"Where's the beef?" With that sound bite, Walter Mondale deflated the insurgent bid of the "candidate of new ideas" Gary Hart for the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination.* Twenty-eight years later, rising Republican White House hopeful Newt Gingrich may be about to have his own "where's the beef" moment.
But the growing criticism from left and right expressed in articles such as "What are Newt Gingrich's Big Ideas?" do an injustice to the man of self-proclaimed "grandiose thoughts." Newt Gingrich does indeed have one very big idea; it just happens to be an awful one.
Call it "the 2-2-2 Plan."
When it comes to Medicare, Social Security and the tax code, Gingrich is offering voters a choice between the current system and a new one. Of course, whatever you name his big idea, the result is always the same: President Gingrich would deliver yet another massive windfall for the wealthy while draining trillions from the U.S. Treasury.
Gingrich preserves deductions for corporations and rich individuals that Perry eliminates: He preserve deductions for charitable giving and mortgage interest to all Americans, whereas Perry only keeps them for families earning less than $500,000. Perry vows to eliminate all corporate tax deductions, while Gingrich would preserve them. As such, corporations and the richest Americans could stand to benefit even more under Gingrich's plan than Perry's.
Under Perry's plan, those with more than a million in income would save $500,000 in taxes by 2015, due to a 60 percent drop in their tax rate, and those benefits would be even bigger under Gingrich. According to the Tax Policy Center, Perry's plan would lower total projected government revenue by 27 percent--a $1 trillion loss in 2015 alone. Gingrich's plan, accordingly, would result in even bigger revenue loss.
Roberton Williams of the Tax Policy Center concurred with that assessment, concluding, "You would have about three-quarters of the revenue you would have under Perry, so you have a much bigger revenue hole."
On Social Security, too, a President Gingrich could unleash torrents of red ink for Uncle Sam. As the Wall Street Journal explained, Gingrich is just the latest Republican to call for the privatization of the nation's retirement security program:
Mr. Gingrich wants to let younger workers divert the 6.2% employee half of the Social Security payroll tax into private accounts, much like 401(k)s...The Gingrich accounts would be voluntary, allowing anyone to remain on traditional pay-as-you-go Social Security.As it turns out, Gingrich's Social Security scheme introduces two threats - one familiar, one new - to the federal government's fiscal health. By allowing younger workers to contribute a portion of their payrolls taxes to private accounts, Gingrich would necessarily rob the Social Security system of trillions needed to pay current beneficiaries. As Matthew Yglesias described the problem for Newt and other would-be Republican reformers:
What privatizers want to say is that current retirees will keep getting benefits and future retirees will be okay despite our lack of benefits because we'll have private accounts. But current retirees can't get benefits if my money is in a private account. And my account can't be funded if I'm paying benefits for current retirees.
But Gingrich's proposal creates a second, more sinister risk for the U.S. budget. Gingrich would, as the Brookings Institution put it bluntly, "privatize gains, socialize losses." ThinkProgress explained that "should private accounts fail to deliver the same return as minimum Social Security benefits, the government would step in and make investors whole again":
The government guarantees that all workers with personal accounts will receive at least as much in retirement as they would under the current Social Security system. If someone with a personal account retires with benefits lower than those offered by the current system, the Treasury will send them a check to make up the difference. Thus, there is a legal government obligation that in a worst case scenario a retiree will be able to enjoy benefits at least as good as they would under the e traditional Social Security system.
Gingrich's scheme may have been inspired in Chile, but the moral hazard it creates in the form of government bailouts for bad investors would be all American.
On Medicare, too, Newt Gingrich wants to offer millions of American seniors a choice. They can stay in the current guaranteed insurance program or, as TPM explained, "purchase private insurance with a voucher":
Under Gingrich's proposal, Medicare won't be just another plan competing with the premium support system that seniors can purchase with a voucher, but a whole separate system in and of itself. If seniors think it's more generous and dependable than the private system, they can stick with it, period, making it tougher to keep costs down but also making it less disruptive for those who are used to the old system.
As the Wall Street Journal pointed out, "Mr. Gingrich's plan is merely a gloss on Medicare Advantage." As it turns out, per beneficiary costs for Medicare haven't only risen 40 percent more slowly than private insurance. As Ezra Klein pointed out in June, history already provides a guide with the private Medicare Advantage option currently chosen by 15 percent of today's beneficiaries
This isn't the first time we've tried to let private insurers into Medicare to work their magic. The Medicare Advantage program, which invited private insurers to offer managed-care options to Medicare beneficiaries, was expected to save money, but it ended up costing about 120 percent of what Medicare costs.
All in all, under Newt Gingrich's 2-2-2 Plan the rich would get much richer and the U.S. Treasury much poorer. That's a very big idea. And a terrible one.
* Full disclosure: I worked on Gary Hart's 1984 campaign and still hold a grudge against Wendy's.