From a reader of my blog: I think he is too flawed, self-centered and sociopathic to accomplish much. I believe that tax reform will become tax cuts for the wealthy (no inheritance tax, etc.) and dealing with budget deficits will not happen. I know you think Trump will be contained by the conservative members of Congress. The Republicans seem unwilling to confront him or speak out as long as his base continues to be very loyal. I think he is so wounded now that it will be hard to accomplish much.
Granted that Donald Trump is hopelessly ensnared in controversy and incapable of changing his ways, he still has many opportunities to do something positive. For example regarding our extremely serious debt problem, he could focus on:
Coming up with a budget that reduces the debt path. No one expects the budget to be balanced in one year. Last year’s Republican plan would have taken ten years to get the job done. The important thing is to clearly move in this direction.
Focusing healthcare reform on cost control. Give the Democrats credit for expanding healthcare access with the Affordable Care Act. But now focus on reining in the cost of healthcare in America.
Enacting fiscally responsible tax reform. Most people agree that the tax code is a complicated mess and, especially, that the corporate tax rate is too high. There are many ways to achieve lower tax rates and simplification in a revenue neutral way.
Stop digging the debt hole deeper by just adding new initiatives. There will always be attractive new programs which are worth pursuing. But in adding them to the federal budget, other programs which are no longer effective need to be phased out.
Reforming entitlements such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. These are the big drivers of national debt. Without entitlement reform, all other efforts to restrain federal spending will be insufficient.
Conclusion. There is nothing easy about pursuing the above agenda. Implementing it will be highly controversial with lots of vociferous opposition. It will take strong leadership to push it through. But it represents a huge opportunity for a controversial president to do something worthwhile.
The whole world is watching while Greece decides between two unpleasant alternatives. Will it further tighten its belt in order to stay in the Eurozone? Or will it default on its massive debt, reintroduce the drachma and go through a severe recession likely accompanied by hyperinflation? Greece has put itself into this precarious position by accumulating a debt of 180% of GDP. It’s current situation would be much worse if it were not getting by with the low interest rate of 1.7% from the European Central Bank. Compare Greece (see chart above) with the U.S. debt situation. Our current public debt (on which we pay interest) is 74% of GDP. This is the highest it has been since the end of WWII. And, thanks to Federal Reserve policy, we are now paying an historically low interest rate of 1.7% on this debt.
The problem is that (under current policy) our debt will keep growing larger and larger until, by 2080, it would reach the enormous level of 270 % of GDP. Our very low interest rate level of 1.7% will almost surely rise in the near future to a more normal level of 5%. As interest rates do begin to rise, and long before the debt reaches 270%, interest payments on the debt will have increased to a much higher level, crowding out other spending.
Notice that, according to the above chart, our debt will reach the Greek level of 180% around the year 2055. But with higher interest rates, it would be exceedingly reckless to assume that we won’t arrive at Greece’s currently perilous state much sooner than that.
Understanding that we have a very serious long term debt problem, it is imperative to begin to address it now, because the longer we wait:
the older our population gets
the higher the debt will rise
the less time we’ll have to phase in changes
the slower our economy will grow, and
the fewer tools we will have to fix it
The answer to the question in the title is: Yes, we could easily end up like Greece if we are foolish enough to postpone action on our own debt problem for much longer.
As I have mentioned before, I am a volunteer for the nonpartisan Washington D.C. think tank “Fix the Debt.” As such I give presentations to civic organizations in the Omaha area about our debt problem and what we can and should do about it. I have now given four such talks and have another one coming up next week.
What is most difficult for me is to try to convey a sense of urgency about addressing this problem. Most people deplore deficit spending in a general sense but not nearly enough people think that dealing with it should take priority over current presumably pressing spending needs such as, for example, depletion of the highway trust fund, expanding military spending, or improving early childhood education, just to be specific.
So here is how I am going to try to create a greater sense of urgency. Several months ago I had a post entitled, “The Slow Growth Fiscal Trap We’re Now In” in which I said (in brief summary) that our current economic condition of
slow growth means
low inflation which leads to
low interest rates which in turn leads to
massive debt which eventually leads to a new and much more severe
This is the predicament we’re now in. Do we consciously maintain a slow growth economy, with all the unemployment pain and stagnant wages which this entails, or do we speed things up, enabling more people to go back to work, and also deal with the higher inflation and interest rates which this will entail?
Faster growth may well eventually come on its own anyway and then we’ll be forced to fix our fiscal problems at a time when they’ll be much worse than they are now.
Isn’t it clear that it is much better to act now in a responsible manner rather than to wait and have to react hurridly later on when the problem is much worse?
As I reported earlier, I am a volunteer for Fix the Debt, the outreach arm for the Washington DC think tank, Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. I recently attended a workshop in D.C. put on by Fix the Debt and, in return, I have agreed to make presentations about our debt problem to local organizations during the coming year. Today I gave my first such talk to a local Kiwanis Club. The message is that a large debt means:
Lower Wages and Fewer Job Opportunities. The growing debt “crowds out” productive investments in people, machinery, technology and new ventures. For example, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the average wage in 25 years will be $7000 lower if debt is on an upward path compared to a downward path (see above chart).
Increased Costs of Home, Auto, Student and Credit Card Loans. Although interest rates are currently low, they will almost certainly rise as the economy recovers, and they will rise much higher if debt continues to grow.
Less Room for Investment in Infrastructure, Research, and the Next Generation. The CBO projects that interest costs will nearly quadruple from $220 billion in 2013 to $800 billion in 2025. By 2030, 100% of all revenue will go towards interest payments and mandatory spending.
A Threatened Social Security Net. Both Social Security and Medicare are on a road to insolvency. By 2033 both Medicare’s hospital insurance trust fund and the Social Security trust fund will run out of money.
An Increased Likelihood of a New Fiscal Crisis. If investors lose confidence in our ability to service debt, there will be tanking markets, sharply rising interest rates, mass unemployment and rapid inflation.
A Missed Opportunity to Grow the Economy. Debt reduction, tax reform and modest entitlement reforms have the potential to increase economic growth by 9.5% by 2035. Think of all the new jobs this would create!
Do you belong to a club or other civic organization in metro Omaha which brings in outside speakers? If so I’d be happy to bring Fix the Debt’s message to your group. Shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Recently I have had several posts about our national debt, for example, “Why the National Debt Is Such a Threat to the U.S.,” showing graphically that our current public debt at 74% of GDP is very high by historical standards and rising rapidly under current fiscal policies. Yesterday I attended a workshop in Washington D.C. put on by Fix the Debt. All expenses were paid and, in return, the attendees agree to make at least three presentations to local community groups during the following year. This means that I will soon be sending out a letter to such groups as Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs around the Omaha area where I live, offering my services as a speaker at one of their meetings. The purpose is to build more public awareness of the threat of a huge and growing national debt to the long-term welfare of our country. Here is a summary of talking points from the workshop:
The deficit for the 2013-2014 fiscal year is almost $500 billion.
Under current fiscal policies the debt will increase to 270% of GDP by 2080.
Reasons for our debt problem:
An aging population which means expanded Social Security spending
Healthcare costs are growing for both Medicare and Medicaid
Interest costs will grow rapidly as the economy recovers and interest rates rise
All bipartisan reform plans call for both spending cuts and revenue increases.
The benefits of taking action are:
Increased budget flexibility
Lower exposure to changes in interest rates
Reduced risk of another financial crisis
The longer we wait:
The older our population gets
The higher the debt will rise
The less time we have to phase in changes
The slower our economy will grow
The fewer tools we will have to fix it
How do we bring debt under control?
Enact policies that grow the economy
Health care cost containment
Tax reform and tax expenditure cuts
Let me know if you’d like a speaker on this topic at your club!
In my last post I discussed several commonly held myths about the national debt, along the line that it is a fairly minor problem that can easily be solved sometime in the future if we decide that it is important enough to do so. The above chart shows that the debt is already very large by historical standards and that it is projected (by the Congressional Budget Office) to just keep getting worse if we continue on our current path of excessive borrowing to pay our bills.
The national organization, “Fix the Debt” lays out very clearly the reasons why our ever-growing debt level is so harmful:
It causes lower wages and fewer job opportunities. The debt will “crowd out” productive investments in people, technology and new ventures. The CBO estimates that wages will grow more slowly if debt is on an upward path compared to a downward path. This will amount to an average $7000 wage cut 25 years from now in the year 2040.
It leaves less room for investment in infrastructure, research and the next generation. A growing debt means higher interest payments. The CBO projects that interest payments could nearly quadruple from $220 billion in 2013 to about $800 billion in 2024. That leaves far less for investments in education, infrastructure, research, etc.
It increases the likelihood of a fiscal crisis. Failure to get the national debt under control could precipitate a crisis where investors are no longer willing to loan money to the government at affordable rates. This could mean large investment losses, tanking markets, mass unemployment, rapid inflation, etc.
It means a missed opportunity to grow the economy. Deficit reduction legislation presents an opportunity to enact pro-growth tax reform, improve programs to reward work, re-orient spending to important investments, and capture the economic benefits of putting the debt on a sustainable path.
Let’s hope and pray that our national leaders appreciate the urgent nature of the debt problem and have the political courage to do something serious about it!
The deficit for fiscal year 2014-2015 just ended is “only” $483 billion, about 2.7% of current GDP, and some observers are saying this means that our deficit and debt problems are now under control and we should stop fretting so much about them. There is a nonpartisan outfit in Washington DC, “Fix the Debt,” which focuses on this very problem and they’re saying not so fast. In their document, “Common Myths about the Debt,” they debunk several false impressions about the national debt:
Myth: Deficit levels are falling and therefore debt is no longer a concern.
Fact: Over the next decade our debt is on track to grow about $8 trillion (see above chart). Its growth will accelerate after 2018 and will exceed the size of the entire economy by 2035.
Myth: Deficit reduction is just code for austerity which will ultimately hurt the economy. Fact: A comprehensive and gradual deficit reduction plan can replace austerity with targeted and pro-growth reforms which promote economic recovery and accelerate long-term wage growth.
Myth: Deficit reduction will harm low-income and vulnerable populations.
Fact: Every recent bipartisan deficit reduction plan has included progressive reforms that ask more from those who can afford it and protect low-income programs.
Myth: The debt can be solved with faster economic growth.
Fact: Economic growth must be part of the solution, but it can’t solve the debt problem alone. Productivity growth would have to be 50% higher over the next quarter century just to hold debt to its current record-high levels.
Myth: Taxing the wealthy more will solve the debt problem.
Fact: Our debt problems are too large, and the top 1% too few, to solve the entire problem by raising taxes on the wealthy.
Conclusion: Our debt problem is so large that it can only be solved by stern measures, such as tax reform, including reducing tax breaks, and also spending reform to slow the growth of entitlement programs. Stay tuned for further discussion of this critical problem!