Category Archives: Debt

Why We Have a Debt Problem, Part 23

By James Kwak

So, we have eleven aircraft carrier groups. No other country in the world has more than one. Everyone who has looked at the issue has agreed that we could do with fewer than eleven while still achieving our national security goals: Bush/Obama Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Obama Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and think tanks on the left and the right.

But apparently we can’t retire even one–even though we would save not just the annual operating costs, but most of the $4.7 billion it will cost to refurbish over the next five years. Instead, the Obama Administration has promised the Pentagon that it can simply have more money and not comply with the spending limits set in the 2011 debt ceiling agreement (and modified by Murray-Ryan).

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New “Debt for Beginners” Section

By James Kwak

I created a new “Debt for Beginners” page on the White House Burning website. It’s a collection of previous articles, mainly written for a general audience, on deficits, the national debt, government spending, taxes, and the politics thereof. It’s intended as a starting point for people who want to get up to speed on these issues.

Loyal readers are probably familiar with all the material already.

Correction to Long-Term Debt Projections

By James Kwak

Back in October, I wrote a post laying out my long-term projections for the national debt, which were basically an adjustment to existing CBO projections. Peter Berezin recently pointed out a misleading ambiguity in that post. There, I used the same long-term growth rate of tax revenues in both my extended-baseline scenario and in my “realistic” scenarios. I got that long-term growth rate from the CBO’s extended baseline scenario in its 2011 Long-Term Budget Outlook, which assumes that current law remains unchanged.

In my realistic scenarios, I assumed that the AMT would be adjusted through 2021 but that the long-term growth rate would apply thereafter. I didn’t say anything explicitly about the AMT after 2021, but by using the long-term growth rate from the extended baseline, I was implicitly assuming that the AMT would not be indexed after 2021.

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Can We Afford Medicare?

By James Kwak

The conventional wisdom, repeated endlessly by the so-called serious people, is that we can’t afford traditional Medicare and hence it has to be radically overhauled (see Ryan-Wyden for the latest round). But I’ve never seen a convincing argument for why we can’t afford traditional Medicare. Yes, costs are rising as a share of GDP. But in principle, to make the case that we have to reform the program, you would have to argue that revenues can’t rise enough to keep pace—which in most cases, just shows that you don’t want revenues to rise enough.

More specifically, you have to know how big the Medicare deficit is and how fast it is rising. By my calculations, relying mainly on the 2011 Medicare Trustee’s report, the deficit was 1.7% of GDP in 2010 and will be 3.0% of GDP in 2040. So the argument that we can’t afford traditional Medicare relies on the proposition that this 1.3% of GDP is the straw that will break America’s fiscal back. Needless to say, this is nonsense, especially since other tax revenues not related to Medicare will be rising over the same time period, at least under current law. For all the details and sources, see my latest Atlantic column.

Medicare has its problems. But we have choices.

Baseline Scenario Goes Glossy

By James Kwak

Simon and I wrote an article for the November issue of Vanity Fair about—well, about a lot of things. It’s about the eighteenth-century rivalry between Great Britain and France, the lessons of the American Revolutionary War, the Hamilton-Jefferson debates (again), and the War of 1812. It’s also about present-day fiscal policy and budgetary politics. The main question we take up is what the Founding Fathers (from the Constitutional Convention through their involvement in the War of 1812) thought about a strong central government, the national debt, and the taxes necessary to pay for them, and what that means for today. All that in less than 3,000 words, so there isn’t a lot of room for all the details.

You can read the article online here.

How Big Is the Long-Term Debt Problem?

By James Kwak

Articles about the deficits and the national debt generally talk about unsustainable long-term deficits that will drive the national debt up to a level where scary things happen. Sensible commentators usually acknowledge that our current deficits are a sideshow and the real problems happen in the 2020s and 2030s due to modestly increasing Social Security outlays and rapidly increasing health care spending. I admit that this has generally been my line as well; for example, in a previous post I said that the ten-year deficit problem is entirely a product of extending the Bush tax cuts, but that even if we let them expire things will get worse over the next two decades.

But looking at the numbers, it’s not clear that the long-term picture is really that bad. Here I’ll lay out the numbers, and then, as they say on Fox News, you can decide. The summary is the chart above; the details are below.

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Should Social Security Be Progressive?

By James Kwak

My earlier rant on the Social Security wage base made me think of a more important question (actually, I was already thinking of it, hence the need to Google the earnings cap): Should Social Security be more progressive than it already is? The most common ways liberals want to make it more progressive are (a) eliminating the cap on taxable earnings altogether and (b) reducing benefits for high earners. For part of my brain the automatic answer is “yes,” but I think there is a reasonable argument for leaving things roughly the way they are.

First, there’s a straight-up political argument. Social Security is popular because people feel like they earn their benefits. If people thought it was a covert redistribution program, then the high earners would definitely be against it, and most of the middle class probably would be too because of the American allergy to welfare. In fact, there are certainly people who think it is “pure welfare”, like the author of the post I criticized last time around. But it isn’t:

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