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Peterson/CBO Beat for Austerity Goes On!

6:53 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

Recently, I’ve been writing about oligarchs advocating for entitlement cuts and austerity. I’ve discussed attacks on entitlement benefits for the elderly from Abby Huntsman (of MSNBC’s The Cycle) and Catherine Rampell (a Washington Post columnist), both the children of well-off individuals. These posts have come in the context of the English language release of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, and the more recent pre-publication release of a study by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page using quantitative methods and empirical data to explore the question of whether the US is an oligarchy or a majoritarian democracy. They conclude:

”What do our findings say about democracy in America? They certainly constitute troubling news for advocates of “populistic” democracy, who want governments to respond primarily or exclusively to the policy preferences of their citizens. In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule — at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.”

With this as a backdrop, today I want to de-construct a recent statement by Michael A. Peterson, President and COO, of one of the centers of American oligarchy, the Peter G. Peterson Foundation (PGPF), and the son of the multi-billionaire Peter G. Peterson, commenting on the CBO’s Report earlier this month, on its updated budget projections for 2014 – 2024. Read the rest of this entry →

Misdirection: Rampell Views Entitlements Through the Generational War Lens

9:28 am in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

Some of the favored children of the economic elite who have a public presence, work hard in their writing and speaking to divert attention from inequality and oligarchy issues by raising the issue of competition between seniors and millennials for “scarce” Federal funds. That’s understandable. If millennials develop full consciousness of who, exactly, has been flushing their prospects for a decent life down the toilet, their anger and activism might bring down the system of wealth and economic and social privilege that benefits both their families and the favored themselves in the new America of oligarchy and plutocracy.

Catherine Rampell sets forth the position that seniors haven’t paid for their Social Security and Medicare because they “generally receive” more in benefits out of these programs than they pay into them.

Here and here, I evaluated Abby Huntsman’s arguments for entitlement “reform,” and, of course, Pete Peterson’s son, Michael fights a continuing generational war against seniors in pushing the austerian line of the Peterson Foundation. Now comes Catherine Rampell, who, in a recent column, sets forth the position that seniors haven’t paid for their Social Security and Medicare because they “generally receive” more in benefits out of these programs than they pay into them. I’ll reply to all of the main points in Rampell’s argument, by quoting liberally and then replying to the points she makes in each quote. She says:

Yes, seniors paid into Social Security and Medicare during the years they worked, if they worked. But they generally receive much more out of the entitlement system than they paid into it.

She continues by citing an Urban Institute study and pointing out that earlier age cohorts received much more in benefits from Social Security than they paid in, and also says:

But let’s consider the average worker who turned 65 in 2010. Generally speaking, the people in this cohort will, more or less, break even on Social Security, according to Eugene Steuerle, an Urban Institute fellow who co-authors the annual report. (Earlier generations made out like bandits; for example, members of an average one-earner couple who turned 65 in 1990 receive twice as much in Social Security benefits as they paid in taxes.)

Medicare, on the other hand, is pretty much a steal no matter when you turned 65.”

After citing some details documenting “what a steal” Medicare is, Rampell concludes the first part of her argument with this:

”It boils down to this: Despite all the “we already paid for it” rhetoric popular among seniors, seniors did not pre-pay for their entitlements. If anything, they paid for their parents’ entitlements, which were more modest than the benefits today’s retirees receive.

This argument of Rampell’s is disingenuous, because it takes the claim that seniors have already paid for their entitlements as saying that they’ve paid dollar-for-dollar, more or less, for what they’re getting in benefits. But seniors who know how SS and medicare works certainly don’t mean this when they say they’ve already paid for it. What they surely mean instead, is that Congress has legislated the SS and Medicare safety nets, and the benefits that currently exist, for the purpose of seeing to it that seniors have a minimum of economic insecurity during the period of their lives when a large proportion of them no longer have the capability to earn a decent living due to illness, other infirmities, or an extreme reluctance of private sector employers to hire them even when they are very skilled.

To draw on the benefits of these programs seniors were required to pay FICA contributions during their working lives. These payments, according to the law, give them the right, in other words, entitle them, to receive the benefits of SS and Medicare that were mandated by Congress.

No one ever said to today’s seniors that there was some rule in the SS and Medicare programs requiring that their payments needed to, or ought to, correspond to the amount of their total benefits, since that was never the deal legislated by Congress. No, the deal was: “You pay your FICA contributions, and you get your benefits at retirement.” Simple as that!

So, people who followed the SS and Medicare rules and made their payments over the years rightly view themselves as having paid for their entitlement benefits, regardless of whether their cumulative FICA payments fall short of or exceed the cumulative sum of those benefits. Why shouldn’t they, and why is Rampell implying that the deal implicit in our major entitlement programs is anything different?

Additionally, I’m afraid that Rampell is also wrong when she says that today’s seniors “paid for” their parents’ entitlements. They certainly paid FICA and Medicare-related contributions, of course; but it is not true that these revenues paid for anything, in spite of Federal reports that appear to link the two, or the accounting that shows that the Social Security Administration has built up a $2.8 Trillion credit against future expenditures, and that Medicare has a much smaller volume of credit to be used for such expenditures. Read the rest of this entry →

The Village Still Ignores the Most Important Point

8:48 am in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

In recent posts I reviewed two commentaries by Abby Huntsman on Social Security and other entitlements, also noting points made in other critiques of her narratives. Abby’s commentaries are here, and here, and my critiques are here and here. The most important point I emphasized in my two rebuttals is that there are no fiscal solvency or sustainability issues related to Social Security, or other parts of the safety net, but that the issues involve only the willingness of Congress to appropriate entitlement spending, and either the removal of current constraints on Treasury to spend appropriations such as the debt limit, or the willingness of the Executive Branch to use its current legislative authority either to a) generate sufficient seigniorage from platinum coins to spend such appropriations; or b) use a type of debt instrument, such as consols, which aren’t counted toward the debt limit.

The day before I posted my second reply to Abby Huntsman, Richard J. Eskow and WeActRadio posted this video clip from Eskow’s radio broadcast. In his critique, Richard shows that Abby Huntsman’s treatment of Social Security and entitlements is full of misleading information and hews closely to the narrative offered by Alan Simpson, Pete Peterson, and organizations supported by Peterson funding, and he calls for the MSNBC producers of “The Cycle” to issue statements correcting the facts, and to give Abby’s co-hosts on The Cycle a chance to reply to her about social security. Read the rest of this entry →

Does the Debt Ceiling Have to Be Raised?

7:03 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

Lately, the word out of Washington, DC from the plugged in people is that there will be no debt ceiling crisis coming up before the election. Politico says so, and so does the National Journal. MSNBC also agrees.

But not so fast, says the Washington Post, echoing the Wall Street Journal provided the House Republicans can agree on “. . . an extortion demand.” If they can, then we wll have another debt ceiling crisis.

Here’s a statement from Dave Johnson at the Center for the American Future (CAF) characterizing the possible crisis from a “progressive” point of view.

“Republicans voted for a budget that caved in to many of their economy-sabotaging, hostage-ransom austerity demands. Now the “debt ceiling” has to be raised in February so the government can pay for that budget that Republicans voted for. Republicans are saying no way without a new ransom. Or they’ll blow up the economy. Even hinting at this is economic sabotage.

This is a false statement. The false part of it is the flat unqualified claim that the debt limit must “. . . be raised in February so the Government can pay for that budget the Republicans voted for.”

By now it’s common knowledge that the President can order the Treasury to mint platinum coins with very high face values to fill the Treasury’s spending account with seigniorage. It’s also somewhat less well-known that the Treasury can use consols, a type of security whose principal never needs to be paid back by the Government to generate revenue violating the debt limit. There are other probably less effective options the President might use to avoid breaching the debt ceiling too. Seven options are evaluated in this series and one or more of these options are proposed in many other places and have been discussed for a few years now. There’s no excuse for Dave Johnson not to know about these alternatives. Yet he’s characterizing the crisis falsely, unless we think he can show that none of these other options can work, and certainly he didn’t even attempt to do that in his post, and has never considered them anywhere else.

Johnson goes on:

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has announced that Congress must increase the debt ceiling by late February. Extreme measures that the Treasury takes to put off the need to sell some bonds to pay bills (authorized by Congress) will be used up and the country will no longer be able to honor its obligations.”

And this is another, at least misleading, statement, since there are other “extreme measures” left for the Treasury to use, including the previously mentioned platinum coin seigniorage and consols. Treasury has not used these measures, but an analysis of the situation that ignores them and leaves the impression that ALL “extreme measures” will shortly be used up is at best incomplete; at worst, misleading; and also lets the Administration off the hook when they do have alternatives to either letting the Republicans push the Government into default; or giving in to or compromising with them on their demands.

Over my last few posts, I’ve focused on “progressives” mis-characterizing fiscal issues rather than on Republicans or conservatives doing so. Why is this important? Because the only chance for change that helps the 99% is for people who care about them to get the education right and tell them the truth. I don’t know if Washington villagers aren’t doing that because they’re ignorant, or bought, or are afraid they’ll look silly if they tell the truth, or are just trying to put forward short statements about issues that they think must inevitably oversimplify the landscape of thought about issues. But whatever the motivation is for their very filtered communication, its systematic nature, with all the denizens of DC, with the exception of Chris Hayes avoiding certain subjects since the President declared them “off the table”, even at the cost of factual errors in their statements, is unacceptable because it damages democracy by unduly limiting the frames and alternatives that they “broadcast” to people; damaging their ability to learn and to make their own personal choices about what they will think.

It’s one thing for conservatives to do this, because they believe in Plato’s noble lie anyway. But for progressives it’s simply a travesty and must stop now. Bloggers at CAF must know by now that there are such things as platinum coins and consols and governments that, even without further debt issuance, cannot run out of money unless they deliberately choose to do so. To believe otherwise is to believe that they live under a rock. They need to begin recognizing these possibilities in their writing, because the progressives they are writing for need to go beyond taxing, borrowing, and spending, when they think about fiscal policy and our spending limits.

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)

Read the rest of this entry →

Off the Debt Limit Hook for at Least the Next Four Months

10:21 am in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

(photo: L. Marie)

Provided that the Senate and House follow through on the scenario now on the table, it looks like the game of chicken worked for the Democrats this time. We’re off the hook on default and Government shutdown for now, and Washington village pundits are in full-throated cries of celebration.

Congress is off the hook too. They don’t have to offer any solutions to real, rather than manufactured, problems.

The President is also off the hook, he won’t, for now, need to exercise any of the options, like minting the coin, using consols, or premium bonds, or asset sales to the Fed, or others available to him to render the debt limit legislation impotent. So, he gets to preserve debt limit threats from the Republicans as a negotiating tool they can use to “force” him into entitlements cuts later on.

In fact, as I write Jay Carney is already talking about the President taking “a balanced approach” to future negotiations of fiscal policy so that the burdens of sacrifice will fall on everybody fairly. And, a bit later, there’s Nancy Pelosi echoing the Administration line on future negotiations. That, of course is also the Pete Peterson, Bowles-Simpson, catfood line for justifying further victimization of food stamp recipients, seniors, children, and the people who have paid the price for the Crash of 2008 and the neoliberal period in American fiscal policy beginning in 1977.

However, the deal that looks like it will happen isn’t a solution, but just kicking the can down the road including built-in pretty good possibilities for future Government shutdown and debt ceiling crises in just three – four months, if Congresspeople have the guts to subject the American people to this nonsense again in an election year.

Here’s Annie Rose-Strasser’s outline and analysis of the deal at Think Progress:

– Government funded through January 15 at sequestration levels

– Debt limit extended until February 7, subject to vote of Congressional disapproval, which Obama can veto

– A budget conference established to come up with long-term spending plans by December 13

– Income verification for recipients of subsidies under Obamacare’s newly-established exchanges

– Backpay for furloughed workers

Also, notably, here are some of the demands that Republicans have made in the last few days, but that are NOT in the bill:

No repeal of the “extraordinary measures” provision that allows the Treasury to do accounting tricks to avoid default

No ‘Vitter Amendment‘ that would have taken away employer contributions from the health plans of Congressional staff

No provisions related to birth control access

No flexibility in how government agencies make budget cuts to their programs, as they are required to under sequestration

No repeal or delay of the medical device tax

No repeal or delay of the reinsurance tax

No repeal, replacement, or delay of any aspects of Obamacare’s exchanges or individual mandate

It might look like this is overall a good deal for Democrats given the number of things that Republicans aren’t getting. It is good: It reopens the government and lifts the debt ceiling without doing any major additional damage to existing programs.

The word “additional” is the key here, since enormous damage has already been done to people and programs due to the various compromises made to avoid shutdown and debt ceiling threats since August 2011. These deals have placed increasing fiscal drags on the American economy and, increasing Government austerity that is preventing full recovery from the Great Recession. The current “deal” already involved a pre-surrender by Democrats to Republican proposed CR spending levels. Annie Rose – Strasser recognizes this.

But it’s important to remember that the baseline for negotiations wasn’t exactly even: Democrats accepted the major budget cuts of sequestration (slated only to get worse on January 15, the same day their budget deal expires), and their only demand was actually the status quo: Keeping the government running and having the country fulfill its financial obligations. They didn’t request to restore the funding sequestration took away, they didn’t demand any new programs or initiatives that Democrats support. And if the previous budget conference is any indication, the one established under this deal has the potential to blow up in Democrats’ faces, leading to more cuts instead of an actual, long-term budget. In that sense, while it is the best, cleanest deal we can get, the Democratic party has been pulled slightly from center to right, not from left to center.

Meanwhile, Republicans threw everything but the kitchen sink into their negotiations. It’s no surprise they’re taking a lot of losses.

Yes, we will have the Government open and the debt ceiling temporarily raised to get us through a few months, and the President is saved from going outside his comfort zone and giving the teahadists an excuse to try to impeach him, but the fundamental problem of the gradual imposition of increasing levels of government austerity creating economic stagnation is not being addressed, and, in addition, the even more serious problem of having laws in place that give a small minority in Congress the possibility of holding both the US and world economies hostage to their ideology is also neither being addressed nor solved.

So this is no victory, and no cause for celebration. The conditions are still there supporting a Great Betrayal, and another slide into recession, along with the possibility of another Global Crash due to financial manipulations in the mortgage international derivative markets.

Meanwhile, what can we look forward to? A brief respite from budget battles and then a rush through a manipulated membership budget conference designed to produce a Bowles-Simpson austerity “solution” to be completed by December 13, to be voted up or down, and with a good likelihood that this Conference will either fail to come up with a result, or that its results will be rejected by teahadists or fellow travellers who will never accept tax increases, and by progressives who will be unwilling to vote for entitlement cuts in the face of upcoming elections.

Meanwhile, the drag on the economy and the unhappiness of the 99% will continue with no real relief in sight because no in either party has the courage to repudiate the dogma that a sovereign fiat currency nation like the United States can have a long-term debt problem requiring a long-term deficit reduction solution. Truly, everyone in Congress needs to be replaced by people who understand the Modern Money Theory (MMT) approach to economics and who are willing to explain it to their constituents and to advocate for fiscal policies based on it.

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives)

Photo by L. Marie under Creative Commons license

Rationalization and Obligation, Part VI: What He Ought to Do, What He Probably Will Do

6:46 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

This is Part V of a six part series replying to a claim by the President at his recent White House News Conference. Part I covered the News Conference and the first two (the selective default, and the exploding option) of seven options the President might use to try save the US from defaulting in the face of continued deadlock in the Congress on raising the debt limit or repealing the law enabling it in its entirety. Part II discussed Platinum Coin Seigniorage, invoking the 14th amendment to justify continuing to issue conventional Treasury debt instruments, and consols. Part III discussed premium bonds, and Treasury sales of the Government’s material and cultural assets to the Federal Reserve. Part IV, then evaluated all seven options in light of variations among them in likely degree of legal difficulties they might face, and also the likely impact of each on confidence in the bond markets, if used. Read the rest of this entry →

An Imminent Spending Blitz (?) and the Debt Ceiling

10:51 am in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

About Two and a half months ago, Mike Norman pointed out that when Federal spending and tax collections in fiscal 2012 were compared with those for the same calendar date in 2011, data from the Daily Treasury Statements (DTS) showed that 2012 Federal spending was lagging behind 2011 spending by $433 Billion; while 2012 tax revenue was running ahead of 2011 by $45 Billion. So, the Federal stimulus for the macroeconomy in 2012 was $478 Billion less than it was in fiscal 2011 at a comparable time in the fiscal year, or looking at it another way, we can say that the 2012 fiscal drag produced by the Government was $478 B more in 2012 than at a comparable time in 2011. Given these numbers, and the continued reluctance of banks to lend for business expansion, the slow down in the economy and continued high unemployment are exactly what one would expect.

In a sense, austerity, has already come to America, courtesy of the Obama Administration, because the $109 B per month in deficit spending it has averaged so far this year is too small to do more than support slow growth, even though it corresponds to an annual deficit of almost $1.3 Trillion.

is a Spending Blitz Coming?

I checked the DTS again on June 21st, because I was curious about where the fiscal drag was relative to last year and also to see where the debt ceiling vs the debt subject to the limit was. I found that the closing balances on June 20th showed that Federal spending had caught up a bit with 2011 and was now behind by $412 B. However, tax revenues compared with 2011 had increased by $66 Billion. So, at almost 9 months into fiscal 2012, the total fiscal drag compared to 2011 was still at $478 B, almost as if someone was managing spending against revenues so that deficit spending would not increase in the 3rd quarter.

So this raises the question: what will happen in the 4th quarter of FY 2012 and the first quarter of FY 2013? Will the Administration suddenly ramp up Federal deficit spending, so that there is a massive deficit spending shock delivered to the economy over the next four months?

Let’s go to the DTS again for June 20, 2012:

– Statutory Debt Limit: 16,394,000 in millions

– Total Public Debt Subject to the Limit: 15,737,388 in millions

The difference or space between current debt subject to the limit and the debt ceiling is: $657 Billion with a little more than 4 months left until the election. In addition, there was another $140 B in operating cash in the Treasury general Account as of June 20th. Adding the two together, we see that the President has almost $800 B in head room before he reaches the debt ceiling, and amount comparable to the size of the Recovery Act of 2009.

So, the President can increase deficit spending to $170 B per month, provided Congress has already appropriated the money, an increase of $65 B per month for the next 4.3 months, and still have about $70 B in deficit spending to spare for November and December, before Geithner has to start juggling things to prevent default. In other words, the Administration can probably deficit spend at an annual rate of $2.0 T for the next 4.3 months in a blitz that can perhaps reduce U-3 unemployment quite a bit below the 8% level, a reduction that is probably enough for him to win going away in November.

So, 1) I think President Obama has been holding back 2012 deficit spending a good bit, probably thinking that if he can spend the money in July, August, September, and also in October, then he can see the U-3 numbers go substantially below 8% and also talk about a trend toward a stronger recovery but 2) I still don’t think he’ll get close to the debt ceiling until the middle of November.

The Debt Ceiling: What Will Happen?

On the question of what will happen in a debt ceiling crisis this time around, I think that depends on whether we come to the ceiling in October or November. The analysis I just did suggests that the President can make sure it will be in November, but If something goes out of control and it is October, then I think the President may go out of character and use the 14th Amendment, or the Trillion Dollar coin, or even Beowulf’s latest consols idea (which the President may prefer because it can be seen as a slick, merely technical solution taken to get around the debt ceiling) to avoid giving away stuff on key entitlements. He won’t want seniors going to the polls and voting disproportionately for Romney, or progressives staying home, because he gave away SS and Medicare, and other important “discretionary” programs like Head Start, rolled over on defense spending, and accepted tax cuts for the rich without a fight. He also really doesn’t want a Republican Congress next time, even if he wins himself, because then, they’ll try to impeach him.

So, he’ll fight this time if it’s in October. If it’s in November, the much more likely occurrence, however, then, if he wins the election, I think, he’ll do kabuki, make some BS statements, and do something in the Bowles-Simpson framework, but with more in spending cuts and less in tax increases than progressive Ds say they want.

Judging from his past behavior, I think he’ll start negotiating from Bowles-Simpson, go down from there, and then end up with a “compromise” that’s much worse from the viewpoint of progressives than even Bpwles-Simpson. He’ll do this especially, if the Rs win control of Congress. But even if the Ds win both Houses, I think he’ll still do it, because I believe his vision has always been to get rid of the New Deal as much as he can, and to implement neoliberalism more fully.

If Romney wins, finally, I still think that Obama will try to broker a deal based on Bowles-Simpson in the lame duck, and will probably call Romney in to bring some of the Republicans over on tax increases. So, given all the possibilities I think it’s November for the crisis and then a settlement using Bowles-Simpson or some variant of it, and that the middle and working classes, women, seniors, and the vulnerable will take another big hit from the austerians, while the rest of us experience the lost decade, or even more if we can’t get rid of the neoliberals before then.

What He Should Do?

What President Obama should do is to take the whole debt ceiling issue off the table right now, and for the foreseeable future by minting the $60 T proof platinum coin, and follow up by paying down the debt subject to the limit drastically, and pressuring the Rs with massive stimulus bills that won’t involve any “deficits” in the sense of a gap between revenue and spending. I’d like to see the Rs oppose massive spending to get the economy going, or Medicare for All, when the money to pay for these is already in the Treasury General Account (TGA). Good luck with that!

(Cross-posted from Correntewire.com)