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Deficit Hawks Ignore the Wisdom of Spending, Are Obsessed with Cutting Benefits

If the current deficit were larger, we would have more jobs and growth. But many deficit hawks seem more interested in cutting benefits than economic truths.

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This means that the country really has no near-term or even mid-term deficit problem. The current deficit is a positive. In fact, if it were larger we would have more jobs and growth. Furthermore, there is no reason that the debt being accumulated at present should pose any interest burden on future generations. In this vein, it is worth noting that Japan’s central bank holds debt amounting to almost 100 percent of that country’s GDP. As a result, Japan’s interest burden is considerably smaller than the United States’s, even though Japan’s debt is almost four times as large relative to the size of its economy.

Over the longer term the United States is projected to face a deficit problem, but this is almost entirely attributable to the explosive rate at which private-sector health-care costs are likely to grow. More than half of health-care costs are paid by the government, hence the public budgetary impact of our private system.

Of course, those increasing costs will lead to enormous problems for the private sector, too. Rapidly rising health-care costs were a big part of the GM and Chrysler bankruptcies. If per-person health-care costs in the United States were the same as in Canada, then General Motors’ profits would have been $20 billion higher over the last decade. If, on the other hand, health-care costs follow the projected path, we will have many more General Motors and Chryslers.

Simpson and Bowles’s report seeks saving in public-sector health programs, primarily by making patients pay more for care. But there is no discussion of the private health-care system that is the root of the problem.

To no one’s surprise the co-chairs decided to include cuts to Social Security in the mix, even though Social Security has not contributed to the deficit. The program has a designated payroll tax and is prohibited from spending beyond the money provided by the tax. It is structurally impossible for the program to affect the deficit.

The Simpson-Bowles approach involves raising the retirement age, cutting benefits for middle- and higher-income workers, and reducing the annual cost-of-living adjustment so that retirees would no longer see their benefits rise in step with the consumer price index (CPI). Raising the retirement age seems more than a bit unfair, since most of the gains in life expectancy have been going to workers in the top half of the income distribution. Workers in the bottom half have seen minimal gains in life expectancy over the last three decades.

The cuts in the benefit formula will hit anyone who has average wage earnings over their lifetime of more than $36,000. This is not most people’s definition of affluent.

Simpson and Bowles do not seem interested in accuracy; they want to cut benefits.

Finally, the co-chairs want to peg the cost-of-living adjustment to a new CPI that regularly shows a lower rate of inflation than the current measure. The gap is about 0.3 percent, which means that benefits will rise by about 0.3 percent less rapidly than would otherwise be the case.

This effect seems small, but it adds up over time. A retiree who collecting benefits for ten years would have a benefit in their tenth years that was 3.0 percent lower than would otherwise be the case. After 20 years the gap would be 6.0 percent and after thirty years the gap would be 9.0 percent. This policy has the effect of hitting the oldest hardest. These are precisely the people (mostly women) with the least resources.

It is often argued that the new CPI would be a better measure of inflation, but if we are concerned about actually measuring the cost of living for retirees, Simpson and Bowles could have recommended that Congress use a measure constructed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics explicitly to measure the increase in the cost of living for the elderly. This CPI for the elderly consistently shows a rate of inflation that is 0.2-0.4 above the standard CPI that is used now. But Simpson and Bowles do not seem interested in accuracy; they want to cut benefits.

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