Tag Archives: budget deficit

Denial or Principle?

By James Kwak

I wanted to make a belated return to Binyamin Appelbaum and Robert Gebeloff’s article on reluctant safety net beneficiaries.  Earlier this week I argued that their framing of an expanding safety net that has spread from the poor to the middle class is wrong, but otherwise the themes they discuss are very important.

Many liberals like to point out the apparent hypocrisy of the people featured in the article, who rail against big government, demand lower spending, and simultaneously rake in benefits from the federal government that they hate. The central figure in the article, Ki Gulbranson, works hard yet has barely enough money to support his family, even with the earned income tax credit* and reduced-price school lunches for his kids. His conclusion: the country is going bankrupt, but people don’t make enough money to pay more taxes, so we should have smaller government. He would rather go without his current benefits—but he can’t imagine retiring without Medicare and Social Security.

I don’t think Gulbranson is a hypocrite at all. I don’t think taking a benefit you don’t think should exist makes you a hypocrite, just like I don’t think Warren Buffett should voluntarily pay higher taxes. I think his position is one part magical thinking and one part principle.

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What Expanded Safety Net?

By James Kwak

In general, I think Binyamin Appelbaum and Robert Gebeloff’s article on how the same people oppose government handouts and take government handouts is very good. But I think their framing buys into a piece of conventional wisdom that just isn’t true.

Here it is, without any shortening (but emphasis is mine):

“The problem by now is familiar to most. Politicians have expanded the safety net without a commensurate increase in revenues, a primary reason for the government’s annual deficits and mushrooming debt. In 2000, federal and state governments spent about 37 cents on the safety net from every dollar they collected in revenue, according to a New York Times analysis. A decade later, after one Medicare expansion, two recessions and three rounds of tax cuts, spending on the safety net consumed nearly 66 cents of every dollar of revenue.

“The recent recession increased dependence on government, and stronger economic growth would reduce demand for programs like unemployment benefits. But the long-term trend is clear. Over the next 25 years, as the population ages and medical costs climb, the budget office projects that benefits programs will grow faster than any other part of government, driving the federal debt to dangerous heights.”

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How Big Is the Long-Term Debt Problem?

By James Kwak

Articles about the deficits and the national debt generally talk about unsustainable long-term deficits that will drive the national debt up to a level where scary things happen. Sensible commentators usually acknowledge that our current deficits are a sideshow and the real problems happen in the 2020s and 2030s due to modestly increasing Social Security outlays and rapidly increasing health care spending. I admit that this has generally been my line as well; for example, in a previous post I said that the ten-year deficit problem is entirely a product of extending the Bush tax cuts, but that even if we let them expire things will get worse over the next two decades.

But looking at the numbers, it’s not clear that the long-term picture is really that bad. Here I’ll lay out the numbers, and then, as they say on Fox News, you can decide. The summary is the chart above; the details are below.

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Confused?

By James Kwak

Some of the headline numbers for President Obama’s deficit reduction proposal that you hear are the following:

  • $3 trillion in deficit reduction over ten years—more than the $1.2–1.5 trillion expected from the Joint Select Committee (JSC)
  • $4 trillion in deficit reduction, including the discretionary spending caps in the Budget Control Act
  • $1.5 trillion in tax increases
  • $1 trillion in deficit reduction by capping spending on Iraq and Afghanistan

This didn’t make sense to me for a few reasons, notably that any deal that preserves any of the Bush tax cuts should be scored by the CBO as a tax cut, which increases the deficit. The actual numbers are rather more complicated.

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How Big Is the Deficit, Anyway?

By James Kwak

According to its CBO score, the Budget Control Act of 2011 (a.k.a. the debt ceiling agreement) initially reduced aggregate budget deficits over the next ten years (2012–2021) by $917 billion, with a provision that ensures that deficits will be reduced by another $1.2 trillion (either through an agreement in the joint committee that is ratified by Congress, or through automatic spending cuts). The chatter in Washington is that even with the $1.2 trillion, this is still too small, and there is still this massive deficit hanging over our heads. This is true to an extent, but not the way you are being led to believe.

The first question is this: How big is the deficit anyway? The answer is pretty complicated—complicated enough for S&P to mess up (although in my opinion they made a rookie mistake, as I’ll explain later). Warning: lots of numbers ahead, though the only math is addition and subtraction.

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Barack Obama and Harry Potter

By James Kwak

Helene Cooper of the New York Times wrote a “news analysis” story saying that the challenge for President Obama is this:

“Is he willing to try to administer the disagreeable medicine that could help the economy mend over the long term, even if that means damaging his chances for re-election?”

The problem, she goes on to say in the next paragraph, is that the economy is in bad shape:

“The Federal Reserve’s finding on Tuesday that there is little prospect for rapid economic growth over the next two years was the latest in a summer of bad economic news.”

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Tax Loopholes and the French Revolution

By James Kwak

Today’s Atlantic column is about one of my favorite topics: the French Revolution. Actually, it’s mainly about tax expenditures and how traditional Republicans should want to eliminate them. Unfortunately, there are no traditional Republicans left, and Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge makes clear that you can’t eliminate tax expenditures unless you use all the revenue to lower tax rates below where George W. Bush put them.