Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Path To Fiscal Responsibility

A path to fiscal responsibility will not come from following the inane (insane) $500 billion cut in discretionary spending proposed by Rand Paul, who pretty didn't find a program or department he couldn't cut by billions of dollars.

No, a path to fiscal responsibility means coming to terms with the fact that there are government programs and departments that engage in essential business - whether it is public health like the CDC or the NOAA in predicting weather and climate and their impact on the economy.

Paul would impose massive hardships by reducing/eliminating funding for all kinds of agencies throughout the federal government without regard to the repercussions.

He would cut funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) by 36%, claiming that the agency has gone off mission by looking at economic impacts from climate changes. How exactly is studying the climate and economic effects is off-scope? Weather related events cause billions of dollars in damage annually. Knowing how that happens, and how to work towards predicting severe weather events is... umm... the core mission.

Next, Paul would like to see the Department of Energy eliminated, even though the Department's not just tasked with regulating oil prices. It is to develop alt-energy and find ways to improve energy efficiency and now is responsible for the nation's nuclear weapons program, nuclear reactor production for the United States Navy, energy conservation, energy-related research, radioactive waste disposal, and domestic energy production.

DOE also sponsors more basic and applied scientific research than any other US federal agency; most of this is funded through its system of United States Department of Energy National Laboratories.

Not only is there no chance of eliminating the agency, but it would directly affect and undermine US national security by reducing our ability to maintain and upgrade our nuclear deterrence and nuclear infrastructure (including aircraft carriers and our ability to protect our interests around the world). Of course, Paul would cut foreign assistance to nothing and leave our allies hanging, so this is all part of a grand strategy to neuter the nation, which is something we can simply not afford.

Yet that doesn't mean that the government can't find places to cut and reform shouldn't be undertaken.

Even the President acknowledged the need to cut bloated agencies and bureaucracies that make no sense (from the SoTU Transcript):
We live and do business in the Information Age, but the last major reorganization of the government happened in the age of black-and-white TV. There are 12 different agencies that deal with exports. There are at least five different agencies that deal with housing policy. Then there’s my favorite example: The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they’re in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they’re in saltwater. (Laughter.) I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked. (Laughter and applause.)

Now, we’ve made great strides over the last two years in using technology and getting rid of waste. Veterans can now download their electronic medical records with a click of the mouse. We’re selling acres of federal office space that hasn’t been used in years, and we’ll cut through red tape to get rid of more. But we need to think bigger. In the coming months, my administration will develop a proposal to merge, consolidate, and reorganize the federal government in a way that best serves the goal of a more competitive America. I will submit that proposal to Congress for a vote –- and we will push to get it passed. (Applause.)
That addresses one side of the fiscal picture - spending, but the other side - revenue generation - needs reform as well.

It means making difficult choices, but it also means addressing the insanity that is the current tax code (Title 26 of the USC). It's out of control, and both sides of the aisle have repeatedly stated that they would be open to the idea of tax simplification.

Not only would simplification allow a more rational tax policy and ease compliance, but it would eliminate many of the distortions to various markets and economic decisions. It would also allow the end of various gimmicks and the dreaded alternative minimum tax (AMT). The CBO's Doug Elmendorf notes:
Deficits should shrink to about 3.6 percent of GDP, starting next year and for the next several years, he said. But that will occur only if Congress does three things which both Republicans and Democrats are reluctant to do:

* Allow the alternative minimum tax to bite more and more middle-class people. (Congress has repeatedly passed one-year AMT “patches” to keep the tax from affecting the middle class. It has a big impact especially on taxpayers in relatively high-income states with high state taxes, such as Maryland and New York.)
* Raise taxes on upper-income people by reverting to the pre-2001 income tax rates. (Obama and Congress agreed to a two-year postponement of this tax increase, but Obama renewed his call for the tax hike on Tuesday night.)
* Curb the annual increase in Medicare’s payment rates for physicians, to bring them into line with the inflation rate in the wider economy. Again, Congress has repeatedly passed temporary “doc fix” bills to shield doctors from these cost curbs.

If Congress can’t find the will to do those three things, Elmendorf said, deficits from 2012 through 2021 would average about 6 percent of GDP and debt would rise to a level not seen since right after the Japanese signed the instrument of surrender on the battleship Missouri.
The CBO provides projections based on existing law, rather than what the law could be after Congress gets done making hash of the tax code.

Instead of trying to expand the AMT to hit a higher percentage of taxpayers that were never intended to be included, we need to eliminate this tax altogether and wrap them back into the existing tax code. I've written extensively on this, and such a reform would reduce burdens on all taxpayers trying to file returns and inserts common sense into the tax code in a way that we haven't seen in more than a generation (since 1986 when the code was last revised).

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