Sunday, April 8, 2012

Precious Dollars

My last post (One Issue and One Issue Only) stimulated a variety of responses. Many fell into the “Right On!” category; others were more circumspect. Over lunch, one of my readers commented that “every dollar in the federal budget is precious to someone”. That’s a great insight. It explains why pollsters tell us that the vast majority of Americans agree we should balance the budget but few agree that we should cut something that affects them – Social Security or the home mortgage deduction, for example.

Many self-described liberals reacted negatively though none challenged the economics. One described the post as “more blah, blah, blah”. Others merely asserted that I “must be for” raising taxes, eliminating the Bush tax cuts or reducing defense spending. I was a bit taken by surprise as I didn’t intend the post as a political statement but rather a brief on economics. I believe the economics are important because we are sitting on a ticking time bomb.

Sometime late this year or early next, Congress will have to approve another increase in the debt ceiling. Almost simultaneously, the Bush tax cuts will expire – not just those on the rich but the middle class as well. The last debt ceiling deal requires that mandatory cuts be made across the board unless a new deal can be made. So, we will have a sharp increase in taxes accompanied be a dramatic reduction in government spending. In the context of today’s political environment, it’s hard to envision a solution.

If you’re into shock therapy, you may think this will be a good thing for us. However, the abrupt cessation of government deficits is likely to be a shock to the economy, leading to massive unemployment and stalled growth.

It’s easy to buy into the theory that one cannot get out of debt by taking on more debt. It sounds logical. But, an economic collapse will likely result from putting it into practice. We have seen evidence of this in Greece, Ireland and Spain.

It is better to come up with a plan for sustainability that adjusts the current course over time. The President recently submitted his idea to Congress in the form of a budget for fiscal 2013. It was rejected by, not only Republicans, but also every Democrat in the House of Representatives – a vote of 414 to 0.

There are other approaches. Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) has put forth his Roadmap for America (see, Every Dogma Has Its Day). It was the basis for his 2013 budget proposal. Now the Chairman of the House Budget Committee, Ryan’s budget proposal has lost some of the bi-partisan approach evident in the original Roadmap.

There is much to criticize in the Ryan budget plan. MIT's Simon Johnson points out that, while Ryan would make substantial cuts to government expenditures, he does little to “stabilize revenues”. He also points out that the Ryan plan is regressive. That is, it cuts substantially from programs that affect the poor. All of that said Ryan does get us on the path to fiscal sustainability according to the bi-partisan Congressional Budget Office.

A more bi-partisan approach was taken by the President’s own commission. The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (often called Simpson-Bowles) first met in April of 2010. Their charter was, according to the President, to identify “policies to improve the fiscal situation in the medium term and to achieve fiscal sustainability over the long run”.

Alan Simpson
Recently, the commission’s co-chairs, Alan Simpson (former Republican Senator) and Erskine Bowles (former Clinton chief of staff), were interviewed by Charlie Rose. Simpson joked that his wife noted the “lilt” in his step of late. She said it was because he had finally pissed off everyone in America instead of just a few.

He cited cuts that his bi-partisan commission recommended to student loans, Medicare, defense spending, farm subsidies and veterans benefits. There were increases in gas taxes and the elimination of tax deductions that would affect the middle class.

The plan was criticized by those on the left (Paul Krugman, Nancy Pelosi) who don’t want cuts to government programs and the right (Defense contractors, the American Enterprise Institute) who don’t want to see taxes increased.

Those who occupy the middle of the political spectrum (including me, see "Why I Like Ike") were more friendly, viewing it as a starting point for compromise (Third Way, Concord Coalition).

Personally, I remember being hopeful when the commission’s report was released. I thought perhaps the President would take up the banner and fight the good fight as he had promised – the “grand bargain” he has called it. I wrote about it in a blog post the morning of last year’s State of the Union address (see "Adam Smith: Communitarian").

Everyone will hate getting to a balanced budget. Simpson was only half joking when he talked about pissing off everyone one in America. But, perhaps that is the only way this will work – if everyone makes a sacrifice.

So, how do we get out of this mess? There is only one answer in my view: presidential LEADERSHIP.

Apologists for our current President will point out that the Republican opposition won’t pass anything the President proposes. But, didn’t both Clinton and Reagan have their way with a Congresses of the opposing party? And, didn’t George W. Bush get anything he wanted from a Democratic Congress – the Iraq War, the Patriot Act, the tax cuts?

Has our current President abandoned the hope of his “grand bargain”? Is he capable of leading the nation to a more sustainable course? Is it time for a change?



  1. Zachary Sochacki • Hi, John!

    I admit to not being an Obama fan. Living in Chicago and being a lifelong student of our local strain of politics, his policies resonate only too well. And it's truly sad that we've come to this.

    But beyond that, He's simply no leader. He does not have "the right stuff". He pales in comparison to Reagan or Clinton. He's an academic who's listening to his handlers to the exclusion of his own common sense. And while he has a knack for presentation, when left to his owns designs and having to ad lib, he seems uncomfortable, unknowing and generally vapid.

    I agree with your comments regarding Simpson-Bowles. It was and is a sound plan...there's pain for everyone. We need this shared pain to remain a country with a unified front in our war against the national debt. Picking on the "rich"...however you define not constructive.

    Hell, almost half of the citizens of the country pay no tax at all. They have no skin in the game. If I were one of them, I guess I'd be calling for the heads of the people who are taxed in order to continue being the beneficiary of the system's largesse. "Bread & Circuses" in the 21st century in America, indeed.

    Fostering class warfare seems to be Obama's fall back paradigm. It's a loser's game and is beneath him.

  2. @Zach. Sadly we agree totally. I say 'sadly' because I love a good argument.

  3. Lou Richards • You're right. He's no Clinton or Reagan. However, he's no Bush either. And that makes up for it. Do you really think McCain would have done a better job or that Romney would?

  4. Zachary Sochacki • Who knows? It's not anything. My comments regarding Obama are based on what is...his performance or lack thereof...not what might have been with someone else at the helm. Playing that game is just kibitzing.

  5. Lou Richards • Of course, it's not relevant. What is, is. Don't we all kibitz? I don't know either if things would have been better or worse.