Monday, April 18, 2011

Getting Ready for the Budget Debate

I can see it coming now. Its magnitude and its long-term effects could dwarf them all -- Lincoln-Douglas, Kennedy-Nixon, Reagan-Mondale, Bentsen-Quayle, Burr-Hamilton (well, that one was really more of a duel). I'm talking about the budget debate of 2011.

The war has started. I'm not sure just what the first shot was. Was it the failure of the 111th Congress to send a budget to the President? Was it the Tea Party forcing the more traditional Republicans to insist on cuts for the remainder of fiscal 2011? Was it Paul Ryan's (R-WI) proposal to cut roughly $6 trillion from the budget over 10 years, not leaving untouched the sacred cows known as Social Security and Medicare? Was it President Obama's proposal to similarly make some significant budget (and tax) changes, perhaps in response to the Ryan proposal?

For purposes of this post, I'm going to focus a bit on the Ryan proposal. As I read it, his proposed budget would make fairly sweeping changes to both Social Security and Medicare. With regard to Social Security, I think I'm safe. That "Fund", and I use the term loosely as it operates as nothing more than a bookkeeping entry is not in as bad shape as its younger sister, so the biggest changes appear to be set up to come in 25 year chunks. As I will be eligible for my unreduced Social Security benefit before 2025, I only need to worry about the program's ability to pay. But, for me, this will almost be found money, as I have assumed for years that I would never see a dime from Social Security (and I still may not, but that is for another day).

Medicare, on the other hand, that "Fund" is about as bankrupt as bankrupt can be. When President (Lyndon, not Andrew) Johnson signed it into law, nobody with a voice that could be heard figured that we would have the changes in health care that have occurred. Double-digit health care inflation wasn't even a nightmare, it just wasn't a possibility. Longevity improvement just wasn't a consideration. And, now look what's happened.

All of those employer-provided retiree medical plans - companies had to start accruing costs for them, and they all but disappeared. It's ok, Medicare is there. Well, for those of us not yet age 55, as I understand the Ryan budget proposal, Medicare may not be there, at least not in its current form. Yes, it needs changes, but like the rest of the people in my age cohort, I've paid a lot of money into that system, and I actually have expected, probably naively, that it would take care of a pretty good portion of my health care costs when I make it to age 65. I am beginning to feel betrayed.

It's not just me, though. For as long as I have been in this business, employer-sponsored retirement programs (including health care) have been designed with the presumption that both Social Security and Medicare will remain largely as they are. In these times of a down economy (yes, on the record, I think the economy is still down), global competition, and mark-to-market accounting fanaticism, companies are not feeling the need to provide better and more costly (to employers) health care benefits.

I'm a fan of what Congressman Ryan is trying to do. He is trying to cut runaway spending. I think it's common sense that if your goesoutas (expenditures) exceed your comeintas (revenues, generally from taxes) that you have to either cut your goesoutas or increase your comeintas or both.

Well, in round figures, the federal debt is about $14 trillion and the GDP is about $15 trillion. My very rough analysis of some graphs that I found online say that the economy is healthiest when debt as a percentage of GDP is in the range of 40% to 55%. Let's take a number in the middle, say 50%, because that makes my math easier. That would imply that we need to cut the debt by $6.5 trillion if the GDP doesn't grow. Frankly, growing at about 3% per year, it's change is not that significant to the equation.

So, let's do some math. The population of the United States is about 310 million. Cutting $6.5 trillion from the debt could be accomplished immediately if each American would be kind enough to contribute about $20,000 to Uncle Sam.

Ain't happening.

Among the people who want tax cuts, they surely don't want to see an increase. And among those who are calling for tax increases, very few are saying that those increases should start with their wallets.

So, Social Security and Medicare may truly need some huge changes. And, these changes will have a significant impact (for all the real grammarians and wordsmiths out there, I know that impact implies a physical collision, and because of that, I rarely use the word impact where affect or effect will suffice, but I feel a physical collision here) on benefit plan design and retirement income planning. And, after all, those are among the topics of this blog.

So, we'll try to keep you updated here, and occasionally attempt to both humor and educate the readership with some analysis, but in the meantime, to paraphrase President Reagan, I'm not sure that I am happy that Congressman Ryan wants to make my youth an issue in his campaign.

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