Congress has just voted to postpone the debt ceiling by three months until December 8. That’s okay; it’s just a tactic which also provides quick federal help for the damage caused by Hurricane Harvey. The important thing is not to repeal the debt ceiling entirely.
As I have said before, global warming and national debt are both creeping catastrophes. We ignore them at our great peril. Right now hurricanes Harvey and Irma are reminding us of the huge devastation which can be caused by extreme weather events (which are made more likely by global warming).
In the same way, having an explicit debt ceiling reminds us at regular intervals that we have a very serious problem which will eventually catch up with us if we don’t take strong action to address it.
The National Debt, now 77% of GDP (for the public part on which we pay interest), is the highest it has been since right after WWII. It is predicted by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office that it will keep getting steadily worse without major changes in current policy.
The urgency of the debt problem is based on the fact that interest rates are now so low that our debt is almost “free” money. But interest rates will inevitably return to more normal, and higher, historical levels and, when this happens, interest payments on the debt will increase dramatically. This will eventually lead to a new Fiscal Crisis, much worse than the Financial Crisis of 2008.
The solution to this problem need not be drastic. Federal spending is growing by 5% per year while tax revenues are increasing by 3% per year. All we need to do, so to speak (because it will take some restraint!), is to hold spending increases to about 2.5% per year and then the federal budget would be balanced in a few years and debt would start shrinking as a percentage of GDP.
Conclusion. Congress, the President and the American people need to be reminded often and loudly how serious the debt problem is. Hopefully the message will eventually sink in. The sooner the better!
As a result of the 2014 elections, both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate are controlled by Republicans. The House Budget Committee and the Senate Budget Committee are now gearing up to produce plans to balance our federal budget over the next ten years. Accomplishing this goal will be a formidable challenge. Maya MacGuineas, President of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, has recently testified before Congress as to how hard it will be to get this job done. The gist of her testimony:
Even though the deficit has dropped by two-thirds since the 2009 peak, our deficit and debt problems are far from solved, as indicated in the above chart.
CBO estimates that under current law the deficit will rise from $485 billion in 2014 (2.7% of GDP) to more than $1 trillion (3.8% of GDP) by 2025.
If nothing is done to slow down these runaway deficits, annual interest payments on the debt will rise from $230 billion this year to $810 billion in 2025. Even with a balanced budget by 2025, interest payments will take up $630 billion in that year.
As the chart above shows, it will require a ten year savings of $5.5 trillion to bring the budget into balance by 2025. Even to reduce the debt to 60% of GDP by 2025 (compared to 74% today), will take a ten year savings of $4.7 trillion.
As if this isn’t hard enough by itself, there will be additional “speed bumps” along the way, whose additional one-year costs alone are $210 billion. See chart below.
Clearly it will require much pain and shared sacrifice to find trillions of dollars in budget savings over a ten year period as well as avoiding additional costly speed bumps. But the longer we wait to get started the harder it’s going to be to get the job done. We need to stop delaying and get started on a budget recovery program this year!