Category Archives: Debt

What Is Obama Getting?

By James Kwak

Nothing, as far as I can tell.

The media are reporting the potential Obama-Boehner deal as $3 trillion in spending cuts and $1 trillion in unspecified future revenue increases. But as far as I can tell (details are vague), the baseline for that $1 trillion tax increase is a world in which all of the Bush/Obama tax cuts are extended.*

President Obama can personally guarantee that none of those tax cuts will be extended, simply by promising to veto any bill that extends them. That would increase tax revenues by $3-4 trillion over ten years, not $1 trillion. That is enormous bargaining leverage against a Republican Party that only cares about one thing: tax cuts.

So as far as I can tell, Obama is handing the Republicans $3 trillion in spending cuts, and also handing them $3 trillion in tax cuts. There are only two possible interpretations that I can think of. One: Obama thinks this is the best deal he can get — but if that’s the case, then you have to ask why his starting point wasn’t letting all of the tax cuts expire. Two: Obama thinks this is a good outcome.

But this certainly isn’t a progressive outcome. And giving up $3 trillion in revenues isn’t a fiscally responsible outcome, either. So what does that say?

* That’s how Ezra Klein reads it.

The Weirdness of 10-Year Deficit Reduction

By James Kwak

The Gang of Six plan proposes to reduce the cumulative deficit by $3.6-3.7 trillion over ten years relative to the CBO’s March 2011 baseline. Everyone’s excited about it. Four trillion dollars! Hooray!

The weird thing is that if you are claiming deficit reductions against the CBO’s baseline, I think intellectual honesty requires you to point out that, according to the CBO’s baseline, there is no deficit problem. The projected 2021 deficit is $729 billion, but net interest spending is $807 billion (Table 1-5). That means that the primary budget is running a surplus of $78 billion, the entire deficit is due to interest payments on the debt, and the debt has stabilized around 75 percent of GDP. This is not a great situation, but it’s no emergency, either.

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Social Security for Beginners

By James Kwak

In Monday’s Atlantic column, the part that upset the most people was (not surprisingly) the following paragraph on Social Security:

“The dollars are in programs like Social Security ($740 billion), which, per dollar, has a relatively small impact on the economy. Social Security doesn’t say what businesses can or can’t do, and it doesn’t say what people can do with their money: it mainly moves money from people’s working years to their retirement years, which means that in part it’s doing something that they would have done anyway.”

One commenter, for example, said that Social Security does tell you what you have to do with your money: you have to buy an annuity. Another said that if he could opt out of Social Security right now, he would, since he thinks it is a losing proposition for him.

I don’t think that any of the criticisms really addressed the main point I was trying to make: that Social Security has a smaller per-dollar economic impact than a regulatory agency like the CFPB. They are fairly typical of criticisms of Social Security, however, so I want to address them in a little more detail.

The debate is really about what Social Security is. A lot of people take the starting point that Social Security is an individual investment vehicle, and then they decide they don’t like it because it doesn’t look like the other individual investment vehicles they are familiar with (brokerage accounts, 401(k) plans, etc.). Other people think that Social Security is a welfare program, and since they don’t like welfare, they don’t like Social Security. But it isn’t either.

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The Size-of-Government Fallacy

By James Kwak

You hear all the time that the government must get smaller. John Boehner said it the day after the elections: “We’re going to continue and renew our efforts for a smaller, less costly and more accountable government.” Barack Obama agreed in part earlier this week: “We have agreed to a series of spending cuts that will make the government leaner, meaner, more effective, more efficient, and give taxpayers a greater bang for their buck.” And a large majority of Americans agree in the abstract (while simultaneously opposing any significant spending cuts).

Conservatives like to point to high levels of federal spending—23.8 percent of GDP last year—as evidence that government is too big. But the idea that there is one thing called “government”—and that you can measure it by looking at total spending—makes no sense. Worse yet, it can lead to fundamentally misguided policy decisions.

That’s the opening of a column I wrote for The Atlantic’s online business section. I’m trying out writing an occasional column for them. Today’s is about the idea that the total volume of government outlays or receipts can tell you anything worth knowing about the size of government — and the damage that is being done by people who fetishize the total spending number.

Gene Sperling, Then and Now

By James Kwak

Mike Konczal points out Gene Sperling’s recent performance on MSNBC, arguing that uncertainty about long-term deficits is weighing on the economy.

What surprised me is that I was just (re-)reading about the early days of the Clinton economic team, and back then Sperling was on the other side of the debate. In Robert Rubin’s account of the famous January 7, 1993 meeting (well, famous if you’re into economic policy debates from two decades ago), the deficit hawks were Al Gore, Lloyd Bentsen, Leon Panetta, and Rubin. The people who wanted more stimulus and less deficit reduction were Robert Reich, Laura Tyson, George Stephanopoulos, and Sperling. (See In an Uncertain World, pp. 123-24.) In Clinton’s memoir, Sperling was also on the side of stimulus and investment: “Gene Sperling made a presentation of options for new investments, arguing for the  most expensive one, about $90 billion, which would meet all my campaign commitments immediately.” (My Life, p. 461.)

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Hoisted from the Archives

By James Kwak

What was the budget debate about eleven years ago?

 

As you can see, that is the cover of the CBO’s March 2000 Budget Options report. (You can get it online, but without the cover.*) For most of the 1980s and 1990s, this report was called Reducing the Deficit: Spending and Revenue Options; this year’s version has reverted to that title.

The context for the picture above was the budget surpluses of the late 1990s. At the time, the CBO was projecting surpluses for at least the next twenty years, amounting to over $3 trillion in the first decade of the twenty-first century. (See the 2000 Budget and Economic Outlook, Summary Table 1.) And although most of the surpluses were off-budget (surpluses of Social Security payroll tax revenues over benefit payouts), there were supposed to be ten years of on-budget surpluses as well.

We all know what happened next: a (mild) recession, the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, and the Medicare prescription drug benefit, among other things. But the question for now is: did those surpluses really exist?

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Long-Term Budget Forecasts for Beginners

By James Kwak

In this season of debate over long-term deficits, this is ground zero:

That’s the key chart from the Congressional Budget Office’s Long-Term Budget Outlook, published just last month, which I read from cover to cover. The CBO is generally considered the authoritative source of budget projections, and CBO “scoring” has been an important aspect of legislative debates over the past few years. Although politicians from both sides criticize the CBO when they don’t like its results, I think it’s fair to say that it is generally both respected and nonpartisan.

Now, when people say that the federal government faces a long-term budget gap, they (including me) are generally starting from the bottom half of this picture: the CBO’s “alternative fiscal scenario.” The alternative scenario is widely considered the most likely path the budget will follow under current policy (although the CBO itself makes no such claim*). That’s probably a close enough approximation for most purposes. But if you’re going to think hard about long-term budgetary paths, you need to be a bit more careful about what it means.

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What Is This “Washington”?

By James Kwak

(Warning: Very elementary post ahead. Most of you probably know all this already.)

Mitch McConnell, Senate Republican Leader, quoted in Bloomberg: “We have seen the consequences of giving Washington a blank check. My message to the president is simple: It’s time for Washington to focus on fixing itself. It’s time Washington take the hit, not the taxpayers.”

That sounds good (if you don’t like “Washington,” that is), but what does it mean? McConnell wants people to think that their tax dollars go to feed some animal named “Washington,” and therefore our budget problems can be solved by simply feeding Washington less — without “taxpayers” taking the hit.

That might be true if “Washington” simply consumed money for its own sake, but the problem is that most of the federal budget isn’t consumed by the federal government.

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“The Elderly” for Beginners

By James Kwak

As the AARP says that it is open to modest cuts in Social Security benefits, it’s worthwhile asking a more fundamental question: are Social Security and Medicare programs that benefit the elderly?

The answer may seem obvious. After all, the bulk of Social Security Old Age and Survivors Insurance benefits go to people over 62, and almost all Medicare beneficiaries are over 65. So it’s often observed in passing that our long-range budget issues are the product of transfers to the elderly. For example, in Restoring Fiscal Sanity 2005, Alice Rivlin and Isabel Sawhill write, “These big programs, which benefit primarily the elderly, will drive increases in federal spending in the longer run” (p. 36). Other commentators have occasionally argued that the problem is that the elderly have become too powerful and therefore claim too large a share of government spending, especially compared to the very young.* When you add to that the frequent complaint that, by running budget deficits, we are imposing burdens on our grandchildren, this age-based inequity seems even greater.

But the problem with this framing is that “the elderly” change every year. There’s nothing inherently wrong or unfair with a program in which you pay insurance premiums while you work and collect benefits when you retire. Saying such a program benefits the elderly is like saying that life insurance doesn’t benefit the insured, only the beneficiaries: it’s true in a trivial sense, but people still want and buy life insurance anyway.

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When You Don’t Need To Worry About Facts

By James Kwak

Masquerading behind an invocation to “wisdom” in the title, David Brooks today finds his false equivalence (see here for another example) by comparing the the two parties’ approaches to Medicare: the Democrats, he says, favor “top-down centralized planning” while the Republicans favor the “decentralized discovery process of the market.”

David Brooks swallowing Republican talking points whole is not worthy of note, so I’ll just point out one: he calls the Ryan Plan a “premium support plan,” despite the categorial denial by Henry Aaron, the creator of the premium support idea.* But it’s marginally more interesting to point out Brooks’s finely-honed rhetorical dishonesty.

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Who Created This Mess?

By James Kwak

Not us, say the Republicans. “We didn’t create this mess,” a Republican said to Tim Geithner in a meeting recently, referring to the national debt and the need to raise the debt ceiling this summer. Yet, as the Times continues,

“Independent analyses have shown that more than half of the $14.3 trillion debt is from policies enacted during the past decade when Republicans controlled both the White House and Congress, and much of the rest from lost revenues and stimulus spending and tax cuts since Mr. Obama took office at the height of the financial crisis and recession.”

I did one of those “independent analyses” (although not one that has made it into the media) myself a few months ago.

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Health Care Rationing for Beginners

By James Kwak

“Obama-care kills Medicare as we know it. Obama-care raids $500 billion from Medicare to spend on Obama-care, puts in place a 15-panel board to ration Medicare by unelected bureaucrats.

“Our budget, repeals the raiding, gets rid of the rationing board, preserves this program, makes no changes for a person 55 years of age or older and saves Medicare, by reforming it for our generation, so it’s solvent. The president’s plan does not save Medicare, it allows it to go bankrupt, rations the program and raids the program. We get rid of the rationing, we stop the raiding and we save the program from bankruptcy.”

That was Paul Ryan on Fox News recently.

Ordinarily this wouldn’t be worth responding to, except to point out, as Sam Stein did, that Ryan’s proposed budget also “raids $500 billion from Medicare,” so the statement that “we stop the raiding” is, um, a lie. But it isn’t news that Paul Ryan has an issue with honesty, except perhaps for David Brooks.

But there’s a theme that is surfacing that goes something like this: OK, Ryan’s plan is extreme and has no chance. But we all know we spend too much on health care, and we have to spend less, which means that we have to ration care one way or another. Ryan does it by scrapping Medicare in favor of indexed vouchers; Obama does it by reducing Medicare payment rates and, more ominously, with “a 15-panel board to ration Medicare by unelected bureaucrats.”

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What’s Left of the Ryan Plan?

By James Kwak

Jennifer Steinhauer in the Times reports that some Republicans are running away from the Ryan Plan (you know, the one that changes Medicare from a health insurance plan to an underfunded subsidy), while others are trying to figure out if they should support in order to gain Tea Party votes. As policy, of course, it never had a chance to pass the Senate or of being signed by President Obama (and every Republican staffer Politico could find agrees), so it was pure political theater from the start. As Paul Krugman points out, the goal may have been to win over the pundits — a group that is vastly more concerned with the deficit than ordinary voters — but even that failed. (They got Jacob Weisberg, but he backpedaled furiously, and they got David Brooks, which was mainly amusing because then we got to watch Krugman trying to observe intra-Times decorum by not going after Brooks by name). Now Republicans are wondering if the loss of a Congressional seat in a conservative New York district was Ryan’s fault.

But while I’d like to think that the nation is recovering its senses, at least on what Republicans mean for Medicare, I’m not optimistic. Brad DeLong put it well:

“the political lesson of the past two years is now that you win elections by denouncing the other party’s plans to control Medicare spending in the long run — whether those plans are smart like the Affordable Care Act or profoundly stupid like the replacement of Medicare by RyanCare for the aged — sitting back, and waiting for the voters to reward you.”

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The Silliness of Spending Caps

By James Kwak

One of the new old ideas floating around Washington these days is an aggregate spending cap for the federal government. For example, both the House Republicans’ budget and one of those “moderate bipartisan” Senate proposals calls for limiting total government spending at around 21 percent of GDP. This is silly for at least two reasons.

First, and less controversially, the number of dollars that flow from the federal government to entities that are not the federal government is not an economically significant number*. The most obvious example of this is tax expenditures: subsidies that are implemented through the tax code, usually as deductions or credits. For example, let’s say the government wants to promote renewable energy. It can increase taxes and write checks to companies that produce solar panels; or it can keep taxes the same and enact tax breaks for companies that produce solar panels. Same difference — except that the former “counts” as government spending and the latter doesn’t. So a spending cap simply motivates Congress to spend money through tax credits rather than by writing checks, which is bad for all sorts of reasons. (It is harder to target, it reduces the tax base, etc.).

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What’s a Big Government?

By James Kwak

One thing that all parties seem to be able to agree on is that big government is bad. It was President Clinton, after all, who said, “The era of big government is over.” And the current Republican budget-slashing wave seems motivated by the idea that our government is too big.

But what is the size of government, anyway?* When a typical anti-government person thinks of government, she probably has in mind the EPA, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the “jack-booted government thugs” at the the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, OSHA, and all those government agencies that prevent businesses and individuals from getting on with their lives. The idea here is that government intervention in the free market makes the economy less efficient and therefore reduces aggregate societal welfare.

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