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Archive for the ‘Entitlements’ Category

Based on a new report from the Congressional Budget Office, I wrote two weeks ago about America’s dismal long-run fiscal outlook. Simply stated, we face a Greek-style fiscal future because of changing demographics and poorly designed entitlement programs.

But I was just looking at big-picture fiscal aggregates.

And while that was discouraging, it gets downright depressing when you look behind the numbers and consider how a growing share of Americans are getting lured into government dependency.

Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute has a very grim analysis on the growth of entitlement dependency in the United States.

The American welfare state today transfers over 14% of the nation’s GDP to the recipients of its many programs, and over a third of the population now accepts “need-based” benefits from the government. This is not the America that Tocqueville encountered.

It wasn’t always this way.

The article looks at the history of the welfare state in America.

 In 1961, at the start of the Kennedy Administration, total government entitlement transfers to individual recipients accounted for a little less than 5% of GDP, as opposed to 2.5% of GDP in 1931 just before the New Deal. In 1963 — the year of Kennedy’s assassination — these entitlement transfers accounted for about 6% of total personal income.

But things began to deteriorate under LBJ.

During the 1960s, …President Johnson’s “War on Poverty” (declared in 1964) and his “Great Society” pledge of the same year ushered in a new era for America, in which Washington finally commenced in earnest the construction of a massive welfare state. … Americans could claim, and obtain, an increasing trove of economic benefits from the government simply by dint of being a citizen; they were now incontestably entitled under law to some measure of transferred public bounty, thanks to our new “entitlement state.”

And guess what? Once we started rewarding dependency, more and more people decided they were entitled.

Over the half-century between 1963 and 2013, entitlement transfers were the fastest growing source of personal income in America — expanding at twice the rate for real per capita personal income from all other sources, in fact. Relentless, exponential growth of entitlement payments recast the American family budget over the course of just two generations. In 1963, these transfers accounted for less than one out of every 15 dollars of overall personal income; by 2013, they accounted for more than one dollar out of every six. The explosive growth of entitlement outlays, of course, was accompanied by a corresponding surge in the number of Americans who would routinely apply for, and accept, such government benefits.

And how many people have been lured into government dependency? A lot, and mostly because of welfare spending rather than age-related social insurance programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

…the government did not actually begin systematically tracking the demographics of America’s “program participation” until a generation ago. Such data as are available, however, depict a sea change over the past 30 years. …By 2012, the most recent year for such figures at this writing, Census Bureau estimates indicated that more than 150 million Americans, or a little more than 49% of the population, lived in households that received at least one entitlement benefit….Between 1983 and 2012, by Census Bureau estimates, the percentage of Americans “participating” in entitlement programs jumped by nearly 20 percentage points….Less than one-fifth of that 20-percentage-point jump can be attributed to increased reliance on these two “old age” programs. Overwhelmingly, the growth in claimants of entitlement benefits has stemmed from an extraordinary rise in “means-tested” entitlements.

Ugh. I’ve previously written that getting something from the government doesn’t automatically turn somebody into a moocher or a deadbeat.

Nonetheless, it can’t be good news that 49 percent of U.S. households are on the receiving end for goodies from Uncle Sam.

Here’s a table from his article that should frighten anyone who thinks work and self-reliance are worthwhile values.

There’s lot of information, so I recommend just focusing on the numbers in parentheses in the first two columns. Those show how dependency is increasing by significant amounts for many programs.

Eberstadt highlights some of the worst numbers, most notably the huge growth in food stamps and Medicaid dependency.

…the rolls of claimants receiving food stamps (a program that was officially rebranded the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, in 2008 because of the stigma the phrase had acquired) jumped from 19 million to 51 million. By 2012 almost one American in six lived in a home enrolled in the SNAP program. The ranks of Medicaid, the means-tested national health-care program, increased by over 65 million between 1983 and 2012, and now include over one in four Americans. …Between 1983 and 2012, the number of Americans in households receiving Federal SSI more than sextupled; by 2012, over 20 million people were counted as dependents of the program.

As bad as these numbers are, the most worrisome part of the article is when Eberstadt writes about the erosion of America’s cultural capital.

Asking for, and accepting, purportedly need-based government welfare benefits has become a fact of life for a significant and still growing minority of our population: Every decade, a higher proportion of Americans appear to be habituated to the practice. … nearly half of all children under 18 years of age received means-tested benefits (or lived in homes that did). For this rising cohort of young Americans, reliance on public, need-based entitlement programs is already the norm — here and now. It risks belaboring the obvious to observe that today’s real existing American entitlement state, and the habits — including habits of mind — that it engenders, do not coexist easily with the values and principles, or with the traditions, culture, and styles of life, subsumed under the shorthand of “American exceptionalism.”

And the erosion of cultural capital is very difficult to reverse, thanks in large part to the welfare-aided erosion of traditional families and falling levels of work among males.

The corrosive nature of mass dependence on entitlements is evident from the nature of the pathologies so closely associated with its spread. Two of the most pernicious of them are so tightly intertwined as to be inseparable: the breakdown of the pre-existing American family structure and the dramatic decrease in participation in work among working-age men. …the rise of long-term entitlement dependence — with the concomitant “mainstreaming” of inter-generational welfare dependence — self-evidently delivers a heavy blow.

Since this has been an utterly depressing analysis so far, let’s close with a vaguely optimistic look at the future.

While it may not be easy to reverse the erosion of cultural capital, it is simple (at least in theory) to reverse bad policies.

All we need to do is enact genuine entitlement reform and devolve all means-tested redistribution spending to the states.

P.S. This is some great work by AEI, which follows on the stellar analysis that organization recently produced on income inequality. Makes me almost want to forgot that AEI put together a somewhat disappointing fiscal plan.

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Last September, I wrote about some very disturbing 10-year projections that showed a rising burden of government spending.

Those numbers were rather depressing, but a recently released long-term forecast from the Congressional Budget Office make the 10-year numbers look benign by comparison.

The new report is overly focused on the symptom of deficits and debt rather than the underlying disease of excessive government. But if you dig into the details, you can find the numbers that really matter. Here’s some of what CBO reported about government spending in its forecast.

The long-term outlook for the federal budget has worsened dramatically over the past several years, in the wake of the 2007–2009 recession and slow recovery. …If current law remained generally unchanged…, federal spending rises from 20.5 percent of GDP this year to 25.3 percent of GDP by 2040.

And why is the burden of spending going up?

Well, here’s a chart from CBO’s slideshow presentation. I’ve added some red arrows to draw attention to the most worrisome numbers.

As you can see, entitlement programs are the big problem, especially Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare.

Even CBO agrees.

…spending for Social Security and the government’s major health care programs—Medicare, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and subsidies for health insurance purchased through the exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act—would rise sharply, to 14.2 percent of GDP by 2040, if current law remained generally unchanged. That percentage would be more than twice the 6.5 percent average seen over the past 50 years.

By the way, while it’s bad news that the overall burden of federal spending is expected to rise to more than 25 percent of GDP by 2040, I worry that the real number will be worse.

After all, the forecast assumes that other spending will drop by 2.2 percent of GDP between 2015 and 2040. Yet is it really realistic to think that politicians won’t increase – much less hold steady – the amount that’s being spent on non-health welfare programs and discretionary programs?

Another key takeaway from the report is that it is preposterous to argue (like Obama’s former economic adviser) that our long-run fiscal problems are caused by inadequate tax revenue.

Indeed, tax revenues are projected to rise significantly over the next 25 years.

Federal revenues would also increase relative to GDP under current law… Revenues would equal 19.4 percent of GDP by 2040, CBO projects, which would be higher than the 50-year average of 17.4 percent.

Here’s another slide from the CBO. I’ve added a red arrow to show that the increase in taxation is due to a climbing income tax burden.

These CBO numbers are grim, but they could be considered the “rosy scenario.”

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB) produced their own analysis of the long-run fiscal outlook.

Like the CBO, CRFB is too fixated on deficits and debt, but their report does have some additional projections of government spending.

Here’s the key table from the CRFB report. Not only do they show the CBO numbers  for 2065 and 2090 under the baseline scenario, they also pull out CBO’s “alternative fiscal scenario” projections, which are based on more pessimistic (some would say more realistic) assumptions.

As you can see from my red arrows, federal spending will consume one-third of our economy’s output based on the “extended baseline scenario” as we get close to the end of the century. So if you add state and local spending to the mix, the overall burden of spending will be higher than it is in Greece today.

But if you really want to get depressed, look at the “alternative fiscal scenario.” The burden of federal spending soars to more than 50 percent of output. So when you add state and local government spending, the overall burden would be higher than what currently exists in any of Europe’s welfare states.

In other words, America is destined to become Greece.

Unless, of course, politicians can be convinced to follow my Golden Rule and exercise some much-needed spending restraint.

This would require genuine entitlement reform and discipline in other parts of the budget, steps that would not be popular from the perspective of Washington insiders.

Which is why we need some sort of external tool that mandates spending restraint, such as an American version of Switzerland’s Debt Brake (which you can learn more about by watching a presentation from a representative of the Swiss Embassy).

Heck, even the IMF agrees that spending caps are the only feasible solution.

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The American Enterprise Institute has published a comprehensive budgetary plan entitled, “Tax and spending reform for fiscal stability and economic growth.”

Authored by Joseph Antos, Andrew G. Biggs, Alex Brill, and Alan D. Viard, all of whom I know and admire, this new document outlines a series of reforms designed to restrain the growth of government and mitigate many of the tax code’s more punitive features.

Compared to current law, the plan is a huge improvement.

But huge improvement isn’t the same as perfect, so here’s my two cents on what’s really good, what’s partially good, and what has me worried.

I’ll start with something that’s both good and bad.

According to the latest CBO estimates, federal tax revenues for 2015 will absorb 17.7 percent of GDP and spending will consume 20.4 percent of economic output. Now look at this table showing the impact of the AEI proposal. As you can see, the burden of taxes and spending will both be higher in the future than today.

That’s obviously bad. One would think a conservative organization would present a plan that shrinks the size of government!

But here’s the catch. Under current law, the burden of government is projected to climb far more rapidly, largely because of demographic changes and poorly designed entitlement programs. So if we do nothing and leave government on auto-pilot, America will be saddled with a European-sized welfare state.

From that perspective, the AEI plan actually is good since it is based on reforms that stop most – but not all – of the already-legislated expansions in the size of the public sector.

So here’s the bottom line. Compared to what I would like to see, the AEI plan is too timid. But compared to what I fear will happen, the AEI plan is reasonably bold.

Now let’s look at the specific reforms, staring with tax policy. Here’s some of what’s in the report.

The goal of our tax reform is to eliminate the income tax’s inherent bias against saving and investment and to reduce other tax distortions. To achieve this goal, the income tax system and the estate and gift taxes would be replaced by a progressive consumption tax, in the form of a Bradford X tax consisting of a…37 percent flat-rate firm-level tax on business cash flow and a graduated-rate household-level tax, with a top rate of 35 percent, on wages and fringe benefits.

At the risk of oversimplifying, the AEI folks decided that it was very important to solve the problem of double taxation and not so important to deal with the problem of a discriminatory and punitive rate structure. Which is sort of like embracing one big part of the flat tax while ignoring the other big part.

We’d have a less destructive tax code than we have now, but it wouldn’t be as good as it could be. Indeed, the plan is conceptually similar to the Rubio-Lee proposal, but with a lot more details.

Not that I’m happy with all those additional details.

To address environmental externalities in a more cost-effective and market-based manner, energy subsidies, tax credits, and regulations would be replaced by a modest carbon tax. The gasoline tax would be increased to cover highway-related costs.

I’m very nervous about giving Washington a new source of revenue. And while I’m open (in theory) to the argument that a carbon tax would be a better (less worse) approach than what we have now, I’m not sure it’s wise to trust that politicians won’t pull a bait and switch and burden us with both a costly energy tax and new forms of regulatory intervention.

And I definitely don’t like the idea of a higher gas tax. The federal government should be out of the transportation business.

There are also other features that irk me, including the continuation of some loopholes and the expansion of redistribution through the tax code.

Child and dependent care expenses could be deducted… A 15 percent refundable credit for charitable contributions… A 15 percent refundable credit for mortgage interest… A refundable credit for health insurance…the EITC for childless workers would be doubled relative to current law.

Though I should also point out that the new tax system proposed by AEI would be territorial, which would be a big step in the right direction. And it’s also important to note that the X tax has full expensing, which solves the bias against investment in a depreciation-based system.

But now let’s look at the most worrisome feature of the plan. It explicitly says that Washington should get more money.

… we also cannot address the imbalance simply by cutting spending… The tax proposals presented in this plan raise necessary revenues… Over time, tax revenue would gradually rise as a share of GDP… The upward path of tax revenue is necessary to finance the upward path of federal spending.

This is very counterproductive. But I don’t want to regurgitate my ideological anti-tax arguments (click here if that’s what you want). Let’s look at this issue from a strictly practical perspective.

I’ve reluctantly admitted that there are potential tax-hike deals that I would accept, at least in theory.

But those deals will never happen. In the real world, once the potential for additional revenue exists, the appetite for genuine spending restraint quickly evaporates. Just look at the evidence from Europe about the long-run relationship between taxes and debt and you’ll see that more revenue simply enables more spending.

Speaking of which, now let’s shift to the outlay side of the fiscal ledger.

We’ll start with Social Security, where the AEI folks are proposing to turn Social Security from a substandard social insurance program, which is bad, to a flat benefit, which might even be worse since it involves a shift to a system that is even more focused on redistribution.

The minimum benefit would be implemented immediately, increasing benefits for about one third of retirees, while benefits for middle- and high-earning individuals would be scaled down to the wage-indexed poverty level between now and 2050.

Yes, the system they propose is more fiscally sustainable for government, but what about the fact that most workers are paying record amounts of payroll tax in exchange for a miserly monthly payment?

This is why the right answer is personal retirement accounts.

The failure to embrace personal accounts may be the most disappointing feature of the AEI plan. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the authors veered in this unfortunate direction because they put the cart of debt reduction ahead of the horse of good policy.

To elaborate, a big challenge for real Social Security reform is the “transition cost” of financing promised benefits to current retirees and older workers when younger workers are allowed to shift their payroll taxes to personal accounts. Dealing with this challenge presumably means more borrowing over the next few decades, but it would give us a much better system in the long run. But this approach generally isn’t an attractive option for folks who fixate on near-term government debt.

That being said, there are spending reforms in the proposal that are very appealing.

The AEI plan basically endorses the good Medicare and Medicaid reforms that have been part of recent GOP budgets. And since those two programs are the biggest drivers of our long-run spending crisis, this is very important.

With regards to discretionary spending, the program maintains sequester/Budget Control Act spending levels for domestic programs, which is far too much since we should be abolishing departments such as HUD, Agriculture, Transportation, Education, etc.

But since Congress presumably would spend even more, the AEI plan could be considered a step in the right direction.

Finally, the AEI plan calls for military spending to consume 3.8 percent of economic output in perpetuity. National defense is one of the few legitimate functions of the federal government, but that doesn’t mean the Pentagon should get a blank check, particularly since big chunks of that check get used for dubious purposes. But I’ll let the foreign policy and defense crowd fight that issue since it’s not my area of expertise.

P.S. The Heritage Foundation also has thrown in the towel on personal retirement accounts and embraced a basic universal flat benefit.

P.P.S. On a completely different topic, here’s a fascinating chart that’s being shared on Twitter.

As you can see, the United States is an exception that proves the rule. I don’t know that there are any policy implications, but I can’t help but wonder whether America’s greater belief in self-reliance is linked to the tendency of religious people to believe in individual ethics and moral behavior.

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America has a giant long-run problem largely caused by poorly designed entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

So when I wrote last month about proposals by some Democrats to expand Social Security, I was less than enthusiastic.

…demographic changes and ill-designed programs will combine to dramatically expand the size of the public sector over the next few decades. So it’s really amazing that some politicians, led by the clownish Elizabeth Warren, want to dig the hole deeper. …I’m surprised demagogues such as Elizabeth Warren haven’t rallied behind a plan to simply add a bunch of zeroes to the IOUs already sitting in the so-called Social Security Trust Fund. …If Hillary winds up endorsing Warren’s reckless plan, it will give us another data point for our I-can’t-believe-she-said-that collection.

But it turns out I may have been too nice in my analysis.

As reported by USA Today, independent researchers have discovered that Social Security is even more bankrupt than suggested by official estimates.

New studies from Harvard and Dartmouth researchers find that the SSA’s actuarial forecasts have been consistently overstating the financial health of the program’s trust funds since 2000. “These biases are getting bigger and they are substantial,” said Gary King, co-author of the studies and director of Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science. “[Social Security] is going to be insolvent before everyone thinks.” …Once the trust funds are drained, annual revenues from payroll tax would be projected to cover only three-quarters of scheduled Social Security benefits through 2088.

By the way, I’m not overly enamored with this analysis since it is based on the assumption that the Social Security Trust Fund is real when it’s really nothing but a collection of IOUs.

But if you don’t believe me, perhaps you’ll believe the Clinton Administration, which admitted back in 1999 (see page 337) that the Trust Fund is just a bookkeeping gimmick.

These balances are available to finance future benefit payments and other trust fund expenditures–but only in a bookkeeping sense. …They do not consist of real economic assets that can be drawn down in the future to fund benefits. Instead, they are claims on the Treasury, that, when redeemed, will have to be financed by raising taxes, borrowing from the public, or reducing benefits or other expenditures.

In other words, what really matters is that Social Security spending is climbing too fast and consuming an ever-larger share of economic output.

That means – in the absence of reform – that more and more money will be diverted from the economy’s productive sector, in the form of taxes or borrowing, to finance benefits.

And when I write “more and more money,” that’s not a throwaway statement.

Returning to the USA Today report, academic experts warn that the long-term shortfall in the program is understated because it is based on 75-year estimates even though the program doesn’t have an expiration date.

The bigger problem with the Social Security Administration is not disclosure, it’s accounting, said Laurence Kotlikoff, a Boston University professor of economics… Kotlikoff…wants the agency to calculate its liabilities using fiscal gap accounting, which considers the difference between the government’s projected financial obligations and the present value of all projected future tax and other revenue. …Under this accounting system, SSA’s projected unfunded liabilities would be $24.9 trillion (instead of the $10.6 trillion projected in 2088). …17 Nobel Prize-winning economists have endorsed Kotlikoff’s push for the SSA and other government agencies to use the fiscal gap accounting method more broadly. “We have a situation that is like Enron accounting,” Kotlikoff said. “And the public doesn’t want to hear about it.”

At the risk of being pedantic, I’m also not enamored with either approach mentioned in the above passage.

Sure, we should acknowledge all expenses and not arbitrarily assume the program disappears after 75 years, but the approach used to calculate “unfunded liabilities” is artificial since it is based on how much money would need to be invested today to finance future promised benefits (whether for 75 years or forever).

Needless to say, governments don’t budget by setting aside trillions of dollars to meet future expenses. Social Security, like other programs, is funded on a pay-as-you-go basis.

That’s why the most appropriate way to measure the shortfall is to take all projected future deficits, adjust them for inflation, and calculate the total. When you do that, the Social Security shortfall is a staggering $40 trillion.

And that’s based on just a 75-year estimate, so the real number is much higher.

Though keep in mind that this is just an estimate of the fiscal shortfall. What really matters is the total level of spending, not how much is financed with red ink.

Which is why the only real answer is genuine reform.

For further information, here’s the video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity on the need to modernize the system with personal retirement accounts.

But if you prefer to trust politicians, you can always support the left’s favored solution.

P.S. You can enjoy some previous Social Security cartoons here, here, and here. And we also have a Social Security joke if you appreciate grim humor.

P.P.S. The “Trust Fund” is real only in the sense that the government’s legal authority to pay benefits will be constrained when the IOUs are used up. That’s why the USA Today article says that the government at that point would be able to pay only about 3/4ths of promised benefits (though one imagines that future politicians will simply override that technical provision and require full payments).

P.P.P.S. Many nations have adopted genuine reform based on private retirement savings, including Australia, Sweden, the Faroe Islands, Chile, and The Netherlands.

P.P.P.P.S. Because of lower life expectancies, African-Americans are very disadvantaged by the Social Security system. A system of personal accounts presumably wouldn’t help them live longer, but at least they would have a nest egg to pass on to their kids.

P.P.P.P.P.S. And don’t fall for the false argument that financial markets are too unstable for personal retirement accounts

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What’s America’s main fiscal policy challenge, particularly in the long run?

Most sensible people will agree that our greatest threat is the rising burden of entitlement spending.

More specifically, demographic changes and ill-designed programs will combine to dramatically expand the size of the public sector over the next few decades.

So it’s really amazing that some politicians, led by the clownish Elizabeth Warren, want to dig the hole deeper.

Here are some excerpts from a recent article in the Washington Examiner.

Elizabeth Warren is pushing Democrats to expand Social Security rather than cut it, a move that could pressure presumed party frontrunner Hillary Clinton to move left. …”What Elizabeth Warren has done on pushing the ball forward on Social Security is another example of why she’s a bold progressive hero,” said T.J. Helmstetter, a representative for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, an outside group that pushes for progressive causes. …In March, almost all Democratic senators voted for a symbolic budget amendment to express support for expanding Social Security. …The messaging amendment approved by most Senate Democrats also did not specify how benefits were to be expanded.

I discussed this topic in a recent interview.

Though I’m surprised that my head didn’t explode while discussing such a reckless idea.

I closed the interview by expressing a modest bit of optimism.

Surely (at least I hope) politicians won’t dig the hole deeper when we can see right before our eyes the fiscal chaos and economic disarray in Greece, right?!?

I’m surprised demagogues such as Elizabeth Warren haven’t rallied behind a plan to simply add a bunch of zeroes to the IOUs already sitting in the so-called Social Security Trust Fund.

Fortunately, not all politicians think it’s smart to accelerate as you’re driving toward a cliff.

Writing in the Washington Post, Charles Lane explains Governor Christie’s proposal.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie…wants to campaign on a sweeping proposal to rein in federal entitlement spending on the elderly. …he urged a phaseout of Social Security benefits for retirees with $80,000 or more in other income and backed a gradual upward adjustment of the retirement ages for Medicare and Social Security, which is also appropriate, given increased life expectancy. …Social Security…remains a non-trivial cause of the government’s long-term fiscal imbalance. Its trust fund, admittedly an accounting fiction of sorts, is on course to run out of cash by the early 2030s. Christie’s plan would provide three-fifths of the resources necessary to guarantee Social Security’s solvency for 75 years

Kudos to Governor Christie for recognizing that you can’t repeal mathematics with politics.

And this modest bit of praise isn’t based on policy. I’m not a big fan of means testing, which has some unfortunate economic effects.

And I also think that raising the retirement age is sub-optimal since it forces people to pay longer into an inferior system that already is giving them a very low rate of return.

The right approach is to transition to a system of personal retirement accounts, but at least Christie has an adult proposal based on real-world considerations.

Though, to be fair, many leftists claim we can afford higher benefits and also “fix” the system with a giant tax increase. So they sometimes recognize that math exists, even if they want us to believe that 2 + 2 = 7.

P.S. If Hillary winds up endorsing Warren’s reckless plan, it will give us another data point for our I-can’t-believe-she-said-that collection.

P.P.S. Is Elizabeth Warren more of a faux populist or more of a faux American Indian?

P.P.P.S. You can enjoy some previous Social Security cartoons here, here, and here. And we also have a Social Security joke if you appreciate grim humor.

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I feel a bit schizophrenic when people ask me my opinion of Republicans on Capitol Hill.

When I’m in a good mood (or being naively optimistic, some might argue), I applaud them for blocking Obama’s spending agenda. The fights over sequestration, debt limits, and government shutdowns have made a real difference. The burden of government spending has dropped significantly since 2009.

But when I’m in a bad mood (or being too demanding, some might say), I get very agitated that Republicans seem unable to achieve easy victories, such as doing nothing and letting the corrupt Export-Import Bank disappear. And it makes me think they’re a bunch of big-government hacks.

The bottom line is that GOPers are both good and bad. Here’s what I wrote back in 2011 and it still applies today.

It’s almost like they have an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. They usually have some underlying principles, and they would like to do the right thing and make America a better place. Yet they also want to get reelected and accumulate power, and this lures them into casting votes that they know are bad for the country. Sometimes the devil has the most influence. During the Bush years, for instance, most Republicans on Capitol Hill went along with Bush’s bad proposals… Yet every so often the angel gets control. All Republicans, including the ones who were in office and doing the wrong thing during the Bush years, …vote for…budget[s]…which would limit the growth of federal spending and fundamentally reform Medicare and Medicaid.

So are the angels or devils winning?

That’s a judgement call, but here’s a slide I’ve shared in some of my speeches. It shows three issues that will get decided in 2015 and asks whether Congress will make the right choices.

The jury is still out on all three of these tests, but there are many reasons to worry.

I’ve already written about GOP flirtation with the gas tax, which is very disturbing since a decision not to raise the tax automatically reduces federal transportation spending, so it should be a win-win situation (assuming, of course, that Republicans believe in federalism and a smaller central government).

Now let’s look at the other two items on my list.

Republicans achieved a big victory with the sequester in 2013, but then gave Obama a big win by cancelling the sequester for 2014 and 2015.

Well, now they have to decide what to do for the 2016 fiscal year, which starts October 1. And there’s already pressure from the White House, as you can see from this news report, to replace real spending restraint with gimmicks and back-door tax hikes.

White House Budget Director Shaun Donovan said Thursday he sees a “hopeful possibility” that Congress and the White House will agree later this year to update the Ryan-Murray budget agreement of 2013 which increased the discretionary spending ceilings set in the Budget Control Act. …Donovan declined to say if any preliminary talks have begun to renew Ryan-Murray, but declared that President Barack Obama will insist the sequestration process be “reversed.” “We will not accept a budget that locks in sequestration,” Donovan said. …The White House budget calls for FY 2016 discretionary spending that is about $75 billion above the spending ceiling set by the 2011 law after the sequester was triggered.

You may be asking yourself why Republicans would consider – even for a nanosecond – giving Obama all that new spending?

Well, the problem is that some GOPers are big defense hawks and they complain, accurately, that Defense is less than one-fourth of the budget yet is has to absorb one-half of the sequester.

But considering that the United States and its allies still account for the overwhelming share of global defense outlays, I nonetheless think sequestration is a far better outcome than giving Obama carte blanche to squander and extra $75 billion.

But it remains to be seen what will happen.

Now let’s contemplate the third test for the GOP.

Will the Senate commit to entitlement reform? The answer is…not really, but maybe.

Here’s what The Hill has reported.

Senate Republicans will not include detailed plans to overhaul entitlement programs when they unveil their first budget in nearly a decade this week, according to GOP sources. The decision would break from Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) House budgets from recent years, which Democrats used to pound Republican candidates in the 2012 and 2014 elections. …The GOP budget would balance in 10 years, according to GOP lawmakers familiar with the document, but it will only propose savings to be achieved in Medicare and Medicaid, without spelling out specific reforms as Ryan and House Republicans did in recent budgets.

In other words, the bad news is that Senate GOPers are not going to embrace the specific Medicare and Medicaid reforms that have been included in House-passed Republican budgets.

But the good (or hopeful, to be more accurate) news is that the Senate budget will call for a somewhat similar level of spending restraint. So that means the possibility of good entitlement reform will still exist.

By the way, the reason this is so important is that we may have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to actually enact desperately needed fiscal reforms in 2017. This is why it’s so critical that GOPers not get wobbly and regress into being Bush-type big-government conservatives.

I explain further in this interview I had with the Institute of Economic Affairs on my most recent trip to London.

Incidentally, I’m not exaggerating in the interview when I warn that the United States may turn into Greece if we don’t seize the opportunity to make reforms and slow the growth of government. If you don’t believe me, check out these sobering estimates of long-run fiscal chaos from  the IMF, BIS, and OECD.

P.S. I’m sometimes asked whether the GOP leadership is part of the problem or part of the solution. That’s not my area of expertise, but I will say that Boehner and McConnell basically represent the consensus of their respective members, so it’s unrealistic to expect them to vote or behave like Justin Amash and Rand Paul. Sure, I wish they would be more aggressive on certain issues, such as killing the Export-Import Bank or ending subsidized terrorism insurance. And I wish they weren’t so timid about confrontations with Obama since there’s a strong argument to be made that they wound up as winners from the 2013 shutdown battle. That being said, what really matters if what they would do in 2017 if there was a President who wanted real reform. And on that score, I have confidence that Boehner and McConnell would do the right thing, twisting arms and knocking heads if necessary to get their colleagues to save America from becoming Greece.

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Bad ideas definitely have the ability to cross borders.

The income tax first appeared in England, on a temporary basis during the Napoleanic wars and then permanently in 1842. It then spread like a cancer to other parts of the world, eventually reaching – and plaguing – the United States starting in 1913.

Government-run Social Security schemes were started by the Germans in 1889 under Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Similar programs then were adopted elsewhere, including the United States as part of FDR’s misguided New Deal in 1935.

Now we have another example.

I wrote last month about how the State Department’s refugee program is a trainwreck because it is bringing Somalis (many of whom have an anti-Western ideology) to America and trapping them in government dependency with a plethora of handouts (and also creating a breeding ground for terrorists).

Well, our cousins in the United Kingdom also have a refugee program that is similarly counterproductive.

I don’t know which country was dumb enough to first create its program, but the Brits win the prize for subsidizing the most infamous terrorist (and new member of the Moocher Hall of Fame).

Here are some excerpts from a story in the U.K.-based Daily Mail.

Jihadi John and his asylum-seeking family have milked the British benefits system for 20 years, the Mail can reveal today. Housing the Islamic State executioner and his relatives in affluent parts of London has cost taxpayers up to £400,000. One landlord said Mohammed Emwazi’s family were ‘parasites’ and ‘tenants from hell’. Incredibly, they are still believed to be pocketing £40,000 a year in handouts despite there being no sign of them in Britain. …Westminster City Council is still paying the rent on the family’s £600,000 flat even though the rules say housing benefit should normally be stopped after 13 weeks.

So did all these handouts to the Emwazi family turn them into good citizens?

Hardly. One of the kids, Mohammed Emwazi has gone to the Middle East to fight for ISIS and is now infamous at “Jihadi John,” the psychopath that beheads innocent people.

MPs said they were horrified that the child of a family given refugee status, citizenship and benefits had returned the favour by orchestrating the murder of two of its citizens. …In sickening propaganda videos, his son led the beheadings of Britons Alan Henning and David Haines.

But even if Jihadi John hadn’t turned into a nutjob, British taxpayers still got a very bad deal from the Emwazi clan.

The family apparently is still on the dole, continuing an unbroken 20-year tradition of mooching off British taxpayers.

During their time in Britain, neither Jasem nor Ghaneya officially worked. …With a 12-year-old daughter, Hana, they are still believed to be claiming an estimated £7,821 a year in child benefits and child tax credits. That is on top of annual claims of about £23,400 in housing benefit, £678 in council tax support and £5,929 in jobseeker’s allowance.

Looking at this result, logical people might be tempted conclude that it’s time to rethink refugee programs.

Or, at the very least, change the rules that funnel these people into government dependency.

But since many politicians aren’t logical, there are probably British versions of Barack Obama who are urging job training programs or similar nonsense (for a humorous take on that topic, see the cartoons at the bottom of this post).

P.S. Jihadi John featured in one of the most effectively snarky anti-Obama cartoons I’ve ever seen, which is at the end of this post.

P.P.S. Switching to a different topic, I’ve written (some would say ad nauseam) about disproportionately generous pay and benefits for government bureaucrats. Particularly for the gilded class in Washington.

I think the evidence for excessive bureaucratic compensation is ironclad, particularly if you look at “quit rates” by sector.

But now we have yet another piece of evidence that the federal workforce is living on Easy Street. Check out this new polling data from Gallup.

Remember, this is polling data with federal workers describing their own status, not what taxpayers think.

So let’s give 44 percent of bureaucrats credit for honesty, which is ironic because bureaucrats in polls have acknowledged they’re more likely to be dishonest! And lazy as well.

Though the real moral of the story is not compensation. As I explain at the end of this video, the real problem is that many government jobs shouldn’t exist in the first place.

P.P.P.S. If you want to enjoy bureaucrat humor, click here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

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