. See Table 41 of the DoD population report at http://prhome.defense.gov/portals/52/Documents/POPREP/poprep2011/appendixb/b_41.html.) Using the only available data on the issue, census tract home of record for new enlisted recruits, DoD/CNA analysis shows that 18.5% of recruits in FY 2011 came from the top quintile of the income distribution. Adding new officers to the analysis (not possible since officers’ original home is not carried in their military records) would probably raise that percentage somewhat since virtually all new officers are college graduates. It is surprising to many to learn that the recruits each year are drawn more or less evenly from across income quintiles, but this has been true for 30 years now.

However, the overall percent of the population recruited each year is quite low, regardless of income class. (About 4,000,000 kids turn 18 each year and the military recruits somewhat over 200,000.) This leaves most families without any first-hand connection to the military and that is another lament of the left (and some on the right). I think this is usually mindless World War II envy. At the end of WW II, about 12 million men and women were in uniform, about 10% of the TOTAL population of the U.S. So that meant everyone knew many in the military. That’s not true today. To match that percent today would require a military of over 30 million (compared to today’s 2.5 million, including reserves). And this demographic phenomenon was ultimately the source of draft opposition in the 1960s (and has been in many European countries recently). When most draft-age men serve (as they did in the ’50s) conscription’s inequities are more tolerable. The increasingly large birth cohorts of the baby boom changed that.

But fundamentally, all the debate about the military’s “representativeness” is silly (whether it’s representativeness in terms of socioeconomic class, race, geography or anything else). The requirement for representativeness is based on a view that military service is a burden to be equitably distributed rather than a profession freely chosen and well compensated. In other words, it is antithetical to the notion of a force of professional volunteers.

Another liberal criticism of the AVF is that it has enabled military adventurism. There is no evidence for this assertion either, despite its face appeal. Interestingly, the only Gates Commission member I’ve discussed this with, Allen Wallis, thought this was a positive aspect–freeing the President to use the military without immediate political pushback. So, at least for Wallis, this consequence was not unintended. Of course, pushback from the draft objectors didn’t slow Johnson and Nixon down much, despite an eventual 50,000 deaths in Viet Nam, ten times the toll of Iraq and Afghanistan.

I must apologize for not inviting you to a CNA event in September when we discussed many of these questions at a symposium to honor Walter Oi. I think you would have found it interesting. We did a reprise at last month’s AEA meetings in Boston. Most agree Walter was the most important economist in the battle to end conscription. Among my remarks, I said the following about Walter:

“There are many heroes in this story [of the end of conscription]: the Gates Commission members, Mel Laird, Marine Corps Generals Wilson and Barrow, Army General Max Thurman, and many economists and other analysts. But among the analysts and economists, none was more important than Walter Oi.

It’s tempting to cite instead the economists on the Gates Commission, Milton Friedman, Allen Wallis, and Alan Greenspan. They were essential. But they were advocates, cheerleaders. Walter made the first empirical, data-based argument for voluntarism. And that case helped convince President Nixon and, later, other Gates Commission members. It’s possible that without Walter’s early work—which, as the Hogan-Warner paper notes, stood the test of time and subsequent analyses—conscription would have ended much later, if at all. There were, after all, other politically plausible proposals to ‘fix’ the draft and end the controversy surrounding it, not just a force of all volunteers.”

Some support for my argument is contained in a short note Stephen Herbits prepared for the CNA event (also attached). As part of the planning for the two events, I interviewed the two surviving members of the Gates Commission, Herbits and Alan Greenspan. That was fun and educational.

I should also note that an AVF’s budget costs are not clearly higher than those of a conscripted force of equal capability, due to the high turnover and training costs for draftees. The most careful analysis of this question was GAO’s in 1988. I cite it (as well as my article on conscription in Europe) in my piece on conscription in David Henderson’s encyclopedia (http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/Conscription.html).

Finally, I think your memory of the 1960s may have failed you here. You and your colleagues may have had some skin in the game. The first lottery in 1968 included those under 26 who had held student deferments. You were probably too old, but I and other classmates were subject to conscription depending on our lottery number (based on our birth date, not our Selective Service number). I luckily drew a number in the 300s.

As for your concluding proposal, while your draft-related arguments don’t support it, it has merit on other purely budgetary grounds, as you note. I too think it’s unconscionable that “overseas contingencies” (to use the Pentagon’s euphemism) are funded through supplemental appropriations funded from borrowing and the general revenues. (And DoD has not “suffered” as a result. You can safely ignore the whining on the subject by Pentagon leaders and their allies in Congress and the press.) But your proposal will never go anywhere. If the Congress had wanted do things differently, they wouldn’t have been doing it like this for as long as I can remember.)

I hope you find much of this interesting, perhaps even educational. If you do nothing else, please look at the Warner-Hogan paper: “Walter Oi and His Contributions to the All-Volunteer Force: Theory, Evidence, Persuasion”, by John T. Warner and Paul F. Hogan, presented at the Contributions to Public Policy: A Session in Honor of Walter Oi, American Economic Association Annual Meetings, Boston, MA, January 3, 2015

–Chris

The Sequester

Everyone agrees that the sequester, an $85 billion cut from the planned increase for this fiscal year, applied across the board within the broad categories of Defense ($42.5 billion) and non defense discretionary ($42.5 billion) is the worst way to allocate cuts. This is apparently why President Obama proposed it as a sort of poison pill. (See Bob Woodward: bob-woodward-obamas-sequester-deal-changer/).   Indeed it is. Little else is clear about the sequester. It is worth clarifying the facts and context of the size of the cuts and their distribution after a quick review of how we got here.

Background

Republicans want to bring federal government spending down to traditional levels, which can be fully financed with existing taxes, while Democrats want to raise taxes to finance a larger government (currently at 24.3 percent of GDP reflecting, in part, great recession related factors, and averaging 19.8 percent from 1960 to 2007).  Many efforts have been made to forge a compromise package that would be accepted by both the Republic majority House and the Democrat majority Senate. So far, none has succeeded.

Three years ago President Obama established a bipartisan budget reform commission—Bowles-Simpson commission, which in December 2010 recommended spending cuts and tax increases that would slow down the ballooning of debt over the next ten years by 4 trillion dollars, 3 trillion in spending cuts and 1 trillion in tax increases (largely from closing tax loopholes). As the base line projected increase over that period was $10 trillion, the Bowles-Simpson proposals would hold the increase in the debt to $6 trillion. Sorting out what Bowles-Simpson actually proposed became so complicated (e.g., they actually used an eight year period rather than ten and for incomes over $250,000 assumed a return to pre-Bush tax cuts rates) that even President Obama ignored the report. http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=3844

Soon thereafter (January 2011) three Republican and three Democrat Senators, the so-called gang of six, began discussions to find an acceptable compromise, eventually announcing failure in May of that year. Later that same year the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Debt Reduction Task Force co-chaired by Pete V. Domenici, former Republican U.S. Senator from New Mexico, and Alice M. Rivlin, founding director of CBO, former OMB director, and former Vice Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve, made similar recommendations.

On several occasions President Obama and Speaker of the House, Republican John Boehner, were close to a “grand bargain” that included some tax revenue increase and entitlement cuts. Efforts failed when Boehner concluded that he could not obtain enough Republican votes in the House. The President may have had the same problem with his party in the Senate if he had tried to present it to them. Other efforts, such as one led by Vice President Biden, met similar fates.

To avoid the sharp curtailment of government spending that would result from hitting the debt ceiling, preventing any further government borrowing in late 2011, the Budget Control Act of 2011 increased the authorized debt ceiling by $2.3 trillion and cut $841 billion from the projected deficit increase over the next ten years by capping the annual increases in discretionary spending over that period. The caps do not constrain increases in war related expenditures (Afghanistan), natural disasters, or entitlements. It also established as special joint committee of Congress charged with agreeing on an additional $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction over the next ten years with everything on the table (entitlements and defense cuts, tax increases, etc). If this so-called Super Committee was unable to reach an agreement or Congress did not approve it, the same amount would be cut according to the now infamous sequester. (Super Committee Sequestration) The sequester provision was deliberately meant by all sides to be so unpalatable that the Super Committee could not possibly fail to reach a compromise.

However, on November 20, 2011, the co-chairs of the Super Committee stated that “after months of hard work and intense deliberations, we have come to the conclusion today that it will not be possible to make any bipartisan agreement available to the public before the committee’s deadline.”

Two things were scheduled to happen if nothing changed. First, $1.2 trillion of automatic across-the-board spending cuts would kick-in on Oct 1, 2012. Second, the Bush tax cuts would expire for everyone at the end of that year. In addition, the temporary cuts in the payroll tax and the extension of unemployment benefits might not be continued. These three items constituted the infamous fiscal cliff, which was averted at the last-minute by making the Bush tax cuts permanent for everyone except those with incomes above $400,000, indexing the Alternative Minimum Tax and a few other things. The start of the sequester was delayed until January 1, 2013 and then again until March 1. This is a very simplified summary (trust me) of how we got to the sequester.

The Sequester

The sequester does not reduce total spending. Total Federal government’s spending in 2012 was $3,538 billion and planned spending (no actual budget has been approved for three years) for 2013 (which ends September 30) was (before the sequester) $3,796 billion. Reducing this amount by the $85 billion as required by the sequester still leaves an increase of $173 billion, which even after adjusting for inflation is a real increase. http://www.usfederalbudget.us/federal_budget_estimate_vs_actual

The often misleading practice in Washington of referring to reductions in increases as “cuts” is illustrated by the following statement by Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), a member of the Budget Committee: “Some of us believe very strongly that it would be absolutely wrong to cut Social Security benefits.” He was referring to the proposal offered by President Obama to John Boehner to shift the index used to increase Social Security benefits over time to one that would increase them more slowly (the chain CPI index, which would preserve the real value of benefits).  Senate-democrats-budget-challenges-obama-on-medicare-social-security-cuts

While the sequester does not cut total spending, the way in which it is allocated does cut spending in some areas. Half of the cut comes from Defense, which was already being cut (cuts that actually reduce spending below the previous year) before the sequester. The other half of the cut falls on discretionary spending (sparing the entitlements – social security, Medicaid, etc, and the Department of Veteran’s Affairs). As such non-military discretionary spending is only about 15% of total spending, taking half of the total cut from items that are only 15% of the total is about an 8% cut. These figures apply to this year only. Like this year’s “cuts,” the sequestered spending over the next ten years are to be taken from the ever-increasing base line amounts and thus just slows down the previously planned increases.

The Budget Control Act of 2011 also specified that within the categories identified above, the cuts must be applied across-the-board (i.e. proportionally) to each Budget Account (BA), of which there are 1200, and each of which consolidates a number of programs, projects and activities (PPA).  Within each Budget Account, the executive branch of government is responsible for prioritizing the cuts, i.e. for cutting those things least valuable (most wasteful). The government rarely spends money on things that have no value at all (some of my friends will challenge me on this statement), but that is not the correct standard of judgment. The correct standard (in part) is whether the money spent on a valuable project would have produced even more value if spent on something else (whether by the government or the taxpayer).

To review, the President proposed the cross the board cuts to defense and non-defense discretionary spending and Congress accepted the idea in the Budget Control Act of 2011 believing, with the President, that it would never need to be applied. However, we are now there and the cuts must be made. But within the cuts required for each Budget Account, it is the Administration that is responsible for what to cut. Like the CEO of any company faced with limited resources, Department heads are responsible for cutting those activities of least value and preserving those of greatest value.

Smoke

Any cut hurts someone even if it benefits the economy over all. Consider, for example, the loss of four air traffic controllers at the Garden City, Kansas airport. “THE $85 BILLION in across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration have begun to affect places like Garden City, the Kansas county seat (pop. 26,880) whose airport will lose $318,756 in Federal Aviation Administration funds that pay for four air traffic controllers. As The Post’s Stephanie McCrummen reported, Garden City Regional Airport’s control tower is one of 238 affected by sequestration, which will reduce total FAA spending in fiscal 2013 from about $16.7 billion to $16.1 billion. Small towns are lamenting the potential impact on air safety and local economies.” A Washington Post editorial on March 8 notes that of the two commercial flights that take off and land there each day one already does so when the control tower is closed (Small-town-airports-propped-up-with-200-million). The Post concludes that the $200 million a year the federal government spends to subsidize commercial flights to small lightly used airports is a waste that deserves to end.

A considerable fuss was raised about the Administration’s cutting the White house tours. Was this the least costly cut from the White House or Secret Service budget? I have no idea.  The Washington Post editorialized that: “THE DECISION to drop White House tours always had a whiff of what’s known as Washington Monument syndrome. The ham-handed tactic is employed when government is faced with budget cuts and officials go after the services that are most visible and appreciated by the public.” (Reopen-the-white-house-to-tourists) The government could not threaten to close the Washington Monument because it has already been closed for several years for repairs from earthquake damage.

On the other side of the ledger, the Administration’s release of non dangerous illegal immigrants held in federal prisons is more likely a case of doing what the Administration and many others consider the right thing to do anyway and using sequestration as an excuse (the release was weeks before the sequestration). Wasting-money-lives-through-the-detention-of-immigrants

The proposal to cut back on Congressional junkets abroad was made by a columnist, not the administration for obvious reasons. Everyone can find their own favorite wasteful spending. Budget decisions are never easy and resources are always limited so careful prioritization is a normal and essential part of the management of any organization.

Lies

Then there were the claims of cuts that never occurred. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s false claim of pink slips for teachers earned him 4 Pinocchios (big lie) from The Washington Post’s Fact Checker. And Duncan is one of the good guys:  4-pinocchios-for-arne-duncans-false-claim-of-pink-slips-for-teachers

On March 1 at his press conference President Obama stated: “Starting tomorrow everybody here, all the folks who are cleaning the floors at the Capitol. Now that Congress has left, somebody’s going to be vacuuming and cleaning those floors and throwing out the garbage. They’re going to have less pay. The janitors, the security guards, they just got a pay cut, and they’ve got to figure out how to manage that. That’s real.” But it wasn’t. It also received 4 Pinocchios from the Fact Checker.  sequester-spin-obamas-incorrect-claim-of-capitol-janitors-receiving-a-pay-cut

The Congressional janitors seemed to be a particular concern of the administration. Gene Sperling, director of the White House economic council, on ABC News’ “This Week,” March 3, 2013 observed: “You know, those Capitol janitors will not get as much overtime. I’m sure they think less pay, that they’re taking home, does hurt.”

On March 4, White House spokesman Jay Carney observed at his news briefing: “On the issue of the janitors, if you work for an hourly wage and you earn overtime, and you depend on that overtime to make ends meet, it is simply a fact that a reduction in overtime is a reduction in your pay.”  But none of this was true and drew 4 more Pinocchios from the Post Fact Checker. Capitol-janitors-making-ends-meet-with-overtime-nope

Though the President already has the responsibility of deciding where to cut within Budget Accounts, Republicans have offered to broaden the range of his discretion to determine what to cut and what to keep. Senator Toomey (R-Penn) reported this to us at the Heritage Foundation the day after his dinner with the President at the Jefferson Hotel. He and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla) have introduced a bill in the Senate to this effect. The President said no thanks. If you believe that the president has the best interests of the nation at heart, this is a shocking revelation. The President seems to prefer to blame the Republicans for forcing harmful cuts on the nation because after having accepted tax increases on the wealthy they refuse to raise taxes more without some cuts in entitlement programs. This was confirmed in a revealing article by Ezra Klein How-to-fix-sequestration-without-raising-taxes

The way forward

The Budget Act of 1974 requires the president to submit a budget request to Congress on the first Monday in February. He has yet to do so (written March 14th). His recent step into the leadership role normally played by Presidents on major budget matters is welcomed and will be essential if compromise is to be achieved.

White-house-delay-budget-proposal-infuriates-republicans. For the first time in three years the Senate is on the way to adopting a budget as well. Given the budget already passed by the House (the Ryan budget), for the first time in several years the two chambers will have written proposals to negotiate, and hopefully reconcile, with each other.

Most Republicans don’t want to raise taxes or cut defense. Most Democrats don’t want to touch entitlements. Most everyone accepts that the current path is not sustainable. “Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) argued — to the “consternation” of people “on my side,” he said — that Democrats will have to do more to prevent Social Security and Medicare from bankrupting the nation as the population ages. I share the belief of even my most progressive colleagues that Medicare and Social Security are among the greatest programs ever implemented. But I also believe that the basic math around them doesn’t work anymore,” Warner said. The longer we put off this inevitable math problem,” he said, “the longer we fail to come up with a way to make sure that the promise of Medicare and Social Security is not just there for current seniors but for those 30 years out.” (in the previously cited Post article). Demographics alone will dramatically increase Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare spending even if benefits for each person are not increased as the ratio of old and retire people to working people increases dramatically over the next thirty. Increasing immigration, reducing benefits and increasing tax revenue are the only things that can help. Both sides will need to compromise.

My preference is to cut the Defense department a bit more and “cut” entitlements a lot (which would have little to no effect for a number of years but is critical for the future), and modestly increase the State Department and infrastructure repair spending. Medicare and Medicaid will be more difficult because they require structural changes that actually reduce the cost of medical care, not just arbitrary cuts that must be made up by paying customers picking up other peoples’ bills. Social Security is much easer to fix: Saving Social Security

There are many reasons for reducing the size of our government. Keep-it-lean, How-to-measure-the-size-of-government.

Whether it increases tax revenue or not our tax system needs major overhaul: “US Federal Tax Policy”. At a minimum personal income tax loopholes (deductions) should all be closed and if the corporate income tax can’t be eliminated yet, its rate should be lowered to the levels found in Europe.

But Obama won the last election. I will not get what I want. Republicans will also have to compromise. The battle should be fought over spending. The question should be what government programs and at what level are we willing to pay for with our tax revenue. Some tax increases and spending cuts have already been adopted. More are needed.  It is time for Congress and the Executive to get back to their jobs of evaluating priorities and trade offs and develop and adopt a real budget. Hopefully this time they will succeed. Much depends on it.

Republicans and the Fiscal Cliff: What are they thinking?

Our government, whether headed by a Republican or a Democrat, governs for all of us. The Republicans lost this time around, though they still control the House of Representatives. They are in the minority. The Democrats, who control the Senate and the Executive branch, rightly expect to introduce and oversee policies that are more aligned with their view of what is best for the country than the views of the party that lost. But if they are wise and have the best interests of the country at heart they will take into account the views of the rest of the country as well. Compromise is part of the art of governing a diverse people successfully. Limiting the scope of government is another. See my comments on this theme over four years ago: “The Death of the Right?”

Many Republicans, however, are behaving as if they think they should force their views on the majority.  Not only is this unwillingness to compromise unacceptable in our democracy, it is producing worse outcomes for those of us who would like to keep government smaller. These republicans rejected a deal last year tentatively agreed between House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and President Obama that would have increased tax revenue by $800 billion over the next ten years in exchange for spending cuts three times that.  Without some sort of agreement by the end of this week, falling over the “fiscal cliff” will increase tax revenue by around $5,000 billion over the same period. That won’t happen, of course, as both parties want to restore the existing income tax rates for all but the wealthy. The Democrat controlled Senate has already passed such a bill, which would increase tax revenue by $700 billion over the next ten years. That would become the base line from which Obama would bargain for more tax revenue in exchange for budget cuts.

I assume that some minimalist agreement will be reached in the next week that will eliminate the worst tax effects from going over the cliff, but that will only perpetuate and prolong uncertainty over how our currently unsustainable future spending commitments will be rained in and/or financed. This uncertainty is a major factor contributing to the slow recovery of investment and the economy in general. The current impasse will continue to do great damage to the county.

According to Ezra Klein: “If Boehner had taken the White House’s deal in 2011, he could’ve stopped the tax increase at $800 billion. If he took their most recent deal, he could stop it at $1.2 trillion. But if he insists on adding another round to the negotiations — one that will likely come after the White House pockets $700 billion in tax increases — then any deal in which he gets the entitlement cuts he wants is going to mean a deal in which he accepts even more tax increases than the White House is currently demanding.

“Today, Boehner wishes he’d taken the deal the president offered him in 2011. A year from now, he might wish he’d taken the deal the president offered him in 2012.”[1] See also: “The GOPs worst cliff myth”[2]

For the sake of the country and for the sake of the principles in which many Republicans believe, they must recover (with the cooperation of Democrats) the art of governing.


[1] Ezra Klein, “Obamas small deal could lead to bigger tax increases” The Washington Post, Dec 22, 2012

[2] Ezra Klein, The Washington Post, Dec 24, 2012.