The Magnitude of our Debt Problem

 

I began writing this blog in November 2012, right after the 2012 national election when Barack Obama was reelected to a second term as President. Under Obama our biggest problems were: 1) slow economic growth (2% annually since June 2009) and 2) massive and rapidly increasing debt, now 77% of GDP.
After the surprise victory of Donald Trump last fall, my perspective has changed a little bit.  Slow growth is still a huge problem.  My last several posts have, in fact, focused on the despair of many blue-collar workers who have been harmed by our stagnant economy in recent years.
Mr. Trump was strongly supported by blue-collar workers last fall and clearly wants to help them out.  Faster economic growth will accomplish this and President Trump is working with the Republican Congress to get this done through tax and regulatory reform.  I’m optimistic that progress will be made along these lines.
But our debt problem has not really been addressed so far by the Trump Administration.  James Capretta from the American Enterprise Institute gives a good summary of where we are:

  • Entitlement Spending is the Problem. In 1972 the federal government spent a combined 4.2% of GDP on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. In 2016 spending on these programs was 10.4% of GDP. The Congressional Budget Office predicts that this figure will jump to 13.5% of GDP in 2030 and 15.6% of GDP in 2047 unless current policy is changed.

  • The Fiscal Consequences of Interest Rate Normalcy. In 2008 when federal debt was at 39% of GDP, federal spending on net interest payments was 1.7% of GDP. For 2017 net interest payments will be just 1.3% of GDP even though the federal has doubled since 2008. This is due to the abnormally low interest rate of 2.3% at the present time. CBO projects that the interest rate on 10-year Treasury notes will rise to 3% in 2019-2020 and 3.6% for the period 2021-2027.

Conclusion. Right now our huge and rapidly increasing debt is almost “free money” because interest rates are so low. This can’t and won’t last.  As interest rates inevitably climb to more normal levels, interest payments on the debt will rise precipitously.  This will cause much pain by further squeezing spending on many popular programs.  The only sane way to mitigate this highly unpleasant prospect is to shrink deficit spending down to zero as quickly as possible.

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The Folly of Building a Streetcar System in Omaha

 

The City of Omaha is now considering building a Streetcar System for an estimated cost of $156 million. Both of the two mayoral candidates have endorsed this proposal.

Here are the basic facts about the project:

  • It would run from TD Ameritrade Park in downtown Omaha to 42nd and Farnam Streets in midtown Omaha, a distance of about four miles. It would cost about $7.5 million per year to operate the line and would generate about $700,000 a year in annual revenue with a fare of $1.25 per ride. Adding a fee of $1.50 per ticket per College World Series event (at TD Ameritrade Park) would generate about $500,000 per year in additional income.

  • The financial assessment of the project by HDR suggests that the Federal Transit Administration could be asked for a grant of $78 million, or one-half of the total cost. The FTA is already contributing $15 million towards a $30 million Bus Rapid Transit system along Dodge Street approved by the City Council. The BRT involves 27 sleek, modern bus stop shelters along the route at a cost of $260,000 each.
  • The FTA has an annual budget of $19 billion. The Trump Administration is asking for a $2.4 billion cut in the FTA budget for 2018.  Congress has not yet taken any action on the Trump Budget proposal. But the FTA budget is clearly funding extravagant local projects around the country and is ripe for a major budget cut.

Conclusion. Omaha is simply not large enough, nor with a sufficiently dense population base, to support a downtown street car system aimed at the tourist trade. It could only be financed with massive federal support at a time when the federal government is rightly trying to cut back on unnecessary and wasteful spending. Don’t do it, Omaha!

Nebraska Senator Deb Fischer Is a Big Spender

 

Senator Fischer is up for re-election in 2018 and she starts out a recent fund raising letter (see below) as follows: “My goals are clear: stronger national defense, safer roads and bridges, healthcare that is accessible and affordable, protection of our fundamental liberties, less government, and a fairer, simpler tax code.” Here’s the breakdown:

  • First, and most important: national security.
  • Second, our roads and bridges must be repaired and rebuilt.
  • Third, Obamacare must be repealed and replaced.
  • Fourth, our fundamental liberties must be protected.
  • Fifth, government must shrink and the tax code must be simpler and fairer.

I don’t disagree with the specifics of any of these five goals but rather where the emphasis is placed. Her first two goals are to greatly increase spending for both the military and for infrastructure projects.  Her last goal is to shrink the federal government which is a good idea but very hard to accomplish in practice.

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Here is the basic problem our national debt (the public part on which we pay interest) is now at 77% of GDP, the highest it has been since right after WWII, and steadily getting worse.  Right now this approximately $14 trillion debt is essentially “free” money because interest rates are so low.  But when interest rates inevitably rise to more normal levels, interest payments on the debt will soar by hundreds of billions of dollars per year and eat much more deeply into tax revenue.
It should be a very high priority for Congress to establish a plan to bring government spending more closely in line with tax revenue.  I have previously described how this could be accomplished over a ten year period without cutting hardly anything but simply using restraint for spending increases.

Conclusion. If Senator Fisher feels that it is necessary to make big spending increases in areas such as national defense and infrastructure repair, then she should be equally adamant about the need to hold down the growth of government spending overall.

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What, if Anything, Will Restrain Donald Trump?

 

The Atlantic magazine has just released a remarkable essay written by the political commentator, David Frum, entitled, “How to Build an Autocracy.”  Says Mr. Frum, “Donald Trump will not set out to build an authoritarian state.  His immediate priority seems likely to be to use the presidency to enrich himself.  But as he does so, he will need to protect himself from legal risk.  Being Trump, he will also inevitably wish to inflict payback on his critics.  Construction of an apparatus of impunity and revenge will begin haphazardly and opportunistically.  But it will accelerate.  It will have to.”

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Let’s assume that Mr. Frum is correct that Trump’s top priority is to enrich himself.  What will stop him from doing this?  A recent column in the New York Times points out that:

  •  54% of registered voters in congressional districts represented by Republicans view Mr. Trump favorably compared with only 42% who view him unfavorably.
    In these same districts, 87% of registered Republicans view Mr. Trump favorably.
  • In other words, the Republican dominated Congress is unlikely to strongly oppose his sleazy and self-enriching behavior.

But there are other constraints on what he does in office:

  • As I said in a recent post in order for Mr. Trump to be reelected in 2020, he will need to substantially speed up economic growth in order to increase the wages of his key blue-collar supporters. He clearly wants to accomplish this.
  • On the other hand, the conservative Republican base, including its representatives in the House such as the Freedom Caucus, will simply not support huge increases in deficit spending for anything (except an emergency) including infrastructure, the military or unfunded tax cuts.
  • In fact, Rep Mick Mulvaney (R, SC), a deficit hawk, has been nominated to become the Trump Administration’s Budget Director. In March the debt ceiling will have to be raised. I expect the many fiscal conservatives in Congress to insist on significant fiscal restraint (e.g. a ten year plan to balance the budget) as a tradeoff for raising the debt ceiling.

Conclusion. Just because Republicans are tolerant of Mr. Trump’s personal behavior does not mean he can successfully ignore the strong Republican desire for fiscal restraint.

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Why the GOP Should Reconcile with Donald Trump

 

I am a non-ideological fiscal conservative. I don’t judge government as being either too large or too small.  I just want to pay for however much government we do have without going into debt.  Such an approach normally leads to political compromise whereby Congress tries to operate efficiently and hold costs down, only raising taxes as a last resort when it is impossible to squeeze any more low priority programs out of the system.
Such common sense used to be a fundamental operating principle, adhered to by both political parties.  Unfortunately in recent years we have moved away from this model.  In fact our public debt (on which we pay interest) has rapidly accumulated to $13 trillion, 74% of GDP, and will continue to grow much higher unless we strongly change our ways.
In some ways our current presidential campaign is following a conventional path.  Both of the major Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, want to expand federal programs and raise taxes to pay for the new spending.  The Republican Tea Party candidate, Ted Cruz, is a constitutional and social conservative and wants to cut back on government programs.  The leading Republican establishment candidate, Marco Rubio, supports modest new programs, such as expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, and also modest tax reform to stimulate the economy.
Capture0The wild card in the presidential race is Donald Trump.  He is a secular populist with unconventional and even contradictory policy views.  He not only leads the Republican field in most polls, he is steadily pulling ahead.  He is doing all this by attracting huge support from working class white voters who have fallen away from the Democratic Party.  In other words, he is potentially expanding the Republican base and therefore should be taken very seriously.
Question. Can a fiscal conservative (who just wants to balance the budget!) but who also wants to address the very serious social problems in American society, support a Donald Trump candidacy for president?  I am struggling with this question.  Stay tuned!

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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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After Two Years of Steady Job Growth, It’s Time to Bite the Bullet and Balance the Budget!

 

For the past two weeks I have been I have been complaining about Congress’s irresponsible budget for 2016 and that we should now be pushing hard for a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution.  In my last post I make the case that a flexible BBA is compatible with economic growth and will, in fact, contribute to it once it goes into effect.
CaptureFriday’s job report for December strengthens this argument:

  • In 2015 there was an increase of 2.65 million new jobs only slightly less than 2014’s 3.15 million new jobs, the two best years for job growth since 2000.
  • The current unemployment rate of 5.0% is the best since the end of 2006.
  • Although wage growth at 2.4% for 2015 is not as strong as the early 2000’s, wages have now been climbing 2% faster than price inflation for the past three years.
  • The offsetting negatives are a still slow GDP growth estimated at 2.2% for 2015 and a still very low labor participation rate of 62.6%.

Conclusion:  At some point in the very near future the government needs to stop spending far in excess of tax revenue.  The sooner we recognize this the easier it will be to make the necessary correction.  Our economy is the strongest it has been since the end of the Great Recession in June of 2009.  Getting government spending in better sync with tax collections will be a big challenge and will not happen overnight.  In fact, if a BBA is required to get the job done it will take several years to implement this route to fiscal responsibility.
For all of these reasons now is the time to start moving on this gigantic and festering problem!