LESSONS LEARNED #82: “Too much debt is always a bad thing.” – Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 8th, 2011

Thomas Jefferson hated Alexander Hamilton for his Assumption and Funding Plans 

Thomas Jefferson hated Alexander Hamilton.  For a variety of reasons.  He thought he was too cozy with the British.  And too anti-French.  He also thought Hamilton was too cozy with the merchant class and bankers.  Jefferson hated them, too.  For he thought honest Americans farmed.  Not buy and sell things other people made.  Or loaned money.

But Hamilton was not a bad guy.  And he was right.  George Washington, too.  America’s future was tied to the British.  Trade within their empire benefited the fledging American economy.  And the Royal Navy protected that trade.  For they ruled the seas.  They couldn’t get that from France.  Especially with a France waging war against everyone.

But there was something especially that Jefferson hated Hamilton for.  Assumption.  And funding.  The new nation’s finances were a mess.  No one could figure them out.  There was pre-war debt.  And war debt.  State debt.  And national debt.  The Americans owed their allies.  Neutral nations.  And the former enemy they just won their independence from.  Getting their hands around what they owed was difficult.  But important.  Because they needed to borrow more.  And without getting their finances in order, that wasn’t going to happen.

Thomas Jefferson Understood that a Permanent Debt gave a Government Power 

Hamilton was good with numbers.  And he put America’s financial house in order.  A little too well for Jefferson.  The new federal government assumed the states’ debts (assumption).  And serviced it (funding).  Giving great money and power to the federal government.  Far more than Jefferson believed the Constitution granted.  And this really stuck in his craw.  Because this was the source of all the mischief in the Old World.  Money and power.  The Old World capitals were both the seats of political power.  And the centers of commerce and banking.

Jefferson understood that a permanent debt gave a government a lot of power.  Because debt had to be serviced.  And you serviced debt with taxes.  The bigger the debt the greater the taxes.  Which didn’t sit well with this revolutionary.  I mean, excessive taxation was the cause for rebellion.  Taxes are bad.  And lead to political corruption.  Because the more taxes the government collects the more it can spend on political favors.  Patronage (good paying government jobs for political allies).  Giving rise to a politically-connected ruling class.  Like the Old World aristocracies.  Government grows.  As does their control over the private sector economy.

It’s a process that once started moves in only one direction.  Greater and greater debts.  Paid for by greater and greater taxes.  Until the debt becomes unsustainable.  Like in Revolutionary France.  In present day Greece.  And even in the United States.  Who, in 2011, saw its sovereign debt rating downgraded for the first time in American history.  Because of record deficits.  And record debt.  Caused by excessive spending.  Everything that Jefferson feared would happen.  If government had a permanent debt.

Baseline Budgeting guarantees Permanent Growth in Government Spending

Big Government spending took off in America in the Sixties.  Historically government receipts averaged 17.8% of GDP.  During the Fifties and the Sixties, GDP grew while debt remained flat.  Of course, if GDP grew then so did tax dollars coming into Washington.  For 17.8% of an expanding GDP produced an expanding pile of cash in the government’s coffers.

Liking the taste of this money, government kept spending.  So much so that they adopted baseline budgeting in 1974.  Where current spending is automatically added to for next year’s spending.  Guaranteeing permanent growth in government spending.  To pay for LBJ‘s Great Society.  The Vietnam WarApollo.  And other spending programs.  The spending was so out of control that the debt started to creep up.  And what they didn’t borrow they printed.  Leading to the Nixon Shock.

The Nixon Shock (ending the quasi gold standard) unleashed inflation.  Which Paul Volcker and Ronald Reagan defeated.  With inflation tamed and the Reagan tax cuts, the Eighties saw solid GDP growth.  And record deficits.  The Democrats liked all that cash coming into Washington.  And they spent it faster than it came in.  But to reduce the deficit they made a deal.  For each dollar in new taxes the Democrats would cut three dollars in spending.  Of course they lied.  Because Democrats don’t cut taxes.  They got their new taxes.  But Reagan didn’t get any spending cuts.  In fact, the deal went the other way.  For every dollar in new taxes there were three dollars in new spending.  The deficit grew bigger.  And for the first time the debt grew at a greater rate than GDP.  As shown here:

(Source:  GDP, Debt, Receipts)

The Obama Stimulus gave us Record Deficits and Record Debt

After the 1994 midterm elections, Bill Clinton and the new Republican House compromised.  They reined in spending.  Implemented welfare reform.  And rode the dot-com bubble on the good side.  Before it burst.  It was capital gains galore.  Put all of this together and GDP rose and flooded Washington with tax receipts.  While debt remained flat.  In fact, there were budget surpluses forecast.  But then that dot-com bubble burst.

George W. Bush started his presidency with recession.  A couple of tax cuts later and GDP was tracking up again.  But 9/11 changed things.  And gave us two costly wars (Iraq and Afghanistan).  On top of an expensive Medicare drug program.  Record deficits took debt to new heights.  Then the Housing Bubble burst.  Followed by the subprime mortgage crisis.  And President Obama used this crisis to advance a dormant Democrat agenda.

It was an $800 billion stimulus.  Something he promised would have no pork or earmarks.  Nothing but shovel-ready projects.  Of course, it was nothing but pork and earmarks.  And those shovel-ready projects?  There’s no such thing.  So the stimulus didn’t stimulate anything.  Other than record deficits (surpassing Bush’s).  And record debt.  Debt increasing at a greater rate than GDP.  And equal to or greater than GDP in dollars.  Not seen since World War II.

Hamilton and Jefferson would have United in Opposition against Barack Obama

Debt fell as a percentage of GDP following World War II.  It fell from above 90% to below 40% around the end of the Sixties.  GDP was rising during this period while debt remained flat.  So the flat debt became a smaller and smaller percentage of a growing GDP.  The ‘growing your way out of debt’ phenomenon.  But that process stopped and reversed itself during the Seventies.  When Congress spent with a fury.  As noted above.  Debt grew.  Back to the level of GDP it was during a world war.  Only now there is no world war.  And we’re not spending to save democracy.  We’re spending to end democracy.

(Source:  GDP, Debt $, Debt %)

It is what Jefferson feared most.  Out of control government spending.  Racking up massive debt.  The kind that is impossible to pay off.  And is permanent.  And it was being done not for a war to save democracy from fascism.  But to change America.  To make it a different kind of nation.  No longer one of limited government.  But Big Government.  One with a ruling class.  A ruling class that now has a claim on 100% of GDP.  To pay for everything they gave us.  Where there is no choice but fair-share sacrifice.  Where everyone pays their ‘fair share’ of taxes.  Which is government-speak for raising taxes on everyone.  To flood government coffers with more private sector wealth.

The country is not what it was.  And it will never be what it once was again.  Not with this level of spending.   This is the kind of spending nations see in their decline.  It’s what toppled Louis XVI.  It’s what roiled Greece in riots.  It’s what downgraded U.S. sovereign debt.  For the first time.  Even Alexander Hamilton wouldn’t approve of this.  For his Big Government idea was all about making the nation an economic superpower.  Not bringing back feudalism.

So if you’re not a fan of Barack Obama, here’s something you can credit him for.  His policies would have reconciled two of our most beloved Founding Fathers.  For Hamilton and Jefferson may have hated each other.  But they would have united in opposition against Barack Obama.

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The State of the Union Address Ignores the 800 Pound Gorilla in the Room: Old People.

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 26th, 2011

Old People:  God Love them but they’re Killing Us

The State of the Union Address was very similar to the one last year.  And a lot of Obama’s campaign speeches.  He still wants to invest (i.e., spend).  Even though record spending to date hasn’t helped anything.  We have record debt.  And deficits.  The nation is broke.  And yet he still wants to spend.  I mean, ‘invest’.

But we can’t ‘invest’ anymore.  We don’t have the money.  We can’t borrow anymore.  Or print anymore.  Without creating problems we can’t walk away from.  We have to reduce the deficit.  For real.  Can’t just talk about it.  And we can’t keep raising taxes.  Because that would stall the economic recovery.  If there was any economic recovery to stall.  No, we can’t indulge in these fantasies anymore (see How Obama’s speech muddied the budget debate by Robert J. Samuelson posted 1/27/2011 on The Washington Post).

What we got were empty platitudes. We won’t be “buried under a mountain of debt,” Obama declared. Heck, we’re already buried. We will “win the future.” Not by deluding ourselves, we won’t. Americans think deficits are someone else’s problem that can be cured by taxing the rich (say liberals) or ending wasteful spending (conservatives). Obama indulged these fantasies.

If deficits stemmed mainly from the recession, this wouldn’t matter. They would shrink as the economy recovered; tax collections would rise and spending (on unemployment insurance, food stamps) would fall. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. In fiscal 2010, the deficit – the gap between government spending and revenue – was $1.3 trillion. Of that, about $725 billion was a “structural” deficit, says Mark Zandi of Moody’s Analytics. That is, it would exist even if the economy were at full employment (5.75 percent by Zandi’s estimate).

Ouch.  Even Reagan’s tax cuts of the Eighties couldn’t fix this.  There’s a problem on the spending side.  A huge problem.  We have to address this problem.  If we don’t, nothing we do on the revenue side will amount to a hill of beans.

The real issue isn’t the deficit. It’s the exploding spending on the elderly – for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid – which automatically expands the size of government. If we ended deficits with tax increases, we would simply exchange one problem (high deficits) for another (high taxes). Either would weaken the economy, and sharply higher taxes would represent an undesirable transfer to retirees from younger taxpayers.

And there it is.  Old people.  God love them but they’re killing us. 

So How do we Reduce the Deficit and Care for the Elderly?

Old people are killing us.  There’s no getting around that.  But we just can’t abandon them in their retirement.  But we have to do something with Social Security and Medicare before they bankrupt the country.

The first thing we need to do is the easiest thing.  Repeal Obamacare.  If we don’t, it’s just going to be Medicare writ large.  We haven’t suckered anyone into dependence yet.  So just end it.  Before we do.  This will eliminate a future problem.  So we can address the current ones.

Defined benefit pension plans are a thing of the past.  They’re chronically underfunded.  And mismanaged.  Just look at our biggest cities.  Those public sector pension plans are bankrupting them.  Meanwhile, most businesses have moved away from them.  Instead, they use 401(k) plans.  Or other plans where the employee is in charge.  Not the employer.  Best thing about these?  They’re portable.  You contribute.  And the money is yours.  No matter how long you work at a company.  The government needs to move in this direction.  They need to make a transition from a defined benefit pension plan (i.e., Social Security) to a personal retirement plan (i.e., a 401(k), an IRA, etc.).  The oldest people will be more in the Social Security system as we know it.  The younger people will be in a personal retirement plan.  And don’t start bitching about the risk of putting our retirement money into the stock market.  First of all, stocks are cyclical.  They usually climb after they fall.  Second, Social Security is going belly up.  Once it does, you ain’t getting anything out of it anyway.  So it’s a moot point.  At least with the stock market, we have a chance to retire.

The government has to get out of health care.  It’s a very complex thing.  And the most unqualified people shouldn’t run complex things.  Like pensions, we need to put people in charge of their health care.  We need to transition to private health insurance.  And remove the obstacles in the health insurance industry (restriction of competing across state lines, tort reform, etc.).  We have to move away from Medicare.  People need to buy their own private health insurance policies.  The oldest people in the system can get vouchers to help them.  The younger ones just need to learn NOW that they will have to take care of themselves.  The best thing about this?  Your health insurance will be portable.  You’ll never have to work again at a place you hate because of their health insurance benefit.  You can do whatever the hell you want to.  Because you will be paying for your own health insurance.  And you’ll take the same insurance with you no matter how many times you change your job.  Your days of bitching about a change in your prescription coverage will be over.  Because you will be getting exactly what you choose to buy.

Now, doing the above is going to cost.  Because there is no such thing as a Social Security trust fund.  Or Medicare insurance.  It’s all pay as you go.  Today’s taxes pay for today’s beneficiaries.  So when the young transfer out of the existing systems, there will be a huge funding shortfall for these systems.  We will have to borrow to cover this transition period.  But we will have to show that this borrowing is a temporary thing.  So that our creditors won’t fear that we’ll be dancing with default.  And how do we do that?  By making huge tax cuts. And by making sweeping rollbacks in regulation.  You make the United States so business friendly that jobs come running back to this country.  Because business owners will see that if you want to be profitable in business, you have to locate your business in the United States.  Sure, there will be some revenue shortfalls in the beginning of the transition.  But in the long run, the economic expansion will shower Washington in tax revenue.  Even at lower tax rates.  And because businesses are being so profitable, they’ll be bidding up labor rates to get the best employees.  Because they’ll have to.  You see, in a bustling economy with portable retirement and health insurance plans, no one will have to work where they don’t want to.  Everybody wins.  Employers.  Employees.  Even government.  Because they will finally escape the huge costs of Social Security and Medicare.

Getting back to the Founding Fathers

So there you have it.  A simple and doable plan.  In bullet form, the plan is:

  • Repeal Obamacare
  • Privatize Social Security
  • Privatize Medicare
  • Cut taxes and rollback regulation
  • Live happily ever after

Simple.  And the transition pains will hurt far less than bankruptcy.  Of course, there is a downside to this simple plan.  At least for Big Government liberals.  Because this plan gives us limited government.  Like the Founding Fathers wanted.  Which isn’t all that bad for liberals.  Because in this plan they’ll lose their jobs in a booming economy where there will be other jobs available for them.  Unlike being laid off when the Great Recession turns into another Great Depression.

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