federal debt

Not-So-Random Thoughts (X)

Links to the other posts in this occasional series may be found at “Favorite Posts,” just below the list of topics.

How Much Are Teachers Worth?

David Harsanyi writes:

“The bottom line,” says the Center for American Progress, “is that mid- and late-career teachers are not earning what they deserve, nor are they able to gain the salaries that support a middle-class existence.”

Alas, neither liberal think tanks nor explainer sites have the capacity to determine the worth of human capital. And contrasting the pay of a person who has a predetermined government salary with the pay earned by someone in a competitive marketplace tells us little. Public-school teachers’ compensation is determined by contracts negotiated long before many of them even decided to teach. These contracts hurt the earning potential of good teachers and undermine the education system. And it has nothing to do with what anyone “deserves.”

So if teachers believe they aren’t making what they’re worth — and they may well be right about that — let’s free them from union constraints and let them find out what the job market has to offer. Until then, we can’t really know. Because a bachelor’s degree isn’t a dispensation from the vagaries of economic reality. And teaching isn’t the first step toward sainthood. Regardless of what you’ve heard. (“Are Teachers Underpaid? Let’s Find Out,” Creators.com, July 25, 2014)

Harsanyi is right, but too kind. Here’s my take, from “The Public-School Swindle“:

[P]ublic “education” — at all levels — is not just a rip-off of taxpayers, it is also an employment scheme for incompetents (especially at the K-12 level) and a paternalistic redirection of resources to second- and third-best uses.

And, to top it off, public education has led to the creation of an army of left-wing zealots who, for many decades, have inculcated America’s children and young adults in the advantages of collective, non-market, anti-libertarian institutions, where paternalistic “empathy” supplants personal responsibility.

Utilitarianism, Once More

EconLog bloggers Bryan Caplan and Scott Sumner are enjoying an esoteric exchange about utilitarianism (samples here and here), which is a kind of cost-benefit calculus in which the calculator presumes to weigh the costs and benefits that accrue to other persons.  My take is that utilitarianism borders on psychopathy. In “Utilitarianism and Psychopathy,” I quote myself to this effect:

Here’s the problem with cost-benefit analysis — the problem it shares with utilitarianism: One person’s benefit can’t be compared with another person’s cost. Suppose, for example, the City of Los Angeles were to conduct a cost-benefit analysis that “proved” the wisdom of constructing yet another freeway through the city in order to reduce the commuting time of workers who drive into the city from the suburbs.

Before constructing the freeway, the city would have to take residential and commercial property. The occupants of those homes and owners of those businesses (who, in many cases would be lessees and not landowners) would have to start anew elsewhere. The customers of the affected businesses would have to find alternative sources of goods and services. Compensation under eminent domain can never be adequate to the owners of taken property because the property is taken by force and not sold voluntarily at a true market price. Moreover, others who are also harmed by a taking (lessees and customers in this example) are never compensated for their losses. Now, how can all of this uncompensated cost and inconvenience be “justified” by, say, the greater productivity that might (emphasize might) accrue to those commuters who would benefit from the construction of yet another freeway.

Yet, that is how cost-benefit analysis works. It assumes that group A’s cost can be offset by group B’s benefit: “the greatest amount of happiness altogether.”

America’s Financial Crisis

Timothy Taylor tackles the looming debt crisis:

First, the current high level of government debt, and the projections for the next 25 years, mean that the U.S. government lacks fiscal flexibility….

Second, the current spending patterns of the U.S. government are starting to crowd out everything except health care, Social Security, and interest payments….

Third, large government borrowing means less funding is available for private investment….

…CBO calculates an “alternative fiscal scenario,” in which it sets aside some of these spending and tax changes that are scheduled to take effect in five years or ten years or never…. [T]he extended baseline scenario projected that the debt/GDP ratio would be 106% by 2039. In the alternative fiscal scenario, the debt-GDP ratio is projected to reach 183% of GDP by 2039. As the report notes: “CBO’s extended alternative fiscal scenario is based on the assumptions that certain policies that are now in place but are scheduled to change under current law will be continued and that some provisions of law that might be difficult to sustain for a long period will be modified. The scenario, therefore, captures what some analysts might consider to be current policies, as opposed to current laws.”…

My own judgement is that the path of future budget deficits in the next decade or so is likely to lean toward the alternative fiscal scenario. But long before we reach a debt/GDP ratio of 183%, something is going to give. I don’t know what will change. But as an old-school economist named Herb Stein used to say, “If something can’t go on, it won’t.” (Long Term Budget Deficits,Conversable Economist, July 24, 2014)

Professional economists are terribly low-key, aren’t they? Here’s the way I see it, in “America’s Financial Crisis Is Now“:

It will not do simply to put an end to the U.S. government’s spending spree; too many State and local governments stand ready to fill the void, and they will do so by raising taxes where they can. As a result, some jurisdictions will fall into California- and Michigan-like death-spirals while jobs and growth migrate to other jurisdictions…. Even if Congress resists the urge to give aid and comfort to profligate States and municipalities at the expense of the taxpayers of fiscally prudent jurisdictions, the high taxes and anti-business regimes of California- and Michigan-like jurisdictions impose deadweight losses on the whole economy….

So, the resistance to economically destructive policies cannot end with efforts to reverse the policies of the federal government. But given the vast destructiveness of those policies — “entitlements” in particular — the resistance must begin there. Every conservative and libertarian voice in the land must be raised in reasoned opposition to the perpetuation of the unsustainable “promises” currently embedded in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid — and their expansion through Obamacare. To those voices must be added the voices of “moderates” and “liberals” who see through the proclaimed good intentions of “entitlements” to the economic and libertarian disaster that looms if those “entitlements” are not pared down to their original purpose: providing a safety net for the truly needy.

The alternative to successful resistance is stark: more borrowing, higher interest payments, unsustainable debt, higher taxes, and economic stagnation (at best).

For the gory details about government spending and economic stagnation, see “Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Spending Inhibits Economic Growth” and “The True Multiplier.”

Climate Change: More Evidence against the Myth of AGW

There are voices of reason, that is, real scientists doing real science:

Over the 55-years from 1958 to 2012, climate models not only significantly over-predict observed warming in the tropical troposphere, but they represent it in a fundamentally different way than is observed. (Ross McKittrick and Timothy Vogelsang, “Climate models not only significantly over-predict observed warming in the tropical troposphere, but they represent it in a fundamentally different way than is observed,” excerpted at Watt’s Up With That, July 24, 2014)

Since the 1980s anthropogenic aerosols have been considerably reduced in Europe and the Mediterranean area. This decrease is often considered as the likely cause of the brightening effect observed over the same period. This phenomenon is however hardly reproduced by global and regional climate models. Here we use an original approach based on reanalysis-driven coupled regional climate system modelling, to show that aerosol changes explain 81 ± 16 per cent of the brightening and 23 ± 5 per cent of the surface warming simulated for the period 1980–2012 over Europe. The direct aerosol effect is found to dominate in the magnitude of the simulated brightening. The comparison between regional simulations and homogenized ground-based observations reveals that observed surface solar radiation, as well as land and sea surface temperature spatio-temporal variations over the Euro-Mediterranean region are only reproduced when simulations include the realistic aerosol variations. (“New paper finds 23% of warming in Europe since 1980 due to clean air laws reducing sulfur dioxide,” The Hockey Schtick, July 23, 2014)

My (somewhat out-of-date but still useful) roundup of related posts and articles is at “AGW: The Death Knell.”

Crime Explained…

…but not by this simplistic item:

Of all of the notions that have motivated the decades-long rise of incarceration in the United States, this is probably the most basic: When we put people behind bars, they can’t commit crime.

The implied corollary: If we let them out, they will….

Crime trends in a few states that have significantly reduced their prison populations, though, contradict this fear. (Emily Badger, “There’s little evidence that fewer prisoners means more crime,” Wonkblog, The Washington Post, July 21, 2014)

Staring at charts doesn’t yield answers to complex, multivariate questions, such as the causes of crime. Ms. Badger should have extended my work of seven years ago (“Crime, Explained“). Had she, I’m confident that she would have obtained the same result, namely:

VPC (violent+property crimes per 100,000 persons) =

-33174.6

+346837BLK (number of blacks as a decimal fraction of the population)

-3040.46GRO (previous year’s change in real GDP per capita, as a decimal fraction of the base)

-1474741PRS (the number of inmates in federal and State prisons in December of the previous year, as a decimal fraction of the previous year’s population)

The t-statistics on the intercept and coefficients are 19.017, 21.564, 1.210, and 17.253, respectively; the adjusted R-squared is 0.923; the standard error of the estimate/mean value of VPC = 0.076.

The coefficient and t-statistic for PRS mean that incarceration has a strong, statistically significant, negative effect on the violent-property crime rate. In other words, more prisoners = less crime against persons and their property.

The Heritability of Intelligence

Strip away the trappings of culture and what do you find? This:

If a chimpanzee appears unusually intelligent, it probably had bright parents. That’s the message from the first study to check if chimp brain power is heritable.

The discovery could help to tease apart the genes that affect chimp intelligence and to see whether those genes in humans also influence intelligence. It might also help to identify additional genetic factors that give humans the intellectual edge over their non-human-primate cousins.

The researchers estimate that, similar to humans, genetic differences account for about 54 per cent of the range seen in “general intelligence” – dubbed “g” – which is measured via a series of cognitive tests. “Our results in chimps are quite consistent with data from humans, and the human heritability in g,” says William Hopkins of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, Georgia, who heads the team reporting its findings in Current Biology.

“The historical view is that non-genetic factors dominate animal intelligence, and our findings challenge that view,” says Hopkins. (Andy Coghlan, “Chimpanzee brain power is strongly heritable,New Scientist, July 10, 2014)

Such findings are consistent with Nicholas Wade’s politically incorrect A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History. For related readings, see “‘Wading’ into Race, Culture, and IQ’.” For a summary of scholarly evidence about the heritability of intelligence — and its dire implications — see “Race and Reason — The Achievement Gap: Causes and Implications.” John Derbyshire offers an even darker view: “America in 2034” (American Renaissance, June 9, 2014).

The correlation of race and intelligence is, for me, an objective matter, not an emotional one. For evidence of my racial impartiality, see the final item in “My Moral Profile.”

Playing the Social Security Trust Fund Shell Game

There’s a simple way to calculate the size of the federal government’s debt at any point in the future:

D’ = D – R + S – T

Where,

D’ = Amount of debt at a future date

D = Present debt

R = Federal government’s revenues from all sources (including Social Security taxes), from the present to the future date

S = Federal government’s spending for all purposes (including SS benefits), from the present to the future date

T = Value of Treasury securities redeemed by the SS trust fund to defray the gap between SS taxes collected and SS benefits paid

(For an explanation of how the redemption of securities by the trust fund can reduce the debt, see below.)

The present level of debt (D) is approximately equal to the debt ceiling. Therefore, as long as the deficit (R – S) is greater than the value of securities redeemed by the trust fund (T) to pay current benefits, the debt ceiling must rise or spending must be cut. (Aside: The ability of SS trustees to redeem trust fund holdings and pay benefits is simply a mechanism for ensuring the payment of full benefits until the trust fund is exhausted, regardless of any budget crunch. The trust fund, itself, is nothing more than a set of numbers in a government ledger. It isn’t an asset, any more than swampland is an asset to a sucker who buys it sight unseen.)

In theory, the trust fund could be exploited to get around the ceiling, by redeeming more holdings than required for the payment of current benefits. It’s a ploy was used in the past but is now illegal, Michael McConnell explained it in 2011:

The Social Security Trust Fund holds over $2 trillion [now over $2.7 trillion] in special Treasury securities, which it is legally entitled to redeem when necessary for the payment of benefits. When the Treasury redeems those bonds, the public debt will correspondingly be reduced, which will enable it to auction new bonds to investors, without violating the debt ceiling. This is precisely what happened during the debt ceiling crisis in 1985. Then, it was a Democratic House of Representatives that refused to raise the ceiling at the behest of a Republican President (an episode conveniently forgotten by those who wish to paint the Republican House today as uniquely evil for insisting that a debt ceiling increase be accompanied by spending reductions). The Social Security trustees cashed in some $9 billion in special Treasury securities for the payment of benefits, and the Treasury auctioned off the same amount in new U.S. bonds, without violating the debt ceiling. Here is how the Comptroller General described the event:

The Treasury Department estimated that it would have insufficient cash on November 1 to pay social security benefits and other government obligations. In order for these payments to be made, the Treasury needed to borrow money from the public, and in order to borrow the money, Treasury had to reduce its outstanding debt below the statutory limit. Therefore, on November 1 the Secretary redeemed $9.613 billion of the Trust Funds’ long-term securities, and $1.9 billion of securities held by certain other government-managed trust funds, to permit public borrowing of about $13 billion.

In this way, the Reagan Treasury was able to continue to pay Social Security benefits without interruption, despite the failure of Congress to raise the debt ceiling at the time.

The Comptroller General ruled that these redemptions were lawful, except that the trust fund redeemed more securities than were actually necessary for the payment of benefits. Some years later, Congress passed a statute codifying the Comptroller General’s decision. Public Law 104-121, section 107(a), prohibits redemption of special securities held by Social Security prior to maturity for any purpose other than the payment of benefits or administrative expenses. This statute is significant for two reasons. First, it confirms that the trustees have authority to redeem the special securities prior to maturity for the payment of benefits, and second, it prevents the executive from using the trust fund as a massive kitty to avoid the effect of the debt ceiling.

What could happen if the law were repealed? This:

1. Given the estimated size of the trust fund at the end of 2014 (as reported here), trust fund holdings could be liquidated as follows: FY 2015 — $469 billion; FY 2016 — $536 billion; FY 2017 — $576 billion; FY 2018 — $627 billion; FY 2019 — $722 billion; FY 2020 — $144 billion. The payout in FY 2020 would exhaust the trust fund. The total ($3.1 trillion) exceeds the estimated value of the trust fund at the end of 2014 ($2.8 trillion) because the trust fund would be credited with interest on its remaining holdings while those holdings were being drawn down.

2. The redemptions in 2015-2019 would entirely offset projected budget deficits for those years; the redemption in 2020 would offset about one-fifth of that year’s projected deficit. (See Table 1 here.) Thus it wouldn’t be necessary to reduce federal spending from currently projected levels until some time in 2020.

3. Under present law, however, depletion of the trust fund means that SS benefits must then be cut to a level that can be sustained by SS taxes. The cuts would be relatively small at first, but would grow steadily through the years. (Go here and compare the columns “non-interest income” and “cost” for the years 2020 and beyond.) For example, benefits in 2021 would have to be reduced to 90 percent of the level currently planned for that year; by 2030, benefits would have to be reduced to 80 percent of the planned level.

The good news — if the ploy could be executed — is that the Social Security crisis would be brought forward to the near future, instead of being deferred until 2033, when the trust fund is now expected to vanish. The undeniable urgency of the situation might compel Congress and the president to act — and perhaps to do something about the federal government’s entire fiscal mess — instead of continuing to kick the can down the road.

The bad news is that the federal government would run huge deficits for the next several years (at least). Programs that are unaffordable in the long run would be kept alive to acquire larger constituencies. Accordingly, it would be harder to curtail or kill them.

The real solution, of course, isn’t fiscal trickery; it’s fiscal responsibility. Let’s hope that 2017 brings with it a Congress and White House controlled by the non-RINO wing of the GOP.

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Related posts:
Economics: A Survey (also here)
Why Are Interest Rates So Low?
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Spending Inhibits Economic Growth
America’s Financial Crisis Is Now
“Social Insurance” Isn’t Insurance — Nor Is Obamacare
The Keynesian Multiplier: Phony Math
The True Multiplier

The Social Security Trust Fund Is Not a “Get Out of Jail Free Card”

UPDATED BELOW

David Friedman, drawing on an op-ed by Thomas Saving, suggests that

Obama may have a $2.7 trillion dollar get out of jail free card, a way of spending that much additional money without exceeding the debt limit.

How does that work? Friedman explains:

Suppose no agreement is reached on raising the debt limit. Obama instructs the relevant people to spend the income from Social Security on the war in Afghanistan, bailouts, whatever he thinks needs money. He then instructs the Social Security system to cash in as many bonds as are required to meet its obligations to Social Security recipients, say $700 billion. He then instructs the treasury, since the national debt is now $700 billion below the debt limit, to borrow $700 billion. The net effect is that he has increased total expenditure, Social Security included, by $700 billion without exceeding the debt limit. The trust fund is currently at about $2.7 trillion, so he can do it for four more years.

Friedman’s scheme would work only if total federal receipts (including Social Security taxes) remain greater than or equal to total federal outlays (including SS benefits), from the point at which federal indebtedness hits the statutory ceiling. But that is not the situation.

Let us say, for the sake of argument, that the ceiling will be reached at the end of FY 2011. The president’s budget for FY 2012 shows total outlays of $3.729 trillion (including SS benefits of $0.761 T) and total revenues of $2.626 T (including SS taxes of $0.660 T). (See tables S-1 and S-3, here.) In other words, if Congress passes the president’s budget exactly as it stands, the debt ceiling must rise by $1.103 T ($3.729 T – $2.626 T) in FY 2012. And the SS trust fund, no matter how large it is, cannot alter the arithmetic.

Here is why. Suppose the feds spend all $0.660 T in SS taxes on things other than SS benefits (as they will, in effect). From an accounting standpoint, that reduces the non-SS deficit for FY 2012 from $1.001 T (non-SS spending less non-SS receipts) to $0.341 T. But the folks at SS are faced with a bill for $0.761 T in SS benefits. To pay the bill without having received a dime in SS taxes, the SS folks must go to the SS trust fund and grab U.S. treasury bonds with a value of $0.761 T, which they must then present to Tim Geithner for payment. Geithner thinks, “Who are these fools? Do they imagine that I’ve got that much unencumbered cash lying around, when I’m over my head in debt and sinking fast?” But being a good Obamanite, Geithner gives the SS folks their $0.761 T, and they go away happy.

If the analysis stops there, Friedman is correct. The treasury has just redeemed $0.761 T in bonds held by the SS trust fund, and the total debt of the federal government has magically dropped by $0.761 T. But the analysis cannot stop there, because the treasury does not have the $0.761 T in unencumbered cash. It must now borrow $0.761 T, to cover the redemption of the SS trust fund bonds, plus another $0.341 T, to cover the amount by which non-SS outlays exceed total receipts (including the SS taxes that it intercepts). With rounding, that comes to $1.103 T, which just happens to be the amount by which total federal outlays exceed total federal receipts.

Under what conditions would Friedman’s fix work? Here is a list (perhaps not an exhaustive one):

  • The debt ceiling will not be reached, given current projections of federal outlays and receipts (including SS benefits and taxes).
  • The debt ceiling has been reached but will not be exceeded, given current projections of federal outlays and receipts (including SS benefits and taxes).
  • The debt ceiling has been reached, but the surplus from non-SS programs will offset the deficit in SS accounts, or vice versa.

What about the SS trust fund? As long as the federal government is in debt by at least the face value of the SS trust fund, the trust fund has no real value. There is one (unlikely) saving condition, which is that the government’s net worth — represented by real assets — is equal to or greater than the face value of the trust fund. Such assets would have to be authorized for sale, by law, and would have to be valued at their quick-sale price on the open market. Given the reluctance with which Congress and federal agencies part with valuable assets (mainly land), it will be a cold day on the Equator before the SS trust fund is more than a valueless collection of accounting entries.

UPDATE (07/25/11)

The crux of my objection to Friedman’s scheme is found in the original post and my reply to his first comment; viz.:

If the analysis stops there, Friedman is correct. The treasury has just redeemed $0.761 T in bonds held by the SS trust fund, and the total debt of the federal government has magically dropped by $0.761 T. But the analysis cannot stop there, because the treasury does not have the $0.761 T in unencumbered cash….

*     *     *

3. This intra-governmental transaction does not affect the revenues that SS and non-SS receive from third parties.

4. Total spending by SS and non-SS must therefore equal their total receipts from third parties.

I ended my reply with this observation:

If you disagree with this analysis, then you and/or I must be making some assumptions (perhaps inadvertently) that remain hidden from view….

As it turns out, Friedman was making a hidden assumption that allows his scheme to work. That hidden assumption is revealed in a note appended to Friedman’s original post. The note was not there when I published this post, and I was unaware of it when I replied to Friedman’s first comment. In fact, I was unaware of it until late yesterday, when I revisited this post and Friedman’s after receiving his second comment. The note reads:

Some readers seem puzzled as to where the Treasury, in my story, is to find the $700 billion that it is to pay to the Social Security Administration, once the debt limit is reached. The answer is straightforward. With or without a debt limit, the federal government is continually collecting money and spending it. In my scenario, the government takes (say) $50 billion that it was supposed to pay as salary to federal employees, pays it to SSA instead. SSA cancels $50 billion in trust fund bonds. The national debt, which includes the debt owed by the federal government to the SSA, is now $50 billion below the limit, so the Treasury borrows $50 billion and pays out salaries to federal employees. Rinse and repeat as many times as necessary.

This is too clever by half. It requires exquisite timing on the part of the Treasury; otherwise, payrolls are not met, vendors are not paid, and existing debt is not serviced. In other words, the federal government would be in constructive default and violation of the debt limit. Moreover, it most certainly would not allow the federal government’s outlays to exceed its revenues over an extended period, which is why Obama seeks a higher debt limit in the first place. I could stop there, but there’s more to say about the scheme.

It resembles check-kiting, and may be just as illegal. But even if it is not illegal, it amounts to a patent evasion of the debt limit, and the evasion soon would be obvious to knowledgeable observers. Among other things, financial markets probably would react as if the federal government were in default — because the scheme could sooner or later result in a default of some kind (especially if outlays are rising as revenues stay flat). It would not take an act of Congress (over Obama’s veto) to put an end to the scheme; financial markets would do the job, as Treasury would be unable to refinance existing debt, except (possibly) at exorbitant interest rates.

In the best case, climbing interest payments would eat up revenues and force the federal government to cut back on the actual operations and programs. The result would be exactly opposite the one desired by Obama and company, which is real expansion of government. In the worst case, the Federal Reserve would pick up the tab, if it could scrape together a voting majority with the stomach for wading into a political firestorm. But that is another deus ex machina — of dubious durability — and not a surefire way of getting around the debt limit.

I am through with this subject. Comments are closed.

UPDATE (06/08/14)

I note, very belatedly, that Friedman later amended his post to add this:

A friend who knows much more law than I do writes:

It turns on, on further research, that Congress anticipated and prevented the very trick you have devised. Public Law 104-121, section 107(a), prohibits redemption of Social Security trust fund securities prior to maturity for any purpose other than the payment of benefits or administrative expenses.So it’s still true that the debt limit cannot block social security payments, at least until the trust fund runs out. But my multi-trillion dollar get out of jail free card has been cancelled.

Curses, foiled again.

Friedman later wrote a post that is properly focused on the ability of the federal government to continue paying SS benefits, regardless of the debt ceiling, as long as the trust fund is sufficiently large. The trustees expect the fund to be exhausted in 2033.

Miss Brooks’s “Grand Bargain”

The idiot known as David Brooks — The New York Times‘s idea of a conservative — is true to form today:

Imagine you’re a member of Congress. You have your own preferred way to reduce debt. If you’re a Democrat, it probably involves protecting Medicare and raising taxes. If you’re a Republican, it probably involves cutting spending, reforming Medicare and keeping taxes low.

Your plan is going nowhere. There just aren’t the votes. Meanwhile, the debt ceiling is fast approaching and a national catastrophe could be just weeks away.

At the last minute, two bipartisan approaches heave into view. In the Senate, the “Gang of Six” produces one Grand Bargain. Meanwhile, President Obama and John Boehner, the House speaker, have been quietly working on another. They suddenly seem close to a deal.

There’s a lot you don’t know about these two Grand Bargains….

You are being asked to support a foggy approach, not a specific plan. You are being asked to do this even though you have no faith in the other party and limited faith in the leadership of your own. You are being asked to risk your political life for an approach that bears little resemblance to what you would ideally prefer.

Do you do this? I think you do….

You do it because while the Grand Bargains won’t solve most of our fiscal problems. They will produce some incremental progress. We won’t fundamentally address the debt until we control health care inflation….

Both Grand Bargains produce real fiscal progress. They aim for $3 trillion or $4 trillion in debt reduction. Boehner and Obama have talked about raising the Medicare eligibility age and reducing Social Security benefit increases. The White House is offering big cuts in exchange for some revenue increases, or small cuts in exchange for few or none. The Gang of Six has a less-compelling blend of cuts, but it would repeal the Class Act, a health care Ponzi scheme. It would force committees across Congress to cut spending, and it would introduce an enforcement mechanism if they don’t. Sure there’s chicanery, but compared with any recent real-life budget, from Republican or Democratic administrations, these approaches are models of fiscal rectitude.

You do it because both bargains would boost growth. The tax code really is a travesty and a drag on the country’s economic dynamism. Any serious effort to simplify the code, strip out tax expenditures and reduce rates would have significant positive effects — even if it raised some tax revenues along the way….

In other words, Republicans should simply give in, on Miss Brooks’s say-so.

But Miss Brooks doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

First, with respect to “health care inflation,” government is the problem, not the solution. There are two key reasons for rising health-care prices, aside from innovation that yields expensive but effective drugs, procedures, and equipment. They are (a) the tax break that enables employers to subsidize employees’ health plans and (b) the subsidization of old folks’ health care via Medicare and (indirectly) SS. Those two interventions result in the overuse of health-care products and services. (There’s a 25-year old but still valid RAND study on the subject.) A far better system — if one insists on government involvement — would be to provide means-tested vouchers that can be redeemed for a  limited menu of vital medical products and services (e.g., critical surgeries, cardiovascular medications, chemotherapy). That’s it — no more Medicare, Medicaid, or their expansion via Obamacare.

Second, with respect to “tax expenditures” — there ain’t no such thing. Any action that results in higher taxes is a tax increase, no matter what Miss Brooks and his fellow Democrats choose to call it. And tax increases are growth inhibitors, not growth stimulators.

So much for the wisdom of The New York Times‘s pet “conservative.”

Related posts:
The Laffer Curve, “Fiscal Responsibility,” and Economic Growth
Our Miss Brooks
Rationing and Health Care
The Perils of Nannyism: The Case of Obamacare
More about the Perils of Obamacare
Health-Care Reform: The Short of It
Toward a Risk-Free Economy
Undermining the Free Society
The Constitution: Original Meaning, Corruption, and Restoration
The Unconstitutionality of the Individual Mandate
Does the Power to Tax Give Congress Unlimited Power?
Does Congress Have the Power to Regulate Inactivity?
“Tax Expenditures” Are Not Expenditures
My Negotiating Position on the Federal Debt

My Negotiating Position on the Federal Debt

Democrats’ insistence on ramming Obamacare through  Congress is a key ingredient of the dire long-term fiscal outlook. The supposed 10-year “savings” from Obamacare are phony — a matter of timing and “cuts” that will never happen.

Therefore, if I were at the negotiating table, I would insist on rescinding the O-bomanation or taking the equivalent in cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and/or Social Security. My argument would run like this: Obamacare cost Democrats the House and it has yet to kick in, except in small ways. So, if you Democrats agree to rescind Obamacare — or, to save face, agree to cuts of equal magnitude in Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security — we Republicans will allow you to take credit for averting a default while undoing a politically poisonous act.

With that out of the way, we can talk about the rest of the deficit-reduction package. I am open to changes in the tax code (e.g. elimination of certain deductions and loopholes), as long as long as total tax revenues do not exceed 19 percent of GDP. You Democrats can choose ways to meet that target with cuts in addition to those I’ve already discussed. Defense is off-limits, but everything else is on the table, including farm subsidies and corporate welfare.

Finally, as a bonus, I’m giving you a chance to sign on to a balanced-budge amendment. You don’t have to campaign in support of it when it goes to the States for ratification, but most of you would reap a political dividend by voting for its passage by Congress.

Don’t say I never did you a favor.