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Archive for the ‘Medicare’ Category

In a strange way, I admire Bernie Sanders. He openly embraces big government. Back during the 2016 campaign, I frequently observed that the difference between the Vermont Senator and Hillary Clinton is that he wanted America to become Greece at a much faster rate.

Well, he just installed a turbo-charged engine and stepped on the accelerator. He’s proposed a single-payer healthcare scheme that is being called “Medicare for all.”

According to Sanders and other advocates, the government’s health system is a good role model: People pay a tax while working and they get health care when they’re old. But there’s a not-so-slight problem with that approach. For every dollar that Medicare recipients paid to the program, taxpayers are financing three dollars of spending.

That approach is workable (though only in the short run) for Medicare. But it won’t work if government is paying for everyone’s health care.

So even Bernie admits that a tax increase will be necessary. And not just any tax hike. He’s proposing the biggest tax hike in the history of the United States. Heck, it’s the biggest tax hike in world history. Here are some of the frightening details, as reported by the Washington Post.

The Medicare for All legislation backed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and 16 Senate Democrats does not include details on how it might be paid for. …Sanders’s Senate office released a white paper on possible ways to pay for the legislation.

He starts with a giant payroll tax of 11.5 percent (on top of the 15.3 percent payroll tax that already exists).

The taxes themselves would fall on both employers and employees. Sanders floats the idea of a 7.5 percent tax on employers… Another tax, of 4 percent, would hit individuals.

To understand what this means, just contemplate the disastrous impact of Obamacare on the job market.

Sanders also has a big class-warfare tax hike.

The next big slice of funding: higher tax rates on the very wealthy. Income…$250,000…higher…would be hit harder, on an upward sliding scale, ending at a 52 percent tax on income over $10 million.

By the way, imposing a tax is the easy part. Collecting revenue will be a much harder task, especially since Sanders wants to take the very successful experiment of the 1980s and run it in reverse. He also wants a big levy on banks (foreign financial institutions are probably praying for that outcome), an extra layer of tax on American companies competing in world markets (foreign corporations are cheering for that one), along with a huge boost in the death tax and the imposition of a wealth tax (lawyers and accountants doubtlessly are licking their chops).

Sanders imagines a tax on financial institutions worth more than $50 billion, a one-time tax on offshore profits (an idea that is continually floated then sunk in tax reform negotiations), a higher estate tax (topping out at 55 percent), and a 1 percent wealth tax on the richest 0.1 percent of households.

That’s all the tax hikes listed in the Washington Post story, but Sanders also has some additional material on his office website.

A huge increase in the double taxation of dividends and capital gains (particularly when you consider that personal tax rates will be much higher.

…end the special tax break for capital gains and dividends on household income above $250,000, treating this income the same as income earned from working.

A restriction on itemized deductions.

…itemized deductions would be capped at 28 percent for households making over $250,000. In other words, for every dollar in tax deduction a high-income household could save at most 28 cents.

For what it’s worth, I don’t like the state and local tax deduction and the charitable deduction, and I also don’t like preferences for housing.

But I want to eliminate such distortions only if the revenue is used to finance lower tax rates, not to finance bigger government.

That being said, let’s get back to our list. Sanders has a special tax targeting small business.

…ensure that all business income of high-income people would be subject to the existing 3.8 percent tax to fund Medicare, either through the net investment income tax or the additional Medicare tax on earned income.

Last but not least, he wants to skim $112 billion over 10 years from corporations by manipulating accounting rules.

…eliminate the “last-in, first-out” (LIFO) accounting method.

The bottom line is that Sanders, in one fell swoop, would saddle America with a European-sized government. And that would mean European-level taxes. The only thing that’s missing is he didn’t propose a value-added tax.

Though I’m sure that would get added to the mix since the huge increase in the government’s fiscal burden would retard growth. And since that would mean sluggish revenue, politicians would seek another way to extract more money from the economy’s productive sector.

P.S. I’m a policy wonk rather than a political tactician, but my guess is that Bernie is misreading the mood of the American people. Yes, “free” healthcare sounds nice, but people get understandably scared when they get a price tag. This is why single-payer was repealed in Bernie’s home state. And it’s why Colorado voters rejected a similar scheme by a landslide margin.

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I sometimes feel like a broken record about entitlement programs. How many times, after all, can I point out that America is on a path to become a decrepit European-style welfare state because of a combination of demographic changes and poorly designed entitlement programs?

But I can’t help myself. I feel like I’m watching a surreal version of Titanic where the captain and crew know in advance that the ship will hit the iceberg, yet they’re still allowing passengers to board and still planning the same route. And in this dystopian version of the movie, the tickets actually warn the passengers that tragedy will strike, but most of them don’t bother to read the fine print because they are distracted by the promise of fancy buffets and free drinks.

We now have the book version of this grim movie. It’s called The 2017 Long-Term Budget Outlook and it was just released today by the Congressional Budget Office.

If you’re a fiscal policy wonk, it’s an exciting publication. If you’re a normal human being, it’s a turgid collection of depressing data.

But maybe, just maybe, the data is so depressing that both the electorate and politicians will wake up and realize something needs to change.

I’ve selected six charts and images from the new CBO report, all of which highlight America’s grim fiscal future.

The first chart simply shows where we are right now and where we will be in 30 years if policy is left on autopilot. The most important takeaway is that the burden of government spending is going to increase significantly.

Interestingly, even CBO openly acknowledges that rising levels of red ink are caused solely by the fact that spending is projected to increase faster than revenue.

And it’s also worth noting that revenues are going up, even without any additional tax increases.

The bottom part of this chart shows that revenues from the income tax will climb by about 2 percent of GDP. In other words, more than 100 percent of our long-run fiscal mess is due to higher levels of government spending. So it’s absurd to think the solution should involve higher taxes.

This next image digs into the details. We can see that the spending burden is rising because of Social Security and the health entitlements. By the way, the top middle column on “other noninterest spending” shows one thing that is real, which is that defense spending has fallen as a share of GDP since the mid-1960s, and one thing that may not be real, which is that politicians somehow will limit domestic discretionary spending over the next three decades.

This bottom left part of the image also gives the details on built-in growth in revenues from the income tax, further underscoring that we don’t have a problem of inadequate revenue.

Here’s a chart that shows that our main problem is Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare.

Last but not least, here’s a graphic that shows the amount of fiscal policy changes that would be needed to either reduce or stabilize government debt.

I think that’s the wrong goal, and that instead the focus should be on reducing or stabilizing the burden of government spending, but I’m sharing this chart because it shows that spending would have to be lowered by 3.1 percent of GDP to put the nation on a good fiscal path.

Some folks think that might be impossible, but I’ll simply point out that the five-year de facto spending freeze that we achieved from 2009-2014 actually reduced the burden of government spending by a greater amount. In other words, the payoff from genuine spending restraint is enormous.

The bottom line is very simple.

We need to invoke my Golden Rule so that government grows slower than the private sector. In the long run, that will require genuine entitlement reform.

Or we can let America become Greece.

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Government intervention has messed up the healthcare sector, leading to needlessly high prices and massive inefficiency.

Fixing the mess won’t be easy since it would involve addressing several contributing problems, including Medicare, Medicaid, the healthcare exclusion in the tax code, Obamacare, and the mess at the Veterans Administration.

But at least we know the right solutions. We need entitlement reform and tax reform in order to restore a genuine free market and solve the government-created third-party payer crisis.

And to bolster the case for reform, we’re going to look at three new examples of how government intervention makes the healthcare system worse rather than better.

For our first example, let’s look at a new report from the National Center for Policy Analysis, which compares what happens when the federal government decides to build a hospital with a similar project constructed by a local government with private-sector involvement.

We’ll start with a look at Veterans Administration project.

…the VA hospital in Denver, Colorado, was run-down, crowded and outdated. …the VA considered renovating the medical facilities of the Fitzsimons Army Medical Center at a cost of $30 million. Then, the University of Colorado Hospital offered to open jointly-operated facilities for $200 million. VA officials passed on both ideas due to cost concerns. Instead, officials sought and received approval for a stand-alone facility.

That decision was very costly for taxpayers.

The VA failed to produce a design that could be built for its budget of $604 million, ultimately causing a budget-busting $1 billion overrun. …Soon, the plan to build an affordable replacement morphed into the most extravagant and expensive hospital construction project in VA history.

And, as is typical of government projects, the cost to taxpayers was far higher than initial estimates used to justify the project.

Now let’s look at another project, this one in Dallas, Texas.

…the original Parkland Hospital was built in Dallas to serve the young city’s indigent population. …its aging facilities could no longer meet the demand of 1 million patients admitted each year. …The project to rebuild Parkland, split roughly 60/40 in revenue sources, was accountable to both the public and its private donors. …Project managers hired an independent auditor to monitor all project transactions. Budget progress reports were made available to both Parkland’s Board and the public.

The final outcome was far from perfect (after all, local governments are also quite capable of wasting money). But the involvement of the private sector, combined with the fact that the local government was spending its own money, created incentives for a much better outcome.

On the first day of construction, Parkland’s project team was $100 million over budget. But a flexible design, and a willingness to balance needs and wants, allowed the team to deliver a larger, more cost-effective hospital than originally conceived for a mere 6 percent increase in budget.

And here’s a chart from the NCPA report that perfectly captures the difference between the federal government and a project involving a local government and the private sector.

Can you think of a better argument for local private-public partnerships over the federal government?

Yet policy keeps moving in the wrong direction in Washington.

The Obamacare boondoggle was all about increasing the federal government’s control and intervention in the healthcare sector.

And this brings us to our second not-so-great example of government-run healthcare.

The New York Times has a story with a real-world example showing how the President’s failed legislation is hurting small businesses.

LaRonda Hunter…envisioned…a small regional collection of salons. As her sales grew, so did her business, which now encompasses four locations — but her plans for a fifth salon are frozen, perhaps permanently.

And why can’t she expand her business and create jobs?

Because Obamacare makes it impossible.

Starting in January, the Affordable Care Act requires businesses with 50 or more full-time-equivalent employees to offer workers health insurance or face penalties that can exceed $2,000 per employee. Ms. Hunter, who has 45 employees, is determined not to cross that threshold. Paying for health insurance would wipe out her company’s profit and the five-figure salary she pays herself from it, she said.

And Ms. Hunter is just the tip of the iceberg.

For some business owners on the edge of the cutoff, the mandate is forcing them to weigh very carefully the price of growing bigger. “There’s kind of a deer-in-headlights moment for those who say, ‘I have this new potential client, but if I bring them on, I have to hire five additional people,’” said Philip P. Noftsinger, the payroll unit president at CBIZ, a financial services provider for businesses. “They’re really trying to assess how much the 50th employee is going to cost. …Added to that cost are the administrative requirements. Starting this year, all companies with 50 or more full-time workers — even those not yet required to offer health benefits — must file new tax forms with the Internal Revenue Service that provide details on employee head count and any health insurance offered. Gathering the data requires meticulous record-keeping. “These are some of the most complex informational returns we’ve ever seen,” said Roger Prince, a tax lawyer.

Here’s another real-world example.

The expense and distraction of all that paperwork is one of the biggest frustrations for one business owner, Joseph P. Sergio. …He is reluctant to go over the 50-employee line and incur all of the new rules that come with it. That makes bidding for new jobs an arduous and risky exercise. …”If you ramp up, and it pushes you over 50, there’s all these unknown costs and complicated rules. Are we really going to be able to benefit from going after that opportunity? It freezes you at a time when you need to be moving fast.”

And don’t forget that while Obamacare discourages entrepreneurs from creating jobs, it also discourages people from seeking jobs.

That’s the kind of two-for-one special that’s only possible with big government!

Now that we’ve cited examples of bad policy from the Veterans Administration and Obamacare, let’s turn to Medicare for our third example.

Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center writes about rampant Medicare fraud in her syndicated column.

Medicare is rife with fraud, and every year, billions of dollars are improperly paid out by the federal government’s giant health care bureaucracy. According to the government’s latest estimates, Medicare fee-for-service (parts A and B) made $46 billion in improper payments last year. And Medicare Advantage (Part C) and Medicare Prescription Drug Coverage (Part D) combined for another $15 billion in improper payments. Even more disturbing is the possibility that these numbers underestimate the annual losses to taxpayers from fraud and bureaucratic bungling. According to the work of Harvard University’s Malcolm Sparrow, fraud could account for as much as 20 percent of total federal health care spending, which would be considerably higher than what the government’s figures indicate.

None of this should be a surprise. Medicare has a notorious history of waste, fraud, and abuse.

But there is a glimmer of good news. There’s actually a program to identify and recover wasted funds.

The RAC program is geared toward correcting improper payments… The auditors thus pay for themselves with the money they recoup instead of simply being handed a lump-sum check. That the RAC program has an incentive to reduce wasteful spending and save taxpayers money makes it fairly unusual among government initiatives.

Unfortunately, no good deed goes unpunished in Washington.

…bureaucrats are set to greatly diminish the program’s effectiveness in 2016. Rather than empower these fraud hunters, they are drastically reducing the number of paid claims that auditors can review every 45 days (from 2 percent down to just 0.5 percent). The new limits will make it that much harder for auditors — whose cost already amounts to just a drop in the bucket — to recoup taxpayer losses.

I’ve also written about this absurd effort to curtail the RAC program, but Veronique makes a critically important observation that has widespread applicability to so much of what happens with government.

Agency failure is routinely rewarded in Washington with bigger budgets and greater authority, but here success will not be.

This, in a nutshell, is the difference between the private sector and the government.

In my speeches, I sometimes point out that people in the private economy make mistakes all the time, but I also explain that the incentive to earn profits and avoid losses creates a powerful incentive structure to quickly learn from mistakes.

That means resources quickly get reallocated in ways that are more likely to boost economic efficiency and increase growth and living standards.

In government, by contrast, this process is reversed. Bureaucrats and politicians reflexively argue that failure simply means that budgets should be expanded.

All of which explains why these cartoons are such perfect depictions of government.

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Yesterday, I shared several stories that exposed the festering corruption of Washington.

Today, let’s look at one issue that symbolizes the pervasive waste of Washington.

Medicare is the federal government’s one-size-fits-all health program for the elderly. Because of its poor design, it bears considerable responsibility for two massive problems.

  1. It contributes to the systemic third-party payer problem in American health care.
  2. It exacerbates America’s long-run challenge of excessive entitlement spending.

But there’s another issue. Medicare also has a very serious problem with fraud. As is so often the case with government programs, the offer of free money encourages unethical behavior.

Well, we have some good news and bad news about Medicare fraud.

As reported by the Wall Street Journal, the good news is that there is a small effort to catch fraudsters who bilk taxpayers.

Recovery audit contractors, as they are known, recouped $2.4 billion in improper payments in 2014, down from $3.7 billion in 2013 before the agency scaled back other audit activities and temporarily suspended the program… Those recoveries represent just a fraction of the total amount Medicare estimates it spends on incorrect payments. The Medicare program made $58 billion in improper payments to medical providers and health plans in 2014, according to PaymentAccuracy.gov, a federal website that tracks agencies’ estimates of waste.

But the bad news is this small program is being curtailed.

The federal Medicare agency is sharply cutting back the work of auditors that review hospital claims and seek to recoup improper payments for the government… Starting in January, the auditors will be able to review only 0.5% of the claims the agency pays to each hospital or provider every 45 days, according to an Oct. 28 letter to the contractors. That is a quarter of the prior threshold: 2% of claims. The contractors say the new directive, in what is known as a “technical direction letter,” will further limit their ability to pursue undue payments.

Readers are probably wondering why this effort is being hamstrung instead of expanded.

Well, you won’t be surprised to learn that the folks who benefit from waste want to keep the gravy train rolling.

The latest step is a sign of how the $600-billion-a-year Medicare program can struggle to effectively rein in improper payments, fraud and waste, sometimes under pressure from medical providers… The Medicare agency “is getting a lot of pressure from the provider community to scale back the [audit] program,” said Kristin Walter… Hospital representatives welcomed further restrictions on the auditors.

Sort of like burglars welcoming “further restrictions” on police officers.

Unfortunately, the interest groups benefiting from waste and fraud have allies in government.

The American Thinker has a nauseating story about the fraudulent actions of a hospital in Houston

The president of Riverside, his son, and five others were arrested on October 4 as part of a nationwide Medicare fraud sweep.  Earnest Gibson III, chief executive officer of Riverside General Hospital for 30 years, has been charged with bilking $158 million out of Medicare over the last seven years. …Friday’s arrests at Riverside came nine months after the arrest of Mohammad Khan, the hospital’s acting administrator, who pled guilty to his role in the Medicare fraud scheme…the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services suspended payments to Riverside.

You may be wondering why this is a nauseating story when it appears that some bad guys were nailed for screwing taxpayers.

Well, now we get to the disgusting part. A politician in Washington has been fighting to enable that bad behavior.

Sheila Jackson Lee, congresswoman for Houston’s 18th district…wrote CMS Acting Director Marilyn Tavenner requesting she reconsider the agency’s decision. …Jackson Lee…asks taxpayers who have already been bilked out of hundreds of millions of dollars to pour more money into a…hospital run by alleged crooks…while administrators and politicians rake in more dough.

Sadly, the Congresswoman’s political pressure generated results.

…a month after Jackson Lee appealed to CMS…, 70% of the hospital’s Medicare payments were restored.  CMS lifted the suspension even though federal investigators were only two months away from arresting Gibson and the others.  Jackson Lee’s intervention seems to have caused even more taxpayer monies to be directed toward a hospital brimming with corruption. …This is why Washington, D.C. is broken.  Like Jackson Lee, too many politicians think that redistributing other people’s hard-earned money into the pockets of potential felons is okay as long as they get political benefit.

By the way, it’s not just Democrats. The Daily Surge reports that some Republicans are helping providers rip off taxpayers.

…efforts to rid Medicare of waste, fraud and abuse have been stymied by the power of the hospital lobby that refuses to payback excessive payments made by Medicare and are working with friends and allies in government to ensure the improper payments are never returned to the taxpayers. …at least one GOP members, Rep. Sam Graves (R-MO) has actually introduced legislation further limiting the ability of the auditors to sniff out waste. His bill would block audits of Medicare providers unless their estimated error rate exceeded 40% of total billing. More than one third of all Medicare bills would have fraudulent before an audit could be triggered. So much for good government.

Ugh, makes me want to take a shower.

So what’s the bottom line? Unfortunately, fraud is an inherent part of government. When politicians create redistribution programs, amoral and immoral people will figure out ways to maximize their share of the loot.

In the case of Medicare, it means that providers have huge incentives to over-charge, over-diagnose, over-treat, and over-test.

After all, thanks to third-party payer, the patient doesn’t care.

That’s why I’m in favor of programs to combat fraud. And the RAC program doesn’t even cost taxpayers any money since the auditors are compensated by getting a slice of the improper payments that are recovered.

Imagine that, a policy where the incentives are to save money for taxpayers!

However, the only long-run and permanent solution is to shrink the size of government.

And that’s why it’s time to restructure Medicare. We have 50 years of evidence that the current approach doesn’t work.

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Not all birthdays are a cause for untrammeled joy. Most of us baby boomers, for instance, don’t like being reminded that we’re getting older.

And for folks who follow fiscal policy, the fact that Medicare is now 50 years old is hardly a cause for celebration. That’s because the program, as one of the three big entitlement programs, will turn American into Greece without substantial structural reform.

But it’s not just a budgetary issue.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Sally Pipes of the Pacific Research Institute opines that this isn’t a happy birthday for taxpayers, seniors, or the healthcare system.

The only birthday gift this middle-age government program merits is a reality check. Health insurance for senior citizens was part of LBJ’s expansion of the welfare state, all in the service of establishing a “Great Society.” Yet many beneficiaries today are struggling to secure access to high-quality care. Future beneficiaries, meanwhile, are forking over billions of dollars today to keep a program afloat that may be bankrupt when they retire.

Like many government programs, it is far more expensive than initially promised.

Medicare spending has zoomed far beyond original expectations and is now anything but sustainable. In its first year, 1966, Medicare spent $3 billion. In 1967 the House Ways and Means Committee predicted that the program would cost $12 billion by 1990. It ended up costing $110 billion that year. Last year the program cost $511 billion, and seven years from now it will double to more than $1 trillion, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

And like many government programs, it is riddled with waste, fraud, and abuse.

Medicare has been dogged by fraud and other improper payments—$60 billion overall in fiscal 2014, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office.

You can click here if you want some jaw-dropping examples of how the program squanders money.

Moreover, many doctors don’t want to treat Medicare recipients because they lose money after you included the expense of accompanying paperwork and regulations.

…nearly three in 10 seniors on Medicare struggle to find a primary-care doctor who will treat them, according to the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission. Another survey conducted by Jackson Healthcare, the health-care staffing company, found that 10% of the more than 2,000 physicians it surveyed don’t see Medicare patients at all.

So what’s the solution?

We’ve tried price controls and that doesn’t work.

Other approaches also won’t be adequate. So the only answer, Sally explains, is to shift to a form of vouchers sometimes called “premium support.”

…tweaking the eligibility age won’t be enough. If Medicare is to survive into old age, the program has to be converted from an open-ended entitlement to a system of means-tested vouchers. Under such a system, the government would give every senior a voucher based on health status, income and age. Seniors in better health and those who are wealthy would receive smaller vouchers. Sicker or needier seniors would receive larger ones. Seniors would then choose from among privately administered health plans the one that best suited their needs and budget. Insurers would have to compete for beneficiaries’ business, and providers would have to compete to get on the most popular plans. Lower prices and better-quality care would be the result.

Grace-Marie Turner of the Galen Institute and Merrill Matthews of the Institute for Policy Innovation have a similarly pessimistic perspective.

In a column for Investor’s Business Daily, they highlight some of the same problems with cost and quality, but they also add important insight about how Medicare has caused rising health care costs.

…health economist Theodore Marmor pointed out: “Hospital price increases presented the most intractable political problem for the Johnson administration. In the first year of Medicare’s operation, the average daily service charge in America’s hospitals increased by an unprecedented 21.9%. Each month the Labor Department’s consumer price survey reported further increases…”

Gee, what a surprise. With Uncle Sam picking up the tab, normal market forces were eroded and providers responded by jacking up prices.

The federal government has responded with price controls, but that’s been predictably ineffective.

Congress imposed a type of price-control mechanism in 1983 called Diagnostic Related Groups, or DRGs. And in the early 1990s, Congress tried to cut spending on physicians by creating the Resource Based Relative Value Scale. Then there was the infamous Medicare “Sustainable Growth Rate,” later dubbed the “doc fix,” which passed in 1996 to contain Medicare spending by cutting doctors’ fees. It was repealed only recently, after Congress had postponed the vote 17 times.

So what’s the bottom line?

Government involvement dramatically increases spending, followed by clampdowns on soaring prices, leading to restrictions on doctors and patients. Perhaps next time, we might try market forces rather than another failed effort at centralized government programs.

Or we can simply leave policy on autopilot and somehow have faith that Obamacare’s death panels will “solve” the problem.

P.S. Here’s the video I narrated which explains the importance of the right kind of Medicare reform.

And if you want (what I think) is a very good description of the program, it’s that Medicare charges seniors for a hamburger and gives them a hamburger, but taxpayers are getting a bill for a steak.

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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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I’m very worried about the burden of government spending.

Moreover, I’m quite concerned that poorly designed entitlement programs will lead to fiscal disaster.

And I’m especially irked that Obama made the problem worse by ramming through yet another misguided and costly health care entitlement.

Given this background, you can imagine that I was very interested (and depressed) to see that Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center put together some very important charts and analysis based on new fiscal policy projections.

After crunching the new numbers from CBO, here’s her bottom line conclusion.

…data from the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) recently released update to its Budget and Economic Outlook to show the trends and components of projected revenue and outlay increases. …growing entitlement obligations and net interest payments are projected to push outlays (spending) to grow faster than revenues over much of the next decade.

She also produced a chart showing the ever-rising burden of both taxes and spending. Pay close attention to how the numbers get worse at a rapid rate over the next 10 years.

There are two important takeaways from this data.

First, it should be abundantly clear that Washington is not suffering from inadequate tax revenue. Receipts are projected to rise in nominal dollars, in inflation-adjusted dollars, and as a share of GDP.

In other words, America’s long-run fiscal problems are solely a result of a rising burden of government spending.

Second, on the topic of government spending, it’s important to understand that the problem is overwhelmingly caused by entitlement programs. Social Security is part of the problem, but the real issue is government-run healthcare.

The President claimed Obamacare would “bend the cost curve.” But he wasn’t truthful since the White House implied the legislation would bend the curve down rather than up.

Here’s a second chart showing the breakdown of various spending categories.

As you can see, the problem is entitlements. And the healthcare entitlements deserve the lion’s share of the blame.

If this chart isn’t sufficiently depressing, then keep in mind that the numbers get even worse after 2024.

Simply states, the United States is doomed to become another Greece in the absence of genuine entitlement reform.

But let’s focus just on the next 10 years. Ms. de Rugy adds some detail.

…CBO projects three large budget categories—major health care programs (consisting of Medicare, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and subsidies for health insurance), Social Security, and net interest payments on the debt—will account for 85 percent of the total increase in outlays from 2014 to 2024. Total outlays are projected to increase from roughly $3.5 trillion in 2014 to $5.8 trillion in 2024, for a total increase of $2.3 trillion. Major health care programs are projected to grow by $816 billion, which accounts for 32 percent of the total. Social Security spending will grow by $654.9 billion over the next decade, which constitutes 28 percent of the total increase in outlays.

Let’s close, though, with some good news.

The numbers in the previous charts are all based on what happens if government policy is left on autopilot.

But what happens if politicians impose a modest bit of spending restraint?

According to the latest CBO forecast, inflation is supposed to average almost 2 percent over the next 10 years. So if some sort of spending cap is imposed and outlays “only” grow by a commensurate amount, it turns out that there’s a remarkably quick change in America’s fiscal profile.

As seen in this chart, there’s a budget surplus by 2019. And more important, government spending by 2024 is about $1.5 trillion lower than it would be with the budget left on autopilot.

Here’s a video from a few years ago. The numbers are out of date, but the underlying analysis is still completely appropriate. Simply stated, it’s very easy to balance the budget if politicians simply follow the Golden Rule of spending restraint.

P.S. Since this was a somewhat depressing topic, let’s close with some humor.

A few years ago, I shared a satirical application form for bailout money from Uncle Sam. Well, the New Yorker has an application quiz for Syrian rebels seeking American dollars.

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