Leverage?

ArchimedesSome members of the chatterati may have taken Archimedes a bit too literally: “Give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the whole world.”  Often too much emphasis is placed on the fulcrum and not quite enough on the part about the ancient mathematician needing a place to stand.  The word of the week sounds like “leverage” in Washington, D.C. Who has it? Who doesn’t? And, so what? The So What part isn’t all that interesting.

Although the pundit class is thoroughly fascinated at the moment with how much leverage the President and the Republicans may each possess after the self inflicted Fiscal Cliff fiasco, most of their comments can be categorized as post game “analysis” of the variety which is more commonly associated with post game “analysis” of a sporting event.  It’s never quite enough to declare one team or another victorious based on the scoreboard numbers — “we” have to “know” why one team won and the other lost.  In reality, we really don’t.

So, in the parlance of political reporters emulating the post game questions of their sports writer colleagues — can the President win the next game? A game of Debt Ceiling already scheduled by the Republicans and given official status by the post game analysts.

It depends on where you stand.

There are two major elements of the federal debt that deserve serious scrutiny.  First, during the Bush Administration’s policy of credit card conservatism we racked up two wars (off the budget and supported by supplemental appropriations), a major addition to the Medicare program (Medicare Part D, also unpaid for) and one major Recession.  All were guaranteed to increase the national debt.  The first two increased spending and the latter cut into the tax base.

Secondly, we do need to reduce the national debt, but how we do it is important.  This is one of those occasions which calls for a scalpel, not a meat axe.

It is also important to stand on firm ground.

A few facts are in order.  The first part of standing on terra firma before attempting to leverage anything is to dismiss some media mythology about trends in the national budget deficits.  The following chart should provide an illustration of the inaccuracy of the Now That A Democrat Is In The White House The Deficit Is Out Of Control Myth:

Bush Obama Deficit trends

The chart illustrates what happens when two wars, one major Medicare addition, and a nasty Recession contribute to national spending. It also shows the effect of Obama Administration policies mentioned earlier, a point at which we should note that the Bush Administration toted up about $5.1 trillion in expenses, while as of last June the Obama Administration’s policies resulted in about $983 billion in spending.

Bush Obama Spending ComparisonIn short, if we are really serious about deficit reduction then we need to eschew the policies that got us into this mess in the first instance, i.e. unnecessary tax cuts, and two very expensive wars.

OK, so if we don’t get involved in more military operations, we resist the myth that tax cuts somehow cause economic growth (which they never have), and we regulate our financial markets more effectively in order to mitigate the excessive enthusiasm of traders who created the last great mess, then where do we cut?

It’s time for another reality check.

Here’s where the money goes:

Budget Categories

Since Social Security is a self-funding program, which as President Reagan famously cautioned in 1984 doesn’t add to the federal deficit (video), we can take that 20% out of the equation right now.  Anyone who is truly serious about the single issue of Social Security solvency should be clamoring to increase the cap on earnings liable to the payroll tax, currently set at a measly $110,000. We also need to remove the mandatory spending from the discussion because what we cut will have to be from discretionary spending.

The FY 2013 budget calls for spending $666.2 billion by the Department of Defense.  Another $80.6 billion is allocated to the Department of Health and Human Services (Medicare, Medicaid), and the Department of Education (Pell Grants, Title I, student loan guarantees, etc.) is scheduled to spend or entail $67.7 billion while the 4th largest chunk of the budget goes to the Veterans Administration which has $60.4 billion in scheduled spending.

In short, we’ve budgeted for $1,510 billion in discretionary spending in FY 2013.  The Department of Defense is on track to receive 44.12% of ALL the discretionary spending in the national budget.   Yet calls to cut military spending brings on the wailing of voices, the gnashing of teeth, and the rending of garments about “making us less safe” in an uncertain world.  In spite of all the wailing, gnashing, and rending — that one single department consumes 44.12% of the entire pot of discretionary spending is something we ought to be discussing.

Medicare is another matter.  IF we are truly serious about deficit reduction then we need to have more than the simplistic discourse already in evidence.  There is a false choice being presented, as though the only options are to privatize the Medicare program (give Granny a coupon and let her go out and find her own insurance) or to create a Single Payer national health care system.  While I wouldn’t be sorry to see a Single Payer system, this is an argument for another day.  The point is that there are options between these two proposals.

The central focus point should be that nothing which doesn’t have a bearing on health care cost containment is going to make much difference in the spending levels.   Privatization doesn’t address the cost containment issue, and a single payer system without cost containment elements is merely a recipe for increased expenses.

Now that the campaign season is over we can dismiss the Republican rhetoric about “Obama cut $716 out of Medicare,” and consign to the dust bin the notion that the Affordable Care Act somehow impinges on Medicare benefitsBusiness Week explains:

From 2010 to 2019, Obamacare trims payments to providers by $196 billion. They agreed to take a cut because they will get so many new patients, thanks to the individual mandate. Another $210 billion will be generated by raising Medicare taxes on the wealthy (that’s households earning more than $250,000). Another $145 billion comes from phasing out overpayments to Medicare Advantage. About 25 percent of seniors use the program—in which private plans compete for Medicare dollars—instead of traditional fee-for-service Medicare. Under Obamacare, the government has to keep Medicare Advantage costs in line with those of traditional Medicare. More savings come from streamlining administrative costs.

Thus, if we trim payments to providers, phase out over-payments for profitable private health care policies, and put some reins on administrative costs we’ll find about $716 billion in savings for the Medicare program.  Other cost savings may also be the result of more efficient record keeping, especially in the pharmaceutical segment.  Anyone who’s dealt with the medical issues of an elderly parent knows of multiple prescriptions written from several physicians who may or may not consult with one another.  The result can be as minimal as two (or three) prescriptions for the same medication at different dosages; or, as detrimental as two prescription medications which should not be taken together.

However, the bottom line is still the bottom line — unless and until we are ready to discuss health care cost containment we’ll be immersed in the rhetoric of low bludgeon and high dudgeon without much result.

When we discuss funding for the Department of Education it’s important to note that the FY 2013 discretionary requests yield an official number, $69.8 billion — if we include Pell Grants.  Pell Grants constitute about $22.8 billion of the total, a decrease from $23.8 billion in the FY 2011 budget.  Without the Pell Grants the total discretionary spending in the FY 2013 budget is $47 billion.   There are two constituencies with major stakes in arguing about these funds.

Parents.  Unless one is amenable to the elitist argument that kids should have access to only the level of education their parents can afford (which makes social mobility a moot point) parents are going to need assistance paying for their children’s education.  Whether we like it or no, education is a labor intensive business.  We can trim educational spending by continuing what the Obama Administration has started — saving approximately $61 billion by cutting the banks out of their role as middlemen in the student loan program [NYT]– but it really doesn’t do to cut efforts to educate our young people.  It also doesn’t make economic sense since a college degree is worth money in the marketplace.

Educations Pays Local school districts.  Cash strapped and semi-starved local school districts rely on funds for Special Education programs, Title I services, School Lunch programs, to make up budget shortfalls.  While the level of federal involvement at the local level isn’t all that much it does cover expenses local districts would be hard pressed to meet were the monies cut.

Hostage Taking

How we fund, or de-fund, these major activities depends on who is being held hostage and by whom.   Did the President allow the Republicans to gain “leverage” by taking the tax rates off the table in the next Congressionally manufactured debt ceiling debacle. Or, are we going to change hostages?

Will the Republican stance be that all other programs must be cut in order to spare the 44.12% consumed by the Department of Defense?

Will the GOP position be that Medicare must be privatized in order to practice “sound fiscal responsibility?”

Will the GOP position be that Social Security must be “reformed” (read cut) in the interest of “fiscal accountability and deficit reduction” even though it adds not a nickel to the federal debt?

Will the Administration simply say — You manufactured this debt ceiling “crisis” live with it?  Remembering that if the national credit rating is downgraded this will likely mean that the cost of borrowing (yields paid to those who invest in Treasuries) will go up, exacerbating the problem rather than addressing it.

Will the point be made to the American people that while the credit card analogy is handy, the United States of America doesn’t have creditors it has investors.  Our federal government accesses funds by issuing bonds.   And WE own most of those bonds.

Here’s the little chart again:

Who owns US debt

42.2% of the money “borrowed” by the U.S. government is an asset for U.S. individuals and financial institutions.   Today’s yield curve doesn’t indicate a government which is having to pay all that much to get people and institutions to invest in it:

Daily Yield CurveEven 30 year bonds are paying only 3.0% interest.

The amount of leverage always depends on where one stands and places the fulcrum.

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Filed under Congress, Economy, education, Federal budget, Health Care, Medicaid, Medicare, national debt, Obama, privatization, recession

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