Free Markets, Free People

entitlements

The anticipated move to the center by Obama

Apparently that’s what everyone expects to hear in the SOTU address.  And most see it as a reflection of political reality.  Independents deserted the Democrats fairly quickly after the Obama administration took office, apparently not liking what they saw developing at all.  So here comes the inevitable shift – at least the perception of one – to the center in order to win them  back.

The left?  Where are they going to go?  Who else would they vote for?  They’re not going anywhere despite all their grumbling and mumbling about Obama’s attempt to move right (and yes, a move by Obama to the center means a distinct move to the right).  Here’s the reality:

A labor official, who asked not to be identified in order to speak more candidly about the president’s political situation, noted that “the midterm elections freed” Obama to work independently and without regard to his party’s left.

“The left understands that the choice in 2012 will be Obama or somebody far worse,” the official said. “They will have no choice, no matter what Obama says in the State of the Union address. No matter how much we complain, he knows that at the end of the day, we will be supporting him in 2012 — and that affects what he can do now. The choice for us will be an administration that disappointed us or a Republican administration that will be out to destroy us.”

Colorful language, but you get the drift.  The far left is stuck with him and Obama knows it.  It is the center where elections are won, and right now they don’t belong to him. 

So how does he win them back?

Well the Democrats hope that it will be through leadership.  Rep Anthony Weiner lays it out:

“He’s the president of the United States, and he’s got to go in there and lean into the idea that he still has an agenda he wants to accomplish,” Weiner said. “He has to make sure he’s leading the debate and Paul Ryan is responding, not the other way around.

“He has to make it clear that he’s not going to be held hostage over issues like the debt-limit increase,” Weiner said.

But, as usual and instead, the President plans to vote “present”:

But the president’s decision not to lay out his own vision for reducing the national debt has infuriated balanced-budget advocates, who fear that a bipartisan consensus for action fostered last month by Obama’s commission could wither without presidential leadership.

"There is no way you get momentum without the president. If you don’t lead now, when is it going to come?" said Maya MacGuineas, president of the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. "He has to go first and he has to be specific. He has to pivot to something hard."

And pander, of course:

The direction of Obama’s speech became apparent over the weekend, when the White House informed Democratic lawmakers and advocates for the elderly that he would not endorse the commission’s recommendation to raise the retirement age and make other cuts to Social Security – the single largest federal program.

The sound you hear, my friends, is that of the can being swiftly kicked down the road again – something candidate Obama said wasn’t going to happen on his watch.

The administration claims that it’s goals will be more specifically addressed in the budget request the White House submits in mid February.  Per Robert Gibbs, the SOTU is just not the proper venue for specifics.   Well, except when you want to take a shot at the Supreme Court, who, by the way, will only have partial attendance this year, with a group of conservative justices clearly deciding to show their disapproval of the partisan sniping they were victim too in last year’s SOTU.

Yup, all in all politics rules the day with the political advice being as predictable as sunrise.  Obama, being the ultimate political animal, will indeed heed it, but the left shouldn’t look for any leadership to suddenly emerge where none has been evident in the past and the center should be wary of the now well-known smoke and mirrors show the administration puts on regularly – saying one thing and doing something else altogether.

Life in the Obama White House I’m afraid.

~McQ

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Observations: The QandO Podcast for 23 Jan 11

In this podcast, Bruce, Michael, and Dale discuss the sudden end of Kieth Olberman’s “Countdown”, the Republicans’ proposals to cut government spending, state bankrupties, and much more.

The direct link to the podcast can be found here.

Observations

As a reminder, if you are an iTunes user, don’t forget to subscribe to the QandO podcast, Observations, through iTunes. For those of you who don’t have iTunes, you can subscribe at Podcast Alley. And, of course, for you newsreader subscriber types, our podcast RSS Feed is here. For podcasts from 2005 to 2010, they can be accessed through the RSS Archive Feed.

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Why "me first" in the market is different from "me first" in entitlements

If you’re interested in reading one of the most mixed up pleas to get entitlement spending under control, I invite you to read Neel Kashkari’s (I love the last name though)op/ed in the Washington post.

His premise is that entitlements are breaking us.

Sold.

His assumptions, however, are all over the place and misrepresent the real problem.

He claims that it is a ubiquitous "me first" mentality that both drives the market and also drives entitlement. That self-interest drives the boat.

Yes, self-interest is always a motivator. But when it comes to the market and entitlements, "me first" mean entirely different things. In the market, "me first" means seeing what you want, earning what is necessary to get it and then obtaining it. Pricing and demand come from that – and jobs, expansion, etc. The point is, in the sense of the market it’s "me first because I’ve earned what is necessary to purchase it".

Not so when it comes to entitlements. In that case, "me first" means, "I want what someone else has earned because I (excuse goes here) and therefore I’m owed this".

That’s an entirely different concept of the market "me first". In the latter, money is taken from the earner (thereby limiting his ability to act on his "me first" priorities), the market is denied whatever percentage as it is taken by government, wends its costly way through the system, and ends up in the pocket of someone who has determined that the benefit of earning the equivalent through work is just not worth it.

Kashkari then tries the “fairness” argument:

Cutting entitlement spending requires us to think beyond what is in our own immediate self-interest. But it also runs against our sense of fairness: We have, after all, paid for entitlements for earlier generations. Is it now fair to cut my benefits? No, it isn’t. But if we don’t focus on our collective good, all of us will suffer.

Fairness has nothing to do with this. Is it fair when you take money from one person to give to another for whatever arbitrary reason? Of course not. So if we want to play the fairness game, the first stake holder on the "not fair" side of the game is the taxpayer who has his earning taken to subsidize someone’s entitlement benefit.

And, honestly, our "collective good" would be better served by getting government to hell out of the entitlement business (and there by reducing its size and the size of the chunk it takes out of our wallets) and getting back to what has made America both great and, despite Obama’s claims, exceptional.

… [B]ailing out the financial system went directly against our shared beliefs in free markets and fair play. While the vast majority of Americans did not cause the financial crisis, we all had to sacrifice to stop it. Such a cultural violation has angered people nationwide, which makes cutting entitlements more difficult because it will again betray our sense of fairness.

Here’s where he almost gets a clue, except he attributes it to “fairness” again.  Instead it was a revolt of the taxpayers, already enraged about the cost of government and the impact it had on their own choices, saw government suddenly expand that cost exponentially, head into areas it had never been before and indenture their grandchildren and great grandchildren to a tune of multi-thousands of dollars each.  It wasn’t about “fairness” it was about “get the hell out of my life and wallet”.  The Tea Party movement wasn’t formed because anyone was concerned with “fairness” – it was formed to cut taxes, reduce the size of government and demand government spend less.  And yes, if that means cutting entitlements, then by all means, do so.

Kashkari’s concludes with 3 steps to cut entitlements:

– Our economy needs to experience sustained growth, creating good jobs, so Americans feel economically secure. It is hard for anyone to think about long-term sacrifice when they are worried about how to pay their bills today.

– The emotional bruising inflicted by the financial crisis needs to heal. Along with the passage of time we need a renewed sense that people are succeeding and failing on their own merits.

– Our leaders need to make the case for cutting entitlement spending by tapping into our shared beliefs of sacrifice and self-reliance. They must be willing to risk their own political fortunes for the sake of our country.

Or to paraphrase myself from above, we need to get government back to basics and Americans back to a culture that made this nation great, rich and exceptional.  And that includes self-reliance, sacrifice and earning our own way in life.  It is the latter part of the equation that will solve the entitlement problem and something Kashkari doesn’t include.

~McQ

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Entitlement irony, agenda priority

Just as the Democrats add another massive new entitlement to the laws of the land, one of the oldest entitlements “officially” goes into the red:

This year, the system will pay out more in benefits than it receives in payroll taxes, an important threshold it was not expected to cross until at least 2016, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Stephen C. Goss, chief actuary of the Social Security Administration, said that while the Congressional projection would probably be borne out, the change would have no effect on benefits in 2010 and retirees would keep receiving their checks as usual.

The problem, he said, is that payments have risen more than expected during the downturn, because jobs disappeared and people applied for benefits sooner than they had planned. At the same time, the program’s revenue has fallen sharply, because there are fewer paychecks to tax.

Three things to be gleaned from this excerpt. 1) CBO numbers are static numbers based on nothing changing over the years in which their “scoring” takes place. Obviously that’s not reality and the CBO numbers for health care reform will prove that again soon. 2) Democrats will have to eat their words about Social Security being solvent and not in trouble. Many of the same one’s who made that claim recently also gave you the “numbers” in the health care bill scored by the CBO. And finally, 3) this isn’t a can Obama can kick down the road is it?

Not that he won’t try.

Because according to the NY Times, Cap-and-trade is the next legislative item the administration wants Congress to act upon.

Jobs?  The economy?

What in the world are you smoking – they don’t give a rip about jobs, the economy or you. There’s an agenda at stake here. The window’s closing fast. And what the citizens of America need or want aren’t important right now. Don’t believe me? Read the article cited above – it’s another economy killing tax slated for an April introduction into the legislative process.

Are the scales perhaps beginning to fall from a few eyes yet?

~McQ

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CBO, Entitlments, Health Care Reform and the Deficit

One more time into the breach. The CBO has issued a warning to Congress about entitlement spending. Again. Here’s a key paragraph:

Almost all of the projected growth in federal spending other than interest payments on the debt comes from growth in spending on the three largest entitlement programs–Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

Most of you know that Medicare and Medicaid have an unfunded future liability of 36 trillion dollars. That’s about 3 times the annual total GDP of the US economy. And they are the very same type of “public option” program – i.e. government insurance – that the left says is so very necessary and crucial to real “health care reform”.

In other words, the left’s argument is that adding at least 47 million (presently uninsured), plus the possibility of adding 119 million who are shifted to the public option from private insurance (private insurance, btw, doesn’t have any effect on the deficit whatsoever since we, the private sector, are paying for it) will somehow make the deficit picture better?

I’m obviously missing something here.

With the public option, we’re adding a new entitlement (47 million who presently supposedly can’t afford insurance, meaning taxpayers will subsidize theirs). Assuming it is set up originally to be paid for by premiums, at some point, like Medicare and Medicaid, and every other government entitlement program I can think of, it will pay out more than it takes in. How can it not? It is a stated “non-profit” program and it will include subsidies. At some point, another revenue stream is going to be necessary as it burns through the premiums with its payouts.

Well, say the proponents of government involvement in your health care, we’re going to save money by doing preventive health care. Yes, preventive care is the key to lower costs because a healthier population is one which visits the doctor less. While that may seem to be at least partially true (you’d think a healthier population would, logically, visit the doctor less) the part that is apparently missed when touting this popular panacea is the cost of making the population healthier (and the fact that the assumption of less visits isn’t necessarily true) doesn’t cost less – it costs more:

If health care providers can prevent or delay conditions like heart disease and diabetes, the logic goes, the nation won’t have to pay for so many expensive hospital procedures.

The problem, as lawmakers are discovering to their frustration, is that the logic is wrong. Preventive care — at least the sort delivered by doctors — doesn’t save money, experts say. It costs money.

That’s old news to the analysts at the Congressional Budget Office, who have told senators on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that it cannot score most preventive-care proposals as saving money.

So with that myth blown to hell, we’re now looking at a government plan which will add cost to the deficit by subsidizing the insurance of 47 million and (most likely) many more, plus a plan to use a more costly form of medicine as its primary means of giving care.

But, back to the entitlement report – or warning. The CBO says that unless entitlements are drastically reformed (that means Medicare, Medicaid and to a lesser extent, Social Security) we’re in deep deficit doodoo:

The most frightening findings in this report are the deficit and debt projections. In this year and next year, the yearly budget shortfall, or deficit, will be the largest post-war deficits on record–exceeding 11 percent of the economy or gross domestic product (GDP)–and by 2080 it will reach 17.8 percent of GDP.

The national debt, which is the sum of all past deficits, will escalate even faster. Since 1962, debt has averaged 36 percent of GDP, but it will reach 60 percent, nearly double the average, by next year and will exceed 100 percent of the economy by 2042. Put another way, in about 30 years, for every $1 each American citizen and business earns or produces, the government will be an equivalent $1 in debt. By 2083, debt figures will surpass an astounding 306 percent of GDP.

The report also finds high overall growth in the government as a share of the economy and of taxpayers’ wallets that provides an additional area of concern. While total government spending has hovered around 20 percent of the economy since the 1960s, it has jumped by a quarter to 25 percent in 2009 alone and will exceed 32 percent by 2083. Taxes, which have averaged at 18.3 percent of GDP, will reach unprecedented levels of 26 percent by 2083. Never in American history have spending and tax levels been that high.

Here’s the important point to be made – these projections do not include cap-and-trade or health care reform.

Got that? We’re looking at the “highest spending and tax levels” in our history without either of those huge tax and spend programs now being considered included in the numbers above. Total government spending, as a percent of GDP is now at an unprecedented 25%. And they’re trying to add more while this president, who is right in the middle of it, tells us we can’t keep this deficit spending up forever.

Fair warning.

~McQ

Right Policies: Opting Out

Yesterday Jon Henke challenged the Right to come up with policies that are popular, viable, workable, transformational and sustainable. (Follow the link to see what he means by each of those.) I’ve previously suggested a broad-based agenda that I thought could be sold as an alternative to the Democrats’ agenda, but I think a few of the specific policies are particularly strong, and they stick to a consistent theme.

Libertarian paternalism — which means that certain initial decisions are made for you, but you are left a way to opt out — can be a good or a bad thing, depending on the status quo. If the status quo is freedom, I’d just as soon not add in an element of paternalism in virtually any case. But if the status quo is paternalism, then libertarian paternalism is a step in the right direction.  Fortunately, giving people more options is much more popular than changing their status quo decision.

I propose that the Right should target existing paternalism and offer as many opportunities to opt out as we can devise. My main two examples are education and entitlements.

Education

I consider education to be any political coalition’s #1 long-term priority. If your opponents control education, chances are you will eventually lose on everything else. So, what policies should the Right pursue on education?

Vouchers aren’t a new idea, but we on the Right could be pursuing them in much more creative ways than we are now, to build a broad working alternative to state schools.  With variable-cost vouchers and pilot programs that target the “victim classes”, the Right can play full court press on vouchers in every school district.

Variable-Cost Vouchers

In every school district across the country, we should have vouchers at least equal to the variable cost of sending one extra child to public school. Democrats have argued for a long time that we need more spending per student to give kids smaller class sizes and better materials such as textbooks, and have used that to justify countless bond measures and tax increases to increase public school funding.

If a voucher just covers the variable cost of an extra student, then a voucher helps create smaller class sizes and increases the amount of money the public school can spend on each student.

You can see how a voucher for variable costs puts the Left in a Catch-22: Every extra dollar they want to spend per student is an argument for a bigger voucher, and an opportunity for the private sector to spend the dollar more efficiently than the public sector.

Make Friends in Low Places

We can do even better: pilot voucher programs should very openly target kids who are performing worst in the current system, in part because proposing vouchers for them undercuts the argument that vouchers just skim the cream of the crop.

Voucher proponents have already focused on several low-income and minority populations, using needs-based criteria and simple geography; the Right should be pushing this smart strategy much more aggressively – it undercuts Democrats’ arguments against vouchers beautifully, and makes a direct play for the Left’s base. The apparent success of the DC voucher system has made attempts to cut the program very embarrassing for Democrats; we need more of that.

Moreover, the Right should propose vouchers that help children who score on the bottom half of the test-score distribution. The research I’ve read indicates that these children show the greatest gains from voucher programs.  For the same reason, target kids with histories of disciplinary problems and special-needs children (paging Sarah Palin).

It would be a bridge too far for the Democrats to argue that these kids enhance the performance of public schools after using the opposite argument to fight vouchers for so long.

And finally, the Right should propose voucher programs to target the many minors who have already dropped out of school.  Kids who have outright given up on the public school system, or who rarely show up, aren’t doing anything to improve the performance of those schools.  If Democrats want to keep up the pretense that they care about these kids, they shouldn’t have any problem with helping these kids become part of a new private education market.

Those are just a small number of ways we can turn the Left’s most popular arguments against them and start to build a real market in education. In the meantime, the Right would be demonstrating that markets can work better than state-administered programs, and help the “little guy” who’s been screwed by the public system.

Where necessary to make the policy viable, the Right could be flexible on the matter of vouchers for church-founded schools (like Catholic schools); the first priority is building a broad education market outside of the state.

Entitlements

Here’s another place where reform would be truly transformational. The Right should push for an opt-out for the major entitlements – Medicare and Social Security. A reform doesn’t have to be a full privatization to accomplish a great deal of good.

Many people are currently collecting benefits from Medicare and SocSec, and we can assume that they will turn out to vote against anything that takes away those benefits. The Right can start making progress on reducing our crushing long-term obligations by (once more for effect) giving everyone as many opportunities to opt out as possible.

Social Security

Why not allow people to adjust their expected benefits, with higher or lower individual taxes to compensate for the change from the “standard” level?  The SSA could set a minimum level of contributions to guarantee its promised benefits, so that the legislation becomes non-threatening to beneficiaries, and thus politically viable.  To get the greatest tax cut, you opt out of all retirement benefits; you can change your mind later, but your benefit and/or tax level must be adjusted appropriately.  And the more people who opt out, the lower the minimum tax rate can go; that rate could be adjusted at periodic intervals, perhaps once a year.

Similarly, why not allow people to adjust their expected retirement age, again paying higher or lower taxes to compensate?

Both of these adjustments would introduce flexibility along with a price mechanism.

Yes, this means that some people might choose to pay the minimum tax and find themselves at age 67 regretting their earlier decisions, but everyone would know that they made a conscious choice to change from the status quo.  And in the meantime, those who opt out don’t feel like such direct stakeholders.

Medicare and other state medical benefits

To get more people off the rolls, allow them to opt out of Medicare eligibility and other state medical benefits in exchange for some mix of:

    • lower payroll taxes
    • tax-free health savings accounts
    • a tax cut on their individual health insurance
    • vouchers for private insurance and private disability coverage

… as long as the total cost of the mix is lower than the expected cost of Medicare benefits.  This way, the Right can not only cut into the massive expected costs on the near horizon, but also get fewer people to feel like stakeholders in the future of the state-administered system.

Conclusion

The most effective arguments against reform are allegations that people will lose the benefits they have now. Psychologically, we regret losing a dollar more than we regret not acquiring that dollar in the first place. That’s a big part of how the Right beat universal health care under Clinton: by telling the American people that they would lose their current insurance, with which most of them were satisfied.

Whether we like it or not, it is stupid to do a frontal assault on a hardened position. Instead, we should apply libertarian paternalism to divide and conquer by giving our opponents as many chances to defect as possible.