With the unemployment rate now down to 4.2% and household incomes having recently reached an all-time high, the first order of government business should be:
Fiscal responsibility which means to start reducing the size of the national debt, which is now 77% of GDP (for the public part on which we pay interest), the highest since the end of WWII. The only practical way to do this is to begin to shrink the size of our annual deficits from the very high level of almost $700 billion for the 2017 Fiscal Year which just ended on September 30.
A responsible budget for the 2018 Fiscal Year can have a deficit of at most $500 billion which amounts to 2.5% of our total GDP of $20 trillion. A realistic forecast for economic growth in the coming year is 2.5% of GDP which means that a deficit for the 2018 FY of $500 billion would at least not increase our debt as a percentage of GDP.
Budgets for later years need to actually shrink (not just hold steady) the debt. The goal should be to decrease annual deficits down close to zero which would mean achieving a balanced budget. The Congressional Budget Office projects that the cumulative deficits will climb by $10 trillion over the next ten years under current policy, pushing the debt up to 91% of GDP in 2027.
Tax reform, to be considered next by Congress, is likely to stall if it is not pursued within a sensible fiscal policy just as healthcare reform stalled last summer. Sensible tax reform, both growth enhancing and revenue neutral, is quite doable and will make the debt problem that much easier to solve.
Conclusion. It cannot be emphasized too strongly that our rapidly growing debt puts us in a dire fiscal bind. We must change policy significantly and soon or else we will put our prized liberty and prosperity in grave danger.
My last post, “The Major Challenges Facing the United States,” came to the conclusion that, while the U.S. has many big problems to address, our national debt is the biggest problem of all, because it will be so hard to deal with through the political process.
Our total national debt is now $19.9 trillion. The so-called public debt, on which we pay interest, is $15 trillion, or 77% of GDP, the highest it has been since right after WWII. Furthermore it is predicted by the Congressional Budget Office to keep getting steadily worse, reaching 90% of GDP by 2025 and 150% of GDP by 2047 unless current policy is substantially changed.
Right now our debt is almost “free” money since interest rates are so low. But when interest rates return to more normal levels, interest payments on the debt will skyrocket by hundreds of billions of dollars per year, likely leading to a new fiscal crisis, much worse than the Financial Crisis of 2008.
The only sane solution to this humongous problem is to start shrinking our annual deficits, this year at about $685 billion, down close to zero over a period of several years. This will require a painful combination of spending curtailments and perhaps some tax increases as well.
One possible way to accomplish this herculean task has been laid out by Barron’s economic journalist Gene Epstein, see here and here. Mr. Epstein’s plan would balance the budget in ten years by decreasing projected spending by $8.6 trillion, with 60% of spending curtailments coming from the entitlement programs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and the rest from both military and domestic discretionary programs.
It needs to be strongly emphasized that under the Epstein plan spending would not actually decrease from one year to the next, but would rather grow at a slower rate, from $3.9 trillion in 2016 to $4.7 trillion in 2026. His plan would decrease the public debt from 77% of GDP today to 58% in 2026.
Conclusion. The U.S. faces the very unpleasant problem of excessive debt which will just keep getting worse and worse without making some relatively unpleasant adjustments in the way that the federal government spends money. The sooner we get started in this process the better off we will be.
President Trump’s proposed 2018 Budget lays out a plan to achieve a balanced budget over a ten year period. I strongly endorse this goal whether or not the Trump budget is a realistic way to get this done.
The virtue of the Trump budget is to tackle waste and inefficiency across many different domestic programs (see chart below).
Its main defect is that neither healthcare reform nor tax reform has yet been implemented and the cost and/or savings of these two major initiatives are not yet known.
In the meantime the only way to think about balancing the budget is conceptually in terms of how it might be done. Barron’s economic analyst Gene Epstein has done this recently.
Mr. Epstein proposes:
$8.6 trillion worth of spending cuts over ten years, of which 40% would come from programs other than Social Security and healthcare. By achieving a balanced budget in ten years it would lower our public debt (on which we pay interest) from 77% today to 58% in 2027.
By raising the age limit for full SS benefits to 67 (already enacted) at a faster pace, and indexing initial benefits to price inflation rather than wage inflation, $200 billion can be saved over ten years. Another $300 billion can be saved by phasing in a 25% reduction in SSDI benefits.
Cutting the estimated improper payment rate for Medicare of 12.1% in half would save $400 billion over ten years. Raising the premiums for Medicare Part B and Part D to 35% of costs from the current 25% of costs would save $400 billion.
Another $600 billion would be saved by turning Medicaid into a block grant program to the states and giving the states much more flexibility in how it is spent.
$950 billion could be cut from the military budget by cutting back on overly expensive new weapon systems as well as closing unnecessary military bases, both foreign and domestic.
Many cuts in government subsidies to individuals and businesses would save $1 trillion. Grants in aid to sates could be cut by $500 billion.
Conclusion. There are many different ways to curtail federal spending. It has to be done and the sooner we get started the less painful it will be for all concerned.
President Trump’s budget for 2018 presents a plan to achieve a balanced federal budget in ten years, by 2027. This is a highly desirable goal but there is much skepticism about whether or not his budget is realistic, see here and here.
My thoughts on this important matter are:
Fiscal restraint is a common sense necessity, and is not austerity. Our public debt (on which we pay interest) now stands at 77% of GDP, the highest since WWII, and will continue to increase without major changes in public policy. Right now the debt is almost “free” money because interest rates are so low. As interest rates inevitably go up in the near future, interest payments on the debt will skyrocket and become a huge drain on our federal budget and make annual deficits even worse than they already are.
3% annual GDP growth, as assumed in the Trump budget, is almost certainly too optimistic. However the Trump Administration is on track to achieve significant deregulation and averaging 2.5% growth over the next ten years is doable.
Insufficient entitlement reform is a big drawback for the budget. It will be very difficult, essentially impossible, to achieve and sustain a balanced budget without modifying Social Security and Medicare to make them self-financing. Turning Medicaid into a block grant program to the states would finally put Medicaid on a sensible budget.
Requiring able-bodied welfare recipients to work is a good idea and is the basis for cutbacks in social welfare programs.
The Departments of State, Interior, Education and Justice should be able to absorb cutbacks and operate more efficiently.
Conclusion. There are many good initiatives built into the Trump budget. Unfortunately there are also some invalid assumptions and glaring omissions. It does not represent a bona fide plan to balance the budget in ten years but at least it recognizes the importance of doing so.
The newly released Trump budget for Fiscal Year 2018 claims that it will lead to a balanced budget in ten years. This is a highly desirable goal. However the projected $4.5 trillion in spending cutbacks for many popular programs, as well as the projected 3% GDP growth for the next ten years, are both unrealistically optimistic. Nevertheless, at least the Trump Administration is moving in the right direction.
Here is a good summary by Donald Marron in National Affairs of why it is so important to keep deficits and debt under control:
Prolonged deficits and mounting debt will undermine economic growth by interfering with investment in the private sector.
Prolonged deficits risk fueling inflation as the government lowers the value of the dollar by printing more of them.
High levels of debt held by foreign lenders put us at the mercy of foreign countries.
The growing debt exposes America to greater “rollover” risk with the increasing reliance on short term debt which frequently has to be rolled over.
Rising debt limits flexibility for increased spending in times of recession or other emergency. For example, when the Financial Crisis occurred in 2008, the debt level was just half of its current level. This meant the government could risk higher deficit spending in order to stimulate the economy.
Deficits have an unfortunate tendency to feed on themselves. Our current deficit level of approximately $500 billion per year is so large that it can only be significantly reduced with great pain. The only possible way to make deficit reduction politically feasible is to spread this pain widely amongst the public as shared sacrifice. This will be very hard to do.
Deficits and debt are grossly unfair to future generations who are stuck with servicing the debt and/or struggling to pay it down.
Conclusion. The Trump Administration recognizes the strong need to get deficits and debt under control. Unfortunately its current budget just submitted is not a realistic plan to get this done.
So says the Concord Coalition’s Robert Bixby. President Trump said in a recent interview on Fox News that he would like to have a balanced budget “eventually,” but not at the expense of higher spending for the military. The problem is, as Mr. Bixby points out, if we delay fiscal discipline in order to increase military spending, what else will we delay it for? Will we delay it for infrastructure spending or border security or tax cuts? Will we delay it to protect Social Security and Medicare?
The Congressional Budget Office predicts (see chart) that, under current law, the public debt (on which we pay interest) will grow from 77% of GDP in 2017 to 89% of GDP in 2027. Furthermore, mandatory programs (Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid) will grow from 13% of GDP this year to 15.4% in 2027 while discretionary programs (everything else except interest payments) will fall from 6.3% of GDP today to 5.3% of GDP in 2027. Interest payments on the debt will grow from 1.4% of GDP ($270 billion) today to 2.7% of GDP ($768 billion) in 2027.
It turns out that it is possible to avoid this calamitous scenario in the following fiscally responsible way (see the attached table):
Note that spending (outlays) is projected to increase from $3963 billion in 2017 to $6548 in 2027, which represents a 5% annual increase in spending every year.
But also revenues (tax income) are projected to increase from $3404 billion in 2017 to $5140 billion in 2027.
If spending growth could slow down from $3963 billion in 2017 to $5140 billion in 2027 (the projected amount of revenue in that year), the budget would then be balanced in 2027!
It turns out that no budget cuts are required to accomplish this. In fact a calculation shows that simply limiting spending increases to 2.6% per year (rather than CBO’s projected increases of 5% per year) is sufficient to achieve this goal.
Conclusion. Above is outlined a plan to balance the budget over a ten year period without making any spending cuts! All that is needed is a modest amount of spending restraint!
I have now been writing this blog for four years, beginning right after the presidential election of 2012. I was a candidate in the May 2012 Republican Primary for the 2nd Congressional District of Nebraska. I campaigned on the platform to “eliminate the deficit.” I lost to the incumbent Lee Terry who was in turn replaced in office by the Democrat Brad Ashford in 2014.
Massive Debt now 75% of GDP, the highest level since right after WWII, and predicted by the Congressional Budget Office to keep rising steadily under current policies.
Slow Economic Growth averaging just barely 2% per year since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009. Although the unemployment rate is down to a respectable 4.9%, the labor participation rate is also lower than usual. Faster growth would mean more jobs and better paying jobs. It would also mean more tax revenue to shrink our annual deficits.
How should these problems be addressed? In briefest outline:
Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution. This is a drastic measure but I see no other way to get the job done. The pressure on Congress is always to create new programs and spend more money, not less. A BBA could be designed in a flexible manner to allow emergency overrides. It could also be phased in by, for example, having an effective date three years after ratification. It so happens that 28 states (out of 34 needed) have now called for a Constitutional Convention to propose such an amendment. (http://bba4usa.org/)
Tax Reform, lowering rates for individuals and corporations, paid for by shrinking deductions, would do wonders for encouraging business investment and entrepreneurship, as well as encouraging American multinational companies to bring their foreign earnings back home for reinvestment.
Conclusion. Much more can be done but this would be a very good start.