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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Will Dems Counter the GOP’s Plan to Cut Social Security?

The Daily Escape:

Fall in Paradise Valley, Yellowstone NP – photo by Annie Griffiths

The mid-terms are coming, and we are having difficulty focusing on some important issues, because America has a short attention span, and we’ve been Kavanaugh ‘ed and Khashoggi ‘ed so much lately.

Two issues that are linked are the amazing deficit caused by the Trump tax cuts, and the moves being plotted by Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan and others to cut Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

Let’s start with tax revenues. It was clear to critics that the 2017 GOP tax cut was going to quickly increase the budget deficit and add $ trillions of the national debt, and here it is:

The federal deficit grew by nearly $800 billion over the first fiscal year of Trump’s presidency, during which the Republican Congress passed a tax cut targeted mostly to corporations and the wealthy, which is projected to add more than $1 trillion to the deficit over the next 10 years.

And it didn’t take long for Republicans to insist that the deficits were actually caused by Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, not their tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy. From Vox:

Fresh off the news that the deficit is increasing under President Donald Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told Bloomberg News that Congress should target Social Security and Medicare for cuts to address the growing federal debt.

The White House and GOP leaders promised America that the tax cuts would pay for themselves, but they haven’t. The growing federal deficit hasn’t caused Republican leaders to reconsider their tax policy. Instead, they argue that entitlement reform — Republican-speak for cuts to social safety net programs — is what’s really needed to address the federal deficit. From McConnell’s interview with Bloomberg this week:

It’s disappointing, but it’s not a Republican problem….It’s a bipartisan problem: unwillingness to address the real drivers of the debt by doing anything to adjust those programs to the demographics of America in the future.

Republicans have opposed Social Security and Medicare since they were created. But because these programs enjoy overwhelming support from the American people, they would not normally talk about their plans for benefit cuts three weeks before an election.

But, they are doing just that.

This is a real issue, since those programs make up a large share of federal spending: Medicare was 15% of the federal budget in 2017, and it’s projected to grow to 18% by 2028. Social Security is a bigger chunk of the budget (24% in 2016), and our aging population will put a greater strain on the program. Here is the budget breakdown:

Democrats want to expand, not cut these programs. Republicans may see their last, best chance to cut them slipping away with the mid-terms. They seem determined not to let that happen, so this will be a big issue in the lame duck sessions. The GOP will use the cost of their tax giveaways as the excuse to do what they have wanted to do to social programs all along.

If the GOP is talking like this before the mid-terms, imagine the carnage if they keep control of both Houses of Congress!

People who want to defend Social Security and Medicare better work hard to get out the vote in November. And the latest news about the House isn’t encouraging. Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball reports that Democrats aren’t there yet:

A race-by-race analysis of Democratic House targets shows the party is close to winning the majority, but they do not have it put away, in our judgment, with Election Day less than three weeks away.

Barring a big, positive late change in the political environment in favor of Republicans, the bare minimum for Democratic House gains is in the mid-to-high teens. The needed 23-seat net gain is not that far beyond that and there are many different paths Democrats can take to achieve it.

He says Dems can count on 18, but need 23…

Assuming that the Dems won’t go along with the GOP’s planned social spending cuts, Republicans will try to blame Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer and the Democrats, assuming their cuts to social programs fail.

Republicans will say “Democrats plan to raise taxes on tens of millions of middle-class Americans” to cut the deficit, and that’s true. But, it would be just a part of the package of fiscal moves to cut the deficit, with the primary focus on clawing back some of the massive Republican corporate tax cuts.

Democrats need to talk this up in the next three weeks to counter the GOP’s clearly articulated game plan.

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Sunday Cartoon Blogging – Christmas Eve 2017

(The Wrongologist is taking a brief holiday break. Blogging will resume on Wednesday, 12/27. In the meantime, Merry Christmas!)

The Daily Escape:

Jingle Bell Jog – Ft. Lauderdale FL, 2017. Better for ya than SantaCon.

A final Christmas Eve word about the unwanted gifts the Trump tax cut is foisting on us. In the short term, it will stimulate consumer demand. The economy may “grow”, but our tax receipts cannot.

Soon, these tax cuts will place our government on a fiscally precarious footing. Expect the credit rating agencies (Moody’s, Standard & Poors) to start wagging their tongues, warning of their concerns about the country’s overall debt levels. It is possible that the repatriation of some of the massive off-shore profits that American firms have hoarded may come home. To the extent that they return, and some taxes are paid on them, this (one time) tax receipt will likely make the 2018 and 2019 annual budget deficits somewhat smaller than the colossal ones to follow.

After that, the government’s income will fall, and we will hear bi-partisan calls for deficit reduction, and lower spending targets will be the norm. The effects of tax legislation can take a long time to shake out, and there often are unintended effects.

But make no mistake, the GOP will start talking about the Coming Debt Apocalypse next month.

On to a few cartoons. Here is the difference between the parties:

 

Trump’s year in review:

War is the answer to any question:

Trump’s touting of something terrific slides downhill:

Congress flies home for Christmas:

Congress gives empty present to our kids:

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What Will Dems Do When The GOP Says: “The Deficit Matters”?

The Daily Escape:

Big Ben being cleaned. In order to clean the four clock faces, every 5-7 years, skilled climbers hang down from the belfry on ropes, and they clean the front of each clock face. There is one removable panel of glass on each face, which is removed during the cleaning so that the clock maintenance staff can talk to the cleaners while they’re working. (“you missed a spot?”) Hat tip to Wrongo’s friends at the Goodspeed Opera House!

Yesterday we pointed out that there is a very large program that the country needs to fund if we are to maintain our position in the global superpower competition. The issue at hand is the stunning thought that we might lose up to 75 million jobs to automation in the next 13 years, and that we need to train the out-of-work unfortunates for new jobs in a different economy.

It’s highly unlikely that we would need to train that many, but it could be 25 million Americans. And we have no idea where the money would come from to accomplish that. After all, the Republicans now plan to reduce tax receipts bigly, thus adding to the deficit and thereby, to the total debt of the country.

We know that as soon as the new tax cuts begin accruing to their patrons, the GOP will start talking about reducing the budget deficit by cutting non-military expenses. Ron Brownstein conceives the Republican tax plan correctly:

Gaius Publius observes: (brackets and editing by the Wrongologist)

As they did in the 1980s, Republicans are laying a “deficit trap” for Democrats. As they did before, they’re blowing up the budget, then using deficit [fear] to force Democrats to “be responsible” about cutting social programs — “because deficits matter.”

In the 1980s Republicans ran up the deficit, then insisted that Democrats work with them to raise taxes on the middle class to over-fund the Social Security (SS) Trust Fund. This converted SS from a pay-as-you-go system that increased revenues as needed via adjustments to the salary cap, to a pay-in-advance system. That allowed any excess SS money to be loaned back to the government, partially concealing the large deficits that Reagan was running up.

Today, Republicans are expanding the deficit again, and are already starting to talk about deficits to argue for cuts in what they call “entitlements” — Medicare, Medicaid, and eventually Social Security, even though Social Security can be self-funding.

Fear of deficits is the go-to Republican ploy to try to maim or kill the FDR and LBJ-created social safety net. To the extent that Democrats are willing to accept the GOP’s argument that both parties need to be responsible to decrease the deficits, they will support cuts in social services. Even Obama was willing to consider doing just that in the name of “bipartisanship”. More from Gaius:

The reality — Deficits aren’t dangerous at all until there’s a big spike in inflation, which is nowhere near happening and won’t be near happening for a generation…

Do we want the US government to shrink the money supply year after year after year, by running budget surpluses, or do we want to grow the amount of money in the private sector, making more available for use by the middle class?  The trillions spent on the current GOP giveaway to the already-rich could have been given to college students in debt, or people still underwater in their mortgages since the Wall Street-created crash of 2008. It could have been used to build better roads, airports, seaports or a national high speed internet backbone.

What would be the effect of that re-allocation of money?

Back to Gaius Publius for the final words. Which of these three options would you rather the government choose:

  • Spend money on the already-rich?
  • Spend money on you and the country’s needs, ignoring the pleas of the already-rich?
  • Hoard as much money as possible in a vault and spend the least possible?

The first is the GOP’s current tax plan. The second is a plan for the many, an FDR-style economic policy. The third is the GOP’s wet dream, one that they will ask Democrats to help them accomplish once the already-rich have banked their share of our tax money.

Wrongo’s fear is that at some point down the road, a compromise will be offered up: Cuts to social programs in exchange for a repeal of some of the more onerous tax cuts. The only issue will be the extent of the cuts to social programs.

It will be celebrated as bipartisan sanity returning to Washington.

Our system is revolting. Why aren’t we?

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Sunday Cartoon Blogging – April 30, 2017

It only took 100 days for Donald Trump to reduce the office of the presidency to the point of near-zero credibility. Unfortunately, it appears as though his base and Republicans in Congress remain very accepting of him as president. In Twitter speak, #So Sad.

Back to the administration’s one page tax plan: The plan works if we assume 6% annual GDP growth for the full 8 years of a Trump presidency. Since the end of the Great Recession, annual GDP growth has been about 2%. More to the point, we now have a 3.5% (of GDP) budget deficit, and we are at the top of the current business cycle, with a 75% debt-to-GDP ratio.

Republicans used to refer to that as being broke.

Mostly, what has been accomplished in the last 100 days are a blizzard of executive orders and proclamations. We all remember when executive orders like Trump’s were considered tyranny by Fox News. On to cartoons. The GOP walks out on its long-term companion, the deficit hawks:

Trump’s first 100 days did NOT include tons of winning:

The clown show about trickle-down economics continues:

Trump explains his new tax brackets:

Arkansas needs help after botching another execution:

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Sunday Cartoon Blogging – November 27, 2016

Are you sick of all the winning yet?

You have probably heard that Fidel Castro died yesterday. Wrongo was in college in October 1962, at the time of the Cuban missile crisis. We were glued to TV waiting for a nuclear attack that never came.

That Castro survived JFK by 53 years is remarkable, particularly since at least two American Presidents tried to kill him. At the time, Kennedy offered two things in exchange for Soviet removal of the Cuban missiles: (1) the US would pledge never to invade Cuba and (2) the US would secretly withdraw missiles from Turkey. The removal of the nukes from Turkey was delayed several months, so that the US would not appear weak in the face of the Cuban missile threat. The Soviet Union accepted this offer the next day.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, their archives of the Missile crisis showed that Castro wanted the USSR to fire the missiles at the US. Khrushchev came to regard Castro as a lunatic, bent on war. We came very close to invading Cuba, and the Soviets never fully trusted Castro again.

In most ways, Castro’s death is anticlimactic. He retired, and appointed his brother Raul to head the government years ago, and recently, the Obama administration has been effective in improving relations with Cuba. Had Fidel died during a period of greater tension, it might have signaled the possibility of a positive change in relations between our two countries. Sadly, it is probable that the next great change in Cuban/American relations will move us backward under a Trump Administration.

Onward to cartoons. Thanksgiving and Trump’s staffing plans dominated the week.

Many avoided politics at the family repast:

cow-i-survived

Democrats weigh their strategy with Trump:

cow-turkey-talk

Trump meets with the New York Times, tells them how to cover the news:

cow-trumpy-times

Our Orange Decider has yet to decide a few things:

cow-the-decider

Paul Ryan is locked and loaded for 2017:

cow-paul-ryans-targets

Many who voted for Trump have little or no retirement savings, or regular savings for that matter. Ironically, a majority of them will be reliant on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in later life. Sadly, they can’t seem to connect the dots between Ryan’s Ayn Randian dreams of privatization, and how it will affect their lives. It may be too late for many of them.

Deficits are part of the Art of the Deal:

cow-white-house-puppy

Those “responsible Republican deficit hawkswanted to restore earmarks the week after the election, but Ryan is making them wait until the new Congress is seated. That way, they won’t destroy the PRETENSE of budget deficits mattering.

The GOP really can’t wait to take off the debt girdle:

cow-deficit-girdle

 

 

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Capitalism, It’s Not You, It’s Me

There is a meme that has gone global since the early days of the Occupy movement. Here it is as a wall graffiti from Greece that uses the same meme we first saw in NYC in 2011:

Capitalism Lotek

Just kidding capitalism, it really is you.

The artist is a Greek who styles himself as Lotek. The name Lotek is derived from the short story (and later, a film) by William Gibson called Johnny Mnemonic. The story is set in 2021, in a world ruled by corporations. An anti-authoritarian gang that are called Lo-Teks, fight the power. They are in fact not low tech at all, but are high tech hackers. Sound familiar?

Greece is surely a place at war with neoliberalism and free market capitalism. So is it also time for us to reconsider capitalism?

Consider this from Mark Blyth in Foreign Affairs:

An inherent tension exists between capitalism and democratic politics since capitalism allocates resources through markets, whereas democracy allocates power through voting.

The compromises both systems have struck with each other over recent history shapes our contemporary political and economic world. Blyth observes:

  • In the three decades that followed World War II, democracy set the rules, taming markets with the establishment of protective labor laws, restrictive financial regulations, and expanded welfare systems.
  • Starting in the 1970s, a globalized, deregulated capitalism, unconstrained by national borders, began to push back.

And today, capital markets and capitalists are setting the rules, and democratic governments follow them.

Some background: Cutting taxes in the 1980s caused government revenues to fall. Deficits widened, and interest rates rose as those deficits became harder to finance. At the same time, conservative govern­ments, especially in the UK and the US, dismantled the regulations that had reined in the excesses of the financial service industry since the 1940s.

The financial industry began to grow unchecked, and as it expanded, investors sought safe assets that were highly liquid and provided good returns: the debt of developed countries.

This allowed governments to plug their deficits and spend more, all without raising taxes.

But the shift to financing the state through debt came at a cost. Since WW II, taxes on labor and capital had provided the foundation of postwar state spending. But, as govern­ments began to rely more on debt, the tax-based states of the postwar era became the debt-based states of today.

This transformation had pro­found political consequences. The increase in government debt has allowed capitalists to override the preferences of citizens:

  • Bond-market investors can now exercise an effective veto on policies they don’t like by demanding higher interest rates when they replace old debt with new debt.
  • Investors can use courts to override the ability of states to default on their debts, as happened recently in Argentina
  • They can shut down an entire country’s payment system if that country votes against the interests of creditors, as happened in Greece in 2015.
  • Citizens United dictates who runs for office in the US, and in many cases, who wins.

Now that the financial industry has become more powerful than the people, should we blindly follow capitalism’s meme as the only way forward?

Free-market rhetoric hides the dependence of corporate profits on conditions provided for, and guaranteed by, governments. For example:

  • Our financial institutions insist that they should be free of meddlesome regulations while they depend on continuing access to cheap credit from the Federal Reserve.
  • Our pharmaceutical firms have resisted any government limits on their price-setting ability at the same time that they rely on government grants of monopolies through our patent system.

To use a sporting metaphor, it’s as if the best football team purchased not only the best coaches and facilities, but also bought the referees and the journalists as well. Those responsible for judging economic competition have lost all authority, which leaves the dream of ‘meritocracy’ or a ‘level playing field’ in tatters.

In our country, the divide between the business oligarchs, the political class and “the people” increasingly appears unbridgeable, marked by hostility and deep distrust. When people are told for a generation that government mustn’t make decisions that interfere with free markets, it is inevitable that people will lose faith in democratic governance, and in government’s capacity to help them solve their problems.

Capitalism in its current form no longer works for the people. We have seen a reaction in the start of movements by Occupy, by Bernie, and by others in Europe.

Remember that the greatest prosperity in living memory in the US came during the brief social democratic moment, in the 1950s and 1960s, when the constraints on business were the greatest.

More democracy and more economic justice are the necessary foundations for the path to a more prosperous, and sustainable economy.

A reformed capitalism must be a part of what emerges from that fight.

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The Pant Suit vs. The Pant Load – Budget Edition

Now that both presidential conventions are history, the real discussion about the merits of the candidates and their programs begins. The first question to answer is: What are the costs of the promises made to America by Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton?

Both candidates have made political promises that, if implemented, have both costs and benefits to the nation. While the analysis of benefits may be difficult to assess, the costs are not.

The Committee for a Responsible Budget (CRB) has issued a report, “Promises and Price Tags: A Fiscal Guide to the 2016 Election” that estimates how our national debt would rise under the programs of both presidential aspirants. It shows that gross debt held by the public would rise from about $19 trillion today to $23.9 trillion by 2026 under Hillary Clinton’s plan and to $35.2 trillion under Donald Trump’s plan.

They based the estimates on the public positions taken by each campaign as of June 24, 2016. They also generated a low, central, and high cost estimate of the fiscal implications of Trump’s and Clinton’s proposals.

We need to stop and say that our gross debt will rise no matter who is elected, since under existing law, gross debt is projected to rise from about $19 trillion today to about $29.1 trillion by 2026, about a 50% increase. With that in mind, here is CRB’s summary of the impacts of both candidate’s plans on the national debt:

Debt Under Candidates Proposals

Donald Trump has expressed concern about the dangers of our current $19 trillion debt. Yet his plan would increase that number significantly. Under CRB’s central estimate of Trump’s plan, gross debt would more than double from $19 trillion today to $39.5 trillion by 2026.

The increase in gross debt under Clinton’s plan would be smaller but still significant. Under the central estimate of Clinton’s plan, gross debt would rise by more than 50%, from $19 trillion today to $29.6 trillion by 2026, in line with the current law. So, her promise to pay for new spending seems to be true.

Digging a little deeper, here is CRB’s breakdown of both candidates’ plans by revenue, costs and spending. Most of Hillary Clinton’s increased costs come from spending in non-health, non-retirement programs:

  • She would spend $350 billion more on college education, $300 billion more on infrastructure, another $300 billion on paid family leave, and nearly $500 billion on a variety of other initiatives.
  • Clinton would also make several health-related changes that would cost about $150 billion.
  • To offset these costs, Clinton proposes a variety of tax increases – mostly on higher earners and businesses – totaling $1.25 trillion.

The largest share of Trump’s deficit impact comes from his proposed individual and business tax reforms, which would reduce revenue by about $9.25 trillion:

  • His plan to reform the veteran’s affairs system and increase veterans’ access to private doctors would cost about $500 billion.
  • And his plans to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act and reduce illegal immigration would cost about $50 billion each.

So, what happens to the total amount of our national debt?

Donald Trump wants to dramatically reduce taxes for most Americans while maintaining spending relatively near its current levels. As a result, under CRB’s central estimate, he would add $11.5 trillion to the debt through 2026.

Hillary Clinton wants to increase both spending and taxes, adding about $250 billion to the debt over 10 years under CRB’s central estimate. Under their low cost estimate, Clinton’s plan would reduce 10-year deficits by $150 billion.

Increases in debt are not always a bad thing, particularly in times of economic slack, if the debt accumulation is driven by stimulative fiscal policy. But a 40 percentage point of debt to GDP increase, from 87% of GDP to 127% of GDP, seems unlikely to give us a positive outcome.

But, if we elect The Pant Load, that’s what we will get. Trump said to the WaPo in May:

I am the king of debt. I do love debt. I love debt. I love playing with it.

This should worry you. Trump went on to say:

Look, I have borrowed, knowing that you can pay back with discounts. And I have done very well…I would borrow, knowing that if the economy crashed, you could make a deal, and if the economy was good, it was good, so, therefore, you can’t lose.

So, Trump would stiff the nation’s creditors. Haven’t we had enough of Republican mis-leadership on the nation’s finances?

Haven’t we had enough of Republican tax cuts for the most comfortable among us at a cost to the least comfortable among us?

Remember that it was the GOP-led Congress that threatened not to raise the debt ceiling in 2011. That led to the Standard & Poors rating agency’s lowering of the US credit rating.

Think carefully about what Trump’s glib plans imply for America.

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