Obama to Boehner: “John, I’m Getting Tired of Hearing You Say That”

This was President Obama’s reply, during fiscal cliff negotiations, when House Speaker John Boehner declared, for the umpteenth time, that “ The U.S. has a spending problem.” 

I can understand the president’s irritation. How could anyone believe that we have a “spending problem?’

Look around. Consider the state of our bridges, our roads and our crumbling inner city public schools. Are we spending too much on the nation’s infrastructure?

Next, think about unemployment. During this recovery we have lost 750,000 public sector jobs.  Republicans are intent on “starving the beast” (of government) and as a result Washington has not given states the financial support they need continue delivering public services. Across the nation, public school teachers have been laid off in droves, while class sizes increase at unprecedented rates.  Does this sound like government spending run amuck?

One in five American children now lives in poverty. Seventeen million children find themselves in homes where they can’t be sure of getting enough to eat.  (a.k.a. “food-insecure households.”)  At the end of the month, many kids go to bed hungry because the government Food Stamps program (now known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP)  gives families less than $1.50 per person per meal. Are we being overly generous?

During the past two wars, we sent millions of American men and women to Iraq and Afghanistan –many went back for repeated tours. In some cases, their bodies were not  broken–but their minds were.  Now 1.3 million Vets seeking mental health services are told they must wait of 50 days before getting treatment.   A recent government report suggests that 22 Vets die by suicide every day – about 20 percent of all Americans who kill themselves. Are we spending too much on healthcare for Veterans?

Let me suggest that we don’t have a spending problem. We have a revenue problem. Current federal revenue levels are at their lowest levels since the 1950s. 

                      How Anti-Tax Pledges Have Weakened the Nation

In a recent post, Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, nailed it: “The tax system doesn’t raise enough revenue.  And that’s not just the recession; it’s also tax policy and anti-tax pledges  . . . The system has become less progressive, with the largest declines in effective tax rates at the top of the income scale.

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U.S. Media Loves “Fiscal Cliff” Metaphor; The Economist Recognizes that It’s An Imaginary Line in the Sand

In the U.S., pundits cannot resist the fiscal cliff metaphor: it’s colorful, punchy and easy to understand. It’s just two words long. What’s not to like?

It’s not true.

The metaphor assumes that if Republicans and Democrats fail to reach an agreement on the budget by the end of the year, the U.S. economy falls over a cliff,  crashes, and burns.  The “cliff “metaphor complements the equally imaginative “iceberg metaphor” that some fear-mongers use to portray the deficit. (Think Titanic) 

It’s all a bit more complicated than the metaphors suggest.

What few conservatives mention is that the deficit has already begun to dissolve:  since 2009 the deficit has fallen from 10% of GDP to 7% in the fiscal year that ended on September 30th.  By historic standards this is still enormous, and must be addressed. But  the numbers demonstrate that, over time, we can reduce the deficit without renting the nation’s safety nets.

As for the cliff, there is no precipice—just an imaginary line, drawn in the sand, as Republicans and Democrats play “chicken.”

The Economist understands all of this. The lead story in the most recent issue focuses on the “cliff” and points out that “worries” about what will happen if we go over that precipice are “understandable”  but “overblown.” The “risk of economic catastrophe is minimal.” Any damage would be short-term. 

I don’t always agree with the Economist: the UK publication has its own sometimes eccentric slant on things. But on the whole, it is a thoughtful publication—well-researched and fact-checked.  Moreover, in this case, distance may give the Economist a perspective on the problem that some in the U.S. lack.

                                   Exaggerating the Threat to the Middle-Class      

Yesterday’s New York Times suggests that if we cross that line in the sand, an already beleaguered the middle-class will suffer great hardship, and this “Complicates Democrats’ Stance in Talks.” 

The analysis suggests that Democrats don’t dare just stand back and let Bush’s tax cuts expire– as they will if party leaders don’t reach a settlement by year-end: “Only a small handful of policy voices on the left are making the case for the tax cuts to fully expire. In part, that is because the economy is still growing slowly, and tax increases have the potential to weaken it.” But it is also because “If the two parties fail to come to a deal by Jan. 1, taxes on the average middle-income family would rise about $2,000 over the next year. That would follow a 12-year period in which median inflation-adjusted income dropped 8.9 percent, from $54,932 in 1999 to $50,054 in 2011.”

This assumes that once we miss the January 1 deadline, tax hikes for the middle-class would become permanent—which, of course, is not true. Talk about how much more a family would pay over the course of 2013 falls somewhere between hyperbole and hysteria, ignoring what everyone knows:

If the Bush tax cuts expire, Democrats will presumably simply propose to restore them in January for those [families] earning less than $250,000,” the Economist observes, “daring Republicans to block them.” 
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Obama Wins Round One of Budget Negotiations

CNN is reporting that the “Fiscal cliff deal is down to wrangling over the details.” While others in the media continue to say that talks are stalled, everything I know about both the economics and the politics of the situation tells me that CNN is right.

At 4:30 this afternoon, CNN updated its story: “Both sides agree the wealthy will pay more, so now fiscal cliff  talks come down to how much Republicans can wring out of the White House in return for giving in on taxes.

“To President Barack Obama, it’s all about first locking in additional revenue from raising taxes on high-income owners, an outcome the GOP has long rejected.”

President Obama had made it clear that negotiations over government spending on safety nets such as Medicare wouldn’t begin until Republicans accepted a higher marginal tax rate for individuals earning over $200,000 and couples earning over $250,000.

The president dug in, and, according to CNN, he has won round one.

“Retiring Republican Rep. Steve LaTourette of Ohio told CNN on Thursday that he sensed a shift in the House GOP approach during a conference meeting the day before.

“A GOP source told CNN that talks between staff members on both sides resumed Thursday for the first time this week, after Obama and Boehner spoke by phone the day before.”

A Two-Step Approach

It is not clear whether negotiations over so-called “entitlements” will be concluded before the end of the year. But CNN, reports

“All signs point toward a two-step approach sought by newly re-elected Obama — an initial agreement that would extend lower tax rates for income up to $250,000 for families, while letting rates return to higher levels from the Clinton era on income above that threshold.”  That agreement on taxes will be signed and sealed before the end of the year.

“Even conservatives such as Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal acknowledge the obvious — taxes on the wealthy are going up despite opposition by Republicans.

“‘Whatever deal is reached is going to contain elements that are detrimental to our economy,’ Jindal wrote Thursday in an opinion piece published by Politico. ‘Elections have consequences, and the country is going to feel those consequences soon.’”

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How Much Will We Save If We Raise the Age When Seniors Can Apply for Medicare to 67? Less than Zero

The budget deadlock continues.

President Obama is clear: if we want to strengthen the economy, we can no longer afford President Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthiest 2% of all Americans. At the same time,  he is equally firm that he will continue tax relief for the other 98%.

House Speaker John Boehner has responded by characterizing Obama’s proposal as coming from “La-la land.”  Once again, Boehner has insisted that his party will not agree to let marginal tax rates for Americans earning over $200,000 ($250,000 for couples ) rise back to where they were in the 1990s.

Instead, Boehner proposes slicing social safety net programs. As part of the package, he continues to insist that we raise the age when Americans can apply for Medicare from 65 to 67. If we did this, the Congressional Budget  Office says, Medicare spending would decline by about 5 percent. 

                                     “We Are Not Living Longer”

On the face of it, lifting the eligibility age for Medicare might sound like a reasonable idea. After all, longevity has increased. Can’t we wait a couple of years before we ask the government to cover our health benefits?

First, “We” are not living longer. “Some of us” are living longer. But low-income and median-income Americans (who most need these benefits) die sooner than the  politicians who propose that we raise the age requirement for Medicare.

Research from the Social Security administration shows that increases in life expectancy have not been shared.  In 1977, life expectancy at age 65 for a man who was in the bottom half of earners during his peak earning years was 79.8 years; a 65 year-old male who was in the top half of earners at the same point in his career, could assume that he would live roughly 10 years longer,  to 80.5

Over the past 30 years, the gap has widened, During those three decades life expectancy  grew dramatically for the top half of earners, while remaining nearly flat for the bottom half

Education serves as another marker for life expectancy: According to the Center of Disease Control (CDC) between 1996-2006, the difference in life expectancy at age 25 between those with less than a high school education and those with a bachelor’s degree or higher increased by 1.9 years for men and 2.8 years for women.  On average in 2006, 25-year-old men without a high school diploma had a life expectancy 9.3 years less than those with a Bachelor’s degree or higher.  Women without a high school diploma had a life expectancy 8.6 years less than those with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Race also plays a role. For example, a white male born in 2009 can expect to live to be 76.3 while an African-American male born that year is likely to  die shortly after he turns 70.  Lift the age when he becomes eligible for Medicare to 67, and he may be  be suffering though the final stage of a chronic disease before he qualifies. Yet, he, like every other working American, will have contributed to Medicare for decades.

Finally, occupation helps determine how long you live. Low-income workers are more likely to be engaged in work that is physically grueling. By age 65, the body is wearing out. At that point, a person needs Medicare.

As David A. Smith, Director, Public Policy Department, American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL–CIO) testified at a 1998 hearing on the Future of Social Security before the House Ways and Means Sub Committee on Social Security:  “It is clear that people who spend their work lives scrubbing floors in a nursing home, moving 5 liter engine blocks around a factory floor, pouring steel into a Bessemer mill, or hauling bricks around a construction site can count on a shorter life span and a shorter work life. They are more likely to experience work place injuries and to lack the continued physical endurance necessary to perform their jobs very far into their 60’s.”

As a simple matter of fairness, asking those who have worked harder to wait another  two years before receiving Medicare seems cruel.

                                       The Bogus Financial Argument 

Admittedly Republicans might not acknowledge the “fairness” argument. If you believe that a person’s health is a matter of “personal responsibility,” you might say that if the poor are aging faster than the rest of us, it is because they smoke, eat too many carbs, and generally “don’t take care of themselves.”                                           

But, fairness aside, when you look at the numbers, it turns out that the claim that we can save billions by requiring that everyone wait until 67 before applying for Medicare is bogus.
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