The general theme of this blog is major fiscal and economic issues facing the U.S. such as slow economic growth and huge debt. But our currently low unemployment rate of 4.4% and several trends, here and here, suggest that economic growth may already be starting to pick up.
This means that our huge debt, now 77%, for the public part on which we pay interest, the highest it has been since right after WWII, is now one of the very biggest problems facing our country.
The only practical way to “solve” our debt problem (so to speak) is for each year’s annual deficit to be less than economic growth for that year. When this happens, then the debt will decrease as a percentage of GDP. If this pattern were to hold year after year, then debt would continue to shrink. This is exactly what happened from 1946 until about 1980 but since then the pattern has reversed and the debt has increased. It has grown especially fast since the financial crisis in 2008 (see chart).
The Fiscal Year 2017 deficit is $700 billion out of a total GDP of $20 trillion, which computes to 3.5% of GDP, well above the 2% annual growth of GDP for the 2017 FY. This means that our debt got worse in 2017.
Congress has already approved $15 billion in disaster relief for Hurricane Harvey. Now the White House is asking for $29 billion more ($12.8 billion for new disaster relief, especially for Puerto Rico, and $16 billion for the National Flood Insurance Program). Congress has also approved a big increase in the Defense Budget, to $700 billion, for the 2018 FY.
Congress will soon be approving a budget for 2018 and then start working on a tax reform package. Given the likely increases in both military spending and disaster relief described above, it is now even more important for the new budget to show overall spending restraint and for the tax reform package to be revenue neutral.
Conclusion. Let’s hope that Congress gets the message about the new urgency of our debt problem and acts accordingly!
The newly released Trump budget for Fiscal Year 2018 claims that it will lead to a balanced budget in ten years. This is a highly desirable goal. However the projected $4.5 trillion in spending cutbacks for many popular programs, as well as the projected 3% GDP growth for the next ten years, are both unrealistically optimistic. Nevertheless, at least the Trump Administration is moving in the right direction.
Here is a good summary by Donald Marron in National Affairs of why it is so important to keep deficits and debt under control:
Prolonged deficits and mounting debt will undermine economic growth by interfering with investment in the private sector.
Prolonged deficits risk fueling inflation as the government lowers the value of the dollar by printing more of them.
High levels of debt held by foreign lenders put us at the mercy of foreign countries.
The growing debt exposes America to greater “rollover” risk with the increasing reliance on short term debt which frequently has to be rolled over.
Rising debt limits flexibility for increased spending in times of recession or other emergency. For example, when the Financial Crisis occurred in 2008, the debt level was just half of its current level. This meant the government could risk higher deficit spending in order to stimulate the economy.
Deficits have an unfortunate tendency to feed on themselves. Our current deficit level of approximately $500 billion per year is so large that it can only be significantly reduced with great pain. The only possible way to make deficit reduction politically feasible is to spread this pain widely amongst the public as shared sacrifice. This will be very hard to do.
Deficits and debt are grossly unfair to future generations who are stuck with servicing the debt and/or struggling to pay it down.
Conclusion. The Trump Administration recognizes the strong need to get deficits and debt under control. Unfortunately its current budget just submitted is not a realistic plan to get this done.
Tax Day is a good time to remind ourselves about our perilous fiscal situation. With a public debt (on which we pay interest) of $13 trillion and with annual deficits of just under $500 billion adding to the debt each year, we have a huge problem which is not being adequately addressed by Congress. The solution is to either raise taxes or cut spending or do a combination of both. Is it feasible to raise taxes, presumably on the rich? The problem in doing this is that our tax code is already very progressive as indicated by the above chart. The top 20% already pay 84% of all income taxes. It’s just not feasible to expect to be able to raise their taxes by a very large amount. In addition, Middle- and lower-income people are in a tight fiscal situation, because of the slow economy, and can hardly be expected to see their own taxes increase. The alternative to raising taxes is to cut spending and there are many opportunities to do this. The organization Citizens Against Government Waste has just identified a collection of government programs whose elimination would save $639 billion in the first year alone. Taxpayers for Common Sense has a long list of potential spending cuts which would save $267 billion in the first year.
Amazingly, neither of these lists of possible cuts includes any mention of entitlement programs. Before very long, major savings in entitlement programs must certainly be achieved in order to put the federal government on a sustainable fiscal course.
In fact, spending should be trimmed all across the board, wherever possible, in order to get our annual deficits on a steadily downward course. It is critical for this process to get under way as soon as possible and to continue until fiscal balance is achieved by entirely eliminating deficit spending altogether.