Category Archives: Federal

Caution: These Links Will Ruin Your Sleep

A campaign pitch for an incumbent member of Congress you will not hear:  You are getting $4 worth of government for every $3 you pay in taxes and fees, and the other buck is piled on as debt for your kids and grand kids to pay! You should vote me back in!

The Treasury Department’s own news release Monday, flagged by The Republican Standard,  attempted the spin that this is not the fault of President Donald Trump and the halcyon days coming thanks to his wise policies will soon begin to reverse this.  Hang with us!  Reading through the actual reports on income and spending, however, it is impossible to build up any hope.

This is another one of those cases where I indulged my own morbid curiosity and am now sharing the results.  I do not spend much time with the federal reports, compared to the state spreadsheets, but from time to time everybody should dig into the depressing details.  Stop reading my observations and dive into the actual reports – I won’t be offended.

The federal budget is broken into two big categories:  on budget and off budget.  This in no way correlates to the state’s system of splitting things into general fund and non-general fund.  The federal off-budget component is mainly Social Security pension and disability payments.   Other situations where specific taxes or fees pay for specific programs, including Medicare and the Post Office, are lumped into the on-budget categories.

When Social Security was collecting healthy receipts exceeding its annual outlays, it was producing surpluses.  These off-budget surpluses provided a nice way to hide the true size of the deficit in the on-budget category.  Well, for federal fiscal year 2018 (which ended September 30) that was a very small fig leaf indeed – about $6 billion, compared to $49 billion the year before.  Will the current fiscal year 2019 produce the first cash flow deficit for Social Security?  Will that wake up anybody?

When you back out that small off-budget surplus, the on-budget deficit was $785 billion, just under 25 percent of the $3.26 trillion in on-budget spending.  That on-budget deficit grew $70 billion, almost ten percent in a single year.  You can choose whether to blame higher spending or tax cuts.  Machts nichts.

The big federal tax cut went into effect three months into this past fiscal year and was in play for nine months, but individual income tax receipts grew 6 percent for that year.  Perhaps it’s too soon to judge the impact until people file next year.  But the impact of the corporate income tax changes did show up last year, with a $92 billion (31 percent) drop in CIT revenue.  There was a healthy boost in customs duties and that will really take off for 2019. (Is that the plan? Make tariffs the main source of federal income for the first time since President Polk?)

The federal officials quoted in the official release make much of slight decreases in a couple of social benefit programs, such as SNAP (a.k.a. food stamps), but reviewing the spending sheets really reveals the depth and breadth of income-based transfer programs, plus the political genius of sprinkling them through so many difference parts of the budget.

SNAP and other food programs are in the Agriculture Department ($91 billion).  Federal student aid ($46 billion) is in Education.  Medicaid ($389 billion), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families ($21 billion) and Children’s Health Insurance Program ($17 billion) are in Health and Human Services.

Housing gets its own programs for the economically challenged ($48 billion).  The Earned Income Tax Credit ($59 billion) is buried under the Treasury Department and the Social Security Administration handles the Supplemental Security Income payments of cash ($55 billion) that are not part of the regular disability coverage, which is (of course) off budget.  I’m sure I missed some.  I think the Veteran’s Administration still makes some pension payments based on poverty (maybe not.)

A single Department of Federal Need-Based Assistance which puts all those programs in one basket would approach $800 billion and would be larger than defense spending or the payments on the debt ($521 billion).  Which of course is why no politician of either party will ever, ever do that and make things that clear.

What is the choice on November 6?  There really is no reason to differentiate the parties on this issue any more, or to believe any candidate promising something else.  A bipartisan deal on Fiscal Year 2019 explodes spending and the projected deficit this year approaches $1 trillion. We are in this condition in a strong economy and looking at the deficits run coming out of the last recession indicates the deficits in the next one (inevitable) will approach $2 trillion.

Hurricanes, Risk, and Fiscal Collapse

Graphic source: Wall Street Journal

John Rubino, publisher of Dollarcollapse.com, and I think a lot alike when it comes to the inevitable fiscal collapse of the United States. The country (indeed the globe) is riding high today on a giant credit bubble right now, but sooner or later the bubble will pop and the economy will crash. If you buy into my Boomergeddon theory — that the U.S. will experience massive social upheaval when federal and state governments are unable to maintain their commitments to core services and the social safety net — you might want to check his website for your daily frisson of fear.

I, like John, have been writing about the dangers lurking in states’ unfunded pension liabilities and the exploding student loan liabilities that are undermining our institutions of higher education. I’d urge John to give more coverage to the issue of hidden deficit spending in the form of growing infrastructure-maintenance backlogs. (Read the Strong Towns blog for a primer on state/local governments’ growth Ponzi schemes.) Meanwhile, in a recent post, John drives home a point to which I have given insufficient attention: the future cost of hurricanes.

Unlike unfunded pensions, student loan defaults and maintenance backlogs, upon which we can put reasonable figures, there is no way for Virginia to budget for hurricanes. The incidence of hurricane hits is relatively infrequent and highly random and the damages are so variable from storm to storm, that budgetary forecasts are a total crap shoot. But I think we can safely say three things about Virginia:

  1. Sooner or later, another large hurricane will hit Virginia;
  2. Subsidence and sea-level rise, which will occur even in the absence of global-warming scare scenarios, will magnify the impact of major storms;
  3. Continued development along the shorelines of the Atlantic Ocean and Chesapeake Bay will lead to more storm-related damage.

John is concerned about the prospect of a monster storm hitting a big city like Miami or New York and giving us “a trillion-dollar summer” that bankrupts major insurance companies, roils insurance markets, depletes federal flood insurance reserves and forces the U.S. government into another massive bail-out “just as federal deficits are exploding, public sector pensions are imploding, and student loans are defaulting en masse.”

I, too, worry that the federal government is headed for disaster. But as I observe the proceedings in Washington, D.C., I have written off the federal government. Our political culture in Washington is so dysfunctional, so toxic, so addicted to short-term political gain, that the federal government is beyond salvation. I don’t waste a lot of intellectual bandwidth wondering what might save Washington. Nothing can. But I would like to ensure that the Commonwealth of Virginia survives the wreckage. Some government entity will have to carry on when the federal government melts down, and state government is the only alternative.

But I worry about Virginia, too. As I blogged recently, we have no idea what governments and quasi-state agencies — from the Washington Metro to local economic development authorities — have piled up in long-term debt, unfunded pension liabilities, and maintenance backlogs, much less how vulnerable they are to the next economic downturn. Now, add the risk of damage from hurricanes to roads, bridges, railroads, water and sewer facilities, coal ash ponds, the electric grid, pipelines, and other infrastructure. How prepared are our state agencies and utilities to cope with a major disaster? What would the impact be on taxpayers and rate payers, what have we set aside in reserves?

In a word: How fiscally resilient is Virginia in the face of natural disaster? Puerto Rico showed how a hurricane can push a corrupt and mismanaged polity over the edge. Surely we’d hold up much better. But that assumes Uncle Sam can continue handing out billions of dollars in disaster relief and that insurance markets are functioning. No one knows. We live in ignorance at our peril.

Media reaction to Goodlatte’s 2018 Chesapeake Bay Amendment

Background: Republican Rep Bob Goodlatte (Va – 6th) has proposed an amendment to an appropriations package which would forbid the EPA from using federal funds to take action against bay states that fail to meet pollution-reduction targets set by the EPA and agreed-to by the states.  The amendment is to the 2019 Interior, Environment, Financial Services and General Appropriations Act.  The amended bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives 213 to 202.  The same bill (without the Goodlatte Amendment) was passed by the US Senate 92 to 6.

Goodlatte’s rationale. Rep Goodlatte previously explained his rationale for restricting the EPA’s authority over the Chesapeake Bay cleanup on his website.  You can view that explanation here and here. (Hat Tip: Jim Bacon). However, it should be noted that the first link was from 2014 and the second from 2016. One would think that Goodlatte’s most recent attempts to curtail the EPA’s enforcement of the TDML Blueprint would require an updated explanation of intent … especially in light of the continued success of the Bay cleanup effort since EPA enforcement began.

Media reaction to the 2018 amendment. In order to get the essence of the media reaction to Bob Goodlatte’s proposed amendment I performed an internet search with the argument “Goodlatte & Chesapeake Bay Cleanup.”  There were 42,800 results. Here are the top 10 written in 2018 pertaining to Goodlatte’s latest attempt to restrict the EPA from enforcing the TDML Blueprint:

  1. Measure to weaken EPA enforcement of bay cleanup is up for House vote – again (Daily Press)
  2.  US House again votes to restrict federal enforcement of Chesapeake Bay Cleanup (Baltimore Sun)
  3. Editorial: Goodlatte once again targets the bay cleanup (Fredricksburg.Com)
  4. Senators vow to fight stripping funds to enforce Chesapeake Bay cleanup (LA Times)
  5. Environmentalists claim measure will set back Chesapeake Bay (13 News Now)
  6. Virginia GOP Congressman Again Tries to Gut Accountability For Chesapeake Bay Cleanup (PA Environment Digest Blog)
  7. Goodbye and Good Riddance to Goodlatte (Bacon’s Rebellion) (LOL)
  8. Harris backs Bay cleanup (The Star Democrat)
  9. Bay Journal: Hogan urges US Senate to reject curb on EPA role in Bay cleanup (Maryland.gov)
  10. House Republicans Advance Bill that Would Derail Chesapeake Cleanup (NPR)

Methodology reminder. Bob Goodlatte has made many failed attempts over the years to prevent the EPA from regulating the Chesapeake Bay’s TDML Blueprint. Interspersed with articles relating to his most recent attempt were articles referencing his prior attempts. Those prior articles were omitted from this list.

Conclusion. Goodlatte seems to have very little support for his latest attempt to restrict the EPA’s authority over the Chesapeake Bay. Beyond the dearth of media articles in support of Goodlatte, seven of Virginia’s eleven U.S. House of Representative members voted against Goodlatte’s amendment. Both Virginia U.S. Senators committed to blocking the amendment in the Senate. Even Maryland’s Republican governor came out publicly against the Goodlatte amendment. I also quickly scanned the next 10 articles (numbers 11 – 20) on the sorted list of responses to my internet search. All were opposed to Goodlatte’s latest attempt to restrict EPA enforcement of the TDML Blueprint.

— Don Rippert

Goodbye and Good Riddance to Goodlatte

Carpetbagger. Bob Goodlatte is the 13-term congressman from Virginia’s 6th Congressional District who has blessedly chosen to retire this year. In my opinion he represents just about everything that is wrong with the GOP. Born in Holyoke, Massachusetts and educated at Bates College in Maine, Goodlatte somehow avoids the “carpetbagger” moniker so quickly put on Terry McAuliffe by Virginia’s Republicans. He won his congressional seat at age 39 and has spent the last 26 years in Congress. Yet he goes uncriticized as a “politician for life” by the conservative Newt Gingrich types who claim to eschew such long running elected officials. He is a polluter’s best friend with apparently no concern for the property rights of those negatively affected by the pollution he justifies and defends. However, he’ll be gone soon and you’d think we’re past the damage done by this phony conservative. Oh no.  Even in his final days in office Goodlatte is actively denying people protection of their property rights despite “property rights” supposedly being a core tenet of conservative Republican dogma. What a farce.

Blowing up the blueprint. The Chesapeake Bay represents not only a national treasure but a working laboratory for the protection of property rights. Certainly right thinking conservatives must believe that allowing a small minority of people and corporations to pollute a public waterway unfairly takes away the property rights of non-polluters. In the case of a waterway that borders multiple states, one would think that sensible and honest conservatives would insist that the federal government protect the property rights of all the states.  Isn’t this both a core tenet of conservatism and a reasonable construct of property rights?  Not according to Bob Goodlatte.

The Chesapeake Bay watershed states have claimed to be working together to clean up the Bay for the past forty years. For 31 of those years the effort failed as various states simply ignored their clean up commitments. Then, in 2009, the EPA was authorized to provide scientific leadership and oversight for a new clean-up plan — the Chesapeake Bay Clean Water Blueprint. Progress has been substantial since that time. Despite Virginia being a major beneficiary of the blueprint, one of our own Congressmen has put forth an amendment to curtail the EPA’s role in this effort.  You guessed it, ole Bob Goodlatte sponsored an amendment to H.R. 6147 forbidding the EPA from spending money to provide firm, science-based accountability over the blueprint. As a press release from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation puts it, “Congressman Goodlatte’s amendment would keep EPA from using any funds to provide this “firm accountability” if a state fails to meet its pollution-reduction goals set under the Blueprint.” So much for preservation of property rights from this so-called conservative.

Hall of shame. Bob Goodlatte’s amendment for the protection of raw sewage in public waters passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 213 to 202.  Seven of Virginia’s Representatives (Wittman, Taylor, Scott, McEachin, Beyer, Comstock and Connolly) repudiated Sideshow Bob and his amendment by voting against it. However, four of our so-called representatives (Garrett, Goodlatte, Brat and Griffith) couldn’t find the mental acuity to understand how a clean Chesapeake Bay might help the Commonwealth of Virginia. While it’s no excuse for their buffoonery Garrett, Goodlatte and Griffith have districts far from the Bay. Brat, by comparison, has a district bordering the city of Richmond. What are the voters in the 7th district thinking? Will “Kepone Dave” get re-elected? Here’s a good article about the cleanliness of the James River in Richmond (warning: true but disgusting content)

Going forward. The congressional seat being vacated by Bob Goodlatte’s retirement will be contested by Ben Cline (R) and Jennifer Lewis (D). Cline is a member of the General Assembly and long time Goodlatte toady. Lewis is a bleeding heart liberal with minimal political experience. So far, Lewis has raised $72,000 to Cline’s $787,000. The Cook Partisan Voter Index for the district is R+13. Sadly, Cline will almost certainly win and continue the anti-conservative, anti-Virginia activities of his predecessor.

— Don Rippert 

Saul Trumpinsky – Donald Trump and Saul Alinsky

Yes Virginia, there is a United States. Most posts published on this blog are dedicated to Virginia-specific issues. This post is an exception. It is an attempt to understand the unexpected popularity of Donald Trump. While all states are impacted by the federal government and national politics, Virginia is perhaps the most affected state. The proximity of Northern Virginia to the nation’s capital as well as the military influence over Hampton Roads’ economy make the federal government particularly important to Virginia. So it behooves us to understand the president and how the heck he got elected.

Saul who? Saul Alinsky was a Chicago-born community organizer and writer. He was best known for his book Rules for Radicals published in 1971. Even before his famous (or infamous) book Alinsky was on the political radar. In 1966 William F. Buckley wrote an article in his “On the Right” column calling Alinsky an iconoclast and “close to being an organizational genius.” However, as would be the case with many critics on the left and right, Buckley ultimately found Alinsky’s approach ineffective. Famously, Hillary Clinton’s undergraduate thesis was a 92-page critique of Mr. Alinsky and his methods. Back in 1969, 22-year-old Clinton was sympathetic to Alinsky’s concerns but ultimately found his approach ineffective. Even Hoover’s FBI kept a close eye on Alinsky during the late 1960s. But the 1960s came and went and Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals was written and discussed, and then faded from view. There were momentary flare-ups around Hillary Clinton becoming First Lady and Barack Obama becoming president. However, Alinsky was largely relegated to those creaky crevices of the cultural cranium as a curious cartoon-like character. Or … was he?

Donald Trump and the resurrection of Saul Alinsky. As far back as early 2016 the right wing-media outlet Newsmax began to see parallels between Donald Trump’s approach as a candidate and Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. After being elected some of President Trump’s conservative critics continued to associate Trump’s actions with the Alinsky brand. Could it be? Could this odd collection of #neverTrumpers have unraveled the secret to Donald Trump’s inexplicable election success? Is he simply following Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals? Repeated searches of Trumpian philosophy found no fond commentary by The Donald for The Saul. However, there are many points of commonality between Trump and Alinsky.

A baker’s dozen.  Alinsky outlines 13 specific rules in his book. Donald Trump is following 12 of them. To wit (along with the Trump translation or Trumplation):

  1. “Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have.” (Trumplation: constant exaggeration.)
  2. “Never go outside the expertise of your people.” (Trumplation: Make America Great Again. A simple, understandable motto.)
  3. “Whenever possible go outside the expertise of the enemy.” (Trumplation: Canada’s 243% tariff on U.S. dairy products … who knew?)
  4. “Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules.” (Trumplation: Slam Hillary Clinton for taking millions for giving speeches to banks.)
  5. “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.” (Trumplation: Crooked Hillary, Corrupt Kaine.)
  6. “A good tactic is one your people enjoy.” (Trumplation: campaign speeches that look like revival meetings, “deplorables” as a badge of honor.”)
  7. “A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.” Trumplation: (Whatever happened to the NFL kneeling “controversy”?)
  8. “Keep the pressure on.” (Trumplation: From North Korea to the EU to London to Helsinki backed by an unending chorus of tweets.)
  9. “The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.”  (Trumplation: Nominate me or I’ll go third party.)
  10. “The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition.”  (Trumplation: One Donald Trump tweeting, many Democrats attempting to rebut.)
  11. “If you push a negative hard and deep enough it will break through into its counterside” (Trumplation: Forget my business deals, look at Crooked Hillary, Crooked Hillary, Crooked Hillary …)
  12. “The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.”  (Trumplation: The only rule he seems to have missed although GDP growth through corporate tax cuts might be an example.)
  13. “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.”  (Trumplation: target individuals not institutions – Carmen Yulin Cruz, Stephen Colbert, Megyn Kelly.)

Advise to President Trump. Read Hillary’s thesis. She did get an “A”. Alinsky’s tactics work well at first but fail to create a lasting unity among their adherents. They generate notoriety at a rapid rate but the momentum doesn’t last. Charles “the Hammer” Martel may have defeated the Moors at Tours but it was his grandson King Charles (aka Charlemagne or “Charles the Great”) who forged an empire. Hammers are forgotten while greatness is not. Hammer time is over. What’s next Mr. President? You’ve taken the rules for radicals as far as they will go. It’s time to start writing “lessons for leaders.”

— Don Rippert

Seven Years and Counting…

Medicare’s Hospital Insurance Trust Fund (HI) will be depleted in seven years — three years sooner than forecast previously, according to the 2018 Annual Report of the Medicare Boards of Trustees. By 2026, Medicare Part A, which covers hospital payments, will be running a $52 billion annual deficit, a gap that will increase rapidly in successive years.

The forecast is based upon implementation of current policy and makes a variety of assumptions regarding employment, growth of payroll tax receipts, and hospital costs that may or may not be on target. However, the trustees note, shorter-term projections are more likely to be accurate than longer-term projects — and seven years is not that far away.

The trustees’ report triggers a formal Medicare funding warning. President Trump must submit to Congress proposed legislation to respond to the warning within 15 days after submission of the FY 2020 budget. Congress is then required to consider the legislation on an expedited basis.

The political problem is that successive Congresses and presidential administrations have kicked the can down the road for so long that any fix will be politically painful. Rather than phasing in remedies over time, allowing a smoother glide path to solvency and making it easier for affected parties to adapt, Congress will have to enact dramatic remedies…. unless it decides to kick the can down the road again, perhaps by funding the Medicare HI  gap with general revenues.

According to the Congressional Budget Office’s most recent forecast, the federal government is on track to be running a $1.076 trillion budget deficit by 2026. Maybe Congress will say, what the heck, what’s another $52 billion, let’s fund the HI deficit with borrowed dollars. But maybe it won’t. If there’s another recession between now and then, the fiscal outlook could be a lot more alarming than it is today.

Winter is coming. Reforming the federal government is hopeless. Virginia’s only hope is maintaining a fiscally robust state and local government.

Make The Next Round A Double

USS Gerald R Ford CVN 78 Christening 2013

Virginia leaders like to get up on their soapboxes and worry that Virginia is too dependent on defense spending and promise elaborate strategies to diversify the economy.  Be grateful in some places the focus remains on building more combat ships at Newport News Shipbuilding, keeping its 20,000 plus employees and thousands of suppliers and contractors fully engaged well into the future.

As the House and Senate in Washington inch toward a fiscal year 2019 defense budget, the House has offered a version that expands on the Trump Administration’s proposal by setting up a single order for two nuclear aircraft carriers.

USS New Mexico Crossing Hampton Roads

The Senate isn’t there yet.  CVN 80, the future U.S.S. Enterprise, is already in the early stages of construction but the main construction contract has not been signed.  The proposal is to contract for the unnamed CVN 81 at the same time.

Huntington Ingalls Industries, parent of the shipyard, claims that ordering two carriers at the same time would save the Navy $1.6 billion because it would allow more negotiating leverage with the supply chain and would keep the workforce steady state. While working there I heard it was ideal to start a new carrier every four or five years, but the gap between them recently has been more like seven years.  One result of that is a labor valley every so often.

Two carriers included in a single contract would still need to be built in sequence, since there remains only one dry dock and crane capable of accommodating the assembly process. But as Enterprise sailed out of Dry Dock 12, the pre-built sections of CVN 81 would be ready to start going in. Enterprise will be the replacement for the first-of-its-class U.S.S. Nimitz, CVN 68, aging into its 40s and nearing retirement.

The ship in the dry dock now is CVN 79, the future U.S.S. John F. Kennedy. She is about 80 percent structurally complete and her christening and launch date are coming up fast. Debate continues over the utility of the large deck nuclear carrier in this submarine and missile-infested world, but it remains one weapons platform that our rivals obviously covet but cannot yet duplicate.

There is more potential good news for Virginia in the House version of the defense plan. The Navy is now starting two Virginia Class submarines annually, splitting the work between Huntington Ingalls and General Dynamics, but the old Los Angeles Class boats are retiring fast. The House adds a third submarine start in 2022 and 2023 – which is also when construction of the first new ballistic missile submarine, the future U.S.S. Columbia, should be in full swing at both Newport News Shipbuilding and Electric Boat.

Finally in the mid-2020s the aforementioned U.S.S. Nimitz returns to the yard for decommissioning of her nuclear components. That’s a couple thousand more jobs, too. So diversify the economy, certainly, but as they say in politics: Don’t forget your base.

After watching the christening of the U.S.S. George Bush CVN 78 in October 2006 I was heading out on Warwick Boulevard and there was a protester with a sign saying the money should have been spent on jobs. That was one clueless ideologue.

Note:  Both attached images were by the excellent staff photographers at NNS.

Can the U.S. Outgrow Its National Debt?

10-year economic growth — the critical variable. Graphic credit: Congressional Budget Office

In previous posts I have described the Republican-backed 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act as a Hail Mary pass, a gamble that by boosting economic growth the United States can outgrow the burden of chronic deficits and a rapidly accumulating national debt. I wasn’t optimistic, but I was willing to wait and see. After the passage of the most recent budget, which will increase spending and push deficits even higher, I became downright pessimistic.

Now comes the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) with its latest 10-year budget forecast, which takes into account the tax cuts and the latest budget. There’s plenty of gloomy news. But the damage isn’t as dreadful as I had feared. There is a glimmer of hope, although it is dim one.

First the bad news: CBO estimates that the deficit for fiscal 2018 will be $218 billion larger than what it had previously forecast. And it projects a cumulative deficit that is $1.6 trillion larger than the $10.1 trillion that it had previously prophesied for the 2018-2027 period. Debt held by the public  (not including Social Security and Medicare trust funds) will rise from 78% of GDP to 96% by the end of the decade.

The CBO also struck a Boomergeddon-like tone by making the following points:

  • Federal spending on interest payments on that debt will increase  substantially, aggravated by an expected increase in interest rates over the next few years.
  • Federal borrowing will reduce national savings. The nation’s capital stock will be smaller, and productivity and total wages will be lower.
  • Lawmakers will have less flexibility to use tax and spending policies to respond to unexpected challenges.
  • The likelihood of a fiscal crisis in the United States will increase. Investors could become unwilling to finance the government’s borrowing unless they are compensated with very high interest rates. If that happens, interest rates on the federal debt will rise suddenly and sharply.

As the football follows its trajectory into the end zone and a half dozen receivers stretch out their hands to catch it, the outcome of the Hail Mary pass is still “up in the air.” In less metaphorically strained words, the game isn’t over yet.

This CBO statement surprised me: While the federal budget deficit grows sharply over the next few years, later on, between 2023 and 2028, “it stabilizes in relation to the size of the economy, though at a high level by historical standards.”

That’s huge! The danger is that the national debt will grow faster than the economy, thereby posing an ever-increasing burden until the economy collapses. But if that burden stabilizes, even at a higher level, there may be hope that the U.S. can muddle through as (another bad metaphor alert!) the Baby Boomer pig moves through the entitlement pipeline. Eventually, a few decades from now, the entitlement crisis will ease and deficit spending will shrink.

The CBO assumes that tax cuts will goose economic growth this year but that growth will moderate in future years — from a peak of 3.3% this year to 1.8% by 2020, 1.5% for the two years after that, and 1.7% for the five years after that. But a plausible case can be made that a combination of deregulation and tax cuts will stimulate faster long-term growth, even in the face of the inevitably higher interest rates. If so, CBO would be underestimating growth and tax revenue. In this optimistic scenario, growth as a percentage of GDP actually could shrink and Boomergeddon could be averted.

On the gloom-and-doom side, the CBO also assumes steady-state economic growth over the next 10 years. But a recession could knock the props from under the growth projects, running up deficits, the national debt, and interest payments on the debt. Indeed, a major recession could trigger a full-scale fiscal crisis. The current business cycle is already almost 10 years old, one of the longest in U.S. history. What are the odds that it will last 20 years? Almost nil.

The key variable is the rate of economic growth. If it exceeds the CBO’s modest expectations, the U.S. has a fighting chance of avoiding Boomergeddon. If we see another black swan event — a trade war breaking out, North Korea firing a nuclear weapon, Iran blockading the Persian Gulf, the overheated Chinese economy imploding, a run on Italian banks, or a surprise insolvency in the hyper-leveraged, hyper-connected global economy sparking a financial panic — we could experience another 2007-scale recession — but this time with annual $2 trillion-a-year deficits. Hold on to your hats, people, it’s going to be a wild ride.

Medicaid, Pensions Kneecapping State Budgets

Graphic credit: Wall Street Journal

Take heed Governor Ralph Northam! Take heed Virginia House and Senate budget negotiators!

One in five tax dollars collected by state and local governments across the United States go to Medicaid and public-employee health and retirement costs. Of the $136 billion growth in inflation-adjusted taxes collected by state and local governments between 2008 and 2016, two-thirds went to funding Medicaid and pensions, according to the Wall Street Journal:

The picture will get worse as Medicaid expenditures metastasize and pension backlogs build. Medicaid’s annual cost, which was $595 billion in 2017, will exceed $1 trillion in 2026. States pay about 38% of that tab, although the percentage varies from state to state. A relatively affluent state, Virginia pays a higher percentage than average.

As Medicaid and pensions crowd out other spending, states have cut back on higher education, infrastructure, and aid to localities. Across the country, state cuts in support for higher education have prompted public colleges and universities to jack up tuition and fees, thus transferring costs to students and their families.

“The more we stare at the data, the more we realize all roads lead back to Medicaid and pensions,” says Dan White, a director at Moody’s Analytics, of the top three credit rating agencies.

Many localities are just one recession away from bankruptcy. The finances of Illinois, Connecticut, and New Jersey are in particularly perilous condition. Connecticut’s state capital, Hartford, narrowly averted bankruptcy last year. These high-tax states are caught between a rock and a hard place. Increasing state income taxes raises only a fraction of the anticipated revenue because they encourage wealthy taxpayers to leave for lower-tax climes.

States and localities shouldn’t expect much of a bail-out from Uncle Sam. As a different Wall Street Journal article today notes, interest payments on the national debt are doing to the federal government what Medicaid and pensions are doing to state governments.

To be sure, the U.S. federal government enjoys an unparalleled capability to borrow more money. And borrow it will. Interest payments swallowed 8% of federal revenue last year, the highest share of any AAA-rated country. Moody’s thinks that figure will triple to 21.4% by 2027.

“As interest is rising, that crowds out other spending,” says William Foster, a Moody’s analyst.

Many observers point to Japan as a nation with a national debt burden per capita twice that of the U.S. as a reason to be sanguine about the national debt. Japan may have lost its AAA rating, but it still has no problem borrowing. That analysis overlooks something that Japan has that the U.S. does not — a high personal savings rate. The U.S. personal savings rate was 2.4% in 2017. The savings rate in Japan fluctuates wildly from month to month but averaged out to 18% last year. In December, Japan’s personal savings hit the insane rate of 50%. Accordingly, as a percentage of tax revenue, Japan’s interest payments were only 5.3% — lower than the U.S. rate of 8.3%. Also, thanks to massive domestic savings, Japan does not rely upon fickle foreign creditors like the U.S. does.

Regardless, Republicans have pushed through a tax cut that, despite punching up the economic growth rate, will reduce revenues. Meanwhile, Republicans and Democrats have joined to enact a budget that boosts both defense spending (a Republican priority) and non-defense spending (a Democratic priority), while refusing to touch entitlements.

“We’re in a full-blown era of free-lunch economics where no one says no to anyone anymore,” Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee a Responsible Federal Budget, told the Journal.

Virginia’s economic and tax revenues seem manageable for the next year or two, but budgets can unravel with horrifying speed. Very few foresaw the 2008 recession, much less its severity. Very few will see the next recession. Even fewer will be prepared. Will Virginia?

Just a Reminder…

The national debt has passed the $21 trillion mark. It took only six months to get there from $20 trillion. Unlike the last time the U.S. racked up debt this rapidly, the economy is growing, not in a recession. Blame whomever you want — Boomergeddon is coming. It’s just a matter of time.

Comstock Supports the Tax Cuts. Do her Democratic Foes?

Alfredo Ortiz

by Alfredo Ortiz

Democrats have put Virginia’s 10th Congressional District, represented by Republican Barbara Comstock, in their crosshairs in their attempt to take back the House of Representatives on Election Day in November.

Seven opportunistic Democratic challengers have entered the race so far, recognizing their chance to represent this historic swing district that favored Hillary Clinton by ten percentage points in 2016, and Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam by a similar margin in 2017. Politico has named this race one of the top-10 to watch on Election Day.

Last October, Public Policy Polling found Rep. Comstock trailing a generic Democrat opponent by nine points, with a favorability rating of just 32 percent. “She’s a clear underdog,” said David Wasserman, who analyzes House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, the day after the election last year.

But a lot has changed since then. Most notably, Congressional Republicans, including Comstock, passed historic tax cuts over the opposition of every Congressional Democrat. Virginia 10 voters deserve to know whether Comstock’s Democratic challengers would carry out national Democratic leaders’ promise and vote to repeal these tax cuts if they are victorious.

The answer to this question is especially important in Virginia’s 10th District because tax cuts have disproportionately helped its residents. The median income in the counties that make up the district are among the highest in the nation at over $120,000, meaning the median constituent is taking home thousands of dollars more each year as a result of less federal tax withholding.

Virginia’s 10th has also significantly benefited from the trend of hundreds of major national employers directing billions of dollars to millions of employees because of their tax cut savings. For instance, Capital One Bank, one of Virginia’s biggest employers whose headquarters are located in the 10th District, used its tax cut savings to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour. And Walmart, the state’s largest employer, raised its base wage to $11 and gave its employees significant bonuses because of the tax cut.

Verizon and BB&T, the third and fifth largest employers in Northern Virginia, respectively, are also rewarding their employees with share payouts or $1,200 bonuses. And other major state employers including Bank of America, The Home Depot, AT&T, Starbucks, and Comcast are giving their employees up to $1,000 bonuses because of the tax cuts Rep. Comstock helped pass. These are the same tax cuts that  congressional Democrats called “theApocalypse,” “the worst bill in the history of the United States Congress,” “a heist,” and “highway robbery.”

Despite this vast evidence demonstrating that tax cuts have been a major success in allowing ordinary Americans to keep more of their hard-earned money, leading Democrats are doubling-down on their opposition and promising to repeal them if they retake Congress. Pelosi has called for “replace and repeal.” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Shumer has called for “a drastic overhaul.” Such moves would raise taxes on ordinary residents of Virginia’s 10th District and tens of million Americans across the country.

Democrats’ unwillingness to admit they made a mistake by opposing tax cuts has coincided with their House of Representatives polling advantage being cut in half. Democratic challengers in Virginia’s 10th District haven’t been clear about whether they would repeal the tax cuts if they win in November. Voters must demand to know where they stand on this issue given the implications for their paychecks. The answers might make the the difference between Democrats hitting their target or not.

Alfredo Ortiz is president and CEO of the Job Creators Network.

Enjoy It While It Lasts

Woo hoo! Tax cuts and spending increases — it doesn’t get any better than this. The United States is about to enjoy its biggest fiscal stimulus since Barack Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. All this spending and tax cutting is going to feel great for the next couple of years — especially here in Virginia, which could be the single biggest beneficiary in the country of the budget deal’s $165 billion boost to Pentagon spending over the next two years. Who needs Amazon when you’ve got the federal government with its limitless credit card?

Let’s enjoy the booming economy while it lasts. But let’s not fool ourselves either. When Virginia’s GDP suddenly perks up and revenues start surging, let’s not pretend that we have somehow “turned the corner” and are experiencing a “new normal.” It would be a huge mistake to see the fiscal stimulus as anything more than superficial prosperity purchased largely through the massive accumulation of federal debt. (I’ll give corporate tax restructuring and deregulation credit for being more than passing phenomena, but much of the economic euphoria will come from old-fashion deficit spending.)

Unfortunately, if something is too good to be true… it’s probably not true. Inflation, which has been quiescent for a decade, is now surpassing 2% annually. When you cut taxes, increase spending, and tighten monetary policy in the face of increasing inflation while the private-sector economy is booming, you get higher interest rates.

Higher interest rates will do two things. They will dampen the economy, acting as a regulator on growth. And they will increase the cost of borrowing for the world’s largest debtor, Uncle Sam, with $20 trillion in national debt. As new debt is financed and old debt rolls over, each 1% increase in interest rates eventually will add $200 billion a year to federal spending. We could find that a strong economy is actually worse for the deficit and national debt than a weak economy!

Since I wrote “Boomergeddon” almost eight years ago, the United States has squandered its opportunity to get its fiscal house in order. The problem, as I outlined back then, is that Democrats refuse to cut domestic spending, Republicans refuse to cut defense spending, and Republicans talk about cutting entitlements but are too scared to act because Democrats would crucify them. As we’ve seen in the latest budget deal, nothing about that political logic has changed.

Meanwhile, the Medicare Hospital trust fund is scheduled to run out be depleted in eleven years, and the Social Security trust fund is scheduled to run out in sixteen years. In 2019 when the Medicare trust fund runs out and Congress looks for ways to maintain benefits, the U.S. budget will be running annual deficits of about $1.5 trillion a year — and that’s according to a June 2017 forecast that doesn’t reflect the recent tax cuts and spending hikes, and assumes no big recessions between now and then. Faced with the prospect of putting Medicare and Social Security on a pay-as-you-go basis or dramatically raising payroll taxes, the U.S. will be facing the greatest fiscal crisis since the Great Depression. This political armageddon — or, as I call it, Boomergeddon — is only a decade away.

Oblivious to all this, the General Assembly is perilously close to agreeing to expand the Medicaid program in Virginia predicated upon federal promises to pay for 90% of the expansion — and even then the state is committing itself to adding roughly $300 million to its biennial budget. The Republicans’ insistence upon restricting the program to adults who are working or seeking work is nothing more than a face-saving device that will not alter the underlying fiscal dynamics. Ten years from now, when Uncle Sam is dealing with an exploding Medicare system, Virginia’s retired state employees, local employees, and teachers will be depleting the Virginia Retirement System. The VRS’s $20 billion in unfunded liabilities are, for reasons I have explained previously, likely to get get bigger, not smaller. At some point between now and ten years from now, we’ll also have to acknowledge that the Washington Metro isn’t the only component of the state’s transportation infrastructure facing a multibillion-dollar unfunded maintenance backlog.

Sadly, human nature being what it is, Virginia state and local governments will interpret the Trump boom as the sign of enduring prosperity, not an unsustainable spurt, and elected officials will crank up borrowing to pay for the endless list of “unmet needs,” which never seems to shrink in good times or bad.

I don’t know why I bother sounding the alarm. No one’s going to listen. Nothing’s going to change. But I can always hope, when it comes time to dissect the greatest social and economic tragedy in nearly a century, maybe someone will remember that someone saw it coming.

The New Normal: Rising Interest Rates

U.S. Treasury Department

The United States enjoyed a three-decade decline in interest rates, beginning with the early-1980s quashing of inflation by Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volker and culminating with Ben Bernanke’s Quantitative Easing in the mid-2010s. Lower interest rates, which made equities look more favorable by comparison, helped drive stock market indices like the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 to record highs.

Now the age of declining interest rates is over. Dead. Pound the nail in the coffin. Dig the grave.

The implications of this seismic shift are dire for the world’s largest debtor, the U.S. federal government. But state and local governments have cause for concern, too.

The manic bull market for stocks took its first big drubbing earlier this week when U.S. Treasury yields took an unexpected uptick. It is finally dawning on financial markets that as good as the Trump tax cuts may prove to be for the economy, they will increase federal budget deficits and borrowing, which will pressure interest rates higher. Even accounting for a stronger economy that pumps up tax revenues, nonpartisan groups say the tax law could add $1 trillion to deficits over the next 10 years.

Meanwhile, the Treasury Borrowing Advisory Committee has estimated that the Treasury will need to borrow a net $955 billion in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2018, up from $519 billion the previous year. Borrowing will increase further to $1,083 billion next year and $1,128 billion the following year. That’s with a strong economy, not a recession.

The Treasury borrowed even larger sums back in 2009 and 2010 as the U.S. economy struggled to pull out of the global recession. But the economic picture looked very different back then, allowing the U.S. to finance $1.6 trillion annual deficits without driving interest rates higher. As the Wall Street Journal explains:

Back then, global demand for safe assets was high and investors gobbled up U.S. Treasury issues, pushing up Treasury prices and down their yields. The Federal Reserve had also cut short-term interest rates to near zero and was beginning a series of programs to buy government debt itself, putting further upward pressure on Treasure prices and downward pressure on interest rates. …

Treasury’s increased borrowing now comes against a much different economic and financial backdrop. The economy is strong and inflation is expected to rise gradually in the months ahead. In response, the Fed is pushing short-term interest rates higher and allowing its portfolio of Treasury and mortgage debt to shrink as bonds mature.

Another factor, I might add, is the weakness of the dollar, which also discourages foreign purchases of U.S. debt and adds to inflationary pressure.

Why am I writing about the end of the era of low interest rates in a blog dedicated to Virginia public policy? Because state and local governments, colleges, universities, economic development authorities, and public service entities are big borrowers, too. Higher interest rates makes life harder for all of them.

To draw from the latest headlines, Mayor Levar Stoney wants to increase the City of Richmond meals tax to fund school building improvements because the city has maxed out its debt capacity and can borrow no more without undermining its AA bond rating. Likewise the Commonwealth of Virginia has borrowed close to its cap, constraining the state’s ability to issue new debt.

Virginia policy limits annual service on its long-term debt to 5% of General Fund revenues. Debt service can be broken into two main parts: the principal borrowed and the interest paid. It is axiomatic: If interest rates increase, so does the annual debt service…. Which means the state can borrow less.

Most important of all, Virginia has a massive unfunded pension liability. That liability, about $20 billion now, has shrunk modestly in the past couple of years thanks to the strong performance of the Virginia Retirement System (VRS) equities portfolio. The next VRS report, reflecting results from the astonishing Trump-era bull market, likely will be positive. Virginia, it will appear, is making continual progress in whittling down its liabilities. No one will be concerned.

But the stock market cannot possibly extend the past decade’s performance into the future. While earnings may continue to improve, stock prices will be dampened by interest rates and shrinking price-earnings multiples. Do not be deceived. The turning point in the bond market does not augur well for either the United States with its $20 trillion national debt or Virginia with its more modest obligations.

The GOP’s Hail Mary Pass

House Speaker Paul Ryan savors his biggest legislative victory.

Faced with a chronically slow-growth economy, expanding deficits, mounting federal debt, and a looming funding crisis for the U.S. welfare state, Republican congressmen are, to borrow a football metaphor, throwing a hail Mary pass into the end zone in the desperate hope of scoring a winning touchdown. They are gambling that tax cuts combined with President Trump’s deregulation agenda will boost economic growth from roughly 2% per year to 3% or more, reducing the tax burden for millions of Americans, creating new jobs, boosting wages, and bending the curve on long-term deficit projections.

Convinced that the tax cuts will prove to be a disaster for everyone but the rich, Democrats and the mainstream media have subjected the tax plan to relentless, unremitting attacks. Viewed in terms of static economic analysis, we are told, the tax cuts will inflate federal deficits by a cumulative $1.5 trillion over the next ten years. Suddenly, deficits matter!

Republicans respond that measures in the bill — accelerating write-offs for business investment, encouraging the repatriation of hundreds of billions of dollars in corporate profits to the U.S., and making the corporate tax rate more competitive internationally — will stimulate economic growth. Unlike the Democrats, I think that much will prove to be true. My question is: Will faster economic growth generate enough new tax revenue to offset that $1.5 trillion? Longer term, will it avert Boomergeddon?

Let’s dig into the numbers. The Congressional Budget Office’s current 10-year budget forecast assumes a modest 2.1% annual growth rate over the next ten years, a slight uptick from the trend established during the Obama years. But economic growth has accelerated to roughly 3% in the past couple of quarters, and the Trump administration’s deregulation + tax cuts strategy could nudge it even higher. Let us assume for purposes of discussion that, thanks to the tax cuts, the U.S. can grow the economy at a sustainable rate of 3.1% annually. What does an extra percentage point in economic growth get us in deficit fighting?

Well, the latest CBO federal revenue forecast for the next ten years is $43 trillion. A 1% boost in federal revenues will yield $430 billion, not nearly enough to close the $1.5 trillion gap. The analysis gets a bit more complicated because economic growth and higher incomes push Americans into higher tax brackets while a roaring stock market generates massive capital gains. So a 1% increase in economic growth could produce more than a 1% increase in federal revenue. Let’s go for the gusto and double the growth-to-revenue ratio, assuming that federal taxes increase actually increase by $86 billion per year over current projections. That’s still doesn’t close the ten-year $1.5 trillion gap.

Could the economy grow much faster than 3.1% over the decade ahead? I’m skeptical. First, Baby Boomers are retiring in droves, and the working-age population is stagnating. A growing labor force supports economic growth; a stagnant labor force undermines it. Second, the Federal Reserve Board, intent upon unwinding the monetary stimulus of the Obama years, will continue to raise interest rates. It goes without saying that higher interest rates are a damper to economic growth.

In summary, in my untutored opinion, I think that the U.S. will see modestly faster economic growth over the next few years. The Dems have predicted economic Armageddon. They won’t get it. The lives of millions of Americans will improve… in the short run. But Republicans are deluding themselves if they think modestly faster economic growth will reduce the nation’s long-term structural budget deficit. Entitlement spending is still running out of control, and the nation still faces a hideously painful fiscal reckoning. Our 20-year future still looks like Boomergeddon.

Entitlements, Fiscal Limits and the Looming Age of Rage

Now that Democrats are close to parity with Republicans in the House of Delegates, there is renewed talk of Medicaid expansion in Virginia. Meanwhile, in Washington, President Trump and Republicans are pushing a tax-cut plan that would spur economic growth but, even with stronger growth, would increase deficits by $1.5 trillion over the next ten years. Nobody is talking about the $14.6 trillion national debt except as a cudgel against partisan foes. Even as Medicare, Disability, and Old Age and Survivors trust funds are projected to run out within a single generation, entitlement reform is not up for discussion.

Just a reminder… Here’s are U.S. budget deficits forecast by the Congressional Budget Office without counting proposed GOP tax cuts:

The “on-budget” deficit is what we conventionally think of the deficit. It does not include the draw-down of “off-budget” Medicare and Social Security trust funds. Data source: Congressional Budget Office.

Within eight years, the U.S. will be running $1 trillion-per-year deficits every year, pretty much forever. And the CBO forecast does not take into account the likelihood of a recession or two over the next ten years, in which case deficits will metastasize.

And here’s the off-budget forecast. Payouts for Medicare hospitalization, Social Security disability and Social Security old-age programs exceed tax revenues, but interest income on the assets will keep the respective trust funds in the black for the next couple of years. By 2020, however, the off-budget numbers shift  into deficit mode and plunge rapidly thereafter.

Barring major changes in U.S. spending programs or economic growth, here’s when the trust funds are expected to run out, according to Medicare and Social Security trust estimates:

  • 2028: Disability trust fund runs out of money.
  • 2029: Medicare hospitalization trust fund runs out of money.
  • 2035: Social Security trust fund runs out of money.

Back when the Simpson-Bowles commission tackled the deficit issue in 2010 — the last time Americans thought seriously about entitlement reform — the county had 25 years before keystone social safety net programs imploded. If Congress had acted then, it could have put the trust funds into fiscal balance with relatively minor tweaks (slightly higher payroll taxes, slightly reduced benefits, slightly older retirement ages) that had a large cumulative effect over many years. But a decade of delay will require more painful sacrifices, which means they likely never will be made.

If nothing gets done until the trust funds run out of money — what I call Boomergeddon — the programs will have to cut benefits to match revenues generated. We are only twelve years from massive dislocations to the Medicare program, and 17 years from disruptions to Social Security. Baby Boomers beware, your retirement will be a lot uglier than you realize.

As for those $1 trillion+ on-budget deficits every year, they put Virginia at special risk. Any Congressional effort to tame deficits without touching entitlements will require cuts to discretionary spending, the biggest pot of which is related to defense, intelligence and homeland security…. which happens to be Virginia’s biggest industry sector. Son of Sequester will subject the Virginia economy to chronic economic stress and fiscal pain. But instead of dealing with Virginia’s long-term structural issues, the next session of the General Assembly could well consume itself in a renewed debate over expanding Medicaid.

As Americans speak no evil, see no evil, and hear no evil, we hurtle toward an era of brutal fiscal limits, broken promises to millions of Americans, and polarization and rage that will surpass anything we see today.