Social Security

A Website Devoted to Data-Driven Facts, Imagine That

When billionaire Steve Balmer’s wife urged him to step up his philanthropy, his first step was to create a nonprofit to conduct a deep dive into available data to find how tax money is spent, who gets help and who needs help. The result was usafacts.org.

When billionaire Steve Balmer’s wife urged him to step up his philanthropy, his first step was to create a nonprofit to conduct a deep dive into available data to find how tax money is spent, who gets help and who needs help. The result was usafacts.org.

At a moment in US political history when facts are under assault, former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has created what he calls a “data-driven portrait of the American population, our government’s finances and government’s impact on society.”

Usafacts.org was launched on Tax Day in 2017 after Ballmer’s wife, Connie, challenged him to use more of his estimated $41 billion net worth on philanthropy. That triggered Balmer’s curiosity in exactly how US government programs help Americans who need financial assistance. He quickly discovered the combination of federal, state and local government is enormous – and enormously complex. The information he sought about where governments get their money and how they spend it was not readily available.

That led Balmer to invest $30 million to create a non-partisan nonprofit with a team of economists, researchers and writers to find out by analyzing publicly available data streams.

The metrics Balmer chose to evaluate data are drawn from the preamble to the US Constitution. It describes the role of the federal government – “establish justice and ensure domestic tranquility; provide for the common defense; promote the general welfare; secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

The metrics Balmer chose to evaluate data are drawn from the preamble to the US Constitution. It describes the role of the federal government – “establish justice and ensure domestic tranquility; provide for the common defense; promote the general welfare; secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

The result is a website that features “our nation, in numbers.” Lots and lots of numbers. And fascinating charts and maps. Some of the current topics include how the US economy is performing, what happens with the Social Security deductions from our paychecks and how money flows in and out of the US government.

More provocative topics include why immigrants come to America, who benefits from food stamps and how close the country and individual states are to eliminating fossil fuel emissions. 

Ballmer’s vision was to create a set of documents that parallel what publicly trade corporations are required by law to file. The 2018 annual report serves up a potpourri of interesting facts such as:

  • Incarceration rates have climbed faster than population growth since 1980;

  • There are fewer Americans serving in active duty today than in 2016;

  • US GDP growth has averaged 2.7% since 1980 despite changing approaches in taxation, interest rates and economic stimulus; and

  • Border apprehensions are down 80% since 2000 while the number of border agents has increased from 4,139 in 1992 to 19.437 in 2018. 

The 2018 USAFacts 10-K Report includes a staggering section on risk factors. Some of the risks include:

  • Even though the federal government discourages unhealthy behavior, Americans still have the right to smoke, speed and ignore warning labels.

  • There are “personnel security clearance processing challenges” that create national risk.

  • Government revenue and spending are significantly affected by swings in the economy because of the reliance on personal and corporate income taxes.

  • Failure to control budget deficits can impede the government’s ability to provide needed services over the long run.

  • Government has significant fiscal exposure associated with a changing climate.

  • Constitutional objectives may be significantly affected by social unrest.

  • The financial future of retirees is threatened by insolvency of Social Security trust funds and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.

  • Promoting good health, especially for the elderly, faces challenges.

When fully considered, usafacts.org is more than a stiff set of stats. It is eye-opening, deep-dive into America’s box score. There is even a section devoted to American’s interest in and belief of facts.

If facts still matter to you, usafacts.org could be a website worth bookmarking to find a trove of them.

 

Budget Expert Calls Tax Plan ‘Economic Insanity’

Stan Collender is widely regarded as a congressional budget guru. He says the GOP-backed tax cut legislation moving through Congress equates to ‘economic insanity.’

Stan Collender is widely regarded as a congressional budget guru. He says the GOP-backed tax cut legislation moving through Congress equates to ‘economic insanity.’

It’s not every day that Forbes publishes an op-ed, as it did over the weekend, proclaiming a pending congressional tax cut is the “end of all economic sanity.”

Written by veteran congressional budget analyst Stan Collender, the op-ed says Republican leaders are forging ahead on tax-cut legislation “without having any idea of what this policy will actually do to the economy.” Collender says it won’t be pretty.

Collender predicts the tax cuts will provide little economic stimulus to an already thriving economy, increase structural US deficits, raise interest rates and limit the ability of Congress to deal with economic downturns. “They [GOP congressional leaders] have wishes, hopes and prayers, but in reality nothing beyond the economic equivalent of pagan superstition.” Did we mention this op-ed was published in Forbes?

This makes Paul Krugman’s criticism of tax cuts seem timid.

Tax cut zealots may dismiss Collender as a kook. He isn’t. He has been around Congress for years, with his nose stuck under piles of congressional budgets. If you want to criticize Collender, call him a congressional budget nerd, which is what he is.

Collender’s context – the US economy, which may not be groovy for everybody, is humming along with an expanding gross domestic product, unemployment at around 4 percent and corporate profits at record levels. If there is an economic concern, it centers on lagging wage growth relative to inflation and growing income inequality. The tax measures that have passed the House and are pending in the Senate don’t address wage growth or income inequality and, in fact, may exacerbate both.

Republican leaders says Americans want a tax cut, but polling doesn’t bear that out. Even if Americans did want a broad-based tax cut, the GOP plans may not meet the mark. Benefits appear slanted toward corporations and wealthy individuals. That may not be the intent of GOP lawmakers working on the tax cuts, but impartial analysts say that would be the result.

Collender cuts even deeper. He says even though the House tax cut measure is scored as raising the US budget deficit $1.4 trillion over 10 years, the likely impact is even larger, perhaps as much as $2 trillion. That’s a byproduct of modified scoring decisions dictated by GOP political leaders.

Adding $2 trillion to the US deficit when the economy is solid doesn’t leave a lot of room for a President or Congress to stimulate the economy during an inevitable downtown, Collender says.“The federal government will have far less ability to respond to economic downturns unless previously unimaginable and politically intolerable deficits, tax increases or spending cuts suddenly become acceptable,” he predicts.

The ultimate victim, Collender says, will be programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and even military spending. American’s ability to invest in infrastructure and research will also be severely limited. Collender labels this “economic insanity.”

If a foreign adversary proposed a strategy to strangulate the US economy, politicians would call it an act of aggression. On Capitol Hill, passing this tax policy is viewed as essential before Christmas.

 

Northwest Given Key Role on New Budget Panel

One of the key provisions included in the debt limit and funding agreement signed last night was formation of a House-Senate Budget Conference Committee. The Pacific NW is well represented on the newly formed, 29-member committee with Senators Patty Murray (D-WA), Ron Wyden(D-OR), Jeff Merkley(D-OR) and Mike Crapo (R-ID).

The newly constituted committee is tasked with hammering out differences between the House and Senate FY14 spending levels. The House spending level is $90 billion lower than the Senate proposal.  The Committee is required to report on an agreement by December 13.  However, unlike the Supercommittee established in 2011, there is no penalty for failure. 

There is faint optimism that both sides can come together on a "baby" grand bargain to lift temporarily the sequestration spending caps by making cuts to entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

As you could guess, optimism is subdued by a meager track record of agreement and the hyper-partisan climate in Washington.  However, both sides seem interested in raising the sequestration caps.  Democrats want to increase domestic spending levels and Republicans defense spending.  Both sides feel programs are being severely squeezed under the caps and thus there may be room for a small, short-term deal. 

Health Care System in Limbo

Supreme Court justices may have more to weigh than just the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act.If the U.S. Supreme Court finds the federal health care reform act unconstitutional later this year, experts say it could unravel more of the nation's health care system than anticipated, including Medicare.

Judy Feder, a former Clinton administration official, tells NPR's Julie Rovner that the push toward more integrated and coordinated health care delivery would be disrupted.

Gail Wilensky, who ran Medicare and Medicaid programs for President H.W. Bush, says voiding federal health care reform would erase the most recent benchmarks for doctor and hospital payment rates. 

"Hospitals might not get paid. Nursing homes might not get paid. Doctors might not get paid," Wilensky says. "Changes in coverage that have begun to take effect for the elderly, such as closing the donut hole, might not happen." The effects, she adds, would undoubtedly spill over to everyone in the health care system.

Sara Rosenbaum, a professor of health law, likens it a train wreck. "We could find ourselves at a grand stopping point for the entire health care system." One problem she cites is the possibility of thousands of Medicare policies being suddenly null and void.