Sunday, April 24, 2011

Natty Bumppo Economics

The recently completed $38 billion battle of brinksmanship over next year's federal budget is going to look like child's play in comparison to the upcoming showdown over the need to increase the debt ceiling. So, so much more is at stake, including the dollar's status as a reserve currency. And yet, our congressional "leaders" have declared a recess until sometime in early May, only a couple of weeks before the Treasury hits the debt ceiling. No doubt the recent move in gold and dollar weakness reflect an increasing anxiety that the United States Government could actually default. S&P has put the US on credit watch. Without Congressional action we will simply greatly increase the cost of inevitably having to borrow anyhow when Armageddon comes knocking at our fiscal door, and who will want to lend to a deadbeat government? Why would our politicians even play such a game? Is it a form of political conspiracy to bring the government to its knees?

Agreed, carrying unsustainable debt is a sure death knell as well. But debt on the balance sheet comes not only from making poor judgments and being profligate, it also comes from failing to raise revenue. Both sides of the income statement --- expenses AND revenue ---need to be examined by our absentee representatives.

It is wishful thinking, particularly as the economy has been on life support through the Federal Reserve since the 2008 financial crisis, that we can grow enough to offset the tax cuts that have been implemented since the Clinton years. US taxpayers with the highest adjusted gross income have watched their federal tax rates fall from about 30 percent in 1995 to 17 percent by 2007. No argument that we need to simplify the tax code, but tax revenues need to be higher, simple as that. We need to revisit those Clinton rates again, a graduated tax rate without the loopholes. Close as many doors as possible to the underground economy. Eviscerate tax avoidance strategies.

We also need to shore up Social Security by increasing the wage limits for SS taxes -- or how about a similar "donut hole" we give to seniors for their drug needs, taxing wages for social security to a certain limit, then no tax until another higher limit is reached, and then resume taxing for social security revenue. On the expense side of the income statement, means testing will have to be instituted and the retirement age slowly moved back.

The ideas put forth for privatizing Medicare will slowly kill the program, so desperately needed by the middle class. Cost containment measures have to take first priority. A voucher program is smoke and mirrors. Can you imagine the average senior having to make such decisions with insurance companies pulling the strings?

And Medicare being entirely turned over to the States, many of which can hardly make their own budgets balance? Disaster for the poor.

These are huge issues and I don't mean to simplify any of them, but defaulting on our debt is NOT the first step in resolving any of these problems. It will be our last.

The amazing thing about this "movement"-- if it is fair to call it that -- is some of the people who would be hurt the most just say "bring it on, let the government fail." Perhaps this notion harkens back to the idealized Natty Bumppo from James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales. But this is not a mythical tale of American rugged individualism and "one shot, one kill." It is about cooperation and compromise. We need our representatives to do the hard, serious work they were hired to do without all the political posturing and partisanship, and without the brinksmanship of the twelfth hour.