17 October 2012

Barack Obama: Debt and Morality

Stephen Kershnar

Obama and the Unconscionable Debt
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
October 14, 2012

Barack Obama’s deficit spending is disastrous. Consider the federal debt. According to Romina Boccia of the Heritage Foundation, when Obama took office, the debt was roughly $10 trillion. It is now over $16 trillion. This is a mind-blowing increase of 60% in four years. Even if one blames the debt for his first year on George W. Bush, the increase on Obama’s watch is still staggering. Boccia points out that per U.S. taxpayer, the debt is now more than $111,000. In contrast, the average taxpayer makes $51,000 a year. It is true that all the recent presidents, including Bill Clinton, ran up the debt, but Obama’s run has been on a whole different scale.

The total debt is now larger than the economy (Gross Domestic Product). In 2011, it was 102% of the GDP. The public debt (the percentage of the debt owed to parties other than the government) is now 71% of the economy and has increased by an astounding 80% since Obama took office. This is unsurprising given that this disgraceful administration along with the unprincipled Congress ran $1 trillion deficits for four years in a row and paid for roughly 40% of each year’s spending through borrowing. Other countries that have a higher total debt as compared to their economies than the U.S. are basket cases like Greece (165%) and Italy (120%), as well as Japan (204%), which suffers from long-term stagnation.

As the New York Times’ Paul Krugman points out, just as redistribution of wealth simply transfers money from some people to others, government debt merely transfers money from some people to others. In this case, current Americans get stuff, future Americans pay for it.

The question is whether this debt is wrong. Consider a private business that allows its debt to climb to a dizzying level. Eventually, it will reach a point when creditors demand to be paid. Owners (for example, shareholders) then have two choices. First, they can avoid paying their debts by defaulting. This can be done by simply refusing to pay creditors. In law, this can be done (to some degree) through bankruptcy or by dissolving the business, assuming it is in certain legal categories. Second, they can spend much of their own wealth to pay off these bills.

By analogy, if current Americans run up a massive debt in their government, by voting for Obama and his spendthrift Democrat buddies, then future Americans will have to default or spend a great deal to draw down the debt.

Default is troubling if you think it is wrong to not pay your bills. We often think this. For example, we think it wrong when a house owner defaults on a sizable bill he owes to people who painted his house. Similarly, we think it wrong when a company defaults on a pension plan they promised their employees and that induced many to take or stay in their jobs. People often don’t think this when a person defaults via bankruptcy, but it is unclear why this should make a difference. This is especially true given Americans don’t like it when large businesses (for example, airlines) stiff people through strategic bankruptcy.

It is also troubling to ask future people to pay for current consumption. This is especially true if the future generations have to pay through the nose. Consider a scenario in which a father is allowed to gamble against his sons’ future earnings. Were he to bet vast sums and lose, we would judge him harshly. Similar to the gambler, Obama and company’s foolishly squandered the vast sums they borrowed. Much of it consisted of pumping money into unsustainable welfare and entitlement programs, floating state and local governments at unreasonable levels, and continuing our foolish wars.

Current Americans can, of course, avoid the debt altogether by dissolving this country and starting a new one. By analogy, shareholders can dissolve a corporation mired in debt. This will probably not fool creditors. In any case, this solution is unattractive to those who prefer the U.S. not be eliminated.

One objection to this is that the orgy of spending and debt was used to invest in public goods, such as the public schools, roads and other infrastructure, and the drug war. This objection fails to recognize that as a general matter, these things would have been well funded without the deficit spending. Did anyone think these programs were underfunded in first few five years of the millennium? Also, some of the institutions are broken or destructive and hence a bad investment. Consider big-city public schools and the prisons that warehouse large numbers of people for drugs.

A second objection is that we faced even higher debts following World War II and we grew out of it. Similarly, it is claimed, a growing economy will allow us to do the same in the future. However, following the war, our economy was nowhere near as socialized as it is now and U.S. companies were far more competitive relative to international competitors. Both helped fuel the economy. Also, following the war our political leaders allowed the deficit to drop like a stone and stabilized the public debt at roughly 44% of the economy. Our current leaders can’t be trusted to do the same.

One result of this giant pile of debt is likely that some creditors will be stiffed. This will make it difficult for governments to borrow in the future. This is probably a good thing. Also, entitlement programs (Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid) will have to be sharply cut back. This will likely occur by means-testing the first two and tightening up the means-testing for the third. Thus, the current spending orgy will result in many people not getting these benefits. This is unfair given that they spent a lifetime paying for these programs (for many, roughly 15% of their income), but voting for child-like demagogues, such as Obama, comes at a price.

Also, there will have to be big-time cuts to the American military and the closely related interventionist foreign policy. In the last two decades, the U.S. has gone to war against forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Serbia, Libya, Yemen, Pakistan, and so on and has continued to protect countries against China, North Korea, and Russia. Debtor nations can’t afford these luxuries.

In summary, Obama and the Congressional big spenders ran up the debt to an unconscionable level. Future Americans will either have to stiff creditors or pay through the nose for this profligacy. Both choices are ugly. Also, entitlement programs will eventually have to be sharply cut back and our interventionist foreign policy pared down.

03 October 2012

Barack Obama: The Dependency Class

Stephen Kershnar

Let’s Make the Election about the 47%
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
September 29, 2012

Mitt Romney recently said that 47% of the people pay no income taxes and believe they are victims. Romney continued that such people feel entitled to have the government provide them with free health care, food, housing, and so on. The mainstream media, and especially NPR, has focused on this quote like a laser beam. If understood as a criticism of a system that allows so many people to gobble up other people’s tax dollars while putting nothing in the refrigerator, the criticism would make an excellent centerpiece for the election. Obama wants more gobbling, Romney wants less. Let’s focus the election on this issue.

Government dependency is at a record high. Record numbers of people receive some form of welfare. This includes food stamps, cash welfare, subsidized or public housing, Medicaid, and other means-based government help. According to CNN, nearly one out of three Americans lives in a household that receives one or more of these benefits. Welfare should also be seen to include Social Security and Medicare. These programs coercively redistribute money. They differ from payments required by contract, such as when the government contracts with a business to provide some good (for example, construction). When these entitlements are added to the means-tested programs, nearly half of the nation received a government check (148 million Americans sucking on the government teat).

As dependency skyrockets, fewer people pay into the system. 47% pay no income taxes. It’s likely that large numbers of them pay little to no corporate taxes. Even the poor’s smallish contribution to payroll taxes is further reduced by the Earned Income Tax Credit, another welfare program. On any reasonable measure, the rich pay far more than their share, the lower class and poor far less.

Obama has done everything he can to increase the number of dependents and to transfer resources from producers to dependents. This can be seen in the massive increase in the share of the economy that goes toward federal government (now, roughly, a quarter of the economy) and the massive takeover of the medical system via Obama Care (18% of the economy). Almost all of Obama and the Democrat’s new spending consisted of wealth redistribution. Obama’s done less than nothing to rein in the calamitous entitlement programs (Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid), despite the fact that the first two are already in the red. His profligate funding of the dependents has largely occurred through deficit spending (roughly 40% of federal spending is borrowed money), which has run up the debt to dangerous levels.

There are several reasons increasing dependency is wrong and bad. First, growing dependency leads to less liberty. As the size of government grows, our liberty shrinks. For every ten minutes we work, roughly two-and-a-half minutes of it goes to the federal government and roughly four to government at all levels. As the government confiscates more money, the American people lose the freedom to spend their own money. By analogy, if the mob used to take 10% of local businesses’ profits and upped its take to 20%, business owners were less free than before. If the mob increasingly interfered with how they ran their businesses and made them follow its rules (increased regulation), the loss would be exacerbated.

Second, growing dependency makes us poorer. By transferring money away from the efficient private sector to the inefficient government sector, we become poorer. Empirical studies have repeatedly shown a strong correlation between economic freedom (lower taxation and less interference with business) and wealth. Worse, Obama and company have provided welfare buffet to dependents via unbelievable amounts of deficit spending that has and will drag down the economy. The debt is now larger than the economy. Even if one looks at public debt, debt owed to people other than the federal government, it is still approaching nightmarish levels (roughly, two-thirds of the economy). The debt saddles the future generation with the ugly choice of defaulting or raising taxes to indecent levels.

Third, allowing people to leech off the hard work of fellow taxpayers harms dependents themselves and leads to more dependency. Nowhere is there more evident than in the case of American blacks. Despite being 13% of the population, they receive more cash welfare than any other racial group (roughly 32% according to Peter Bradley at Vdare). According to the Daily Mail, they have a 73% out-of-wedlock birth rate. This is a problem because for all races, households headed by single mothers use the lion’s share of need-based welfare programs. Their high school drop-out rate is horrifying (according to The Washington Post over a third don’t graduate on time). They are incarcerated at record numbers (one of three black males ages 20-29 under the supervision by the criminal-justice system); although to be fair part of this is due to childish drug prohibition. Much of the same pattern holds true for non-black members of the underclass, especially the illegal-alien underclass that Obama has sought to amnesty.

Nor is it clear that the poor is deserving of massive welfare. Robert Rector at the Heritage Foundation has shown that if one does three simple things (complete high school, have children only when married, and be in a household with a full-time worker), she is much less likely to be poor. In general, we are not asking too much here. Empirical studies show that people receiving higher wages work longer hours than others and, on standard economic assumptions, they contribute much more. If people deserve money based on hard work and contribution to others, the upper class deserves more and the lower class less.

One objection to these arguments is that age-specific entitlement programs (Social Security and Medicare) are different because the government has promised to give these benefits and because people have paid into them expecting to get their share when they get older. One has to be sympathetic to this argument. Nevertheless, contrary the government’s suggestions, it is uncontroversial that as a legal matter these programs are a discretionary welfare program rather than a contractual retirement program [see Flemming v. Nestor, 363 U.S. 603 (1960)]. If the programs are not cut back, the money simply won’t be there to keep them going. Promises to do impossible tasks are not binding. Were there a promise, it would conflict with the promise that the government implicitly makes not to run the country into the ground. It is unclear what weight can be attached to conflicting promises.

The second objection is that increasing socialization was necessary to keep the economic slowdown from getting worse. This objection is laughable. The slowdown is the longest since the Great Depression. Furthermore, it is unreasonable to think Americans will get richer if the government transfers resources from the productive private sector to the unproductive dependent class for consumption. Borrowing money from foreigners can do so temporarily, but it is no long-term solution.

In summary, Obama has lavished money on the dependency class. Let’s make this an election on whether we want this to continue. When you vote for Obama, you’re voting to pay higher taxes to pay for more welfare. Is that what you want?