Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Wednesday, November 14, 2012 7:12 pm

Also, if you don’t want to repeat after me, kids, repeat after economist Dean Baker: The deficit problem is not an entitlements problem.

Listen to the man before you go giving away your — and my — Social Security and Medicare:

The gang for gutting Social Security and Medicare (aka “The Campaign to Fix the Debt”) are running in high gear. During the long election campaign they gathered dollars, corporate CEOs and washed up politicians for a full-fledged push in the final months of the year. They are hoping that the hype around the budget standoff (aka “fiscal cliff”) can be used for a grand bargain that eviscerates the country’s two most important social programs, Social Security and Medicare.

They made a point of keeping this plan out of election year politics because they know it is a huge loser with the electorate. People across the political and ideological spectrums strongly support these programs and are opposed to cuts. Politicians who advocated cuts would have been likely losers on Election Day. But now that the voters are out of the way, the Wall Street gang and the CEOs see their opportunity.

It is especially important that they act now, because one of the pillars of their deficit horror story could be collapsing. Due to a sharp slowing in the rise of health care costs over the last four years, the assumption that exploding health care costs would lead to unfathomable deficits may no longer be plausible even to people in high level policy positions.

As we all know, the large budget deficits of the last four years are entirely due to the economic downturn caused by the collapse of the housing bubble. The budget deficit was slightly over 1.0 percent of GDP in 2007 and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projections showed it remaining low for the near-term future. The origin of the large deficits of the last few years is not a debatable point among serious people, even though talk of “trillion dollar deficits, with a ‘t’” is very good for scaring the children.

However, the big stick for the deficit hawks was their story of huge deficits in the longer term. They attributed these to the rising cost of “entitlements,” which are known to the rest of us as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

While they like to push the notion that the aging of the population threatened to impose an unbearable burden on future generations, the reality is that most of the horror story of huge deficits was driven by projections of exploding private sector health care costs. Since Medicare and Medicaid mostly pay for private sector health care, an explosion in private sector health care costs would eventually make these programs unaffordable.

As some of us have long pointedout, there are serious grounds for questioning the plausibility of projections that the health care sector would rise to 30 or 40 percent of GDP over the rest of the century. Recently a paper from the Federal Reserve Boarddocumented this argument in considerable detail.

Even more important than the professional argument over health care cost projections is the recent trend in health care costs. While the CBO projections assume that age-adjusted health care costs rise considerably more rapidly than per capita income, in the last four years they have been roughly keeping pace with per capita income.

In fact, in the last year nominal spending on health care services, the sector that comprises almost two-thirds of health care costs, rose by just 1.7 percent. This is far below the rate of nominal GDP growth over this period, which was more than 4.0 percent. While at least some of this slowing in health care costs is undoubtedly due to the downturn, it is hard to believe that it is not at least partially attributable to a slower underlying rate of health care cost growth.

CBO and other budget forecasters can ignore economic reality for a period of time (they ignored the housing bubble until after its collapse wrecked the economy), but if it continues, at some point they will have to incorporate the trend of slower health care cost growth into their projections. When this happens, the really scary long-term deficit numbers will disappear.

A projection that assumes that health care costs will only rise as a result of the aging of the population, and otherwise move in step with per capita income, will lop tens of trillions of dollars off the most commonly cited long-term deficit projections. It would cost some deficit hawks, like National Public Radio, more than $100 trillion of their long-term deficit story. This would be a real disaster for the deficit hawk industry.

This is why the Campaign to Fix the Debt and the rest of the deficit hawk industry will be operating at full speed at least until a budget deal is reached over the current impasse. If CBO adjusts its long-term health care cost projections downward then their whole rationale for gutting Social Security and Medicare will disappear. Now that is really a crisis.

And in light of today’s horrid front-page News & Record article on the so-called fiscal cliff, here’s a question for Greensboro peeps: Would it really be too much trouble to get Jeff Gauger and his crew at the N&R to introduce some fact-based economic coverage? The voters last week seemed to indicate a taste for that kind of thing.

Saturday, August 18, 2012 12:02 am

American suffering as morality play for our so-called journalists

Sir Charles on the great American sport of granny-starving, as applauded by The Village:

Someday someone is going to do a study on the psychological attitudes of the worthless media elite of our time and their obsession with making life more miserable for large swaths of their fellow Americans. The degree to which Saletan, Dancin’ Dave Gregory, David Brooks, and virtually the entirety of Fred Hiatt’s funny pages (save Eugene Robinson, Harold Meyerson, and E.J. Dionne), get tumescent over granny having to move in with the kids because she can’t afford to live on her own is really like nothing I’ve ever seen. It’s gratuitous cruelty at the hands of people who have far more than they deserve and confuse this status with wisdom


Monday, April 9, 2012 8:03 pm

Everyone’s entitled to his own opinion, but not his own math

Dean Baker eviscerates both James B. Stewart of The New York Times and Rep. Paul Ryan’s massive tax cuts for rich folks disguised as a federal budget:

What Stewart tells us is reasonable is that the budget calls for cuts in entitlements and tax reform. He then asks who could disagree with this.

One has to wonder whether Stewart has looked at the Ryan budget. First, on taxes the only specifics are cuts in the tax rates paid by rich people and corporations. None of the offsetting tax increases are specified.

If this sounds like a sensible opening gambit, let’s imagine the equivalent on the opposite side. Suppose that we proposed to increase Social Security benefits for the bottom two income quintiles of retirees. Suppose that we also proposed increased spending on infrastructure, research and development, and education.

Suppose the left-wing Ryan budget wrote down that these spending increases would be offset by unspecified reductions in government waste. We then told CBO to score it accordingly. Is this a good starting point for further discussion? …

Even more to the point: Is there anyone who has been paying attention for the past 20 years who believes that if some leftist proposed such a budget as Baker hypothesizes, the mainstream media (forget Fox) wouldn’t go utterly batshit calling out the many problems, miscalculations and flawed assumptions contained therein, including but not limited to some that were not flawed or miscalculated at all (Politifact and Factcheck, I’m looking at you)?

The Ryan budget is proving to be a wonderful Rorschach test. We have people who want to be part of the inside Washington conversation who praise the budget’s courage and integrity. Then we have people who believe in arithmetic who call it what it is: a piece of trash.

Why does this matter? Because people who ought to know better are running round calling Paul Ryan a serious thinker, when in fact he is either unable or unwilling to do fifth-grade math, and because there’s a nontrivial chance he will be Mitt Romney’s running mate.

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