Thursday, August 25, 2011
The rising impatience with the leadership of President Obama was epitomized on Aug. 8 in the middle of one of the now-habitual Wall Street roller coasters. His speech on the economy was 53 minutes late. What showed on TV screens was an empty White House podium, an image suggestive of the absence of leadership. When the president did speak, the best he could come up with was "We've always been and always will be a triple-A country." The market's response was a Bronx cheer, a drop of another 300 points.
Mr. Obama seems unable to get a firm grip on the toughest issue facing his presidency and the country—the economy. He now asserts he is going to "pivot" to jobs. Now we pivot to jobs? When there are already 25 million Americans who are either unemployed or cannot find full-time work? Does this president not appreciate what is going on?
Fewer Americans are working full-time today than when Mr. Obama took office. We have lost over 900,000 full-time jobs in the last four months alone, and long-term unemployment is at a post-World War II high. The public's faith in his ability to deal with the economy has plunged. As Doyle McManus of the L.A. Times put it, "Can this president persuade voters to let him keep his job when so many have lost theirs?" Even Jimmy Carter didn't plumb the depths of national dissatisfaction revealed in the stunning Gallup poll taken Aug. 11-13. The president's approval rating was only 39% with a mere 26% approving of his handling of the economy.
Meanwhile, everyone in the business world is pleading for some kind of adult supervision to build a national platform for sustained growth that includes a long-term fiscal plan that addresses our ballooning debt. They are desperate for strong leadership and feel that all we are getting out of Washington is a lot of noise as Democrats and Republicans blame one another.
Since the president is the one who represents all of America and all Americans, the buck stops with him rather than with the Congress. It is the president's job to offer a coherent program for the twin threats of a static economy and an unsustainable explosion of our debts and deficits. But the only core issue on which he took a clear position in the recent debt-ceiling negotiations was that it would have to include new taxes on the wealthy—and he didn't even hold to that.
He made the politically tested and calculated statement that if you raise taxes on billionaires and millionaires you could solve the problem. This is not so. Even for those who support higher taxes on the wealthy, as I do, we must remember that we have an income tax system in which fully half the "taxpayers" pay no tax at all, and in which the variety of loopholes cries out for a real reform of the tax code. Even if the government instituted a 100% tax on both corporate profits and personal incomes above $250,000 per year, it would yield enough revenue to run the government for only six months. Why? Because under Mr. Obama's presidency, government spending has swelled to 24% of GDP from 18%.
With the recovery sputtering, the White House and its allies have been blaming government spending cuts, or what the neo-Keynesians call "fiscal contraction." This is a dubious economic theory even if spending were being cut, but yesterday's mid-year report from the Congressional Budget Office shows definitively that there's been nothing close to contraction in Washington.
That's the real news in the CBO numbers, which show that spending in fiscal 2011 (which ends on September 30) will hit a new high of $3.6 trillion, up $141 billion from 2010. That's higher than the previous record in 2009 of $3.5 trillion, which was supposed to be the peak of the "temporary" stimulus spending.
As the nearby chart shows, that is also nearly $900 billion more spending than in 2007. Total federal outlays will have increased by roughly one third in a mere four years. This hasn't happened since the Great Inflation of the late 1970s.
Give President Obama and the two Pelosi Congresses credit for this much: They said they would spend our way out of recession, and they sure gave it the old Beltway try. The problem is that we got the spending without the promised economic growth.
This is the real cause of our current deficit and debt woes. As a share of the economy, spending will once again come in at nearly 23.8%, up from 20.7% as recently as 2008. Defense spending is expected to increase by only $14 billion to $703 billion in 2011, despite the surge in Afghanistan. The bigger increases are in Medicare, Medicaid, and the usual panoply of entitlements and other payments to individuals.
All of this means the deficit will roll in at nearly $1.3 trillion, or 8.5% of GDP this year. That's down a mere $10 billion from fiscal 2010, and we suppose taxpayers should be grateful for small fiscal favors.
The reason for this small deficit dip is that total tax revenues will climb in fiscal 2011 by about $150 billion. Individual income tax receipts will increase this year by about 21%, or $190 billion, though tax rates have stayed the same. Even with this good news, revenues will still come in at only 15.3% of GDP, which is far below the modern historical average of more than 18%.
Revenues would have been about $115 billion higher without the temporary payroll tax cut pressed by President Obama. But that tax cut hasn't provided any economic lift, and overall growth simply isn't fast enough to get revenues back to normal. Merely returning to an average economic expansion would reduce the deficit by 3% of GDP a year, or hundreds of billions of dollars.
Looking forward, CBO forecasts a sunnier fiscal picture, but it is based on assumptions that will never come true. The deficit is projected to fall to $973 billion in fiscal 2012, then fall again to $510 billion in 2013, and to a mere $265 billion in 2014.
But this assumes that federal spending will grow by only $12 billion in 2012, a level of spending control that even Ronald Reagan never achieved. President Obama wants much more spending next year and so does the Senate. Oh, and Medicare payments to doctors will fall by nearly 30% starting in 2012. Congress has been promising this cut in payments since 1997, but it never happens and would hurt medical care if it did.
The rest of CBO's fantasy forecast comes from what it says will be "the sharp increases in revenues that will occur when provisions of [the Bush era tax cuts extended last year] expire." So CBO estimates that federal taxes as a share of GDP will leap to 19% in 2013 and 20.2% in 2014 from 15.3% today. And we are supposed to believe that economic growth will soar to 4.4% and 5% in 2014 and 2015 after huge tax increases on capital gains, dividends, small businesses and workers in 2013. Beam us up, Scotty.