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STATEMENT ISSUED BY THE GREEN SHADOW CABINET USA
October 24, 2013
By Dr. Jack Rasmus, ‘Shadow’ Federal Reserve Chair

“With the interim ‘debt ceiling/government shutdown’ agreement reached last week between the Obama administration and the Teaparty-driven U.S. House of Representatives, the real negotiations on deficit cutting—aka Austerity American Style—are about to begin again.

A long campaign peddling falsehoods around social security and medicare has created a myth that they are facing a budget and fiscal crisis. This claim will be rolled out by Democrats and Republicans alike, to justify cutting programs for the poorest Americans, while handing tax breaks to the richest corporation.

Both Obama and the Republicans in the House were agreed last summer, before the Teaparty faction upset the negotiations agenda by injecting the Obamacare issue, to proceed toward cutting ‘entitlements’ and seeking Tax Code Overhaul. With the Teapartyers in temporary retreat, Boehner and the Republicans have now returned to their initial strategy of of demanding entitlement cuts for a budget deal, and Obama has indicated that he is prepared to meet them halfway.

At the center of coming negotiations will be hundreds of billions of dollars in proposed cuts to social security and medicare, in exchange for a longer term debt ceiling extension beyond the November 2014 midterm congressional elections. In the ‘ mix’ for an agreement will also be big corporate tax cuts in exchange for token, ‘smoke and mirror’ tax loophole closings, as Tax Code legislation moving through Congress comes to a concurrent vote.

Obama recent record on social security and medicare cuts includes his 2014 budget – where he cut $630 billion. On the flip side of this austerity for the poor is Obama’s largess for business, and his support for dropping the top corporate tax rate from 35% to 28%.

It is important to make clear that neither social security or medicare are facing a long term financial crisis.

A closer look at the 2014 budget and at reports by social security-medicare trustees shows that problems exist for financials of Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) within the social security program, however, the retirement benefits program in social security does not suffer these issues. Nevertheless, Obama is proposing to cut future social security retirement benefits. The ‘fix’ goes beyond the problem.

Similarly, problems exist with funding for Part D prescription drugs program within Medicare, which has never been funded by a tax since its inception in 2005. Under the program drug companies are allowed to price gouge everyone on drug costs – so there is need for reform. However, Medicare’s basic hospital and physicians programs – Part A and Part B, are fully funded for the next decade, and these programs should not be painted with the same brush.

It is time to get the facts straight, before the hype and lies start to flow once again in the run up to the next deficit cutting-tax cuts for the rich deal that is now on the agenda once again.

For more analysis of Obama’s 2014 Budget follow link to this June 2013 interview, on the Progressive Radio Network.

~ Jack Rasmus serves as the Chairman of the Federal Reserve System in the Economy Branch of the Green Shadow Cabinet of the United States

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What’s Happening to the $1.2 Trillion “Sequester Cuts”?

Alternative Visions Radio Show, Oct 23, 2013 on Progressive Radio Network

“Dr. Jack Rasmus provides an update on last week’s interim ‘Government Shutdown-Debt Ceiling Extension’ deal in Washington and explains the real role and strategy of the Teaparty faction in recent months and going forward to the 2014 elections. With the Teaparty no longer the driving force, now the real negotiations begin (again) between Obama/Congressional Democrats and Congressional Republicans, returning to the ‘well orchestrated dance 2.0’ laid out this past summer before the Teaparty’s intervention. Rasmus predicts there will be a government funding deal by the next January 2014 budget deadline, and there will be no repeated debt ceiling crisis on February 7, 2014. The coming Obama-Republican deal will now include major cuts to social security and medicare, and possibly more tax cuts for corporate America as well. In addition, the $500 billion in proposed sequester defense spending cuts will be further restored in the coming deal, and that restoration has in fact already begun. ”

(For a 35 min. video presentation on “Why Social Security and Medicare Are Not in Crisis”, download Jack’s presentation at: http://www.kyklosproductions.com/videos.html

Also available at http://alternativevisions.podbean.com

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With the interim ‘debt ceiling/government shutdown’ agreement reached last week between the Obama administration and the Teaparty-driven US House of Representatives, the real negotiations on deficit cutting—aka Austerity American Style—are about to begin again, now that the Teaparty has retreated on its demand to defund Obamacare.

A committee will now recommend further spending cuts by December 13, with a deadline in January 2014. The next debt ceiling deadline has been pushed even further out, to February 7, 2014. That means the parties will clearly now focus specifically in the coming months just on deficit cutting.

At the center of coming negotiations will be hundreds of billions of dollars in proposed cuts to social security and medicare, in exchange for a longer term debt ceiling extension beyond the November 2014 midterm congressional elections.

In the ‘ mix’ for an agreement may also be big corporate tax cuts in exchange for token, ‘smoke and mirror’ tax loophole closings, as Tax Code legislation moving through Congress comes to a concurrent vote.

Both Obama and the Republicans in the House were agreed last summer, before the Teaparty faction upset the negotiations agenda in September by injecting the Obamacare issue, to proceed toward cutting ‘entitlements’ and seeking Tax Code Overhaul.

With the Teapartyers in temporary retreat, Boehner and the Republicans have now returned to their initial strategy of this past summer of demanding entitlement cuts for a budget deal. And Obama is prepared to meet them half way, already on record to date to cut social security and medicare in his 2014 budget by $630 billion, as well as on record to cut the top corporate tax rate from 35% to 28%.

For my analysis of Obama’s 2014 Budget—which includes hundreds of billions in social security-medicare cuts—listen to my June 5, 2013 radio show, Alternative Visions, commentary at the following url:

http://prn.fm/?p=5807

See also my June 2013 blog entry and analysis of Obama’s Budget, plus the longer historical piece on US deficit cutting entitled, ‘Austerity American Style’.

It is important for readers to know that neither social security nor medicare are facing a long term financial crisis. A closer look at the 2014 budget and at reports by social security-medicare trustees shows that problems exist for financial of Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) within the social security program, but do not the retirement benefits program in social security. Nevertheless, Obama is proposing to cut future social security retirement benefits. Similarly, problems exist with funding for Part D prescription drugs program within medicare, which has never been funded by a tax since its inception in 2005 and under which drug companies are allowed to price gouge everyone on drug costs. But Medicare’s basic hospital and physicians, Part A and Part B, programs are fully funded for the next decade.

For a clarification of the real status of social security and medicare, watch my 35 minute video presentation earlier this year to the Progressive Democrats of America in San Francisco, on this topic. That video is available on my website at:

http://www.kyklosproductions.com/videos.html (note: click on the TV icon that is second from the top, for the PDA presentation).

It is time to get the facts straight, before the hype and lies start to flow once again in the run up to the next deficit cutting-tax cuts for the rich deal that is now on the agenda once again.

Dr. Jack Rasmus
October 21, 2013

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History repeats itself, but always in combinations of past events.

What today’s debt-ceiling/government shutdown dual crisis represents is a telescoping, within a time period of two months, of similar events that rolled out over an extended two year period in 2011-2012. What took two years to conclude previously, between 2011-2012, in a prior debt ceiling + deficit cutting settlement is now happening in the course of two months, September-October 2013, in today’s repeat of debt ceiling + government budget fight.

Today’s debt-ceiling 2.0 + refusal to approve a government budget October 2013 is similar to events of 2011-2012—i.e. the debt ceiling fiasco of August 2011 and the Fiscal Cliff ‘crisis’ of December 2012, consisting of trillions of dollars of sequestered spending cuts and Bush tax cut extensions.

The prediction here is that, in the settlement to the current crisis coming in the next few days, or week or so at the most, the final terms and details will likely prove remarkably similar to that concluded in August 2011 and December 2012: Massive social spending cuts combined with tax cuts for the few, in exchange for an extension of the debt ceiling and a political ‘armistice’ for Obama and Democrats until after the next Congressional elections.

The differences between the 2011-2012 and today’s 2013 settlement will be the particular focus of tax cuts and spending cuts in exchange for extending the debt ceiling.

In August 2011 the settlement was debt ceiling extension in exchange for an immediate $1 trillion in social program only spending cuts, plus another $1.2 trillion in the so-called ‘sequestered’ spending taking effect January 1, 2013. That was more than $2.2 trillion—or more than twice Obama’s original 2009 stimulus spending of $787 billion. Overlaid upon the August 2011 deal was the permanent extension of $4 trillion of the $4.6 trillion Bush tax cuts that also took effect January 1, 2013. Together the two—sequestered cuts and Bush tax cuts extension—were referred to as the ‘fiscal cliff’.

What the Republicans and its House Teaparty faction together got out of the 2011-2012 debt ceiling plus fiscal cliff settlements was a total of $6.2 trillion in spending cuts and Bush tax cuts (80% of which benefited wealthy households and investors)—$2.2 trillion in spending and another $4 trillion in tax cuts.

What Obama and the Democrats got out of the 2011-2012 deal was a politically convenient agreement in August 2011 from the Republicans not to raise the debt ceiling issue again until after the November 2012 national elections. What Obama and Democrats didn’t get was any tax hikes on the rich in August 2011 they had said was a deal breaker.

What Obama got from the December 2012 fiscal cliff part of the settlement was mere $60 billion a year in tax hikes on wealthy investors. (Actually, it was not even $60 billion, as the fiscal cliff deal included a generous liberalization of the inheritance tax for multimillionaire households, a liberalization of the Alternative Minimum Tax for them, and the ‘super-sweetener’ of the remaining $4 trillion in tax cuts now made permanent forever). Obama and democrats also failed to achieve any reduction in the $1.2 trillion sequestered spending cuts that they had expected, not believing the Republicans would allow those cuts, involving defense spending as well as social programs, to take effect. But those sequestered cuts began taking effect in March 2013. Now, post-October 2013, they are beginning to have their full negative impact on the economy.

No wonder the Teapublican faction in the Republican party eventually went along with both the 2011 debt ceiling and 2012 fiscal cliff deals. They got a big bite of the apple, and a chance for another down the road today. The Obama-Democrat ‘cave-ins’ on both the August 2011 debt ceiling agreement and subsequent fiscal cliff no doubt emboldened the faction to take the even more aggressive stance they have recently assumed in today’s crisis.

Notice in the foregoing remarks there is no reference to cutting Obamacare as key to the settlement deal today. It never was part of any deal. Last August 2013 the Republican strategy was to use the debt ceiling extension as a hammer to further pound out social spending, especially entitlements like social security and medicare, cuts that were left out of the 2011-2012 spending reductions deal of $2.2 trillion. Another difference in today’s repeat of the debt-ceiling debacle will be that the corresponding tax cuts eventually agreed to probably will focus on corporate taxes instead of individual wealthy taxes—the latter now being set up in the tax code overhaul bill moving rapidly through Congress. That tax cut part of today’s deal may also not be made public in an eventual deal, but will be agreed to in principle by the parties for when the legislation on corporate tax cuts (keyword: Tax Code Overhaul) reaches the House and Senate for a vote.

That 2011-2012 Republican-Teapublican strategy resurrected again by the Republican leadership this past August 2013 was essentially the same as its prior 2011-2012 strategy. What happened was the Teapublican faction of the party intervened in September 2013 and injected its pet provision of defunding Obamacare into the mix, thereby upsetting the timetable and the process for another second debt-ceiling/spending reduction deal this second time around. Negotiations since September may therefore be viewed as attempts by the Republican, Obama and Democrat leadership—with massive corporate lobbying and pressure in the background—trying to get the negotiations back on track with the original process and objective of debt ceiling extension for entitlement cuts plus corporate tax reduction.

The recent Teaparty grandstanding on Obamacare has been for the media and public, with the goal of enhancing their 2014 midterm election results within the Republican party as well as in general. They have now accomplished this. The Obamacare issue was never a serious possibility. They will now retreat.

In the past week a shift back to the original strategy and process—of trading off debt ceiling extension for spending (entitlement) cuts and taxes (cuts for corporate America) has begun to emerge. A weekend ago Boehner signaled such in his round of TV press show appearances. Teapublican presidential candidate, Paul Ryan, trying to keep a foot in both Teapublican and Republican leadership camps, followed Boehner with a similar focus of ‘lets focus more on general spending and entitlement cuts’ in a lengthy Wall St. Journal editorial. Even Corporate radicals like the billionaire Koch brothers, supporters and funders of various radical right causes, published a widespread commentary that Obamacare was not the real issue—that spending and tax cuts for corporations were the key issue.

And today, Senators of both parties are trotting out to give press interviews to the same effect. As conservative Republican Senator, Bob Corker of Tennessee, declared today to a Bloomberg interview: “for the past two months we’ve been focused on the wrong subject”. That correct focus “is spending cuts”.

On Monday, October 14, the real bargaining and ‘end-game’ to the current crisis began. Obama held closed door meetings with Boehner and Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, and with Senate-House Democrat leaders, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi. Now the real deal details and terms will be hammered out. It will, this writer predicts, result in more spending cuts, especially social security, medicare and Medicaid, as well as an understanding and consensus to cut corporate taxes when the tax code overhaul bill comes to votes in Congress and for Obama’s signature.

One should not forget that Obama has been, and continues to be, a strong advocate of cutting the corporate tax rate from 35% to 28% and providing ‘relief’ for multinational corporations’ tax rates. Obama has also already indicated cuts of $630 billion in social security and medicare in his 2014 budget. This is the starting point for the ‘original process’ negotiations that have been temporarily derailed by Teapublican grandstanding, now coming to an end.

The deal may include some token concessions to Teapublicans in the House as well. Perhaps the already offered repeal of the medical device tax. Perhaps some further exemptions to Obamacare for business and wealthy individuals. A long list of such concessions to exempting and postponing parts of Obamacare have already been unilaterally made by Obama since the beginning of this year. Difficulties in the rollout of Obamacare may encourage him to agree to more. There may even be a short delay of a few months in the implementation deadline for the Obamacare act.

But the final deal to be struck in 2013 will appear more like the prior 2011-2012 deal of spending cuts and tax largesse for the wealthy. This time seniors and retirees will be the primary target of the spending cuts, while corporations get the tax cuts instead of wealthy individuals.

As this writer wrote in late 2012 when the fiscal cliff fears were being whipped up by both parties and the press, what was going on at the time was a ‘Well Orchestrated Dance’ between Obama and the Republicans. (see ‘Fiscal Cliff: A Well-Orchestrated Dance’, December 18, 2012, at the blog jackrasmus.com). A deal was inevitable by year end 2012, it was predicted.

Today the leadership of the two wings of the single corporate party have entered into final negotiations again, after a brief interruption by the Teapublicans ‘cutting into’ their cozy dance. The latter are about to leave the dance floor, however, and the well orchestrated dance now begins anew.

Dr. Jack Rasmus
Monday, October 14, 2013

Jack Rasmus is author of the 2012 book, ‘Obama’s Economy: Recovery for the Few’, Pluto Press, and host of the weekly online radio show, Alternative Visions, on the progressive radio network. His website is http://www.kyklosproductions.com, his blog, jackrasmus.com, and twitter handle @drjackrasmus.

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This writer has recently had published an 8,000 word pamphlet, ‘Austerity American Style’, that expands in depth on prior posts on this blog on ‘Obama’s Budget’ , sequestration, and fiscal cliff. The article-pamphlet provides a summary of deficit cutting in the USA, aka ‘Austerity American Style’, since 2010 and predicts further upcoming austerity measures in the US later this year, including cuts in social security, medicare, tax hikes on the middle class, and massive tax cuts for corporations as part of the deal. The pamphlet concludes with recommendations for independent political action, including formation of nationwide ‘social security defense clubs’ and a march on Washington DC to protest and stop the measures. For the full length pamphlet-article, go to the author’s website at:

http://www.kyklosproductions.com/articles.html.

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With Obama’s publication of his 2014 budget proposals this past April 2013, the current round of deficit cutting set in motion by Obama’s Simpson-Bowles Commission four years ago may be coming to a conclusion of sorts by this September 2013. The important question is: why now a conclusion after four years of deficit cutting negotiations by Obama and Congress? And what might this last act—the final phase in what has been a negotiations farce aimed at creating the appearance of major differences between the two sides—actually produce in terms of federal government spending and tax changes?

To understand the proposals in Obama’s budget it is useful to compare those proposals, and their economic impact on the deficit, with the Congressional Budget Office’s ‘baseline’ budget estimates. The CBO’s baseline represents estimates of the spending and tax revenue levels for the coming decade prior to Obama’s 2014 budget. The differences thus reveal how much Obama is proposing in his 2014 budget to cut (or increase) spending on programs andto raise (or cut) in taxes, as well as when (in what years).

Since Obama himself has been quoted as indicating Medicare is the main cause of future deficits, we can begin with that program.

Medicare in the 2014 Budget

The Medicare program has five basic spending categories: hospitals (Part A), doctors (Part B), nursing homes, prescription drugs (Part D), and government payments to private insurance group plans including the private insurance subsidy to ‘Medicare Advantage’.

The CBO baseline costs for Medicare for 2012-2023 shows Medicare costs for Part A (Hospitals & Nursing homes) and Part B (Doctors fees) rising by an increment of $195 billion from 2012 to 2023. However, receipts and revenues will rise by $227 billion. In other words, the two main programs will continue to show a net surplus of receipts over expenditures by 2023. So where’s the cost crisis?

The answer to that lies with the Prescription Drug program (Part D) and the Medicare program’s subsidies to Group Plans including Medicare Advantage private insurance supplement.

The Prescription Drug program (Part D) was introduced by George Bush in 2005. The legislation provided for no payroll tax to cover the cost of the program. From the very beginning of the program and continuing today, it has been totally paid for out of the general US budget—i.e. out of deficits. It has cost more than $500 billion since its initial passage, and is still rising in costs terms as pharmaceutical companies continue to inflate prices for their products at double digits every year. The Bush law specifically prevents any limits on drug company cost increases. States and cities cannot even negotiate drug price reductions. Nor can they legally purchase the same drugs from outside the US, often produced by the same company. Nor can individuals buy drugs legally from Canada. Free trade is ok for businesses, but not for government or consumers, in other words!

Part D cost increases in the CBO baseline are projected to rise by an additional $114 billion over the coming decade. But there are no receipts or revenues whatsoever to pay for the program for the next decade. That results in a negative incremental cost of $114 billion for the program through 2023. Similarly, Medicare program subsidies for group plans are projected to rise by an additional $127 billion by 2023. That’s a combined total of$241 billion in increased costs for the Medicare program overall through 2023. Subtract the $32 billion in excess receipts over cost for Hospital and Doctors fees (Part A and B), and the shortfall declines to $209 billion. Subtract further the $90 billion in cost cutting for Medicare called for in the March ‘sequestered’ spending cuts, and the result is a net shortfall in Medicare of $119 billion.

In other words, the total additional cost for the Medicare program in general over the coming decade is approximately equal to the cost for prescription drugs. The Medicare cost problem is therefore essentially the refusal to enact a payroll tax for prescription drugs and to allow drug companies to price gouge the public and government. So why not finally pass a tax to pay for Part D? Why not introduce some price cost limits on prescription drugs?

In short, if Prescription Drugs were properly funded by a payroll tax, as Hospital and Doctors have been from the beginning of the Medicare program, there would be no net cost increase in Medicare through 2023. Fund part D and there’s no Medicare cost crisis whatsoever. Even if not funded, the $209 billion shortfall hardly constitutes the ‘primary cause’ of the $7 trillion projected deficits through 2023, that Obama and others are claiming is the root problem with the deficits.

The root cause of the $7 trillion projected deficit is not Medicare; it’s not even prescription drugs. The root cause of the $7 trillion in projected deficits is the $4 trillion extension of the Bush tax cuts, plus the continued trillion dollar a year U.S. defense spending program.

Another simple solution to the $119 billion total incremental cost for Medicare over the decade is that proposed by the Trustees of the Social Security program themselves in their 2011 annual report. According to their own calculations, a mere 0.25% increase in the payroll tax for Medicare (now at only 1.45%) would solve all Medicare cost issues through 2022. Another 0.25% after 2022 would solve all shortfalls for a further second decade. But you won’t hear that mentioned in the press or media.

To summarize, even according to government estimates (CBO and Trustees), there is no Medicare cost crisis. There is a problem with escalating prices for prescription drugs. With no price controls, as is presently the case, Part D costs are projected in the CBO baseline to rise by 17% a year for the next four years and by 19% a year on average over the coming decade. And there is a problem with no tax to fund the Part D program. A simple addition to the payroll tax to cover Part D and some reasonable price controls on drugs would resolve the problem.

Up to now, the Obama administration’s solution to the ‘problem’ of runaway drug costs and escalating subsidies to Medicare Advantage and other group plans—which together are the true source of Medicare cost problems—has been to cut payments to Doctors and to draw down the surplus in the Part A hospital fund. Unlike the projected 17% a year increase in payments to drug companies, payments to doctors in the CBO baseline are to decline from current $68 billion in 2012 to $61 billion in 2016 when Obama leaves office. Cutting payments to doctors will mean more leaving the Medicare system and refusing to take medicare patients. That will accelerate the creation of a two tier health care system in the US already well underway.
But even cutting doctors payments and drawing down the surplus in the medicare trust funds are not long term solutions. Drawing down the trust fund surplus to pay for prescription drugs and group plans will exhaust the remaining trust funds by the end of this decade. Obama and Republicans know this and are therefore preparing to implement major cuts in medicare coverage and to raise Medicare recipients ‘out of pocket’ costs for reduced Medicare coverage. That comes next in the Medicare cost cutting plan that neither Republicans or Obama are ready to make public. Recall the Simpson-Bowles solution: make medicare recipients pay 20% more of Part A hospital coverage, pay more deductibles, and raise the eligibility age beyond 65. Or, as the Business Roundtable and Teaparty radical, Paul Ryan, have proposed: privatize medicare starting in 2022 and provide vouchers. Obama prefers the former; Republicans in the House prefer the latter. But whichever the case, it all amounts to rationing of health care services for all but the wealthy who can afford to pay out of pocket. That further rationing of health care services for seniors is implied in Obama’s 2014 budget.

In his Budget Obama has proposed to cut Medicare by $364 billion over the decade. Not included in that is a second proposal to freeze payments to doctors over the decade at 2013 payment rates, starting with an immediate 24% reduction in doctors payments in 2014 followed by a slow adjustment to the 24% cut thereafter. Unfortunately, the Obama 2014 budget does not indicate the total ‘savings’ from this reduction and freeze. But one can probably assume the total is somewhere around $100-$150 billion cumulative over the decade. The total cuts to Medicare alone are thus at least $500 billion in Obama’s 2014 budget.

Social Security in the 2014 Budget

To begin with, it is essential for readers to understand that the Social Security retirement trust fund (OAS) currently has a $2.77 trillion surplus, whose arguing social security is going to go broke soon conveniently ignore. Nor does the press and media bother to note that fact much. Like Medicare, the truth about the condition of Social Security lies in understanding the financial condition of its separate programs.

Like Medicare, Social Security is composed of several programs. There’s the retirement program (OAS) and there’s the disability insurance program (DI). The OAS has the massive $2.77 trillion surplus and, in addition, remains virtually fully funded from payroll taxes through 2023 without having to draw down the surplus. It is the DI program, on the other hand, has a funding trouble. Since the economic crisis erupted in 2007-08, approximately 2 million more workers went on disability. The lack of real job recovery has meant fewer payroll tax contributions to the DI fund. The result has been a shortfall in the DI fund of about $30 billion every year.

But the shortfall in the DI fund is used by opponents of social security to argue the entire program is in trouble. They then also use a base year of the recession and poor job recovery and extrapolate out for decades to create the false impression that social security revenues are insufficient while costs rise. That dishonest approach to calculating costs and revenues creates a false picture of tens of trillions of false liabilities for social security in general, requiring the major cuts to benefits that both Republicans and Obama now propose.

But here are the facts: For the OAS program, benefit payments are projected to rise at a rate of 11% a year from 2012 to 2023, from $773 billion in 2012 to $1.422 trillion in 2023. But revenues from the payroll tax are projected to rise at nearly the same annual rate, of 10.5%, from $570 billion to $1.125 trillion. Other revenues (interest, taxes on benefits, etc.) increase the revenue total by 2023 to $1.320 trillion. So we’re talking about a $100 billion shortfall at most by 2023, which is not bad considering 77 million babyboomers are expected to retire starting 2013.

So why not start drawing on the $2.77 trillion surplus, instead of making retirees pay the difference? After all, the payroll tax rate was increased in 1986, justified at the time as necessary to create the surplus in anticipation of the boomers retiring.
Another simple solution is to raise the annual income ‘cap’ to cover the 15% of wage earners whose income has risen faster than the income base since 1986. Currently, the payroll tax covers only 85% of wage earners, when the law intended 100%. Raising the cap would generate revenue by 2023 well in excess of the $100 billion shortfall, and do so for several additional decades to come with money left over.

But none of these, or other simple solutions, are being considered by Obama or House Republicans. Instead, both sides are in agreement to cut retirees annual cost of living adjustments to retirement benefits by changing the cost of living adjustment formula. And both continue to agree to raise the eligibility age for social security retirement benefits.
The first of these two alternatives—reducing the cost of living adjustment—is already baked into Obama’s 2014 budget. The second—raising the retirement eligibility age to 68 or higher—will likely come as part of the deal later in 2013 deal on the deficit.

The device by which Obama in his budget proposes to reduce annual cost of living adjustments for retirees is by changing the price index by which the adjustments are calculated. Instead of using the Consumer Price Index, he has proposed to substitute it with a ‘Chained CPI’ index. The latter will reduce the deficit by $232 billion, bringing the total deficit reduction from Medicare and Social Security retirement to more than $700 billion. (The amount Obama offered to cut the programs initially back in the summer of 2011). But this $700 billion is just the beginning offer to cut social security spending. Additional DI program spending cuts are being worked out administratively and through court action as well—all off budget. Eligibility for DI is being raised and benefits are being reduced in parallel. That will add at least another $100 billion in benefit reductions over the coming decade. So Obama is offering and presiding over no less than $800 billion in social security-medicare cuts. And that’s before further cuts are part of the final deficit cutting deal later this year, integrated with corporate tax cuts and the tax code revision.

It is clear, in other words, that both Republicans and Obama are targeting about $1 trillion in social security-medicare spending cuts over the decade. That $1 trillion, plus the $2.8 trillion already obtained in deficit reduction from the Fiscal Cliff and Sequestration, means only another $500-$600 billion in deficit cutting remains for a final deficit deal later this year.
But that is not quite accurate either. The tax code revisions will result in hundreds of billions more in corporate tax cuts that will have to be offset by further tax hikes and/or additional spending cuts. There is also the restoration of defense spending cuts of $500 billion required by the March 1, 2013 ‘sequestered’ spending provisions. Another $1 to $1.5 trillion will have to be extracted in tax hikes and/or spending reductions. Which raises the question of what does Obama’s 2014 budget suggest in terms of tax changes and additional spending cuts?

Tax Proposals in the 2014 Budget

Throughout the 2012 election period Obama was explicit in advocating a major reduction in the corporate tax rate, from current 35% to 28%. In that regard, his position was essentially that of Republican candidate, Mitt Romney. Obama also favored publicly working some compromise for Multinational Corporations, reducing their offshore tax liability to entice them to pay some part of the current $1.9 trillion they are hoarding in offshore subsidiaries without paying taxes. (Actually, the ‘offshore’ accounts are located in New York). His budget proposes taxing ‘international income’ only at the rate of $15 billion a year. At that rate it will take more than 50 years to tax the current $1.9 trillion.

Obama has also been an advocate of even more generous tax cuts for smaller businesses and for Research & Development. His budget proposes raising the business R&D credit to 17%, resulting in a tax cut of $118 billion, and allowing small businesses to write off equipment investment immediately, resulting in another $69 billion in revenue loss. Just these two items, plus the corporate tax rate reduction and letting multinational companies off the tax hook, will cost the US budget at least $700 billion to $1 trillion, and likely much more.

To pay for the tax cuts for corporate America coming later this year, Obama’s budget proposes to limit tax deductions and exclusions for businesses, especially for employer health insurance and pension contributions. That is projected to raise $493 billion. It will also mean the acceleration of employers abandoning their health insurance and pension plans for their workers and further exacerbate those crises and costs to workers. Minimal added taxes on tobacco would raise another $83 billion. An increase in the Estate Tax would only take place after Obama leaves office, which politically means not at all. A token ‘financial responsibility’ tax on banks is also another proposal likely ‘dead on arrival’ given the Republican dominated US House, as will prove similar for the proposal for a token ‘fair share’ tax on millionaires.

Netting out the tax cuts and the tax hikes, it means a net gain for businesses in terms of tax cuts of about $400-$500 billion, for which other tax hikes on the middle class and spending cuts will have to occur. That’s $500 billion plus the roughly $600 billion gap ($4.4 trillion minus $3.8 trillion). In short, another minimal $1 trillion in tax hikes and spending cuts—apart from and in addition to the social security-medicare cuts already proposed—will become part of a final deal later this year when the tax code revisions are integrated with the deficit cutting.

The additional, final $1 trillion will likely come from two general sources: eliminating deductions, credits, and exemptions for middle class tax payers and cutting further discretionary spending programs like education, transportation, and other non-defense discretionary programs.

Defense Spending in the 2014 Budget

Almost $500 billion in defense related spending was cut in the March 1 ‘sequestered’ provisions that went into effect. Obama has vowed to restore at least $400 billion of that. For 2013, the sequestered discretionary spending cuts amount to $64 billion. Obama has proposed restoring $40 billion of that $64 billion in defense spending.

Over the decade it is clear that the budget strategy involving defense is to ‘move the money around’. Spending for what is called ‘overseas contingency operations’ (which means for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) would be reduced. Much of the reduction would be in turn transferred to spending on new military equipment, earmarked largely for the US Navy and Air Force, as US military strategy ‘pivots’, as they say, to the western Pacific. The US Army had its land wars in the middle east; now the money goes to the Navy and Air Force. US military equipment suppliers simply get to change their ‘product mix’ sales to the US government and the military industrial complex continues virtually unaffected.

Obama is engaging in what might be called a strategy of ‘moving the money around’. Defense spending on middle east wars are to be shifted to defense spending increases for the pacific region. Social Security retirement benefits are to be cut in order to offset the rising costs of disability benefits. Medicare benefits for hospital, and doctors fees, are reduced and costs shifted to retirees in order to offset continued runaway prices and costs for prescription drugs. Simple solutions like raising the cap on social security payroll tax, implementing a token percentage tax to cover prescription drugs, placing some kind of controls on runaway drug prices, addressing the reason why so many workers are now going on disability, etc., are totally ignored and boycotted in the press and media as alternatives for consideration. Instead, the focus is on reducing benefits and making retirees and workers pay more for less. What all these Obama-Republican measures represent is a shifting of the cost burden of social security, medicare, and other discretionary social program in the budget from one sector of the working and middle classes to another; from the wealthiest households to the remaining 95% rest. Meanwhile, the wealthiest households and their corporations continue to get still further tax reductions and the Pentagon and war corporations get to shift their profits from the middle east conflicts to the western pacific to address a ‘threat’ from China that doesn’t exist.

Jack Rasmus
Copyright June 2013

Jack is the author of the 2012 book, “Obama’s Economy: Recovery for the Few”; host of the weekly radioshow, ‘Alternative Visions’, on the Progressive Radio Network; and ‘shadow’ chairman of the Federal Reserve in the recently formed Green Shadow Cabinet. His website is: http://www.kyklosproductions.com, his blog: jackrasmus.com, and twitter handle: #drjackrasmus. (A longer version of this article summarizing the history of US austerity programs and deficit cutting since 2009 will appear in the June 2013 issue of ‘Against the Current’ magazine; also available on the author’s website in July).

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Obama’s bargaining strategy and tactics with regard to deficit cutting over the past three years have proven to be an unmitigated disaster. From the idea of seeking a ‘grand bargain’ with Teapublicans in the House of Representatives in 2011, to the debt ceiling and sequester deals of August 2011 that resulted in $2.2 trillion in spending-only cuts and no tax hikes whatsoever on the rich, to caving in on the so-called ‘Fiscal Cliff’ this past January 1 that resulted in taxing only the richest 0.7% and allowing $4 trillion in Bush tax cuts to continue permanently—Obama’s bargaining strategy and tactics have proven a case example of exactly what not to do in negotiations.

Obama’s first error was to believe that by offering hundreds of billions in entitlement cuts back in the summer of 2011 in exchange for revenue hikes that Republicans would agree to raise taxes a mere year before the 2012 elections. Obama and the Democrats subsequently further believed that by linking $1.2 trillion in sequestered spending-only cuts in August 2011, as part of the debt ceiling deal that Republicans would not allow $500 billion in sequestered defense spending cuts take effect and would agree to some tax hikes in exchange. Obama then made the error this past December thinking Republicans would discuss tax revenue proposals after they agreed to the minimal $60 billion in Bush tax cut extensions (aka ‘Fiscal Cliff’) on January 1, 2013. Or that Republicans would have to agree to some kind of tax revenue enhancement deal on March 1 when the sequestered defense cuts would take effect, or March 27 when the government ran out of money. But the Teapublicans proved him wrong in every one of these accounts. How and why did this all happen? And will Obama and the Democrats continue to get outmaneuvered in the coming final round of deficit negotiations that commences with Obama’s latest budget, to be announced on April 10?

Some Key Questions of Strategy

The question is why have the Teapublicans agreed to the token January 1 tax hikes? Why did they agree to allow the $1.2 trillion sequestered cuts, including defense spending, go into effect? Why did they not engage in brinksmanship again on March 1 or March 27, unlike they did in August 2011? And why will they not go to the brink again on the debt ceiling issue when it arises once more in May?

The answer to the first question is Teapublicans in the House got a tax deal they simply couldn’t refuse on January 1, a deal which their big corporate campaign benefactors, the Business Roundtable, wanted and helped engineer together with the Obama administration. They got to keep $4 trillion of the Bush tax cuts, which are now permanent and which include nice ‘sweeteners’ (i.e. further tax cuts) like no more Alternative Minimum Tax and an even more generous Inheritance tax than Bush himself had introduced.

However, after having blocked with Obama prior to the January 1 deal to push through token tax hikes on only the wealthiest 0.7%, the Roundtable has since ‘switched sides’ and adopted the Teapublicans position with regard to subsequent entitlement spending cuts.

In February 2013, the Roundtable came out with its position paper on the matter of sequestered cuts and entitlement spending. It proposed to cut the social security COLA adjustment, introduce a means test for Medicare, raise the eligibility age for both Medicare AND social security to 70, and convert Medicare into a voucher system in 2022. That’s exactly the Teapublican-Paul Ryan program. With big corporate interests now in their corner firmly with regard to entitlement cuts as the primary focus of deficit cutting, why should the Teapublicans agree to any further tax hikes on the rich? And with the Roundtable and CEOs now firmly on their side, and the tax cuts successfully decoupled from the spending cuts, why should the Teapublicans go to the brink over shutting down the government on March 27? By March 1 they were already almost three-fourths of the way to the $4 trillion deficit target, with a total of $2.8 trillion in spending cuts and token tax hikes. That leaves only $1.2 trillion to go!

By letting the March 1 sequestered cuts take effect, the Teapublicans in effect did to Obama on the topic of defense spending what Obama had the opportunity to do to them on the topic of Bush tax cuts on January 1 but didn’t take. Obama could have let all the Bush tax cuts expire on January 1, and then reintroduced middle class tax cuts only on January 2. That would have put the Teapublicans in the position of having to vote down middle class tax cuts. But he didn’t, and settled for the paltry 0.7% hike on taxes on the wealthy, some of which will undoubtedly be reversed again, buried deep in the legislation, when the major tax code negotiations conclude later this year. The Teapublicans, by allowing the sequestered defense cuts to take effect on March 1, can also always reintroduce legislation piecemeal later this year to restore many of the defense cuts.

It’s not surprising that Republican Senator, Lindsey Graham, and others in Congress, in recent weeks have offered ‘deals’ amounting to another $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction. That number is not coincidental. Graham’s proposal is for $600 billion in social security and medicare cuts and another $600 billion in unspecified tax revenues. $1.2 trillion is now the remaining ‘target’ number.

To repeat: Why should Teapublicans precipitate a political crisis over the March 1 or March 27 deadlines? Why should they repeat the debt ceiling crisis on May 18? They’re winning hands down.

What Obama May Propose

Having agreed to decouple tax cuts on January 1 and having been outmaneuvered on March 1 and March 27, and with Teapublicans signaling there will be debt ceiling crisis in May, Obama has been stripped of all his leverage points in bargaining. He has no ‘stick’, only more ‘carrots’ to offer and his opposition knows it. Obama has left only the option to offer even more social security, medicare and Medicaid cuts. And throughout March he has continued to do so unilaterally once again. Not just offering once again to cut COLA adjustments for social security but to suggest his willingness to confront big cuts—in the $600 to $700 billion range—for medicare and social security and more for Medicaid. Even more specific reductions will be forthcoming in weeks to come.

But Obama has planned all along to cut social security and Medicare. He made that clear in his signing of the Bush tax cuts deal on January 2, 2013, during which he stated: “Medicare is the Main Cause of Deficits”. And again, in his February State of the Union address, Obama publicly noted he ‘liked the Simpson-Bowles’ recommendations concerning Medicare cuts.

And what are the Simpson-Bowles recommendations for Medicare cuts?

A new $550 a year deductible for Parts A and B of Medicare and provide only 80% coverage for Part A instead of the current 100% (which would require another $150-$300 a month in private insurance to cover the remaining 20%, much like Part B now). That together amounts to another $195-$350 taken out of monthly social security checks to cover, when the average for social security benefit payments is only $1100 a month today. In other words, Medicare benefits will not be cut. Its just that if seniors want to maintain current levels of benefits they’ll have to pay even more for them. Alternatively, they can choose to have fewer benefits and not pay more. It’s all about rationing health care, just as Obamacare for those under 65 is essentially about rationing—as were Bush’s proposals to expand health savings accounts (HSAs) and Bill Clinton’s health maintenance organization (HMOs) solution.

In his typical bargaining approach of ‘let’s make a unilateral offer and see what the Teapublicans do’, in recent weeks Obama has again unilaterally offered to reduce social security COLA increases that will take more than $230 billion out of the pockets of seniors. He has also proposed to introduce a means test for the wealthy, which Teapublicans will begin to extend down to the middle class. As for Medicare, watch for the Simpson-Bowles recommendations in some form to appear, likely scaled in over time. If not in the budget itself, then surely in negotiations that follow. Readers should also note that Obama last week announced higher payments to medicare health providers, while simultaneously planning in his budget cuts for seniors. But Medicare ‘cuts’ will not be mandated benefit reductions. Instead, seniors will have to pay more for the benefits they have, or opt for lower benefit coverage. Social Security Disability recipients will be also significantly impacted by the forthcoming proposals. And Republican state governors will be permitted to reduce their spending in part on Medicaid. And of course, almost certainly there will be the changes to social security: reduction of cost of living adjustments, means testing, and a raising of the eligibility age at least to 67 and later possibly even higher.
With only $1.2 more to cut in deficit spending to reach the Simpson-Bowles $4 trillion target, and Obama offering again his $600-$700 billion enticement in entitlement spending cuts, a deal is closer than ever before. Watch therefore for the full $600 billion in social security, medicare, and Medicaid to take effect, the effective date of the changes to be ‘backloaded’ in later years of the decade and certainly not before the next midterm elections in 2014.

Expect defense spending cuts of no more than half the $500 billion proposed in the sequester, and nearly all of which will be from withdrawals from middle east (Afghanistan, Iraq) operations and not equipment spending. After 2014, most will be recouped as defense spending on naval and air force equipment and operations will ‘ramp up’ for the shift of US military focus to the pacific. The Army brass had its land wars in Asia; now it’s the turn of Navy and Air Force in the pacific.

That leaves only a ‘token’ tax revenue increase of about $200 billion over the coming decade, or a paltry $20 billion a year, which will come in difficult to estimate phony tax ‘loophole’ closings. Major cuts in corporate taxes later in 2013 will not be included or ‘calculated’ in the grand bargain $4 trillion deal. In addition to big cuts in the top corporate tax rate, look for multinational corporations’ tax breaks and tax forgiveness on the $1.4 trillion they are presently sheltering in offshore subsidiaries as well. And of course small-medium business will be thrown yet another tax cut bone to buy into the deal. In exchange, the middle class will pay more in terms of limits on deductions and exemptions.

In retrospect over the past three years, and especially since November 2012 elections, the ‘grand bargain’ looks less like a bargain and more like a ‘grand collusion’ between the various parties—Teapublican, Big Corporate, Obama, and the pro-corporate wing of Democrats in Congress that have had a stranglehold on the Democratic party since the late 1980s.

This is not the Democratic Party of your grandfather that agreed to introduce Social Security in the 1930s and that proposed Medicare in the 1960s. This is the Democratic Party, and the Democratic President, that has agreed with Republicans and Corporate America to begin the repealing in stages of these very same programs—programs that are not ‘entitlements’ but are in fact ‘deferred wages’ earned by Americans over the decades that are now being ‘concession bargained’ away without any say or input. Not content with concessions from those workers still in the labor force, capitalist policymakers are intent on concessions on social wages now coming due in the form of social security and medicare benefits.

It’s not a grand bargain; it’s a charade and a ‘grand collusion’ from the very beginning from Simpson-Bowles to the present.

What Should Be Done

Writing letters to Congress won’t change anything. What is now necessary is to begin the formation nationwide of ‘Social Security-Medicare Defense Clubs’. After all, that’s how Social Security started in the first place. Neither party proposed it in the 1930s initially. In fact, Roosevelt initially publicly advocated Social Security should not be part of the New Deal. A grass roots protest, organized by the clubs forced him and the Democrats to reverse this position just before the midterm 1934 elections and support the proposal for Social Security. Now it’s time to reform the clubs to defend social security. And the first action should be to call for a million person march on Washington to reverse whatever cuts are surely forthcoming in the weeks ahead.

Jack Rasmus

Jack is the author of ‘Obama’s Economy: Recovery for the Few’, 2012, which provides a history of deficit cutting in the US and predictions of its impact. His blog is jackrasmus.com. For a video presentation on social security and medicare given recently to the Progressive Democrats of America, see his website at http://www.kyklosproductions.com/videos.html.

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