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!
As Congress turns its attention to tax reform, there is a clear bipartisan consensus on the fundamental principles to employ, see here, here, here, and here.
Promote growth and increase wages for working families
Modernize our outdated business and international tax system.
Rely on reasonable economic assumptions
Make sure that any rewrite of the tax code is revenue neutral
The Tax Foundation has outlined several different approaches to tax reform which meet the above guidelines. Their Option A is especially attractive:
The corporate tax is reduced to 22.5% and full expensing for business investment is allowed.
GDP increases by 7.1% long term which translates to a .7% increase per year for ten years, which is substantial economic growth.
All income groups, except for the top 1%, will see an after-tax increase in income.
Individual Tax brackets are consolidated into the three rates of 12%, 20.5% and 37% and the standard deduction is nearly doubled (from $6350 to $12,000).
All itemized deductions are eliminated except for home mortgage interest (limited to $500,000) and charitable contributions.
Capital gains and dividends are taxed as ordinary income with individuals being allowed to deduct 40% of qualified dividends and long-term capital gains.
The estate tax is eliminated.
This tax plan is revenue neutral on a static basis.
Conclusion. There are many attractive features in this plan. Being revenue neutral, with strong economic growth, means that the increase in tax revenue will shrink our huge current annual deficits. Only the very wealthy top 1% of taxpayers will see their income (slightly) decreased. The substantial decrease in the corporate tax rate will incentivize multinational corporations to bring their overseas profits back home for reinvestment.
Congress has just postponed the debt ceiling until December 8 but at least they didn’t repeal it. It is crucial to retain regular and explicit debt ceilings as a reminder of the urgency of putting our debt on a downward course (as a percentage of GDP).
As a reminder:
The debt now stands at 77% of GDP (for the public part on which we pay interest), the highest it has been since right after WWII. The $15 trillion public debt right now is essentially “free” money because interest rates are so low. But interest rates will inevitably return to more normal, and higher, historical levels and, when this happens, interest payments on the debt will skyrocket.
The entitlementprograms of Social Security. Medicare and Medicaid are the drivers of our debt problem because their costs are increasing so rapidly. Medicaid costs the federal government almost $400 billion per year. Medicare costs the federal government $400 billion per year more than it receives in FICA taxes and premiums paid.
The attached chart demonstrates the scope and urgency of the problem. By 2032, just fifteen years from now, all federal tax revenues will be required to pay for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and interest payments on the debt. This means that all of ordinary discretionary spending: on defense, various government operations and social welfare programs will be paid for entirely from new deficit spending and, in the process, will almost inevitably suffer huge cutbacks. The lower-income and poor people, who are the most reliant on government programs to get by, will be the most adversely affected.
Conclusion. Such a dreary scenario of drastically tightened government spending does not have to occur. It can be avoided by immediately starting to make sensible curtailments, not actual spending cuts, all along the line. Do our national leaders have the common sense and fortitude to do this?
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!