A Global Problem with No Solution

Filed Under (Environmental Policy, Finance, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Don Fullerton on Sep 25, 2011

If one town’s water pollution flows into another town, the two towns can negotiate a solution with no need for the state to intervene.  But if all towns are polluting all neighboring towns, the lines of communication are too complex to negotiate – requiring the state to pass a law to solve the problem.

If one state’s water pollution flows into another state, the two states can negotiate a solution with no need for Federal intervention.  But if all states are polluting all neighboring states, the lines of communication are too complex to negotiate – and it takes a national government to solve the problem.

In other words, those problems have solutions.  If one nation’s water pollution flows into another nation, then (potentially, at least) the two nations can negotiate a solution with no need for a global government to intervene.  But if all nations are polluting all neighboring nations, the lines of communication are too complex to negotiate – and no global government exists to solve the problem.

I’m currently pessimistic about two of the worst problems the world has faced: global climate change, and global financial contagion.  Both are “externalities” in the classic sense.  Each nation’s greenhouse gas emissions pollute the whole world, and the only really effective solution is a worldwide global agreement to reduce emissions.  In fact, we don’t really “need” all nations to reduce emissions; all we really need is an agreement among all nations saying that if SOME countries reduce emissions then the other countries won’t increase emissions to steal their business.  But the lines of communication are too complex to negotiate – and no global government exists to solve the problem.

Environmental policy is my usual bailiwick.  At the moment, however, I’m even more worried about global financial contagion.  It seems that one small country can have lax financial regulations that allow banks or investment companies to take on too much risk.  Or a small country can overspend, taking on too much debt.  In the olden days, that country could go down in flames, with no big problem for the rest of the world.  With tremendously increased globalization, however, all financial markets are highly integrated.  One country’s borrowing may come from any or all other countries of the world, and one nation’s problem become the world’s problem.  If banks in other countries loan to that small country, then a financial crisis in that small country may create fear about the financial well-being of the banks that lent to them, causing a run on the banks in all those other countries.  Moreover, globalization means much more trade in commodities.  If one small country faces severe financial difficulties and must cut back all spending, that reduces aggregate demand worldwide, and can spread a recession worldwide.

A strong global government could rein in the poorly managed countries by requiring larger capital requirements, careful financial scrutiny, and only tax-financed spending.  But we don’t have any such global government.  As a result, even a small country like Greece can over-spend for years without oversight.  The situation in Greece may be made worse when banks in other countries raise the rate at which Greece can turn over its debt and borrow again, making the financial situation in Greece even worse.

The problem may be caused by Greece or not.  Regardless of “fault”, if Greece any small country were to go into default in years past, then the cost would be primarily on that small country.  Now Greece could go bankrupt and impose horrible costs on the entire World?!?

What Happens When the Disability Insurance Trust Fund Runs Out of Money?

Filed Under (Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Jeffrey Brown on Aug 29, 2011

Last week, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) put out an update of the financial status of the Social Security system’s finances (using, by the way, new “infographics” to illustrate the issues).  To policy wonks like myself who follow Social Security’s more closely than we do the Major League Baseball standings, the report simply confirms what we already know – namely, that the Social Security system is on a financially unsustainable course and that it is doomed to insolvency unless Congress gets its act together and makes some difficult decisions.

What really hit the news cycles in the past week, however, was the fact that the expected date of insolvency of the Disability trust fund is now just five years and a few months away – the year 2017.  This is a couple of decades earlier than we usually talk about exhausting the Social Security trust funds, and thus, I suspect, this news has caused some confusion.  So this blog attempts to explain how the trust funds work, and what the exhaustion of the trust fund means for recipients of disability payments.

First, it is worth knowing that the Social Security program is really more than one program.  Formally, there is the OASI program (Old-Age and Surivivors’ Insurance – think of this as the program for retirees and their widowed spouses), and the DI program (Disability Insurance – this is the one that pays benefits to workers who have a disability that severely limits their ability to work).

Second, while we often talk about the “Social Security trust fund,” there are, in fact, two separate funds – one for OASI, and one for DI.  While these are legally separate funds, they are often talked about as a “combined trust fund,” and most of the debate about the long-term problems facing Social Security use data on the combined trust fund.  This masks, however, the fact that the current financing status of the OASI and DI programs are not exact duplicates.  Specifically, the DI trust fund is expected to be exhausted much sooner than the OASI trust fund – 2017 according to the CBO’s most recent estimate.

Third, while we economists can forever debate the economic meaning of the trust funds (I will spare you this debate for now), there is little question about the legal meaning of the trust funds.  Specifically, it is widely understood that so long as the DI trust fund has a positive balance, the Social Security Administration can continue to send out benefit checks to DI recipients, even if the tax revenue flowing into Social Security from the DI portion of the payroll tax (known as the FICA tax) is insufficient to cover benefit payments.  This is because the DI trust fund can redeem the U.S. government bonds that it is holding.  And as long as the U.S. Treasury does not default on its obligations, this means that the Social Security Administration has the legal authority to issue checks.

So, what happens if and when the DI Trust Fund runs dry in 2017?  Well, if Congress failed to act in any way (an outcome I consider implausible, and will say more about below), the Social Security would find itself in a position in which it did not have sufficient dedicated revenue to cover benefits.  The most likely scenario is that they would begin delaying the issuance of checks to beneficiaries.   Eventually, the backlog of checks would grow so long that it would amount to a benefit cut – beneficiaries may only get 11 checks per year instead of 12, for example.  This would be a terrible outcome, because no matter what your views on the role or size of government, it is hard to explain how reneging on payments to some of our most financially vulnerable citizens is the best way to close a budget shortfall.

You may wonder why the Social Security Administration could not just “borrow” some of the OASI money to pay the DI beneficiaries.  And the short answer is that the agency does not appear to have the authority to do this.  Rather, it would require an act of Congress to re-allocate the proportion of the payroll tax revenue that goes to each program.  As they did in the 1980s, for example, Congress could simply state that a larger fraction of the existing FICA tax go to DI instead of OASI.  This patches the short-term problem facing DI, and allows checks to go out.  Of course, it is also “robbing Peter to pay Paul” because it simply makes the OASI trust fund go dry that much sooner.

What we really need is thoughtful reform of both the OASI and DI programs.  Both are important programs to the well-being of individuals who are retired or disabled, but both programs are also not financially sustainable.  We need to adjust benefits, taxes or eligibility in order to bring the system back into long-term balance.

So the good news is that those who rely on the Social Security Disability Insurance program most likely have little to fear about the 2017 insolvency date, because Congress will most likely paper over that problem by reallocating the FICA tax.  But the bad news is that their ability to do so will most likely lead to further delays in making the serious reforms that these programs so badly need.

Green Taxes Part III: Potential Revenue for Illinois?

Filed Under (Environmental Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Don Fullerton on Jul 15, 2011

In my last two blogs, I wrote about ways to meet the Illinois state revenue needs, ways that might work better than the increase in the income tax.  This blog continues the list of possible “green taxes”.  In general, a green tax applies either directly on pollution emissions or on goods whose use causes pollution.  For raising a given amount of revenue, the basic argument for green taxes can be summarized by the adage: “tax waste, not work”.   That is, a tax on pollution might have good effects on the environment, because it discourages pollution.  In contrast, an income tax discourages earning income.

In early January 2011, the State of Illinois enacted legislation to raise the personal income tax rate from 3% to 5% and to increase the corporate income rate from 4.8% to 7%.  Along with a cap on spending growth, these tax increases reduce the state’s projected budget deficit in 2011 by $3.8 billion (from $10.9 to $7.1 billion).  The governor justified the tax increases on the grounds that the State’s “fiscal house was burning” (Chicago Tribune, January 12, 2011).  In my piece with Dan Karney for a recent IGPA Forum, we don’t debate what caused the fiscal crisis in Illinois, nor argue the merits of cutting spending versus raising revenue.  Instead, we just take it as given that politicians decided to raise revenue as part of the solution to the State’s deficit.  Then we analyze the use of a few green taxes as alternative ways to raise revenue.

While many green taxes are possible, we focus on four examples that have the potential to raise large amounts of revenue: carbon pricing, gasoline taxes, trucking tolls, and garbage fees.  Indeed, as we show, a reasonable set of tax rates on these four items can generate as much revenue as the income tax increase.  We apply each hypothetical green tax directly to historical quantities of emissions (or polluting products) in order to obtain an approximate level of potential revenue generation. 

In a short series of blogs, one per week, we now discuss each of the four green taxes and their potential for revenue generation.  In past weeks we covered Carbon Pricing and Gasoline Taxes.  This week we cover Trucking Toll and Garbage Fees.

Every day hundreds of thousands of vehicles crowd Illinois’s roads and highways.   Data from the Federal Highway Administration indicates that over 50,000 trucks (six tires and over) cross into Illinois from neighboring states along the interstate highway system.  While these trucks bring needed goods to Illinois, they also congest the roads, degrade the road surfaces, and fill the air with soot.  They also become involved in vehicle accidents that cost the lives of many in Illinois.  To compensate the state, Illinois can impose a toll for long-haul trucks using Illinois’s highways.  For example, a $5 per truck toll on 50,000 trucks daily would raise almost $100 million annually.  (In comparison, the existing Illinois toll road system generates approximately $600 million annually.)  The truck toll can be implemented using existing transponder technology deployed at weigh stations along the interstate highways.  (As an aside, we note, the constitutionality of state trucking tolls is not clear, because the federal government determines the rules of interstate commerce; however, major portions of the existing interstate highway system are subject to tolls, including the heavily travelled I-95 corridor in Delaware. )

Next, residents of Illinois generate approximately 19 million tons of garbage per year (or more than one ton per person per year), and 60 percent of that waste ends up in landfills.  Currently, large municipal waste landfill operators currently pay state fees that total $2.22 per ton of solid waste dumped.  But few municipalities in Illinois charge fees designed to discourage the creation of waste by residents (Don Fullerton and Sarah M. Miller, 2010, “Waste and Recycling in Illinois,” Illinois Report 2010, pp.70-80). 

However, empirical evidence shows that taxing garbage at the residential level does reduce garbage production (Don Fullerton and Thomas C. Kinnaman, 1996, “Household Responses to Pricing Garbage by the Bag,” American Economic Review, 86, pp. 971-84).  Yet the exact garbage taxation mechanism varies by program.  For instance, a fee can be levied on garbage bags themselves or on the containers that hold the garbage bags.  Regardless, a tax rate equivalent to one penny per pound of garbage would generate almost $240 million in revenue per year, or 6.3% of the expected revenue from the income tax increase.

Finally, consider a Portfolio Approach.  Remember, at issue here is not whether to raise taxes.  We presume the State has decided to raise taxes by $3.8 billion (as done already through the income tax increase).  Here, we merely explore alternative ways to raise revenue other than through the income tax. 

Anyway, instead of implementing only one of the green taxes describe above, Illinois could choose to implement several green taxes simultaneously.   This portfolio approach would keep rates low for each individual green tax, but still generate large amounts of total revenue that can add up to a large share of the total expected revenue from the recent income tax hike.  According to the numbers in all three blogs, one simple and moderate plan would combine the following green taxes and pay for more than  half of the needed revenue:  A carbon tax of $10/ton would collect $1 billion (raising electricity prices by about 7.5%), a gas tax increase of 14 cents per gallon would collect $0.7 billion (raising gas prices by about 4.4%), a trucking toll of $5 would collect $100 million, and a garbage fee of one penny per pound would collect $240 million.  Then the recent income tax increase could be cut by more than half.

Moreover, green taxes have the added benefit that they provide incentives to reduce the polluting effects of carbon emissions, gasoline use, truck exhaust, and household garbage generation.

Green Taxes Part II: Potential Revenue for Illinois?

Filed Under (Environmental Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Don Fullerton on Jul 7, 2011

Last week, I wrote about carbon pricing as a way to meet the Illinois state revenue needs (instead of an increase in the income tax).  This week, in the “continuation”, I write about a possible increase in the gasoline tax.  First, I’ll set the stage again.

In early January 2011, the State of Illinois enacted legislation to raise the personal income tax rate from 3% to 5% and to increase the corporate income rate from 4.8% to 7%.  Along with a cap on spending growth, these tax increases reduce the state’s projected budget deficit in 2011 by $3.8 billion (from $10.9 to $7.1 billion).  The governor justified the tax increases on the grounds that the State’s “fiscal house was burning” (Chicago Tribune, January 12, 2011).  In my piece with Dan Karney for a recent IGPA Forum, we don’t debate the reasons for the underlying fiscal crisis in the State of Illinois, nor argue the merits of cutting spending versus raising revenue to balance the budget.  Instead, we just stipulate that politicians decided to raise revenue as part of the solution to the State’s deficit.  Then we analyze the use of “green taxes” as an alternate means of raising revenue that could mitigate or eliminate the need for increasing income taxes.

In general, green taxes are taxes either directly on pollution emissions or on goods whose use causes pollution.  In the revenue-raising context however, the basic argument for green taxes can be summarized by the adage: “tax waste, not work”.   That is, a tax on pollution might have good effects on the environment, because it discourages pollution.  In contrast, an income tax discourages earning income.

While many green taxes could be implemented, we focus on four specific examples that have the potential to raise large amounts of revenue: carbon pricing, gasoline taxes, trucking tolls, and garbage fees.  Indeed, as we show, a reasonable set of tax rates on these four items can generate as much revenue as the income tax increase.  We apply each hypothetical green tax directly to historical quantities of emissions (or polluting products) in order to obtain an approximate level of potential revenue generation. 

In a short series of blogs, one per week, we now discuss each of the four green taxes and their potential for revenue generation.  This week: Gasoline Taxes.

Gasoline sales in Illinois are subject to a state excise tax set in 1990 at $0.19 per gallon.  In addition, other state fees and a federal excise tax of $0.18 per gallon are applied to gasoline sales for a total tax rate in Illinois of $0.61 per gallon, according to the American Petroleum Institute.  However, economic studies find that the existing tax rates on gasoline are below the optimal rate that would account for all the costs of pollution and time wasted due to traffic jams.  For instance, the “optimal” U.S. total gasoline tax has been estimated to be about $1 per gallon, according to Ian Parry and Kenneth Small (2005), “Does Britain of the United States Have the Right Gasoline Tax” [American Economic Review, 95(4): 1276-89].  Illinois would have to raise the tax rate by 40 cents to reach that $1 total optimal rate.  The third line of table 2 shows that a $0.40 per gallon gasoline tax hike would collect approximately $2.0 billion (just over half of the $3.8 billion from the income tax increase).  Yet that tax increase would raise by 12.4 percent the $15.9 billion Illinoisans spend annually on gasoline.

Table 2 includes alternative calculations of revenue generation levels from a gasoline tax.  For example, a generic 5 cent per gallon excise tax increase would generate $250 million (see table 2 line 1). 

The existing $0.19 per gallon excise tax in Illinois is not indexed to inflation, so the real revenue to the State from the gasoline excise tax has steady fallen over time.  The second line of table 2 calculates that the state could adjust the tax rate back to its 1990 purchasing power by raising the rate 14 cents per gallon (from 19 cents to 33 cents).  That would just account for inflation since 1990.  The increase in revenue would be $700 million (which is 18.3% of the expected revenue from the income tax increase).

Illinois residents would then pay 4.4% more for gasoline, INSTEAD of paying more income tax.  The point is that the gas tax would discourage driving and air pollution, instead of discouraging workers from earning income.



Why the U.S. Should Want to Reduce Climate Damage to Other Nations

Filed Under (Environmental Policy) by Don Fullerton on Jun 10, 2011

The usual argument against unilateral U.S. effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions and reduce climate change is that we’d impose significant costs on ourselves, with most benefits going to other countries.   Thus, we should wait for an international agreement.  By the way, an international agreement is not going to happen.  Meanwhile we wait, which means more global warming, sea level rise, and increased extreme weather events like floods, droughts, and hurricanes.   That argument may also include the claim that U.S. agricultural productivity might increase from a little global warming, and the U.S. is rich enough to protect itself against sea level rise. 

According to that logic, we can’t worry too much about damages to other countries, as we can’t take care of the whole world by ourselves.

The problem with that logic is that those costs to other countries will unavoidably become costs on us!  Take two examples.  First, a Reuters article points out that “a third of Bangladesh’s coastline could be flooded if the sea rises one meter in the next 50 years, creating an additional 20 million Bangladeshis displaced from their homes and farms.”   Some large percentage of the nation could disappear under water.  And that’s only one such nation.  Global warming and sea level rise could displace hundreds of millions of poor people.  The U.S. will find itself unable to turn its back on such a disaster, for humanitarian reasons.  Moreover, the costs would come back to haunt us in other ways, through increased wars and other political disruptions of great danger to the U.S. itself.

A second example appears in a recent NY Times article about the effects of global warming on agricultural productivity.   It starts by describing terrific recent technological advances: “Forty years ago, a third of the population in the developing world was undernourished. By the tail end of the Green Revolution, in the mid-1990s, the share had fallen below 20 percent, and the absolute number of hungry people dipped below 800 million for the first time in modern history.”  But those technological advances have leveled off, while growing demands have reflected huge growth in worldwide population and incomes.  The resulting grain price spikes have contributed to the largest increases in world hunger in decades, perhaps 925 million last year (see screen-shot).

What is the role of human-induced climate change?  The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has already increased by 40 percent since the Industrial Revolution.  We are on course to double or triple this level within a hundred years.  This climate change contributes to extreme weather events.  “Many of the failed harvests of the past decade were a consequence of weather disasters, like floods in the United States, drought in Australia and blistering heat waves in Europe and Russia. Scientists believe some, though not all, of those events were caused or worsened by human-induced global warming. …  In 2007 and 2008, with grain stockpiles low, prices doubled and in some cases tripled. Whole countries began hoarding food, and panic buying ensued in some markets, notably for rice. Food riots broke out in more than 30 countries.”

The world’s population was less than 3 billion in 1950.  It is now about 7 billion, and is expected to grow to 10 billion by the year 2100. “Unlike in the past, that demand must somehow be met on a planet where little new land is available for farming, where water supplies are tightening, where the temperature is rising, where the weather has become erratic and where the food system is already showing serious signs of instability.”

Suppose the U.S. is only to look out only for itself.  Forget altruism.  Forget unilateral efforts to save the world.  Wouldn’t we merely be protecting ourselves by doing something now to reduce worldwide political instability that could result from a hundred million refugees and famines of that magnitude?

One size fits all?

Filed Under (Environmental Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Don Fullerton on May 27, 2011

Lately, mandates seem to be an increasingly popular choice of policy by the Federal government.  Just the last few years have seen health care mandates, automobile fuel efficiency mandates, and now – coming January 1st, 2012 – light bulbs.  That’s right, those pear-shaped incandescent bulbs have lit American homes for the last 130 years, but they begin phasing out of stores in favor of Light Emitting Diodes (LED) and Compact Fluorescent Light (CFL) bulbs, thanks to a 2007 bi-partisan mandate signed into law by then-President George W. Bush.  As an economist, I cringe when I think of mandates, as they remove incentives for innovation, take choices away from consumers, and put the decision-making into the less-informed hands of the policy makers in Washington. 

The end-goal of the light bulb policy is to reduce polluting emissions.  News stories such as USA Today provide information regarding the extra efficiency of CFL and LED bulbs in comparison to incandescent bulbs.  When the law takes full effect in 2015, the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that “Families nationwide will save nearly $6 billion a year and will help eliminate 30 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually — the equivalent of taking about 8 million cars off the road each year.”  Other nations already have policies in effect that are more stringent than those here in the United States, including Canada, Russia, Australia, and the European Union.

Limiting families to purchase only these new light bulbs means paying a higher price up-front in order to cut emissions.  But the enacted “ban” applies to everybody, no matter whether the use of the old style bulb might be very important to some individuals.   To ban all incandescent light bulbs is not efficient, if certain individuals could use them with benefits that exceed the social cost.  The alternative is a price incentive, such as a price on greenhouse gas emissions in a cap-and-trade type system.  Then firms and individuals get to decide for themselves whether and how to reduce electricity use and cut emissions most cheaply and effectively.  When government policymakers issue a mandate, they are effectively saying they know what is best for us.  And with heterogeneity among firms and individuals, those policymakers can’t possibly know what single set of abatement methods is best for all different people simultaneously.

South Carolina has seen significant innovation on the part of policy makers in figuring out a way around this new light bulb law that could have ramifications for federal mandates of all sorts.  The Commerce Clause gives the Federal government the authority to regulate commerce between the states.  As Martin Hutchinson from Money Morning writes, “According to the Supreme Court’s 1935 decision in the case of Schechter Poultry vs. United States, the federal government does not have the power to regulate commerce that is entirely conducted within a state.”  In other words, if the state of South Carolina has a manufacturer that produces light bulbs in the state and for sale within the state, they could theoretically escape this mandate. 

The 2007 law doesn’t make incandescent bulbs illegal but instead sets requirements on their efficiency; these standards are proving to be quite difficult for the industry meet.  It is similar to the Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standards established for the automobile industry, where producers are told to increase the miles per gallon (MPG) of cars produced, but the government does not attempt to dictate how this must be done.

In the long-run, this policy may save families money on their electric bill and reduce emissions.  But any one such law is not a comprehensive co-ordinated policy that chooses the cheapest forms of pollution abatement.  I’d rather see government address the problem in a comprehensive cost-effective way.

How Much Should Congress Leave to the Regulators?

Filed Under (Environmental Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Don Fullerton on Feb 11, 2011

The very existence of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has long been a point of contention between the two political parties.  What is, and what ought to be the role of the EPA with regard to policy making?  Congress cannot possibly enact laws that contain every detail about subsequent implementation, monitoring, and enforcement.  And they should not put everything in the law anyway, in order to allow enough flexibility to deal with future contingencies.  Besides, those in Congress don’t have the science background necessary to decide all of the details of some technological aspects of pollution prevention.

The law does not say that every electric power plant must reduce emissions of each pollutant to no more than some number, like 37 micrograms per cubic meter.  Instead, the law from Congress just says that EPA should protect human health to an adequate margin of safety.

Yet some would prefer that the EPA disappear, along with every agency having any regulatory power.  This agency, which was conceived in 1970 under Richard Nixon, has analyzed and supported some of the most important pieces of legislation of the last forty years, ranging from the Endangered Species Act to – more recently – the new emissions standards going into effect this year. 

In 2007, the United States Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision called “Massachusetts vs. EPA”, that the EPA could in fact regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, on the grounds that such emissions do affect human health.  When combined with the new Republican-dominated Congress, we have set the stage for yet another ideological battle. 

Throughout the past decade, much of the discussion about controlling carbon dioxide emissions has largely centered around the idea of Cap and Trade.  That system would effectively put a price on each unit of pollution emissions.  It would create a market where the need for emissions and the cost of emissions are balanced in a way that can achieve economic efficiency.  However, the most viable attempt at this in recent years, the Waxman-Markey bill of 2009 (H.R.5454), passed the House and not the Senate.  It would not even get past the House in this term.  

The question then becomes, what exactly are the cards that the EPA retains in their deck? 

A recent article is titled “Greenhouse Gas Regulation Under the Clean Air Act” by researchers at Resources for the Future (RFF, by Burtraw, Fraas, and Richardson).  It seeks to explore the options available to the EPA, in-depth.  What they find is that the EPA can implement measures that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly in a measured and cost-effective manner.  For this to happen, however, they argue that the EPA must become bold and decisive in their actions. 

Bold action may be taken as an example of government overreach, and so the EPA must be careful.

Republicans are currently in discussion to introduce the Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011 .  They recognize that the EPA holds some powerful cards after the Supreme Court ruling in 2007, and they want to take that power away.  This Act would shift the EPA’s ability to regulate from the Agency to the legislative branch.  Yet such an action could take any decision-making ability from the scientists and put it in the hands of the politicians.  As EPA leader Lisa Jackson said, “Politicians overruling scientists on a scientific question – that would become part of this committee’s legacy.’”  Herein lies a problem with democracy.  The people in charge of making the decisions that affect us all, often have little knowledge of the actual issues at hand.  After all, Republicans from oil-rich states like Oklahoma still claim global warming is nothing but a hoax.

This just in: Both Sides of Health Reform Debate Twist Facts to Support Own View. Public Shocked!

Filed Under (Health Care, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Nolan Miller on Jan 25, 2011

Of course, we all knew this.  But, the Washington Post had a couple of interesting op-ed pieces last week that really drove home the point.  The fun part was that the two pieces, written by Charles Krauthammer and Eugene Robinson, appeared next to each other on my computer screen and exposed the disingenuousness of both the Democratic and Republican positions on the financial aspects of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, aka “ObamaCare,” or, more neutrally, PPACA.

Let’s begin with Robinson, who takes aim at the Republican’s self-serving and somewhat hypocritical approach to the numbers in promoting their repeal of PPACA through the ominously-named “Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act.”  Now, the Republicans painted themselves into a bit of a corner on this one from the get-go.  Swept into the House majority on a promise to decrease the deficit, they were faced with the fact that PPACA, at least on paper, lowers the deficit over the next 10 years.  The fist bit of Republican tap dancing around this point came earlier this month when the new majority enacted new rules in the House specifying that every new law had to explain how any new spending it proposed would be offset by an equivalent cost reduction.  Deficits, after all, are bad.  This “cut-as-you-go” rule, however, specifically exempted PPACA repeal from this requirement.  So, I guess deficits aren’t all that bad after all.

According to Mr. Robinson, the Republicans, faced with the CBO’s projection that repealing PPACA would increase the deficit by $143 Billion over the next decade, took the position that the CBO “score” for the bill was disconnected from reality.  According to House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, “CBO scores what is put in front of them – and what Democrats put in front of them last year was legislation packed with smoke and mirrors to hide the impact of trillions of dollars in new spending.”  On the other hand, Republicans are putting a lot of faith in the CBO when they declare PPACA to be “job-killing,” saying it would eliminate 650,000 jobs.  But, according to Robinson:

“One problem, though: The CBO analysis contains no such figure. It’s an extrapolation of a rough estimate of an anticipated effect that no reasonable person would describe as “job-killing.” What the budget office actually said is that there are people who would like to withdraw from the workforce – sometimes because of a chronic medical condition – but who feel compelled to continue working so they can keep their health insurance. Once the reforms take effect, these individuals will have new options. That’s where the “lost” jobs supposedly come from.”

So, Republicans are not above picking and choosing which numbers to ignore and which to exaggerate to make their point.  On to the Democrats.

Krauthammer takes on the Democrats’ cooking the numbers in the original PPACA bill in order to make it look like it reduced the deficit when it will actually add to the deficit (i.e., new expenditures will be greater than new revenues in the long run).  Now, cooking the CBO’s score is a time-honored practice in Washington.  The key is this.  The CBO is the most gullible body in the government.  By law, they are required to take whatever Congress puts into a bill and score it as if it is actually going to happen.  So, if Congress tells them that they are going to spend $50 billion on a bridge to Hawaii and pay for it by taking all of Bill Gates’ money, CBO will come back and say “awesome.  That will reduce the deficit by $4 billion.”  As I said, this is nothing new.  Remember how the Bush Tax Cuts were scheduled to expire at the end of last year?  Same deal.

So, to cook the books on PPACA, the Democrats did the following.  The new taxes and revenue sources for health care were scheduled to start coming online almost immediately, while the new expenditures were scheduled to start much later.  So, according to Mr. Krauthammer, “the entitlement [PPACA]  creates – government-subsidized health insurance for 32 million Americans – doesn’t kick in until 2014. That was deliberately designed so any projection for this decade would cover only six years of expenditures – while that same 10-year projection would capture 10 years of revenue. With 10 years of money inflow vs. six years of outflow, the result is a positive – i.e., deficit-reducing – number. Surprise.”  And, Krauthammer argues, PPACA does the same with its new long-term care insurance program, where it starts collecting premiums immediately but doesn’t pay anything out for 10 years, resulting in a surplus, at least on paper, according to the rules.

Krauthammer also makes the additional point that although PPACA is supposed to decrease the budget by $230 billion (the numbers differ between the two articles), the way it does it is through offsetting $540 billion in new spending by $770 billion in new taxes.  This “radical increase in spending, topped by an even more radical increase in taxes” is probably not what most people had in mind when they heard that the bill reduced the deficit by $230 billion, and certainly much different than simply cutting $230 billion in government spending.  But, that’s perhaps a topic for a different day.

So, both sides are twisting the numbers and sloganeering.  Am I shocked like Claude Rains in Casablanca?  Well, I guess I am, which is to say, not shocked at all.  Am I frustrated?  Definitely, because there are real problems in health care that have to be addressed.  Even if you are a fan of PPACA, you have to admit that it was at most a first step toward reforming health care in this country.  Real progress is going to require cooperation on coming up with solutions.  As long as both sides are deliberately twisting the facts to score political points, we aren’t going to make progress.

Despite the Republican’s grandstanding on the issue of repealing PPACA, it’s not going to happen.  There is a glimmer of hope.  Along with the political theater, Republican leaders in the House are instructing committees to get to work on legislation to replace PPACA.  Without Democratic support, such legislation will never become law. But, maybe, just maybe, if the two work together, they can come up with something that actually improves on PPACA and begins to work on the excessive growth rate of health care costs in this country, which is what I and many others have said is the real ticking fiscal time bomb facing this country.

If It’s Difficult, Then Let’s Just Not Do It?

Filed Under (U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Don Fullerton on Dec 17, 2010

Last week, when President Obama announced his compromise with Republicans over the Bush era tax cuts, the general perception throughout the media left one feeling like the Democrats just had their milk money stolen.  All the talk of being taken hostage by the Republicans did little to ease that feeling.  After working through all the talking points, politicking, and pandering, however, this much is clear: the debate has no obvious winners and losers.  Both sides are getting watered down versions of what they really wanted. The basic premise of the deal is as follows:

  1. The Bush era tax cuts are extended for everyone for the next two years. 
  2. Unemployment benefits are extended for 13 months. 
  3. The estate tax is back, in modified form. 
  4. Social Security taxes are cut for one year.

 The tax cut at the top may help the rich more than desired by Democrats, but then the extra Social  Security tax cut will help low-income families, and ALL those cuts will help stimulate the moribund economy.

The crux of the Republicans argument is that we are in danger of a double dip recession if the tax cuts expire, a talking point the White House has not been shy about echoing in recent days.  Interesting to note is a perceived contradiction by Republicans whereby they refuse to approve anything that might add to the national debt, such as the 9/11 Emergency Responders bill.  Yet, extending the tax cuts implies 3.9 trillion dollars in lost revenue over the next ten years.  The GOP counters that since the cuts are currently in effect, it’s not technically adding to the deficit. 

 What is missing from the equation here is any viable long term plan agreed upon by both parties.  Yes, we get to do it all again, in just two years!   The long term deficit can still be cut, but any meaningful cuts will have to include Medicaid, Social Security, and the military.  God speed the politician brave enough to raise those issues.  Our elected officials are really doing little more than pushing these problems off for the next 24 months, as one party attempts to out-politic the other.  It’s a Ponzi Scheme, as pointed out in my earlier blog!

 If the American Congress could tackle as many issues every month as they are through the month of December, American politics would look a lot different.  We have seen critical votes attempting to resolve critical issues ranging from the 9/11 Responders health care, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and now the Bush era tax cuts, the estate tax, unemployment benefits extension, and more, all rolled into one.  If only Congress could exist as a permanent lame duck!

The 2011 Federal Budget: You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet

Filed Under (U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Jeffrey Brown on Feb 2, 2010

Hollywood is abuzz today with the news of the 2010 Academy Award nominations.  If there were a category for “Most Frightening,” surely the newly released 2011 federal budget would be the odds-on favorite.  Released yesterday, the budget contains some difficult-to-swallow news about the difficult choices ahead of us.  

 Let me just highlight some of the more frightening numbers – all of which can be found in the proposed budget.  

  • Even with the President’s proposed tax increases and spending cuts, the projected single-year deficit never falls below $706 billion (that, in year 2014).  Indeed, it starts with a projected FY 2011 deficit of $1.566 trillion, and ends in 2020 with a $1 trillion deficit.
  • The debt held by the public is projected to roughly double over the next decade, from $9.3 trillion in 2010 to $18.57 trillion by 2020.
  • Of course, the economy is growing over this time (at least we all hope), so more meaningful numbers are relative to GDP.
    • The 2011 deficit is projected to be 8.3% of GDP
    • The debt held by the public will rise from 63.6% of GDP to 77.2% of GDP over the next decade.

 Of course, this may be a best-case scenario (in terms of deficits) because it assumes the President gets what he wants, including (as reported in today’s Wall Street Journal):

  • $175 billion rise in personal income taxes
  • $117 billion rise in corporate income taxes

 I’ve written previously about why deficits matter, primarily because they serve as a drag on long-term economic growth.  President Obama’s very talented budget director Peter Orszag understands this as well as anyone.

 But as bad as things look over the next few years, we need to recognize that the really long-term budget forecasts are far worse.  

 It is no secret that the biggest drivers of increased government spending over the long-run are the “Big Three” (meaning entitlements, not the auto-makers).  Growth in spending on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are projected to outpace overall economic growth for as far as the eye can see.  Unless these programs undergo structural change to rein in costs, the implications for our economy are enormous.

Consider this: for most of the last 50 years, government spending has stood around 20% of GDP (yes, it is higher now, but I am taking a longer-term view).  According to the Congressional Budget Office, by the year 2035 (about the time today’s newborn children are starting their own households, when today’s college graduates are in their middle ages, and when today’s middle-agers are set to retire), spending on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security will be 16% of GDP all by themselves.  By 2080 (when today’s newborns are retiring), these programs will comprise nearly a quarter of GDP – a higher fraction than ALL government spending today.  So unless we change these programs, the rest of the government would need to cease operation, tax rates will have to skyrocket, or we are going to watch our debt grow to unprecedented levels relative to GDP.


The main drivers of these trends are rising per capita health care costs and population aging.  We have so far been woefully unsuccessful at dealing with the first, and we may not want to do anything about the second (after all, most of us like living longer).


In short, as bad as the short-term budget outlook is, the longer-term budget outlook is even worse. 


Sorry to be so pessimistic … but sometimes the facts speak for themselves.