Other CRFB Papers

Op-Ed: Sequester Isn't Enough

USA Today | March 13, 2013

Just as Republicans and Democrats are poised for the next battle to bring down deficits through their budget proposals, a new argument is emerging about the impact of the sequestration. The New York Times, among others, is reporting that these forced cuts, combined with other negotiated savings, get us close to the deficit reduction we need — $4 trillion over the next decade. This is dangerously misleading, whether or not sequestration remains intact in budget negotiations.

The truth is we are not even close to addressing the real drivers of our fiscal cancer, and we're running out of time. Let's set the record straight on the myths standing in the way of budget sanity:

Reductions in the projected 10-year deficit matter. That's the wrong target. Those figures are easily and often manipulated. Assumptions about the future and technical details drive the numbers as much as real change in government programs. The measure of progress less prone to manipulation is the percentage of public debt to GDP.

Most economists will tell you that if we want to avoid economic harm and damage to our ability to respond to foreign crises or domestic catastrophes, we should stabilize public debt at about 60% of gross domestic product. Back in 2010, before any of the deficit reduction deals took place, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projected under its more realistic set of assumptions that public debt to GDP would be 100% by 2023. Based on reasonable assumptions, budget agreements since then have resulted in an estimated debt to GDP no lower than 80% in 2023 and rising thereafter. That's progress, but to get moving in the right direction, we need to add $1.5 trillion or so to the $4 trillion in deficit cuts so far.

Cuts to our deficit are coming overwhelmingly from spending, not tax increases. That's exaggerated. The Times asserts that cuts to date represent $4 in spending reductions to every $1 in new revenue. But that calculation conveniently excludes the anticipated costs of the Affordable Care Act.

At the time of enactment, the congressional budget watchdog said the health law would increase spending by $382 billion over 10 years and raise taxes by $525 billion. Based on these estimates, the law would decrease the deficit, so why not include these spending and revenue numbers in the ratio?

If you do, we get a ratio of spending cuts to revenue increases of less than 2 to 1. Quite a change. Even that could be too optimistic. The chief actuary of Medicare reports that over 75 years, projected savings from health reform might come in short $10 trillion.

Federal budget cuts we've made are improving the long term budget outlook. That's flat out wrong. We have not made significant cuts to the part of the budget that is responsible for our mounting fiscal problems. As of today, 64% of our federal budget is mandatory spending, meaning that it is on autopilot rather than voted on by Congress. By 2023, it is projected to be 76% of the budget. Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security account for most mandatory spending and, along with other health care costs, are the real drivers behind our growing long-term debt. Our aging population will also help ensure that these budget items gobble up more and more federal money.

Yet, except for revenue raised in the recent "fiscal cliff" deal, our reduction has come largely from cuts in discretionary spending. This is money that goes to our national defense as well as to investments in our future, such as education, transportation, infrastructure and research. Without sufficiently funding these needs, America will not grow as fast and will become less competitive over time. In 2023, discretionary spending will be 5.5% of the economy, split roughly between defense and non-defense programs. That's a huge drop from today's 7.7%.

The fiscal proposal from House budget Chairman Paul Ryan properly recognizes that spending on mandatory programs, including Medicare and Medicaid, needs to be reduced. However, it fails to provide the additional revenue needed to avoid more discretionary spending cuts. While Senate budget Chair Patty Murray has yet to release her fiscal plan, it will likely include significantly more revenue, but it is unclear how much in reductions to programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security will be included.

Elected officials must recognize that slashing discretionary spending doesn't treat our fiscal disease. Our elected officials should tell the American people the truth about our fiscal condition and its causes.

Until we fundamentally reform our tax code in a way that brings in more revenue, address demographic trends that threaten our social insurance system, and rein in heath care, we can't claim to have achieved deficit reduction in an honest and meaningful way. Meanwhile, the clock is against us: 2014 is an election year for Congress, and a "grand bargain" will be off the table for political reasons. The presidential election cycle kicks in right after. Tough choices will get delayed further.

All of which means that 2013 is the time to act. There is a critical opportunity to speak truth, think big and act bold. Right now, we are getting the opposite from our elected officials.

Op-Ed: The Sequester and Fiscal Policy

New York Times | March 8, 2013

The sequester – the large, across-the-board cuts in federal government spending that began to take effect on March 1 and are scheduled to persist through the next decade – is a product of political stalemate and ideology cloaked in the language of fiscal responsibility. Despite what some of its champions proclaim, there is no economic justification for the sequester. It is the wrong medicine for what ails the economy now and the wrong cure for its future budgetary challenges.

As a result of a deep and lingering deficiency in aggregate demand, the United States economy is operating far below its potential. Real gross domestic product fell by 8 percent relative to its non-inflationary potential level in 2008 and has remained about 8 percent below the level consistent with its pre-recession growth rate ever since.

The gap between the actual and potential level of output means about $900 billion of forgone goods and services this year alone. This tremendous waste of productive potential is reflected in an unemployment rate of 7.9 percent, a higher rate than at any point in the 24 years before the depths of the 2008 recession, and a poverty rate of 15 percent, significantly above the average of the last 30 years.

High levels of unemployment impose substantial costs not only in terms of human suffering and forgone output now but also in terms of the economy’s productive potential in the future. The longer the economy operates below its current capacity, the slower the growth of its future capacity as a result of diminished risk-taking, forgone investment and the erosion of skills.

Besides its sheer size, what’s remarkable about the gap between actual and potential output is its persistence, despite a sustained and unprecedented effort by the Federal Reserve to boost demand and hasten the recovery. For more than five years, the Fed has held the nominal short-term interest rate near zero – its effective lower bound — with a promise to keep it there at least until the unemployment rate falls to 6.5 percent. The Fed has also been purchasing about $1 trillion of long-term government bonds annually. As a result of these actions, the nominal yield on the 10-year Treasury bond, a measure of the borrowing costs of the federal government, hovers around 2 percent, less than a third of its 40-year average, and both short-term and long-term interest rates are less than the rate of inflation.

In a speech earlier this week to the National Association of Business Economists, the Fed’s vice chairwoman, Janet Yellen, reaffirmed the Fed’s commitment to its bold accommodative policies until there is a “substantial improvement in the outlook for the labor market.”

Under current economic conditions, with significant unutilized resources, low inflation and highly accommodative monetary policy, contractionary fiscal policy has contractionary effects: spending cuts and tax increases reduce aggregate demand, choke job creation and dampen growth. In these circumstances, more deficit reduction is neither necessary nor wise; it is counterproductive. A more anemic recovery means less deficit reduction for any given set of fiscal policies.

Spending cuts at the local, state and federal levels have been powerful headwinds constraining growth during the last three years. And the headwinds are intensifying this year.

Taken together, the caps on discretionary spending imposed in 2011, the tax increases in the 2013 tax deal – especially the increase in payroll taxes that will trim household incomes by about $125 billion – and the sequester will cut about 1.5 percentage points from 2013 growth, consigning the economy to yet another year of tepid recovery and elevated unemployment. The sequester cuts alone will result in a loss of at least 700,000 jobs. And these arbitrary across-the-board cuts will inflict more damage on the economy than sensibly targeted cuts of the same magnitude.

Mr. Bernanke admonished Congress in his recent statement that monetary policy “cannot carry the entire burden of ensuring a speedier return to economic health.” Discretionary fiscal policy in the form of more debt-financed government spending is warranted and would be effective. Recent research finds that the multiplier for discretionary fiscal policy – the change in output caused by a change in discretionary government spending – is larger when interest rates are low and underutilized resources are available.

Indeed, under these conditions it is possible that increases in government spending will end up paying for themselves in the long run by speeding the recovery and stemming unnecessary losses in the economy’s future capacity. This possibility is the greatest for government spending in investment areas like research, education and infrastructure that generate sizable returns over time.

Mr. Bernanke also advised Congress that “not all tax and spending programs are created equal with respect to their effects on the economy,” and emphasized the importance of investments in work-force skills, research and development and infrastructure. Unfortunately, as a result of the caps on discretionary spending and the sequester, these areas will fall victim to significant cuts over the next decade.

If these policies are enforced, the Congressional Budget Office projects that discretionary spending will fall to 5.5 percent of G.D.P. by 2023, more than three percentage points below its 1973-2012 average, with nonmilitary outlays falling to 2.7 percent of G.D.P. compared with a 40-year average of 4 percent.

The economy needs less rather than more deficit reduction in the near term. But less deficit reduction also means more debt accumulation over time. Even with the sequester and the discretionary caps, federal debt held by the public is projected to recent Congressional testimony remain around 75 percent of G.D.P. during the next decade, compared with an average of about 40 percent between 1960 and the 2008 recession.

A large and growing government debt relative to the size of the economy has several negative potential consequences. Most important, when the economy is operating at capacity, it crowds out private saving and investment, reducing the capital stock, productivity and wage growth. It puts upward pressure on long-term interest rates and increases the cost of servicing the debt. It weakens investor confidence in the debt, heightens the risk of a financial crisis and reduces the government’s budgetary flexibility to address future, unexpected shocks.

The economy needs a long-run plan of revenue increases and spending cuts to put the federal budget on a sustainable path that will stabilize and reduce gradually the debt- to-G.D.P. ratio. Congress should jettison the sharp, front-loaded and arbitrary sequester cuts that will harm the recovery and work on such a plan.

Unfortunately, the political stalemate and ideology that produced the sequester appear to rule out this approach at least for now. Perhaps when the sequester’s costs become apparent, Congress will be forced back to the negotiating table.

Op-Ed: A Bad Sequester Is Worlds Better Than No Budget Deal At All

Forbes | February 26, 2013

Barring an unexpected breakthrough agreement between the Democratic Senate and the Republican House, the federal budget will be subjected to a sequester which will reduce discretionary spending by about $86 billion in calendar 2013.

That $86 billion is only a bit more than 10% of the “fiscal cliff” that faced the country at the end of the year. It’s a painful cliff, but not a large one. The American Taxpayer Relief Act resolved most the cliff problem, but the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) says that the sequester will reduce short-term growth in an already slow economy. On the other hand, no sequester at all would mean an even greater reduction in long-term growth.

The worst feature of the sequester is that it is the wrong way to reduce spending. The cuts are mandated across-the-board in most discretionary spending areas. The good programs will be cut along with the bad. The most hard-hit casualty will be the Defense Department (DOD). It can stand cuts, but they need to be carefully selected. The sequester does not select. The sequester meat-axe slices muscle along with the fat.

It is hard to believe that allegedly smart people could have agreed to such a device. The President and the leaders of both houses signed off on the sequester in the belief that because it was so bad it would force them into a compromise deficit/debt reduction plan despite their philosophic disagreements.

As it seems to be turning out, our representatives’ philosophic disagreements are more precious to them than the health of the nation’s economy. Republicans want to protect tax rates and Democrats want to protect entitlement programs. They would prefer the sequester, admittedly smaller than the tax cliff, to any form of compromise.

The moment of truth is only a week away. Most odds-makers believe the Sequester will actually occur. However, the policymakers do have other choices: (1) they could postpone it, in hopes of making a later deal (2); they could trash the sequester, and sacrifice long-term growth for another short-term fling; (3) they could give the Executive Departments leeway to make the cuts where best tolerated; or (4) they could live with the sequester for a few weeks or months, and then holler “uncle” and opt for (1) , (2), or (3) above.

This writer believes that the sequester will happen. However, when airport security lines triple, the national parks open later and close earlier, and our military tours abroad are extended, there is a good chance that Congress will begin to rethink the problem, particularly with respect to DOD. If so, at that point, it is critical that Congress replace a dumb cut with a smart cut of equal value, rather than deferring or repealing the sequester.

Our debt is already high. CBO sees it going higher rather than stabilizing under the most likely budget scenarios over the next 10 years. The President’s budget drives the debt ratio up around 80% in 10 years. That’s one reason why cancelation, or deferral, of the sequester would be unwise. Over 10 years, the sequester would save well over $1 trillion. Another reason is that it makes no sense to swap short-term faster growth for long-term reduced growth.

If no comprehensive compromise (one with total 10-year reductions of Bowles-Simpson proportions) is in sight, it is better to accept the stupid cuts of the sequester than to postpone deficit/debt reduction plans again. The best plan would be smart cuts. The sequester is a distant second choice, but, clearly, it is better than nothing.

Op-Ed: Education Presidents And Governors: Ain't Gonna Happen

The Government We Deserve | February 20, 2013

In last week’s State of the Union speech, President Obama put great emphasis on expanding early childhood education. He’s not alone in recognizing the vital role of education as the launching pad for 21st century growth. George W. Bush wanted to be known as the “education president,” and so did his father, George H.W. Bush.

Many governors have similar aspirations. Jerry Brown, for instance, has gotten headlines for his efforts to restore the California university system to its former high status. State support for higher education has fallen dramatically there, particularly as a share of the budget and of Californians’ incomes but also in real terms. Brown even supported a tax increase to try to reverse this trend.

While I strongly support these types of effort, right now pro-education governors and the president are fighting a losing battle. Their new initiatives merely slow down their retreat against a health cost juggernaut.

California isn’t much different from many other states. The college bound and their parents witness this declining state support in the form of ever-rising costs and student debt. Less recognized is the fall in academic rankings of the nation’s leading public universities, such as many of the formerly extolled California universities and my own alma mater, the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

State support of education hasn’t just declined at postsecondary schools. In recent years, legislators have assigned K–12 education smaller shares of state budgets as well. During the recession, teachers were laid off and not replaced in many states. Efforts to expand early childhood education have also stalled, although the president’s initiative may give it some temporary momentum.

Federal spending policies only reinforce the longer-term anti-education trend. An annual Urban Institute study on the children’s budget suggests future continual declines in total federal support for education as long as current policies and laws hold up.

Education spending will continue to decline as long as health costs keep rising rapidly and eating up so much of the additional government revenues that accompany economic growth. The figure below, prepared by National Governors Association (NGA) Executive Director Dan Crippen and presented by his deputy, Barry Anderson, at a recent National Academy of Social Insurance conference, tells much of the state story: health costs essentially squeeze out almost everything else.

These rising health costs don’t just place a squeeze on government budgets; they also are one source of the paltry growth in median household cash income over recent decades.

Within states, health costs show up primarily in the Medicaid budget. As the NGA numbers demonstrate, recent federal health reform did little and is expected to do little to control these state costs, despite large, mainly federally financed subsidies for expanding the number of people eligible for benefits.

With populations aging, state and federal governments now also face demographic pressures to increase their health budgets. Large shares of the Medicaid budget go for long-term and similar support for the elderly and the disabled. This budgetary threat also extends to revenues as larger shares of the population retire, earn less, and pay fewer taxes.

The next time someone tells you that we should wait another ten years to control health costs because we’ll be so much smarter and less partisan then, remind him or her that this procrastinating implicitly advocates further zeroing out state and federal spending on education—and the children’s budget more generally. Presidents and governors will never succeed with their education initiatives until they stop the health cost juggernaut in its tracks.

Op-Ed: The Country Must Act to Address the Debt

US News & World Report | February 20, 2012

My old pal Erskine Bowles and I were deeply disappointed by the failure to reach agreement on a long-term plan to put the country back on a fiscally sustainable path during negotiations leading up to the "fiscal cliff." But the problem isn't going away, so neither are we! That's why we decided to go "once more unto the breach" and put forward a blueprint for a new framework to address our mounting debt.

This country needs to act—and soon—to put in place a plan which will truly deal with our destructive debt problem and put that debt on a clear downward path relative to the economy. And we shouldn't do that with stupid, mindless, across-the-board cuts (sequester) to important investments; we should replace these cuts with targeted spending cuts, structural entitlement reforms, and comprehensive tax reform.

We simply can not afford another year of fiscal brinksmanship with no real solutions being offered by either side. There is no way around it: Democrats and Republicans are going to have to come together to find common ground if they have any hope of hauling the country back on a fiscally sustainable path.

Our present activity is to remind both sides how close they were last December before negotiations broke down. And we wanted to push both sides to go outside of their comfort zones in the spirit of principled compromise.

We said that Democrats are going to have to go further in reforming entitlements, particularly healthcare—than they would want, but we can and must do it in a way that protects the most vulnerable in our society. We said Republicans are going to have to accept more revenues, not through tax increases but through tax reform which repeals or reforms various deductions, exclusions, loopholes, and credits—which are really just spending by another name and most of which go mainly to the wealthy—in order to reduce the deficit and lower rates.

There is no one solution to the problem, and the proposal we put forward is not perfect and is not even our ideal plan. It is the minimum that needs to be done to bring our debt under control. It is going to take real guts and political courage on both sides to come together to find common ground for the good of the country. We hope this plan can serve as a mark for those discussions to move forward.

It is time to revive the grand bargain. It is our best present hope for sustained economic growth and a brighter future.

Op-Ed: Obama, We Need Honest Dialogue on Debt

CNN | February 16, 2013

This week the president faced the American people to talk about, among other things, the budget. He said the right things. During his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, he drew a link between responsible fiscal policy and the important issues of jobs, the middle class and economic growth. He emphasized the need for fiscal responsibility.

He pointed out that while some savings have been accomplished, there's still much to be done. But his objective of saving another $1.5 trillion falls well short of what is needed to put the debt on a sustainable path. A recent analysis by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget found that a minimum of $2.4 trillion in additional savings is needed to achieve that basic goal.

He acknowledged that compromise will have to drive negotiations and that no one will see a deal come together exactly as they would choose. But when it comes to specifics, the president continues to take the easy way out, instead of using the platform that he alone has to help the country understand both what's at stake and what it will take. It's relatively easy to talk about things like scaling back tax loopholes for corporations and the well-off, asking the rich to pay more as part of Medicare, and providing fewer subsidies to drug companies. But it will take more than that.

Instead of just replacing or retooling the blunt sequester, we do need to find savings from defense. We also need to put Social Security on a path toward solvency and the sooner we do it the better. We should protect those who depend on the program, and running from the financial imbalances it faces does just the opposite.

Tax reform also will require tackling popular, yet expensive and inefficient, tax breaks -- from the health care exclusion to the home mortgage deduction -- if we truly want to overhaul our outdated and anti-growth tax code. Reforming the tax breaks for the rich and well-connected is a must, but it's not enough to really fix a tax code that hemorrhages more than $1 trillion in forgone revenues a year.

The bottom line is deficit reduction is difficult, the president knows that, and he should start an honest dialogue with the American public about what it will take to help move the issue forward.

The emphasis he put on the issue this week was encouraging, but the proof will be in how he leads going forward. In recent fiscal negotiations, we have been locked in a game of you go first, no you go first between the two parties when it comes to how they would get specific on entitlement and tax reform. The risk is that both will find it too politically convenient to hide behind the easy pieces of taxing the rich and discretionary spending caps--both of which have been enacted, and neither of which are sufficient to fix the problem—instead of focusing on the real issues of entitlement and tax reform.

Only the president can start this honest dialogue. If he steps forward and starts putting real specifics on the table for some of the hard choices and uses his platform to explain to the country why it is so important not to duck from these issues as we work to get the economy back on track, his speech will have been a great start to a serious effort. Otherwise, it will be just a lot of empty words.

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