WASHINGTON -- Just about every policy lawmakers are considering for a deal to avert the so-called fiscal cliff would involve either raising individual income taxes, or cutting benefits in Medicare and Social Security. But there are a host of other avenues available for reducing the federal budget deficit that are rarely talked about, despite their mathematical merit.
There's an old axiom in the investment business that applies to the federal government, as well: You have to spend money to make money. Paradoxically, the U.S. fiscal position would likely be better off if the government simply spent more money. When the economy is booming, government spending can easily be wasteful. But when the economy is not meeting its capacity, the government needs to step in to give it a boost, according to several schools of economic thought. At a time when there are more than four job applicants for every job opening, the economy is clearly not meeting the demand for work, and the government can productively step in by spending money to hire people and get things back on track. By boosting long-term economic growth through short-term spending, the government could actually ease the deficit by ponying up money right now.
That's probably not going to happen, because most lawmakers and think-tankers in Washington are more interested in cutting various social insurance programs than in stabilizing the nation's fiscal position. Nevertheless, even if the government abandons the "spend more" approach, there are at least 10 ways to cut the deficit without raising income taxes or slashing important programs for senior citizens.
1. Prison Reform.
The U.S. incarcerates its citizens at a rate roughly five times higher than the global average. We have about 5 percent of the world's population, but 25 percent of its prisoners, according to The Economist,. This status quo costs our local, state and federal governments a combined $68 billion a year -- all of which becomes a federal problem during recessions, when states look to Washington for fiscal relief. Over the standard 10-year budget window used in Congress, that's a $680 billion hit to the deficit.
Solving longstanding prison problems -- releasing elderly convicts unlikely to commit crimes, offering treatment or counseling as an alternative to prison for non-violent offenders, slightly shortening the sentences of well-behaved inmates, and substituting probation for more jail-time -- would do wonders for government spending.
2. End the Drug War.
The federal government spends more than $15 billion a year investigating and prosecuting the War on Drugs. That's $150 billion in Washington budget-speak, and it doesn't include the far higher costs of incarcerating millions of people for doing drugs. This money isn't getting the government the results it wants. As drug war budgets balloon, drug use escalates.
Ending the Drug War offers the government two separate budget boons. In addition to saving all the money spending investigating, prosecuting and incarcerating drug offenders, Uncle Sam could actually regulate and tax drugs like marijuana, generating new revenue. Studies by pot legalization advocates indicate that fully legalizing weed in California would yield up to $18 billion annually for that state's government alone. For the feds, the benefits are even sweeter.
3. Let Medicare Negotiate With Big Pharma.
The U.S. has higher health care costs than any other country. We spend over 15 percent of our total economic output each year on health care -- roughly 50 percent more than Canada, and double what the U.K. spends.
Why? The American private health care system is inefficient, and the intellectual property rules involving medication in the U.S. can make prescription drugs much more expensive than in other countries.
Medicare currently spends about $50 billion a year on prescription drugs. According to economist Dean Baker, Americans spend roughly 10 times more than they need to on prescription drugs as a result of our unique intellectual property standards.
These savings for the government, of course, would come from the pockets of major pharmaceutical companies, currently among the most profitable corporations the world has ever known. They also exercise tremendous clout inside the Beltway. President Barack Obama even guaranteed drug companies more restrictive -- and lucrative -- intellectual property standards in order to garner their support for the Affordable Care Act.
4. Offshore Tax Havens.
The U.S. Treasury Department estimates that it loses about $100 billion a year in revenue due to offshore tax haven abuses. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) has been pushing legislation for years to rein in this absurd tax maneuvering, but corporate lobbying on Capitol Hill has prevented the bill from becoming law.
5. De-privatize Government Contract Work.
In recent years, the federal government has privatized an enormous portion of public projects to government contractors. Over the past decade, the federal government's staffing has held steady, while the number of federal contractors has increased by millions. This outsourcing has resulted in much higher costs for the government than would be incurred by simply doing the work in-house. On average, contractors are paid nearly double what a comparable federal employee would receive for the same job, according to the Project On Government Oversight.
6. Print More Money.
There's an old saying in economics: You have to print money to make money. Okay, there's no such saying. Nevertheless, the great boogeyman of many conservative economic doctrines -- inflation -- isn't such a bad idea during periods where much of the citizenry is drowning in debt. Since the United States borrows money in its own currency, the government always has the option of printing more money to finance its deficits. This can ultimately lead to inflation.
Inflation is by no means a perfect remedy: it's a stealth cut to workers' wages. But it also has many benefits that are often unacknowledged by the Washington intelligentsia. Inflation makes housing debt, student loan debt and any other private-sector debt more manageable. Today, when 10.8 million homes are underwater -- meaning borrowers owe banks than their houses are worth, moderate inflation could ease that debt burden. By effectively reducing monthly bills, moderate inflation could actually put more money in the pockets of these homeowners to spend elsewhere, thus stimulating the economy.
Moderate inflation -- 5 percent or so -- could also help alleviate the $1 trillion in student debt currently plaguing America's graduates.
Make no mistake -- hyperinflation of 20 percent, 30 percent or more -- is bad. But the U.S. has ways to crush inflation when it gets out of hand, as proven by the Federal Reserve under then-Chairman Paul Volcker in the early-1980s.
7. Print Less Money.
The government prints a lot of $1 bills. But it turns out that minting $1 coins is much, much cheaper. Over the course of 30 years, the government could save $4.4 billion by switching from dollar bills to dollar coins. Here's looking at you, Sacagawea.
8. Immigration: Less Detention, More Ankle Bracelets.
The government spends $122 per person, per day detaining immigrants who are considered safe and unlikely to commit crimes. The government has plenty of other options available to monitor such people, at a cost of as little as $15 per person.
For the first 205 years of America's existence, there was no federal system for detaining immigrants. The process began in 1981.
9. Financial Speculation Tax.
Wall Street loves to gamble. In good times, financial speculation is the source of tremendous profits in America's banking system, but when the bets go bad, the government picks up the tab, as evidenced by the epic bank bailouts of 2008 and 2009.
Unfortunately, this speculation is difficult to define in legalistic terminology and even more difficult to police. One solution? By taxing every financial trade at the ultra-low rate of 0.25 percent, the U.S. government can impose a modest incentive against gambling for the sheer sake of gambling. If there's an immediate cost to placing a bet, a lot of traders will choose not to bet.
What's more, this tax could raise about $150 billion a year for the federal government.
10. Carbon Tax.
Taxing greenhouse gases would generate $80 billion a year right now, and up to $310 billion a year by 2050, according to an analysis by the Brookings Institution. It would also help avert catastrophic ecological and economic damage from climate change.