The Great Debate

The sham of Simpson-Bowles

Erskine Bowles and former Senator Alan Simpson deserve some kind of medal for creating the widely held perception that their plan for reducing the deficit and debt is anything other than a bad proposal.

It has been nearly two years since the commission they chaired, which I served on, finished its work. The duo’s proposal has attained almost mythical status in Washington as the epitome of what a “grand bargain” should look like.

But everyone look again. They will discover that it is far less than meets the eye.

Have Simpson-Bowles’ champions read it? Given any real scrutiny, this plan falls far short of being a serious, workable or reasonable proposal – from either an economic or political analysis.

In one of its few specific points, for example, Simpson-Bowles mandates a top individual tax rate of 29 percent “or less.” Much like the vague Romney proposals, the Simpson-Bowles plan would make up the shortfall by eliminating tax loopholes, suggesting options such as having employees pay taxes on their health benefits. Not only is this likely to increase costs to middle-income families, it could threaten coverage altogether. The proposal for corporate tax reform would eliminate taxes on profits earned overseas, rewarding companies that move jobs offshore.

from Lawrence Summers:

Time nears for an American tax overhaul

However the U.S. presidential election turns out, the trifecta of the Bush tax cut expiration, the debt limit ceiling on the horizon once again, and the Congressionally mandated sequesters – cuts in domestic spending – will force the president and Congress to wrestle with fiscal issues either in a lame duck session after the election or in early 2013. The decisions they make will have profound impacts on America’s fiscal future.

For many observers, the central question on the table is about entitlement programs: What will be done with them? Growth in entitlement spending associated with our aging population and its rising health care costs is the major factor in overall federal spending growth. But the capacity of near-term policy changes to have large impacts on that spending is less than many would suppose. The rising ratio of retirees to workers means that Social Security benefits at current levels will not be sustainable without some kind of tax increase. Sooner or later, revenue will have to rise or else outlays will have to be curtailed. While it is surely better to act sooner, the reality is that, out of necessity, action on entitlements is inevitable.

While almost everyone agrees on the desirability of containing federal health care spending, this is likely to be more difficult than we'd like to believe. Certainly beneficiaries can bear more of the cost of their government insurance than others, and there are steps like malpractice reform and the further encouragement of preventive medicine that should be taken. Yet without intrusions into the private health care system that are unlikely to be politically acceptable, there are severe limits on what can be done. Otherwise the result will be unacceptable cuts in the availability of care for the clients of federal programs. Given all the uncertainties associated with new technologies, changing lifestyles, and ongoing changes in the private system, health care reform will and should be a continuing project.