My last post is highly critical of the economist and New York Times columnist, Paul Krugman, for encouraging massive new deficit spending to stimulate our under-performing economy.
Debt and the slow growth of our economy are the two main topics of this blog which I have now been writing for almost four years. How to speed up growth is a complicated and highly charged political issue about which reasonable and well informed people can differ. However avoiding excessive debt is to me a moral issue whose resolution should not be that difficult, at least in a conceptual sense. I have often used the above chart from the Congressional Budget Office to illustrate our debt problem because it clarifies the problem so vividly. Here are its main features:
Our public debt (on which we pay interest), now about $13 trillion, is 75% of GDP, the highest since right after the end of WWII. And it is projected to keep getting steadily worse under current policy.
Note the decline in the debt from the end of WWII until about 1980. This doesn’t mean that the debt was actually paid off but rather that it shrank as a percentage of GDP as the economy grew fairly rapidly during this time period.
From 1980 – 2008 the debt level fluctuated and increased somewhat but did not get badly out of control.
Debt shot up rapidly with the Great Recession and has been continuing to grow ever since.
The current GDP of our economy is about $19 trillion. At a current growth rate of 2.1%, this adds $400 billion of GDP per year. This means that a $400 billion deficit for 2016 would stabilize the public debt at 75% of GDP. But our 2016-2017 deficit is projected to be almost $600 billion (and rising). This is not good enough!
Conclusion. In order to begin to shrink the size of the public debt, it is imperative that annual spending deficits be reduced to well below $400 billion per year. This will be difficult for our political process to achieve but it is the only way to avoid a new and much worse financial crisis in the relatively near future.
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman is perhaps the most ardent Keynesian economist in the U.S. today. Let’s agree that Mr. Krugman is a very intelligent and articulate fellow. He is a Nobel Prize winner and undoubtedly has made important contributions to economics. But he has the absolutely nutty idea that extreme deficit spending not only doesn’t hurt our economy but can actually be beneficial. His column, “Time To Borrow” in yesterday’s NYT is a perfect example of this dangerous idea. Here is the essence of his thinking:
Our national debt of $19 trillion is just a big scary number. Actually just our public debt alone of $13 trillion (on which we pay interest) is 75% of GDP, the highest since the end of WWII, and is projected (by the CBO) to steadily become much worse.
Federal interest payments are only 1.3% of GDP, low by historical standards. Just lock in repayment with 30-year inflation protected bonds, yielding .64% interest. Okay, suppose we can lock in very low interest payments on our current debt and therefore just borrow away oblivious to total debt for the next 30 years. In 2046 I expect to be gone but my children and grandchildren will still be around. Why should they be stuck with paying off or refinancing our own extravagant debt at likely much higher interest rates?
There are pressing infrastructure problems all over the country which need fixing now. For example, in Florida, green slime infests beaches because of failure to upgrade an 80 year old dike. The answer is to let Florida voters decide if they want to issue bonds for this project and pay them off with state tax revenue. Nebraska, for example, has decided to raise its state gas tax by 6 cents/gallon in order to pay for infrastructure upgrades.
Conclusion. The U.S. is currently in a huge fiscal bind with massive debt and continuing large annual deficits. It is extremely reckless to continue even current deficit spending, let alone increasing it, for anything less than a true national emergency. Infrastructure repair, for example, is an important but routine need which should be paid for out of current tax revenue.
There is a stark contrast between the fiscal and economic policies being proposed by the presidential candidates from the two different parties. The Democrats want to tax the rich to reduce income inequality while the Republicans want major tax reform in order to speed up economic growth. I favor the latter approach as long as it does not increase deficit spending. The Keynesian economist Paul Krugman mocks deficit hawks like me as “Very Serious People.” But in my “serious” view we have a choice between two very different paths for our economic future:
Slow Growth. Continue on our present path of slow 2% annual growth. The official unemployment rate has dropped to 5% but slack in the economy caused by the low labor participation rate keeps raises low and millions still unemployed or under-employed. The slow economy also keeps inflation and interest rates low. This permits Congress and the President to shrug off deficit spending and debt accumulation because it’s virtually “free money,” being borrowed at very low interest rates. Our present course not only prolongs income inequality but also allows the debt to keep ramping up indefinitely. The longer this continues, the greater will be the disruption when inflation and interest rates do eventually return to normal historical levels.
Faster Economic Growth. There are many things we can do to speed up economic growth. Tax reform is first and foremost but deregulation (relax Obamacare and Dodd-Frank), trade expansion (pass TPP) and immigration reform (with an adequate guest worker program) would also help. But, contrary to what the Republican presidential candidates say, tax reform must be revenue neutral to be sustainable. That way the economic growth it produces will lower deficit spending rather than increasing it. This is critical because economic growth will create new jobs and raise pay for existing jobs, thereby creating inflationary pressure. Inflation will lead to higher interest rates which in turn will make our debt much more expensive than it is now.
Conclusion. We can make our economy grow faster if we simply put our mind to it. But then inflation and interest rates will go up and interest payments on the debt will become an increasing burden on society. This is why it is so important to put our debt on a downward path as a percentage of GDP. We can make it happen if we want to.
There is a very important debate going on in the country right now as I have discussed in my last three posts:
The Republican presidential candidates are proposing big tax cuts to stimulate the economy but at the cost of huge increases in annual deficits and the accumulated debt.
The Democratic candidates want to raise taxes on the wealthy but even raising the top tax rate from 39.6% to 50% would have only a modest effect in lowering income inequality.
The Tax Foundation has an excellent plan to lower tax rates for all in a revenue neutral manner by closing loopholes and limiting deductions. Their plan would give the economy a big boost and actually lower deficits by bringing in more tax revenue.
Now comes Paul Krugman in Friday’s New York Times, “Austerity’s Grim Legacy” saying that “Some of us tried in vain to point out that deficit fetishism was both wrong-headed and destructive, that there was no good evidence that government debt was a problem for major economies, … And we were vindicated by events. More than four and a half years have passed since Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles warned of a fiscal crisis within two years; U.S. borrowing costs remain at historic lows.” How can such an obviously intelligent and articulate economist miss what is so very, very clear to so many lesser mortals? Interest rates will not stay low forever! And when they do go up, interest payments on our rapidly expanding debt will skyrocket! The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the interest payment on our debt will increase from 1.7% of GDP today to 3.6% of GDP in 2025, or $827 billion in 2025 compared with $227 billion in 2015. Where will the money to pay this new $600 billion expense come from?
It is absolutely crazy not to take our enormous debt seriously. We simply must put this huge debt on a downward path as a percentage of GDP. It can be done but it will take a concerted effort by our national leaders to do it.
We have very high debt and Paul Krugman says in “Debt Is Good” that we need more! The Congressional Budget Office’s latest report this week, “An Update to the Budget and Economic Outlook: 2015 – 2025” predicts slow economic growth for the next ten years, averaging 2.1% per year (see chart below). Unfortunately, high debt and slow growth are a deadly, self-reinforcing, combination. Today’s Wall Street Journal has a chart (pictured below) showing clearly how budget deficits are likely to increase over the next ten years. The public debt (on which we pay interest) is predicted to grow from 74% of GDP today to 77% of GDP in 2025, increasing by a total of $7 trillion over this time period. Here is another connection between slow growth and high debt:
Slow Growth means higher than necessary unemployment and under-employment as well as minimal raises for employed workers. The resulting economic slack leads to
Low Inflation. But low inflation means that the Federal Reserve can maintain
Low Interest Rates to try to encourage more borrowing to stimulate the economy. This means, in turn, that Congress can run up huge deficits without having to pay much interest on this almost “free” money. This eventually leads to:
Massive Debt. But what happens when inflation does take off, which has happened before and is likely to happen again? Then the Federal Reserve is forced to raise interest rates quickly and we are stuck with huge interest payments on our accumulated debt. And meanwhile entitlement spending on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid is also growing rapidly. At this point debt increases very rapidly which leads to a severe
Of course things don’t have to happen like this. Congress might become more responsible and either cut spending and/or raise taxes and start shrinking our huge deficits. Or perhaps slow growth really is the new normal and interest rates will remain low indefinitely. But slow growth is not pain free; there are many millions of unemployed and under-employed Americans who want to work and whose lives are stunted otherwise.
Slow growth is a very destructive path to be following. We badly need to adopt policies to speed it up!
Every Monday and Friday morning when I pick up the New York Times, I immediately turn to the OP-ED page to see what liberal icon Paul Krugman is saying. In his most recent column, “Debt Is Good,” he says that “what ails the world economy right now is that governments aren’t deep enough in debt.” Here is my response to his argument:
“The federal government can (now) borrow at historically low interest rates. So this is a very good time to be borrowing and investing in the future.” Our public debt (on which we pay interest) is now $13 trillion or 74% of GDP, the highest since the end of WWII, as shown in the above chart from the Congressional Budget Office. It is likely that interest rates will soon begin to go up. Every 1% rise will increase interest payments on our already existing debt by $130 billion per year. Where are the hundreds of billions of new dollars for debt service going to come from in an already tight budget? The more we add to the debt, the worse this problem will become.
“Having at least some government debt helps the economy function better.” I agree! But $13 trillion is way beyond what is needed for this. It is outrageously excessive!
“What we need are policies that would permit higher (interest) rates in good times without causing a slump. And one such policy would be targeting a higher level of debt.” The problem here is the conceit of Keynesians, like Mr. Krugman, that monetary policy alone can restore us to economic and fiscal health. Rather than accepting that the economy has entered a “new normal” with a permanently slow growth rate of about 2% (as has been the case since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009), we need policy changes such as individual and corporate tax reform (revenue neutral to be sure) and changes in the Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank Act to remove their job killing features.
Anybody with an ounce of common sense knows that excessive borrowing will eventually lead to disaster. Mr. Krugman seems to think that by constantly ridiculing his opponents, he can get away with denying this simple truth.
The New York Times columnist, Paul Krugman, writes provocatively on fiscal and economic issues and is well-known as a liberal icon. Usually I ignore his diatribes. But his column yesterday, “The Long-Run Cop-Out” goes way overboard. I will refute several of the statements from this column.
“Think about it: Faced with mass unemployment and the enormous waste it entails, for years the beltway elite devoted all most all its energy not to promoting recovery, but to Bowles-Simpsonism – to devising “grand bargains” that would address the supposedly urgent problem of how we’ll pay for Social Security and Medicare a couple of decades from now.” Worrying about our enormous and rapidly increasing national debt, does not mean ignoring our sluggish economy and the high unemployment it causes. The way to increase economic growth is to enact broad based tax reform by lowering tax rates, offset by closing loopholes and limiting deductions. This will further boost the economy in the same way that lower gasoline prices is already doing.
“Many projections suggest that our major social insurance programs will face financial difficulties in the future (although the dramatic slowing of increases in health costs makes even that proposition uncertain).” Healthcare costs dropped to 4.1% in 2014 but this is still more than double the inflation rate of 1.7%. This isn’t nearly good enough.
“Why, exactly, is it crucial that we deal with the threat of future benefit cuts by locking in plans to cut future benefits?” The point is to protect benefits, not curtail them. If we act now, to increase revenue and/or slow down the growth of entitlement spending, then we won’t have to cut future benefits.
“So why the urge to change the subject (from austerity) to structural reform? The answer, I’d suggest, is intellectual laziness and lack of moral courage.” $6 trillion added to our debt in the last six years is profligacy, not austerity. It is immoral to burden future generations with such massive new debt.
“In today’s economic and political environment, long-termism is a cop-out.” Preparing for the future is just plain common sense. Should we ignore festering problems like global warming, illegal immigration and increasing poverty until they get much worse? Of course not. We should address these problems now and get our debt under control at the same time.
The House Committee on Financial Services recently held a hearing on the topic “Why Debt Matters.” One of the speakers was David Cote, CEO of Honeywell International. He pointed out that the percentage of world GDP generated by the developed countries (the U.S., Western Europe, Canada and Japan) is predicted to decline from 41% in 2010 to 29% by 2030. High growth developing economies are expected to grow in GDP from 33% in 2010 to 47% in 2030. In order to compete in this new world we need an “American Competitiveness Agenda.”
Mr.Cote suggests eight components: debt reduction, infrastructure development, better math and science education, immigration reform, tort reform, stronger patent support, more energy generation and efficiency, and trade expansion. “To compete effectively on the increasingly competitive world stage, we have to have a strong balance sheet. We don’t have a strong balance sheet today and it will worsen over time with our current plan. … In 2025, just 11 years from now, we will be spending a trillion dollars a year just in interest.” And this is assuming no more recessions in the meantime! Our public debt level today, at 72% of GDP, is higher than at any time in our nation’s past, except for during World War II when the survival of the free world was at stake. And while public debt will be 78% of GDP in 2023, which might not sound much worse than today, it is also projected to be much higher, 99% of GDP, by 2033. Is this really the legacy that we want to leave for our children and grandchildren? Some people say that we should run even bigger deficits right now until we are fully recovered from the Great Recession. But this is what we’ve been doing for the past five years and it’s not working. How much longer do we wait until we change course?
It’s possible to shrink our deficits and speed up the growth of our economy both at the same time. This is what Mr. Cote is saying and what I am constantly talking about on this website!
In his usual provocative fashion, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman says that Republicans are “Enemies of the Poor” because “they’re deeply committed to the view that efforts to aid the poor are actually perpetuating poverty, by reducing incentives to work.” But the Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector has recently pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, “How the War on Poverty Was Lost”, that “the typical American living below the poverty line in 2013 lives in a house or apartment that is in good repair, equipped with air conditioning and cable TV. He has a car, multiple color TVs and a DVD player. The overwhelming majority of poor Americans are not undernourished and did not suffer from hunger for even one day of the previous year.” In fact we are now spending $600 billion a year of our $3.4 trillion federal budget and another $230 billion by the states to fight poverty. The poverty rate was 19% in 1964 and is 16% today (when government benefits are included).
Mr. Rector reminds us that “LBJ’s original aim (in initiating his antipoverty program) was to give poor Americans ‘opportunities, not doles’. It would attack not just the symptoms of poverty but, more important, remove the causes. By that standard, the war on poverty has been a catastrophe. The root ‘causes’ of poverty have not shrunk but expanded as family structure disintegrated and labor force participation among men dropped.”
So what should our poverty agenda look like going forward? We are already providing the basic necessities of life. Our future efforts should therefore be focused on improving the quality of life for the poor. This means more effective education and job training. It means more effort to keep families together by reducing marriage penalties. But most of all it means providing more opportunities for employment and job advancement. This requires faster economic growth. There are many ways to accomplish this. Back to square one!
The true enemies of the poor are those who refuse to accept the progress which has been made in the War on Poverty and the need to change our approach in order to make further progress.
The liberal economist Paul Krugman returns to one of his favorite topics in yesterday’s New York Times, “Why Inequality Matters”. “On average, Americans remain a lot poorer today than they were before the economic crisis. For the bottom 90 percent of families, this impoverishment reflects both a shrinking economic pie and a declining share of that pie.” The problem with Mr. Krugman’s analysis is that he offers no solution beyond more fiscal stimulus: “the premature return to fiscal austerity has done more than anything to hobble the recovery.” But there is another route to recovery and it is propounded in today’s Wall Street Journal by George Osborne, the United Kingdom’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, “How Britain Returned to Growth”. “We cut spending and top tax rates, and now deficits are down and jobs are being created at a healthy clip … at the rate of 60,000 per month, roughly equivalent to 300,000 in the U.S. … The corporate tax rate is being cut to 20% from 28%. … As a result, more international firms are moving their headquarters to Britain and investment is flowing into our country.”
Yes, as Mr. Krugman says, economic inequality in the U.S. is bad and getting worse. The question is what to do about it. Shall we try to improve the situation with artificial stimulation, increasing government debt, already very high, for future generations? Or shall we address this inequality by encouraging businesses to grow and expand and thereby raise wages and hire more people.
The good news is that America is the success story of the 20th century. The bad news is that everyone else in the world has figured this out and is now copying our own best methods. Either we can compete, innovate, stay on top and thrive, or else we can get lazy, stagnate and sink down in the pack.
Will it be more inequality or more growth? The choice is up to us!