The Bottom Line

November 3, 2010
Is monetary policy the only game in town?

As widely expected (and priced into the markets), the Fed decided at its monetary policy committee meeting today that it would increase purchases of Treasury securities to boost the weak economy.

Dust is still settling in the markets as details of the decision are being digested. The purchase amount announced was slightly above consensus. Plus, according to the NY Fed in an accompanying release (the NY Fed does the actual trading), the maturity distribution of the new securities purchases will be more concentrated at the shorter end than anticipated. Traders had expected a greater bias in securities purchases toward maturities over 10 years (particularly the 30 year bond), and may have had to readjust their portfolios after details of the decision were released. There may be some confusion about how much QE2 is really targeted at long-term as opposed to “longer term” (the Fed’s wording) securities.

This marks only the second time ever that the Fed has turned to the extraordinary monetary policy tool known as “quantitative easing”. (This round is known as QE2.) The Fed started the first round when the economy was in extreme distress (many say in free fall) at the end of 2008 and early 2009. Faced with concerns over the weakness of the economy, the Fed has turned again to QE because its normal key tool, the lowering of the federal funds interest rate, would be ineffective since it remains close to zero.

The details. From now until the end of June 2011, the Fed has directed its trading desk to purchase an additional $600 billion in securities (markets had expected closer to $500 billion); and to continue the Fed’s August decision to reinvest principal payments from its holdings of agency and agency mortgage-backed securities into Treasury securities, estimated at around $250-300 billion. (“Agency” refers to Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Ginnie Mae.) In total, based on yesterday’s decision, the Fed anticipates buying $850-900 billion over the next eight months, averaging roughly $110 billion a month.

The amount of QE announced today is smaller than QE1 ($850 – 900 billion versus up to $1.75 trillion over a longer period), although it is still a sizeable number compared to the amount of securities that had been normally traded by the Fed. In what seems like a quaint, distant past, only a few years ago the Fed typically managed a $700-800 billion portfolio. Now it holds more than $2 trillion of securities. (See useful background by the head of the NY Fed’s trading desk.)

Observers are concerned that the Fed’s latest move will not be effective under current conditions, although interesting top Fed staff research on QE1 effects suggests that it was more powerful than many realize. While the economy looks a lot better now than it did in late 2008 and early 2009, though, some of the same worries remain, nevertheless. In explaining its decision in terms of its dual mandates, the Fed stated that underlying inflation remains below its target (thought to be around 2%) and that the pace of the recovery in output and employment is “disappointingly slow”. While the word “deflation” was not used in the Fed’s announcement, many think that Fed officials are worried that the risks of deflation have grown and want to head them off.

At the other end of the worry spectrum, observers are concerned that the Fed will not be able to withdraw excess liquidity fast enough when the pace of the economy starts to pick up and that we’d wind up with accelerating inflation. While the Fed would like inflation to pick up a little, it does not want it to pick too much.

Deflation or inflation can be hard to stop past a point.

PS- Is monetary policy the only game in town? And what can we say about the policy mix between fiscal and monetary policy? It’s hard to answer, particularly since the direction of fiscal policy is so uncertain over the next few months – and beyond. For a start, we don't even have a budget - and the fiscal year has already begun.

November 3, 2010


CRFB President Maya MacGuineas has another commentary on CNN Money, urging policymakers to get specific on ideas to solve America's debt crisis. You can check it out here.

"My Views" are works published by members of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, but they do not necessarily reflect the views of all members of the committee.


November 3, 2010

Andrew Biggs has an interesting piece out at the American Enterprise Institute that has been generating some attention (see Ezra Klein’s comments here, Andrew Samwick’s contribution here, and Andrew Sullivan’s addition here). Biggs states that raising the early retirement age (or EEA, for Earliest Eligibility Age) from 62 to 65 would increase retirement security, increase non-Social Security tax revenue, increase economic growth, and (believe it or not) increase Social Security benefits. Sounds like a win-win-win-win.

Generally, the EEA is not talked about as a tool for improving Social Security's solvency, since raising it has no real substantial effects on Social Security costs and revenues. In line with that, Biggs estimates that the life of the Trust Fund would be extended only five years and the actuarial balance would stay the same if the EEA was raised. Biggs looks at the changes in retirement income and GDP assuming the scheduled increase in the full retirement age (FRA) to 67 and a phased-in increase of the EEA between the years 2015 to 2024. The changes he finds are truly astonishing.

Though there are many benefits to raising the EEA, there are still some drawbacks. Biggs suggested ways to accommodate the typical concerns associated with raising the retirement age, such as protecting older Americans who simply cannot work. Disability Insurance would be able to cover those workers and the eligibility age for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) could be lowered to 62 for those who didn't have a sufficient work history to qualify for DI benefits. Other policies to ease the transition to a higher EEA include reducing payroll taxes on older workers, letting Medicare be the primary payer of health care for older workers instead of employer-sponsored insurance, and eliminating the Retirement Earnings Test (which reduces Social Security benefits if the recipient has earned income over a certain amount) for workers between ages 65 and 67.

Biggs' analysis shows the great economic benefits of a longer working life. Having more pension income and Social Security income and having less retired years to rely on it have the double effect of helping retirement security. In addition, Biggs shows that if people work longer (if they can), it can be a boon to economic growth and interact greatly with other parts of the budget by increasing tax revenue. While raising the EEA doesn't help with Social Security’s solvency, it certainly brings many benefits and can be a useful component in an overall reform plan, like it is in our Let's Get Specific Social Security plan.

Be sure to check out Andrew Samwick's 6 additional points to this discussion.


November 3, 2010

Last week, the heads of the EU governments agreed on groundbreaking steps to prevent Greece-style fiscal meltdowns from ever happening again and to put their countries on more fiscally sustainable paths for the medium and long run.

The new measures would tighten up the currently weak preventative and corrective sanctions for countries that deviate from the EU’s longstanding official annual fiscal path target (a budget deficit of 3% of GDP) and the medium-term debt goal (60% debt-to-GDP). Under the new rules, EU governments would face an escalating series of tougher sanctions for breaching these targets. Ultimately, a country would be subject to a fine.

While many of the changes to be made are EU-specific, the US can learn from the EU’s increased emphasis on a medium-tern fiscal framework rather than our usual piecemeal approach annually (we don’t even have a budget this year and the fiscal year has already started); the importance given to medium and long run sustainability; and the strengthening of budget statistics so that policymakers and taxpayers have a full and transparent picture of their country’s fiscal exposure, Countries are finally beginning to realize the urgency and importance of long-term fiscal sustainability and how annual decisions fit into their forward planning.

While last week’s agreement was a major success for the EU, the EU legislative process is not over. The recommendations (based on the Report of the Task Force on Economic Governance plus proposals by the European Commission) will now be put on a fast track so that the EU heads of government and the European Parliament come to an agreement on numerous implementing provisions by next summer. Also, stay tuned for December, when pension reform is scheduled to be on the leaders’ agenda.

November 3, 2010

Bob Rubin, former Clinton Treasury Secretary, had an opinion piece in the Financial Times on Monday that made a lot of points we certainly agree with. Some of his major points (emphasis ours):

  • Targeted stimulus, importantly, “if it is tied to real, trusted and enacted long-term structural deficit reduction.” “Otherwise, a major new stimulus is likely on balance to be counterproductive, initially or over time. It could seriously increase business uncertainty about future economic conditions and policy, or change market psychology unexpectedly and dramatically, causing serious market disruptions. Or, even if a major new stimulus worked initially, it could fail to generate lasting momentum due to the headwinds, leaving us worse off than we would have been, with more debt but no greater gross domestic product.”

Yup. See here.

  • “The administration and Congress should work over the next six months to enact the first phase of a serious fiscal plan, to take effect in two or three years, that must also include room for critical public investment. This first phase of deficit reduction should work towards a gradual decline in the debt/GDP ratio, not just stabilising it at a relatively high level that will inevitably ratchet up. The long-term objective, in a later phase, should be a balanced budget.”

That sounds right to us. See here.

  • “Even this ‘first phase’ will be difficult. But it can buttress business confidence, reduce shorter-term market risks and start building the fiscal base for longer-term economic success. In that context, I think the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts on incomes over $250,000 should be allowed to expire, to avoid the appearance of the political system being unable to follow through on planned fiscal constraint even on what should be a relatively less difficult issue. The remaining tax cuts should be extended for two or three years, and reviewed in the ‘first phase’ fiscal plan.”

Excellent plan. See here.

A lot of good and balanced ideas. Read the entire piece here.

November 2, 2010

Our Stabilize the Debt budget simulator, which allows users to try their hand at deficit reduction, has become an important tool for understanding the magnitude of our fiscal challenges and considering potential solutions. We recently worked with the Dallas Morning News in encouraging its readers to try their hand at our simulator and in analyzing the results of those who voluntarily submitted their choices. The results were quite interesting.

From early August to early September we had 823 separate attempts (from 758 different e-mail addresses) from Dallas Morning News readers using a special link to the simulator. Sixty percent of those respondents were able to reach the Peterson-Pew Commission recommended goal of 60 percent debt-GDP by 2018. Overall, there was broad support for raising the Social Security retirement age (74 percent), less support for raising the eligibility age for Medicare (60 percent) and disagreement on defense cuts and what to do on the revenue side.

Democratic and Republican respondents both favored eliminating earmarks and outdated programs. Democrats were more in favor of some specific weapons cuts such as missile defense systems, while Republicans were in favor of extending most, if not all, of the 2001/2003 tax cuts.

This exercise involves very tough choices. Getting rid of earmarks and outdated programs alone will not solve our fiscal problem. The article summarizing the results of the exercise notes:

One big lesson is that cutting the deficit solely through tax hikes, or solely through spending cuts, makes the task particularly challenging. The better solution may require both.

As CRFB President Maya MacGuineas says in the article, "The less likely people are to support revenue increases, the less likely they are to get to the goal." And with regard to spending, "Don't think about earmarks, think about reforming entitlements. Think about energy taxes and discretionary spending freezes, instead of clinging to the hope that we can all make this magically go away."

The lessons learned from the exercise can be helpful to policymakers who campaigned on reducing the budget deficit. Schools and other groups are using the simulator as a tool for education and conversation. Try it yourself, and get your friends to try it and compare results.

November 1, 2010
Questions to Ask the Candidates

The Bottom Line today concludes its blog series highlighting our Ten Questions to Ask the Candidates on fiscal responsibility.

9. Rejecting Pledges. Rather than saying what you would not do, will you focus on what you would do to fix the problem? Committing to pledges—whether to oppose tax increases, or not to touch Medicare or Social Security benefits—reduces lawmakers’ ability to properly evaluate solutions and budget tradeoffs and govern effectively. No candidate should make promises about what solutions should be “off the table” without explaining how they would fix the problem.

A common tactic on the campaign trail is to get candidates to sign pledges. In this election familiar pledges have involved promising not to raise taxes or cut Social Security benefits. Such pledges are not constructive in finding solutions to our fiscal challenges; on the contrary, taking possible solutions off the table poisons the collaborative process. Instead of promising what they won’t do, candidates should be encouraged to stress what policies they could support.

10. Considering Proposals from the Fiscal Commission. When the White House Fiscal Commission makes its recommendations, will you consider the proposals and suggest alternatives for those you do not support? The fiscal commission has been tasked with developing a plan to fix the nation’s fiscal problems, to be released in early December. The recommendations can be the first step in a national dialogue about how to fix the nation’s budget problems. Lawmakers must help the process by either supporting the Commission’s ideas or proposing alternatives that would be at least as helpful in reducing the national debt.

The White House created the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform earlier this year to identify policies “to improve the fiscal situation in the medium term and to achieve fiscal sustainability over the long run.” The bipartisan panel is charged with presenting recommendations for Congress to consider by December 1. Since its inception many special interests have derided the commission and tried to prevent it from considering various options. The fiscal commission represents an opportunity to address our fiscal challenges in a thoughtful, bipartisan manner. Any recommendations presented by the commission should be seriously considered by policymakers.

Make sure you vote tomorrow if you haven’t already. Information on your voting location can be found here.

November 1, 2010

Tricks and Treats Not Done Yet – Halloween was celebrated last night and Election Day is tomorrow. Which day is scarier likely depends on your political view, but Tuesday will be filled with plenty of tricks and treats for political junkies. The election results will significantly influence the fiscal policy agenda.

Really Scary Times Could Be Ahead – With Republicans poised to gain a significant number of seats in tomorrow’s mid-term election, the likelihood of confrontation in Washington over the budget is greatly increased. Some are already suggesting a government shutdown in order to push for deeper federal spending cuts. A more perilous showdown could occur over raising the debt limit next year. According to CQ (subscription required) House Republican Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) last week called for an up or down vote on increasing the limit when the time comes, which will probably be in the middle of next year, and suggested that his caucus would want to see major progress on spending cuts and deficit reduction before supporting an increase. Failure to increase the debt limit would likely lead to a U.S. default and could trigger a financial crisis.

Fiscal Issues a Big Factor in Mid-Term Elections – There is no denying that fiscal policy has been a key focus during this campaign season. The deficit/debt has consistently ranked just behind the economy/jobs as the top issue for voters in polls. Federal spending and taxes are primary talking points for candidates. Whether that focus will result in more fiscal responsibility in Washington and solutions to our fiscal challenges remains to be seen. CRFB provided 10 Questions to Ask the Candidates on fiscal responsibility in order to move beyond the campaign rhetoric towards discussing solutions. Don't forget to vote tomorrow if you haven't already.

More Are Getting Specific – Last week saw more specific ideas for reducing our fiscal imbalances. The National Taxpayers Union and U.S. Public Interest Research Group teamed up on a proposal that would save around $600 billion by 2015. The Heritage Foundation followed suit by detailing some $343 billion in spending cuts that could be enacted in the coming fiscal year. CRFB has said it’s time to get specific, hosting an event in September highlighting specific ideas and releasing detailed proposals for health care, Social Security, and tax expenditures, with more to come. CRFB president Maya MacGuineas also devised a fiscal plan with Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution.

Lame Duck on the Menu After Election – Congress will convene for a lame duck session starting November 15 that will address several pending fiscal issues, including the expiring 2001/2003 tax cuts, extensions of expired tax breaks like the research and development tax credit, and FY 2011 federal funding. On the tax cuts, Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) hinted there may be room for compromise that extends all the tax cuts temporarily and the White House reportedly is considering a permanent extension of the tax cuts for families making less than $250,000 and a temporary extension for those above the threshold. 

Some Intel on Intelligence Funding – Last week the federal government disclosed that just over $80 billion was spent on intelligence in FY 2010, a more complete accounting than is usual for the intelligence budget. This comes as the two chairs of the committees overseeing the intelligence community in Congress signaled they will target the intelligence budget for waste and duplication, looking for significant savings.

November 1, 2010

The Heritage Foundation recently came out with a detailed paper with over $300 billion in spending cuts that can be put in place in FY 2012. Their proposal is broken up into six general categories: eliminating federal programs so the task can be taken up by the states, consolidating duplicative programs, privatizing some government functions, aligning spending programs more closely with national priorities, eliminating outdated and ineffective programs and eliminating waste, fraud and abuse. Breaking their proposals up further, they go into direct government departments from Agriculture to Justice to Veteran’s Affairs.

The following are their proposed cuts with their projected savings amounts.

Spending Cut ($ Millions)
Agriculture 19,500
Commerce 500
Community Development 8,000
Energy and the Environment 11,800
Government Reform 91,800
Health Care 16,600
Homeland Security 2,700
Income Security 500
Interior 1,700
International 4,000
Justice 7,800
Labor 6,800
National Science Foundation 1,800
Transportation 48,600
Treasury 26,700
Veterans 4,400
Cross-Agency and Other 80,600
Total 343,000

Note: Figures may not add up due to rounding.

Some of their proposals, since they rescind money going to the states, would put additional pressure on cash-strapped states if they keep the programs funded. This is not to say that some of the programs should not be cut, but a reminder that devolving is not so much a money-saver than a funding-shifter. Some of the programs that Heritage poposes to devolve to the states are eliminating most homeland security grands to the states ($2.7 billion), eliminating many justice grants to the states ($7.3 billion) and devolving transportation funding ($45 billion).

The Heritage plan joins a growing list of specific deficit reduction plans--see here, here, here and here for others and try our budget simulator. We are glad to see more groups getting specific and hope that more policymakers will join the trend.

October 31, 2010
Questions to Ask the Candidates

The Bottom Line presents the next installment in our series highlighting our Ten Questions to Ask the Candidates leading up to Election Day.

7. Controlling Health Care Costs. Will more have to be done to control federal health care costs? If so, what? Health care costs remain the biggest threat to our fiscal health in the long run and are set to continue growing faster than the economy. The Congressional Budget Office projects direct federal health care costs will total 9.7 percent of GDP by 2030 and 13.7 percent by 2050.

Health care costs are a key driver behind our bleak fiscal outlook. The recently enacted health care reform bill may be a start, but the Congressional Budget Office has analyzed the law and still finds that health care costs will continue to spiral upwards, driving up our long term debt through increased costs in Medicare, Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance Program and other federal health programs such as TRICARE (a military health program).

Pointing to the health care reform law is not enough of an answer for a candidate on this question. It alone will not slow the spiraling growth rate of health care costs, nor will repealing the law fix the problem. A candidate must therefore give a full and credible plan to address this crucial issue. Political slogans will not work. See our health care reform proposal here.

8. Raising Taxes. Will we need to raise taxes to gain control of the federal debt? If not, and you think it can be done all through spending cuts, which ones? It is very difficult to lay out a credible deficit plan that would not increase taxes. It is also very difficult to develop a comprehensive plan that would not raise taxes on families making less than $250,000 per year. If a candidate is willing to raise taxes, which ones? If not, what spending cuts would they support instead? Tax expenditures, the tax breaks that are often narrowly targeted and benefit relatively few taxpayers, also must be addressed. They are spending by another name; with little oversight by policymakers or analysis of their effectiveness.

No one wants higher taxes. Yet any candidate that proposes to close our enormous fiscal gap without raising revenues must detail the massive spending cuts required. The Center for American Progress has put together a report entitled “A Thousand Cuts” which illustrates the magnitude of the cuts required if taxes are not increased. Even so, they used tax expenditures to cover part of this plan.

Tax expenditures are little more than spending programs labeled as tax breaks. They are designed so that targeted groups have more money in their pockets if they meet certain criteria. They function no differently than spending in their incentives, yet receive little Congressional oversight or analysis of their benefits. This year alone, the federal government lost over $1 trillion in revenue due to tax expenditures. Broadening the tax base and simplifying the tax code by reforming these programs would contribute significantly to improving our budget outlook. See our ideas for reforming tax expenditures here.

October 30, 2010
Questions to Ask the Candidates

The Bottom Line continues its blog series highlighting our Ten Questions to Ask the Candidates ahead of the mid-term elections.

5. Strengthening Social Security. Do you believe that Social Security is in financial trouble? If so, what should be done to strengthen it? The Social Security Trustees’ most recent report says that Social Security will run a cash-flow deficit of more than $40 billion this year, $100 billion by 2020, and more than $450 billion by 2030. As the Trustees state, “The projected trust fund shortfalls should be addressed in a timely way so that necessary changes can be phased in gradually and workers can be given time to plan for them. Implementing changes sooner will allow the needed revenue increases or benefit reductions to be spread over more generations.”

Social Security is the largest program in the federal government. Every candidate running for office should have an understanding of this program, its problems, its strengths and a plan to strengthen its long-term finances. We cannot afford to ignore the tough choices needed to ensure the sustainable solvency of this essential program.

It is not enough to promise solvency over the standard 75-year period. Voters should ask of any plan, what happens after the 75th year? CRFB advises a focus on cash flow--any reform plan must eventually bring revenues and expenses in line. See CRFB's proposals for Social Security reform here.

6. Finding Savings in Defense. Do you think we should pay for any additional war costs by cutting other programs or raising taxes, instead of continuing to borrow to fund them? Do you believe that defense cuts should be one way to decrease the federal debt? This is the only time in our nation’s history when we have not increased taxes during a prolonged war. Thus far, approximately $1 trillion has been appropriated for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Total defense spending was $692 billion this year, or 4.7 percent of GDP. This spending is a post-World War II high when measured in constant dollars.

Defense and security spending represent around 20% of the budget. The Sustainable Defense Task Force has come out with a plan that would achieve nearly $1 trillion in defense savings. The report and efforts by Defense Secretary Gates underscore the point that there is significant savings to be found in defense without threatening U.S. security. As we have stated previously, “done thoughtfully and prudently, changes to the security budget can lead to significant savings in the nation’s budget.”

October 29, 2010

Yesterday was a big day for getting specific as the National Taxpayers Union and the United States Public Interest Research Group, as well as the Heritage Foundation, came out with their own specific fiscal plans!

The NTU/USPIRG report offers a specific plan to cut $600 billion by 2015. This plan goes beyond the low-hanging fruit and tackles important areas like tax expenditures, Medicare and defense.

This plan is also noteworthy in that it brings together two organizations that often don't see eye-to-eye in supporting specific proposals to stabilize our national debt. Not only does the proposal offer hope that specific ideas can be put forth and debated, but that it can be done in a bipartisan manner. The report uses ideas from a variety of sources such as the Congressional Budget Office, the Joint Committee on Taxation and the Government Accountability Office. Their plan focuses on four main areas; eliminating wasteful spending, improving contracting and assets acquisition, improving government operations and addressing outdated or ineffective military programs.

Their plan offers the following proposals:


Savings by 2015  ($  millions)

Eliminate the Overseas Private Investment Corporation 154
Eliminate the Market Access Program 1,000
Eliminate subsidies to trade assocations for marketing abroad 175

Eliminate subsidies to "big agribusiness"

Eliminate refundable tax credits for ethanol 22,640
Eliminate insurance subsidies for repeatedly-flooded homes 891
Eliminate ultra-deepwater natural gas and petroleum research program 158
Reduce funding for public timber sales that lose money 279
Sell Southeastern Power Administration and related assets 1,220
Implement acquisititon reforms identified by Defense Acquisition Panel 135,000
Eliminate 32 already-identified wasteful Department of Homeland Security projects 34,300
End orders for obsolete spare parts and supplies for the Defense Logistics Agency 35,500
End orders for obsolete spare parts and supplies for the Army 18,000
End orders for obsolete spare parts and supplies for the Navy 37,500
End orders for obsolete spare parts and supplies for the Air Force 93,500
Remove ceiling on the collection of overpayments for the SSI 580
Reduce by 25 percent the backlog of federal-owned buildings "not utilized or underutilized" 24,000
Recalibrate Medicare payments to cover actual costs for its graduate education program 20,500
Recalibrate Medicare reimbursement rates in high-cost regions 11,700
Eliminate overpayments for housing subsidies 4,480
Eliminate the Leveraging Educational Assistance Partnership 272
Return unallocated funds from TARP 15,000
Eliminate National Drug Intelligence Center 223
Cancel production of the V-22 Osprey 6,164
Cancel F-35 Joint Striker Fighter and replace with cheap and reliable alternatives 22,500
Alternativly, reduce F-35 procurements by cancelling Navy and Marine Corps Joint Striker Fighters 7,400
End spending for high-risk satellites and replace with lower cost alternatives 5,000
Align nuclear arsenal with current needs and threats 56,750
Cancel Expendtionary Fighting Vehicle 16,309
Change military depots' pricing structure for repairs to be more cost effective 1,030
Total 600,322


The Heritage Foundation also came out with a spending cut program of their own. This plan details over $343 billion in spending cuts that can be implemented this coming fiscal year. We will analyze their proposal in a separate blog.

Overall, we commend NTU, US PIRG and the Heritage Foundation for following our Let's Get Specific call and coming out with specific ideas on fiscal responsibility. The more realistic plans introduced by credible organizations designed to fix our budget, the better. For a comparison, see Congressman Paul Ryan’s Roadmap, Esquire’s own plan and CRFB President Maya MacGuineas and Bill Galston’s plan. And devise your own plan using our budget simulator.

October 29, 2010
Questions to Ask the Candidates

Continuing in our discussion of (what we believe to be the most important!) Ten Questions to Ask the Candidates leading up to this coming Tuesday's mid-term elections, let's take a look at questions 3 and 4.

3. Paying As You Go. If you support new spending programs or tax cuts, will you offset the costs so they don’t add to the deficit? The current pay-as-you-go requirement has so many exemptions it still will allow trillions of dollars to be added to the debt. But the principle is still an important one in budgeting, and should be strengthened. Candidates who suggest new spending programs or tax cuts need to specify how they would pay for those policies so they don’t add to the deficit.

As we've said many times before, current PAYGO rules have loopholes so big you could fly a jumbo jet through them. These exemptions include:

  • The costs of any extension of the 2001/2003 tax cuts for individuals and couples earning less than $200,000 and $250,000, respectively, for the next 10 years from having to be paid for.
  • The costs of an extension of the 2009 estate tax parameters.
  • The costs of annual freezes in Medicare payments to physicians, or "doc fixes", through 2014, which are scheduled to drastically decrease under current law.
  • The costs of annual AMT patches through 2011.
  • The costs of legislation deemed as "emergency" requirements by Congress.

These exemptions could add trillions to the debt, and policymakers need to do better. PAYGO rules are an important principle to abide by and proved to be helpful in leading to budget surpluses during the late 1990s. Lawmakers must have specific proposals for how they would pay for, over the medium-term, any new spending increases or tax cuts.

4. Extending the Tax Cuts. Do you support extending some or all of the tax cuts? Permanently extending all of the expiring 2001/2003 tax cuts, along with continuing to patch the Alternative Minimum Tax, would cost nearly $4 trillion over the next ten years. Even allowing the tax cuts for families making over $250,000 to expire, as the President has proposed, would still increase the deficit by over $3 trillion over the next ten years. The director of the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office recently testified that financing the extension of the tax cuts through borrowing would crowd out private investment, damaging the economy by as much as 11 percent of GNP by 2040.

Representing the largest portion of PAYGO exemptions, what to do with the upcoming expiration of the 2001/2003 tax cuts at the end of this year will be a critical question in coming months. As we've written about here, any non-paid for extension of the tax cuts--whether full, partial, permanent, or temporary--will negatively affect the economy by the end of the decade, despite the short-term benefits.

Let's hope the candidates are taking note of these important issues, and we encourage them to be specific about what they support.

October 29, 2010

Fixing the Nation's Four-Tranche Universal Health System

U.S. citizens soon will be participating in a four-part, nearly universal, health care system. Medicare, Medicaid, employer-provided health, and the new exchange insurance policies all come with different government subsidies. Medicare is tied to age or disability and provides roughly the same amount of insurance to all recipients. Medicaid (and a related children's health insurance program) also provides more or less equal coverage to all who get it, though it pays providers less for that coverage and, cliff-like, often cuts off beneficiaries who cross an earnings line. Subsidies for employer-provided health insurance are largest for those with the highest incomes and the most expensive policies. Meanwhile, the new exchanges created under health care reform would phase out subsidies for households as their income increased.

I find myself in that minority that is uncomfortable with both sides of the current health care debate. I support a more universal health care system but think this four-stream subsidy system is unworkable and unfair. I don't want to go back to having tens of millions of uninsured people, and that could happen if some Republicans fighting health reform prevail by simply restoring the former three-tranche system. But it doesn't help when some Democrats put all their political eggs in the new, still-unworkable exchange subsidy basket.

Both would be taking paths to dead ends—no surprise since neither party is looking hard at the whole crazy quilt system we have created, much less at how the numbers add up, how taxes cover costs, who pays and receives, and how the four subsystems interact.

Of course, you have to start somewhere. How the new exchange policies interact with employer-provided health insurance and, to some extent, Medicaid gets my vote because right now it's where the rubber hits the road. Also, at some level it should appeal to Democratic concerns about extending coverage and Republican concerns about trying to use a market for health insurance.

First, some simple math that's at the heart of health reform. Health spending now averages about 21 percent of households' personal income (17 percent of GDP). Few believe we can afford to pay this much, yet we do. And, the percentage of income spent on health care is rising. We are already financing part of our health care costs by borrowing from China and limiting cash wage growth substantially. Meanwhile, the new health care legislation presumes that those in an exchange shouldn't have to pay more than 10 percent of their income for a health insurance policy. The trouble is, we're already paying a lot more than that to support the three-, soon-to-be four-, tranche system.

This decision to ignore the math has created far-reaching consequences:

  • Those in the exchanges will get substantially higher subsidies than will many households that remain in the less subsidized employer-provided insurance market, as well as those on Medicaid.
  • To prevent too many employees from getting the new subsidy, employer penalties and other tactics try to keep people within the less subsidized employer network. Even so, droves of employees—potentially tens of millions—are likely to shift out of employer-provided insurance over the next decade or two, especially as newer firms and their employees find it more profitable to get the exchange subsidies than the subsidies for health insurance provided by the employer.
  • To try to prevent small employers from bearing the burden of the new system, yet more subsidies and exemptions from employer penalties were created but not distributed fairly according to need.
  • To prevent states from shifting from Medicaid, which they help fund, to the exchanges, which they don't, still more restrictions and incentives were designed.
  • If, despite all these provisions, these incentives cause too many people to shift to the new, most generously subsidized tranche (the exchange), the four-stream system becomes even more unsustainable from a budget perspective. After all, every person who receives a higher subsidy will impose additional cost on government
  • The exchanges don't just handle health insurance. Rather, they are expected indirectly to operate an entirely new "tax" system that collects another 9 or 10 cents from most insured household for every additional dollar earned and a new "welfare" system that tries to determine in advance and at various later stages households' eligibility for different subsidies.
  • It may not be possible for various employers, exchanges, Medicaid systems, and the IRS (which is expected to verify income statements to the exchanges on initial applications, but not later amendments) to share all the data needed to enforce the new subsidies. Think about the logistics of updating the information every time an individual becomes eligible for a higher subsidy because he or she marries, divorces, gains a dependent, moves, changes jobs, and earns less over a stretch of time.

Clearly, to create an administrable system, we need some certainty about the size of the subsidy; to be fair, we need to make the subsidy about the same for all those with equal incomes. This suggests that we must give households throughout the middle-income range (and perhaps those in some Medicaid and higher-income ranges too) about the same level of premium support, while eliminating discrimination against workers with employer-provided insurance. Rather than clawing back the subsidy indirectly with a new, hard-to-administer tax, we must use the current tax system to provide fewer subsidies, on net, to those with higher incomes.

True, health care is now so expensive that it's hard to provide a subsidy high enough to cover most of the cost of insurance. Therefore, we must turn to other alternatives to encourage people to buy insurance. That is one purpose of the new law's so-called mandate—which is not really a mandate at all but a penalty for not buying insurance.

A penalty serves a second and related purpose. It deters people from avoiding insurance purchase when healthy on the expectation that they can buy it cheaply, relative to their costs, when sick. Otherwise, it will not be possible to maintain the popular health reform that prevents insurers from excluding those with preexisting conditions. If current "mandates" are considered unacceptable, a perfectly constitutional and partial fix that both parties could accept might be simply denying other tax and welfare benefits to those who don't buy health insurance.

Concerned about administrative ease and fairness, few Democrats should like subsidizing some families more than others in the same income range or seeing enrollments in employer-sponsored insurance drop. And few Republicans should like the higher subsidies and state cost-shifting that cloud the true tax rates and mandates required to support the system.

The fundamental dilemma for both liberals and conservatives is that we simply can't achieve a more universal health system without charging people for it, enforcing it, admitting to the explicit or implicit tax rates involved, and avoiding very large incentives (for individuals, employers, and state governments) to shift from one tranche of the system to another. Once both sides accept these basic facts and the fundamental arithmetic that drives them, they must turn to the types of amendments suggested here. Neither side is served well by the wishful thinking that pervades the debate over simply maintaining or abandoning the new health care legislation.

Gene Steuerle is a member of the board of directors of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. He also is a senior fellow at The Urban Institute, co-director of the Urban- Brookings Tax Policy Center, and a columnist for Tax Notes Magazine.

"My Views" are works published by members of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, but they do not necessarily reflect the views of all members of the committee.


Note: This article was originally published as a Government We Deserve column at the Urban Institute.


October 29, 2010

All eyes are on next week’s meeting of the Fed’s Open Market Committee (FOMC), the monetary policy setting body of the Fed. As priced in by the markets, the FOMC is widely expected to agree at its meeting November 2-3 to start on a second phase of quantitative easing (ie, the purchase of long-term assets, which have been government securities – primarily Fannie and Freddie instruments) in order to support the economy. The public case for a new round of monetary easing made by Fed Chairman Bernanke and others is based on the weakness of the economy and inflation that is below the Fed’s target floor, raising concerns about increased risks of deflation. Throughout the week, traders have tried to parse Fed officials’ comments, which may point to internal discussion, or disagreement, over the appropriate size and timing of the new round of liquidity. Critical questions include: Will the Fed move massively in a shock and awe approach, will it gradually supply liquidity in a predictably measured way, or will it just shock?

For the time being, monetary policy is seen to be the only policy game in town to increase support for demand. The Fed’s QE2, as it is dubbed, perhaps can also be seen as an attempt to counteract the tightening of fiscal policy now underway. In the absence of a budget for the fiscal year which started this month, the broad outlines of fiscal policy are not even in place and there are few signs whether the fiscal stalemate will be resolved by the end of the year, after the mid-term elections. Fiscal stimulus resulting from last year’s ARRA law (the administration’s major stimulus package) is waning because most of the provisions were temporary and expiring. Plus, if the Bush tax cuts are allowed to expire, as currently scheduled, then fiscal policy will tighten dramatically and abruptly starting January 1st.

In the meantime, today’s news on the economy confirms views of continuing economic weakness. According to today’s first estimate of the 3rd quarter, the economy grew at a 2 percent annualized rate, a slight pickup from the first quarter’s 1.7 percent but low for this stage of the recovery (we are still waiting for that “V” shaped recovery) and too slow to improve the job market. Inflation was below what is regarded as the Fed’s target floor.

October 28, 2010
Fiscal Questions for the Candidates

Last week CRFB provided Ten Questions to Ask the Candidates on fiscal policy as a way to help voters gauge how serious a candidate truly is regarding fiscal responsibility. While the federal budget deficit has been prominently featured during this election season, it has been little more than a talking point for most candidates as they have avoided discussing specifics. In the run up to Election Day The Bottom Line will highlight these questions in a blog series to move beyond the campaign rhetoric towards discussing potential solutions. This blog post covers the first two questions.

1. Picking a Fiscal Goal. Do you believe the country has a serious fiscal problem? If so, do you think the country needs a “fiscal goal?” What particular fiscal goal would you support? The current fiscal path is unsustainable. Public debt is on course to pass 100% of GDP in the 2020s and 500% in the 2080s. The Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform has argued for a fiscal goal of 60% debt-GDP by 2018 to reassure credit markets that the United States is on course to gradually bring its debt back to sustainable levels.

It’s difficult to measure our progress towards fiscal sustainability if we don’t have benchmarks guiding us. We discussed the merits of setting a fiscal target here. It’s not enough for a candidate to simply say they will reduce the deficit and cut federal spending; having a goal indicates that a candidate is serious about addressing our fiscal challenges. We don’t suggest that the 60 percent debt-GDP target is the only viable goal, but we need to establish a credible, yet ambitious, goal now.

2. Going Beyond the Budget Myths. Eliminating waste, fraud, abuse, earmarks, and tax evasion will not solve our fiscal problem. What other specific cuts are you willing to accept? Yes, wasteful government spending should be eliminated, earmarks are bad process, and we should collect all the taxes that are owed—thereby closing the “tax gap.” But that is not enough. The largest drivers of the debt are aging, growing health care costs, and the imbalances between how much we spend and what we pay in taxes. It is hard to imagine a credible budget plan that does not include changes to these areas of the budget as well as defense, domestic discretionary spending…and…well, pretty much all areas of the budget.

Candidates often fall back on these items when asked to name the budget issues they will address. While these low-hanging fruit should be picked, much more will need to be done to address our fiscal imbalances. Defense and security, entitlements, and interest on our debt account for roughly two-thirds of our budget as opposed to the old stand-bys such as waste, fraud and abuse, which represent only a tiny fraction.

Candidates must get specific! We offer some ideas in our new Lets’ Get Specific series of papers. We've already looked at Social Security, Health Care, and Tax Expenditures. Doing our “Stabilize the Debt” online budget simulator can also help in determining the magnitude of the changes we must make to reach the goal and put us on a sustainable fiscal course.

October 28, 2010

“Virtually all advanced economies are likely to conduct fiscal consolidation at some point in the future to put their fiscal positions back on a sustainable footing.” - International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook, October 2010, p.21

The United States, like a number of other countries, needs to figure out how to best design a fiscal recovery package that will not derail a lackluster recovery, while at the same time, phases in debt reduction policies soon enough and aggressively enough to reassure credit markets.

Helpfully, the International Monetary Fund’s chapter “Will it Hurt? Macroeconomic Effects of Fiscal Consolidation” in the most recent World Economic Outlook provides some answers.

The benefits of fiscal consolidation. For a start, the Fund confirms the bulk of research that shows that fiscal consolidation in high-debt countries will be beneficial and likely increase output over the long-run. A reduction in government debt will reduce the crowding out of private investment as the economy approaches full employment. In fact, the reduction in government debt will “crowd in” private investment - which ultimately raises underlying growth - by lowering inflation-adjusted interest rates and reducing debt service payments. This lesson is clearly relevant for the United States.

But what about the short-run? Fund economists also take a close look at the mixed evidence on short-run costs to the economy from fiscal consolidation. The IMF identifies two things that are likely to help mitigate contractionary effects in the short run and over time: focusing on policy changes that are conducive to growth, including what many refer to as structural policy changes (we have suggested, for example, fundamental tax reform including broadening the tax base significantly, in our paper on reforming tax expenditures, and shifting from a consumption-focused to an investment-focused budget), and increased coordination with other nations.

For advanced economies as a group, policies that have relied on spending cuts, particularly cuts in transfers, have tended to be less contractionary than tax-based adjustments—in part because central banks often have responded to spending cuts by lowering interest rates. Given how low rates are in the U.S., though, this may be less relevant now than it would be normally. Moreover, it is not clear how relevant these findings are to the US now – most of the other advanced economies have started with far higher spending and taxes as a share of the economy, which can reduce the scope for adjustment on the tax side and increase incentives to have spending-heavy programs. It is also not at all clear what motivated the central banks to act in response to spending shifts. These points are critical for the US – and it is important to get them right.

The IMF also found that the contractionary effects are worse when many nations engage in debt reduction all at once. This is why, while we watch what is going on in Britain with admiration and awe and keep our fingers crossed it will work, we realize it may well make our own job even more difficult. If the shaky global economy is a table with each country serving as a stabilizing leg, the risk is that the U.S. will be left as one of the only support systems for demand as other countries engage in debt reduction more aggressively. This is, in part, because they have to, since they do not have our dollar and safe-haven advantages, which our creditors perceive as lowering our sovereign risk (at least for the time being – history shows that confidence can shift suddenly). Under these circumstances, competitive currency devaluation can get nasty, as countries try to boost their exports as much as possible to help their economies when fiscal adjustment is underway. More global coordination would be wise, and it can take many forms.

The IMF finds that even in the bulk of the cases in which fiscal consolidation had a contractionary effect on the economy in the short-run, the negative effects on aggregate demand were often offset through stronger growth in net exports and the easing of monetary policy by the central bank. In the current environment however, there may be limits to these offsets: many major trade partners have fiscal adjustment under way simultaneously and not everyone can boost exports through a depreciating currency at the same time; and because interest rates are near zero, central banks may not be able to provide monetary stimulus as they did in the past.

Luckily, the Fund suggests policy actions to increase fiscal adjustment credibility, which could help limit negative short-run effects: strengthening fiscal institutions, reforming pension entitlements and reforming public health systems. “To the extent such measures improve household and business confidence and raise expectations about future income, they could help support activity during the process of fiscal adjustment”. No question, this won’t be easy and it will not be painless, but there are steps we can take to make the transition easier.

October 27, 2010

Nine months since the creation of the Fiscal Commission, we are now just one month away from the scheduled release of its report/recommendations. For the past nine months the Commission has been pelted with letters and requests to keep off of Social Security. So when the American Academy of Actuaries sent a letter to the Commission arguing for raising the retirement age, it was something worth noting.

The letter addresses many points that have been raised by opponents of making changes to Social Security. The Academy basically lumps such arguments into two categories: one challenging the view that raising the retirement age is a de facto benefit cut, and one addressing many "specific concerns" over an increased retirement age (such as people in physically demanding jobs and unequal distributional effects of gains in life expectancy).

First, they combat the "benefit cut" view specifically. They point out that for all the years that the retirement age remained fixed (and even after adjustments included in 1983 legislation), retirees have been getting a de facto benefit increase, since they will spend more years collecting benefits in the system than previous generations. This increase comes on top of the fact that initial benefits grow with wage inflation and retirees have (for the most part) recevied annual COLAs.

In addition, the Academy says that raising the retirement age creates a "signaling effect" that people should work longer and delay retirement. They explain it below:

For example, if the retirement age is raised by one year, and a worker retires a year later, the worker’s annual benefit is approximately the same as if he or she retired a year earlier and the retirement age had not been raised. The combination of the change in retirement age and the change in behavior leaves the retiree with approximately the same degree of retirement security as without those changes. That is the intended effect, which is very different from a direct cut in the benefit formula.

Basically, raising the retirement age--and specifically indexing it to life expectancy--reduces the "benefit increase" associated with longer life expectancy, rather than actually cutting benefits. And even with an increase in the retirement age, benefits would still be growing as they always do.

After addressing the benefit cut view, the Academy discusses the myriad concerns involving the view that raising the retirement age would allow more Americans to slip through the cracks. These concerns include the unequal distribution of gains in life expectancy (the rich have generally seen larger gains in life expectancy than the poor) and the hardship an increased retirement age could create for people who simply cannot work, like those in physically demanding jobs.

The Academy states that the concerns are legitimate, but that is no reason to leave the retirement age unchanged for the whole population. These targeted concerns could be addressed in other ways, for example, by reforming disability programs or making the PIA formula more progressive.

Remember that an increase in the retirement age should come in the context of an overall reform plan. It is not a stand-alone policy. While we often present Social Security reform as a choice of different levers, the choices made should be part of a coherent plan. So, categorically rejecting a raise in the retirement age without the context of a reform plan is not constructive.

We appreciate the Academy's constructive addition to the Social Security debate.

October 26, 2010

Today, Standard and Poor’s reaffirmed their rating of the U.K.'s AAA debt instruments in response to the UK’s recently devised fiscal consolidation plan that is projected to reduce their deficit from around 11 to 3 percent of GDP in 2014. Within the AAA credit rating, S&P raised their outlook of U.K. debt from "negative" to "stable". Their ratings improvement comes as a result of the increased economic growth (by 0.8 percent) that has followed the coalition-implemented new budget and the expectations of future growth to come.

The positive results of the British fiscal consolidation prove the importance of fiscal sustainability for the U.S. as well—we must focus on similar deficit reduction planning if we want to ensure long-term economic growth. Furthermore, this shows that devising plans now for future fiscal consolidation can have positive economic effects in the short-run too, increasing consumer and investor confidence in the overall health of the economy.

October 26, 2010

CRFB President Maya MacGuineas has another commentary on CNN Money, discussing Britain's fiscal austerity plan, setting the right place and the importance of political courage in confronting our fiscal challenges. You can check it out here.


"My Views" are works published by members of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, but they do not necessarily reflect the views of all members of the committee


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