More debt for US taxpayers? What could go wrong?


The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Sunday, Feb. 7:

We were startled but not surprised when an email from the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget hit our inbox.

Turns out that even with the soak-the-rich tax hikes that presidential candidate Bernie Sanders envisions, his health proposal still would, over a decade, fall short by $3 trillion to $14 trillion. Projections depend on variables that would only terrify taxpayers — the same taxpayers whose federal debt just topped $19 trillion. CRFB says Sanders’ health, Social Security and family leave tax plans would goose the top federal tax rate to about 77 percent. And, “When state and local taxes are included, the top rate rises to an average of about 85 percent (nationwide).”

Sanders at least acknowledges that his “Medicare for All” would force huge tax increases. Even though, as CRFB gently says in projecting those multitrillion-dollar shortfalls, “the numbers at the moment don’t appear to add up.”

Nor do the numbers add up for most of the candidates’ plans. To borrow an apt headline from a Des Moines Register editorial on Iowa Caucuses Eve: “Candidates offer deficit of ideas on debt.” This even though, half a year earlier, 94 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers, and 74 percent of Democrats, had told Register pollsters they wanted candidates to “spend a lot of time talking about” America’s crushing debt.

Republicans Chris Christie and Jeb Bush merit modest praise for their plans to curb the growth of Social Security and Medicare spending. Yet many of the GOP candidates’ plans would inflate federal deficits — none more egregiously than Donald Trump’s. And Democrat Hillary Clinton repeatedly told the Register’s editorial board that the threat of a Social Security crisis is exaggerated. From September: “I am not going to concede that we have this big emergency.”

Clinton sets a high bar for conceding emergencies. Social Security’s trustees project exhaustion of their disability insurance fund late this year. They predict “depletion of total trust fund reserves” — the fund that pays retirement benefits — in 2034. Last … dollar … out. Paying seniors solely out of payroll taxes would slash their benefits by one-fourth.

At least Barack Obama, when he won the presidency, gave lip service to reforming and rescuing the big entitlement programs, a prime way to slow runaway debt. Then, of course, his first annual deficits each topped $1 trillion; only with chutzpah do his partisans now boast that his once astronomical deficits have since declined to the merely astonishing.

This year, though, federal deficits begin a new climb that rises, every year, for as far as the Congressional Budget Office can see — fiscal 2026. When Obama’s successor takes office in January, he or she surely will resent a booby-trapped inheritance that CRFB summarizes as, “The era of declining budget deficits is over,” and new debt predictions that CBO unfurled at the end of January “are significantly worse than previous projections. … About half of the deterioration in the fiscal outlook is from legislative changes, mainly December’s unpaid-for tax extenders and omnibus legislation.”

All of which should be putting enormous pressure on American voters to put enormous pressure on presidential candidates: How can you people even think of sticking taxpayers with still more debt?

But that pressurized progression isn’t happening. The biggest crowds, those rallying for Sanders and Trump, expect more federal largesse, not less. Many people don’t want to hear about how much they’ll have to pay in federal (and state, and county, and city, and school, and … ) taxes to pay off all the debts that the politicians they elected have created in their names.

So here’s another way to address our collective debt burden as we go about choosing a president. America has a desperate need not only to restrain spending, but also to create more taxpayers. When more people are in the workforce, paying their taxes, governments at least have a chance of holding deficits in check.

Those governments even have, dare we say it, a chance of balancing their budgets.

Until these annual budgets begin to balance, we can’t chip away at all this taxpayer debt.

With that imperative in mind, we’ll be evaluating federal, state and local candidates this year as in past years on how they would expand the economy. How they envision creating new jobs. How they would grow taxpayers, and revenues, to pay for their grand plans.

Join us in this quest. We can elect officials who honestly admit that all the benefits they promise do create costs, and honestly tell you how we will pay them.

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(c)2016 Chicago Tribune

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