Debt Crisis – Whatever happened to Bowles-Simpson?

November 10, 2011

G’Day!

The bipartisan Debt Reduction Commission co-chaired by Democrat Erskine Bowles and Republican Alan Simpson completed and submitted to President Obama in February a rational and comprehensive approach to our country’s fiscal and debt crises. I posted articles praising the work of the co-chairs and the commission members on April 1, April 16, and July 22. (See “Bowles & Simpson Have it Right!”, “Obama Ignores Bowles-Simpson Debt Reduction Commission – Again!”, and “Debt Reduction: Bowles & Simpson Have it Right – Redux!”) To date, President Obama, the Democrats and the Republicans in the House and Senate have fundamentally ignored their proposal. Why their recommendations have been ignored by our government, and especially by the President, who established the commission, is a “puzzlement”?

The final Co-Chair’s proposal, “The Moment of Truth”, included both long and short-term government actions to resolve our fiscal and debt crises, contains nearly $4 trillion in debt reduction over 10 years, and was approved by eleven (61%) of the eighteen bipartisan members of the commission. As stated in Guiding Principle #2 of the draft report, “The Problem is REAL – the Solution is Painful – There’s no Easy Way Out – Everything Must Be On the Table – and Washington Must Lead”. Their proposal is comprehensive. It includes cuts and caps on discretionary spending and revenue enhancements through major tax reform to broaden the tax base, simplify the code, reduce tax rates, and cap revenue at 21% of GDP. It reduces spending for entitlements including healthcare and social security and eventually caps total spending at 21% of GDP. The proposed plan stabilizes the debt by 2014, reduces debt to 60% of GDP by 2024 and 40% by 2037. What’s not to like??

As noted above, it is a mystery to me why this proposal, developed and approved with bipartisan support, was shelved by Obama and ignored by Congress since it was formally delivered to the President nine months ago. While these are difficult and trying times, we should expect and demand that our President and Congress put partisan bickering and reelection concerns aside and act for the benefit of the American People. Time spent on campaign fundraising does not reduce our debt or improve job creation and economic growth. We deserve rational behavior from our elected representatives and should demand the compromise and cooperation necessary to correct our economic problems and return our great nation to a path of growth and prosperity. Admittedly, the Co-Chair’s proposal is controversial. It is also realistic, responsible, comprehensive, and should be receiving the immediate and serious attention of our President, Congress, and currently the “Super-Committee” (who are looking for a mere $1.2 trillion over ten years).

Every sensible citizen knows America has an unsustainable debt crisis that, if not corrected quickly, will lead to financial and economic disaster for our country. Socialism does not work. Greece is not a role model for government in America. Our current government is too large, too oppressive and is out of control. Economic growth is based on opportunities not restrictions and lower tax rates not higher regulations. Escalating government spending must be halted and its intrusion in our lives and businesses reversed. Tax reform to broaden the tax base, simplify the code, lower rates (especially corporate), and increase revenues is essential. Our government MUST be business friendly and promote the entrepreneurial spirit necessary for economic growth and global competitiveness. We need to bring back the constitutional freedoms and personal liberties that led us to be the greatest nation on earth. The Bowles-Simpson proposal is a good start.

The Old Guy PhD


Is a Balanced Budget Amendment Necessary?

August 6, 2011

G’Day!

Yes, the Constitutional Amendment is necessary given the dysfunctional behavior of our government, and No, it is not necessary (even undesirable) in economic theory because it limits the flexibility of our government. So what should we do??

Given the past and current inability of our Congresses and Presidents, both Democrats and Republicans, to act responsibly regarding fiscal budgets and debt policy for our nation, a “Balanced Budget Amendment” to the Constitution appears to be necessary. This amendment should mandate a federally balanced budget including a federal spending “Cap” of no more than 20% of GDP (preferably less), and with “Safety Valve” exceptions granted only for “War” or “National Emergency”. These exceptions should require a “Supermajority Vote” in Congress to authorize and the signature of the President to enact. Unfortunately, short-term personal political motivations appear to be stronger than the long-term fiscal responsibilities to our national economic needs. Therefore, we do need a “Balanced Budget Amendment” to protect the American People from continued irresponsible and dysfunctional fiscal and debt behavior by our federal legislators and Presidents. If we needed any additional indication of the necessity to curb government spending, the recent federal debt downgrade from AAA to AA+ by Standard & Poor’s should suffice.

Forty-nine States have some version of a balanced budget requirement (only Vermont does not). Interestingly, Germany and Switzerland, both strong financial nations, also have a balanced budget requirement. This forces their legislators to behave in a responsible manner that protects the national fiscal and long-term debt interests of the people they were elected to serve. Without such a constitutionally protected provision, including the “Cap” on federal spending above, lawmakers are prone to ignore the long-term fiscal consequences of the laws they pass and focus on their own short-term reelections. The relentless historical increase in our national debt and especially the current deficit and debt crises are clear evidence of irresponsible short-term decisions by our Federal Government.

Prior to the passage of 16th Amendment in 1913, which permits federal income taxes directly on the people, we had governments that were forced to limit their size and spending to a level reasonably consistent with federal revenues. The funds available required adherence to the provisions for limited federal government defined in our Constitution and required the establishment of appropriate priorities for federal programs and services. In other words, our government was reasonably forced to live within its means. What a revolutionary concept!! After the 16th Amendment, our government could (and did) simply increase income taxes or borrow to meet whatever programs or bureaucracy they deemed desirable, not necessarily important or essential. In 1913 federal spending was less than 3% of GDP. In 2008, President Bush’s last year, federal spending was approximately 20% of GDP and this year under Obama, the federal spending is estimated to be 25% of GDP. This is madness and does not serve the American people.

As mentioned above, since 1913 our elected officials have relied on increasing income taxes on the American people or debt to pay the increased costs of the programs and bureaucracy they desired, regardless of the cost, need, or even importance of these programs to the American people. It is easier for politicians to identify a socially “desirable” program than to identify and justify its costs and priority to the taxpaying public and its overall benefits to society. Our government has merely increased taxes to pay for these new or expanded social entitlement programs or added to our National Debt by borrowing the missing funds (increasingly from foreign sources, like China). In 2008 our National Debt was $10.0 trillion, a $4 trillion increase in eight years under President Bush. Currently, under President Obama in only two and one-half years, our National Debt has increased another $4 trillion (a 40% increase) to $14.3 trillion and, even after this week’s debt agreement, is projected to grow another $8 trillion to approximately $22 trillion over the next 10 years. This is more than 100% of projected GDP, is not sustainable, and must be corrected.

In economic theory (especially Keynesian), a balanced budget amendment would limit our government’s flexibility. It would restrict government fiscal actions to correct imbalances in our economy, such as running “deficits” to stimulate the economy during recessions and the use of “surpluses” to retard excessive and unsustainable growth. In theory, this should smooth economic growth by limiting the magnitude of peaks and valleys in the business cycle. This in turn would restrain “booms”, minimize “busts”, stabilize economic growth to reasonably sustainable levels, and avoid excessive fluctuations in job markets. Nearly all economists believe that prudent use of this power is good but excessive use is bad. All good stuff in theory! Unfortunately, the behavior of our governments and the actual results have not followed the theory. “Excessive use” has repeatedly hurt our economy and job growth starting with FDR in the “Great Depression” and currently with the Obama Administration’s “Stimulus”, expansion of government size, and spending to support his big government agenda. Also, when federal surpluses were possible, as with the Kennedy, Reagan, and Bush tax rate reductions (all of which increased economic growth and tax revenues), Congress quickly initiated new spending programs to use the money (Johnson’s “Great Society”, Bush’s wars, and the Democrat Congress’ Prescription Drug Program in Bush’s second term). As I have repeatedly said, socialism and long-term economic growth are not compatible. Most other nations, including many in Europe, and especially Russia, India, and China, have learned this and are increasingly relying on free market economies and prudent fiscal and monetary policies.

Since the founding of our nation, balanced budget legislation has been discussed. Thomas Jefferson was the first President to think seriously about requiring balanced budget legislation to maintain fiscal discipline and he actually wanted to ban federal borrowing power to limit the potential size of federal government. Ultimately, he concluded this would be too restrictive in times of emergencies, especially wars. For over 200 years our nation has relied on the wisdom and responsibility of our elected officials to act appropriately on behalf of the American people. The introduction of the federal income tax amendment above combined with the evolution of our short-term political reelection process has unfortunately undermined the ability of our legislators to perform their fiscal duties to serve the long-term interests of the American people. It is time to renew the effort to force our federal government to behave responsibly. Clearly, history, since 1913 has shown that they cannot be trusted to do it on their own.

So “Yes”, we do need a Constitutional “Balanced Budget Amendment” with federal spending “Caps” and a “Safety valve” for national emergencies to rein in the reckless fiscal behavior of our elected officials. Our governments are increasingly turning our nation into a centrally controlled socialist debtor nation. These policies are not the foundation of freedoms upon which our country was created and which made America great. It’s time to return our country to the individual liberties, free markets, sound fiscal and monetary policy, economic growth, and limited government upon which it was founded.

The Old Guy PhD