We Don’t Have a Government Spending Problem. We Have a Health Care Problem.

Nobody’s happy about the sequester, the government spending cuts that took effect a few days ago, but most people think it was a necessary evil.

Evil? Maybe. Necessary? Absolutely not.

In June 2011, before Congress passed the Budget Control Act, the Congressional Budget Office released its annual “Long-Term Budget Outlook.” This is the best nonpartisan projection we have of what the federal budget would look like without the sequester.

The CBO considered two possibilities.

First, what would the budget look like if Congress did absolutely nothing? The Bush tax cuts would expire as scheduled, Obamacare would take effect, and Medicare payments to doctors would remain at current rates. They called this the “Extended-Baseline Scenario.”

Second, what if Congress stopped all those things from happening? They extended the Bush tax cuts permanently, repealed Obamacare, and raised Medicare’s payment rates for doctors every year. They called this the “Alternative Fiscal Scenario.”

The difference is stunning. In the Extended-Baseline Scenario, the government’s debt never increases. Relative to the size of the economy, it’s the same in 2033 as it was in 2013. Meanwhile, in the Alternative Fiscal Scenario, it skyrockets. By 2033, it’s double what it was in 2013.

The Alternative Fiscal Scenario is what scared legislators into passing the Budget Control Act. They decided to slash government spending across-the-board by over $2 trillion over the next decade in order to avoid a massive increase in debt.

But why were they looking at the Alternative Fiscal Scenario? After all, the Extended-Baseline Scenario showed that the debt problem disappeared if Congress simply did nothing. Why didn’t they just…do nothing?

Well, if they did nothing, taxes would go up, and doctors’ payments wouldn’t. The politics speaks for itself.

Instead of doing nothing, Congress made 84 percent of the Bush tax cuts permanent at the beginning of this year, and of course, doctors’ payments continue to rise.

And that’s why they needed the sequester to rein in rising debt.

But that doesn’t explain why the sequester was an across-the-board cut in government spending when, according to the CBO, we don’t have an across-the-board spending problem.

Let’s look at the 2011 Budget Outlook one more time.

In the Alternative Fiscal Scenario, it’s true that spending increases dramatically — from 24.1 percent of our nation’s income in 2011 to 33.9 percent in 2035. But it’s not across-the-board. In fact, if you exclude health care programs and interest payments, federal spending actually decreases from 17.1 percent in 2011 to 14.6 percent in 2035!

In other words, we don’t have a spending problem. We have a health care problem!

If we had the health care costs of the average industrialized country – which has a higher life expectancy than us, by the way – we’d save over $2.5 trillion over the next decade, far more than the sequester.

And yet, looking at these numbers, our legislators decided to slash government programs across-the-board, the vast majority of which nothing to do with the problem. They chose to kick 70,000 kids out of Head Start; eliminate funding for 1.2 million disadvantaged students; serve 4 million fewer Meals on Wheels; eliminate nutrition assistance for 600,000 women and children; kick 120,000 families out of low-income housing; kick 100,000 homeless people out of shelters; conduct 2,100 fewer food inspections; conduct 1,200 fewer workplace safety inspections; treat 373,000 fewer mentally ill Americans; employ 1,000 fewer federal law enforcement agents; prosecute 1,000 fewer criminal cases; issue 1,000 fewer science research grants; guarantee $540 million less in loans to small businesses; conduct 424,000 fewer HIV tests; and treat 7,400 fewer AIDS patients. And that’s only this year, when less than 10 percent of the sequester will kick in.

All because they didn’t want to deal with the real problem.

Last month, the CBO published a new Budget Outlook. Including the effects of the sequester, it shows debt declining for the next few years, and then in 2019 it starts to rise again. That’s the dirty little secret that Congress won’t tell you: Even $2 trillion in spending cuts can’t stop the rise in debt…because spending simply isn’t the problem.

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This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Don’t Attack Big Government Until You’ve Done the Math

“We have to get rid of Big Government,” said a friend of mine recently, as if it was obvious. I looked around the table and saw only nodding heads.

So I asked my friend: What exactly do you want to get rid of? Social Security? Oh no, she said.

Medicare? No. Medicaid? No. The Children’s Health Insurance Program? No. The Defense Department? No.

Then you don’t want to get rid of Big Government.

Those five programs make up two-thirds of the federal budget. They are Big Government, and the American people love them — even most of the people who say, “We have to get rid of Big Government.”

Of course, that’s not what she meant. When she said “Big Government,” she wasn’t talking about those programs.

She was talking about Obamacare, which will account for 3 percent of the federal budget in the coming decade. She was talking about food stamps, which comprise another 2 percent of the budget. She was talking about welfare, which takes up a whopping 0.4 percent.

I hope she wasn’t talking about the Department of Education, but even if she was, its budget is roughly the same as the amount allocated to food stamps.

So anyone who thinks they can “get rid of Big Government” by attacking these programs is either uninformed, lying, or very bad at math.

It’s exactly this kind of misunderstanding that allows politicians to foist their radical agendas on an unwilling public.

Witness the “sequester” debate. Why is the government planning to cut its spending by $1 trillion over the next decade, starting with an $85 billion cut to this year’s budget that takes effect on March 1? Because people are somehow under the impression that it has grown too big.

It’s hard to square that belief with this week’s report from the Congressional Budget Office. It shows the size of our federal government relative to the overall economy, and believe it or not, it’s been shrinking for many years!

This year, the federal government will spend 22 percent of our nation’s income, the same as it did in 1981. In fact, throughout most of Ronald Reagan’s two terms in office, federal spending was higher, as a percent of our nation’s income, than it is today.

It wasn’t until Bill Clinton came into office that our government made a consistent effort to shrink the size of government. Remember Clinton’s 1996 State of the Union? “The era of big government is over.” It sure was. By the end of his term, the federal government spent less money, relative to the size of the overall economy, than at any time since the mid-1960s.

George W. Bush reversed that trend, but even Bush’s government paled in comparison to Reagan’s. In 2007, federal spending was 19.7 percent of our nation’s income, a far cry from the peak of 23.5 percent in 1983.

That’s a quarter of a century during which our federal government was smaller than it used to be.

That ended with the Great Recession, of course. When Bush left office, he handed over the reins to 24.4 percent of our nation’s spending.

But most of that increase was temporary. Just as economists predicted, that number has fallen, and it will continue to fall as the economy improves and grows faster than the government.

And that’s why the sequester is a misguided attempt to fix an illusory problem. The federal government has not gotten bigger in the last three decades, and it’s only getting smaller.

There is one part of the budget that’s been growing, however, and that’s health care. As medical costs grow faster than inflation, so do the budgets of Medicare, Medicaid, and CHIP. If you want to slow the long-term growth of the government, that’s the problem you have to solve.

But don’t take it out on innocent programs that have nothing to do with the budget deficit and even less to do with so-called “Big Government.”

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This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Quote of the Day: William J. McGee

Ronald Reagan was lauded for two things above all: downsizing government and simplifying complex issues. So for a moment let’s follow his example. Here’s an easy way to consider if you truly want to get government completely off corporate backs. Don’t view this as an abstract political, economic, or academic concept worthy of a robust debate. Instead make it personal. Take whomever you love most — adult, child, pet — and then strap that loved one into a pressurized aluminum tube, to be hurtled through the troposphere at four-fifths the speed of sound, roughly 550 miles per hour. And all the while, trust that this airplane was serviced properly, with no shortcuts, in a suitable facility with competent, licensed mechanics who understood their work and were screened by security and for alcohol and drug use. Trust that the crew was trained properly and is earning a living wage. Trust completely in the oversight of the airline executives du jour who show loyalty only to shareholders and have golden parachutes for themselves.

Then ask yourself if you wouldn’t maybe like a few inspectors to double-check their efforts. You may find that you don’t have that much faith in Corporate America after all.

— William J. McGee (Attention All Passengers: The Airlines’ Dangerous Descent–and How to Reclaim Our Skies)

You Haven’t Heard the Last of the Buffett Rule

A battle is coming. A battle for America’s future. A battle for her soul.

The opening salvo came earlier this week when the Buffett Rule died in the Senate at the hands of a corrupt minority who refused to even let it come to a vote.

The Buffett Rule was advertised as a minimum tax rate of 30 percent for households earning more than $1 million a year, but that’s not quite right. The minimum rate actually started much lower for those earning $1 million and gradually increased to 30 percent for those earning at least $2 million.

The Buffett Rule would have raised $16 billion per year over the next decade — a measly 1.2 percent of this year’s budget deficit.

Thus it was not a solution. It was a shot across the bow, a warm up for the decision we will face in November, a test run for the expiration of the Bush tax cuts in December. It was the beginning of a battle to reclaim this country as a democracy for the 100 percent, rather than a plutocracy for the 1 percent. A beginning, not an end.

For if there’s one thing the government desperately needs, it’s tax revenue.

Relative to the size of the economy, the federal government is collecting less tax revenue than it has since the Great Depression, less than any of the other wealthy “G-7” countries, and way below the average for so-called industrialized countries.

The average family of four is paying less of its income in taxes than at any time from 1955 to 2006. The richest 1 percent have seen their average tax rates fall even farther, from 58 percent in the 1950s, to 35 percent in the 1970s, to 29 percent in the 1990s, to 23 percent today. Corporations, which are supposed to pay a top statutory tax rate of 35 percent, actually pay only 12.1 percent of their profits in taxes, the lowest since 1972.

Any way you measure it, taxes are low. (And, let’s not forget, the economy performed better when they were higher.)

So it should not come as a surprise that the federal government will only receive $2.5 trillion in tax revenue to pay for $3.8 trillion in spending this year, leaving a deficit of $1.3 trillion.

If this is a major problem — and the majority of politicians on both sides of the aisle agree that it is — then, as a matter of simple arithmetic, we must raise taxes or face draconian spending cuts. Since Republicans are so insistent on cutting taxes and thus increasing the deficit, they have chosen the latter course of action.

A couple weeks ago, I pointed out that it was unfair, unwise, and unusually cruel to force this kind of pain on low-income Americans, who would bear 62 percent of the burden under Paul Ryan’s latest budget proposal. Several readers replied that it’s unfortunate but necessary.

Is it necessary to slash taxes drastically for the rich? Is it necessary to leave the capital gains exemption intact? Is it necessary to increase defense spending? Is it necessary to foist hundreds of billions of dollars of subsidies on American corporations and the richest 1 percent?

None of these things are necessary. In fact, they are all counterproductive and quite dangerous if it is necessary to reduce the budget deficit. Yet we can find them all in the House Republicans’ budget.

What we don’t find in that budget is more tax revenue.

It is a mathematical fact that we can reduce the budget deficit by hundreds of billions of dollars simply by returning to the tax code that we used to have two or three decades ago — when, by the way, the economy was growing faster, wages were rising faster, and income inequality was lower.

It is also a mathematical fact that the top 1 percent captured 93 percent of the income gains in 2010. The recession has done all that the recession can do. The plutocracy is back.

It is up to us to wrest control of this country back from the grips of concentrated wealth and corruption. It will take time. It will take guts. But mark my words: The Buffett Rule will be back. And next time, it will be a heck of a lot bigger than $16 billion.

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This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.