You are browsing the archive for medicare.

More Misdirection from Rampell in the Service of Generational War

11:28 am in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

In my last post, I took issue with a recent column by Catherine Rampell, who tries to make the case 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. Rampell relies on an Urban Institute study to make her case. Since that post, she’s offered another that replies to some of the questions raised by commenters on her earlier effort. I’ll reply to that new post shortly, but first I want to present key points emerging from my analysis of Federal monetary operations in my reply to her earlier post. See that post for the full argument.

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.

First, once Congress mandates spending, there is no way that the Treasury can be forced into insolvency or an inability to pay its obligations as long as it is willing to make use of all the ways it can cause the Fed to create reserve credits in Treasury spending accounts which can then be used for its reserve keystroking into private sector account activities that today represent most of the reality of Federal spending. 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 →

An Open Letter to Don Beyer, VA – 8th Candidate for Congress

8:08 am in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

(Author’s note: My apologies: this one’s about 6 times longer than the ideal 1000 word post. I just didn’t feel right about breaking it up into parts, however, because that lose the continuity. So, please bear with it. I think a lot of candiates for Congress need to get these questions from angry constituents.)

My Congressman, Jim Moran, is retiring this year and his seat is up for grabs in the VA – 8th Congressional District. This is a solidly blue district made even more solid by the Republican gerrymander following their win in the disastrous elections (for poor people, for women, for the middle class, and for minorities) of 2010 in Virginia. So, the question is, which of the eleven candidates who are running in the primary will win it, and become the heavy favorite to win the Congressional election in November.

The heavy primary favorite is Don Beyer, a noted auto dealer in Northern Virginia, who has served as Lieutenant Governor twice, and also as Ambassador to Switzerland. My impression of Ambassador Beyer has been favorable. I have a friend who bought cars from him over many years and who had his Volvos serviced at his dealership all the while, and he had nothing but good things to say about the integrity of the service he received.

That said, however, and personal characteristics aside, I’d like Beyer to clarify his positions on the issues. So, I’m addressing this open letter to him. Read the rest of this entry →

How to Restore the Good Name of Government

2:28 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

There are four very important things the president can do before the elections of 2014 that would help to restore some faith in Government and, as a by-product, at least tentative trust in the possibility that renewed Government deficit spending may help people.

Why is it that Washington village “progressives,” and their associates in other parts of the country who are nevertheless part of the Washington village culture, often ask useful questions, but, almost always deliver, underwhelming answers? Here’s an example from Richard Eskow, probably the best writer at Campaign for the American Future.

How do we restore the good name of government spending, which is especially important during periods of high unemployment and slow growth like these? First, by supporting those politicians who are unafraid to make the case. Second, by demanding that the reluctant ones take a bolder stand – without mixing their messages between spending and premature austerity. Third, by rejecting the insanity that today’s Republican Party represents. Some in the GOP are even opposing infrastructure spending – as America’s bridges, schools, highways and dams decay around us.

Underwhelming, right? Why? First, because there aren’t too many politicians who are unafraid to make the case. Second, because people who are reluctant aren’t likely to respond to only “demands” from people who fiercely desire more government spending. Third, because merely rejecting Republican insanity is very unlikely to cut it, since that is what Democrats have been doing and it seems to be having little or no effect. And fourth, because the only way to restore faith in Government spending is to take actions that have consequences that are highly visible and unambiguously good for the vast majority of people. In other words, those who want to restore faith in Government spending have to get the Government to take actions delivering things for people that they see as important. So, how can this be done?

At this juncture, little can be done that involves the Congress because Republicans and Democratic corporatists won’t let it happen. They won’t legislate anything useful before the election.

Nor will they legislate anything useful after it unless 1) Democrats get a majority in both Houses and 2) Democrats who constitute those majorities are willing to move away from corporatism and legislate in the interests of people. So, if something can be done in this area, it must be done by the President. There are four very important things he can do before the elections of 2014 that would help to restore some faith in Government and, as a by-product, at least tentative trust in the possibility that renewed Government deficit spending may help people.

1. The President can re-institute the rule of law in the area of national security and secrecy by ending mass surveillance of the US population immediately, ceasing all investigations and attempts at prosecutions of journalists who have been trying to tell the public about the overreach of our intelligence agencies, beginning investigations and prosecutions of intelligence operatives who have broken existing laws in gathering intelligence, ending current prosecutions of whistle blowers, and issuing pardons for those who already have been tried, convicted, and jailed.

2. The President can re-institute the rule of law in the area of FIRE sector control and mortgage frauds by beginning investigations and prosecutions of high level executives at too big to fail FIRE sector organizations who have committed fraud including those that caused the financial collapse of 2008, which, in turn, led to the Great Recession and the destruction of so much middle class wealth.

These first two initiatives are supremely important because they will deliver a very visible presidential message that the Government is re-instituting honest government and a single system of law, which, in turn, will give people some reason to believe that renewed spending by the Government will be carried out honestly for the benefit of people, and not for the benefit of FIRE, health care, energy and other elite corporations. Giving people this is an essential step in restoring faith in additional spending, since from their point of view, it looks like the financial power of Government has been used to save big corporations and Wall Street and see to it that they prosper, while leaving working people and home owners to twist slowly in the economic winds of “the long depression” (Eskow’s memorable phrase). How can they believe that renewed spending will help them if they believe that the Government promising good results from new spending is a corrupt government, in the pocket of the 1% or perhaps even the 0.001%?

3. The President can next do something that is very essential to developing widespread support for renewing spending, because it will make plain that the US Government has and always will have whatever amount of funds it will take to create full employment and to finally end the long depression. The President has to remove the perceived problem of the national debt from the consciousness of the public by paying off a large proportion of it WITHOUT running economy-destroying surpluses. There’s only one way that can be done by the President acting alone right now, in time to affect the campaign environment in the 2014 election by eliminating the debt as an issue backing continued austerity propaganda.

That way is to cause the US Mint to create and deposit a platinum coin with a face value high enough to repay the debt subject to the limit entirely as it falls due, and to cover deficit spending for a long period of time thereafter. If the President does that, and sees to it (as he has the power to do) that the Mint’s account, and ultimately the Treasury’s spending account are credited with reserves equal to the value of the seigniorage resulting from the Mint’s deposit at the Fed; and also, if he follows that up by immediately paying off a large percentage of the debt, then everyone will know that the seigniorage is being used to get rid of the debt quickly.

When people know this they will know two other things. One, that the Treasury is easily paying off the debt, and two, that it has and always can easily create whatever funds it needs to follow through on its promises to end the long depression without either cutting spending or raising taxes. This will be a revelation to people which the President and the Democratic Party must drive home.

4. The White House and the Democratic Party must then run a campaign advocating a list of programs people will immediately view as likely to solve their economic problems. These must promise full employment recovery within a year using full payroll tax cuts and a Job Guarantee program at a living wage with good fringe benefits, strengthening social security and other trust fund programs by guaranteeing their annual spending regardless of the size of their trust fund balances, and by greatly increasing the size of safety net benefits and the protections they afford in case of inflation, truly universal and comprehensive health care using enhanced Medicare for All, revenue sharing for states on a proportional basis by population, fixing US infrastructure over 5 years, fixing the Housing crisis with various specific measures redressing the injustices done to homeowners by the big banks since 2007, fixing the student loan crisis with a “debt jubilee” and a grant program covering post-secondary education, and, lastly, dealing with environmental, climate change, and sustainability issues with a massive 5 year transition away from fossils fuels and nuclear and to renewable energy.

Democrats must then meet the cynicism and ridicule greeting these campaign promises by guaranteeing that if people give them a victory, then they will get rid of the Senate filibuster and other impediments to rapid action, and will legislate their program within the two year period of the next Congress without fail. These guarantees must be backed with a further promise not to run for re-election if they break any of their promises. Only then will some of the cynicism greeting their promises be dispelled.

Finally, these Democratic promises will surely be met with a campaign emphasizing the bogeyman of hyperinflation. Democratic promises will be estimated in a primitive way totaling up what will they cost over the two year period. The assumption will be made that they won’t be countered by automatic stabilizers producing increasing fiscal drag as the US approaches full recovery.

Democrats will have to respond with their own projections estimating that drag. It will come from gradual and automatic re-imposition of payroll tax cuts calibrated to kick in gradually as unemployment decreases, and gradual shrinking in Government spending on the Job Guarantee (JG) program as the private sector responds to increased demand by hiring people from the JG rolls.

In addition, it will come from increasing private sector savings and increasing trade deficits as recovery moves forward. It will also come from the White House working with Congress to phase in some of the programs I’ve mentioned gradually and in response to increasing fiscal drag.

The bottom line is that if the Democrats are successful in winning the Congress in 2014, and in legislating these programs, then faith in Government will be restored. But, there will be a fly in the ointment, as there is always is in life. The debates over fiscal policy will shift to debates about the likelihood of inflation, and managing the economy to avoid inflation at full employment will become a prime concern. We will have traded increasing government illegitimacy, chronic unemployment, stagnation, and “long depression” problems for renewed faith in government, full employment, prosperity, and inflation concerns.

That’s a great trade-off for all of us, I think. And I will take it anytime over the current neoliberal evolution toward a feudal/fascistic order.

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)

Photo by l’ennui d’ennui, used under Creative Commons license

What That Letter Should Have Said

9:54 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

On Valentine’s Day, Senator Bernie Sanders sent a letter to the President, authored by himself and signed by 15 other Senators, all Democrats. The letter was a response to the rumors that the President intends to include his Chained CPI proposal to cut Social Security benefits in the budget he will soon send to Congress. It summarized:

Mr. President: These are tough times for our country. With the middle class struggling and more people living in poverty than ever before, we urge you not to propose cuts in your budget to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits which would make life even more difficult for some of the most vulnerable people in America.

We look forward to working with you in support of the needs of the elderly, the children, the sick and the poor – and all working Americans.

The letter also stated a number of the usual talking points made in arguments against cuts to Social Security. In addition, it also contained praise for the President for his actions in improving the economy, creating jobs, and reducing the deficit, and it mentioned some specifics, including reduction of the Federal deficit to less that half of the $1.4 Trillion deficit he began with. The letter also asserted the need to do much more, especially in the areas of the economy, reducing unemployment and wealth and income inequality, and reducing the deficit “. . . in a fair way.”

It is a positive development that a group of Senators decided to preempt the President’s budget offering stating their disagreement with any proposed cuts to SS, Medicare, and Medicaid, but I think there were a number of ways in which the letter could have been done more effectively. First, It would be great if progressives urging the President not to cut the safety net would stop reinforcing the frame that lower deficits are good and that the President is due praise for cutting the deficit so sharply (CBP projects a 3.0% of GDP deficit this fiscal year). It is not good that he has cut the deficit so much, because in doing so, he has subtracted from Federal Government additions of Net Financial Assets (NFAs) to the economy. These contributions are projected to be so low this year that they will only compensate for the demand leakage due to the trade deficit, leaving no additional NFAs for net aggregate private sector savings.

Given the presence of unequal economic power to collect financial assets in the hands of economic elites, the implication of this is that the lower deficits will only further exacerbate inequality in the United States as well as contribute to continued high and long-term unemployment and stagnation (low growth) in the economy. In short, the austerians, including the President and other Democrats and Republicans who have been insisting on lower deficits are responsible fr the stagnation we see all around us.

Second, the letter would also have been more effective, if it had more than 15 signatures on it. Many Democratic Senators are running for re-election this year. Do they really want to be running as one of the faces of a party whose head is advocating for cuts to Social Security? Is this really good for Kay Hagan, Jeanne Shaheen, Mary Landrieu, Mark Pryor, Mark Warner, Cory Booker, Tom Udall, Mark Udall, Chris Coons, and John Walsh? So why haven’t they signed the letter? Do they really expect to re-elected if they decide to support a budget that contains chained CPI, and, even if they don’t support it, will they benefit if their party leader is proposing chained CPI? So why wasn’t Bernie Sanders able to get these additional signatures from Democrats who face challenges and are running this year?

And third, this letter would have been much, much stronger if the Senators who signed it said to the President directly that they know that there is no short or long-term debt problem and hence no further need to worry about cutting the deficit to achieve fiscal sustainability or ficsal responsibility. And that they also know that any debts that the Treasury has incurred in the past, or deficits that it incurs in the future, can be either paid off as they fall due, or covered completely by revenues from High Value Platinum Coin Seigniorage (HVPCS) used under the authority provided by legislation on denominations, specifications, and design of coins, passed in 1996. (Full details and issues surrounding HVPCS are given in my e-book.) They also should have added that since there is never any need based on the idea that “we’re running out of money,” to cut any safety net programs, that they want the President to know that everyone signing the letter is committed to voting to kill any budget offered by the President including the chained CPI, or any other provision cutting safety net programs.

A letter enhanced in the three ways I’ve just outlined would have been a damn sight more effective in warning Obama off the chained CPI, than the one Bernie Sanders and the other 15 Senators sent. And it also would have been much more effective in getting those Democratic Senators who signed it and are running, elected in November.

Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)

Dear Dr. Krugman: Please Let Me Explain

8:35 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

Paul Krugman looking downwards

Krugman misses his deficit hawk friends.

Paul Krugman can’t explain why the deficit issue has suddenly dropped off the agenda. He says:

. . . quite suddenly the whole thing has dropped off the agenda.

You could say that this reflects the dwindling of the deficit — but that’s old news; anyone doing the math saw this coming quite a while ago. Or you could mention the failure of the often-predicted financial crisis to arrive — but after so many years of being wrong, why should a few months more have caused the deficit scolds to disappear in a puff of smoke?

Why indeed are they so quiet? Could it be because the deficit hawks have succeeded in getting the short-term result they want, which is a likely deficit too small to sustain the private savings and import desires of most Americans, and also because the political climate is such right now that they cannot make progress on their longer term entitlement-cutting program until after the coming elections have resolved the issue of whether there will be strong resistance to such a campaign if they renew it? Let’s look at the budget outlook first.

Here’s CBO projecting deficits of 3.0% of GDP this fiscal year, followed by 2.6%, 2.8%, and 2.9% for fiscals 2015, 2016, and 2017. Those deficits are mostly smaller than Warren Buffett’s and the Eurozone’s favorite deficit target of 3.0%. They are the same too small deficit targets that have prevented the Eurozone’s PIIGS from responding effectively to the crash of 2008, and the prolonged depression and astronomical unemployment rates which have engulfed them since. When one considers that CBO’s projections are usually too conservative when it comes to projected deficits, so that the reality of these is likely to be smaller, as it has been regularly, for the past few years, then it’s even more apparent that Peter G. Peterson and his other austerian friends have gotten where they want to go for the time being.

Nor are there any other major influences in Washington, DC advocating higher deficits. Even “progressive” groups and politicians always talk about “pay fors” and offer 10 year deficit reduction plans that envision deficits averaging far less than the 3% target.

So, the deficit hawks have already gotten to their short – term goal. Their long – term goal of hollowing out the social safety net has met with increasing resistance over the past four years. And the resistance is strong enough that the Democrats have no stomach for bipartisan compromises cutting Medicare or Social Security for the present.

The deficit/debt hawks now need a breather. They needed to go into wait-and-see mode to see what the elections of 2014 produce.

If they produce the right mix of tea partiers, and Republican and Democratic debt hawks. They may be able to produce a new “Grand Bargain” early in 2015 before 2016 election pressures become intense, and the influence of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy on Democrats in Congress becomes too great. I say this not because I think that Clinton will necessarily oppose any such bargain in the long term; but because such a bargain would be risky for her candidacy and the Democrats in the run-up to the elections of 2016.

So, from my viewpoint I don’t think the time is propitious for the deficit/debt hawk forces to keep pressuring for entitlement reforms and a long-term solution to their favorite, and non-existent, financial problem of excessive public debts in fiat sovereign nations like the United States. And I think they know that.

Instead, it is a good time for them to regroup and plan their next attack on entitlements. That will come under cover of the Republicans’ next debt ceiling attack, which is a good possibility for March of 2015.

So, I see the Peterson forces beginning to beat the drums again towards the end of the year and build up the intensity of their appeals from January to March. I don’t see a strong move to cut entitlement spending in the lame duck session, since there will be no debt ceiling cover then to generate leverage heavy enough to get Democrats to accept part of the blame for cutting entitlements.

Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.

Read the rest of this entry →

Let’s Defend Social Security and Other Entitlements With the Second Bill Of Rights

2:05 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

The favorite defense of Social Security by progressives harkens back to Franklin Roosevelt <a who famously said:

”I guess you’re right on the economics. They are politics all the way through. We put those pay roll contributions there so as to give the contributors a legal, moral, and political right to collect their pensions and their unemployment benefits. With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program. Those taxes aren’t a matter of economics, they’re straight politics.”

So, today progressives echo this even though the SS Tax is a regressive tax, and anything but progressive in its impact on the economy. With the development of the MMT approach to economics, and its emphasis on the government’s ability to spend without a solvency constraint on the Federal Budget, it’s now clear that SS doesn’t need to be funded by a regressive payroll tax; but can be funded out of general revenues and also guaranteed by a provision in law providing for automatic annual funding. Some government “trust funds” are funded this way, including parts of Social Security and Medicare, so there’s no economic reason why the primary funding for both programs couldn’t be provided for these programs.

But a friend, in an echo of FDR’s view, recently said to me in correspondence:

“It seems to me that it is a lot easier to make the case that people are entitled to a government benefit if they have been paying a dedicated tax for 45 years that is described as funding that benefit.”

And I replied in the following way.

It is easier; but it’s still not easy as we now see; and, on the downside, to defend it that way we have to:

1) support the view that people are entitled to government payments only when they pay for them;

2) then defend against the attack that the entitlement payout greatly exceeds the amount paid in, and has no relationship to what is paid in;

3) accept the idea that SS and Medicare must be self-funding like any business, while also ensuring that they are “solvent” as much as 50 years out unlike any business (that is people are upset now because questionable long term fiscal projections show that full coverage of SS spending can only be projected out for 21 years to 2033, so they are calling for fixes to extend that projected “full solvency” period out to 2075 or 2080);

4) always have a very hard time justifying any increases to entitlements for current recipients, because those oppose entitlements always cry out that the Government is running out of money, and would have to raise SS taxes to pay for it;

5) never bring into the argument the fact that things are very different now than they were when SS was first passed, because we now have a fiat money system which makes many things possible now that weren’t possible back then, because THERE IS NO SOLVENCY PROBLEM; and

6) ignore the great argument that our entitlements are the embodiment of an economic bill of rights that ought to apply to all Americans which, of course was outlined by the same FDR in 1944.

In my view, the protestant ethic defense that we’re entitled to SS, because we worked for it isn’t worth the candle. It makes things easier in the short-run, but it reinforces a skin-flintism which is wholly inappropriate to our modern economy, with its monetarily sovereign fiat currency system, and is largely responsible for the rapidly increasing inequality we’ve been experiencing over the years, which has now reached a ridiculous and anti-democratic pass.

We can’t look at SS and our other entitlements in isolation. We have to fight and win the battle for FDR’s economic bill of rights, and for an expansion of all the entitlements in the American social safety net; now the stingiest, most inadequate safety net among modern industrial nations!

FDR’s strategy for justifying SS was great for the 1930s, when we were still on the gold standard. But nearly 80 years later it’s time to move on to his economic bill of rights as our justification for entitlements, and stop reinforcing the idea that it’s only an entitlement if one pays for it. It’s time to stand on the over-riding moral argument! It’s time to say that when a nation like the United States can afford to implement these rights, as the United States has been able to do at least since 1971, they then are human rights that must be implemented as part of the public purpose. Let us have a Green New Deal with a much stronger social safety net including greatly increased payments for SS and Medicare for All, and a Federal Job Guarantee emphasizing Green Jobs!

Let’s fight for that and implement it economically using Modern Money Theory (MMT)-based fiscal policies!

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)

Photo by Mr. T in DC under Creative Commons license.

Harvard’s Mankiw – A Disgrace To the Economics Profession

4:05 am in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

Warren Mosler
(Reprinted from with the Express Permission of the Author)


By N. Gregory Mankiw

March 26 (NYT)

The following is a presidential address to the nation — to be delivered in March 2026.

My fellow Americans, I come to you today with a heavy heart. We have a crisis on our hands. It is one of our own making. And it is one that leaves us with no good choices.

For many years, our nation’s government has lived beyond its means.

A rookie, first year student mistake. Our real means are everything we can produce at full employment domestically plus whatever the rest of the world wants to net send us. The currency is the means for achieving this. Dollars are purely nominal and not the real resources.

We have promised ourselves both low taxes and a generous social safety net. But we have not faced the hard reality of budget arithmetic.

The hard reality is that for a given size government, there is a ‘right level’ of taxes that corresponds with full domestic employment, with the size of any federal deficit a reflection of net world dollar savings desires.

The seeds of this crisis were planted long ago, by previous generations. Our parents and grandparents had noble aims. They saw poverty among the elderly and created Social Security.

Yes, they decided they would like our elderly to be able to enjoy at least a minimum level of consumption of goods and services that made us all proud to be Americans.

They saw sickness and created Medicare and Medicaid. They saw Americans struggle to afford health insurance and embraced health care reform with subsidies for middle-class families.

Yes, they elected to make sure everyone had at least a minimum level of actual health care services.

But this expansion in government did not come cheap. Government spending has taken up an increasing share of our national income.

The real cost of this ‘expansion’ (which was more of a reorganization than an expansion of actual real resources consumed by the elderly and consumed by actual health care needs) may have consumed an increasing share of real GDP, but with continued productivity this would have been at most a trivial amount at current rates of expansion.

Today, most of the large baby-boom generation is retired. They are no longer working and paying taxes, but they are eligible for the many government benefits we offer the elderly.

Yes, they are consuming real goods and services produced by others. The important consideration here is the % of the population working and overall productivity which he doesn’t even begin to address.

Our efforts to control health care costs have failed. We must now acknowledge that rising costs are driven largely by technological advances in saving lives. These advances are welcome, but they are expensive nonetheless.

Still no indication of what % of real GDP he envisions going to health care and real consumption by the elderly.

If we had chosen to tax ourselves to pay for this spending, our current problems could have been avoided. But no one likes paying taxes. Taxes not only take money out of our pockets, but they also distort incentives and reduce economic growth. So, instead, we borrowed increasing amounts to pay for these programs.

At least he gives real economic growth a passing mention. However, what he seems to continuously miss is that real output is THE issue. Right now, with potential employment perhaps 20% higher than it currently is, the lost real output, which compounds continuously, plus the real costs of unemployment — deterioration of human capital, broken families and communities, deterioration of real property, foregone investment, etc. etc. etc.- are far higher than the real resources consumed by the elderly and actual health care delivery. Nor does he understand what is meant by the term Federal borrowing — that it’s nothing more than the shift of dollar balances from reserve accounts at the Fed to securities accounts at the Fed. And that repayment is nothing more than shifting dollar balances from securities accounts at the Fed to reserve accounts at the Fed. No grandchildren involved!!!

Yet debt does not avoid hard choices. It only delays them. After last week’s events in the bond market, it is clear that further delay is no longer possible. The day of reckoning is here.

This morning, the Treasury Department released a detailed report about the nature of the problem. To put it most simply, the bond market no longer trusts us.

For years, the United States government borrowed on good terms. Investors both at home and abroad were confident that we would honor our debts. They were sure that when the time came, we would do the right thing and bring spending and taxes into line.

But over the last several years, as the ratio of our debt to gross domestic product reached ever-higher levels, investors started getting nervous. They demanded higher interest rates to compensate for the perceived risk.

This is all entirely inapplicable. It applies only to fixed exchange rate regimes, such as a gold standard, and not to non convertible currency/floating exchange rate regimes. This is nothing more than another rookie blunder.

Higher interest rates increased the cost of servicing our debt, adding to the upward pressure on spending. We found ourselves in a vicious circle of rising budget deficits and falling investor confidence.

With our non convertible dollar and a floating exchange rate, the Fed currently sets short term interest rates by voice vote, and the term structure of interest rates for the most part anticipates the Fed’s reaction function and future Fed votes. Nor is there any operational imperative for the US Government to offer longer term liabilities, such as 5 year, 7 year, 10 year, and 30 year US Treasury securities for sale, which serve to drive up long rates at levels higher than otherwise. That too is a practice left over from gold standard days that’s no longer applicable.

As economists often remind us, crises take longer to arrive than you think, but then they happen much faster than you could have imagined. Last week, when the Treasury tried to auction its most recent issue of government bonds, almost no one was buying. The private market will lend us no more. Our national credit card has been rejected.

As above, the US Government is under no operational imperative to issue Treasury securities. US Government spending is not, operationally, constrained by revenues. At the point of all US govt spending, all that happens is the Fed, which is controlled by Congress, credits a member bank reserve account on its own books. All US Government spending is simply a matter of data entry on the US Governments own books. Any restrictions on the US government’s ability to make timely payment of dollars are necessarily self imposed, and in no case external.

So where do we go from here?


Yesterday, I returned from a meeting at the International Monetary Fund in its new headquarters in Beijing. I am pleased to report some good news. I have managed to secure from the I.M.F. a temporary line of credit to help us through this crisis.

This loan comes with some conditions. As your president, I have to be frank: I don’t like them, and neither will you. But, under the circumstances, accepting these conditions is our only choice.

Mankiw’s display of ignorance and absurdities continues to compound geometrically.

We have to cut Social Security immediately, especially for higher-income beneficiaries. Social Security will still keep the elderly out of poverty, but just barely.

We have to limit Medicare and Medicaid. These programs will still provide basic health care, but they will no longer cover many expensive treatments. Individuals will have to pay for these treatments on their own or, sadly, do without.

We have to cut health insurance subsidies to middle-income families. Health insurance will be less a right of citizenship and more a personal responsibility.

We have to eliminate inessential government functions, like subsidies for farming, ethanol production, public broadcasting, energy conservation and trade promotion.

The only reason we would ever be ‘forced’ to make those cuts would be real resource constraints- actual shortages of land, housing, food, drugs, labor, clothing, energy, etc. etc. And yes, that could indeed happen. Those are the real issues facing us. But Mankiw is so lost in his errant understanding of actual monetary operations he doesn’t even begin to get to where he should have started.

We will raise taxes on all but the poorest Americans. We will do this primarily by broadening the tax base, eliminating deductions for mortgage interest and state and local taxes. Employer-provided health insurance will hereafter be taxable compensation.

He fails to recognize that federal taxes function to regulate aggregate demand, and not to raise revenue per se, again showing a complete lack of understanding of current monetary arrangements.

We will increase the gasoline tax by $2 a gallon. This will not only increase revenue, but will also address various social ills, from global climate change to local traffic congestion.

Ok, finally, apart from the revenue error, he’s got the rest of it sort of right, except he left out the part about that tax being highly regressive.

As I have said, these changes are repellant to me. When you elected me, I promised to preserve the social safety net. I assured you that the budget deficit could be fixed by eliminating waste, fraud and abuse, and by increasing taxes on only the richest Americans. But now we have little choice in the matter.

Due entirely to ignorance of actual monetary operations.

If only we had faced up to this problem a generation ago. The choices then would not have been easy, but they would have been less draconian than the sudden, nonnegotiable demands we now face. Americans would have come to rely less on government and more on themselves, and so would be better prepared today.

What I wouldn’t give for a chance to go back and change the past. But what is done is done. Americans have faced hardship and adversity before, and we have triumphed. Working together, we can make the sacrifices it takes so our children and grandchildren will enjoy a more prosperous future.

N. Gregory Mankiw is a professor of economics at Harvard.

And no small part of the real problem we face as a nation!

(Cross-posted at All Life Is Problem Solving and Fiscal Sustainability).

Deficit Hawks, Deficit Doves, and Deficit Owls

11:12 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

Congratulations to the folks at UMKC for giving us a new addition to the deficit aviary. Until now the media only had mind space for “deficit hawks” and “deficit doves.” Deficit hawks include folks like Mike Pence, and Judd Gregg, who insist that the Government run deficits only for wars, and tax cuts for rich Americans, but insist on paying for extensions of unemployment insurance, health care reforms, infrastructure, jobs programs, educational programs, transportation projects, and any Government spending for regular folks with taxes.

Deficit doves include folks like many, but not all, Democrats in Congress, Paul Krugman, Joe Stieglitz, Dean Baker, and all the signatories of this recent Sir Harold Evans, "Stimulus Now" petition, who want to run deficits to end the recession but who say:

"We recognize the necessity of a program to cut the mid-and long-term federal deficit…"

Now, on the occasion of a letter from Paul Davidson, James K. Galbraith and Lord Robert Skidelsky, in reply to the Evans petition, also signed by many very prominent “deficit dove” economists, the UMKC folks say:

”A number of bloggers on this site were asked to support their deficit-dove petition. We declined, and so did the three wise owls who wrote the following statement, which first appeared at New Deal 2.0.”

The wise “deficit owls” supported “the central objective of the letter — a full employment policy now, based on sharply expanded public effort.” But they disagreed profoundly with the idea that there is any medium, or long-term deficit problem at all. Because:

”. . . apart from the effects of unemployment itself the United States does not in fact face a serious deficit problem over the next generation, and for this reason there is no "necessity [for] a program to cut the mid-and long-term deficit.”

”On the contrary: If unemployment can be cured, the deficits we presently face will necessarily shrink. This is the universal experience of rapid economic growth: tax revenues rise, public welfare spending falls, and the budget moves toward balance. There is indeed no other experience in modern peacetime American history, most recently in the late 1990s when the budget went into surplus as full employment was reached.”

The deficit owls say that rapidly increasing health care costs are a problem, but one faced by both the private and public sectors whose solution is a matter of health care policy and not budget policy, and they object to cutting the public costs alone as “. . . just a way of invidiously targeting the elderly.” They also say that Social Security is an extremely successful “. . . transfer program and indefinitely sustainable as it is.”

They also say that:

”The long-term deficit scare story plays into the hands of those who will argue, very soon, for cuts in Social Security as though these were necessary for economic reasons.”

And then finish with:

”We call on fellow economists to reconsider their casual willingness to concede to an unfounded hysteria over supposed long-term deficits, and to concentrate instead on solving the vast problems we presently face. It would be tragic if the Evans letter and similar efforts – whose basic purpose we strongly support – led to acquiescence in Social Security and Medicare cuts that impoverish America’s elderly just a few years from now.”

This exchange defines very clearly the distinction between “deficit doves” and “deficit owls,” as did the recent exchanges here and here, between Paul and Jamie Galbraith, supported by Scott Fullwiler, L. Randall Wray, Marshall Auerback, and one “chartalist,” and also by Warren Mosler and myself elsewhere.

Deficit owls, believe that there is no structural deficit, and that most of the present deficit will go away when the recession ends. They also believe that in times of unused productive capacity like these, deficits are caused by the state of the economic system and that explicitly managing them by taxing more or spending less will not improve its condition, but only result in a downward economic spiral making conditions still worse. On the other hand, if real economic problems like unemployment, alternative energy capacity and production, infrastructure renewal, education, and industrial innovations are addressed through Government spending, then aggregate demand spurring private sector business activity ending the recession will result, and the deficits will largely go away except for those resulting from excessive private sector saving in the economy. In addition deficit owls believe that in a fiat money system, where there is no debt in foreign currencies, and no “peg” to such currencies, solvency is never a problem for the Government, and that while inflation partly caused by Government deficit spending can become a problem in such a system, this can only happen when full employment is achieved.

So, now we have three clear deficit hawk, deficit dove, and deficit owl positions that have very different implications for public policy. Until now, our friends in the MSM have recognized only the first two positions in discussing budget policy. But now that the third “deficit owl” position finally has an evocative name that is easy to remember, maybe our very busy MSM columnists and editorial writers will add “owls” to their narratives about hawks and doves in budget policy debates. After all, a narrative including “owls” outsmarting both “hawks” and “doves” may enliven their budget stories enough to get people to read, listen to, and watch them. In fact, it may even make the subject interesting enough that they themselves can begin to see that both hawks and doves make big, big, economic messes, and only owls can be trusted if we want policies that will bring back economic opportunity and hope to most of the American people.

(Cross-posted at All Life Is Problem Solving and Fiscal Sustainability).

The Procrustean Democracy of AmericaSpeaks: Part Four

12:18 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

In my previous three posts analyzing the June 26th AmericaSpeaks Community Conversation event I attended in Falls Church, VA, I presented the steps in the decision process used for the event, and discussed the pre-conference phase and the first four steps. These reflect a strong and consistent bias toward socializing participants into the idea that there is a deficit problem and that it has to be treated by cutting expenditures and/or raising taxes. The bias was reflected in many little ways in the materials used for the meetings and in the way the first four steps were carried out. The framing of exercises in the decision process continually restricted choices to ones that bring participants back to the supposed problem of a deficit and debt crisis. The web-streamed talks about national conference proceedings and orientations, and the brief constricted discussions of major values issues all worked to fit participants’ thinking to the ideas and frames presented in worksheets and the Federal Budget 101 presentations. Lines of discussion that would have led outside of the intended framing were politely aborted by the facilitators, pleading limited time, and the need to get through the agenda, and give everyone a chance to speak, so that any person developing counter-themes to the major narrative did not have a chance to develop these counter-themes and counter-narratives in the context of the supposedly unbiased process. In this post I’ll continue with my examination of step five of this process.

Working through the Options Workbook and arriving at decisions about what cuts in Federal Expenditures or tax increase to make in order to cut the projected Federal Budget. Reporting to the group about the choices made by each participants and something of the reasoning behind these choices. Summing up by facilitator highlighting the most popular choices of options for reducing the deficit.

The options workbook continues the process of fitting participants to the framing of AmericaSpeaks. The introduction says, in part:

”This workbook is designed to provide a wide array of revenue and spending options for reducing the federal budget deficit. These options represent the types of decisions facing policy makers and their implications for the American people, although they surely do not encompass all of the options that policymakers could consider. Participants in the national discussion will have the opportunity to add additional options as part of the process . . . .”

And later it says:

”Your challenge is to focus on the year 2025, when the annual deficit of 9% of GDP will translate into $2.46 trillion, and choose spending or revenue options, or both, to reduce it by $1.2 trillion. The year 2025 is a good one on which to focus – it is far enough into the future to show how much the gap between projected revenues and spending will widen, but not so far as to seem unthinkably far away.”

And a bit later:

”Reducing our deficit to a sustainable level is a long-term challenge that will not take place all at once. When our nation last eliminated its annual deficits in the late 1990s (smaller than the deficits of today), our leaders had to repeatedly cut spending and raise taxes in order to turn those large deficits into record surpluses.

”In that spirit, we will ask you to choose a series of policy changes that begin to take effect in a few years – after the economy has fully recovered from the recent recession – and that will significantly reduce the deficit by the year 2025.

So, that’s it. The task for us was to choose options for reducing spending, or raising revenue, by introducing new taxes or changing the tax structure, in order to reduce the projected 2025 deficit by $1.2 Trillion. We could choose any of 42 options to do this, and theoretically we could add new options. But in my community conversation, it was difficult to include any additional options. When they were introduced there was no space for them on the sheet provided to record the choice of options. There were no blank lines on “the scorecard” where a participant could name an option and put a savings number on it, so that others in the group could become aware of the option and vote on it themselves. It would have been easy to provide additional space on the scorecard to make it easy to add new options. But since this wasn’t done by AmericaSpeaks, it’s not surprising that not a single new option was included in the final results that were going to be reported to AmericaSpeaks. New options were listened to by the facilitators in the conversation I attended, but they were not acted upon. It was as if they didn’t count.

On the specifics, in my own community conversation, many people were dissatisfied with the choices provided in the list of options. One person suggested 50% cuts in defense spending for example, while the workbook provided for a maximum of 15%. Another suggested that for purposes of FICA taxes all caps on earnings be removed, while the workbook proposed caps including only 90% of wage earners.

Also, the options workbook community conversation made much of the four categories in which options for spending cuts were presented fell: Social Security. Medicare and Medicaid, non-Defense spending and Defense spending. However, a fifth category, interest expense, which was 21% of the 2025 projected expense summary was very conspicuously left out of consideration. I repeatedly suggested that money could be saved by stopping debt issuance, and pointed out that this would save roughly $1.4 Trillion, almost all Federal interest expense in 2025, meeting the “challenge” with only this one change. But my proposal wasn’t included as an option for people to vote on or discuss along with the other official options.

Nor, again, was a sixth category of options on “growing our way out of the deficit” included in the options workbook. The Federal Budget 101 booklet and video both discouraged this idea by saying that most experts on the economy thought it was impossible to do that. Nevertheless, the dismissal of this as a category of options was peremptory and shows a clear bias. First, because all economic experts don’t agree on whether it’s possible to grow our way out of projected deficits, and historical data shows that there is every reason to believe that we can. Second, because “most experts” have been wrong about major aspects of economic forecasting very frequently in our history, and they are quite likely to be wrong again this time. Third, whether we can grow our way out of the deficit is not an all or nothing question, or, at least, phrasing it that way glosses over the issue of how much of the projected deficit we can grow our way out of. If the challenge is to save $1.2 Trillion by 2025, perhaps this can be achieved by cutting $600 Billion in interest expenditures and raising $600 Billion more in tax revenue by growing the economy, for example, without changing anything in the remaining categories. Or alternatively, if we saved $1.4 Trillion on interest expense, and increased revenue by $1.1 Trillion with growth-oriented and full employment policies, that would create a projected surplus in 2025. This shows that any substantial amount of additional revenue that might be raised through policies that will facilitate growth between now and 2025 is just as important, and perhaps more important in reducing projected deficits, as savings and revenue raised in the categories included by AmericaSpeaks included in the workbook and in the meetings? Could it be that AmericaSpeaks isn’t interested in having its participants consider full employment policies because its major financial supporters prefer policies that remove all possibility of demand-pull inflation regardless of the effect such policies have on working people

What about the selection of 2025 as the target date for option selection? AmericaSpeaks claims it selected 2025 because that year “. . . is a good one on which to focus – it is far enough into the future to show how much the gap between projected revenues and spending will widen, but not so far as to seem unthinkably far away.” In other words, 2025 was a good year because AmericaSpeaks’s projections show a very large deficit that will persuade people of the seriousness of the deficit problem, yet it’s not so far off in time, that people would say why worry about this now. Does this choice indicate bias? I think it does, because there’s a very good reason to have selected a date that is much more proximate in time.

That reason is that a projection of deficits 15 years out is certainly going to be subject to huge errors. CBO knows this because it doesn’t even claim reliability for its ten-year projections, much less for any 15 year projections based on them. On what basis does AmericaSpeaks think that its own projections of expenditures and revenues for 2025 which are just extensions of CBOs are at all realistic. Has CBO even been able to accurately project 3 years out? If the answer is no, as I think it is, how can we accept the projections provided to participants as anything but very bad science fiction? But the issue here, is not even the unrealistic nature of the projections 15 years into the future. Rather it is that AmericaSpeaks, did not warn participants about that unreliability, and provide alternative projections that might be just as likely for 2025. I’ve talked about an alternative here. Why didn’t AmericaSpeaks talk about alternatives and let participants discuss them during the proceeding?

Perhaps the most important aspect of bias in the options workbook and ensuing discussion, and in the whole design of the decision process, was excluding the topic of whether an activity aimed at choosing revenue raising or spending cut options for the purpose of reducing the deficit is a legitimate exercise at all? In not asking this question, AmericaSpeaks is implicitly taking a policy position. It is saying that an important aspect of Government activity must always be to manage the deficit, the national debt, and the debt-to-GDP ratio and that this is the meaning of fiscal sustainability and fiscal responsibility.

However, there is a counter-position to that policy position. It is that for a government that is sovereign in its own non-convertible fiat currency, in the sense that it has the constitutional authority to issue an unlimited amount of it without the need for any commodity backing and also that it has no external debt in foreign currencies, there is no solvency risk from the simple fact of Government expenditures, and no Governmental Budgetary Constraints (GBCs) that are not self-imposed, beyond constraints that arise from the effects of Government Spending such as employment levels, economic growth, price stability, environmental and climatological outcomes, national security outcomes, education outcomes, etc. The deficit, national debt, and debt-to-GDP ratio are not important in themselves, and should not be viewed as policy concerns or policy targets. They are not indicators of anything that ought to be managed, or constrained, or otherwise influenced. They are a distraction from the real issues which are the real outcomes of Government spending such as those listed above.

This policy position was not considered in the supposedly neutral, non-partisan, and unbiased decision process run by AmericaSpeaks. Had it been considered, the option conversation wouldn’t have been about options for reducing the deficit in 2025. Instead it would have been about options for creating a new economy by 2025, and options for creating greater equality of opportunity in American society, or options about creating a new energy foundation for our economy. In other words, it would have been an entirely different conversation. And its message for The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform would have been:

“Fiscal Responsibility is about Government spending money and taxing to create good outcomes. In recent years, the Government of the United States has spent and taxed in such a way that it has benefited a relatively small proportion of Americans and disadvantaged almost everyone else. You are viewing your job as one of figuring out how we can meet certain debt-to-GDP ratio targets by reducing deficits and perhaps even reducing the national debt. This is not fiscal responsibility. It is fiscal irresponsibility. What you need to be doing, instead, is examining Government programs assessing their impact and making recommendations to expand those that are achieving public purposes, and you also ought to be considering new policy options that are likely to achieve public purposes. The test of fiscal responsibility is whether Government is achieving public purposes. Not whether it is meeting some abstract standard, ungrounded in any coherent economic theory, about what level of public debt-to-GDP ratio ought to be maintained. Here are some options we have come up with to help recommend new options.”

And then the options most frequently chosen by meeting participants should have been listed, along with other less popular options emerging from the meeting.

That’s enough for now. In my next post, I’ll continue analyzing step 5 and particularly the specific options in the options workbook, to reveal the biases used to try to fit the participants in the AmericaSpeaks meeting to the deficit reduction purposes of the meeting designers.

(Cross-posted at All Life Is Problem Solving and Fiscal Sustainability).