The ice is going to break – a retelling

The following post was written a couple of years ago, but remains relevant today. We have one party that would rather talk about issues they have told their following are desperately important, but are over-inflated and another party who is having trouble pushing some of these issues, while ignoring the last one.

The title is a crucial line from a movie called “The Dead Zone,” based on the Stephen King novel. I use this line as a metaphor for ignoring real problems. Let me explain the context. The movie stars Christopher Walkien as Johnny who, because of a car accident, could see the future after touching someone. But, if the future was less clear, a dead zone as he described it, he could alter the outcome.

A boy he was tutoring was supposed to practice ice hockey on a frozen pond with his demanding father as the team’s coach. But, when Johnny touched him, Johnny saw the ice breaking. His father said that was crazy, even though both men knew the father did a background check before hiring the tutor. Johnny slammed his cane on a chess board and said “the ice is going to break!” The son stayed home, but the father went ahead with practice and four kids drowned as the ice broke.

So, Mr. President, members of Congress and various state legislators, let me state obvious problems with this metaphor in mind.

– We have a global water crisis including in the US with the World Economic Forum identifying it as a top long term risk. Farmers are having to fight harder to protect their diminishing water rights. It will be made even worse by climate change, especially the droughts, wildfires, encroaching seas into aquifers and greater evaporation of reservoirs.  And, the problem is exacerbated with the significant water loss in fracking and lead pipes tainting some of the dear water.

– That climate change thing is a problem in its own right. Our federal government and several state government need to pitch in more and help. The former president backing out of the Paris Climate Change Accord is as poor a decision as could have been made, especially when it came the day after ExxonMobil shareholders voted to order management to inform them on what they are doing about climate change. Getting back to the table is the adult thing to do. Fortunately, strides have been made, but we need to accelerate these efforts.

– I learned today (note this was in 2019) our EPA is turning a blind eye to asbestos. Since Brazil stopped production of this toxic product, we now are importing asbestos from Russia. As a metaphor for this the former president, each bag of toxic asbestos imported from Russia has Donald Trump’s picture on it. A toxic material imported by a toxic man from another toxic man. While all of this is going on, you can easily watch TV commercials advertising about getting compensation for the use of dangerous asbestos without your knowledge.

– Although, debt is not an environmental concern, our so-called leaders are ignoring this huge and growing problem. As interest cost grows to a greater part of our budget, it will hinder our ability to do other things. Both parties are to blame for our increasing debt which has only been made worse by the pandemic relief and 2018 tax law change. At some point, some poor soul will address this issue assuring he or she will not get reelected. It should be noted that it will require spending cuts and revenue increases, as the math will not otherwise work, per the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

The ice is going to break. We must heed the warnings now. If we don’t, we may be the ones who drown.

Thursday thunderbolts

What is happening in Afghanistan is awful, but it is not a surprise. The Taliban taking over was bound to happen no matter when the allies pulled out. Truly, the only surprise is the haste of the change. Afghanistan has long been called the “graveyard of empires” because no invading nation has ever been successful.

The US failed to heed that lesson, even after a reminder of the USSR failure in the 1980s. The opposing force is too distributed and the terrain too mountainous and arid-like. And, the Taliban carries through on its threats against locals who favor the enemy. As a result, the locals are scared to cross them.

Sadly, this failure falls on many presidents, even dating back to Ronald Reagan when Congressman Charlie Wilson helped secretly fund and supply the Mujahideen to drive out the Soviets in the 1980s. What we failed to do is help the country after the Soviets left and the US became more mistrusted and things deteriorated.

But, with George W. Bush authoring the invasion after 9/11, Barack Obama’s continuing push, Donald Trump’s acquiescence to the Taliban and Joe Biden’s decision to honor the agreement to leave, we have shown an inability to solve problems, leaving behind more. Since we dove in, leaving entirely should not have been the answer, as it is like the husband leaving the wife when times got hard. They needed to stay together to make it work. So, now our trustworthiness is even lower than if we never invaded.

Yet, this is not the only problem we let fester because of lack of focus or courage to analyze, discuss and try to solve problems. Reasonable immigration efforts have moved forward on a bipartisan basis, but they fell flat. A pretty good bill passed the Senate in 2013 under the tutelage of a “Gang of Eight,” but the House would not take it up. This led to the Obama DACA executive order which is not the way to govern hard issues.

Both parties talk about the debt and deficit when they are not in the White House, but show little appetite to do things when their party gets there. George W. Bush was actually handed a balanced budget by Bill Clinton and he proceeded to make a tax cut that his Treasury Secretary adamantly said was unneeded (and was fired). Outside of a sequestration approach (which said if we don’t make changes, these cuts will go in place), nothing substantive has come out of Congress to deal with the deficit and debt since Clinton. The debt will soar past $40 trillion by the end of the decade.

Then there is climate change. The naysaying mandate pushed by the fossil fuel industry which has known for several decades about the climate change risks, is appalling. Many do not realize that Dick Cheney, the second Bush VP, came out of the oil industry. Cheney and his old colleagues wrote key language in the 2005 Energy Act to give frackers a hall pass on scrutiny by the Safe Drinking Water Act and Clean Air Act. In my view, we lost twelve years of more demonstrative action in the past twenty years.

We have other big problems that we have let fester under multiple presidents. But, the above shows what happens when we do not address them. They do not go away. They just build steam like a pressure cooker. We need to do something before they explode.

The biggest lie – “I created this economy”

The incumbent president likes to take credit for all things good and blame others for all things bad. This is true regardless of the extent of his role in the outcome. He boasts that he created this great economy before the pandemic and will help us get back to it. Although the economy continued to do well, to say he created it is not truthful. Given his loud chest beating on this one issue, it qualifies as his biggest lie, although other lies are further afield from the truth.

When he took the oath to his office in January, 2017, the US was on its third longest economic growth period in its history at 91 consecutive months of GDP growth. That translates into just longer than 7 1/2 years. It should also be noted for the six previous years, we had 2 million plus in annual job growth and the stock market more than doubled under his predecessor. To Donald Trump’s credit, the economy continued to grow for 36 more months, the stock market continued to climb and job growth continued until it fell with the pandemic. The recession officially started in February of this year.

Now, I wrote during Barack Obama’s presidency that presidents get too much credit and too much blame for the economy. They can provide headwinds and tailwinds, but that is about it. The “headwinds and tailwinds” remark is courtesy of conservative pundit David Brooks. The same goes with the current president. But, if people want to lay wreaths at Trump’s feet for the economy before the pandemic, they must also do the same for Obama. Obama actually inherited an economy in recession due to the housing crisis in late 2007 through mid 2009. He was sworn in January, 2009.

The incumbent president has provided some headwinds and tailwinds to help keep it going, sometimes at the same time. Here is a look at a few of these wind currents:

Tailwinds

The economy got a temporary boost from the December, 2017 tax cut that increased the debt by $1.5 trillion over the next ten years. At a time when we should have been decreasing the deficit, we increased it. So, in essence, we borrowed from our future to make our economy a little better for a little while. One economist referred to it as a sugar rush. Before the pandemic, we fell back to growth at the same level as before the election. Overall, this growth period has been the longest, but the rate of growth under both presidents has lagged other periods. It has been a slow and steady climb, again before the recession caused by the pandemic.

Cutting through some regulations also provided some stimulus for businesses, but as noted below, these will cause future headwinds. People often mix bureaucracy with regulations. We need to constantly review regulations to see if they are working and how they can be improved or rescinded, if need be. So, regulations are not necessarily bad. Bloating bureaucracy is what we must guard against. I recall a story of Erskine Bowles, who eventually became Bill Clinton’s Chief of Staff. When Bowles headed the Small Business Administration, he reduced the application from 42 pages to one.

Headwinds

We must guard against debt. Dipping into debt to stimulate the economy dragging from COVID-19 is one thing, but the 2017 tax cut needed not be so severe that it increased debt. Note, many said this before it was passed, not just now. By the end of this decade, we should be beyond $40 trillion in debt on an annual revenue budget (during 10/18 – 9/19 FY) that is currently just less than $3.5 trillion, with expenses around $4.5 trillion. With the pandemic stimulus, the annual 2019-20 deficit will be around $3.7 trillion. Eventually, interest cost will rival the biggest budget items if we do not remedy this growing problem. Some poor president and congress will have to make some hard decisions as revenue is too low and costs are too high.

Letting polluting industries skate on fewer regulations will come back to haunt us. Chemical spills, polluted water and nuclear waste causes major environment concerns to people, animals, carbon eating trees/ plants and food crops. Even the best of developers and manufacturers would like someone else to pay for their shortcuts. Industries go to great pains to hide their dirty laundry. The laundry is there, it just needs to be more cleaned up. Relying on a company’s altruism is not an effective means of controlling pollution.

Tariffs on all partners cause echo tariffs from our trading partners. And, no one wins a tariff war, regardless of what the president might say. As we have become harder to deal with, buyers and sellers find other markets. The increase in farmer bankruptcies has been significant since the tariff wars started, increasing dramatically over previous levels. One farmer said, other countries sought out other sources of farm goods, so we lost a future pipeline for sales. And, just today, I read in conservative George Will’s editorial that trust in America to do the right thing has fallen to 24% and preference to America as a trading partner has fallen.

One of the business lessons I learned over the years, is if you become difficult to work with, your customers and clients will be forced to find other providers of services and products. It does not get any plainer than that. One of the best things a president can do is create new markets – Reagan, Clinton, Nixon, and Obama all were good at creating new avenues for trade. It is not surprising that Clinton had the most jobs created on his watch, with Reagan having the most jobs as a Republican president. And, Nixon for all his corruption, should be remembered well for opening up relationships with China. Trump should get credit for renewing a refined NAFTA agreement, but he hindered his efforts to compete with China when he pulled the US out of the Trans Pacific Partnership which went on without us and backtracking on deals with Cuba, Iran and the Paris Climate Change Accord, has placed the US at odds with others.

Global trade builds revenue. A country cannot shrink to greatness. And, what we are seeing today is other countries not wanting the hassles of dealing with the US as much as before. And, this is before the mishandling of the pandemic that has left the world aghast.

Don’t believe your eyes

Yesterday, Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin testified in front of Congress that the tax cut of December, 2017 would pay for itself before ten years. Really?

This is after the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said the tax cut would increase the national debt by $1.5 trillion before it was signed.

This is after we have witnessed the deficit increasing over previous projections the past two fiscal years.

This is after the president said the tax cut would increase GDP growth to 4%. It rose from 2.3% in 2017 to 2.9% in 2018, but softened to 2.1% in 2019.

This is after previous studies that said no tax cut has ever paid for itself. In fact, it is quite nervy to say it would – think of that statement. “It will pay for itself.”

It takes even more nerve to sit in front of Congress and say that it still will, now that the sugar rush has died off. Companies tended to buy back shares with the tax gain rather than invest the gain.

In short, the tax cut borrowed from our future to make a pretty good economy a little better for a little while. For Mnuchin to follow his boss’ lead and ignore facts is troubling. We have a debt and deficit problem that is being downplayed. To solve a problem, it requires admitting we have one.

Annual US Deficit projected to pass $1.5 trillion on 2028

One of two nonpartisan organizations that have been ringing alarm bells about US debt and deficits is The Concord Coalition (TCC). The other is the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. We should be listening to these folks and urging politicians to do the same.

In a press release, Bob Bixby of the TCC notes the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects the US deficit will pass $1 trillion this fiscal year ending 9/30/2020. In eight years, the CBO projects the deficit to pass $1.5 trillion. My guess is it will be sooner, given politicians being too infatuated with adding expenses and cutting taxes.

It should be noted we are now passed $23 trillion in US debt. Sans change we look to soar passed $35 trillion by the end of the decade. This means our annual interest cost will be a much larger chunk of our budgeted annual revenue which is around $3.65 trillion.

Two key points need to be made. With our pretty good economy going on 128 consecutive months of economic growth, we should be decreasing our deficit, not increasing it. Sadly, we were sold a tax break that helped a pretty good economy get a little better for a little while, but will add over $1.5 trillion to the debt.

The other key point needs to be said loudly. Our debt cannot be solved by only expense cuts or tax increases. The math will not work. It will need both. Do not let politicians tell you otherwise. It matters not how fervent or well they speak, the math will not work. We need politicians with thick skins and lots of courage.

Gumpish questions

I have written a few posts on asking more why questions, but let me define a few dumb questions, in the spirit of a fictitious chatacter, Forrest, Forrest Gump. It is amazing how these questions don’t leap off the news pages or out of cyberspace.

In know particular order…

Help me understand how the president can cause a problem, then get kudos (or claim such), when he solves (or lessens) his own problem?

Forrest Gump answered his drill sergeant’s question of his purpose? “To do exactly what you tell me to do, drill sergeant!” The drill sergeant called Gump a “genius” for his answer.

Help me understand how one of the largest US Christian denominations cannot resolve conflict and will be splitting in two? What message does that send?

Forrest Gump’s girl Jenny gave Forrest the best answer to danger. What should he do? “Run, Forrest, run.”

Help me understand how legislators, presidential candidates and current president don’t seem to care that our annual deficit and debt are exploding?

Forrest’s mama answered her son’s question of what is his destiny? “Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you are going to get.”

How can people not see the intense and elongated forest fires in Australia, Brazil and California and not think we have a new paradigm with our heating planet?

Forrest got a Purple Heart. When asked where he was shot, he said “I got shot in the buttocks. They said it was a million dollar wound, but I haven’t seen any of that money.”

How can people feel that putting a face on an opposing argument, then beating on that person can pass for reasoned counter argument (think Al Gore and Greta Thunberg)?

Lieutenant Dan showed up at dockside to honor his promise that he would be Forrest’s first mate if he got a shrimp boat. He told Forrest he wanted to get his “sea legs.” Forrest said, “But, you don’t have no legs.” “Yes, I know this,” Lt. Dan replied.

Help me understand why important people are so cavalier with their reputations by spending time with Jeffrey Epstein and underage girls (think Prince Andrew, Donald Trump, Bill Clinton)?

Forrest answered Bubba’s mother when she asked “if he was crazy or just plain stupid?” Forrest uttered his classic line, “Stupid is as stupid does.” That is a profound statement.

We cannot solve US debt by charging more on our national VISA

The math problem is large. We have $23 trillion plus in US debt today, per the US debt clock. It is projected to increase by $10 trillion by 2027 FYE (September 30, 2027) before the tax cut in December, 2017. The tax cut added $1.5 trillion to the debt projection over ten years. A later budget change added $500 billion over ten years.

The budget bill just signed last week will add $500 billion over ten years per the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, yet they note all laws passed in 2019 have added $2.2 trillion over ten years. That would make it at least $37 trillion. So, a good working number is $37 trillion sans any action by the end of 2029 FYE.

Tax increases will not solve this problem, nor will spending cuts. Both are needed. Once the interest cost approaches the defense cost, we have a serious problem. At $37 trillion in debt, the interest cost to maintain it inches closer. So, it truly matters not what Democrats or Republicans like, some poor souls in charge will take the heat for trying to solve a problem passed along by poor financial stewards. It will be akin to the Greek people not liking the EU or responsible Greek leaders when they said Greece was in debt trouble.

What frustrates me is the GOP Freedom Caucus who got elected on debt reduction is the biggest bunch of hypocrites. They screamed bloody murder when the debt was $8 trillion, then $13 trillion, but are passing debt increases misleading the public that the tax reduction would pay for itself – no tax bill has ever done that and this one did not. But, Dems are not without fault. What should scare us all, we should be reducing the deficit with a pretty good economy, yet the deficit is growing and will exceed $1 trillion next FYE. What happens when the economic growth softens even more than it has over the past year.

So, my plea to all is dust off the Simpson-Bowles Deficit Reduction Plan and do even more. I am trying to tell folks what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. If I was a young person, I would be screaming bloody murder at inaction on climate change, guns and debt. Debt is not as frightening as guns and climate change, but it is a huge problem.

The (nonpartisan) Concord Coalition projects debt to be over 100% of US economy

Followers of my blog know I am a broken record on doing something about the US debt and deficit. Below is a copy of a piece entitled “New CBO Report Projects Much Larger Debt Under Plausible Assumptions” by Joshua Gordon that was forwarded by The Concord Coalition.

“In a follow-up to the new Congressional Budget Office (CBO) baseline projections, the CBO released a report last week analyzing the effect that select policy alternatives would have on budget deficits and federal debt. CBO also produced an ‘alternative scenario’ that combines some of these different policy assumptions to create what we view as a more plausible budget baseline because it better reflects current policy rather than a strict application of current law.

The alternative scenario makes two major changes to the official baseline; one on the spending side and the other on the revenue side.

On spending, the main difference is that in making their baseline the CBO convention is to assume that discretionary spending — the spending on defense and non-defense programs controlled by the annual appropriations process — will increase only to keep pace with inflation when there are no existing spending caps in place (the caps were eliminated in the August budget deal). The alternative scenario assumes higher discretionary spending over the next ten years such that it remains constant as a share of the economy (6.3 percent of GDP) compared to the baseline’s assumption where spending drops to 5.6 percent of GDP by 2029. It’s a plausible assumption given the August budget deal and the fact that discretionary spending has never dropped below 6 percent of GDP.

The revenue difference between the alternative scenario and the baseline is the assumption that a future Congress and President will extend a number of different tax policies that are currently scheduled to expire. For example, the alternative scenario assumes that the major individual income tax provisions of the 2017 Tax Cut and Jobs Act that are currently scheduled to expire after 2025, will be extended. In addition, the alternative assumes further delays in taxes created by the Affordable Care Act that have been extended over-and-over again by Congress. Assuming that this behavior with regard to tax policy continues creates a more plausible revenue scenario.

The differences in assumptions leads to outlays being about $1 trillion higher and revenues $1.7 trillion lower over the 2020-2029 period. As a result, debt would grow from 79 percent of GDP to 104 percent in 2029, surpassing 100 percent of GDP in 2028 for the first time since immediately after World War II (1946). The debt in 2029 would be 8.8 percentage points of GDP higher than in the baseline. Deficits over the 10-year period would average 1 percent of GDP higher than in the baseline (5.7 percent instead of 4.7 percent).

While the numbers are sobering, nothing in the CBO’s report is groundbreaking. Instead, it should serve as a reminder that under current law the budget situation is getting worse and is unsustainable over the long term. And that even assumptions made about current law are likely too optimistic — because policymakers’ current policy preferences will tend to make things worse.”

We are at over $22 trillion in debt with the annual deficit for the fiscal year ending this month to be just beneath $1 trillion on an annual revenue base of about $3.4 trillion. In other words, we will be spending about $4.4 trillion this year.

This problem cannot be solved with just spending cuts nor can it be solved with just tax increases. The math will not work. We must have both. Please ask politicians what they plan to do about this ticking time bomb. If they give poor answers, do not vote for them. We must have a plan and the plan cannot be making the debt worse as has been done with the 2017 tax cut and recent spending bills.

And the band played on – letter to the editor

My local newspaper printed my letter to the editor based on the theme of a recent post. Please feel free to adapt and use it, if you agree with the concept.

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I feel like citing the song lyric “and the band played on” in reference to elected leaders ignoring problems which will only get worse. On climate change, environmental degradation, increasing US debt, aging infrastructure, and insufficient gun governance, we have ticking time bombs. The kids get what is needed on climate change, environment and guns. But, debt and infrastructure must also be dealt with. And, not addressing the former makes the latter harder.

These are the questions we must be asking our politicians. If they are evasive or give poor answers, do not vote for them. We don’t need a wall. We need safe bridges and railways.

 

Unsurprising news

The Associated Press reported today the US deficit for the first ten months of the 2018-19 fiscal year has increased by 27% over last year’s ten month deficit. The $867 billion deficit is in line to pass $1 trillion for the year ending September 30, 2019.

This is not a surprise as the tax law passed in December, 2017 is projected to increase the debt by $1.5 trillion over the next ten years. That is on top of the expected increase without change of $10 trillion. And, to make matters worse two spending bills in 2018 and 2019 have increased spending, with the latter increase yet to be felt.

Expenses are up 8% and revenue is up only 3% with such a good economy. As mentioned before, we should be paying down the debt in good times, but the tax bill reduced the revenue from where it would have been.

Politicians, including this president, have an unhealthy focus on short term results. The long term impact can be blamed on future politicians, in their minds. We have a ticking time bomb, where our $22 trillion debt will be closer to $35 trillion in ten years sans change.

Some poor president and Congress will have to step up to solve this problem. And, they will unfairly get blamed.  It will take both spending cuts and tax increases to get us there. And, to show how frustrating harmful action is, a Senator from Florida yesterday said we need a tax cut to spur the economy with the pending recession – really? More debt is the answer?

We need fiscal stewardship and leadership. We are not getting it from these incumbents. And, that is a dereliction in duty.