Big Issue #1 – Dealing with our Debt

A topic that was discussed very little during the campaign and debates is our ticking time bomb problem of US debt. At almost $20 trillion and growing, it deserves its ranking as Big Issue #1 as it will impact everything we do as interest cost becomes an even greater part of our annual budget.

Let’s start with a few quick numbers in our 2015-16 fiscal year for context:

Current Debt = $19.8 trillion
Annual Revenue = $3.267 trillion
Annual Expenses = $3.854 trillion
Annual Deficit = $0.587 trillion
Annual Interest Cost = $0.284 trillion

Note, the annual interest cost is included in the expenses. If we did not spend one cent outside of paying the interest cost, it would take almost seven years to pay down the debt. But, we do have major and minor expenses, so it will take a concerted effort that will need to include some revenue increases, as cost cutting will not get us there unless we are prepared to make significant cuts to defense and major programs like Social Security and Medicare, the top three cost items.

What is troubling is our President Elect’s economic and tax plan has been measured by two non-partisan groups – The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and The Tax Foundation – to increase our debt by $5.3 trillion over the next ten years. Quite simply, we cannot afford to do that.

So, we must be smart about what we do it or we will make the problem much worse. The President Elect has said we will make it up in an expanded economy, but several  economic modeling firms, such as UK based Oxford Economics and US based Moody Analytics, project his plans as creating from malaise to recession in our economy.

We are at the point where we must set campaign rhetoric aside and govern off real data and analytics. There are things we can do to decrease the debt. Two non-partisan organizations – The Concord Coalition (www.concordcoalition.org) and Fix the Debt (www.fixthedebt.org) – have good exercises where you can value the impact of certain changes on the expense side and revenue side.

It should be noted, like Corporations, there are areas where we need to increase spending such as on infrastructure investment, while we make cuts in others. Also, as we are an aging country that is the most obese country in the world per the World Health Organization, there will be upward cost pressures on health related programs.

This is not an easy exercise, but one we must do. Cutting revenue through less taxes is an easy thing to promise during the campaign season, but we are at the point where we must make tough decisions and decreasing revenue is one we probably should avoid. And, the longer we wait, it will become even tougher to solve this problem.

A few ideas on the US deficit and debt

I have written in the past few years (and weeks) about the US deficit and building debt as it is a ticking time bomb. We failed to reach a grand bargain early in the Obama presidency after the marvelous efforts of the Simpson-Bowles Deficit Reduction Committee. And, that is unfortunate as it was a terrific model to start legislative conversations. While I think the President has done a pretty good job, I see shelving the Simpson-Bowles work as his biggest failure.

Recently, I cited the sixteen myths about our deficit and debt problem in the US, that I gleaned from a bipartisan organization called Fix the Debt which can be found at http://www.fixthedebt.org. As with the efforts of Simpson-Bowles, reducing the debt cannot be done by panacea and will require bipartisan trade-offs that include a mix of revenue increases and spending cuts. The Simpson-Bowles recommendations blended about 1/3 tax increases with 2/3 spending cuts to make huge strides in reducing the debt.

It will definitely not be accomplished by tax cuts as proposed by the two leading GOP candidates for president, who former GOP Senator Alan Simpson said would so significantly increase the deficit, that there are not enough spending cuts to bring the deficit down. Both leading candidates tax proposals have been scored unfavorably by The Concord Coalition, another bipartisan deficit and debt reduction group in this regard, which is a concern, especially with one of the candidates touting how much of a deficit hawk he is.

Solving this problem will require trade-offs and both political parties will need to check their baggage at the door. From an exercise called “Debt Busters, An Interactive Budget Education Exercise by The Concord Coalition” which can be found at http://www.concordcoalition.org, here are few examples of what can be done. This is not a complete list, but is indicative of the kinds of options that could be considered. Note, the numbers reflect the impact on the deficit over the next ten years as measured by the Congressional Budget Office.

Spending Cuts

It should be noted the three largest areas of spending are Medicare/ Medicaid, Social Security and Defense.
  • Reduce healthcare spending by adding a public option to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), limiting the subsidies to people making 3 x the poverty limit or less (it is currently 4 x)  and limiting malpractice suits = $327 Billion deficit decrease
  • Reform Medicare Part B premiums to be 35% of the cost (closer to the initial intent of 50%) and convert federal share of Medicaid payments to a fixed annual block grant = $749 Billion deficit decrease
  • Reduce specified defense spending deferring development of a long-range bomber and number of ballistic submarines = $41 Billion deficit decrease
  • Reduce domestic spending by reducing the size of the federal workforce through attrition = $49 Billion deficit decrease
  • Increase Social Security retirement age gradually to age 70 and calculate cost of living adjustments based on consumer good price changes = $217 Billion deficit decrease

Revenue Increases

Increasing revenue is something that has to be considered. Strong opinions flavor this discussion, but this is where the exercise earns its keep, as it let’s folks consider the trade-offs and priorities.

  • Increase the Social Security Taxable Wage Base to $177,500 from its current limit of $118,500 which would draw in more FICA taxes = $672 Billion deficit decrease
  • Increase gas tax to 35 cents per gallon (or something equivalent in mileage tax) earmarked for Highway Trust Funding = $469 Billion deficit decrease

I purposefully stayed away from more tax increases, but reconfiguring our tax code to get more corporations to keep revenue taxed here and simplifying our individual tax code should be considered. Those ideas could be deficit neutral or deficit reducing, but we should think very hard about lowering tax revenue as we cannot afford it in my view and the view of the above bipartisan sources.

Please check out these websites and speak with your congressional representatives and senators. And, ask candidates pointed questions about their plans. Their failure to do something about an obvious problem, telling us what we want to hear via promised tax reductions, does not help us and is a reason our younger adults are frustrated. They will be the ones who have to bear the burden of our poor stewardship.

Fiscal FactChecker: 16 Budget Myths to Watch Out For in the 2016 Campaign

I have written several times that we need to do something about our debt crisis, as the problem is only going to get worse. I liken it to having a water problem in your house. If you don’t fix it now, it will get far worse later on.

In addition to The Concord Coalition who I have mentioned before, a sister nonpartisan group to their effort spawns from the Committee for Responsible Federal Budget called Fix the Debt. The Board of Directors of the Committee include some big names who served in various government, think-tank and business roles. The Fix the Debt group was founded by former Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and former Senator Alan Simpson of the Simpson-Bowles Deficit Reduction Committee.

I will provide a link below, but wanted to summarize a piece called “Fiscal Fact Checker: 16 Budget Myths to Watch Out For in the 2016 Campaign” which is dated August 6, 2015. Those myths are:

Myths about the National Debt

  1. We can continue borrowing without consequences
  2. With Deficits falling, our debt problems are behind us (this is expected to reverse in 2015-16)
  3. There is no harm in waiting to solve our debt problems
  4. Deficit reduction is code for austerity, which will harm the economy

Myths about Taxes

  1. Tax cuts pay for themselves
  2. We can fix the debt solely by taxing the top 1%
  3. We can dramatically lower tax rates by closing a few egregious loopholes
  4. Any tax increases will cripple economic growth

Myths about Health Care and Social Security

  1. Medicare and Social Security are earned benefits and therefore should not be touched
  2. Repealing Obamacare will fix the debt
  3. The Health Care cost problem is solved
  4. Social Security’s shortfall can be closed simply by raising taxes on or means-testing benefits for the wealthy

Myths about easy fixes

  1. We can solve our debt situation by cutting waste, fraud, abuse, earmarks and /or foreign aid
  2. We can grow our way out of debt
  3. A Balanced Budget Amendment is all we need to fix the debt
  4. We can fix the debt solely by cutting welfare spending

In addition to the above, I wanted to reiterate two global trends that impact the US as well. First, per the World Health Organization, we are the most obese country in the world, as well as having the highest costing health care system in the world. The Affordable Care Act has helped, but we are over-tested, over-medicated and future train wrecks waiting to happen This will create continued cost pressures on Medicare, Medicaid and the subsidies under Obamacare.

Second, per the World Economic Forum, we are an aging population. We are not as bad off as places like Japan, Greece, Portugal, Spain, etc., but as we age cost pressures on Social Security and Medicare/ Medicaid will heighten. For people in their 60’s, the average cost of health care is roughly twice that of folks in their 30’s. The aging is actually hitting some of our states and municipalities with increased retirement liabilities relative to fewer workers being hired. Detroit, Stockton, and Birmingham have all filed for bankruptcy, with this being a contributing cause, plus states like Illinois, New Jersey, etc. are having significant retirement cost pressures.

Please check out these two websites and see who is involved in these nonpartisan efforts.

http://www.concordcoalition.org/

http://www.fixthedebt.org/

Also ask your Senators, Congressional representatives and Presidential candidates what they plan to do about this. Like climate change and the global water crisis, we can no longer wait on action.

That deficit thing is going to get worse

The Congressional Budget Office released its projections that say the decrease that has been occurring in the deficit is coming to an end. With the improving economy, sequestration cuts and not funding as many troops in the Middle East, the deficit has quietly been reduced to a less painful level, but we are still in a deficit position. The last time we had a surplus budget was when President Bill Clinton left office and before the President George W. Bush tax cuts that put us back into deficit.

The CBO anticipates the deficit to rise again this fiscal year and continue to rise. So, the debt will continue to climb and interest costs will become increasingly an important part of the budget. There is a group called The Concord Coalition (see link below) who advocates for addressing this ticking time bomb now. They have a bipartisan group of Board members and help frame a discussion balancing the spectrum of needed spending cuts and revenue increases.

The major parts of our budget that should get our attention are in five areas:

Expenditures: Social Security, Medicare/ Medicaid/ ACA, Defense

Revenues: Corporate Taxes and Individual Taxes

The other stuff is minor relative to these big items, but of course we need to address each and spend judiciously. There are ways to shave spending off each of these key expenditures, without being too detrimental to the underlying programs and needs. And, we could be more dramatic if we want to make significant cuts, but people need to know what they would be losing. We also need to recognize there are some areas, such as infrastructure investments, that need to be increased and funded.

Yet, we also need to reform our tax system to make it simpler for all and make it easier to repatriate some offshore corporate income which goes untaxed here. In my view, we also need to garner more revenue as we are one of the least taxed (relative to GDP) countries of the 33 member countries of the Paris based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. So, we need to base our decisions off comparative information to other countries, as no one wants a tax increase, but that is something that should be considered.

Regardless of what we need to do to accomplish the task at hand, we need to move forward before the interest costs get too burdensome. Also, as we age as a country, our costs pressures will increase with healthcare and retirement costs. If we wait too long, the cuts will need to be more severe and more of us will be impacted. Learn what each candidate will do about these issues. They seem to be silent on these issues and that is not a good thing.

http://www.concordcoalition.org/