Why We Cannot Wait to Fix the Debt

 

A Letter from Birmingham Jail   Why we cannot wait  Martin Luther King, Jr., April 16, 1963

Yesterday was Martin Luther King Day and every year at this time we are reminded of his eloquent letter from the Birmingham Jail, “Why we cannot wait,” written to some of his hesitant supporters in the Spring of 1963.
African-Americans were tired of waiting so long for equal rights in their own country.  On my own personal scale, I am so frustrated by the inability of our political system to address our massive debt problem, that I am getting organized to enter the 2018 Nebraska Republican Senate Primary against the incumbent Deb Fischer who has just voted (with the new tax law) to increase our debt by $1 trillion over the next decade.
Basically I am saying that our debt is so large and growing so fast that it will soon be out of control if we don’t take action to start reducing it very soon.


Consider:

  • The public debt (on which we pay interest) is now 77% of GDP, the highest since WWII, and projected by the Congressional Budget Office to keep getting steadily worse. It will grow by $11.5 trillion in just 10 years to almost 100% of GDP and will reach 150% of GDP, double the current level, by 2047, without major changes in current policy.
  • A fiscal crisis, much worse than the Financial Crisis of 2008, will occur long before 2047 if nothing is done to greatly shrink our annual deficits which are again rapidly approaching the trillion dollar per year level.
  • The new tax law increases deficits by an average of $100 billion per year, and therefore makes it that much harder to shrink them down substantially. It is imperative for the two parties, Democrats and Republicans, to work together to figure out how to do this.

Conclusion. Our national debt is so large and growing so fast that it is virtually out of control. We need prompt and fairly strong action to turn the situation around.  I have often discussed one major way to do this.

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After the New Tax Law: Debt Is an Even Bigger Problem

 

The Republicans in Washington are exuberant because passing the new tax law means that they finally have gotten something done. And the new law will have at least one highly beneficial effect:

  • The new 21% corporate tax rate will increase profits for domestic corporations and encourage multinational corporations to bring their foreign profits back home. Even if these profits are used to buy back company stock or are paid out in larger dividends, the new money will be put to use in the U.S. economy one way or another. This will give the economy a boost and create new and better paying jobs. This is how private enterprise works and it is the best economic system ever invented.

But at the same time the new law has two huge deficiencies which make it a net minus on the whole:

  • It adds $1 trillion to our debt over the next ten years, as scored by the joint Committee for Taxation, the official scorekeeper. And this is after the positive economic effect is taken into account.  Our debt is already 77% of GDP (for the public part on which we pay interest), the highest it has been since right after WWII, and will continue to get worse without major changes in public policy. As interest rates rise and return to normal historical levels, interest payments on the debt will increase quickly, creating a huge drain on the federal budget.

  • The trillion dollar artificial stimulus created by the new tax law, i.e. the trillion dollars in new debt, is likely to overheat the economy, which is now already growing at a 3% annual clip.  This means that inflation is likely to gain increased momentum, thereby causing the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates faster than it otherwise would. This means that interest payments on the debt will be pushed up even faster than otherwise. Without fiscal retrenchment, a new fiscal crisis is virtually inevitable in the relatively near future.

Conclusion. Fiscal restraint in Congress is now more urgently needed than ever, and it is going to be even harder to accomplish than before the new tax law was passed. I am an eternal optimist but it sure would be easy to get discouraged!

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The New Tax Bill Is Likely to Take Us over a Fiscal Cliff

 

The Republican tax bill has now come out of conference and will soon be voted on by both the House and the Senate. It is expected to easily pass both chambers and be signed by the President. As I have discussed extensively on this blog, I have no argument with the individual features of this bill.  They will definitely increase economic growth which is highly desirable.
The problem is that the tax bill will also add $1 trillion to the debt over ten years (as scored by the JCT).  It is simply outrageous for the GOP to consciously add $1 trillion to our already $15 trillion debt (the public part on which we pay interest), which at 77% and climbing, is the highest it has been since right after WWII.


But the damage will be even worse than this.  The trillion dollar artificial stimulus is likely to overheat an already briskly growing economy.  As the Economist reports in its latest issue:

  • Second quarter growth of 3.1% and third quarter growth of 3.3% are very strong.
  • Median household income grew 5.2% in 2015 and 3.2% in 2016.
  • The average net worth of households in the middle income quintile grew by 34% between 2013 and 2015.
  • The wages and salaries of production workers grew at a 3.8% pace in the third quarter of 2017.
  • The unemployment rate at the end of 2018 is likely to be between 3.4% and 3.8%.

Economic growth is good because it raises living standards across the board. But faster growth also means higher inflation which means higher interest rates as the Federal Reserve responds.  Higher interest rates mean higher interest payments on our massive debt. Every time the Federal Reserve raises interest rates by ¼ %, the interest payments on our debt will increase by about $38 billion per year.  A 2% increase in interest rates, likely within two years, means a $300 billion increase in annual interest (on top of the $266 billion paid in FY 2017).  Our massive debt will soon become a huge burden for the federal budget.

Conclusion. Adding $1 trillion to the debt on top of the existing debt is a terrible idea. Such artificial stimulus at a time when GDP growth is already picking up will drive up interest rates all the faster and greatly speed up the day of reckoning for extreme fiscal irresponsibility.

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Senator Fischer, if You Vote for the Awful Tax Bill, There Will Be Political Consequences!

 

Congressional Republicans have agreed on a compromise tax bill, details to be released soon. After scoring by the Joint Committee on Taxation, it will be voted on separately by the House and Senate, sometime next week.  It is likely to reach the President, and be signed into law, before Christmas.


As I have previously discussed at great length, this is a very bad bill for the following reasons:

  • Lowering the corporate tax rate to 21% is actually a good idea because it will encourage U.S. multinational companies to bring their foreign profits back home for reinvestment as well as encouraging foreign companies to set up shop in the U.S.
  • Adding $1 trillion to the debt over ten years, as previously scored by JCT and likely on rescoring, is what is so awful about the tax plan. It is also sad because this could be avoided.  Our debt (the public part on which we pay interest) is already, at 77% of GDP, the highest it has been since right after WWII, and is predicted by the Congressional Budget Office to keep getting worse without major changes in current policy.
  • As interest rates rise, interest payments on the debt will grow dramatically (right now our debt is almost “free” money). Eventually this will lead to a new financial crisis, much worse than in 2008.
  • Overheating the economy, now growing at 3% per year for the last two quarters, makes the tax bill even worse. The last thing our economy needs right now is a trillion dollars of artificial stimulation. This will force the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates faster than it would otherwise.
  • Nebraska Senator Deb Fischer, who is up for reelection in 2018, voted for the Senate version of the tax plan. She should reconsider for the final combined bill and vote no.

Conclusion. If Senator Fischer votes for the final version of this bill, and if it passes and is signed into law by the President, then she is personally responsible for the devastation it will wreak on our economy. What can I as an individual Nebraskan do about this?  It should not be hard to figure out.  Stay tuned!

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The Major Challenges Facing the United States

 

As I frequently remind my readers I am a fiscal conservative and a social moderate. I usually write about particular economic and fiscal problems facing our country.  But every now and then I like to step back and view our overall situation at one time.  The last time I did this was here.
Let’s take another look:

  • The economy is puttering along at 2% annual growth with a relatively low unemployment rate of 4.3% and a good indication that faster growth, up to 2.5% annually, is right around the corner, see here and here.  The economy, at least, is headed in the right direction.
  • Foreign policy. Long term our biggest problem is China, which has four times as many people as we do and is growing economically three times as fast. China will soon surpass us in both economic and military strength. Our best insurance for this inevitable day is to have lots of democratic friends around the world.
  • Global warming is real and getting worse. Our best strategy for dealing with it is a revenue neutral carbon tax, rather than depending on ad hoc regulations like the Clean Power Plan and ever increasing auto emission standards. If the U.S. demonstrates its seriousness with a carbon tax, it is likely that the U.S. and China (which is highly polluted) could work together to establish world-wide carbon emission standards.
  • National debt, currently 77% of GDP (for the public debt on which we pay interest), is predicted by the CBO to keep getting steadily worse (see chart)  without major changes in current policy. Right now our approximately $14.3 trillion public debt is almost “free” money because interest rates are so low. But sooner or later interest rates will return to more normal levels and, when this happens, interest payments on the debt will rise by hundreds of billions of dollars per year. This will inevitably lead to a severe fiscal crisis, far worse than the Financial Crisis of 2008.

Conclusion. I am relatively optimistic that we can maintain good relations with China and will have the good sense to better control carbon emissions. But our debt problem is politically very difficult to address because it will require spending curtailments.  How do we successfully address such a huge problem?

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The Dangers of Complacency

 

My last post, “What Ails America? I. Complacency,” lays out the thesis of the economist Tyler Cowen that American society has become much too complacent, i.e. self-satisfied, in recent years.  In particular:

  • Fewer Americans are moving.
  • Segregation (by income, education, social class and race) is increasing.
  • Americans have stopped creating. New business creation is down and monopolies are getting stronger.
  • Matching (i.e. assortative mating) is on the upswing.
  • Calm and safety above all is the predominant attitude.

These societal trends are normal and even desirable in many respects. But they can lead to stagnation.  Eventually needed social change will boil over in uncontrollable ways and America will undergo a “Great Reset.”


This will likely involve major events such as:

  • A major fiscal and budgetary crisis. Currently our public debt (on which we pay interest) is 77% of GDP, the highest since just after WWII. It will keep rising steadily without a major change in public policy. When interest rates return to more normal higher levels, interest payments on our debt will be a huge drain, without letup, on our tax revenue.
  • The inability of government to adjust to the next global emergency which comes along. When the financial crisis came along in 2008, debt was at the much smaller level of 38% of GDP. This allowed for temporary fiscal stimulus and larger deficits to ride out the resulting recession. With our currently high debt level, we’ll have far less flexibility when the next recession comes along.
  • A rebellion of many less-skilled men. The median male wage (adjusted for inflation) was higher in 1969 than it is today. In fact, the take-home pay for typical American workers has been falling since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009. To a large extent this explains the rise of Donald Trump.
  • A resurgence of crime. A new crime wave will probably be internet related. There are now tens of millions of identity thefts, phishing attacks and successful but fraudulent pleas for cash every year. Internet crime is calmer than traditional crime and less visible. But the next crime wave could badly damage internet commerce.

 

Conclusion.  Mr. Cowen paints a depressing picture for the future of American society.  Of course, it is possible to turn some or all of these negative developments around.  But will a complacent American populace have the political will to do it?

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Another Reason for a Balanced Budget Amendment

 

I have been writing a lot lately about the need for a Balanced Budget Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Our public debt (on which we pay interest) is now over $13 trillion and amounts to 74% of GDP.  And this percentage, the highest since the end of WWII, is projected by the Congressional Budget Office to keep growing indefinitely.  Eventually this will lead to another financial crisis, likely much worse than the one we’re still getting over with.
CaptureHere is a vivid example of why it’s so hard for Congress to stop spending more each year than is collected in tax revenue.  Vice President Joe Biden wants to launch a cancer “moonshot”, in honor of his late son Beau who died from brain cancer in May 2015, by “increasing resources – both public and private – to fight cancer.”  This is an apparently attractive but actually poor idea for the following reasons:

  • The annual budget for the National Institutes of Health, which fund medical research, has already been increased by $2 billion for the current 2016 budget year.
  • Major advances in immunotherapy are enabling oncologists to target the surface of cancerous cells instead of using chemotherapy that affects the whole body. But these targeted therapies routinely cost over $100,000 a year per patient.
  • Mr. Biden’s medical advisors are recommending that Medicare start paying for gene sequencing (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/14/health/moonshot-to-cure-cancer-to-be-led-by-biden-relies-on-outmoded-view-of-disease.html) to help with these new immunotherapies.

Everyone would like to speed up the war on cancer. But we’re already spending billions of dollars a year on it and cancer researchers are making steady advances.  In other words, we should leave well enough alone on the cancer front and focus on a much more fundamental problem which is already severe.
I am referring, of course, to our excessively large and rapidly growing national debt.  Right now interest rates are at historic lows and so our debt is almost “free money”.  But this is already starting to change and soon interest payments on the debt will be eating us alive.  We’re already in a deep hole but at least we can stop making it any deeper than it already is.
This is exactly what a Balanced Budget Amendment will accomplish.

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