Op-Ed: It's Time for a Fiscal Turnaround Plan


CNN Money | February 14, 2011

President Obama is right when he says that public investments need to be a central part of the nation's economic growth and innovation strategy. Perennial short-termism has left the investment area of the budget dangerously under funded.

Unless we change course with well-targeted investments in human capital, infrastructure and basic R&D, our economy will be left at a severe disadvantage down the (crumbling) road.

Republicans are also right that keeping taxes low and creating a business-friendly environment is necessary to avoid harming competitiveness. In a world of global competition and mobility, ratcheting up tax rates is a losing strategy.

Well, that was easy. All we have to do is spend more on investments and keep taxes low.

But there's one big problem: We deficit hawks are also right that the mammoth debt levels we face will certainly cause a slow burn on the U.S. economy and standard of living -- if not lead to an outright fiscal crisis, if we don't change course.

In order for these three objectives -- investment, low taxes and fiscal responsibility -- to coexist, we need a major restructuring of the nation's budget.

Unfortunately, we did not see that in the president's budget on Monday.

In recent years, we have layered on major new spending programs -- think health care reform, homeland security or the prescription drug program. But we continue to counterbalance them with tepid fiscal planning.

The temporary freezes in mostly the smallest parts of the budget, as President Obama is proposing, and the lip-service to the need for "reforms" do not meet the standard of dramatic anything. Sorry to say, they meet the standard of a punt.

The country needs a fiscal turnaround plan.

The good news is that the fiscal pressures facing the country are starting to force the national discussion away from policies that would enlarge the deficit. I predict, for example, that the $850 billion budget busting tax "compromise" hatched in December will be the last of its kind for some time.

Republicans are starting to suggest specific spending cuts and a bipartisan group in the Senate is poised to introduce the full set of recommendations from the fiscal commission. Adding to the deficit finally seems to be going out of style.

But a turnaround plan doesn't just mean getting the numbers in the budget to add up -- which is hard enough in itself. It requires a fundamental rethinking of national priorities and how we raise and spend our money.

Can we rip away some of our entrenched budget habits in order to create the space for a more appropriate budget for this century's economic challenges and opportunities? Certainly it would require touching many of the budgetary third rails, but the payoff would make it well worth it.

The main change needs to be rethinking entitlements, the programs that operate without a budget and basically on auto-pilot. They are the fiscal elephant in the room.

In a time of limited resources, why spend money on Social Security providing larger benefits for the well-off than for those who depend on the program, or more for retired ladies who lunch than the single working moms?

A true means test for Social Security benefits would free up hundreds of billions of dollars for more investment and deficit reduction. In health care, we need a real budget -- vouchers or another form of rationing and a strict means test.

Bottom line: treating social insurance more like real insurance would free up a tremendous amount of resources to close the fiscal gap, keep taxes low and spend more on needed investments. Oh, and about the purely outdated entitlements like agriculture subsidies? Just end them already!

On the tax side, while it is important how much we tax, it is also important how we tax. The income tax punishes work; the payroll tax is regressive; the corporate tax harms our ability to compete; and the $1 trillion-plus in tax expenditures allow politicians to create a mammoth budget mess by using the tax code to "spend." One could hardly create a worse starting point.

An entirely new tax system, such as a progressive consumption tax, would meet many of the needs of our new fiscal and economic realities.

Such a tax would levy progressive rates on what you spend instead of what you earn and could reward work and savings.

But it could also ask more of the well-off, who, given the tremendous and disturbing growth in income inequality, need to be asked to shoulder more without dampening their incentives to work, build business and provide jobs. Again though, this will require a lot more than just tinkering at the margins.

This isn't the type of thinking you get in the normal budget process. We certainly didn't see it from President Obama's budget on Monday.

But it is true that out of every crisis comes an opportunity. Well, we are on the verge of a fiscal crisis if changes are not made. It is indeed the moment to turn this into an opportunity for a major rethinking of our national priorities and how we budget for them.

Op-Ed: No More Excuses on Debt, Mr. Obama

CNN Money | February 8, 2011


Anyone looking for serious fiscal leadership from President Obama in his State of the Union Address could have been nothing but disappointed.

He had the right narrative: jobs, investment, competitiveness and fiscal responsibility. But when it came to leadership on actually fixing the fiscal situation -- the hard part, as opposed to soft and fluffy wordsmithing -- there was none to be found.

The president failed to lay out specifics for how to tackle the country's massive debt overload. He even failed to embrace the proposal by his own fiscal commission -- even as a first step to jumpstart the conversation.

I don't want to be too hard on the president. In my heart of hearts, I believe he cares deeply about this issue. I believe he is worried about the damaging effects to the economy and our standard of living of large deficits and debt.

And I believe he has picked serious, thoughtful people to lead his economic team. They have had to take on a series of thankless tasks: navigating an imploding banking system, creating jobs in a jobless recovery and, now, fixing the massive budget disaster not of their own making.

Furthermore, I will grant you that he probably would not have gotten a standing ovation from Congress if he had displayed the kind of leadership I was hoping for.

Imagine ... "Yes, we will fix Social Security by reducing benefits and raising the retirement age; yes, we will bring down health care costs through greater cost-sharing, rationing, and a real health care budget; yes, defense and other discretionary spending will have to not just be frozen but cut; and, yes, revenues will have to go up. Yes we can!"

Right. We all know what kind of reaction that would have gotten.

But enough with the excuses.

Last year, the White House argued it couldn't get specific in its 2011 budget because the political climate wouldn't allow it. Any real proposals, such as entitlement cuts or broad-based tax increases, would have been attacked so viciously that they would have actually set back the cause. That was the argument.

Now a year has gone by, and the debt has increased by nearly $2 trillion. That's $2,000,000,000,000 or, in layman's terms, a whole helluva lot of money. The December tax deal just added another $850 billion to the tab.

Yet, I fear that we are heading to the same old warmed-over excuses for why this year's budget won't be a serious one: "We can't set forth a serious plan if House Republicans won't work with us." Or "The voters aren't ready."

I don't know whether administration officials will use another magic asterisk, budget gimmicks galore or rosy economic assumptions, but I doubt they will be offering a serious budget that improves the fiscal path.

So what then?

President Obama is still the only one who can use the bully pulpit to set the stage for these tough policy choices and bring all the parties to the table. Here is what he should do.

Set a fiscal target: The first step should be setting a target, such as bringing the debt down to 60% of GDP by 2020, or balancing the budget by 2025.

The president should make it a national objective. It's not as sexy as going to the moon, but certainly, it's no less important. Republicans can hardly object, owing to their support for the recent flurry of proposals for a balanced budget amendment. They may even want to balance the budget sooner.

Make the target law: The next step should be to write the fiscal target into law.

The law should include a "budget hammer" -- triggers to make sure the target is met. Then, if Congress didn't meet the target, across-the-board spending cuts and an automatic surtax would kick in. That should get Congress moving.

Get into the details: Yes, the president will have to offer specifics sooner or later. But so too will Congress, a process that will get started with their upcoming budgets.

If Obama doesn't want to use his commission report as a starting point (note, however, that he should) he can draw up his own plan. But realistically, he will have to let go of his "no new taxes on people making less than $250,000" mantra. He'll also have to find more savings in health care, make changes to Social Security other than just raising the payroll tax on the rich and look for real cuts in discretionary spending.

Hold a budget retreat: Finally, the president should host an honest negotiating session to work out the needed compromises between the various approaches. One former member of Congress suggests they work seven days a week, with no breaks for fundraising, to come up with a plan.

If the president doesn't use his upcoming budget to get specific, at the very least he needs to find a way to force the discussion with everyone at the table.

Op-Ed: Tax Plan: Get Ready for a Big Debt Hangover

CNN Money | December 13, 2010

What happened!? Just two weeks ago we were celebrating the willingness of the political class -- or at least an influential subset of it -- to finally get realistic and confront the nation's fiscal challenges.

The remarkable success of President Obama's fiscal commission came as a welcome surprise. The panel came up with an outstanding budget reform proposal that could put the U.S. budget on track and reassure credit markets.

And in highly uncharacteristic fashion, a diverse group of political leaders from Republican Sen. Tom Coburn to Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin chose to embrace the plan rather than use it to score political points.
It felt like we had climbed out of the rabbit hole, and responsible governing and leadership had returned.
And then with whipsaw speed, the White House and members of Congress came up with a stinker of a compromise tax cut plan. In typical Washington fashion, it included lots of goodies. The result was new spending; tax cuts for businesses; tax cuts for the rich; tax cuts for the middle class; tax cuts for the poor ... even tax cuts for the dead.
And it comes at a massive cost.
The Republican side of the group that struck this deal wanted to ensure that tax rates not rise while the economy is still weak (or ever, for that matter).
A temporary tax cut extension should have been accompanied by a mechanism to develop fundamental tax reform over the coming 12 months focusing on economic growth -- and not adding to the debt.
Instead, they merely extended all of the Bush tax cuts for two years, and added in a few extras for good measure, with every intention of extending them all again two years from now. (Related commentary: Will Dems fall for temporary tax gambit again?)
Did they offset the costs by suggesting spending cuts or future tax reforms? Nope.
On the other side, the White House wanted to put in place another round of stimulus (as well as find a vehicle for a slew of other measures they wanted to get through Congress).
They should have crafted a targeted and effective stimulus package -- focusing on the major weaknesses in the economy such as housing and the cash-strapped states -- with a plan to pay for the borrowing.
But did they come up with a particularly effective stimulus package: Should we expect a good return on the massive cost? Nope.
Tax cutters and would-be stimulators may try to call the deal a victory. But as for the rest of us, we get to look our children in the eye and explain how our nation just added another $1 trillion to their tab.
What has to happen now: We have a number of challenges in this country, including ensuring that the recovery sticks and controlling our national debt (which, in fact, is a necessary component of helping the recovery hold).
Yes, we should keep the overall tax burden low, but only by cutting spending, not by running up the debt.
And yes, we should put in place a well crafted stimulus package, based on good economics rather than convenient politics, that is both paid for over time and linked to a broader budget plan.
Stimulus should not be an excuse to throw in every last initiative on the wish list and pretend it is good for the economy.
Going forward, the first step will be creating a new budget framework, such as the one the Peterson-Pew Commission (which I served on) recommended.


The starting point for this plan would be to identify a particular fiscal goal, such as bringing the debt back down to 60% of GDP by the end of the decade. Then, if Congress doesn't pass a plan to meet that goal, automatic spending caps and revenue increases would kick in.

From this point forward, policymakers should not add a single dollar to the debt without combining it with this kind of a responsible budget framework. It doesn't matter what the issue is -- the budget, the debt ceiling, or any new spending and tax bills. No more blind debt.

And then over the next year, lawmakers and the president must come up with the specific spending changes and tax reforms to fill in the plan.

If they choose instead to continue borrowing hand over fist and using the weak economy as an excuse not to offset any costs or enact a debt reduction plan, no one should be surprised when credit markets cry "enough!" And that would bring about a very unhappy ending to the borrowing binge that it appears we are still on.


Op-Ed: A Debt Fix to Believe In

CNN Money | December 6, 2010

It was a gut wrenching roller-coaster ride of a week for anyone who followed the deliberations and votes of the Bowles-Simpson fiscal commission.

Would 14 members sign on to formally send the plan to Congress? (That was never going to happen.) Would the two co-chairmen, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, make like Thelma and Louise and jump off the ledge alone?

Or, would they get a solid bipartisan majority? Unbelievably, that's what happened. (Rundown on the plan)
Let me start by saying -- and call me a cynic -- that I never thought the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform would amount to much of anything.
President Obama put it in place, it seemed, just so he could do nothing until after the election and still be able to point to the never-expected-to-succeed commission as proof he was taking action.
Then he gave it a nutso mandate: Come up with 14 out of 18 votes so the lame-duck Congress would take an up-or down-vote. That threshold was out of reach, considering that some members were polarizing figures who didn't seem very committed to the commission's success.
And a vote in the lame-duck? When everyone knew the midterm elections were going to produce massive change on the Hill? That's not how to build support for incredibly tough choices that not only have to pass, but have to stick for decades.
So off the commission went with its impossible mission. But then an amazing thing happened.
Bowles and Simpson came up with an initial plan, and it was really ... really good. It did everything the country needs to do. Cut defense. Fix Social Security. Put health spending on a strict diet. Reform the tax code. Raise the gas tax.
And it found savings of nearly $4 trillion.
That opening Bowles-Simpson plan was remarkable. I thought they might as well go home because that was where the story should end. After all, it would only go downhill after that.
Bowles and Simpson then spent the subsequent weeks in shuttle negotiations to build support from other commissioners. I assumed they were watering it down and caving to individual interests, members' fears and political bullies.
And then they came out with another plan. And it was really ... really good. Watered down? Ha. In some areas it was even better.
But the most amazing thing of all was the support it got.
Not only did 11 of 18 members support it -- a bipartisan super majority. More than a few lawmakers on the commission, knowing full well they would get heat from all sides, showed true leadership and courage and lent their support.
Sens. Judd Gregg, Kent Conrad, Tom Coburn, Michael Crapo and Dick Durbin, and Rep. John Spratt, all deserve a standing ovation. Cheesy, I know, but I can tell you there were more than a few C-Span viewers --including this one -- who shed a tear. (Panel members: Full list)
The way forward
So where from here?
It looks like the House is poised to continue its posturing and political negotiating instead of moving to the next phase of cooperating. Note to lawmakers: The markets are increasingly uneasy about debt problems in Europe; the possibility of contagion is simmering.
Obviously, the president has to get in the game. He cannot expect lawmakers to make all the hard choices without showing that he is willing to do the same. And while his proposed public sector pay freeze is a savvy small start, it will take much more than that.
Obama will have to say directly that we should cut discretionary spending, raise the retirement age, eliminate the bulk of "tax earmarks" or take other such measures.
The real hope, I think, lies with the Senate.
The commission members who supported the plan are true leaders, not just on fiscal issues, but to the left and the right in their respective parties.
Those senators will have to make the case to their colleagues. Yes, this plan -- or a similar one -- is imperfect. Yes, it is filled with things we all hate. Yes, it is politically risky. But it is critical to securing the nation's fiscal and economic future.
Policy changes will have to be made to get more support. Here are a few suggestions:
Both sides seem to agree we have to do more on health care. Everyone needs to be reassured that the tough choices, once made, will stick. This is particularly important so that neither side feels they gave too much on spending or taxes while the other pulls back, and will require tough new budget enforcement measures and new sets of automatic triggers.
And outdated, inefficient and unnecessary programs have to be identified and eliminated -- both to reduce the deficit and to make room for necessary investments.
But the bottom line is that for the first time, in a very long time, we have seen a remarkable demonstration of political leadership around the debt crisis. And for the first time, in a very long time, it appears that the United States is poised for a fiscal turnaround.

It ended up being a great week.


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