Friday, July 22, 2011

Debt Ceiling Sellout

3 more gloomy bargains: How much the debt deal will cost you

By John F. Wasik (Reuters)

No matter what plan Washington concocts to reduce the deficit, it’s going to cost you something. “Shared sacrifice” is in vogue, but your pain will be bigger if you’re unfortunate enough to earn wages or need social benefits.

Most conservative deficit-reduction plans shred the social safety net and cherished personal write-offs in unprecedented ways. The core elements of each proposal will pare middle-class tax breaks, Medicare and Social Security.

As Yogi Berra once said, “it’s déjà vu all over again.” The $3.7 trillion Senate “Gang of Six” plan and related iterations bear a striking resemblance to a “Moment of Truth” deficit commission report issued, and mostly ignored, late last year and pieces of a Heritage Foundation plan ironically entitled “Saving the American Dream.”

No plan will preserve or protect the American Dream as we’ve come to know it. And the powers that be don’t seem to be rattled by the potential chaos if an agreement on raising the federal debt ceiling by Aug. 2 doesn’t happen. Markets may collapse, benefits will be delayed and salaries won’t get paid if the U.S. can’t issue more debt, but the Beltway bickering goes on.

Instead, we have this power play in the form of Byzantine musical chairs. One sure loser is already ordained, though: Middle America. Let’s look at where the deficit commission, Senate and Heritage plans intersect:

“Broaden the tax base”
This is one of the most Orwellian prevarications since the coining of the “death tax.” (Have you ever met a dead person who paid a tax?) When conservative policymakers say this, they don’t mean raising taxes, they mean lowering tax rates and eliminating “tax expenditures,” like deductions for individuals.

The Senate “Gang” plan proposes three tax brackets ranging from eight to 29 percent. Currently the highest personal tax rate is 35 percent. The Senate plan would also cut the hated $1.7 trillion alternative minimum tax. At first blush, both moves will reduce revenue flowing into the Treasury and balloon the deficit. How would the Senate make up the shortfall, considering that it also cuts corporate tax rates from 35 percent to as low as 23 percent? They say: “Reform, not eliminate, tax expenditures for health, charitable giving and homeownership.” Bottom line: Your after-tax cost for healthcare and mortgages may be higher. Although limiting the mortgage interest deduction to one home and capping it isn’t a bad idea, this is not a “broadening” of the tax base. Middle class workers will pay more — unless the cost of healthcare and homeownership mysteriously drop.

“Enacting a $500 billion down payment … ”
One of the key elements of this Senate concept carves up Social Security. Instead of the current formula for cost-of-living adjustments, the Senate (and deficit commission) would substitute a “chained” Consumer Price Index. Through economic legerdemain, this new index would shave an estimated 0.25 percent annually from the current cost-of-living payments. That means a lower Social Security payment!

What about bringing more government workers into the system, immigration reform or simply raising the cap on earnings subject to Social Security and Medicare taxes? None of this is mentioned. After all, to “broaden” the tax base — at least in this perverse definition — “reformers” will reduce benefits. Note: There was no COLA paid in January due to low inflation, even though for millions of retired folks the cost of medicine, food and energy rose. The takeaway here is that “entitlement reform” means cutting benefits and raising your out-of-pocket costs for Medicare and Social Security.

“Repeal the CLASS Act”
The Senate document doesn’t even bother to explain what this is, but I will. The CLASS Act was one of the better ideas to emerge from Washington in recent years. It would have given workers the option to buy lower-cost long-term care insurance through their workplace. If you’ve seen a nursing home bill lately, you know that decent care costs more than $70,000 a year. It’s estimated that 70 percent of Americans over 65 will need long-term care at some point. Right now, either families or the Medicaid program absorbs these exorbitant costs — and Medicaid funding has one of the biggest bulls eyes on it. So middle-class and lower-class families will pay more.

There is some good news in all of this. If you’re a hedge fund, private equity manager, bank, corporate treasurer or securities investor, you’ll be just fine. No one has suggested raising taxes on capital gains, trading profits, derivatives, dividends or “carried interest.” Apparently not everyone will be asked to sacrifice when the tax base is broadened.

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