Daily Archives: February 23, 2009
Good luck searching through the omnibus spending bill:
The $500 billion omnibus spending bill to fund the most of federal government for the rest of the year will be debated in the House this week. And it has now finally been posted online.
It’s a PDF of scanned pages, meaning it can’t be searched or parsed in any other way. All 1,133 pages of it. Same with the 1,845-page explanatory statement.
That’s placing form over substance, putting a bill online in a useless format.
The bill combines spending for several agencies. On parts of the bill posted on the House Appropriations Committee website, you can literally handwritten notes and crossed out lines on various pages of the legislation. You can see an example on page 9 on the section of the bill dealing with appropriations for “Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies.”
You can still go through and find the pork, but the lack of a tool to search the document makes it more difficult.
“I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution; and I do not believe that the power and duty of the General Government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit. A prevalent tendency to disregard the limited mission of this power and duty should, I think, be steadily resisted, to the end that the lesson should be constantly enforced that, though the people support the Government, the Government should not support the people.” – Grover Cleveland
“We need earmark reform,” Obama said in September during a presidential debate in Oxford, Miss. “And when I’m president, I will go line by line to make sure that we are not spending money unwisely.”
President Obama should prepare to carve out a lot of free time and keep the coffee hot next week as Congress prepares to unveil a $410 billion omnibus spending bill that’s riddled with thousands of earmarks, despite his calls for restraint and efforts on Capitol Hill to curtail the practice.
The bill will contain about 9,000 earmarks totaling $5 billion, congressional officials say. Many of the earmarks – loosely defined as local projects inserted by members of Congress – were inserted last year as the spending bills worked their way through various committees.
In case you’re wondering, the highest number of earmarks in a single year is 13,997 (2005) at a cost of $27.3 billion. Though the number of earmarks dropped to 9,963 in 2006, the cost surpassed the previous year at $29 billion.
Obama has pledged to “slash earmarks to no greater than 1994 levels and ensure all spending decisions are open to the public.” This spending bill isn’t a great start on that promise.
You can read the FY 2009 Omnibus Appropriations Act here.
H/T: Club for Growth
Chrysler said the only reason it was back asking for more money so soon was that the car market was worse than it had expected two months ago.
This cavalier approach to the public purse raises a very big question. If Chrysler is really on track for a turnaround and all it needs is some financing to get over a bad patch in sales and debt markets, why doesn’t Cerberus Capital Management, which owns 80 percent of the company, put up the money itself? Why should taxpayers have to take the risk? That’s what private equity funds like Cerberus are supposed to do.
Cerberus and Daimler, which retained a stake in Chrysler, have promised to convert $2 billion in loans to Chrysler into equity, which should help reduce its debt. But Cerberus said giving fresh money would violate its fiduciary duty to investors, breaking company rules limiting how much it can commit to any given investment.
We suspect these rules would be more pliant if Cerberus deemed Chrysler to be a good deal.
It seems the secretive private-equity fund is willing to gamble on Chrysler’s survival with the taxpayer’s dime, but not its own.
The real question is, if it is violative of Cerberus management’s fiduciary duty to bail out its own company, why is it fiscally responsible for the federal government to do so?
And what does it say when the leader of liberal opinion has more qualms about a bailout than the federal government? Nothing good I would think.
Taxes, as the saying goes, in that both are certain to come to us all. The corollary is that once government spending outpaces tax receipts by a significant enough amount, then taxes will inevitably rise. Or, at least, that should be the corollary.
The first of several stimulus packages has just passed but it is just the beginning of our efforts to address our immediate and long-term economic problems.
After 2010, the federal operating budget will face trillion-dollar deficits as far as the eye can see. They have to be addressed for the long-term prosperity of our country and our future credit-worthiness in the world.
Eventually every American has to dig in and pay more taxes to help our country and our fellow citizens. We must put in place the laws and mechanisms to steadily increase taxes after 2010. We have to owe up to our massive public and private financial messes. Cutting federal earmarks and waste will not eliminate even half the annual deficits. The federal budget gap will require increasing taxes by over $500 billion by 2011. Fiscally irresponsible and spoiled children hate to hear this news but it’s our only choice for our collective long-term prosperity.
It is true that people don’t want to hear this, and I don’t think that is limited to “fiscally irresponsible and spoiled children.” Indeed, the inevitable raising of taxes was one of the arguments against the stimulus package, so I’m not sure to whom Pascal is referring.
A number of prominent publicly-minded millionaires and billionaires including Warren Buffet have recommended higher income taxes on themselves and their friends for several years. Certainly Mr. Buffet has been right more than most politicians and it’s time to effectuate his recommendations. Their altruistic economic view may simply be a rational response for their long-term preservation and that of the nation as a whole.
Actually, their view is not altruistic at all. The very rich, with the financial means to hire the very best in tax advice, are quite skilled at arranging their affairs so as to minimize their tax burden. When Warren Buffet clamors for raising taxes on the rich, you can be sure that he does not intend to pay as much as he possibly can to the federal government. However, those in the middle income brackets surely will. Buffet and brethren simply hope that those taxpayers will somehow be mollified by the fantasy that “the rich are paying their share too.”
On to the plan:
The Bush tax cuts should expire by their own terms by 2010 and marginal income taxes will return to the rate of 39% for incomes over $250,000. Additionally, and instead of capping executive pay, we should create a new marginal tax rate of 49% for earning over $1 million.
That is actually a somewhat more reasonable plan than some that have be floated, but still a pipe dream in terms of raising tax revenues to cover the trillions in spending contemplated (and as yet revealed) over the next four years. Even if the rich were to pay every possible penny of their income above $1 Million in taxes at that rate, how long to do you suppose they would do it for? If you had a choice of living quite comfortably and making around a million dollars, knowing that you’d keep something close to 70% – 75% of the money, would you really continue working hard enough to earn more than that if you knew you would only receive 50 cents on the dollar?
If there are any short-term tax cuts, they should be combined with long-term tax increases. The 2009 FICA payroll tax for social security is a 6.2% tax rate on every dollar earned up to a gross annual income of $106,800. For more than a decade, everyone has agreed that to save social security (without increasing the retirement age, the tax rate, or lowering the average monthly benefits of just under $1,000 per person) the best solution is to raise the taxable income limit so the wealthy contribute more to the entire system. We could provide both a short-term economic stimulus to the majority of Americans and save social security for the long term.
Let’s lower the FICA social security tax rate for rest of 2009 and all of 2010 to 5.5% but raise the income limit to $250,000. In 2011, let’s raise it to 5.75% and set the income limit to $500,000. By 2012, the rate would be 6% and the taxable income unlimited. This would simply parallel the 1.45% FICA tax for Medicare and Medicaid imposed on all earned income. Its rate will probably have to be raised to 2% after 2010 to pay for existing programs and any expansions of benefits.
Again, not an entirely unreasonable plan considering the alternatives. But what’s never mentioned when someone suggests raising the income level for FICA is that, while more tax revenue would be raised, federal liabilities would also be increased. That’s because the government is simply taking more money now and promising to pay more benefits upon retirement. That does nothing to reduce the burden of current spending, which was supposed to be the point of the tax increases.
As near as I can tell, this part of the plan would have the effect of hastening the looming entitlements crisis in exchange for perhaps pushing the current one off down the road a bit. The end result looks more like a perfect budgetary storm as the bills we’re racking up today and the entitlements we’ve promised in the future, begin to overlap.
Across the political spectrum, most people agree that our various transportation, water/sewer, and electrical grid infrastructures have been long neglected. Infrastructure spending is the best use of government stimulus money because more jobs are created both quickly and over the long term. Just to modernize our existing infrastructures systems will cost at least 2 trillion dollars over the next 10 years. Furthermore, we must also invest in new energy technologies, mass transit and high speed rail lines – all of which will cost billions more. We can’t put off such spending and we have to be honest about paying for them over the foreseeable future without resorting to further borrowing.
This is a part of the supposedly Keynesian argument that government spending provides a greater multiplier than private spending. Of course, as Bruce has pointed out before, if that were the case then why have private spending at all?
Furthermore, I really don’t understand how government spending on infrastructure and energy technologies creates jobs.
In the infrastructure realm, once a government project is done, then the job disappears. If the job is done quickly, efficiently and completed on time then it’s not government work the job just disappears that much more quickly. And after that? How does a brand new bridge create a job after it’s built? Even worse, what happens if the project turns out like the Big Dig in Boston (which seems to be much more likely)? Sure people will have jobs for longer, but the supposed benefit of the structure will shoved further into the future and the taxpayers will be on the hook for a lot more than they signed on for. How does that sort of project stimulate the economy?
With respect to new energy technologies, I’m all for it. But with the government choosing which technologies to fund, how do we know we’re getting the best there is to offer? That’s not typically the case where government picks winners and losers. And just because something is “green” does not mean that it is efficient, beneficial to the economy, and/or capable of saving anyone money in the short (or long) term. In fact, it probably means the opposite of one or all of those things. Instead, why doesn’t government get out of the way and allow nuclear power plants to be built, thus saving taxpayers billions of research dollars. That’s technology that we already have, and it’s green. Otherwise, these sorts of proposals are little more than a massive wealth transfer from one group of people to the politically favored few. There is nothing stimulative about that.
Across Europe, the average tax per gallon of gasoline ranges from $4 to $6. The U.S. federal gasoline tax is a paltry 18.3 cents per gallon with each penny raising $850 million to $1 billion per year depending upon how much Americans drive. Only when gasoline hit $4 a gallon during last summer did we start taking mass transit, buying hybrids, shunning gas guzzlers, demanding more energy-efficient cars and buildings, and seriously considering alternative solar, wind and nuclear power, and our own oil and gas reserves. The best and only way to ensure long-term energy independence is to have a serious financial incentive that hits everyone.
OK, if we accept the premise that less fuel consumption is better for Americans, then Pascal has a good point here. Of course, I’m not sure why gas station owners or truck salesman are any less deserving of being stimulated than other Americans, but that seems to be a staple of these plans. Moreover, Pascal’s plan doesn’t look all that much different than how transportation projects are already funded at the federal level.
While we should not enact excessive gasoline taxes, we can at least impose an additional and modest oil import fee on foreign barrels of oil.
More importantly, we should increase the federal gasoline tax from 18.3 to 75 cents per gallon, by monthly increments of about 5 cents per gallon over 12 months. The overall U.S. gasoline price per gallon by the end of 2010 should still be around $3.00 but the U.S. would have $70 billion a year to pay for our many needed transportation and energy infrastructure projects. This would be the responsible, mature, and intelligent solution for raising the necessary funds for these projects.
Presumably, Pascal means that we would charge this import fee to the American refiners who distribute gasoline in the country. And Pascal does suggest that he thinks this would be a tax on everyone, which in addition to the increased gas tax it would be. Strangely, this is the sort of protectionist measure one sees where domestic industries are beset by low-cost foreign competitors, yet domestic production is practically forbidden. Instead, Pascal wants to drive demand for gasoline down, so he advocates raising the costs of gasoline indirectly. Would that have the effect of increasing demand for more domestic oil? Perhaps. But it would certainly raise costs for all Americans, whether we all buy hybrids (which are much more expensive) or not, and again I don’t see how raising prices is stimulative.
Overall Mr. Pascal’s tax proposal is not altogether outlandish, and certain elements of it are almost certain to come to pass. What’s so horrible is that these sorts of plans are only necessary (and inevitable) because the government has been spending far more than it takes in for quite some time now. Even if you think that the Bush tax cuts “cost” the federal government money, you have to admit that the one thing that every administration has had in common, whether Republican or Democrat, is that federal spending never decreases. Regardless of whether tax-and-spend is better/worse than cut-taxes-and-spend, the situation we find ourselves in today is precisely because spending never seems to drop, not because tax rates go up and down.
To be sure, there is nothing evil per se about deficit spending. Whether it’s bad or not depends on where the money is going, and how the costs are intended to be recouped. But at some point the piper must be paid, and when that time comes one would hope that all the spending had created some wealth with which to pay him.Obviously taking money from Peter and giving it to Paul (minus a transfer fee, of course) won’t accomplish that goal. And neither does building a new bridge from Paul’s house to Peter’s. Indeed, unlike people, the government can’t work harder in an effort to “do something” and create wealth, because that’s not what governments do. The only things that government is any good at is making rules and enforcing (some of) them. Although those two actions can protect wealth and the opportunities to create wealth, neither action actually creates wealth.
Thus, we’re left with the unshakable propositions that (1) government spending necessitates taxes, (2) deficit spending necessitates tax increases, (3) tax increases necessitate higher prices, (4) higher prices produce less consumer spending, (5) less consumer spending results in less business revenues, (6) less business revenues means fewer jobs and less wages, (7) fewer jobs, less wages and less business revenues means less tax dollars, and (8) fewer jobs, less wages, less business revenues and less tax dollars means … more government spending is necessary?
If you believe that last one, then I have a bridge I’d like to build you. It will be ready for use immediately upon the check clearing.
Unimpressed is a word that handily describes my reaction to the Obama cabinet to this point. For instance:
Two years ago, an effort to fix No Child Left Behind, the main federal law on public schools, provoked a grueling slugfest in Congress, leading Representative George Miller, Democrat of California, to say the law had become “the most negative brand in America.”
Education Secretary Arne Duncan agrees. “Let’s rebrand it,” he said in an interview. “Give it a new name.”
Why is the law the “most negative brand in America?” Because Democrats and teacher’s unions have spent 8 years blasting a program written by Ted Kennedy (that part seems to be conveniently forgotten now) but signed by George Bush.
And their solution?
Give it a new name.
There, all fixed.
[HT: Below The Beltway]
We touched on the fact that there are some tax protests popping up around the country in last night’s podcast.
William Jacobson says:
The beginning of a protest movement against Barack Obama’s redistributive policies is underway. Though still small, every movement starts somewhere. While called the “Tea Party” after the Boston Tea Party, this movement is similar to movements throughout history where the producers of society refuse to have their property and income confiscated.
We all agreed that at this particular moment the movement is mostly a creature of the right-wing. That’s not to say it will stay that way, but certainly it is partly outrage over the so-called stimulus bill and partly an opportunity to engage in a little payback for the last 8 years of the left’s shenanigans.
Will it gain supporters? Will it gain power? I frankly don’t know at this point. But as Debra Saunders points out, if you think it is bad here, in terms of the financial crisis, you ought to be in Europe.
And what is going on in Europe? Well if the UK is any indication, things may be heating up rather quickly there:
Police are preparing for a “summer of rage” as victims of the economic downturn take to the streets to demonstrate against financial institutions, the Guardian has learned.
Britain’s most senior police officer with responsibility for public order raised the spectre of a return of the riots of the 1980s, with people who have lost their jobs, homes or savings becoming “footsoldiers” in a wave of potentially violent mass protests.
Interestingly the Brits would be late-comers to the European protest movement:
In recent weeks Greek farmers have blocked roads over falling agricultural prices, a million workers in France joined demonstrations to demand greater protection for jobs and wages and Icelandic demonstrators have clashed with police in Reykjavik.
So, will the burgeoning tax-protest movement here take hold and grow?
If Europe is any indication (you know, the Europe that was supposed to be so much better off than we are according to some?), yes, it might. In fact, if, as promised, the situation here gets worse and worse, I think we can pretty much count on it.
Will it have an effect? Well that’s an excellent question.
I’ll ask one in return.
Have you seen the deficit?
Someone is going to have to pay for all of that.
Funny how this works, eh?
Your lack of details is no surprise–an essential component of the government’s PR blitz is the obscuring of details because, in fact, Social Security faces no immediate crisis. President Bush is lying to us, again.Despite the president’s sky-is-falling forecasts, the system’s trustees give Social Security another four decades of soundness; the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office gives it five. Many independent economists believe the program will stay healthy closer to six or seven more decades.
January of the same year:
It all sounds awful, but is it really so bad? Is there a Social Security crisis?
Most Democrats say no. They contend the president is trying to scare people into supporting his plan for drastically changing the program.
“The future is not as bleak as some people would have the public believe,” says Peter Diamond, an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Social security is not bankrupt in the usual sense of the term — not going broke, not going ‘flat bust.’”
But professor Diamond says, yes, in 2042, benefits will have to be cut, but retirees then would still get more money than today’s retirees.
“We’ve got 35 or more years to phase in very slow changes that people can certainly adapt to and live with,” he says.
From the majority Democratic Congress of last August:
“The Medicare trigger was cooked up by Republicans behind closed doors as a political ploy to foster an unfounded panic about the strength of Medicare’s finances,” said Rep. Pete Stark (D, Calif.), chair of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Health. “We must turn off the trigger and reject Republican attempts to arbitrarily limit Medicare financing.”
Stark and other Democrats argue that Medicare’s trend to require an increasingly larger portion of its funding to be in the form of general tax revenues has no bearing on the program’s long-term solvency. Although Democratic lawmakers support some of the Bush bill’s provisions, they take issue with his proposal to ease the drain on tax dollars in part by charging wealthier seniors more for their Medicare drug benefit premiums.
Yet what is going to happen today?
On Monday, Obama will bring together more than 130 lawmakers, heads of advocacy groups and economists in the White House State Dining Room to lay out the bad news – a federal deficit of at least $1.3 trillion, the largest as a share of the nation’s economy since World War II. The fiscal summit is meant as a first volley in the battle to address runaway costs for Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
Runaway costs? But, but … I thought Republicans were trying to scare everyone? I thought Bush had lied? You mean they were right? My goodness, you mean that it may have been the Democrats who were being disingenuous.
Heh … that can’t be so, can it?
Hope and change.
UPDATE: Apparently Democrats are still pushing the “there’s nothing wrong with Social Security” meme. From the Joe Scarborough show, and interview with budget director Peter Orszag, who will be chairing today’s “Fiscal Responsiblity Summit” (yes, it’s okay to laugh):
JOHN HEILEMANN: Peter, it’s John Heilemann from “”New York”" magazine. there’s a report in “”the New York Times”" today, this goes back to a question that Joe kind of hinted at a minute ago, which is that Barack Obama considers doing a White House task force on Social Security reform to announce today and he got pushed back from Democratic leaders in the House and Senate. is that report true? Is the question of Social Security reform still on the table for you guys, how important is it?
PETER ORSZAG: Well, I want to come back to the point that was raised earlier, which is that Medicare and Medicaid are the primary drivers of our long-term fiscal problem. We want to address that first. we want to get health care done this year. Social Security is also an issue and after we’ve dealt with health care I think it probably does make sense to try to get Social Security on sounder ground also, but let’s get the big problem fix first.
HEILEMANN: Peter, did you guys back down or not?
ORSZAG: I don’t think it’s constructive to get into the back and forth of discussions in, you know, in internal discussions. i think the important point is, the president is committed to addressing the largest problem that we face which is Medicare and Medicaid.
JOE SCARBOROUGH: Peter, please understand, it may not be constructive, but it’s an awful lot of fun. Did Nancy Pelosi tell you to back off of Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid reform?
ORSZAG: You guys are wild having fun like that. We want to get — I really want to focus on — SCARBOROUGH: Peter, it’s all we got.
MIKA BREZEZINSKI: He fits the show. Answer the question, Peter. You got an answer for us?
ORSZAG: Again, Social Security is, you know, does face a long-term deficit, it does need to be addressed, but it’s much smaller than the problems than Medicare and Medicaid and the health system. i think it makes sense to focus there first.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see through Orszag’s rather poor attempt to obfuscate the issue. Apparently they did back down. Medicare and Medicaid only remain on the table because they are a means to an end – what the Democrats like to euphemistically refer to as “health care reform”. That, by the way, does not refer to making either Medicare or Medicaid more efficient, less costly or less wasteful, it instead refers to expanding both programs. That, in the era of Democratic rule is considered to be “fiscally responsible”.