Showing posts with label deficit. Show all posts
Showing posts with label deficit. Show all posts

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

White House: Deficit Reduction Priority of the GOP

   President Obama has often talked about the need to reduce the budget deficit.  Before his run for the presidency, Senator Obama was rather harsh in his criticism of George Bush's deficits.  And in July 2011, during the debt ceiling crisis, the president even addressed Congressional leaders in a talk the White House titled "President Obama on Deficit Reduction: “If Not Now, When?”  During the talk, he said:
We keep on talking about this stuff and we have these high-minded pronouncements about how we've got to get control of the deficit and how we owe it to our children and our grandchildren. Well, let's step up.  Let's do it.  I'm prepared to do it.  I'm prepared to take on significant heat from my party to get something done.  And I expect the other side should be willing to do the same thing -- if they mean what they say that this is important.
    Based on Jay Carney's remarks at this Monday's press briefing, the president has conceded that the GOP does "mean what they say that [deficit reduction] is important."  Carney was responding to a question about Organizing for Action's (OFA) attempts to influence policy, and even took issue with a reporter's characterization of OFA as a "partisan group."  During his answer, he said:
I mean, there’s nothing partisan about deficit reduction.  In fact, you might even say it’s more of a priority for Republicans than Democrats.
    While this difference in the parties' priorities may not come as a shock to most observers, the admission was a rare moment of candor from a press secretary who is adept at portraying his boss as holding the high ground on virtually every policy issue. As the White House has committed to release a budget shortly, Republicans will be poised to hold the deficit reduction position the White House has ceded and use it to pull the president in their direction.

Note: This story first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Friday, March 8, 2013

HERadventure: Premiere Day for $100K NEA Grantee

    Earth is the source of a "spreading darkness, mysterious in its origin, ruthless in its destruction." That darkness emanates from "societal issues affecting the women of Earth." So says HERadventure, a "multi-episode, augmented reality computer game" developed with the support of Spelman College in Atlanta and a $100,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant.  I first called attention to HERadventure in January, and now the day has arrived for taxpayers to find out if they got their money's worth.
    Today, International Women’s Day, March 8, was chosen as the launch date for the "transmedia, interactive" story, and Beets Cafe in Austin, Texas is the place.  The listing at Eventbrite.com says that the "event will include a demo and talk back with award-winning and pioneer filmmaker Ayoka Chenzira and Emmy nominated producer, HaJ who will share their unique experiencing behind HERadventure."  As of Thursday evening, 36 tickets remained for the free event.  It is not clear how many tickets were available to begin with or what the seating capacity is at Beets.
    A website for HERadventure is now live, although it is rather sparse.  However, a "press kit" is available on the site with a detailed synopsis of the movie/game. Some excerpts:

A universal truth, across space and time, and to all things: Everything is connected. HERadventure, reveals that incivility anywhere is a threat to civility everywhere; that evil seeded on one planet can feed evil on another. That is where the story begins: on another planet, another world entirely….
Xamtha.  A once-great planet -- a thriving civilization of women leaders and noble warriors -- is slowly being consumed by a spreading darkness, mysterious in its origin, ruthless in its destruction.  The elite warrior corps of Xamtha, the Glovebearers, has been dispatched to combat this dark force, and to protect the very source of Xamthan life -- its Life Energy Force.  Harnessed from the roots of precious trees, the Life Energy Force is all that stands between the Xamthans and utter extinction. And it is slowly being eaten away by the corrosiveness of the encroaching darkness... 
...energy signatures of the dark force indicate that it is originating from another planet: Earth.  Determined to stop the dark force at its source, Zira goes through the portal against Her’s protestations... 
On Earth, Her enlists the assistance of you, the audience-turned-Player, and the adventure becomes an interactive experience in which conflicts through instances of social injustice must be overcome through a series of game-mode challenges.  Her comes upon various scenarios of societal issues affecting the women of Earth -- discrimination, domestic violence, sexual predation among them -- and in finding that the root of these evils is the root all evil, she finds her voice and a great unknown strength.
    There is even a short video clip on the website of Her herself pleading for help.

    HERadventure also has an account on Twitter, as well, and a Facebook page.  Most recently, a promotional trailer was posted on YouTube:

    “We are experimenting with ways to address social issues, personally engage viewers and reach them where they get entertainment / education in the digital age” said Ayoka. “Stories and superheroes developed for the new digital film and gaming formats seldom include women of color. HERadventure will not only address this issue but engage more young women through gaming and illuminate the interconnectivity of us all,” said HaJ.  Today, the world will get to judge for itself how far these two collaborators have come in achieving their goals.  And whether or not it was worth the $100,000.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Department of Defense Rejects GAO Recommendation Regarding "Sexual Assault Victimization" in the Military

    On January 23, news broke that outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had issued a directive that the military's ban on women in combat would be lifted.  The New York Times reported that his decision was in response to unanimous agreement among the Joint Chiefs of Staff as expressed in a letter to Panetta:
Mr. Panetta’s decision came after he received a Jan. 9 letter from Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who stated in strong terms that the armed service chiefs all agreed that “the time has come to rescind the direct combat exclusion rule for women and to eliminate all unnecessary gender-based barriers to service.”
     The Times article said it was unclear why the Joint Chiefs decided to act now after years of discussion, although there is speculation that recent threats of legal action may have played a role.  However, a Government Accountability Office report issued on January 29 raises some questions about the timing of such a monumental change in policy.

    I first reported the GAO report in a January 31 blog post at The Weekly Standard where I addressed the fiscal impact of allowing women in combat positions.  However, the broader focus of the report is spelled out in its title: "DOD Has Taken Steps to Meet the Health Needs of Deployed Servicewomen, but Actions Are Needed to Enhance Care for Sexual Assault Victims." An explanation of the special focus on sexual assault victims appears early in the report [emphasis added]:
The roles for women in the military have been expanding and evolving, particularly since the Persian Gulf War more than 2 decades ago. Formerly, servicewomen served primarily in supportive roles in overseas U.S. military operations. Today, servicewomen are integral to combat support and counterinsurgency operations, and they serve in many roles they previously did not hold. In late 2011, for example, women began serving aboard Navy submarines. In early 2012, the Department of Defense (DOD) announced that changes to its assignment policies would result in more than 14,000 additional positions being opened to women, including positions in select direct ground combat units. Further, while sexual assault victimization is not unique to women, the presence of women in new roles suggests that continued vigilance with respect to this issue is needed. Given the expanding and evolving role of women in the military, the health and wellness of servicewomen plays an important role in overall military readiness. 
    According to the National Defense Authorization Act for 2012, this report was originally due by December 31, 2012.  As mentioned above, the report was released on January 29, but given that the paragraph above does not mention the lifting of the women in combat ban, the GAO report was apparently finalized prior to Panetta's announcement. This policy change, much more far reaching that even the change opening "14,000 additional positions" in early 2012, exponentially increases the need for "continued vigilance" regarding "sexual assault victimization" that the GAO calls for.  Therefore, the timing of the announcement lifting the ban and the DOD's reaction to the GAO report recommendations is curious.

    The GAO made two recommendations at the conclusion of its inquiry regarding "sexual assault victimization":
To enhance the medical and mental health care for servicewomen who are victims of sexual assault, GAO recommends that DOD (1) develop department-level guidance on the provision of care to victims of sexual assault; and (2) take steps to improve first responders' compliance with the department's requirements for annual refresher training. DOD did not concur with the first recommendation, but cited steps it is taking that appear consistent with the recommendation. DOD concurred with the second recommendation.
     In this short summary of the DOD's reaction to the draft report, which the DOD reviewed before the GAO prepared and issued the final version on January 29, the GAO notes that the DOD "did not concur with the first recommendation, but cited steps it is taking that appear consistent with the recommendation." This summary sounds sanguine about the steps the DOD is taking to conform to the GAO's first recommendation, but it fails to convey the lengths to which the DOD appears to have gone to avoid concurring and to avoid fully cooperating with the GAO staff conducting the review.  Here is the full paragraph from the body of the report discussing the DOD's recommendations.  It is quite lengthy, but I have taken the liberty of highlighting all the references to the DOD's reticence to fully engage the GAO:
In written comments on a draft of this report, DOD stated in its cover letter that, overall, the department did not concur with the report's findings and conclusions. However, DOD's cover letter did not provide an explanation for this comment. In an enclosure to its letter, DOD stated that it did not concur with our first recommendation that the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs develop and implement department-level guidance on the provision of medical and mental health care to victims of sexual assault that would specify health care providers' responsibilities to respond to and care for sexual assault victims, whether in the United States or in deployed environments. DOD's justification of its assessment, however, did not make clear why the department did not concur. Instead, DOD provided examples of steps it has been taking that may help to address the findings in this report. Specifically, DOD stated that, while the second version of DOD Instruction 6495.02, entitled "Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) Program Procedures" has been in coordination for nearly 2 years and is not yet published, the revised instruction will be comprehensive and will contain two medical enclosures. According to DOD, the first medical enclosure will address health care provider procedures and direct the Surgeons General of the military services to carry out responsibilities related to the
coordination, evaluation, and implementation of care, while the second medical enclosure will address health care providers' responsibilities related to Sexual Assault Forensic Examination kits. During the course of this review, we met with DOD officials who had knowledge of and were involved in the instruction's revision, but these officials did not discuss or share their draft revisions with us when we presented our findings to them. We cannot verify, therefore, whether the enclosures referenced in DOD's comments will address our recommendation. However, we plan to review the instruction when DOD finalizes it to determine whether it meets the intent of our recommendation. Finally, DOD stated that the department meets its oversight responsibilities with regard to sexual assault response through training in graduate medical education and through monitoring and oversight of the process that governs credentialing and privileging of providers.  However, it is not clear why this statement is applicable to our recommendation. We did not address these points in the finding that led to this recommendation, and our recommendation is focused on the need for additional guidance. 
    The DOD's lack of transparency and full cooperation with the GAO has certainly compromised the effectiveness of this report at the precise time when a huge policy change regarding women is emerging. Not only, as the GAO indicates above, will this require further follow up by the GAO, but it has prevented Congress from having complete information on an important aspect of the issue at a time when Congress must decide whether or not to act.  As the GAO report said:
Given the expanding and evolving role of women in the military, the health and wellness of servicewomen plays an important role in overall military readiness. 
    Implementing this policy change, unless Congress intervenes, will be the first order of business for Chuck Hagel or whoever ends up being confirmed as the next Secretary of Defense. And given the importance of the military readiness of the United States, the Department of Defense owes the GAO, Congress and the American people full disclosure when it comes to how it plans to handle one of the most significant changes to the armed forces in our lifetime.

Note: A version of this article first appeared on February 6, 2013 at The Weekly Standard.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

National Science Foundation: $400,000 for Guppy Study

    The National Science Foundation (NSF) has requested $7.373 billion from Congress for fiscal year 2013, an increase of $340 million (4.8%) over 2012. According to an announcement on Thursday, $400,000 of that (spread over three years) will be going to fund guppy research.  Colorado State University announced the grant on January 31st for a study to investigate "the effects of genes moving from one population to another." The press release explains further:
Chris Funk and Lisa Angeloni, assistant professors of biology at CSU, and their student teams tackle the dilemma of when to artificially induce migration between populations to rescue them from decline by getting up close and personal with Trinidadian guppies. These small fish, although not at risk of extinction themselves, make for an excellent model system to study the effects of introductions on local adaptation and population growth.
    The purpose of the study is help biologists develop strategies for helping to rescue declining species from extinction. Conservation is a noble and justifiable (in some cases) goal and government's role dates back at least to President Teddy Roosevelt, although the National Science Foundation did not come along until 1950. However, "conservation" has taken a hit as efforts have sometimes focused on what appear to be less than justifiable goals (the snail darter, the Northern spotted owl, and some kind of desert rat whose exact name escapes me at the moment.)

    Currently, however, the United States government is over $16 trillion dollars in debt. Spending $400,000 on conservation at this juncture just doesn't pass the if-you-don't-need-it-to-keep-the-lights-on test (especially when the subject of the study is guppies, whose current world population according to my completely unscientific estimate is coincidentally also just over 16 trillion.) As an accountant, I just can't help thinking it ironic that in my line of work, the acronym of the National Science Foundation, NSF, is more commonly interpreted as Non Sufficient Funds  -- meaning a bounced check.

    Now I am sure for every example like the guppy study (or any number of examples Sen. Tom Coburn came up with a couple of years ago in his report on the NSF,) someone can give an example of how an NSF grant produced some remarkable discovery that has improved life for everyone (and not just guppies.) But until the U.S. government starts seeing a lot more black ink in the balance column of its check register, the National Science Foundation should have to face the fact that the taxpayers have bigger fish to fry.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Government Report: Women in Combat to Cost Money

Note: This article was originally published at The Weekly Standard.

    Ever since outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced a week ago that the U.S. military would lift its ban on women in combat roles, the debate, which has been simmering for decades, boiled up again. Much of the argument has centered on cultural, social, and morale-related effects that such a change would bring about, though other practical issues have been raised as well. However, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released just this week may bring some other considerations to the fore, among them, the financial impact.

    According to the introduction to the GAO report, the National Defense Authorization Act For Fiscal Year 2012 charged the GAO with conducting “a review of the female-specific health care services provided by DOD to female servicemembers...”  Though not directly addressed by the GAO, the report raises a perhaps unanticipated consequence of lifting the ban on women in combat. With an increasing number of women in combat units, as well as presumably an overall increase in women enlisting in the service now that more positions will be open to them, there may be a corresponding increase in health-related costs. For example, the report says:
DOD has put in place policies and guidance that include female-specific aspects to help address the health care needs of servicewomen during deployment. Also, as part of pre-deployment preparations, servicewomen are screened for potentially deployment-limiting conditions, such as pregnancy, and DOD officials and health care providers with whom GAO met noted that such screening helps ensure that many female-specific health care needs are addressed prior to deployment.
    The “female-specific aspects” of health care are self-evident, but for confirmation, one need look no further than the Affordable Care Act with its 145 uses of the word “women” versus one use of “men.” Although women already serve in many areas of the military, the full (or near-full) integration will certainly impact the amount of “female-specific ” medical equipment, supplies, and expertise needed by each branch of the service to meet the increased demand. Examination rooms may need to be retooled and medics may need further training. Additionally, the “potentially deployment-limiting conditions, such as pregnancy” can be screened for, but will still affect associated costs, not to mention the readiness of units destined for combat, in a way that is not present with male-only units. The report implies this when it says:
Given the expanding and evolving role of women in the military, the health and wellness of servicewomen plays an important role in overall military readiness.
    The exact cost of women in combat is not revealed in the GAO report.

    But at a time when the defense budget is under increasing scrutiny, and with the threat of sequestration slashing the budget further, the likely increased healthcare costs associated with the lifting of the ban should be taken into account.

    Higher costs may not be the most important aspect of the policy change, but neither can they be ignored. The higher percentage of the defense budget that must be devoted to routine healthcare, the lower the percentage that is available for areas more directly related to keeping the U.S. military the best equipped, best trained fighting force in the world, ready at a moment’s notice to deploy whenever and wherever needed.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The NEA's Excellent HERadventure [Updated]

    During my politically formative years, the National Endowment for the Arts was a frequent target of derision from conservatives and Republicans for the unnecessary and often ridiculous use of tax dollars.    Along with the Department of Education and public broadcasting, it was high on the list of government boondoggles to get the axe once conservatives held the purse strings.  Somehow, that day never came.  With the resurgence of interest in cutting government spending now that the country has had four trillion dollar plus annual deficits in a row, the NEA might start to feel the heat again, especially in light of the story below.

    Last spring, the National Endowment for the Arts announced its 2012 grant recipients.  The vigilance of conservatives must indeed have slipped, because other than a brief mention by Pennsylvania Congressman Joe Pitts, the following seems to have gone by virtually unnoticed:
Spelman College (aka Digital Moving Image Salon)
Atlanta, GA
To support HERadventure, a multi-episode, augmented reality computer game. Targeted to young women ages 18-25, HERadventure's story focuses on a young female superhero sent to Earth to save her own planet from devastation because of climate changes caused by social issues impacting women and girls. The game will be designed to be accessible online, on mobile platforms, Facebook, and Twitter and is designed and led by filmmaker and digital media artist Ayoka Chenzira with a team of artists.
    The description defies parody.  $100,000 of taxpayer money is going to help develop a video game about a female alien sent to earth to rescue her own planet (sorry, I just can't paraphrase this - must quote) "from devastation because of climate changes caused by social issues impacting women and girls."  Fortunately, we are not left to fill in the details for ourselves.  A fuller description is available on the website of Spelman College:
The backstory of HERadventure begins when HER, a warrior woman and inhabitant of Earth’s sister planet, comes to Earth to investigate why it is causing her native planet to freeze and slowly die. HER discovers that the auras of Earth’s women are diminishing. Consequently, Earth and other parts of the universe are negatively impacted. HER enlists a corps of “superheroes in training” (HERadventure users) to take meaningful action and offer solutions to issues such as negative self-esteem, discrimination, eating disorders, and depression, which are causing women’s auras to suffer. These issues are dealt with through visual metaphors in a 3-D environment. HERadventure users “teleport” through various levels of the gaming experience by using social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, with a goal of helping the superhero save her planet and ultimately serve as catalysts for positive change in the virtual and real world.
    An article from the college's electronic newsletter Inside Spelman goes even further:
 What would happen if the societal issues affecting women put other planets at risk? Well, of course, HER, a Black female superhero, would swoop in with a plan to save the universe. HER is central to HERadventure, a science fiction-based, multimedia platform project that interweaves virtual worlds, digital  and social media to create a gaming and storytelling experience. HERadventure not only entertains but tackles social issues that permeate the daily reality of many women.
    Although it is the smorgasbord of politically correct elements that makes this project entertaining to write about, the bottom line is that the government has taken $100,000 from the taxpayers and given it to someone to develop a video game.  It is one thing to argue that tax dollars should be used to prop up art forms that may be suffering from popular neglect (opera, painting, ballet, symphony orchestras) but have earned the right to be preserved for cultural and historical reasons if for nothing else.  But a video game?  Does America need government sponsored video games?  Even those that purport to be "art"?  Cannot our free marketplace of ideas even be trusted with that minor task?

    As the Inside Spelman article goes on to note:
HERadventure is scheduled for release on International Women’s Day on March 8, 2013. However, that is only the beginning. The transmedia, interactive story of HERadventure will be made up of several interconnected projects including a film that will engage film directors from around the world.
    Mark your calendars for March 8th.  We paid $100,000 for it.  We might as well see if we got our money's worth.

UPDATE: In a remarkable coincidence, this story at IndieWire.com just showed up this morning:

Filmmaker Ayoka Chenzira Launches HERadventure Sci-Fi Multimedia Project To Empower Women 
JANUARY 10, 2013 11:27 AM 
As the conversation continues on the dearth of black representation in sci-fi cinema, I receive an email with this announcement.
When she's not partnering up with acclaimed best-selling author Pearl Cleage to bring her novels to the screen, in what has been dubbed The Pearl Cleage Film Project, filmmaker and professor Ayoka Chenzira is developing an innovative sci-fi multimedia (film, gaming, social media) project called HERadventure.
I'll be interviewing her in a little bit about both her teaming with Cleage as well as on this newly-announced HERadventure project.
     The full story is at the link.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Saving Taxpayer Dollars: Specks and Logs

    In mid-December, the White House announced the four finalists in President Obama's fourth annual SAVE Award competition for federal employees.
Since its creation in 2009, President Obama’s SAVE Award [Securing Americans Value and Efficiency] has served as a vehicle for Federal employees to offer firsthand their ideas on how to improve performance and ensure taxpayer dollars are spent wisely.  
Today, we are announcing the four finalists for the 2012 SAVE Award.  Keeping with tradition, the winner will present his or her idea to the President in the Oval Office, and other proposals will be directed to agencies for potential action or inclusion in the President’s Budget.
The final four ideas are:
Frederick Winter, Shift to Senior Transit Fares.  Frederick Winter of the Department of Education proposes that all Federal employees who receive public transit benefits shift from regular transit fare to the reduced senior fare as soon as they are eligible.  In the D.C. area, this change would lower the cost of the employee’s travel by 50 percent, with no loss in the effective benefits for the employee. 
Angela Leroux, Reduce Employee Shuttle Buses.  Many Federal agencies maintain buses to shuttle employees from one government office to another for work purposes.  Too often these vehicles sit idle or travel their routes with just a few passengers.  Angela Leroux at the Internal Revenue Service recommends that agencies eliminate or consolidate the bus service and encourage the use of conference and video calls, or provide metro cards to those with a need to travel. 
James Szender, Use Digital Transcription.  A written transcript of Federal meetings or hearings is often required.  James Szender of the Department of Interior proposes, whenever possible, using digital equipment for transcripts instead of hiring a court reporter, since using digital transcription is significantly less expensive than contracting with a certified court reporter to attend, record, and transcribe the proceedings. 
Laurie Dempsey, Post Customs Inspection Information Online.  Customs and Border Protection is required to post a bulletin weekly that lists all imported items that have completed the customs inspection process.  Currently, Customs ports across the country print this bulletin, which can be hundreds of pages long, and post it in the customs house.  Laurie Dempsey from the Department of Homeland Security suggests instead posting the bulletin electronically on CBP.gov.  This change would save paper, reduce costs, and make it easier for the public to find out what items have been inspected without having to visit the facility in person. 
    To summarize these cream of the crop, top of the heap, head and shoulders above the rest ideas for saving the hard-earned money of the taxpayers: Don’t pay more than required for a transit pass, stop running buses no one rides, stop using 18th century transcription methods, and... use the Internet.

    These ideas are certainly worthy to be implemented, and this is not intended as a slight against the four individuals listed above who have called attention to this waste. What's disturbing is that it took a contest in President Obama's fourth year in office to smoke them out.  Seriously: post customs bulletins on the internet instead of hundreds of sheets of paper on a bulletin board in the customs house?  Didn't Joe Biden already uncover this one in the Campaign to Cut Waste? What other nonsensical, money-wasting boondoggles continue to lurk below the surface?  Could federal workers be hoarding them, hoping to enter them in next year's contest? (Just kidding.)

    And where are the REAL money-saving ideas? Like stop paying farmers billions to keep food prices higher.  Stop spending billions to have the federal government via the Department of Education interfere in local education systems.  Stop spending billions to boost unnecessary "green energy" initiatives whose time, based on the market, has not yet come.  Stop spending trillions to (unsuccessfully) "eliminate poverty" while instead often exacerbating the problem.

    There's a Biblical principle in Luke 6:41-42 that, though not a perfect fit, has an application here:
Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?  How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye. [ESV]
     The specks are important, and let's not overlook them.  But what we really need to do is start working on the logs.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

White House: Clinton Tax Rates on Rich Were Great! Spending? Not So Much.

    Throughout the tax policy debates in the presidential campaign and carrying over into the current fiscal cliff talks, the spending side of the equation has been a contentious issue.  One of the Obama administration's talking points has been that the expiration of the Bush Tax Cuts for the wealthy would simply return rates to the level they were in the Clinton administration when the economy was booming and deficits were falling.  Although it is unclear how higher taxes on the rich help the economy, the President was not shy about pressing this point during his campaign.  From July 2012:
By the way, these tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans are also the tax cuts that are least likely to promote growth.  So we can’t afford to keep that up, not right now.  So I’m not proposing anything radical here.  I just believe that anybody making over $250,000 a year should go back to the income tax rates we were paying under Bill Clinton -- back when our economy created nearly 23 million new jobs, the biggest budget surplus in history, and plenty of millionaires to boot. 
    So if the Clinton tax rates on the "wealthy" were good for the economy, how about the spending?  When Clinton took office, total federal government spending was about $2.1 trillion (all figures inflation adjusted per this chart at Heritage.org.)  In 2000, spending had only risen to $2.3 trillion, thanks in large part to the Republican Congress which swept into office in 1994.  Revenue during that same time went from $1.65 to almost $2.6 trillion.  It is arguable how much of that increase was due to the "Clinton tax rates" on the wealthy and how much was simply due to the booming economy.  But in 2010, while spending had risen to $3.6 trillion, revenues had fallen to $2.1 trillion.  Is this the kind of "balance" the president speaks of?  A reporter tried to get Jay Carney to address this at Friday's Press Briefing:
Q    You are comfortable, quite obviously, with the Clinton-era tax rates for the reasons you have said, economically and otherwise.  Are you similarly comfortable with the Clinton-era level of spending, even for an inflation adjustment as of ’10?
MR. CARNEY:  Well, I think you’d have to give me a little more specificity.  If you're making the point that under Bill Clinton deficits were reduced and turned into surpluses, we obviously find that a commendable record.
Q    Right.  But there was less discretionary spending.  There was less entitlement spending.  Things like that.
MR. CARNEY:  But again, what’s your question?
Q    Would that be a level of spending the President --
MR. CARNEY:  I think the level of spending from 20 years ago, no, I don't think that's --
Q    But with an inflation adjustment, just for example.
MR. CARNEY:  I’m not going to make policy from here based on top line numbers.  I think that the President has demonstrated -- let’s back up, too.  When we talk about this deal, remember back in the summer of 2011, after a grand bargain was not achieved, Republicans could not in the end go along with revenue being part of the package, the Budget Control Act was passed and signed into law, agreed to by the President as well as leaders in Congress and approved by significant percentages of each party in each house.
Speaker of the House Boehner at that time declared that he had gotten, on behalf of House Republicans, 98 percent of what he sought.  So let me remind you when we talk about what this President has been willing to do, that at the time when he signed into law $1.1 trillion in discretionary spending cuts, that was viewed by Speaker Boehner as a great victory for Republicans.  Additionally, that bill created a super committee and set up a system where an additional $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction needed to be achieved or else the sequester would kick in, and that’s why we face the fiscal cliff, or one half of it.
But it is important to know when we talk about who’s willing to move here, who’s willing to compromise, who’s willing to accept some of the other party’s goals, that when the President of the United States signed into law the Budget Control Act in the summer of 2011 and signed into law $1.1 trillion in cuts, Speaker Boehner said it was a 98-percent victory for Republicans.

    Frankly, Carney comes across initially as almost obtuse, first with "If you're making the point that under Bill Clinton deficits were reduced...," moving on to "But again, what’s your question?" and then finally, "I think the level of spending from 20 years ago, no, I don't think that - ."  The reporter then spelled out (again) what should have been obvious, that he was talking about spending with an "inflation adjustment."  By this time though, Carney had stalled long enough to collect his thoughts, and proceeded to use 269 words to not answer the question, ending with an abrupt "Alexis," signaling that he was moving on to the next question.

    Missing was the explanation of how the president could justify praising the higher tax rates of the Clinton era for the wealthy without also admiring a level of inflation adjusted spending that was 36% lower in 2000 than in 2010.  Also missing was an explanation of how a $1.3 trillion increase in spending over Clinton era spending could be made up with a tax increase on the "wealthy" that is not even projected to raise $1 trillion in 10 years.

    I am by no means exempting the Republicans from blame on increased spending.  The Bush administration was certainly a lost opportunity to cut spending.  But even with the Bush tax cuts, even with the economic hit taken by the country on 9/11, even with additional war spending, that same chart show how after 2004, deficits began to drop.  If the Bush administration had held the line on discretionary and entitlement spending (instead of pushing new entitlements like the Medicare prescription drug benefit,) surpluses would have become the norm.

    So after Carney shut down this reporter at the Press Briefing, will anyone broach the subject with Carney again, or perhaps even the president himself?  Or will the most fiscal unbalanced president in history continue to get a pass on his claim of a "balanced approach" to tax increases and spending cuts?  I fear the latter is more likely.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Sesame Street is Brought to You by the Letters U, S, and A

    My first blog post to reach a wide audience (thanks, Powerline) was in January 2012 and was titled Nickel and Diming.  The subject was President Obama's plan to save $3 billion over 10 years by combining six government agencies.  Here's how I approached it at the time:
According to the Administration's own budget, total federal expenditures in 2012 will total $3.7 trillion.  In one year.  Even if expenditures were frozen for 10 years (which is about as likely as another old cliche about somewhere freezing over,) the total for the decade would be $37 trillion.    Savings of $3 billion on $37 trillion is the equivalent of a family earning $50,000 saving - are you ready for this? - $4.05.  Yes, that's four dollars and five cents.  I double checked.  President Obama has essentially proposed skipping a Starbucks latte once a year.
    I further noted that the savings amounted to $300 million per year.  The President held a special event in the East Room of the White House to announce his plan, a plan that had its genesis in his 2011 State of the Union address.  The AP reported:
At the time, Obama grabbed attention by pointing out the absurdity of government inefficiency. In what he called his favorite example, Obama said: "The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they're in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they're in saltwater. And I hear it gets even more complicated once they're smoked."
    Quite a dog-and-pony show to cut down on the "absurdity of government inefficiency" at a savings of $300 million per year, or about .0081% of the annual budget.  So when Mitt Romney was asked about cutting government expenditures and PBS and Big Bird entered the discussion, absurdity was taken to a whole new level.  Mitt Romney was given two minutes by Jim Lehrer to respond to the question or how he would address the deficit.  After saying that the deficit is a moral issue and enumerating ways to approach it (raise taxes, cut spending, economic growth), Romney decided to give two examples of spending he would go after,  one big and one small (despite the Obama Truth Team's assertion to the contrary).  Obamacare and PBS (or the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.)
Romney: "What things would I cut from spending? Well, first of all, I will eliminate all programs by this test, if they don’t pass it: Is the program so critical it’s worth borrowing money from China to pay for it? And if not, I’ll get rid of it. Obamacare’s on my list... I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I’m going to stop other things. I like PBS, I love Big Bird... But I’m not going to -- I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for."
    Suddenly, according to President Obama and his campaign, saving the federal government $425 million per year is worthy of ridicule.  The last two days have seen multiple responses (videos, tweets, blog posts) belittling Romney use of PBS as a deficit reduction target.  Does the Obama campaign really want to argue that Sesame Street (which actually does very well via merchandising, thank you very much) is worth borrowing money from China?  The fact that Sesame Street gets only 10% of its funding from PBS only goes to emphasize the campaign's disingenuous righteous indignation towards Romney.  Ironically, Sesame Street is no Solyndra - it could easily stand on its own.  And yet the president is always talking about hundreds of millions in tax breaks going to Big Oil that doesn't need it seems anxious to give the impression that hundreds of millions to Big Bird makes perfect sense.

    Come to think of it, why not privatize the PBS and Sesame Street and Big Bird?  Then they could start paying taxes.  After all, in this case, they really didn't build that.  Somebody else did that.  The taxpayers.  We've had Big Bird's back all these years.  Now it's his turn to give back.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Great Student Loan Giveaway

    The last time President Obama talked about saving money for student loan recipients, it turned out to be a windfall of 25¢ a day.  This time around, eleven weeks from the election, the president is talking some real money.  Tuesday morning, this tweet went out from @BarackObama:

The link is to a new page set up by the Obama campaign to explain the president's Pay As You Earn proposal.  (I noted this page already in a post that was picked up by Paul Bedard of the Washington Examiner.) The main feature of the plan is that it "caps monthly federal student loan repayment at 10% of monthly discretionary income[.]"  Here is one of the examples provided by the Obama campaign:

A savings of $8,841 per year certainly sounds good. But as it turns out, that's not the half of it.  This savings of $8,841/year translates into $737/month.  This means that without Obama's plan, this doctor's monthly student loan payment would be $737 + $644 = $1,381.  We can check this using the handy calculator also provided on the site (click to enlarge):

Working backwards, a $120,000 loan with a "standard 10-year payment" of $1,381 per month reveals an assumed interest rate of about 6.75% (apparently this is not based on the halved Stafford student loan rate that garnered so much attention two months ago.)  And what is the monthly interest at 6.75% on $120,000?  $675.  That's right.  The doctor earning $100,000 per year does not even have to cover the monthly interest on his debt.  Based on this payment, the debt will literally never be paid off.  (Yes, the doctor's income is likely to increase, but he could also lose his job.)  After 20 years, the balance on the loan will have actually increased to $135,667.  [Even using the artificially reduced, below-market Stafford interest rate of 3.4%, the doctor would still owe $15,712 after 20 years.] However, not to worry!  Another key feature, oddly missing from this website but included in the White House's explanation of the proposal, is that it "will forgive the balance of their debt after 20 years of payments."  I told you the Obama administration was talking real money this time.
    This example is not isolated.  If we run the same scenario with the teacher example provided, the $15,000 debt will have grown to an astounding $34,900 after 20 years. [With the reduced Stafford loan rate, the debt would still be $14,142.]  And what about the single college student who takes the president's advice and rejects Mitt Romney's advice to "shop around" for a college education he can afford?  Say our composite student goes all out and maxes out student loans at $150,000 and it pays off.  He lands a $100,000/year job:

While earning $100,000 per year, our single graduate only has to pay $8,328/year in student loan payments.  After 20 years of this, his debt of $225,683 can be forgiven by the government.

    One of the ironies of this plan is that while touting it, Obama often notes that he and his wife only paid off their loans 8 years ago, almost 20 years after leaving college.  Yet this plan gives no incentive to ever pay off the loan, much less do it before 20 years is up.  And for all the talk about "making education more affordable," this plan has the perverse effect of giving no one any incentive to reduce the cost of college.  The students do not have to worry because their payments are capped.  And the colleges do not have to lower costs to compete for students because the students do not have not worry about the cost.

    But the greatest irony of all might be this tweet from the Obama campaign:

"Reduce the deficit."  A plan that could turn out to be the largest debt forgiveness plan in history will "reduce the deficit."  The deception is audacious and staggering.  The CBO recently reported that the current fiscal year will see the fourth year in a row of one-trillion-plus federal deficits.  If this plan goes through, we may look back at one-trillion deficits with nostalgia.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Safe Quarters

    One of my first blog posts to garner attention was "Nickel and Diming" (thanks to Powerline, who listed it as a "Pick" back in January - it's still #3 on my popular posts list.)  That post was a commentary on how the administration made such a huge deal out of cutting the federal deficit by $3 billion, the equivalent of the average American family cutting out one Starbucks latte per year.  Well, they are at it again with a twist, and this time, the Republicans are helping them out.  But this time, it's not the government saving pocket change.  It's student loan recipients.
    The administration has been harping on the Stafford student loan interest rate increase that was due to take effect July 1st.  They have encouraged students and others, via the campaign blog and Twitter, to tell Congress "don't double my rate."  Well, Congress obliged and Friday, legislation was passed to hold the rate at 3.4% instead of 6.8%.  But as I wrote on the 24th, this rate cut (if it is renewed in perpetuity, a likely scenario) will save the average Stafford student loan recipient a whopping 25¢ a day.  So all you students who needed that extra 15 minutes a day on the parking meter, you can breathe easy.  The federal government is looking out for you.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

What Was That About Obama and Spending? Oh, It Was Nutting...

    Rex Nutting has gotten quite a bit of attention lately for his analysis of spending increases during President Obama's term in office so far.  Others, including James Taranto at the Wall Street Journal and John Hinderaker at Power Line, quickly debunked the claim, so I will not rehearse the inaccuracies and distortions here.  However, there are a few things worth noting.
    First, Rex Nutting was not quite as concerned back in 2009 that Obama not be tagged with the big spender reputation.  In a column just prior to the passage of the $787 billion "stimulus" package in 2009, Nutting bemoaned Obama's shortcomings in explaining his ideas to the American people:
 In a news conference and various town-hall appearances, [Obama's] directly addressed the major criticisms of his proposal to jolt the economy out of this recession with a massive tax cut and spending bill. In extreme detail, using facts and logic, he pretty much demolished all the opponents' arguments that it's wrong to try to fix the economy by cutting taxes and spending money.
A little further down, he writes:
And [Republicans have] had success with their bizarre claims that government jobs aren't jobs and that government spending doesn't stimulate the economy.
So in 2009, Nutting was cheering on Obama's desire for more government spending.  The day after Nutting's column, just a few weeks into his presidency (and only the fifth month of "Bush's" 2009 fiscal year,) his wish was partially fulfilled as Congress, absent any Republican votes, approved the $787 billion "stimulus."  And now in 2012, Nutting is attempting to relieve the pressure Obama is feeling for getting his wish.

    Second, Nutting wrote another column in 2009 citing the huge increase in deficit in the second quarter of the 2009 fiscal year.
Much of the increase in outlays in March came from extraordinary investments by the government in banks and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, loans to credit unions, and increased spending from the stimulus package for unemployment insurance and Medicaid.
While it's true that the "investments" to which Nutting refers were part of the bailout of the banks passed under Bush, it is also true that Obama fully supported that $700 billion plan, not to mention another $50 billion for troubled automakers.

Third, and perhaps more remarkable, is an under-reported quote from Nutting's recent column (perhaps because you have to click through to page 2 of the story to see it.)  While the "Obama's getting a bum rap as a big spender" claim has garnered most of the attention, Nutting says this about the spending that his column tries to pin on Bush and the "previous Congress":
By no means did Obama try to reverse that spending. Indeed, his budget proposals called for even more spending in subsequent years. But the Congress (mostly Republicans but many Democrats, too) stopped him. If Obama had been a king who could impose his will, perhaps what the Republicans are saying about an Obama spending binge would be accurate.
 So after all that, Nutting concedes that Obama wanted to go on the spending binge that Nutting argues didn't happen, but was largely thwarted by Republicans!  And as far as Obama as king, perhaps this is where Nutting hits closest to the truth.  President Obama himself said in March 2012, “If Congress refuses to act, I’ve said that I’ll continue to do everything in my power to act without them.”  And a year earlier, the president was even more explicit:
Mr. Obama has told people that it would be so much easier to be the president of China. As one official put it, ‘No one is scrutinizing Hu Jintao’s words in Tahrir Square.’
 Even though the Obama campaign quickly glommed on to Nutting's column as evidence that the president is not the profligate spender his opponents accuse him of being, they may be better off letting this kerfuffle fade into the background.  If more details begin to filter out, we might start hearing, "If you think that was bad, you ain't see Nutting yet!"

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Five Trillion Dollar Tweet

    The Obama campaign has raised the bar on gall, or perhaps cluelessness.  Here's a tweet from Tuesday afternoon from the Orwellian TruthTeam2012:

One almost gets the sense it's an inside joke-tweet that someone sent out accidentally, a la Anthony Weiner.  Did a TruthTeam member not recognize the irony that the national debt has increased by $5 trillion since President Obama took office, at least partly due to the nearly $1 trillion "stimulus" that "loaded up" the government with more debt?  This is the latest in a series of misfires just this week from the Obama campaign that raises the question, is the 2008 magic really gone?  If not, the Obama campaign and their TruthTeam are certainly chipping away at it, tweet by tweet.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Cost of Freedom?

   It's official.  The debt limit of the USA is now $16.4 trillion.  That's $16,400,000,000,000.  It comes to $8,000,000 for every hour our country has been in existence.  But it didn't beginning in July 1776.  John Hancock and his compatriots didn't think they were signing loan papers that day in Philadelphia.  But 100 or so years ago, things began to change:

Graph created at http://www.usgovernmentdebt.us/

Now it's difficult to tell exactly where the blue appears on the chart, but it looks to be roughly 1910-1920 or so. Quick history quiz!  What Constitutional Amendment was ratified in 1913?  If you said the 16th, the amendment that authorized the income tax, you are right!  So, still think raising taxes is going to help reduce the national debt?

 (HT: Keith Myer) 

Friday, January 13, 2012

Nickel and Diming

   As we approach the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, perhaps it's time to think about replacing "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic" with a modern equivalent, but nevertheless it came to mind when I read about the President's plan to save $3 billion over 10 years by combining six government agencies.  According to the Administration's own budget, total federal expenditures in 2012 will total $3.7 trillion.  In one year.  Even if expenditures were frozen for 10 years (which is about as likely as another old cliche about somewhere freezing over,) the total for the decade would be $37 trillion.    Savings of $3 billion on $37 trillion is the equivalent of a family earning $50,000 saving - are you ready for this? - $4.05.  Yes, that's four dollars and five cents.  I double checked.  President Obama has essentially proposed skipping a Starbucks latte once a year.
   To add insult to injury, the savings will in part be achieved by jobs cuts, but not immediately: "[T]he administration would [cut jobs] through attrition; that is, as people routinely leave their jobs over time."  In other words, unnecessary duplicative jobs will only be eliminated as people voluntarily leave them.  What kind of incentive is there to leave a job in which the workload is being shared by one or more other individuals who are apparently superfluous, particularly since public sector jobs routinely pay much better than comparable private sector positions?
   Some are characterizing this proposal by the President as a "power grab."  Nonsense.  It's more like the bully who takes your lunch money flipping a nickel back to you as he walks away.  And you're supposed to be grateful.

UPDATE:  A couple of other ways to look at this:

  • $3 billion over 10 years is $300 million.  Since the US population is 307,000,000, it comes to $1 per person per year.  The national debt is currently $53,000 per person.
  • Again, $3 billion over 10 years is $300 million/year.  The government currently spends $300 million every 42 minutes.
UPDATE:  I have now posted Part II of this series.  Not included is the President's blockbuster claim:  brand new "savings of $10 billion over 10 years"!  If you are keeping track, we're now skipping four lattes a year.