Long Term Trends 3.

In 2010 and 2011, New York Times correspondent David Leonhardt turned to the problem of the long-term deficit.[1] In his analysis, that deficit arises from “the world’s highest health costs (by far), the world’s largest military (by far), a Social Security program built when most people died by 70—and to pay for it all, the lowest tax rates in decades.” By Leonhardt’s estimate, we will need about $500 billion a year in annual deficit reduction for the next decade. The money will have to come out of the three big spending categories and from more revenue.

The Medicare budget is the “linchpin of deficit reduction.”  Leonhardt recommended introducing incentives for people to choose cost-effective health-care. In practice, that will mean taxing employer-provided health-care benefits like the income they really are. The cost has risen massively since 1975. This encourages spending on health-care, rather than using the market to restrain price increases. Also, it is a benefit available only to people with employer-provided health-care. So, Americans get taxed differently for no good reason. This cost the government $264 billion in revenue in 2010. The federal tax subsidy created by sheltering them from taxes benefits drug makers, hospitals, and insurers.[2] He also wanted Medicare to refuse to pay for health care that cannot demonstrate that it makes people healthier.

Test social programs for actual effectiveness. Lots of them just exist, rather than achieving anything. Doubtless, many Republicans would say the same thing about the encrustations of regulations on business and industry that have grown up over the decades without ever being sunsetted.

Last, cut military spending by $100 billion a year to reverse the post-9/11 expansion.

Some leading conservatives—Mitch Daniels, Glen Hubbard, Gregory Mankiw–have endorsed means-testing Social Security and Medicare benefits. That is, shove more of the cost of their own care and retirement off on people who can afford to pay it.

Leonhardt also favored higher taxes on the middle and upper classes. The mortgage-interest deduction chiefly benefits people in the higher income brackets. Tax breaks for investors (IRA exclusion, $12.6 billion; lower tax rate for dividends, $31.1 billion; lower tax rate for capital gains, $36.3 billion; not taxing capital gains on items left to people in wills, $39.5 billion; and the 401(k) exclusion, $52.2 billion) total $171.70 billion in ‘lost” revenue.

Social Security and Medicare are essentially about paying for the past. (Often an improvident past.) Spending on education, research, and infrastructure are about paying for the future we desire. Leonhardt argues that we should actually be spending more on the future.

However, it isn’t clear that American democracy has the ability to confront powerful and well-entrenched interest groups. Reforming Medicare would involve taking money away from doctors, insurance companies, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies.  Stabilizing Social Security will involve raising the cap on withholding, so that upper income groups get gored and means-testing benefits at the cost of upper-income groups. Raising the taxes on the upper income groups to sustain benefits for lower income groups invited push-back in the past and will do so again. Cutting defense spending has never been as easy as increasing it, especially in the midst of dangers. The refusal of Democrats to define “fair share” makes rational discussion difficult.

Still, laying out the problems and some possible solutions makes it possible to think about the implications.

[1] David Leonhardt, “The Deficit: Real vs. Imagined,” NYT, 22 June 2011.

[2] David Leonhardt, “Health care’s obstacle: no will to cut,” by NYT, 10 March 2010; David Leonhardt, “The 3 Biggest Tax Breaks—and What They Cost Us,” NYT Magazine, 17 April 2011.

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