Politico | May 13, 2013
It seems the debt deniers are back.
If recent news reports are any indication, there is a growing sentiment that after enacting the nearly across-the-board “sequestration” spending cuts, Washington has already done enough to reduce the deficit and should avoid further deficit reduction that could disrupt the fragile recovery.
However, this rhetoric is based on the false notion that deficit reduction and economic growth are mutually exclusive. While we definitely should avoid immediate austerity, starting by reversing the austerity now in effect via the sequester, we must replace these less-than-intelligent, across-the-board cuts with a long-term fiscal plan — one that protects the recovery and promotes economic growth.
The austerity we currently face is precisely the result of our inability to deal with long-term deficits. Instead of reforming our Tax Code and entitlement programs, we’ve slashed important investments in the worst possible way.
Supporters of the status quo accuse those of us who want to fix the debt of supporting sharp austerity. Yet the civic leaders, small-business owners, current and former public officials and hundreds of thousands of average Americans who have joined me in supporting the Campaign to Fix the Debt believe exactly the opposite: We believe in ridding ourselves from the austerity already in effect. More important, we believe in growth. The key to unlocking this country’s economic potential isn’t to give up on smart deficit reduction; it is to enact a responsible plan to replace the mindless cuts that are currently the law of the land. Simply put, the only way out of this foolish austerity is to enact comprehensive deficit reduction.
Policymakers may pretend the current situation is sustainable, but in reality everyone loses.
By resisting continuing efforts to reach a responsible deficit-reduction deal that could replace the sequester, those in my party concerned about protecting programs that provide support for low-income people, enhancing public investments and ensuring the economic recovery is the tide that lifts all boats may very well be, unintentionally, thwarting all three goals. Indeed, by taking the view that we’ve done enough to control the debt, they may be condemning us to the sequester’s continued austerity and to the foolish across-the-board cuts they correctly deplore.
Our current situation is the worst of both worlds. Excessive, mindless deficit reduction in the short term when it will harm the economy, and rapidly growing debt over the long term when that debt will start slowing down economic growth. What’s more, the recent political maneuvering in which Congress acted swiftly to eliminate the sequester’s furloughs of air traffic controllers — while efforts to cancel the sequester as a whole went nowhere — underscores the political reality that the mindless cuts may be here to stay. Unless Congress replaces the sequester with a comprehensive deficit-reduction plan, 4 million meals for seniors will be eliminated, 70,000 children will be kicked out of of Head Start, and 125,000 American families will be at immediate risk of losing rental assistance and, along with it, their homes. The only way to avoid allowing a few powerful interest groups to get their own carve-outs from the budget cuts while leaving everyone else in the cold is to come to an agreement on a responsible deficit-reduction plan to replace the sequester.
Fortunately, there is a better way forward. The recent deficit-reduction plan put forward by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, for example, would replace immediate austerity with a comprehensive plan that is smarter, larger and more gradual. Such a plan would help restore this country’s economic credibility. The markets must be reassured that the government is willing to control its debt over the long term. Enacting a plan now allows us to gradually phase in changes , allowing Americans time to adjust. Moreover, gradual changes would help the economy avoid the kind disruptions that are sure to occur if our elected leaders wait until market forces leave them with no choice other than through dramatic, sudden policy changes.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) made this point at a recent Bloomberg forum when emphasizing the need to “take actions today that kick in over a phased period of time in the long term to address the out-year deficit and debt” in order to avoid a “‘squeezing out’ effect … that will put the brakes on the economy.”
Only by reducing our overly heavy debt burden can we be sure we’re putting our economy in an environment most conducive to sustained growth. Designed properly, a comprehensive deficit-reduction framework can promote short- and long-term economic growth. Such a deal would avoid the effects of the sequestration and reduce uncertainty; improve confidence in future economic growth; promote work, savings and investment over the long term; and reduce the likelihood of a debt-fueled fiscal crisis in the future. Only a comprehensive approach, one that reverses today’s austerity but enacts intelligent deficit reduction over time, will truly fix our debt.
The Hill | May 9, 2013
Over the last few days, politically driven critics have called on the president to abandon his support for changing the way the government indexes provisions in the budget to inflation by switching to “chained CPI.” Looking beyond politics, we’re here to say that these critics’ arguments are wrong on their merits.
As economists from opposite ends of the political spectrum, we would strongly urge the president and leaders in Congress to continue to support moving to chained CPI, which represents the most accurate available measure of inflation and cost-of-living increases. Switching to this more accurate measure of inflation represents the right technical, fiscal and retirement policy — and policymakers should not delay any further in making this improvement.
From a technical sense, the current CPI — or consumer price index — that is used to index many parts of the budget and tax code is widely understood to overstate inflation. This is because it fails to account for so-called “substitution bias,” in which consumers reallocate their purchases depending on the relative prices of similar goods. For example, if the price of apples goes up, consumers will buy more oranges. However, this behavior is not accounted for in standard CPI measurements.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics, which calculates the CPI, is very aware of this shortcoming, which is why it has developed and refined the chained CPI for more than a decade. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office states that the chained CPI “provides an unbiased estimate of changes in the cost of living from one month to the next.”
Some argue that using the chained CPI to index Social Security benefits is inappropriate because it does not reflect inflation for retirees, which critics suggest is higher than it is for working-age adults because of the elderly’s higher rate of spending on healthcare. However, the CBO has said that based on the available research, it is unclear whether the cost of living actually grows at a faster rate for the elderly than for younger people, and that the CPI-E —“E” for “experimental” — which was intended to provide a more accurate measure of inflation for seniors, has several methodological flaws that overstate inflation, including underestimating the rate of improvement in healthcare.
Beyond the technical case for the chained CPI, there is a strong fiscal case. Because current measures currently overstate inflation by about 0.25 percent per year, moving to a more accurate measure would result in real deficit reduction. Measuring inflation more accurately would generate savings from throughout government: about $390 billion in the first decade alone. Roughly one-third of those savings would come from slower growth in Social Security benefits, another third from revenue increases (as certain tax provisions such as the cutoff points of income tax brackets are indexed to inflation) and the remaining savings from a combination of other spending programs and lower interest payments on the debt. Given the very real need to begin to put our debt on a sustainable path, this would be a small but important contribution. The savings would be gradual, with only a small amount in the near term, thus protecting our fragile recovery from immediate austerity.
Finally, switching to chained CPI is the right retirement policy — or rather, a small piece of it. The Social Security program is on a path to exhaust its trust fund. Current projections indicate that this will occur in 2033, threatening cuts for all beneficiaries, including the very rich and the very poor, the very young and the very old, veterans, disabled workers and others. Improving the way we measure inflation won’t prevent the program’s looming insolvency, but it will eliminate a full fifth of the long-term funding gap.
To the extent that the overpayments under the current formula offset the shortcomings of our current retirement system for the lowest-income and most-elderly beneficiaries, a switch to chained CPI can and should be accompanied by targeted policy changes providing benefit enhancements designed to help the affected populations, rather than providing higher-than-justified inflation adjustments for all beneficiaries.
The federal government should not knowingly continue to measure inflation inaccurately, especially given the costs to the budget and to the Social Security program. Changes that cut Social Security benefits are a tough sell for Democrats, and changes that increase revenue are a tough sell for Republicans. But if they cannot even agree to a technical correction to those areas of the budget, how will they be able to make the hard choices to control our debt and reform our government over the long term?
Project Syndicate | April 30, 2013
Over the last five years, the growth of health-care spending in the United States has slowed dramatically – to the lowest rate in the past 50 years. The slowdown is not a surprise. It is a predictable result of the recession and slow recovery that have left millions of Americans without health insurance and dampened household spending.
But the size of the slowdown is surprising, as is the fact that it started several years before the 2008 recession – and not only in the private insurance system, but also in Medicare and Medicaid, the two major government health programs. (Medicare provides health coverage for retirees, and Medicaid provides coverage for low-income Americans and their children and those with disabilities.)
What explains this slowdown in health-care spending? How much of it is attributable to the weak economy, and how much is the result of changes in provider and consumer behavior?
Two recent studies offer different answers, but both predict that at least some of the slowdown will persist even after the economy recovers. That would be good news for the US economy, which currently devotes nearly 18% of GDP to health care, by far the largest share among developed countries. It would also be good news for America’s fiscal position, because Medicare and Medicaid are the two largest contributors to the long-term federal budget deficit.
The growth of health-care spending declined or remained unchanged in real (inflation-adjusted) terms each year between 2002 and 2011, falling to 3-3.1% in 2009-2011, the lowest rates on record since reporting began in 1960. Recent data indicate that after a slight acceleration in 2012, the growth of real health-care spending in 2013 has fallen back to its 2009-2011 average.
As a result of the recession and lagging recovery, health-care spending has also slowed significantly since 2009 throughout the OECD. Indeed, for the first time on record, real health-care spending stalled on average in the OECD in 2010, as developed countries, reeling from budgetary constraints, clamped down on health programs. Growth in health-care spending was slower in every OECD country in that year, with the exception of Germany.
A new study by Drew Altman, a respected health-care expert and President of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, concludes that slower growth in real GDP, along with a lower inflation rate, accounts for more than three-quarters of the slowdown in health-care spending in the US after 2001. The weak economy has caused people to postpone consumption of health-care services and has encouraged states and employers to restrain their spending on health.
But important cost-containing changes in the private health-care system, including more cost-sharing in private insurance plans and tighter controls in managed care, have also contributed to the slowdown. Altman conjectures that, overall, the growth in health-care spending between 2008 and 2012 was about one percentage point lower than predicted by deteriorating macroeconomic conditions alone. If this reduction continues after the economy recovers – as seems likely, given the cost-containment incentives in the Affordable Care Act (commonly known as Obamacare) – the US stands to spend $2 trillion less on health care over the coming decade.
Based on the relationship between changes in real per capita health-care spending and changes in unemployment rates at the state level, the recent Economic Report of the President concludes that the recession and lackluster recovery account for less than 20% of the slowdown in health-care spending since 2007 – and for an even smaller share of the slowdown that began in 2002. And difficult macroeconomic conditions explain little (if any) of the slowdown in Medicare spending per enrollee since 2001.
That is not unexpected, because the largely retired Medicare population is less vulnerable to macroeconomic fluctuations than is the working-age population. The Council of Economic Advisers, whose members write the president’s report, surmise that structural changes – including stronger incentives for efficiency by hospitals and providers, more cost-sharing in insurance policies, and the substitution of generic drugs for branded drugs – explain most of the deceleration in per capita spending growth. They also suggest that payment reforms contributed to the slowdown in Medicare’s spending growth after 2001, and that early responses to new Medicare regulations in the Affordable Care Act may have caused a further decline after 2010.
The long-term effect on the federal budget implied by a sustained reduction in the growth of Medicare and Medicaid spending to the rates of the last several years would be profound. These programs currently claim 21% of the budget, with Medicare accounting for two-thirds of that amount. Even a small reduction in the growth of these programs would save billions of dollars. Based on the unexpected slowdown in spending growth during the last few years, the Congressional Budget Office recently cut its ten-year projections for these programs by 3.5%, reducing the ten-year deficit by $382 billion.
In 2011, Medicare spending accounted for 3.7% of GDP. Based on current policies, the government forecasts that Medicare spending per beneficiary will grow at an average annual rate of 4.3% and will rise to 6.7% of GDP over the next 75 years. If, instead, Medicare spending per beneficiary grew by only 3.6% a year, the average rate of the last five years, Medicare’s share of GDP would remain unchanged. This would narrow the fiscal gap, a widely used measure of long-term budgetary imbalance, by almost one-third.
Trends in the US budget reflect an inconvenient truth: If the growth of spending on health-care programs cannot be slowed, stabilizing the federal debt at a sustainable level will require deep cuts in spending on other priorities and increases in taxes on the middle class. The recent slowdown in the growth of health-care spending is a promising sign that America’s budgetary tradeoffs may turn out to be less difficult than expected.
The Hill | April 30, 2013
In his recent blog entry on chained CPI (Chained CPI: Unfair and inaccurate, April 26th), AARP President Robert Romasco highlights his groups opposition to the change, charging that it would be “Unfair and Inaaccurate.” In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
A coalition of strange bedfellows, including Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform and Moveon.org, have announced their opposition to this policy, even as many responsible policymakers from both sides of the aisle and at the highest levels of government continue to support it – notably, the president and the Speaker of the House.
It is no surprise that groups from the left and right have mobilized to defend the status quo in order to avoid the tough choices that must accompany any responsible deficit reduction plan. Yet, the resistance to a reform as simple and obvious as using the most accurate measure of inflation for price-indexed provisions in the budget is both astounding and disappointing.
Economists from the left, right, and center are in broad agreement that chained CPI more accurately reflects cost-of-living increases by accounting for the small-sample and substitution biases in the current inflation measure. This view is shared by experts at the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office as well as the experts at Bureau of Labor Statistics who are responsible for measuring inflation. Adopting the chained CPI doesn’t represent a policy change, but rather would best reflect the current intent of the law to index various provisions to inflation.
And while some argue that seniors face faster cost-growth than other populations, there is little evidence of a significant difference when one accounts for the fact that seniors are more likely to own their own homes mortgage free, have different shopping habits than younger populations, are able to take advantage of senior discounts, and receive constantly improving health treatments. Indeed, according to the Congressional Budget Office, “it is unclear, however, whether the cost of living actually grows at a faster rate for the elderly than for younger people.”
Moreover, offering seniors a preferential inflation measure raises more fairness concerns than it answers. If seniors receive a higher inflation measure, should non-seniors on the Social Security program receive a lower measure? Geographic inflation disparities are far larger than alleged age disparities (inflation has averaged 2.7 percent in New York and 1.8 percent in Detroit over the last decade); why protect seniors and not New Yorkers? What about other government programs and tax provisions? Should each be indexed to costs within its population? Or only those backed by powerful interest groups?
Indeed, it would be highly unfair to politicize inflation indexing or to exempt any government program or tax provision from the most accurate available measure of inflation.
More unfair would be ignoring our fiscal and retirement challenges and leaving the job to a future politicians. According to the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the President’s chained CPI proposal would result in benefit levels 1 to 2 percentage points lower than under current law – and it accompanies the switch with benefit enhancements for the old that actually reduce poverty among that group. By comparison, there is a 25 percent cut scheduled to occur under current law when the trust funds dry up in 2033. The greatest unfairness would be allowing this across-the-board benefit cut to hit every beneficiary regardless of age or income – when this cut could be easily avoided through a balanced package of revenue and benefit adjustments.
Mr. Romasco is right, we need a national conversation on improving retirement security, including how to make Social Security sustainably solvent in order to avoid abrupt benefit cuts and ensure the system is better protecting those who rely on it. Ideally, we’d have this conversation now. However, the overheated reaction to a technical correction in cost of living adjustments suggests that the political system may not be ready to tackle comprehensive Social Security reform. Continuing to index benefits improperly while we wait for this reform to materialize would be a costly mistake that will only make future Social Security changes more painful.
Washington Post | April 29, 2013
In the 2½ years since the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform that we co-chaired released its final recommendations on charting a path toward meaningful and bipartisan debt reduction, we have traveled the country, speaking to hundreds of thousands of Americans of all ages, incomes, backgrounds and ideologies about our debt challenge. No matter our audience, those we spoke with shared two things: a thirst for the truth about what it will take to right our fiscal ship and a willingness to be part of the solution so long as everyone is in it together.
Unfortunately, in Washington, the past two years have been defined by fiscal brinksmanship. Policymakers have lurched from crisis to crisis, waiting until the last moment to do the bare minimum to avoid catastrophe without addressing the fundamental drivers of our long-term debt.
To be sure, some progress has been made the past two years. Policymakers have enacted about $2.7 trillion in deficit reduction, primarily through cuts in discretionary spending and higher taxes on wealthy individuals. Yet what we have achieved so far is insufficient. Nothing has been done to make our entitlement programs sustainable for future generations, make our tax code more globally competitive and pro-growth, or put our debt on a downward path. Instead, we have allowed a “sequestration” to mindlessly cut spending across the board — except in those areas that contribute the most to spending growth.
But there are seeds of hope that a bipartisan agreement might be achievable.
In December, the two parties were as close as they’ve ever been on a plan to put our fiscal house in order. Although they did not reach agreement, we continue to believe that broader compromise is possible. In particular, President Obama deserves a lot of credit for his budget, which lays the foundation for constructive bipartisan discussions by incorporating the tough choices and politically difficult compromises contained in the last offer he made during negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner in December.
While the president’s budget represents a significant step forward, it does not go as far as necessary to keep our debt declining as a percent of our economy. There are significant, substantive differences between the parties on key issues. But we hope that instead of retreating to their respective partisan corners, leaders in both parties will work to bridge the divide.
That’s why we released a new plan this month that builds on the most recent negotiations between the president and the speaker. In crafting it, we drew on the conversations we have had with policymakers from both parties in the past two years, and we worked to address concerns raised about the plan we put forward in 2010. This new plan represents what we believe is both necessary and politically possible, highlighting areas where there is bipartisan agreement and outlining ways to bridge differences on other areas.
The plan we propose would achieve $2.5 trillion in deficit reduction through 2023, replacing the immediate, mindless cuts of the sequester with smarter, more gradual deficit reduction that would avoid disrupting a fragile economic recovery while putting the debt on a clear downward path relative to the economy over the next 10 years and beyond. Importantly, the plan would achieve this deficit reduction while respecting the principles and priorities of both parties.
Our proposal contains concrete steps to reduce the growth of entitlement programs and make structural changes to federal health programs, such as reforming the health-care delivery system to move away from the fee-for-service model and gradually increasing the eligibility age for Medicare. At the same time, it would provide important protections and benefit enhancements for low-income and vulnerable Americans, such as an income-related Medicare buy-in for seniors affected by the increase in Medicare’s eligibility age and greater protections against catastrophic health-care costs for low-income seniors.
Our proposal recognizes that additional revenue must be part of a comprehensive deficit-reduction plan for both substantive and political reasons. Our plan raises revenue through comprehensive tax reform that lowers rates, improves fairness and promotes more vibrant economic growth.
These structural reforms are accompanied by spending cuts in all parts of the budgets put forward by both parties, including cuts to defense and non-defense programs. The plan also includes a shift to the chained consumer price index to provide more accurate indexation of provisions throughout the budget, with a portion of the savings devoted to benefit enhancements for low-income populations. Together, these policies would put the debt on a downward trajectory as a share of gross domestic product — and would keep it declining for the long term.
Our proposal is not our ideal plan, and it is certainly not the only plan. It is an effort to show that a deal is possible in which neither side compromises its principles but instead relies on principled compromise. Such a deal would invigorate our economy, demonstrate to the public that Washington can solve problems and leave a better future for our grandchildren.
The Hill | April 26, 2013
Second presidential terms build legacies, and this president’s will be tied solidly to the decisions he makes about the national debt and the budget. He cannot leave the office with the debt approaching $20 trillion and expect history will look kindly upon his fiscal management of the nation.
So how is he doing in the first 100 days on this front? He is off to a good start, and it is certainly a lot better than he did in his last four years.
The budget President Obama offered was more serious than many of his other recent proposals. By including the chained CPI — a technical improvement to how we measure inflation that would help to extend the life of Social Security and increase revenue for the federal government — he sent a real signal that he is willing to discuss the kinds of more serious entitlement reforms that will have to be part of any deal.
And his so-called “charm offensive” seems to be going well. It is nothing short of absurd how little the president has interacted with members of Congress — including those from his own party — on these issues in the past. And the dinner series he initiated seems to be helping to start a real discussion. It’s hard to solve problems when no one is even talking.
But the real question is where this goes in the next 100 days. There isn’t much time; we need to get a deal hammered out before the country hits the debt ceiling late this summer or early fall.
This will take a lot more than raising tax rates on the rich, or even grudgingly dipping his toe in entitlement reform, as the president has talked about so far. While it is laudable that we have reduced the deficit in the past two years from where it otherwise would have been, we have only done the relatively easy policies thus far. Putting in place spending caps where you don’t have to specify what programs will change (and you have to count on Congress to make the promised savings stick — not a great track record here) and raising tax rates on the very well off are a start.
Next up: the tough stuff.
All told, we have achieved about half of the savings we need to reach a minimum target. Now in the next tranche, we have to tackle the much harder parts: entitlement and tax reform. The good news is that the tax committees are making impressive progress on moving forward with tax reform, which would broaden the base; lower rates; simplify the system; make it far more equitable and competitive; and raise revenue for the federal government in a much better way.
Where the president is going to have to really use his leadership is to help make the case for entitlement reform and why we have to make the needed changes to control healthcare costs and adjust the nation’s retirement system for growing life expectancies. He should make the case to Democrats on why they should prefer Social Security and Medicare reform under his presidency, and he needs to make the case to the nation as a whole about why putting a fiscal deal in place is so important and how the economic recovery will not take off without one.
And that will be part of the test. The president’s style has been to put an issue on the agenda and then take a huge step back right out of the room. That’s not going to work on this one.
The specifics are difficult and come with political risks. He will have to own the tough policy choices right along with the Democrats and Republicans in Congress.
And in order to make this work, he will have to use the bully pulpit as only the president can. He must make the case to the country for why a reformed tax code will make us more competitive, why we need to address the problems with entitlements in order to strengthen those programs, why a smart budget deal is part of an economic recovery strategy, why fixing the budget now will help us to preserve a strong safety net, and why we have to make the necessary investments we have been shortchanging for so long.
A few major speeches around the country laying these issues out would make a world of difference.
President Obama made a small down payment on his legacy in his first 100 days. Now he must invest a lot more political capital to make sure it pays off.
The Hill | April 11, 2013
The Senate and House of Representatives both have passed budgets that represent the preferences of the majority party in each chamber. Now it’s time to agree on a plan that can attain support from both parties.
Tax reform can be the key that unlocks the puzzle.
On Wednesday, President Obama released a budget request that offers some entitlement savings in exchange for additional tax revenue.
While many assume that getting an agreement on additional revenue is impossible, reform that cleans up the tax code, makes it more efficient and enhances competitiveness — along with significant structural entitlement reforms — could provide the breakthrough we need for a plan that addresses long-term national debt while promoting economic growth. That is a lot of pressure for an undertaking that is both desperately needed and treacherously complicated.
There is support in both parties for reforming the more than $1 trillion a year in tax deductions, exemptions and other loopholes known as “tax expenditures,” which are essentially spending through the tax code.
Many of these tax expenditures are only enjoyed by select taxpayers and distort the economy by disproportionately benefiting some activities, companies or industries over others. We can both reduce tax rates and the deficit by eliminating, limiting or reforming these loopholes that adversely affect the budget and the economy.
The Simpson-Bowles debt commission illustrated one way to deal with tax expenditures: Its plan outright eliminated most expenditures and reduced tax rates to much lower than they are today.
If lawmakers want to reinstate a tax break, they would have to pay for it by buying the rates back up. I love this approach and would hope lawmakers would have the fortitude to start with a clean slate and limit the number of tax breaks they layered back in. But the political pressure to protect and preserve every single tax break would be mind-boggling.
The home mortgage interest deduction pushes housing prices up, and it subsidizes the lending and building industries. And the healthcare exclusion is a major contributor to escalating healthcare costs. But people love their tax breaks — the industries that benefit love them even more — and there is real cause for concern that the massive lobbying effort to preserve these breaks could derail tax reform entirely.
Another approach designed by myself, Marty Feldstein and Daniel Feenberg of the National Bureau of Economic Research, which would cap tax expenditure benefits at a set level of household income, might be more politically plausible. The advantage of this approach is that it eliminates the haggling over which tax expenditures to keep, which should make this reform easier to enact, given the political realities we face.
The Feldstein-Feenberg-MacGuineas tax expenditure cap represents a straightforward way to limit tax breaks. You basically set the limit that no taxpayer could have more in tax breaks than a percentage of his or her income (we generally assume 2 percent, but this could vary) and then don’t have to pick and choose which of the existing tax breaks to eliminate.
This approach has the potential to raise hundreds of billions or even trillions of dollars over a decade, generating revenues that can be used both to bring tax rates down and reduce the deficit. It meets a general test of fairness that some people should not benefit disproportionately from the tax code as they do now. Additionally, it can be adjusted in several ways to make it more progressive or meet a variety of different tax objectives, such as by altering which tax breaks are included in a cap.
Thankfully, tax reform appears to be moving forward this year. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) have been preparing for over a year to rewrite the tax code. The bipartisan, bicameral duo is committed to fundamental tax reforms and the lawmakers are closely coordinating with each other.
The support and cooperation of the leaders of the congressional tax-writing committees is a positive sign that tax reform can happen.
Agreeing on tax reform that relies on a tax expenditure cap could help pave the way for a comprehensive agreement to alter the unsustainable trajectory of our national debt. Hopefully, such an approach could open the door to a truly bipartisan, comprehensive deal.
The Hill | April 10, 2013
When it comes to the federal budget standoff, those looking for a breakthrough are caught between a rock and a hard place. One side offers all cuts and no revenues to reach a balanced budget. The other offers tax increases with some spending cuts to appear even handed, but never actually moves the nation’s finances from red to black.
Uncertainty over the ultimate solution has businesses keeping capital on the sidelines, waiting to see what the playing field will look like in the months ahead. It is time to get a big deal to fix the nation’s debt and deficit problems and get everyone back in the game.
Dante once wrote, “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” It is time to turn up the heat on those who remain in their corners without a passable solution.
Washington leaders have gotten quite good at taking the easy way out. The time to say goodbye to short-term fixes is long overdue. President Obama’s outreach efforts on Capitol Hill are a good start, but he has remained aloof for far too long. House Speaker John Boehner must lead his conference, rather than settling for lockstep opposition.
Every kick sends an opportunity to get serious about the nation’s debt and deficit a few months into the future, to the detriment of the economy’s long-term prosperity. Market forecasters Macroeconomic Advisors predict that the threat of a default on the nation’s credit card could reduce GDP by one half of a percentage point. That sort of self-inflicted wound could be fatal to a sluggish economy, and it is incumbent upon everyone to make sure it doesn’t happen. It will require the hard work and will of the White House, both chambers in Congress, and most importantly the collective voice of the American people.
Since almost everyone acknowledges that there is a problem, the next step is to evaluate the potential solutions. Rather than applying yet another half-trillion dollar Band Aid as Washington has done since 2011, legislators should make the next attempt mean something and make a sizeable dent in the nation’s deficit.
So far, participants in the discussion have fallen into three general groups: snake oil peddlers, wafflers, and true patriots.
The peddlers try to convince the public that this problem can be solved without revenues or changes to entitlement programs. It’s certainly possible to do that on a spreadsheet, but the approach is politically untenable. People who insist on a plan that has no hope of passage are not a contributing to the discussion. They need to pipe down or be shunned into silence.
Wafflers agree that something must be done, but steer clear of presenting or advocating an honest solution. These members should be encouraged to go all the way and embrace a plan. If they are unwilling or unable to do that, they should move on and give someone else the chance.
Finally, our true patriots should be commended for getting out on the front lines and proposing a solution. The answer doesn’t have to be loved by everyone. Given that it will require hard choices and shared sacrifice from all, it may not be popular. That’s why groups like Fix the Debt stand ready to support those that are willing to make the tough choices necessary to get the nation’s finances back on track.
This is the president’s contest to lose. Approaching fiscal matters a half a trillion dollars at a time ensures that this will be all anyone talks about, crowding out second term priorities such as immigration and gun legislation. If he wants to start ensuring his legacy, the president should kick his outreach efforts into overdrive. Speaker Boehner should use this opportunity to show that his conference can do more than say “no,” that it is open to constructive ideas that truly solve common problems.
The best part about the deal will be the dawn. As the cloud of uncertainty surrounding the nation’s fiscal future dissipates, Americans will once again be able to see the bright lights of our nation’s economic strengths. America can continue to be a beacon of hope and opportunity, but only if we act.
Los Angeles Times | April 2, 2013
In his March 22 blog post criticizing proposals to switch from the consumer price index to "chained CPI" to determine cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security beneficiaries and other items in the federal budget, Michael Hiltzik claimed that there were "no grounds" for the statement made in a recent paper from the Moment of Truth Project ("Measuring Up, The Case for Chained CPI") that the chained CPI provides a more accurate measure of inflation than the measure currently used.
In fact, experts across the ideological spectrum agree that the chained CPI is indeed more accurate. In his 2005 book "The Plot Against Social Security," Hiltzik listed various proposals for reforming Social Security, among them chained CPI. He wrote, "Many economists maintain that CPI consistently overstates inflation ... because it doesn't account for so-called substitution effects." Hiltzik doesn't explicitly endorse the proposal, but this is certainly a far cry from his objection that there are "no grounds" for the claim that chained CPI is a more accurate measure of inflation.
Advocates for using chained CPI to more accurately index government programs to inflation include Austan Goolsbee, who served as chairman of the president's Council of Economic Advisors under President Obama, and Michael Boskin, who held the same position under the President George H.W. Bush. Their view is shared by the overwhelming majority of economists. A report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office stated that the chained CPI "provides an unbiased estimate of changes in the cost of living from one month to the next." Two of the most respected and prominent defenders of Social Security, the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) and the late Robert Ball, the longest-serving Social Security commissioner, who founded the National Academy of Social Insurance, both supported the use of chained CPI to more accurately achieve the goal of providing inflation protection for seniors and disabled beneficiaries.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics has noted the shortcomings of the current inflation indexing and specifically designed the chained CPI to be a closer approximation to a cost-of-living index. The bureau has developed and refined the chained CPI over more than a decade.
The government indexes benefit programs such as Social Security as well as provisions in the tax code to ensure they keep pace with inflation. Using a more accurate measure of inflation is not a benefit cut, but rather ensures that the benefits increase by the proper amount to achieve the desired policy goal. This change does not single out Social Security, as Hiltzik implies, but would apply to provisions throughout the federal budget. Social Security accounts for slightly more than one-third of the $390 billion in total savings over the next decade that would result from switching to chained CPI, with a similar amount of savings from revenue and the remainder from other government programs indexed to inflation along with interest savings.
To the extent that the overpayments under the current formula provide important help to certain low-income and elderly individuals, a switch to the chained CPI can and should be accompanied by targeted policy changes providing benefit enhancements designed to help the affected populations rather than providing higher-than-justified inflation adjustments for everyone. Every significant bipartisan deficit reduction effort, including the Simpson-Bowles plan, the Domenici-Rivlin plan and the negotiations between Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has proposed using chained CPI to index spending programs and the tax code, with a portion of the savings used to provide enhancements for low-income, elderly and other vulnerable populations.
Addressing our fiscal challenges will require many tough choices and policy changes, but the chained CPI represents neither. Eliminating the unjustified increases in spending and reductions in revenue that have resulted from using an inaccurate measure of inflation should be at the top of the list for any deficit reduction plan.
Politico | April 1, 2013
Now that Congress and the president have agreed to fund the government for the rest of this fiscal year — removing the threat of a government shutdown — Washington should use this opportunity to get past the crisis-driven fiscal policy of recent years and put the focus squarely where it belongs: on the long term.
I’m often called a “deficit scold,” so it may surprise some people to know that my primary concern is not this year’s budget deficit or next year’s. I believe the principal threat to America’s future is our unsustainable long-term debt and deficits, the damaging effect they would have on our economic growth and competitiveness, and the unconscionable burden they would place on our children and grandchildren.
I have spent much of my life putting private capital to work, and I know that Washington’s tax and spending decisions —and indecisions—can have a major impact on private sector investment. More confidence in America’s fiscal future is essential if we want to spur businesses to put their trillions in idled capital to work.
Unfortunately, all of the recent fire-drill fiscal agreements — the Budget Control Act of 2011, the fiscal cliff deal, sequestration — have done very little about our long-term structural debts. Shorter-term discretionary expenditures such as R&D, education, and infrastructure have taken the hardest hits, despite the fact that we need more, not less, of these investments in today’s far more competitive global economy.
Even after these recent budget deals, over the next 30 years, public debt is projected to race past an unprecedented 200 percent of GDP. This dangerous trajectory of debt poses two threats to our economy.
The first is a financial market crisis, similar to what’s unfolded in Europe. Rising debt, combined with repeated political crises and gridlock, could cause markets to decide that we aren’t going to get our fiscal house in order. No one can predict when such a crisis might hit, but if it does, it’s likely to be sudden, significant, and sharp. Today’s low interest rates — which are providing false comfort to some — would quickly rise and severely damage an already fragile economy.
The other threat is far easier to predict: a slow-growth crisis, in an economy that is starved of badly needed investments. Over the next quarter-century, even if interest rates rise only to historically average levels, interest costs on public debt are projected to soar to about four times the total federal investment in R&D, education, and non-defense infrastructure combined. Those of us who believe more investment is needed in this technological and competitive global economy also have a responsibility to advocate for policies that ensure we have the resources to pay for it.
It’s become a cliché to say that “everything must be on the table” in fiscal negotiations, when it is clear that everything has not been on the table. At various times, defense, taxes, and entitlements have all been taken off the table.
As to defense, there are significant opportunities for smart, strategic savings geared to the threats of a new era — not the crude, across-the-board cuts of the sequester.
On taxes, Republicans must acknowledge the need for additional revenue to achieve a lasting bipartisan solution. Simple math makes any reform package without revenues not only draconian, but politically impossible. Relying solely on spending cuts to stabilize debt at sustainable levels would require cutting nearly one-third of the overall budget. Tax reform that raises revenue by reducing deductions would be economically beneficial and more feasible politically.
At the same time, President Obama should lead his fellow Democrats — and the entire nation — to solutions that tame the growing costs of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. With rising health care costs and 78 million Baby Boomers retiring, these programs account for 100 percent of the projected long-term increases in federal non-interest spending.
Two principles of entitlement reform should prevail. First, we simply must preserve the safety net for the vulnerable. Reforms should start by asking the relatively well-off to contribute more and receive less. And those who advocate for the status quo must remember that doing nothing is the worst thing we can do for low-income families — without reform, we’re headed toward an economic and political crisis in which no program is safe.
Second, retirees need time to plan for policy changes. Our leaders should agree now on reforms to Medicare and Social Security, so that people have time to prepare. Of course, entitlement reform that exempts those nearing retirement requires that we reach an agreement now—we can’t afford to delay both the decision and the implementation.
The suggestion that Washington should focus on economic recovery today and long-term debt reduction later presents a false choice. Our leaders can walk and chew gum at the same time. And entitlement reform with delayed implementation by definition won’t harm the recovery. To the contrary, a comprehensive plan that stabilizes long-term debt would generate much-needed confidence in all sectors — business, consumer, financial markets — that would in turn stimulate the short-term economy.
And let’s also dispense with the notion that we can “grow our way out” of our long-term debt problem. This is a fantasy. It would take double or triple our projected long-run economic growth rate to fix our fiscal imbalances — highly unlikely.
Ultimately, I believe the most persuasive argument for addressing long-term debt is moral. If we do nothing, we will leave more than $50 trillion of unfunded promises on the backs of our children and grandchildren over the next 50 years. As the great theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children.” Can anyone argue that over $50 trillion in debt is a morally justified legacy to leave future Americans?
Our long-term debt is a transcendent threat to our future. There has been too much denial, diversion, and delay. The time for action is now.