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“Our practical choice is not between a tax-cut deficit and budgetary surplus. It is between two kinds of deficits: a chronic deficit of inertia, as the unwanted result of inadequate revenues and a restricted economy; or a temporary deficit of transition, resulting from a tax cut designed to boost the economy, increase tax revenues, and achieve . . . a budget surplus.” John F. Kennedy

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Dec 10 2012

“The Age of the Unserious”

C.M. Phippen

Our president claims that he is making an honest effort to negotiate with Republicans to avoid the fiscal cliff. He wants us to believe that they are the ones who simply won’t budge on their positions and won’t allow him to fix the horrific fiscal issues we face.

This is the president whom Tim Geithner claims is willing to go off the fiscal cliff if the Republicans don’t agree to his plan to raise taxes on the richest 2% because, in Geithner’s words, “remember, it’s only the top two percent.” Doesn’t unequal treatment under the law become a civil rights issue at some point!? Anyway . . .

This is the same president who has had his past two budgets shot down in Senate votes of 99-0 and 97-0, one of which looked an awful lot like Obama’s current proposal from which he is negotiating. He apparently expects Republicans to support the plan that his Democrat allies in the Senate refused to support?

In addition to major entitlement spending cuts, the greatest priority our government should have is that of allowing/encouraging/stimulating economic growth, which will in and of itself lead to the President’s desired revenue increases.

In fact, Bill Whittle recently made the point that “if you destroyed the entire government, burned every [public] building, fired every government worker, sank every aircraft carrier, even with no government to pay for – none – we’d still pay the same taxes that we’re paying today and still have to borrow or print money just to pay for entitlements.”

I would argue that if we do indeed have a shortage of money for schools, teachers, police and other government services, it is entitlement spending that is draining those resources, not tax cuts or wars.

Even Austin Goolsbee, former president of Obama’s Council on Economic Advisers, recently stated that any solution to America’s economic ills “cuts on discretionary and entitlement spending.”

In addition, Peter Orszag, former OMB director, recently came out urging his fellow Democrats to support reforming entitlements and putting “crucial programs on a sounder footing.”

I must assume that our president is well aware of the fact that nothing in his rejected budget plans or spending priorities will stimulate growth. And he has made it very clear that, despite his repeated declarations to the contrary, he is never going to cut any real spending.

Thus, his only plan to decrease the rate of growth of our historically unprecedented federal deficit seems to be an increase in revenue coming from the already over-burdened taxpayer. Unfortunately, the proposal on which he is willing to risk our entire economy, that of increased taxes on the top 2%, leads to enough revenue to cover expenses for about eight days! Brilliant!

Even the Obama-touted Buffet Rule, if implemented, would pay for about 28 hours of government spending. If you want to close the deficit through increased taxes on the two highest tax brackets – 33% ($178,650 – $388,350) and 35% (over $388,350) – it would be necessary to hike those rates to 159% and 166% respectively. I’m assuming most liberals would tell us that such rates would have absolutely no impact on economic growth or the willingness of those individuals to work!

AEI economists recently looked at the effect of tax increases v. entitlement reforms on fiscal crises management over the nearly three-decade period of 1970-2007. They found that countries that were able to successfully reform did so mainly with spending cuts; in fact, on average 85% of their budget gaps were closed this way. On the other hand, those with failed reforms were the countries that, on average, relied at least 50% on tax increases.

Just ask Jim Sinegal, co-founder of Costco, if those tax increases will most likely lead to greater or reduced revenue next year. He’s a supporter of Obama who preached the moral imperative of Obama’s tax plan, and of businesses large and small all “following the same set of rules . . .” while risking Costco’s credit rating to take on an additional $3.5 billion in debt in order to pay out dividends this year before Obama’s tax hikes kick in. Oh, and he is apparently the biggest beneficiary of this move.

Or ask Great Britain how a plan of tax increases worked for them last year when they raised rates on those making over £1 million (about $1.6 million) to 50%. The result was that they saw a £7 billion treasury loss as nearly two-thirds of the high earners were suddenly missing from the country or finding ways to shelter income.

Funny though, that even after the manifestation of the result of such policies, political supporters of the increased tax are now calling any reduction a “tax cut for millionaires,” as though resentment toward the wealthy is more important than the amount of money the government actually has for programs which benefit the less well-off.

Yes, Mr. Whittle, I think you’re right; this truly is “The Age of the Unserious.”


Jun 15 2012

Austerity: A Balanced Approach?

C.M. Phippen

Concerns are spreading that Germany is on the verge of losing its safe-haven status for investors. According to Bill Blain, co-head of the special situations group at Newedge Group Ltd, “[Germany] isn’t a pure safe haven anymore.” As it finds itself potentially on the hook for an additional 100 billion euros ($125 billion) after the EU bailout of Spanish banks earlier this month, investors are starting to see the cracks in the foundation of what has been a star in the EU economies.

Not only does the most recent bailout scare off private investors from Spain, who know they will be the last in line if the country does eventually default, but most analysts fear this bailout is only one of many. Estimates of future liquidity injections in Spain alone are as high as 700 billion euros, which would decimate the EU rescue funds.

Despite German fiscal restraint, high worker productivity and relatively low levels of unemployment, apparently a system where a minority put in the serious work and everybody else lives off of their largess while sipping margaritas, is an unsustainable system.

As Angela Merkel recently stated, “Germany’s powers are not unlimited,” and “All the (aid) packages will ring hollow if you overestimate Germany’s strength.” Even the German economy can be dragged down by too many dependents pulling at it for too long.

It’s time for the rest of the European countries to start playing by the rules of success, the rules of true austerity.

In Britain, promises to reform social programs and cut taxes and spending were made by Gordon Brown just before leaving office, but instead he increased the top marginal income tax rate. In 2011-2012, spending increased, the public pension system is still not reformed and “the government increased the capital gains tax, national insurance tax and value-added tax along with other fees and duties.”

In Spain, while the retirement age was increased from 65 to 67, no structural reforms have been made to entitlements. Additionally, myriad tax rates have been increased, from income and property taxes to tobacco taxes (up 28 percent). While the current budget calls for spending cuts as well as tax increases, there is little chance that the tax increases will bring in the expected revenue because of a lack of economic growth. With entitlement spending unchecked, deficits are projected to continue rising.

France’s spending increased $33.4 billion between 2009 and 2010, and $29.5 billion in 2011. The Socialist government there also plans to implement a new 75% top marginal income tax rate for anyone earning over $1.3 million, in addition to an increase in the corporate income tax rate. At the same time, they are promising significant public sector hiring, a decrease in the retirement age and an increase in the minimum wage, which has been shown to price the least skilled workers out of the labor market.

According to recent research, a “balanced approach” to austerity (isn’t that the new progressive catch phrase?) doesn’t end well. An austerity program that involves both tax increases and spending cuts does not successfully stabilize debt and leads to economic contractions in the marketplace.

Harvard economists Alberto Alesina and Silvia Ardagna looked at 107 examples of austerity in developed countries over a period of 30 years and found that spending cuts without tax increases were the key to significant debt to GDP ratio reductions. They also discovered that when those spending cuts were accompanied by structural reforms, easy monetary policy and a liberalization of markets, economic expansion was most often the result.

Across the ocean here at home, the story is, unfortunately, much the same. While we could continue down our current path of demonizing the rich and blaming them for not paying their fair share (who can possibly believe that the top 5 percent paying 59 percent of federal income taxes while earning only 35 percent of total national income is somehow not their “fair share”?!), all the while threatening onerous taxes and regulations, we wonder why corporations are sitting on massive amounts of cash and refusing to hire new workers.

President Obama’s claim that his policies would “have this done” (fixing the economy) within three years and Clinton’s encouragement in 2010 to “vote ‘em out” if the economy weren’t fixed in two years lead me to think that this administration is honestly and genuinely surprised that their understanding of the economy just isn’t reality.

Welcome to the world the rest of us live in . . .


Aug 31 2011

President Obama’s Bank of China

See my article about the national debt published in August 2011′s edition of Smart Girl Nation, entitled President Obama’s Bank of China.


Feb 24 2010

Debt, Greece, and the US

Greece has had over a week of riots in the streets from government union members as a result of reform attempts to avoid eventual default on the public debt. Their budget deficit in 2009 was 12.7% of GDP and the Greek government has committed to bring it down to 8.7% this year.

The US budget deficit in 2009 was 9.9% and is projected to increase for the foreseeable future. Like the public employee unions in Greece, ours have exerted tremendous pressure on local, state, and federal governments to pay salaries and benefits that are completely unsustainable. I wrote about that last week.

What will it take before our government is also forced to behave responsibly?


Feb 19 2010

Pension Shortfalls All Around

C.M. Phippen

In a report released Thursday, the Pew Center on the States tells us that the states are facing an estimated $1 trillion shortfall in their pension funds. Even more alarming is the fact that of the additional benefits promised to pensioners of state governments, things like health care, “only 5% of the $587 billion total liability they have is funded.”

A healthy pension fund would be one in which the level of funding is equal to 80% or more of its liability. Twenty-one states were below that level in fiscal year 2008, which for most states ended midway through the year. This precluded the inclusion of losses to state pension portfolios during the latter part of 2008, but which will be reflected in the as-of-yet unreleased numbers for fiscal year 2009.

Mark Scolforo, writer for the Associated Press:

The exploding financial burden could be a bitter pill for taxpayers, many of whom will not be collecting similar pensions or other benefits when they retire, said David Kline with the California Taxpayers’ Association. About one in five private sector workers have traditional defined benefit pensions, compared with about 90 percent of public-sector employees — including some that do not get Social Security.

In Pennsylvania, a series of decisions by the Legislature and governor have shielded taxpayers from much of the pain for the past decade, but costs of less than $1 billion a year now is projected to climb to about $6 billion annually in the coming three years.

The report said policy makers have exacerbated the problem by expanding benefits, relying on overly optimistic assumptions about investment returns and failing to sufficient fund the programs.

“Even though the actuaries tell the states what they should be doing, the states feel free to ignore that,” said Olivia Mitchell, director of the Pension Research Council at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “So putting some teeth behind the requirements is really the problem.”

Pew said states should consider changes that have proven to be effective and politically viable. Among them: setting minimum contribution levels that are actuarially sound, sharing some of the investment risk with employees, cutting benefits, increasing the minimum retirement age, making employees pay more into the system and providing more robust oversight and investment rules.

Remember, this is just the states, and the liabilities are rising. The federal government too has employee pay problems as well as employee pension problems.

The average federal civilian worker made $119,000 in 2008 when combining wages and benefits, while the average private sector compensation was only $59,000. When just wages are taken into account, the numbers are $79,197 for federal workers v. 50,028 for private sector employees. As mentioned above, only a fraction of private sector retirees have any sort of job-related defined benefit pension, while the majority of federal workers receive pensions that allow retirement 10-25 years earlier than private sector employees. This could mean 50+ years of pension for 20 years of work.

According to the Obama administration, 153,000 new federal workers will be added to the payroll in 2010, boosting the number of federal workers to 2.15 million for the first time in history.

The generous pay, benefit, and retirement plans of state and federal workers are going to need to be financed by someone. Because the public sector exists only through the labor and resources of private citizens and corporations, taxes will need to be increased on those citizens and corporations in order to pay the escalating expenses of an ever-expanding bureaucracy.

Remember, the private sector, on whom this burden will fall, isn’t provided such generous benefits and salaries because it’s not economically feasible. Private companies can’t spend more than they make for very long and still stay in business. This is also the sector which will need to save for their own retirement, with whatever funds remain in their paychecks after providing those government employee benefits they themselves don’t have access to. When did government “service” become government largess (or public largess)?

In the middle of the greatest economic slowdown in generations, the federal and state governments increase their liabilities for decades to come with larger payrolls, benefits, and pensions obligations, thus necessitating higher taxes and leading to greater stagnation in the private sector.

Genius.