In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal columnist David Wessel responds too mildly in “Why It’s Wrong to Dismiss the Deficit” to Larry Summers’ view that we should not worry about the deficit. Mr. Summers says, “Let me be clear. I am not saying that fiscal discipline and economic growth are twin priorities. I am saying that our priority must be on increasing demand.” According to Mr. Wessel, here is the essence of Mr. Summers’ argument:
- The deficit isn’t an immediate problem; growth is.
- We’ve done enough (about the deficit) already.
- The future is so uncertain that acting now is unwise.
Granted that the deficit for fiscal year 2013 is “only” $680 billion after four years in a row of deficits over a trillion dollars each and that interest rates are at an historically low level at the present time. The problem is that the public debt is now at the very high level of 73% of GDP and is projected by the Congressional Budget Office to continue climbing indefinitely. Interest on the debt was $415 billion for fiscal year 2013 which represents 2.5% of GDP of $16.8 trillion. With GDP growth increasing at about 2% per year since the end of the recession in June 2009, this means that interest on the debt is already slowing down the economy and it’s just going to keep getting worse as interest rates inevitably return to higher historical levels.
Growth is very definitely an immediate problem. But increased government spending is the wrong way to address it. The right way to address it is with broad based tax reform (lowering tax rates in return for closing loopholes) to stimulate investment and risk taking by businesses and entrepreneurs. Significant relaxing of the regulatory burden would also help, especially for the small businesses which are responsible for much of the growth of new jobs. So would immigration reform to boost the number of legal workers.
As uncertain as the future is, we can be quite sure that entitlement spending (Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid) will be going up fast in the very near future as more and more baby boomers retire and the ratio of workers to retirees continues to decline. It would be very risky indeed to assume that economic growth will increase fast enough to pay for increased entitlement spending.
Conclusion: large deficits are a very urgent and immediate problem which we ignore at our peril! Furthermore the best ways of boosting the economy don’t require increased government spending.