Trump Needs a Wall of Fiscal Discipline


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!

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Entitlement Spending and the National Debt


I discuss two fundamental economic and fiscal problems on this website:

  • The slow growth of our economy, only 2.1% per year since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009. This is largely responsible for stagnant wages for middle- and low-income workers, which is in turn responsible for the rise of the populist presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.
  • Our massive national debt, now 74% of GDP for the so-called public part, on which we pay interest. This is the highest it has been since right after WWII.

Slow economic growth gets more public attention because of its direct and negative effect on so many people. However massive debt is more of an existential problem.  Right now our debt is almost “free” money because interest rates are so low.  But with debt predicted (by the Congressional Budget Office, for example) to keep climbing steadily under current policy (see the first chart) and with the inevitability of increased interest rates in the future, interest payments on the public debt are bound to rise precipitously.
Capture4The second chart just above (from the Concord Coalition) shows that interest payments on the debt will likely soon become the leading source of growth in federal spending.  But perhaps surprising is that the three non-interest sources of spending growth are the entitlement programs, Medicare, Social Security and the combined Medicaid, CHIP and ACA exchange subsidies.  All other government spending will decrease in relative terms.
Capture3Is it not readily apparent from this data that the only way to curtail a huge fiscal crisis in the not so distant future is to get entitlement spending under much better control?  The last chart, just above, (from the Trustees of SS and Medicare) shows the growth in general fund revenue required for Medicare and SS going forward.  In 2016 the discrepancy is 2.1% of GDP which amounts to $401 billion.  The discrepancy will double by 2040.  Of course, OASDI (SS) and HI (Medicare Part A) have trust funds paid into by payroll taxes.  But these trust funds are already paying out more than they take in and will be exhausted in a few years.

Conclusion. Spending on entitlement programs must be brought under much better control. How to do this will be the topic of my next post.

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