Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Picking a Battleground

With the national debt skyrocketing, a faction on the right is hoping to turn the 2012 election into a debate on entitlement reform. No doubt, many Democrats are hoping the very same thing. Democrats would view that development as a chance to gain politically, while some Republicans would see it as a chance to demonstrate their purity.

Charging forth under the motto of William F. Buckley, standing "athwart history, yelling Stop," many conservatives have an affection for martyrdom. And it is not a uniquely conservative mistake to believe that, if something is hard, it is also worthwhile.

Running on entitlement reform would be very hard. Social Security, the centerpiece of American social insurance, is far more popular than tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans or other beloved positions of supposed fiscal hawks. Though many Americans recognize that Medicare is on an unsustainable course, they also want to ensure that the elderly can have sufficient medical care. And bromides about "self-reliance" apart from "socialistic" government intervention can be grating when they come from millionaires who have collected many years' worth of government paychecks. Moreover, it's hard to run a presidential campaign, a genre of the broad brush, with the mechanical pencil of policy minutia.

Yet the difficulty of running on entitlements should not obscure the fact that running on entitlements and focusing excessive energy on curbing entitlements will not solve what truly ails the economic health of the nation and drives our immediate and medium-term deficits: the poor employment picture. Hundreds of billions would be shaved off of the federal deficit with a revitalized economy, and a rotten economy is accelerating our entitlements crisis.

If you want to destroy the sustainability of Social Security and other social insurance programs, ignoring the economy is a good first step. Of course, economic stagnation also imperils the ability of the United States to project power, diminishes the standard of living, and makes it harder for Americans (and others across the globe) to have a lifestyle of comfort. Economic despair would have profound ripples throughout the American social fabric and the global order. Conversely, if the US can transcend the economic doldrums of the past decade, Social Security would require relatively little reform to become indefinitely sustainable, and even Medicare reform would become much more manageable. Solving the economy will help solve entitlement issues, but curbing the growth of Medicare, etc. will not, alas, solve our economic problems: very few businesses are refusing to hire because they fear the escalating costs of Medicare two decades down the road.

Furthermore, running on the poor economy has the additional advantage that this economy is immediately tangible. There's no need for Republicans to get caught in the weeds of arguments about projections, revenue metrics, and benchmarks for growth when they can instead simply tell voters to check the unemployment rate, to look at their diminishing paychecks, or to see how their neighbors are doing.

Republicans would have much to gain by making the economy the door to a broader critique of the Obama administration: that this economic frustration is representative of a broader failure to channel the energies of a free people; that, rather than focusing on the practical trials of American workers, this administration chose instead to use this crisis to indulge in ideology; that its rapid expansion of regulatory power has served not to level the playing field but instead to provide a vehicle for favoritism and political payback. Many of the excesses and limitations of the Obama administration can be seen in its economic policies, so Republicans can make a broader, principled case against Obama while also being anchored in the economic realities of the moment.

Republicans can say to voters, In 2008, you voted in Barack Obama and scores of Democrats in hopes of a new way forward. Disappointment has been the recompense for all your hopes. We can offer a better path. Growth built not on debt but on innovation and production. An economy based not on hollowing out and corporate raiding, where the profits go to an ever-shrinking minority, but on the productive labor of the broad range of the American workforce, where a true rising tide will lift all boats. We can offer an economy of freedom, where opportunity is not the purview of the few but the promise of the many. The world has changed over the past decade, but the thinking of many in Washington has not kept pace with that change. Well, now is the time to renew the American spirit of freedom, innovation, and prosperity---not for some Americans but for all Americans.

Such an aspirational, forward-looking message has, I think, more in it electorally and intellectually than do hectoring declarations that the Democrat party (or the RINO establishment or the federal government as a whole) is a hive of traitorous socialists who hate the United States and freedom. It also has a lot more zip than endlessly insisting, No, I really don't want to push Granny off a cliff. In fact, based on current actuarial projections, at the rate of current spending, the Social Security trust fund will be depleted by such-and-such a date, unless we start to adjust COLA standards and....

(Crossposted at FrumForum)

Friday, August 26, 2011

Rush to Primary?

First Read offers the following view of possible chaos in the Republican presidential primary calendar:
According to Republicans monitoring this subject, there are two different timeline scenarios. The first is the RNC-sanctioned February start date: Iowa goes Feb. 6, New Hampshire Feb. 14, Nevada, Feb. 18, South Carolina Feb. 28, and Super Tuesday is March 6. The second is the more chaotic January (or even December) start date: States like Arizona and Florida -- risking losing half their delegates and other penalties -- set their primaries early, pushing Iowa, New Hampshire, and other states into January or earlier. Which scenario is more likely? Although this remains a fluid situation, one plugged-in Republican eyeing the calendar process for one of the campaigns says there’s a “99%” chance it begins in early January instead of February. So start making your New Year’s Eve plans in Des Moines now. Or at least buy refundable air tickets.
One can understand the desire of various states to be first and have influence earlier in the primary process, but one might also wonder about the wisdom of such a slew of early primaries---for states themselves and for the Republican party as a whole.

The primary calendar of 2008 saw a rush of states early in the year. For Democrats, the states that perhaps won the most in terms of electoral attention were those that held primaries after the rush. With its primary on April 22, Pennsylvania witnessed a much more intense level of campaigning than did California (which held its primary on Tsunami Tuesday on February 5).

And the odds are greater this cycle than in many cycles in the past that Republicans could witness a drawn-out primary process. RNC primary rules changes have placed a new priority on proportional representation for states early in the primary cycle, making the Republican primary process a little more like that of Democrats. These changes could make it less likely for competitive candidates to be knocked out of the race by losing a single state's primary. Especially if Palin gets in, we could easily see a number of closely split primaries leading to a more extended primary battle.

The extension of the primary calendar could very easily be a good thing for the eventual Republican nominee. The minute a presumptive nominee is crowned, the White House and its allies will have a single target on which to focus their vitriol. But, as long as the primary process is in play, the optics of partisan attack get more complicated, if not harder.

In a drawn-out primary process, states that come later still have an important role to play and can get more attention than those states that simply run with the pack. Moreover, an early selection of a nominee might not be a bad thing, but it is not assuredly a good thing, either. Many in Washington are probably hoping that states do not rush to have primaries in late 2011 or January 2012; many states might find it in their best interests to avoid this rush as well.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

FYI: For the next week or so, blogging will be close to non-existent. In the meantime, here are a few good ones (in my opinion) from the past:
How to Build a Better GOP
On Demagoguery
The Trials of the Middle Class

Friday, August 5, 2011

S&P: Dysfunctional Politics and their Price

S&P has now downgraded the US government from AAA to AA+, a historic downgrade. The effects of this downgrade will no doubt echo throughout the US and global economy.

Zero Hedge posts the full text of the S&P statement. Contrary to what you might read in some quarters of the media, the statement regarding the downgrade does not merely focus on the inadequacy of the recent debt deal to reduce the long-term debt. Instead, it offers a broader critique of the structure of American fiscal politics.

The statement hammers away at what it views as political gridlock. The battle over the debt-ceiling has exacted a considerable toll, in S&P's eyes:

We lowered our long-term rating on the U.S. because we believe that the prolonged controversy over raising the statutory debt ceiling and the related fiscal policy debate indicate that further near-term progress containing the growth in public spending, especially on entitlements, or on reaching an agreement on raising revenues is less likely than we previously assumed and will remain a contentious and fitful process. We also believe that the fiscal consolidation plan that Congress and the Administration agreed to this week falls short of the amount that we believe is necessary to stabilize the general government debt burden by the middle of the decade....

The political brinksmanship of recent months highlights what we see as America's governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective, and less predictable than what we previously believed. The statutory debt ceiling and the threat of default have become political bargaining chips in the debate over fiscal policy. Despite this year's wide-ranging debate, in our view, the differences between political parties have proven to be extraordinarily difficult to bridge, and, as we see it, the resulting agreement fell well short of the comprehensive fiscal consolidation program that some proponents had envisaged until quite recently. Republicans and Democrats have only been able to agree to relatively modest savings on discretionary spending while delegating to the Select Committee decisions on more comprehensive measures. It appears that for now, new revenues have dropped down on the menu of policy options. In addition, the plan envisions only minor policy changes on Medicare and little change in other entitlements, the containment of which we and most other independent observers regard as key to long-term fiscal sustainability

Many wanted a "battle" over the debt-ceiling and hoped for more "battles" in the future; S&P suggests that this might not be a good idea for the long-term fiscal situation of the United States.

Though the report does vaguely ask for reforms to various entitlements, it mentions Republican intransigence on raising taxes multiple times. Unlike earlier reports, this new one, with its projections for an accelerating amount of federal debt, assumes the extension of all Bush tax cuts "because the majority of Republicans in Congress continue to resist any measure that would raise revenues, a position we believe Congress reinforced by passing the act." This report emphasizes tax hikes at the end, as well:

As our upside scenario highlights, if the recommendations of the Congressional Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction--independently or coupled with other initiatives, such as the lapsing of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts for high earners---lead to fiscal consolidation measures beyond the minimum mandated, and we believe they are likely to slow the deterioration of the government's debt dynamics the long-term rating could stabilize at 'AA+'.
The report notes that other sovereign nations will have greater debts as a percentage of GDP for years into the future, but it still insists on downgrading the US:

When comparing the U.S. to sovereigns with 'AAA' long-term ratings that we view as relevant peers--Canada, France, Germany, and the U.K.--we also observe, based on our base case scenarios for each, that the trajectory of the U.S.'s net public debt is diverging from the others. Including the U.S., we estimate that these five sovereigns will have net general government debt to GDP ratios this year ranging from 34% (Canada) to 80% (the U.K.), with the U.S. debt burden at 74%. By 2015, we project that their net public debt to GDP ratios will range between 30% (lowest, Canada) and 83% (highest, France), with the U.S. debt burden at 79%. However, in contrast with the U.S., we project that the net public debt burdens of these other sovereigns will begin to decline, either before or by 2015.
So part of this analysis is based on long-term trends, an analytic assumption that may or may not be warranted.

Part of S&P's justification for the downgrade is premised on the fact that the economy is much weaker than was earlier thought. Ironically perhaps for some, this report may further damage the national economy by leading to an increase in various interest rates and heightening a sense of uncertainty in the nation's finances.

S&P makes the following recommendations for the United States: increase revenue, improve the economy, and ensure that government can fulfill its routine fiscal responsibilities. Those aren't exactly bad points. High-wire political knife-fights may make for riveting blogging and TV, but they do not always reflect the utmost of fiscal prudence. Perhaps the US government should not dance to the tune of (far from infallible) ratings agencies, but S&P does have a worthy point in this: in order for our government to work in the long term, it must have some kind of governable consensus. We must also have an economics anchored in reality and not in ideology, and a fiscal politics of compromise and empiricism instead of flamboyance and wrath.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

PA in Play?

Quinnipiac has released a new poll of Pennsylvania voters showing Obama losing ground to his potential Republican challengers. Mitt Romney now has a slight lead in that state, and other GOP candidates have also gained:

A majority of Keystone State voters now disapproves of the job Obama is doing as president. Just 43 percent of voters approve of his job performance, while 54 percent disapprove. That marks a significant decline from mid-June, when voters were split evenly on Obama.

Romney holds a 44-42 percent lead over Obama, reversing a seven-point edge for the president in June. Santorum now trails Obama, 45 percent to 43 percent; in June, he trailed by 11 points...

Obama also leads Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., 47 percent and 39 percent, and he also leads Texas Gov. Rick Perry, 45 percent to 39 percent.

In 2008, Obama won Pennsylvania by over 10 points, a margin greater than any shown in this poll.

Turnaround Techniques

David Frum puts forward some ideas on how to turn around the employment picture:
1) Cheap money, a low dollar, and moderate inflation.

2) Tax relief aimed at stimulating private consumption, such as a big payroll tax holiday.

3) Income support for people in need.

4) Modest and temporary subsidies to state building projects.

5) An immigration moratorium.

6) Agreement now on a plan to balance federal budget to begin only after such time as unemployment declines below 8% or the 10-year US Treasury bond goes north of 5%.

Monday, August 1, 2011


A deal may almost be brokered. AP has the details:

The plan calls for spending cuts and increased borrowing authority for the Treasury in two stages.

In the first, passage of the legislation would trigger more than $900 billion in spending cuts over a decade as well as a $900 billion increase in the government's borrowing authority.

The spending cuts would come from hundreds of federal programs across the face of government - accounts that Obama said would be left with the lowest levels of spending as a percentage of the overall economy in more than a half-century.

The increased borrowing authority includes $400 billion that would take effect immediately, and $500 billion that would be permitted after Congress had a chance to block it.

In the second stage, a newly created joint committee of Congress would be charged with recommending $1.5 trillion in deficit reductions by the end of November that would be put to a vote in Congress by year's end. The cuts could come from benefit programs such as Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid as well as from an overhaul of the tax code.

The committee proposals could trigger a debt limit increase of as much as $1.5 trillion, if approved by Congress. But if they do not materialize, automatic spending cuts would be applied across government to trim spending by $1.2 trillion.

Yuval Levin has some worthwhile reflections on the "trigger" for the committee