Next up, entitlement programs

With the so-called tax reform bill behind him, House Speaker Paul Ryan wants to reform and modernize the big three entitlement programs: Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. It’s something that needs to happen, but it won’t be easy – especially in an election year.

The speaker is under pressure from conservative House members and deficit hawks, who supported the tax reform legislation that added a whopping $1.5 trillion to the national debt in exchange for a commitment to address entitlements and deal with debt and deficits.

Entitlement costs are rising as the population grows older and sicker. Even if you assume that cutting the corporate tax rate will unleash economic growth, the tax cuts are highly unlikely to pay for themselves. We cannot grow our way out of the looming entitlement crisis.

But the speaker’s plan to overhaul entitlement programs may run into the harsh political reality that not all Republicans are on board in an election year in which control of Congress is up for grabs.

Looking to preserve the GOP’s narrow Senate margin the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has thrown cold water on the idea of entitlement reform. He would prefer to focus on the long-awaited infrastructure funding plan, which is more of a bipartisan exercise.

During his campaign, President Trump repeatedly promised not to cut Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security. Of course Democrats say the Republicans plan to pay for the tax bill with cuts to entitlements and the social safety net.

There is no strong constituency for the tough budget cuts needed to limit the size of government or reduce the national debt.

Broadly speaking, entitlements are government financial benefits to which beneficiaries have a legal right. The most important examples of federal entitlement programs include Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, unemployment compensation and food stamps. And don’t forget agricultural support programs.

You can debate the merit of these programs, but one thing is clear: entitlements are expensive, and for a long time the cost has either been ignored or passed on to future generations.

Nearly half of all U.S. households benefit from at least one federal entitlement program. Entitlement spending today is about a tenth of U.S. gross domestic product, meaning one out of every ten dollars Americans earn goes to pay for Medicaid, Medicare, or Social Security. As the government struggles to pay for these programs, the number of recipients grows as people live longer thanks to advances in medical care.

This means they are drawing more benefits over their lifetimes than the funding systems were ever designed to generate. Since Americans are having fewer children, fewer workers are paying into the system. The Affordable Care Act also increased the number of people eligible for Medicaid.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, about half the federal budget is spent on Social Security and health care programs like Medicare.

Another 16 percent goes to national defense and 6 percent to paying interest on the national debt. That does not leave much, especially as entitlement costs rise. If these programs are not fixed, they will consume the entire budget, leaving nothing to clean the environment, repair roads and bridges, and address countless other needs.

Nobody, including Speaker Ryan, is talking about actually cutting entitlement programs. The goal is to restrain increases and make the programs sustainable going forward. On a positive note, there are approaches that enable the U.S. to fix the programs while exempting current beneficiaries.

For example, consider containing health care costs by focusing more on preventative care and improved management of chronic conditions like obesity and diabetes. As for Social Security, consider gradually raising the full retirement age and eliminating the current payroll tax cap.

If these choices don’t seem palatable, it’s important to remember that the biggest threat to the big three programs is to continue down the path of least resistance and do nothing at all.

Originally Published: January 20, 2018


Sham tax ‘reform’ proves more than ever that money talks

The imperfect tax bill President Trump signed into law on Dec. 22 is further evidence of the rot in Washington,. The tax bill isn’t about tax reform, it’s about money and influence.

Consider the giveaway known as the carried interest rule. It’s another outrageous example of the powerful getting what they want, as they always do. This will come as no shock to anyone over the age of five.

The term “carried interest” derives from the share of profits that 12th-century ship owners and captains were given as an interest in the cargo they carried, usually a 20 percent commission to provide an incentive to keep an eye on the cargo.

Today carried interest is the 20 percent of profits from their funds with which private equity firms, venture capitalists, and real estate partnerships compensate themselves. These proceeds are taxed at a capital gains rate of 20 percent, about half the top individual income rate, which will fall to 37 percent under the new tax law. Critics argue that this money is effectively income and should be taxed at individual income tax rates. The constituents for the deduction argue that removing the incentive would reduce entrepreneurial risk taking.

The reason for the loophole’s survival comes down to campaign contributions to key lawmakers and intense lobbying to maintain the favorable tax treatment. As Gary D. Cohn, director of the White House National Economic Council said, “The reality of this town is that constituency has a very large presence in the House and the Senate and they have really strong relationships on both sides of the aisle.”

The American Investment Council, a Washington trade association that represents private equity firms, reported some $970,000 in lobbying expenditures for the first three quarters of 2017. This is in addition to the smart investment made by way of campaign contributions targeted to key lawmakers. For example, employees of the private equity firm The Blackstone Group L.P. contributed $212,000 to Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in 2017 alone. In turn, politicians serve their contributors by protecting the carried interest preference.

Private equity firms have the means and vanity to get what they want. It is further proof that money is the mother’s milk of politics and that big money gets its way in Washington, D.C.

During the presidential campaign both President Trump and Secretary Clinton gave a pitch-perfect populist performance, wanting everyone to know that they were militantly opposed to this loophole, a form of welfare for the wealthy. When a politician says something like that, sports fans, try inserting a negative and you are likely to hit pay dirt. Political rhetoric is as unrelated to the truth as an advertising campaign.

The power of money seems eternal. Politicians love it like a child loves Christmas, and all are working hard to avoid reading their own political obituaries. Knowledge that it has always been this way is no consolation.

They tell pro forma lies to the public and the media, and then begin to believe what they read. Not laying blame, just putting truth into words. So House Ways and Means Committee Chair Kevin Brady (R. Texas), with a truly magnificent smile, said on the Morning Joe talk show “carried interest, we can talk about that for the next hour if you like, but for most Americans they could care less about that.”

In its pursuit of a free lunch, the public is often a bit too eager to accept the things they want to hear at face value, even though they should know that truthfulness is not a long (or short) suit for elected officials, who spin untruths with the same gusto young Abraham Lincoln supposedly split logs.

You can’t bring about change by wishing upon a star. You can run with that.

Originally Published: January 6, 2018