Jul 272011

An investment firm named KPCB (Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers) has posted a lengthy presentation on YouTube that addresses the current issue of U.S. government debt and provides an ostensibly impartial analysis of the situation and how it may be addressed. This article is offered as a review and commentary of the presentation’s content:

This is one very skewed take on the federal debt issue presented by a very large global investment company with a seriously vested interest, including a major presence in China. While the slideshow pretends to be non-partisan, in reality, it’s a propaganda tool that emphasizes all GOP talking points and glosses over any mention of opposing views.

If you agree with the KPCB take, then the main problem with the U.S. economy is entitlement spending. The slideshow emphasizes this point over and over, throughout the presentation. It also distorts the truth about tax revenue, demonizes government employees, minimizes the impact of defense spending, and makes a series of unfounded comparisons backed by equally illegitimate half-truths.

The following are some specific criticisms:

They assault the growth in government spending by charting the growth starting with the Great Depression: it’s up to 24% of GDP following a 3% trend line prior to 1930 — no shit it grew — there was no prior safety net and no future for anyone but the robber barons and banksters. That’s why we had the Great Depression! The New Deal paved the way and the ensuing period of time following WW2 was the greatest sustained economic expansion in our history — all under a system of shared prosperity brought about through government programs and regulation.

They use the GOP favorite, a family example, as comparison to show what the government should do. Of course it fails to illuminate any of the distinctions between the two very different groups. You know, like one can actually address trade rules, modify tax structures, and print freaking money — or that one is focused on its own wellbeing and the other is supposed to be focused on the wellbeing of ALL the people.

They claim that entitlement costs are rising “exponentially,” which is, of course, true, but still a means of somewhat overstating the issue. Even in today’s sad state of economic affairs, our GDP is presently growing “exponentially” — at a rate of 1.6%, which is pathetic. But the fact that few Americans understand exponential growth provides an open opportunity to exploit their ignorance and make the situation sound as bad as possible. FYI, even the Heritage Foundation estimates claim that entitlement spending will “double” by 2050. I guess “double” just doesn’t sound scary enough.

They label the growth in entitlement spending as a “runaway freight train,” comparing it to the increase in tax revenues, claiming that the former has grown at 2 times the rate of the latter over the past 10 years. Of course, they conveniently leave out anything about the Bush Tax Cuts and the fact that tax rates are at their lowest mark in more than 50 years. Are low taxes really evidence of “runaway” entitlement spending?

They emphasize how large our entitlement spending is by comparing it to the GDP of India, the “world’s 9th largest economy, but they never state that India’s GDP is only $1.38 trillion, or less than 1/10th the size of our own.

They attack the entitlements, but they completely glaze over defense spending. They list it as only 20% of the total and $656 billion. Of course, the truth is that when looking at all defense spending, not just the department of defense, the number is over $1 trillion, and is pushing 30% of overall spending.

They chart a picture where defense spending is actually below the statistical average since 1948 as a portion of GDP. Based on said chart, they assert that we’re actually not spending that much on defense. Of course, they chose a period of time that does include the spike for the Korean war and also the Viet Nam war years, but conveniently omits WW2, when spending peaked at 42% of GDP, and they made sure they stopped the chart in 2003 — eliminating the final $300 billion in Bush increases, not to mention Obama’s own.

They also never make any distinction in what might be considered appropriate defense spending between peacetime/wartime, nor do they address differences between wars of necessity versus wars of choice. They also fail to mention that defense spending has actually tripled since 1997, and they leave out entirely the true financial costs of war — those which echo through many facets of the economy and include a huge portion of federal interest payments and are in total estimated to be more than three times the direct costs.

They do mention defense cuts but only the most low hanging of fruit, like the extra engine for the F-35, and certainly nothing like actually ending the wars.

They show the future unfunded costs of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, $35, $23, and $8 trillion respectively, but fail to mention (except in the fine print) that this is over the next 75 years. They also give nothing for comparison, like the fact that at the present rate, defense costs of over $1 trillion each year, which are taken from general revenue, would amount to more than $75 trillion over the same period.

They talk about healthcare costs and results but give only lip service to any real reform that might be made. They make no mention of soaring insurer and pharmaceutical profits, or of the fact that Medicare is prohibited from negotiating drug prices, nor do they mention the 3-6% administrative costs for Medicare as compared to the 12-30% for private insurers. They even understate total healthcare costs at 8.2% of GDP when it’s actually running over 17%.

They present a terrible view of the increase in Medicaid recipients, showing that in 1965 only 1-in-50 people relied on the program compared to 1-in-6 in 2007. Of course they present this as if it were solely an issue associated with program rules and say nothing about the impact of increased cost of living and falling median income and loss of benefits.

They present the only choices to “fixing” Social Security as increasing the retirement age to 73, increasing payroll taxes to 14.3% or reducing benefits by 12%. This paints a pretty bleak picture. But it may not be so bleak when you consider that the tax increase could come largely from lifting the salary cap, or the benefit reduction could apply only to those who are wealthy — or a combination of the two. They also never mention that the program is 100% solvent through 2037, or that it will still be able to pay 78% of benefits beyond that period without any program changes —but then that wouldn’t serve their purpose.

They also make the argument that life expectancy has increased in the U.S. by 26% since the inception of Social Security while retirement age has only gone up by 3%. Now that doesn’t seem very balanced, but of course when you consider that those who actually perform physical work are barely living any longer at all, and that the real increase in expectancy applies mostly to the high income earners who need Social Security the least . . . well, I guess it depends for whom you’re advocating.

They make assertions in pursuit of the GOP agenda item to divert attention from the impact corporate profits and reduced taxation of the economic elite have had on the economy, and they attempt to place the blame on government workers and unions. They actually choose to paint a picture that blames GM’s economic problems chiefly on retiree benefits, and then claim that the company’s recovery was achieved by removing employee healthcare benefits and focusing on quality. Oddly, they never mention the government bailout.

They assert that if a corporation fails to balance its books, they are forced to go out of business, but they neglect to say a word about Too Big To Fail — the socialization of Wall St. debt , the $16 trillion in loans made by the Federal Reserve to the nations biggest banks and corporations at near-zero rates, the auto industry bailout, or any of the billions of dollars in corporate subsidies, which were estimated by the conservative Cato Institute at $92 billion in 2006 alone.

They depict the debt picture in the U.S. by comparing it to other nations and using our gross public debt number, which unlike other nations has the added factor of including inter-government and state-issued debt, neither of which is typical of most other countries. The combination of these two categories is about 30% of the total, which puts the 86% number in a considerably different light. And BTW, even though they chose to use government spending trends from 1930, they fail to mention that the debt to GDP ratio was 122% after WW2 — a number that we paid down with economic expansion and higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy.

They totally distort the tax picture by placing blame on the 51% of Americans who didn’t pay taxes and never mention that the number increased because Wall St. had literally stolen trillions in middle class wealth and crashed the economy in the process, sending 8 million people to the unemployment lines and creating a situation where it was necessary for the Obama administration to extend $288 billion in further tax cuts as part of the much maligned stimulus program.

They assert that the number of people paying 50% of taxes had dropped by 60% between 1965 and 2005. All true, but what they don’t say is that the slice of people making enough money on which to live has also been dropping — that the share of income gouged by the top 1% had grown from 8% in the mid-1970s to 23.% in 2007, and that the median wage fell for the first time in decades under G.W. Bush. They also fail to mention that the corporate share of taxes also dropped from 20% of the total in the 1960s to under 9% in 2010 — from 4% of GDP in 1965 to 1.3% in 2009, which is the lowest of all OECD nations except Iceland.

They present an absurd picture of addressing the debt with tax increases by isolating such measures as a single-solution response. In so doing, the picture they paint is that income tax rates would have to double. Of course, they conveniently ignore any combined solution of spending cuts and tax increases; they completely skim over the potential for eliminating tax loopholes and tax havens, instead offering only the possibility of either taxing healthcare benefits or eliminating the home mortgage deduction — both obviously targeted at raising alarm in working Americans. They also leave out any possibility of limiting the increased tax rates to millionaires and billionaires — you know, like the hedge fund managers, many of whom rake in over $1 billion in a single year and are able to treat their income as capital gains, paying only 15%, while a single person making $35K has to pay 25%.

They speak about government action where “nearly all” Americans will share in the sacrifice, but they don’t want you to consider that what they really mean — when the bottom 98% of us pay the entire price, that is “nearly all” Americans.

Feb 152011
Social Security Poster: old man

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President Obama sent his budget proposal for 2012 to Congress yesterday, and before the ink was even dry, Republicans were swarming like piranha. According to Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), “It would be better doing nothing than if we were to actually pass this budget.” Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) said that the budget was based on “gimmicks,” and claimed that passing it would “be a national tragedy.”

White House estimates put the savings of the proposed budget at $1.1 trillion over 10 years, with two-thirds of the savings coming from spending cuts. Republicans have unanimously rejected that total, with Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) labeling it a “timid response to a grave challenge.” Shelby added that the proposal “ignores the will of the American people,” which is more than a little odd coming from somebody who supported the extension of the Bush tax cuts for the rich and openly shared his lunatic idea to fix Social Security by increasing the retirement “age every several years” — both positions being opposed by the majority of Americans.

But it’s easy to understand why Republicans are so vehemently opposed to the President’s budget proposal. While it does make substantial cuts, actually eliminating or reducing the funding for 200 federal programs, the spending reductions total only $33 billion for 2012, which is far less than the Republican’s draconian proposal to cut $60 billion in 2011. But more importantly, the White House budget also ends the Bush tax cuts for the rich, increases taxation on multinational corporations, eliminates $46 billion in subsidies for oil, gas and coal interests, and cuts $78 billion from the right’s most sacrosanct bucket — the Pentagon.

There is a choice to be made regarding the future of our nation, and the American people need to wake up and pay attention. Our national debt is currently over $14 trillion. The interest alone on that debt amounts to around $250 billion per year. The simple truth is that it doesn’t matter if we cut the deficit by $30 billion or $60 billion, or even the $100 billion promised by Republicans, or more — we will still be diving deeper into debt.

Take your pick, the President’s budget or whatever counter is offered by the Republicans — it doesn’t really matter, the spending cuts you’ll find will be largely symbolic. Arguing the merit of either proposal based on the depth of cuts is pure political theater. Either option will be kicking the can down the road. The substantive difference, the criteria upon which the proposals should be judged, lies in their differing methodologies.

Republicans contend that our economic problems are all the result of excessive spending, and their budget proposals reflect that belief. Democrats counter that the issue is more complex and propose a solution that addresses both revenue and expenditure. The result is that, while both parties talk about the sacrifice that will be needed going forward, only the Democratic position strives to ensure that it’s shared.

The fact of the matter is that adherence to the Republican method for addressing the debt will place ALL of the sacrifice on those who can least afford it. Their solitary focus on spending cuts combined with their unwillingness to address a bloated defense budget leaves no alternative. Those fortunate enough to remain wealthy in post-Recession America will not suffer from the proposed federal spending cuts. They only share in the sacrifice by paying higher taxes. And with military spending off the table, cuts to the remainder of the discretionary budget will only harm the poor, impede upward mobility and further weaken the middle class.

President Obama’s budget proposal may not go far enough, but at least it presents a method for shared sacrifice that can be expanded. It combines cuts to social programs with a slight trimming of defense and adds a bit of revenue through modest tax increases. The Republican alternative is more an effort best represented by an M.C. Escher impossible reality. The bottom line being that the budget simply cannot be balanced solely within the proposed Republican framework.

The situation may be complicated, but the math really isn’t. With a $14 trillion hole, only about $440 billion in discretionary spending outside of defense, and annual interest payments of $250 billion, the Republican plan set forth by Rep. Ryan doesn’t balance the budget until the 2060s and piles on $62 trillion in debt during the process. Republican fiscal responsibility is a fairy tale, sort of a contemporary version of the Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs.

But as insane as this GOP plan may appear, like an iceberg, there’s more to it than what we see on the surface. As House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) promised, the Republican budget will be “a serious document that will reflect the type of path we feel we should be taking to address the fiscal situation, including addressing entitlement reforms.” In GOP parlance, that means more pain for everyone but the wealthy, pain that will include a full frontal assault on our nation’s social safety nets.

The writing is on the wall. Because the Republicans refuse the responsible path of both increasing revenue and putting ALL spending on the table, they must attack the entitlements. This is possibly the GOP’s most egregious tactic and without doubt one of their favorite arenas for yarn spinning (a euphemism for telling bald-faced lies). Republicans would have everyone believe that Social Security is seriously broken, and that it’s partially to blame for the deficit — sadly, it doesn’t matter to them that both assertions have no basis in reality.

Republican spin on Social Security is nothing but more fable peddling. As evidenced in economist Dean Baker’s letter to Sen. Richard Shelby, sent after the Senator told a nice whopper about the program, even “if nothing is ever done, then Social Security would pay full benefits through the year 2037.” It would also be able to pay around 80% of benefits well into the second half of the century. With small tweaks, the program will remain vibrant for its entire 75-year horizon and beyond. But this narrative doesn’t fit the GOP model for fueling Wall St. profits through privatization, so the truth must be set aside and a tale must be spun.

Part of that Republican tale is the myth of a broken system, but even more disingenuous is their contention that we must fix Social Security in order to address the deficit. This is pure, unadulterated hogwash — grade-A falsehood — a freaking lie! The fact of the matter is that Social Security is not included in the deficit. It is both funded and expensed outside of the budget; it is an off-budget program, and it has a surplus balance of some $2.5 trillion. The truth of the matter is that Social Security hasn’t negatively impacted the deficit — it’s actually helped to mask its true magnitude.

Medicare is another story. Being included “on-budget,” shortfalls in Medicare funding do impact the budget, and program solvency will require much more than tweaking. But even in the case of Medicare, the Republican position is fraught with dishonesty. The problem with both Medicare and Medicaid is not inherent in the government programs but rather a function of the rising cost of healthcare. With Medicare the problem is exacerbated by the increasing number of elderly Americans, but unless we’re okay with just denying them medical services, we still need to seek a real solution.

Of course, a real solution for skyrocketing healthcare costs runs headlong into the Republican priority of maximizing corporate profits. So, never mind that nationally our spending on healthcare is approaching one-fifth of our GDP; forget about the fact that we spend more than double the OECD average yet achieve far worse health outcomes — and whatever you do, please ignore the man behind the curtain — the one atop any of the 10 largest medical insurers who saw their profits leap by 250% during the past decade. This is all SOP for the GOP. Their response to this upside-down scenario is not to reduce costs but to limit access with Medicare vouchers. Hurray for the red, white and blue!

Americans need to pull their heads out of the sand, open their eyes and come to grips with the fact that we’re being plundered by our nation’s economic elite. The Democrats are definitely complicit, but the Republicans are the soothsaying demons of the illicit extraction. Regardless the issue, they have but one position: protect the monied interests. Healthcare costs are soaring, so limit access. The defense budget expands 250%, from $333 billion under Clinton to $847 billion in 2010, and it’s off the table. Federal revenues drop from 21% of GDP in 2000 to 15% in 2010, and the answer is to cut taxes.

The Republican position is always simple because it is single-minded. It doesn’t have to consider the complexities of the economy, the nuances of trade policy, the impact of spending cuts, the most effective means to stimulate job growth, or the ethical implications of any of the above. No, the Republican Party’s laser-like focus on fending for the wealthy makes all decisions easy.

If they were truly concerned about cutting spending, they’d put their knife to defense: the largest and most wasteful of discretionary programs. If they really cared about healthcare costs, they strive to create competition with solutions like a public option. If they were truly concerned about jobs, they’d drop the nonsense about job-killing taxes and admit that tax cuts don’t create jobs. If they gave a flying flip about the average American, they’d drop the charade about having “a spending problem” and tell the truth about taxation.

That truth would include sharing the fact that in spite of a record $1.66 trillion in profits for 2010, revenue from corporate taxes was a meager $191 billion — a rate of around 11%. In full honesty, the GOP would also have to fess up about how overtaxed we aren’t. They’d have to admit that federal taxes are at historic lows. In fact, as a share of our nation’s economy, they’re at their lowest level since 1950. And if they really sought to inform instead of manipulate, they’d make sure that everyone understood that we have the third lowest total tax burden of all OECD nations, higher than only Mexico and Chile.

But honesty is far from being the GOP’s strong suit, and the wellbeing of average Americans is low on their list of priorities. So, we can all expect more distortion of facts, more narrowly focused policies, and more pain for the American people. But cheer up, there is a bright side: so long as you’re in the top 1 or 2 percent of Americans, you can rest assured that the GOP has your back. Of course, if you belong to the other 98%, watch out — because your back makes a real nice target for their budget knife.

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Nov 102010
The Obama administration has decided to begin publicly walking away from what it once touted as key deadlines in the war in Afghanistan in an effort to de-emphasize President Barack Obama’s pledge that he’d begin withdrawing U.S. forces in July 2011, administration and military officials have told McClatchy

Nancy A. Youssef, McClatchy Newspapers

Hamid Karzai with U.S. Special Forces during O...
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Who knows if there’s any truth in this story. Many of us, on both the left and right, are waiting to hear such news, so this fits our expectation. But the Whitehouse denies the rumors, and there’s really no compelling reason to embrace the speculation.

Personally, I have little doubt that the withdrawal will eventually be delayed. The forces behind continuing the war are simply too powerful. But for now I’ll keep hoping that the schedule stays relatively intact. Most Americans want the war to end, and President Obama needs to keep that in mind. He can ill afford to stretch it out and slap the face of the people who elected him.

The fact is that this war is unwinnable. We’ll not be in a measurably better situation for withdrawal in 8 more months, or in 8 more years. We’re not going to establish a healthy democracy in Afghanistan. Hell, we can’t even achieve that here at home. There’s simply no excuse for staying. America is crumbling, and while we “can’t afford” to invest in our people and infrastructure, we willingly fritter away $190 million every day on a useless war.

This is just another face of the American Wealthfare State. Afghanistan is a goldmine where government dollars are fed to fat-cat defense contractors whose minions outnumber military personnel on the ground. They exploit low-wage foreign laborers, Third Country Nationals (TCN) as they’re called, for massive profits on contracts that are awarded without bids. Guaranteed profits and no competition — there’s nothing like a nice cost-plus government contract where you’re free to run up the costs and in turn increase the profits?

Whether it’s Goldman Sachs, WellPoint or Halliburton, our federal government can always afford more money for the rich. That all-important deficit seems only to matter when it comes to helping the American people.

Read the entire Article at McClatchy

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