Posts Tagged ‘ debt ceiling ’

Republican voters stand to lose the most in a US government default

As the US government fast approaches its legal debt limit, many Republicans have tried to argue that a government default would not be as bad as Democrats, the Secretary of the Treasury, Chairman of the Federal Reserve, independent economists, right-leaning magazines and Wall Street firms all say it will be. These very, very conservative (and very naïve) people say that the government has enough money to pay off all the interest on its debt and still meet some of its legal obligations, and anything beyond that will just be waste that needs to get trimmed. So, for this post I propose that we look beyond the irreparable harm that a default will cause to the “full faith and credit” of the US government, look beyond the fact that default will probably throw us back into recession and look beyond the fact that no one even has a plan for the avoiding raising the debt ceiling and just examine the direct harm that will ensue if the government defaults on much of its debt in August.

If Republicans refuse to increase the debt ceiling and the US government defaults on some of its debt on August 2, it is groups that tend to vote Republican will be the most harmed. How’s that, you ask? I though only hippy liberals and welfare queens needed the government? Let me explain.

The Tax Foundation has compiled a list of states that are net donors to the federal government and states that are net recipients of government aid. To do this, it took everything a state’s residents pay to the federal government in taxes and revenues in a given year and then subtracted everything that the federal government spent in that state in a given year. Expenditures include money spent on roads, education, military bases, social security, Medicare/Medicaid (everything that would be in jeopardy in a government shutdown). Then it gave a ratio of spending:revenue for each state. Here are the top ten states who received more from the Federal government than they put in:

For instance, Kentucky received $1.51 for ever $1 it sent to the Federal government. As you can see, eight of the ten states that rely most on federal aid voted for McCain in 2008. In 2004, all ten of these states voted for George W. Bush. If the debt limit is not raised, Federal spending will fall precipitously and these ten states likely stand to lose the most economically. They are also overwhelmingly Republican. Which states stand to lose the least by this metric?

You’ll note that all of these states voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and all of  them except Colorado and Nevada voted for John Kerry in 2004. They are by and large solidly Democratic states. They get much less from the federal government and give much more than their red neighbors. Looking at the debt ceiling showdown this way, it seems that Republicans are threatening to shoot their own voters in the foot by refusing to allow the government to make the payments owed primarily to people in red states. Voters in Republican states stand to lose the most if the government isn’t allowed to pay its bills once it hits the debt limit.

But of course there are some problems with looking at issues like this on a state-by-state, dollars-in vs. dollars-out measure, so let’s try another way of estimating who will be impacted by a government default.

Using this graph, we can roughly divide expenditures into 5 roughly equal groups: (for a more detailed breakdown, go here)

  1. Defense
  2. Social Security
  3. Medicare and Medicaid
  4. Interest on debt and other mandatory spending (including transportation, veterans’ pensions, unemployment, food stamps…)
  5. Discretionary programs (including foreign aid, education, disaster relief, NASA, border security…)

If the debt limit is not raised, about 40 percent of the government’s expenditures will immediately have to be cut (more will have to be cut after the initial cuts because hitting the debt ceiling wwill cause the economy to tank). So, initially about two of the five things in the list above will have to disappear overnight or some combination of 40% of all five. Who will that hurt? (Taking into account that we do not know what parts of the government Obama and Tim Geithner would choose to fund if this doomsday scenario were to come about, lets speculate about who is exposed to risk here.)

If parts #4 and #5, as well as Medicaid are cut, then that hurts a very mixed bag of people. Everyone from the TSA to scientists at the National Institutes of Health, to poor children, to border security guards, veterans and the recently unemployed will be affected by cuts in those areas that make up about 40% of expenditures. Many of the people in this group tend to vote Democratic, such as the poor, but this is such a varied constituency that it is difficult to speculate, although I assume that this group would tend to lean Democratic. However, it is easier to single out the people who would be affected by cuts in the rest of the government.

If it is Social Security and Medicare that get the ax (Medicare makes up the vast majority of MedicareandMedicaid expenditures) then that would dramatically hurt senior citizens. About 40% of the government goes directly to senior citizens through these 2 programs. Seniors were also the only age group to vote for McCain over Obama in 2008 and also voted strongly for Republicans in 2010. This Republican group stands to lose a lot if the government defaults.

If the military gets cut, that obviously hurts soldiers, their families, towns near bases and military contractors. Thats another 20% of the government. Soldiers and veterans are very Republican. Polls specifically of veterans seem to be rare, but Gallup found that veterans were solidly backing McCain by 22 points a couple months before the 2008 election, even though Obama was leading by 3 points nationally at that time. Veterans also went for Bush over Kerry by 16 points. The military and veterans currently eat up about a quarter of our budget, so they are very likely to be harmed by a default.

About two thirds of government spending goes towards groups that tend to support Republicans. If we move veterans benefits from the “other mandatory” part of the pie to the “defense” part of the pie, then we have about 65 percent of the government going towards seniors, the military and veterans, all of which tend to vote Republican.

Judging by both a state-based metric and an interest group-based metric, it would seem that Republican voters will be the ones most hurt in a government default. So why are many Republicans so hell-bent on not raising the debt limit? I have no idea. Its the triumph of ideology over socio-economic interests, I suppose.

Why Obama won’t use the “Constitutional Option” for the Debt Ceiling

Talks over increasing the nation’s debt limit have gotten shaky over the past week. Faced with Republican demands for $2 trillion in spending cuts and absolutely no tax increases before Republicans will agree to raise the debt limit, many liberals, law professors, and even a top Democratic senator have begun popularizing the notion that the debt limit is unconstitutional. They argue that President Obama can just ignore this man-made crisis and continue to pay for the US’s fiscal obligations without a raise in the debt ceiling. Their rationale comes from section 4 of the fourteenth amendment, which reads:

 The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. (emphasis mine)

It would seem that they have a good case. Our country has legally incurred a large amount of public debt and by not raising the debt ceiling, Congress would be saying that it never intends to repay its legally incurred debts. That seems to be the exact action this amendment was designed to prevent. Also, it is unlikely that anyone would have the standing to sue the treasury in court for ignoring the debt limit.

This seems to be the easy way for Obama to both get out of dealing with an increasingly implacable and uncompromising GOP and to save the economy from a near-certain economic implosion. So why did he appear to rule it out yesterday?

Any expert who seriously discusses the US  budget agrees: the debt ceiling must absolutely be raised. If not, the economy will go into a tailspin and innocent people will suffer as they lose their jobs, Social Security checks and medical coverage. The only problem is polls show that raising the debt ceiling is unpopular. Even when pollsters include the caveat that failing to raise the debt ceiling would be severely damaging to the economy, a plurality still opposes the increase.

Even if the debt limit is unconstitutional, Obama would pay a huge political price for unilaterally declaring it so. Sure, by doing so he would save the economy from a catastrophic collapse (assuming no agreement on debt is made by Aug 2), but he would pay a large political price for getting rid of the debt limit. His numbers on his handling of the debt are already very low and this would just add fuel to Republicans claims that he is a high-spending politician who is out of touch with the American public.

But what about the fact that getting rid of the debt limit would save the economy from a double-dip recession? Wouldn’t Obama be rewarded for protecting the economy from foolhardy and crazed Republicans who would do anything to prevent a tax increase on the richest Americans? In a word, no.

If there is anything Obama has learned in the past 2 and a half years, its that you can’t campaign on what might have been. Republicans can hammer Obama on the economy and his stimulus bill even though independent experts agree that things would have been much worse without Obama’s actions to prop up the economy. We might have had unemployment at 12% without the stimulus, but might-haves don’t run in elections. The banking system might have completely collapsed without TARP, but the fact that we could be in a full-blown depression right now doesn’t make people feel any better about the bailouts. People vote off their current situation and their current impressions. Might-haves or near misses will rarely impact the electorate’s votes.

So, for Obama to get any credit for saving the economy from ruin, or to pin any blame on the Republicans for leading the economy to the abyss, the country actually has to cross the threshold of a default and begin to feel the pain of a government working with only half of its limbs. Otherwise, Obama will be the bad guy. The Obama team seems to see these dynamics at work, and because they seem to be unwilling to let the country default in order to score political points, Obama has offered the Republicans a deal that’s 83% spending cuts and 17% tax hikes. Or in other words, its a plan that’s 83% what Republicans want and 17%  what Democrats would prefer.

Obama has bent over backwards to give Republicans a dream-like deal because he A) does not want the country to default on its debt and B) knows that he can gain nothing from declaring the debt limit unconstitutional. Obama seems to have decided that it would be better to give  the Republicans almost everything they want, rather than to take either of the other two options open to him.

How Obama wants to bring down our debt.

Everyone in Washington has released their own plan on how to close down our debt over the next 10-12 years. Progressives, conservatives, Paul Ryan, the Democratic caucus (due to release today) and the President. Throw all those plans out the window because none of them will likely ever become law. Big plans put out by partisan interests have very little chance of going anywhere and mostly serve as talking points and political footballs for debate. The plans that actually get passed are generally determined by the politics of the moment, deals worked out, and compromises made to placate special interests. You think it would be awesome to replace our  payroll taxes with a carbon tax? So do a lot of people, but it isn’t gonna happen. The two big events that will shape our debt debate will be the fight over the debt ceiling and the fight over the Bush tax cuts in Dec. 2012.

Most thinkers agree that the US needs to enact a plan that cuts $4 trillion in debt over the next decade or so. Let’s see how Obama is probably angling to get there, keeping in mind the two critical junctures we have coming up.

Republicans have forced a political crisis over raising the nation’s debt ceiling. Their demands are for about $2 trillion in spending cuts before they will agree to do what has  to be done anyway and raise the debt ceiling. This provides us with a political situation where debt reduction seems to be required. Obama has accepted Republicans’ terms on the condition that there also be $400 billion in revenue increases gained by getting rid of tax loopholes and tax breaks for the richest of the rich. Its obviously Obama’s intention for this plan to go through- $2 trillion in spending cuts and $400 billion in revenue increases for a total of $2.4 trillion in debt reduction this year.

So if that plan passes (which is far from certain) Obama is over halfway to his goal. The next test comes when the Bush tax cuts are up for renewal in December 2012. Note: this analysis assumes (as Obama certainly does) that Obama will be re-elected in 2012. Obama has all the power in December 2012 to say that he will not agree to renew Bush’s tax cuts for the top 2% and will veto any bill that tries to do that. That is what his base wants him to do and is likely what he will campaign on. At that point, Republicans have a choice- allow tax rates to rise on the top 2% or allow income tax rates to rise on everyone else. If they pick the first option, as is Obama’s intention, then there is another $830 billion in debt reduction, bringing Obama’s total to about $3.2 trillion in debt reduction. If the Republicans decide that everyone else’s rate should go up if they can’t get their precious tax cuts for the rich extended, then that would be $2.4 trillion in debt savings (we’ll call it 2.8 trillion including interest). $2.8 trillion would solve our debt problems by bringing Obama debt-reduction total to $5.2 trillion.

Even if only the cuts for the rich are ended, Obama can come up with an extra $800 billion in deficit savings by various methods like simplifying the tax code, enacting a public health insurance option, encouraging greater-than-expected economic growth, cutting down on tax cheats, cutting the military, etc.  He will work out a deal with Congress to save a bit more money. It will be a tough compromise and will burnish the President’s image as a compromiser and neutral arbiter. It would be small beans at that point.

Republicans seem to know that if Obama is re-elected, the scale beings to tilt in his favor, which is probably why they are pushing so hard right now for a completely one-sided debt deal. Its also no coincidence that a huge debt deal right now will hurt our economic prospects over the next few years. A weak economy makes  it harder for Obama to win re-election and if he doesn’t win re-election, the Republicans can basically dictate whatever “debt-reduction” deal they like.

Honesty and the Debt Ceiling

Frequent readers of this blog will find that my biggest pet peeve is dishonesty. I truly don’t mind people with opinions different than my own (and I love to debate with them) but I really can’t stand it when people lie or are intellectually dishonest. So, much of my blog will focus on calling out and correcting lies floating around in the public sphere. This week, I start with a particularly bad and dishonest column on the debt ceiling.

The political negotiations on raising the United States’ debt ceiling are extremely important because they will determine whether the US is plunged back into recession this year and what our government programs will look like in the years to come. Because of the importance of these negotiations, there is a lot of demagoguery and dishonesty floating around about the US debt and about the political talks which are aimed at bringing down the debt. One particularly egregious example is this column by Yuval Levin in the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard entitled “We Don’t Estimate Speeches.”

He starts by talking about a recent report by the non-partisan, score-keeping Congressional Budget Office (CBO) where it finds that if the US Congress continues on its current, likely spending trajectory, the US will rack up a large (and unsustainable) amount of debt in the coming decades. He does this to scare his audience and to let them know that the US debt is, indeed, a huge problem. However, along the way he conveniently forgets to mention that the CBO, in the same report he cites, also produced another scenario, one in which the debt is not as large a problem in the US’s future. But, the CBO’s “extended-baseline scenario” projects that the Bush tax cuts will fully expire (as they are scheduled to) while letting the Alternative Minimum Tax expand (as the law says it should), along with a couple other fixes which are anathema to Republicans, so Levin just talks about the scarier scenario. (More on this at the CBO and at Ezra Klein’s blog)

Anyway, now that his audience is sufficiently scared about the prospects of an ever-growing and strangling US debt, Levin starts talking about the debt negotiations. Along the way, he offers the obligatory praise for the Ryan budget that is now mandatory among Republicans. (I’ll address the Ryan plan at a later date but here’s a nice non-partisan evaluation of the tax cuts for the rich in the plan.) Here’s his summary of the debt negotiations:

Until last week, that fight had been focused on negotiations led by Vice President Biden. Those talks certainly revealed something about the Democrats’ priorities: In the midst of a spending-driven debt explosion and a weak economy, Democrats in Washington want to raise taxes. But the negotiations also revealed the continuing unwillingness of the president to make specific proposals about how to reduce spending, reform entitlements, and bring the debt under control. On June 23, House majority leader Eric Cantor (who had represented House Republicans at the negotiations) decided he’d had enough, and left the talks in order to force the issue to a higher level and compel the president to get specific.

Egads! Tax increases? The nerve of those Democrats! You mean that in the middle of debt-reduction talks, the Democrats are proposing a way to decrease the debt by raising revenue?? Insane! Let’s forget for a minute (Levin certainly has) that total federal tax revenue is already at the lowest levels since 1950 (table 1.2). Acknowledging that inconvenient fact would mean that we are not in the middle of a “spending-driven debt explosion,” but, in fact, in the middle of a debt explosion caused by the government taking in too little revenue (Hellooooo Bush tax cuts).

Levin is probably right though. We are in the middle of a weak economy and now is not the time to raise taxes because when the government taxes, it takes dollars out of the economy, and right now the economy needs all the extra dollars it can get. Of course, if Levin was being intellectually honest he would oppose any government spending cuts for the same reason. If the government cuts spending, it also takes dollars out of the economy, hurting economic growth at a particularly fragile economic moment. That contradiction, sadly, is central to Republican thinking at this time. In their view, the government can’t raise taxes because it will hurt the economy, but the government can cut spending all it wants, even though that too will certainly hurt the economy.

Also, its not like Democrats just proposed increasing taxes out of nowhere. They proposed taxes as a deficit-reduction measure in negotiations over how to reduce the deficit. Its not like they just enjoy raising taxes for the hell of it.

Then Levin tries to say that the President is not being “specific” enough in the debt negotiations. Huh? The debt negotiations are going on behind closed doors. Levin doesn’t know what’s been specifically proposed. None of us do. Eric Cantor, the lead Republican negotiator, was the one who withdrew from the talks. When he stopped negotiating for the Republican side he said it was because he could never support a tax increase as part of the deal, not because the President wasn’t being “specific” enough. By all accounts, the negotiators have plenty of very specific cuts hammered out, the only sticking point is whether taxes will also be raised as part of this deal. Republican obstinacy on taxes killed this round of negotiations, not a lack of “specificity” on the part of the President.

Levin’s account of the negotiations is all the more confusing because the President wasn’t even involved in the negotiations. Vice President Joe Biden was handling them for the Democratic side. The President presented a debt reduction vision in a speech earlier this year (the “Speech” referred to in the title of Levin’s column) but has wisely left the actual deal to be worked out by the VP and the Congressmen who will actually be voting on the deal. Would it make any sense at all for the President to be out making speeches and policy proposals while negotiations are still ongoing? Wouldn’t doing so just undermine and distract from the talks that were already happening? In one last hypocritical moment, Levin fails to mention that the Ryan plan that he adores also fails to specify what cuts it will make in tax expenditures. The Ryan plan has to make huge cuts in tax expenditures in order to afford lowering taxes on the rich, but Levin doesn’t take Ryan to task for being mum on what specifically he would cut.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll stop my critique there. Its a shame that you can get a job writing this kind of drivel. Disputes? Questions? The comment box awaits!