My last post noted that with our unemployment rate down to 4.2% and with median household income having increased by 3.2% in 2016, the emphasis now should be totally directed to addressing our number one long term problem:
Massive national debt. With a deficit of $668 billion for Fiscal Year 2017, our debt now stands at 77% of GDP (for the public part on which we pay interest), the highest it has been since the end of WWII. It is predicted by the Congressional Budget Office to go much higher without significant changes in current policy.
Obviously our annual deficits are way too large and we need to shrink them dramatically. One way to start doing this is to speed up economic growth which will increase tax revenue especially by creating more jobs and better paying jobs. Faster economic growth is quite feasible and this is one of the main goals of tax reform, now being considered by Congress. But it needs to increase growth without increasing the deficit which is entirely doable.
But there is another big reason for revenue neutral tax reform as well. The dollar has depreciated by 10% in 2017 while the stock market has increased by 13%. The S&P price-earnings ratio has risen to 30 at present which is way above average. All of this means that we are in a loose money financial bubble. For Congress to make our annual deficits worse than they already are, with deficit increasing tax reform, would make this bubble even bigger and therefore be highly irresponsible.
Conclusion. When interest rates return to much higher normal levels, as they inevitably will, interest payments on our debt will grow dramatically and cause a huge budget crunch. If ignored, this situation will eventually lead to a new fiscal crisis, much worse than the Financial Crisis of 2008.
With the unemployment rate now down to 4.2% and household incomes having recently reached an all-time high, the first order of government business should be:
Fiscal responsibility which means to start reducing the size of the national debt, which is now 77% of GDP (for the public part on which we pay interest), the highest since the end of WWII. The only practical way to do this is to begin to shrink the size of our annual deficits from the very high level of almost $700 billion for the 2017 Fiscal Year which just ended on September 30.
A responsible budget for the 2018 Fiscal Year can have a deficit of at most $500 billion which amounts to 2.5% of our total GDP of $20 trillion. A realistic forecast for economic growth in the coming year is 2.5% of GDP which means that a deficit for the 2018 FY of $500 billion would at least not increase our debt as a percentage of GDP.
Budgets for later years need to actually shrink (not just hold steady) the debt. The goal should be to decrease annual deficits down close to zero which would mean achieving a balanced budget. The Congressional Budget Office projects that the cumulative deficits will climb by $10 trillion over the next ten years under current policy, pushing the debt up to 91% of GDP in 2027.
Tax reform, to be considered next by Congress, is likely to stall if it is not pursued within a sensible fiscal policy just as healthcare reform stalled last summer. Sensible tax reform, both growth enhancing and revenue neutral, is quite doable and will make the debt problem that much easier to solve.
Conclusion. It cannot be emphasized too strongly that our rapidly growing debt puts us in a dire fiscal bind. We must change policy significantly and soon or else we will put our prized liberty and prosperity in grave danger.
Not only is Washington politics already hyper-partisan, but both parties are continuing to move to even greater extremes, see here and here.
Here are two examples of extreme positions now being espoused by major elements of one or the other of the two parties:
Single payer healthcare. The failure of the GOP effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act this past summer means that (the goal of) universal healthcare is here to stay. The ACA expands access to healthcare but does nothing to control costs. Single payer, Medicare for All, would control costs but then we end up with socialized medicine. The only way to establish a cost efficient free market healthcare system is to remove, or at least limit, the tax exemption for employer provided care and to set up high deductible catastrophic care supplemented by health savings accounts to pay for routine expenses. This would compel everyone to pay close attention to the cost of their own healthcare.
Tax cuts instead of tax reform. Tax reform, i.e. lowering both corporate and individual tax rates, paid for by closing loopholes and shrinking deductions, is an excellent way to speed up economic growth and thereby create more and better paying jobs. But it is imperative to do this in a revenue neutral manner, i.e. without increasing our annual deficits. Our debt (the public part on which we pay interest) now stands at 77% of GDP, the highest it has been since the end of WWII, and is predicted by the Congressional Budget Office to keep getting larger without major changes in public policy.
Conclusion. The U.S. badly needs a more cost efficient healthcare system and a simpler and more efficient tax system. But there are right ways and wrong ways to do both of these things. Single payer healthcare and (unpaid for) tax rate cuts are the wrong way to proceed. In each case, no action at all is much better than getting it wrong.
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!
In my last post I made the case that the two fundamental principles for effective tax reform are:
Faster economic growth, to create more jobs and bigger pay raises.
Revenue neutrality, since more debt at this time is just too risky.
And then I went on to suggest the specific changes in the tax code which would achieve these goals:
Reducing the corporate tax rate to approximately 20%.
Full expensing for business investment replacing depreciation spread out over many years.
Simplification of rules for individuals such as fewer tax rates and fewer credits.
Achieving revenue neutrality by eliminating as many deductions as necessary to pay for the above tax rate cuts.
There are different ways to accomplish all this and I recently described one attractive plan put together by the Tax Foundation. The Republican Congressional Leadership (Big Six) has proposed a different plan which has been analyzed by the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. Unfortunately CRFB concludes that this plan will cost $2.2 trillion over ten years in lost revenue. But it could be modified in the following ways to become revenue neutral:
The mortgage interest deduction is maintained but limited to one dwelling and $500,000, down from the current limit of two homes and $1 million.
The tax exemption for employer provided health insurance is limited. This not only increases tax revenue but also forces the 150 million Americans who receive health insurance from their employer to take an active role in holding down the cost of healthcare.
Drop the proposal of establishing a maximum “pass through” rate of 25% for business owners. Any such proposal would be subject to wide spread abuse. Businesses would be benefitting from the full expensing provision above and their owners should pay taxes at the same rates as everyone else.
Keep the estate tax until annual deficits are greatly reduced. It only brings in $20 billion per year but every little bit helps.
Conclusion. These common sense changes in the Big Six plan would make it revenue neutral and still capable of achieving a significant boost to the economy.
I have been criticizing the Republican Congress lately for straying from fundamentals in attempting to reform healthcare and tax policy. What are the fundamentals for tax reform? In my opinion they are:
Faster economic growth. The economy has averaged only 2% annual growth since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009. The unemployment rate has slowly fallen to the current 4.4% level and a labor shortage is now developing. But wage gains for the broad middle class and especially blue collar workers have been minimal. Faster growth will put pressure on employers to raise wages faster to acquire the skilled workers they need.
Revenue neutrality. With the public debt (on which we pay interest) now 77% of GDP, the highest since the end of WWII, and predicted by the Congressional Budget Office to keep getting steadily worse without major changes in policy, it would be the height of irresponsibility for Congress to approve tax changes which increase our annual deficits.
Given these two basic principles, what should be the specific changes made to tax law? Here are my priorities:
Lowering the corporate tax rate from its current level of 35% to a competitive level, approximately 20%, with other developed countries. This would be a huge incentive for our multinational corporations to bring their foreign profits back home.
Full expensing for business investment is allowed, replacing depreciation over a period of years, to speed up new investment.
Simplification of the rules for individuals, such as with fewer tax rates and fewer credits, so that fewer errors will be made and a greater proportion of true tax liabilities will be collected.
Create revenue neutrality for the above tax rate cuts by eliminating, or at least shrinking, many deductions and closing loopholes.
Conclusion. Tax reform will be highly beneficial for the economy if it is done correctly. This means ignoring many of the special interest provisions which have also been suggested for conclusion. I will discuss these in my next post.
Granted that it is hard to implement good policy with a populist President like Donald Trump who is most interested in stirring up his base, nevertheless the Republican Congress is making some serious policy mistakes:
Healthcare. The GOP should accept the fact that universal healthcare is a desirable societal goal and is here to stay. The Graham-Cassidy bill is bad policy because some states, such as debt-ridden Illinois, can’t possibly handle healthcare on their own. The fact that the ACA needs operational fixes gives the Republicans leverage for insisting on cost lowering changes in a bipartisan bill.
Tax Reform. The GOP should focus on the most serious problems in our tax system. The complexity of the tax code is partly responsible for the fact that taxes paid lag true tax liabilities by an estimated 16% or $406 billion per year. As an example of waste, the IRS has paid out $132 billion in EITC benefits over the last decade to people who were ineligible.
Our uncompetitive corporate tax rate of 35% encourages multinational companies to leave their profits overseas rather than bringing them back home for reinvestment. Even so, corporate tax revenue as a share of GDP is less than in most other developed countries.
Republicans claim to be the party of fiscal responsibility and should therefore be highly uncomfortable with any tax plan which reduces federal revenue and increases our already very large annual deficits. With a low unemployment rate of 4.4%, any additional artificial (deficit financed) fiscal stimulus is likely to kick off a new round of inflation.
Conclusion. Republicans have a relatively short window of opportunity to enact policy changes beneficial for the country. They need to get serious about what is really important before time runs out.