The “gang of six” plan and the debt ceiling

In case you are wondering what it is, the New York Times has published a summary.  It is really a budget and deficit reduction plan and not something to raise the debt ceiling which still has to be done.  And time is running out.

A couple of interesting comments about the plan on Politico’s Arena.

First from Jeff Smith, professor at the New School and former Missouri State Senator:

The one real piece missing from this entire conversation? The piece that would make the numbers work and dramatically reduce the pain?

Comprehensive immigration reform. That’s right. There’s only one pool of 15 million people begging to be able to pay more into the system, and this country has spent the last several years fighting to make sure they can’t.

We need to get over our xenophobia, give them a path to citizenship, and let them start paying in to the system at regular rates in regular intervals. The nation’s immigrant population tilts much younger than the native-born population and is predominantly in the workforce, and would reverse the trend of a rising retiree-to-worker ratio, thereby shoring up both major entitlement programs

The immigrants would pay taxes, pay into social security, and Medicare.

Bernie Sanders (D-VT) points out

While the spending cuts for programs that working people desperately depend upon are enforced by specific spending caps, there is no such enforcement or clarity regarding the $1.1 trillion to be raised in revenue over 10 years.

What happens if that revenue target is not reached? There is no language that deals with that. Where does the revenue come from? That very important issue is kicked to the tax writing committees with no guarantee that hundreds of billions of dollars in new revenue will not come from the pockets of low- and moderate-income Americans. While nobody knows for certain what provisions might be adopted, there is reason to expect that some of the areas that the House and Senate will be looking at include the home mortgage deduction for middle-class families, taxes on health care benefits, and increased taxes on retirement programs such as 401(k)s and IRAs. In other words, while there is a reasonable degree of specificity in terms of cuts there is only vagueness in terms of revenue.

But Dean Baker from the Center for Economic and Policy Research asks the questions I’ve been wondering about:  What is wrong with the deficit at a time when we have no jobs and isn’t there a solution besides massive budget cutting?

The arithmetic is clear as day. The United States does not now, nor will it in the near future, face a serious problem meeting its debt obligations. It had a debt to GDP ratio of 116 percent after World War II. The baseline projections have it getting to 90 percent by 2021. 116 percent is much larger than 90 percent. (The difference will be more than $5 trillion in 2021.) This should be understandable even to a 6-figure Washington policy wonk or budget reporter.

Other countries had and have much higher ratios of debt to GDP and still face no problem paying their bills. In Japan, the ratio of debt to GDP is more than 220 percent, yet private investors are willing to lend the country money long-term at interest rates of less than 1.5 percent. Of course investors are also willing to put their money on the line in the U.S., lending us money long-term at interest rates close to 3.0 percent. So the people who actually have money on the line are saying as clearly as they can that the debt is not a serious problem.

Furthermore, there are many ways to deal with the debt that do not require attacking ordinary workers, who have been the victims of Wall Street greed and economic mismanagement by the deficit hawks. (People like Kent Conrad held positions of responsibility in the years of the build-up of the housing bubble, but were so utterly incompetent they either did not see it or recognize its danger.)

We could just have the Fed hold $3 trillion in government debt indefinitely. It would then refund more than $1 trillion in interest payments to the Treasury over the next decade. The inflationary impact of the additional reserves could be offset by raising bank reserve requirements. What could be more simple and costless than this mechanism? But the Gang of Six would rather cut Social Security and Medicare.

We could follow the example of England and impose a financial speculation on trades of stock, futures, options, credit default swaps and other financial instruments. This could raise more than $1. 5 trillion over the next decade. But the Gang of Six would rather cut Social Security and Medicare.

It is my understanding that we didn’t have a debt ceiling until World War I and that no many countries have one so why not do away with our?  Politico had this piece about that from Moody’s a few weeks ago.

The United States should do away with the debt ceiling altogether to bring greater certainty to investors in U.S. Treasury bonds, Moody’s suggested Monday.

With the August 2 deadline for raising the debt ceiling barely more than two weeks away, the bond-rating agency issued a report Monday noting that the U.S. is one of just a few countries that has a statutory borrowing limit and saying that the limit creates “periodic uncertainty” for investors, Reuters reported.

Rather than continuing to use the debt ceiling in an effort to keep U.S. borrowing down, the government should look toward Chile, Moody’s suggested. There, “the level of deficits is constrained by a ‘fiscal rule,’ which means the rise in debt is constrained though not technically limited.” Chile is considered to be Latin America’s most fiscally sound country.

And, the report noted, it’s not like the debt ceiling has been effective in keeping U.S. debt down: Congress has in the past raised it often and has not linked it to spending levels.

So the bottom line is that the Gang of Six plan may be a place to start talking budget and deficit reduction, but we should do something about the debt ceiling first – like abolish it.