Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Ryan Budget: If At First You Don't Succeed

Rep. Paul Ryan released his budget, in what it becoming an annual thing in Washington, and it's received much attention. So much attention, your humble blogger has been prodded into writing about it. But this post is about something specific, so I thought it'd be a useful exercise to talk about what this post is not about.

This post is not about Rep. Ryan releasing essentially the same budget he released last year.

This post is not about how Rep Ryan's 2013 budget produces a surplus ten years from now in no small measure because of the tax revenue that he and his GOP colleagues loathed to see pass at the start of 2013.

This post is not about how Rep. Ryan's 2013 budget looks a lot like the budget he promoted as Mitt Romney's running mate in an election he handily lost.

This post is not about how the GOP and Rep. Ryan savaged candidate Obama about cuts in Medicare that were present in Rep Ryan's 2012 and 2013 budget.

This post is not about the quixotic quest to create a federal budget that ends in a tiny surplus in a decade's time, because Rep. Ryan falsely believes the federal budget must be balanced.

This post is not about a budget that seeks to end in balance more than it seeks to define what the American people actually want the government to do.

This post is not about working toward a number instead of working through principles.

No, what this post is about is turning Rep. Ryan's hypocritical comments against themselves. Most notably this quote, no doubt said to give him cover from preserving those tax increases:

"We don't want to re-fight the fiscal cliff. That's current law. That's not going to change."

That's an admirable principle, but not one Rep. Ryan follows consistently since, as the Washington Post notes, "it would defund President Obama's health-care initiative, end guaranteed Medicare coverage for future retirees and sharply restrain spending on the poor." I left that quote long because the more it can be said that Rep. Ryan's budget robs people of Medicare in the future and puts cuts on the most vulnerable in our society, the more it should be said.

But for me the punch line there, and the part that makes Rep. Ryan a hypocrite, is the defunding of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). It's hard for to think of a law that doesn't need re-fought more than the ACA. It's passage in Congress was a brutal, thankless endeavor. It was challenged in the courts and upheld by the Supreme Court. It was campaigned against by Rep. Ryan and Mitt Romney, and they lost. It's a law that saw staunch GOP governor resistance give way to acceptance. It's the current law. I can't think of a law in recent memory that has been through such a meat grinder and yet still remains standing. But Rep. Ryan wants to defund it because doing so helps his numbers add up. He wants to defund it because it's still popular in conservative circles to tear down legislation that is based on a conservative idea. That makes Rep. Ryan a hypocrite. All those other things this post is not about are just icing on the cake.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

What the SIGIR Report Should Teach Us

The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction has released its final report, as many of noted, just before the 10th anniversary of the Iraq invasion. Of course there are the news stories focused on the waste and solid post hoc analysis on Iraq that doesn't help us plan forward. But there are some good lessons learned in the report and first I'd like to highlight a few of these that will be heavy lifts, but essential to improve government stabilization and reconstruction efforts. They are:
1) Create an integrated civilian military office to plan, execute, and be accountable for contingency rebuilding activities during stabilization and reconstruction operations.
4) Establish uniform contracting, personnel, and information management systems that all SRO participants use.
7) Plan in advance, plan comprehensively and in an integrated fashion, and have backup plans ready to go.
I have to tell you, from past professional experiences, you have got to get 1 and 4 done if you want to ensure the money that gets spent gets spent more wisely than it was in Iraq. That said, it's going to be nearly impossible to get 1 and 4 done because of existing bureaucratic hurdles. There are vehicles for integration, but are they valued by the individual departments? There are information management systems in place, but will Congress allow DOD, State, and USAID to pool resources so they all have a same or similar system that meets the disparate needs of these disparate agencies? Does such a system exist and if not is the government willing to pay to have it developed? I have my doubts.

I find number 7 to be a little laughable for one reason. We did have a plan in Iraq. The plan Rumsfeld pushed was a get-in, get-out plan that didn't anticipate a lengthy occupation. Without a doubt more backup plans could have been on offer, but how do you effectively argue that 7 wasn't followed? What happens if all the assumptions the leading planners had turned out to be false? All the plans in the world don't amount to a thing if the assumptions you used to build those plans on are all wrong.

I think all the lessons learn reported by the SIGIR are solid lessons. Some have more of chance of being implemented than others, but I think the report fails to highlight perhaps the biggest lesson of all: We shouldn't unilaterally engage in forced regime change and reconstruction operations again. All do respect to the "Coalition of the Willing," but what were we thinking doing this without the explicit endorsement of the broader international community? I don't ask this to go back and re-litigate the past, but rather to look into the future and suggest that maybe before we gear up for regime change, we remember the lessons learned in Iraq (and still being learned in Afghanistan). As effective as our military, our diplomats and our aid programs are, they can't be expected to mobilize in haste and coherence to help remake a nation.

I also want to be really clear about something else. There is a vital role for the US government in conflict situations around the world and I am not suggesting the abandonment of contingency operations. Steps can and should be taken to improve our systems in executing contingency operations. All I'm saying is that the chief lesson from the Iraq War is that we shouldn't look to repeat the Iraq War. The other lessons learned outlined by SIGIR are great incremental steps that, if implemented, would help us be more effective in our contingency operations, but the chief lesson to learn from the SIGIR report is that unilateral military adventurism very rarely, if ever, gives you the positive result you expected it to.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Austerity & Uncertainty are holding back GDP

It's a day of the obvious it seems, but Suzy Khimm has a really great post up at Wonkblog that outlines how much in deficit reduction Congress and the president has already achieved, but also how those savings have depressed our GDP growth. This is, of course, I no-brainer. The government is part of the GDP equation and it's long been established when you cut government spending, you slow economic growth.

But perhaps more substantively for the future. Ms. Khimm notes that Barclays economist, Dean Maki, believes that only entitlement and tax reform can put the US on the path to greater economic growth. Quite honestly this is also pretty obvious. Companies have rebounded from the recession, but many are hording cash right now or looking for mergers and acquisitions to spend that cash on. One of the big reasons for that is governmental uncertainty. If you're a business owner you just don't know what the tax environment and entitlement is going to look like because there's tons of talk around making changes, but nothing has changed yet. It would be better for the economy if the government would do something decisive to give taxation and entitlement clarity to employers. Sadly, as I noted at length yesterday, if one side isn't ready to negotiate then no deal is going to get done.

Of Couse the U.S. Should Debrief Rodman

Over at Foreign Policy's Passport blog there is a guest post from Victor Cha that summarizes the weird and patronizing happenings in the wake of Dennis Rodman's visit to North Korea. It's a cold day in hell when I hear about a the same new story by reading Foreign Policy and watching Pardon the Interruption and yet this is what Rodman's visit has achieved.

Also, color me incredulous, but was there really a blog post devoted to the notion that the U.S. should debrief Mr. Rodman? Did we really need a guest author to tell us that's a good idea? I think it's a big "duh" moment. No American, to my knowledge, has gotten to so close to Kim Jong Un. I feel like it'd be a dereliction of duty on the part of the US government to not debrief Mr. Rodman.

This isn't to knock Mr. Cha for saying so, but did the editors at FP not think this was the sort of thing they could advocate for on their own? And I realize the irony of being incredulous to the thought we need a blog post that says we should debrief the Worm, and voicing those concerns in a blog post echoing what I think is obvious. What can I say? I need the page hits.

Monday, March 4, 2013

It's Not Obama's Fault

It's happening again. History is being forgotten so we can be sure to blame the president for the sequester. The boo birds are out in full force attempting to double down on the same trope David Brooks rolled out last week and which I panned.

They say the president hasn't done enough, hasn't compromised enough, hasn't led enough to get to a deal. Ezra Klein put up a great post over the weekend about Mike Murphy's circular tweets. First the problem was the president didn't put means-testing and chained CPI on the table, but when Mr. Murphy was informed Obama had, in fact, put those things on the table Mr. Murphy derided them as gimmicks that don't amount to much. Ezra does a great job of backing out the backwards logic of this line of reasoning and I was prepared to devote an entire blog post just to re-upping what Ezra said, but instead Bill Keller wrote a revisionist history version of the Obama administration that needs taken down.

First off, Keller says that Obamacare was "an overdue but expensive new entitlement " Mr. Keller wants to have his cake and eat it too. How can it be that a social program, modeled off an idea from the Heritage Foundation, first implemented by a Republican governor, and that Mr. Keller says is "overdue" be a miscalculation? Obamacare seeks to solve two issues, first, the ghastly number of uninsured in this country and, second, the exploding cost of healthcare. On both those measures Obamacare is off to a solid start, though admittedly the cost curve isn't decreasing its slope as much as we would like. Also, since this is about fiscal responsibility, it should be noted that the administration bent over backward to ensure that the program scored as deficit neutral, even to the point that the GOP tried to bludgeon Obama over cuts to Medicare.

Second, Mr. Keller says that President Obama "tried to find a grand bargain with House Republicans, and failed." I think Mr. Keller forgets who walked away from the negotiating table. It was Speaker Boehner that rejected a deal because it would have included tax increases. Sound familiar? I don't understand how the President "failed" in this instance. He put spending cuts, entitlement  and taxes on the table and the House GOP just walked away.

Third, Mr. Keller suggests the president shouldn't have made the sequester deal and given in to the "blackmail." But what was the alternative? Let the government default? The president was facing an unprecedentedly impetuous House GOP that didn't think the government defaulting on its debt obligations was going to be a terrible thing. Come now, every serious observer at the time said, resoundingly, that some deal is better than no deal if we're jeopardizing the full faith and credit of the United States of America. To suggest otherwise now is to do some Monday morning quarterbacking.

Fourth, Keller doesn't think Obama should have made the deal at the beginning of 2013, the deal that kicked the sequester can down the road, but also secured tax increases for those making more than $400,000 a year. Mr. Keller believes "the Republicans, having budged once on taxes, felt no inclination to budge again." But I think this misreads where the current negotiations stand. President Obama isn't asking to raise taxes. He's asking to close market distorting loopholes and in exchange he's talking about serious entitlement reform. How radical an idea are closing these loopholes? So radical that Speaker Boehner supported doing it in November of 2011.

I'm sorry, but I'm just not buying what Mr. Keller is selling. Without a doubt the president has made mistakes in the negotiations, but you have a president who campaigned on higher taxes for folks earning more than $250k a year and won the election. You have a "socialist" president who has put means testing and chained CPI on the table for entitlement reform. You have a "socialist" president that has already agreed to measures that will cut $4 trillion from the long term debt.

This is not Obama's fault. This is the fault of an intractable opposition that would rather see Rome burn than consider doing things that it considered entirely reasonable less than eighteen months ago. So please, Mr. Keller, let's get the history right and keep in mind the scope of things. And let's also remember this: If only one side is negotiating, you can't reach a deal.