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America’s fiscal problem is something we can fix only at the ballot box

Brad DeLong, professor of economics | February 16, 2011

“How close is America to fiscal crisis?” The London Economist asks: “The Congressional Budget Office projects that America’s 2011 deficit will be $1.5 trillion, or 9.8% of GDP, and debt held by the public in the 2011 fiscal year will approach 70% of GDP…”

I see a bunch of responses.

John Makin laments that “a a fiscal crisis—signalled by sharply higher borrowing costs for the United States government—probably won’t emerge” soon. Stephen King laments that “America’s fiscal arithmetic simply does not add up.” Scott Sumner laments that “our fiscal regime is becoming increasingly dysfunctional… radical reform would be quite helpful.” “The ingredients are in place for a crisis,” claims Peter Boone. “America is bankrupt,” claims Larry Kotlikoff.

These seem, to me at least, to completely miss the point.

Tom Gallagher, by contrast, seems to me to at least get his finger on a piece of the problem when he writes: “[W]hat the economy could use is a debate over medium-term entitlement and tax changes. Instead what it’s getting is a debate over near-term non-security discretionary spending.”

What is going on? What is our problem, really?

Start with Figure A-1 from the CBO’s 2010 Long-Term Budget Outlook:

This shows that America has a large short-term deficit now: we are still in a deep downturn, and as a result revenues are temporarily below trend and spending is temporarily above trend.

This also shows that, as the CBO projects in its current-law extended baseline, when the economy recovers revenues will rise and spending will decline, and from 2015 on the revenue line matches the total primary spending line.

Now our current deficit is not a problem: running a deficit during an economic downturn is healthy and appropriate. Our short-term deficit problem is that our deficit is not large enough given that if congress simply goes on autopilot the revenue and primary spending lines are likely to cross by themselves in four years.

And our long term projected spending and revenue balance is not a problem. There is no imbalance. Or, rather, there is no imbalance “if.” If the economy and if programs perform as expected, if the U.S. government continues to be able to finance its debt at a real interest rate less than the growth of labor productivity plus the labor force, and if congress and the president do not do anything further to raise spending above or decrease taxes below current law, the United States simply does not have a fundamental fiscal crisis.

The problems are all in the “ifs.” If people fear that there will be a fiscal crisis they could demand an interest rate premium for rolling over U.S. government debt, and then we would we have a non-fundamental fiscal crisis. Could we have one? Yes: the East Asian economies had one in 1997-1998. Had foreign investors not panic and fled, there would have been no problem. Those foreign investors who did not panic did well. Those who bailed themselves in at the bottom of the crisis did extremely well. But that was no consolation to the East Asian governments that faced the crisis, or to the East Asian workers rendered unemployed by the consequences of the crisis.

However, today there are no signs of any possibility of a collapse of foreign investor confidence in their U.S. Treasury holdings. A non-fundamental crisis is not even a cloud on the horizon.

But there are the other “ifs.”

The big “if” is, to put it simply, this: congress will pass something stupid and the president will sign. Congress might never come up with payfors for its recurrent AMT patches. Congress might remove the revenue raising parts of the Affordable Care Act. Congress  might remove the cost saving parts of the Affordable Care Act. The Supreme Court might decide, just for the hell of it, to rule that the cost saving parts of the Affordable Care Act are unconstitutional. Congress might pass a big unfunded tax-cut just for the hell of it. Congress might pass a big unfunded spending increase just for the hell of it.

All of these “if” are very real worries.

But none of them can be fixed by legislative action now.

No congress now can cement up the exits to keep some future congress from doing something really stupid.

And dinking around with cuts to non-security discretionary spending right now doesn’t do anything to help.

What is the solution to our long-run deficit problem? It is simply this: elect honorable and intelligent women and men to Congress. Elect representatives who will not pass unfunded tax cuts — as the Republicans did in 2001. Elect representatives who will not pass unfunded spending increases — as the Republicans did in 2003. Elect presidents who will promise at the start of their turns to veto legislative acts that do not meet long run paygo requirements. Choose supreme court justices who will not prostitute their high office for the short term political benefit of the party they happen to belong to — as the Republican justices did after the 2000 election.

Gee. I guess our long-run fiscal problem is really dire and insoluble.

Comments to “America’s fiscal problem is something we can fix only at the ballot box

  1. To my knowledge the maximum deficit allowed by law in the USA is 14 Trillion. When this limit is reached (and it has been) what happens? Does the IRS need to make new rules to allow it to be over 14 Trillion or does the Fed or the government etc have to reduce the debt by law? Or do they have to change the law (if they are allowed?)?

    What are your opinions?

  2. Howard L
    It makes you wonder when the pragmatism of FDR will be realized.

     In our seeking for economic and political progress, we all go up – or else we all go down.

     In politics, nothing happens by accident. If it happens, you can bet it was planned that way.

     It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.

    Words of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s wisdom?

  3. It takes extreme ignorance to put much faith in a 70 year budget projection. The CBO left out interest payments; couple that with our penchant to run deficits and uncertainties in interest rates that makes this no rosy scenario. Instead of determining if we are on a sustainable path using unrealistic projections, we might ask whether government should act as an agent of wealth transfer to this (or any) degree.

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