The President’s sequester remarks, annotated

The President’s sequester remarks, annotated

My annotations follow each portion of the President’s remarks on the sequester today.

THE PRESIDENT:  Good afternoon, everybody.

I wanted to say a few words about the looming deadlines and decisions that we face on our budget and on our deficit — and these are decisions that will have real and lasting impacts on the strength and pace of our recovery.

Yesterday was the legal deadline for the President to submit his budget to Congress. Not only did he miss the deadline again this year, but his team has given no indication of when they will meet this legal requirement.

In these remarks the President proposes to delay immediate spending cuts and substitute a combination of (future, I think) spending cuts and tax increases. Even if you believe this will have a “real” effect on our recovery, it won’t have a “lasting impact” on it. A temporary loosening of fiscal policy would, at most, temporarily goose economic growth. That’s not “lasting.”

THE PRESIDENT: Economists and business leaders from across the spectrum have said that our economy is poised for progress in 2013.  And we’ve seen signs of this progress over the last several weeks. Home prices continue to climb.  Car sales are at a five-year high.  Manufacturing has been strong.  And we’ve created more than six million jobs in the last 35 months.

And GDP was flat last quarter … and the unemployment rate ticked up last month. 6M / 35 = +171K jobs/month, which when unemployment is high is nothing to brag about. “Our economy is poised for progress” is what you say when you can’t say “our economy is growing now.”

THE PRESIDENT: But we’ve also seen the effects that political dysfunction can have on our economic progress.  The drawn-out process for resolving the fiscal cliff hurt consumer confidence.  The threat of massive automatic cuts have already started to affect business decisions.  So we’ve been reminded that while it’s critical for us to cut wasteful spending, we can’t just cut our way to prosperity.  Deep, indiscriminate cuts to things like education and training, energy and national security will cost us jobs, and it will slow down our recovery.  It’s not the right thing to do for the economy; it’s not the right thing for folks who are out there still looking for work.

He argues that the past drawn-out process caused uncertainty which hurt consumer confidence. He recently made a similar argument against a short-term debt limit extension. But eight paragraphs from now he proposes to delay the sequester, further “drawing out” that process, to allow time to substitute different spending cuts and tax increases for the sequester. By his own logic, his proposal should further hurt consumer confidence.

I’m not sure how to respond to his point that immediate government spending cuts cause economic harm, because he has no proposal to tell us what he wants instead. If he proposes to change the mix of deficit reduction (more tax increases and defense spending cuts, fewer nondefense spending cuts) but not the timing, then all he’s doing is shifting resources from the private to the public sector, and from one part of government to another. That’s going to have no short-term growth effect and will hurt long-term growth because the private sector is smaller.

If instead he wants to substitute future deficit reduction for that which is about to begin March 1, then he is, in effect, arguing that given a weak economy, our budget deficit this year ($845 B or 5.3% of GDP) isn’t big enough. This is a traditional Keynesian fiscal stimulus argument. But his problem is that the numbers are too small: the sequester will cut spending this calendar year by about $65 B. Even if you push all that deficit effect into future years, you’re not going to move the needle much on a $16 T economy.

The deep indiscriminate cuts to which he refers are the result of the sequester that his advisors proposed to Congress in July of 2011 and which he signed into law that August.

And he argues that cutting government spending now would harm the economy and “folks who are out there still looking for work,” but his solution means that government employees would be protected from job loss while those previously employed in the private sector had to suffer the pain of a weak labor market. That doesn’t seem fair.

THE PRESIDENT: And the good news is this doesn’t have to happen.  For all the drama and disagreements that we’ve had over the past few years, Democrats and Republicans have still been able to come together and cut the deficit by more than $2.5 trillion through a mix of spending cuts and higher rates on taxes for the wealthy.  A balanced approach has achieved more than $2.5 trillion in deficit reduction.  That’s more than halfway towards the $4 trillion in deficit reduction that economists and elected officials from both parties believe is required to stabilize our debt.  So we’ve made progress.  And I still believe that we can finish the job with a balanced mix of spending cuts and more tax reform.

He’s got a small verb tense problem and a large logic problem here. Policymakers have cut the deficit by less than $100 billion so far, and they have enacted policies which, if not unraveled by future laws, would result in another $2.4ish trillion in deficit reduction over the next nine years. But all these future savings are from cutting discretionary spending, which is what the President is (ambiguously) proposing to undo here. It seems a bit hypocritical to simultaneously claim credit for enacted future cuts in discretionary spending at the same time you propose to undo them. The President would have more credibility here if he were proposing specific spending cuts and tax increases to substitute for the spending cuts he wants to undo. But the only thing he is specific about is that he wants to undo or delay the impending spending cuts.

THE PRESIDENT: The proposals that I put forward during the fiscal cliff negotiations in discussions with Speaker Boehner and others are still very much on the table.  I just want to repeat:  The deals that I put forward, the balanced approach of spending cuts and entitlement reform and tax reform that I put forward are still on the table.

But what exactly are those proposals, and will the President propose them in his budget? If he is willing to use a chain-weighted CPI for COLAs and tax bracket indexation, will he propose it? If he is willing to raise the eligibility age for Medicare, will he propose it? If not, how do we know what he is actually proposing? By reading Bob Woodward’s book and background quotes from unnamed senior advisors in POLITICO? He has never told us what this deal is that he put forward, nor has he proposed it to anyone other than Speaker Boehner. If you think it’s good policy, Mr. President, then put it in your budget.

Also, the deal in December has to be modified, right, since a new law enacted $600+ B of current and future tax increases? So technically the deal the President put forward then at a minimum has to be updated to reflect the new law, right?

THE PRESIDENT: I’ve offered sensible reforms to Medicare and other entitlements, and my health care proposals achieve the same amount of savings by the beginning of the next decade as the reforms that have been proposed by the bipartisan Bowles-Simpson fiscal commission.  These reforms would reduce our government’s bill — (laughter.)  What’s up, cameraman?  (Laughter.)  Come on, guys.  (Laughter.)  They’re breaking my flow all the time.  (Laughter.)

He mentions only one of the Big 4 entitlements. He and his party slowed Medicare spending growth in 2010, but then they turned around and spent those savings on a new health entitlement. Now he proposes again slowing Medicare spending growth, but ignores the other three sources of medium-term spending growth: Social Security, Medicaid, and the new health subsidies from the Affordable Care Act.

THE PRESIDENT: These reforms would reduce our government’s bills by reducing the cost of health care, not shifting all those costs on to middle-class seniors, or the working poor, or children with disabilities, but nevertheless, achieving the kinds of savings that we’re looking for.

Translation: He’ll cut medical provider payments rather than raise copayments, deductibles, or premiums.

THE PRESIDENT: But in order to achieve the full $4 trillion in deficit reductions that is the stated goal of economists and our elected leaders, these modest reforms in our social insurance programs have to go hand-in-hand with a process of tax reform, so that the wealthiest individuals and corporations can’t take advantage of loopholes and deductions that aren’t available to most Americans.

Translation: I’m not touching the big entitlements unless Republicans raise taxes (again, more) at the same time.

I disagree that his proposals “achieve the kinds of savings we’re looking for,” and that “the full $4 trillion in deficit reduction” is the right target, given that his stated goal is only to get the deficit down to 3% of GDP for the next decade. We need more savings now to start reducing debt/GDP, and we need long-term spending cuts for when entitlement spending growth is otherwise projected to explode. We need much more than $4 trillion of deficit reduction over the next decade, and it’s incorrect to suggest that there is a consensus among elected leaders on that point.

The “loopholes and deductions that aren’t available to most Americans” language is new to me. I wonder what he means? Tax deductions have greater dollar value to a high-income taxpayer than to “most Americans,” but both taxpayers have these preferences “available to them.”

THE PRESIDENT: Leaders in both parties have already identified the need to get rid of these loopholes and deductions. There’s no reason why we should keep them at a time when we’re trying to cut down on our deficit.  And if we are going to close these loopholes, then there’s no reason we should use the savings that we obtain and turn around and spend that on new tax breaks for the wealthiest or for corporations.  If we’re serious about paying down the deficit, the savings we achieve from tax reform should be used to pay down the deficit, and potentially to make our businesses more competitive.

Here’s the President’s position, as best I can infer:

  1. Raising taxes to offset tax cuts: Bad;
  2. Raising taxes to reduce the deficit: Good but he’s not proposing it;
  3. Raising taxes to increase spending: He’s proposing it while pretending he’s doing #2.

He argues that raising taxes to reduce future deficits is a good thing, but as I understand it he wants to raise taxes to pay for more government spending (by undoing the spending sequester). That’s quite different.

THE PRESIDENT: Now, I think this balanced mix of spending cuts and tax reform is the best way to finish the job of deficit reduction.  The overwhelming majority of the American people — Democrats and Republicans, as well as independents — have the same view.  And both the House and the Senate are working towards budget proposals that I hope reflect this balanced approach.  Having said that, I know that a full budget may not be finished before March 1st, and, unfortunately, that’s the date when a series of harmful automatic cuts to job-creating investments and defense spending — also known as the sequester — are scheduled to take effect.

I don’t blame the American people for agreeing with the President; he is personally popular and it is impossible for them to understand what he is proposing. He has never publicly described or proposed the deals he privately offered to Speaker Boehner. He hasn’t proposed a budget this year and doesn’t appear likely to do so soon. He calls government spending “investment,” tax increases “tax reforms,” and welfare payments “tax cuts.” He keeps shifting baselines against which he measures “balance” and he repeatedly conflates taxes and spending. I have been studying and working on fiscal policy for more than 15 years and I can barely understand what he’s saying. No wonder the American people are confused and frustrated.

He says, “I know that a full budget may not be finished before March 1st”:

  • He missed the statutory deadline for proposing a budget and is creating further delays and uncertainty by not even announcing when he will propose a budget, complicating the jobs of both the House and Senate budget chairmen.
  • The (often missed) deadline for a budget resolution conference report is April 15th.
  • So it’s unfair to suggest that Congress is somehow failing by not finishing a full budget by the March 1 sequester deadline.

THE PRESIDENT: So if Congress can’t act immediately on a bigger package, if they can’t get a bigger package done by the time the sequester is scheduled to go into effect, then I believe that they should at least pass a smaller package of spending cuts and tax reforms that would delay the economically damaging effects of the sequester for a few more months until Congress finds a way to replace these cuts with a smarter solution.

Who in Congress is seriously discussing now “acting immediately on a bigger package?” Anyone? The Grand Bargain died on New Year’s Day with the enactment of a $600+ B tax increase. This is another straw man so that the President can repeatedly say “I’m for a big deal” while making no new concessions to get one done nor taking any steps to create an environment in which such a deal might happen. The “if” clause above is therefore trivially true. The President is saying Congress should replace or delay the sequester for a  few months but he offers no specific proposal to do so.

THE PRESIDENT: There is no reason that the jobs of thousands of Americans who work in national security or education or clean energy, not to mention the growth of the entire economy should be put in jeopardy just because folks in Washington couldn’t come together to eliminate a few special interest tax loopholes or government programs that we agree need some reform.

Yes, there is:  Because if you enact a law now that raises taxes now and promises to cut future spending, what is to say that those future spending cuts won’t again be delayed, just as the President is proposing to do now? Also, shifting resources from the private sector to the public sector (aka “tax-and-spend”) doesn’t increase economic growth, it stifles it.

And he’s exaggerates when he suggests that “the growth of the entire economy” is contingent on whether government spending is cut by four-tenths of a percent of GDP this year.

THE PRESIDENT: Congress is already working towards a budget that would permanently replace the sequester.  At the very least, we should give them the chance to come up with this budget instead of making indiscriminate cuts now that will cost us jobs and significantly slow down our recovery.

Are they? Maybe the Senate is. I’m not sure the House is looking to replace the sequester in their budget. Time will tell.

THE PRESIDENT: So let me just repeat:  Our economy right now is headed in the right direction and it will stay that way as long as there aren’t any more self-inflicted wounds coming out of Washington.  So let’s keep on chipping away at this problem together, as Democrats and Republicans, to give our workers and our businesses the support that they need to thrive in the weeks and months ahead.

Wouldn’t it be nice if he had said “let’s keep chipping away at this problem together, as Americans, …” rather than “as Democrats and Republicans”?

THE PRESIDENT: Thanks very much.  And I know that you’re going to have a whole bunch of other questions.  And that’s why I hired this guy, Jay Carney — (laughter) — to take those questions.

Thank you, everybody.

I have a question: Where is the President’s specific proposal? At 7:43 AM EST today POLITICO reported:

POLITICO: President Barack Obama will propose a package of short-term spending cuts and tax reforms in an effort to head off the looming sequester cuts Tuesday at 1:15 p.m., a White House official tells POLITICO.

What happened to the “package of short-term spending cuts and tax reforms?” It seems to have died between 7:43 AM and 1:15 PM when the President spoke.

(photo credit: White House photo by Pete Souza)

5 responses

  1. “Policymakers have cut the deficit by less than $100 billion so far, and they have enacted policies which, if not unraveled by future laws, would result in another $2.4ish trillion in deficit reduction over the next nine years. But all these future savings are from cutting discretionary spending, which is what the President is (ambiguously) proposing to undo here.”

    Baselines are confusing and this is no exception.

    Hennessey’s remark, quoted above, strikes me as incorrect. As I understand it, the “$2.4 trillion deficit reduction” is a combination of the recent tax hikes on the “rich” enacted to avoid the fiscal cliff (approximately $1 trillion) and the remaining is promised spending cuts. As commenter Marcus pointed out above, the $1.4 trillion on the spending side is measured against an August 2010 baseline and use of a different date as the starting point would generally reduce the $1.4 trillion component (and only that component) to a lower amount.

    However, the above quote seems to attribute *all* the $2.4 trillion to spending cuts ($2.3 billion in the future and $100 billion in the bank), rather than just $1.4 trillion of spending. My guess is that the recent tax hikes are a deal that is not likely to be undone any time soon. And, if Congress changes the law to reverse those tax hikes (highly unlikely) it certainly won’t be because any Obama initiative.

    I do agree with most of the rest, though.

  2. Pingback: The President’s sequester remarks, annotated | Alabama Newscast

  3. Alan Reynolds said at National Review late last year: “Barack Obama doesn’t understand economics, and apparently he will not listen to anyone who does. ” Discouraging, but it helps to keep in mind. At least we’re not fooled.

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