Tag Archives: budget deficit

Who Cares About the National Debt?

By James Kwak

Not Greg Mankiw. Or, to be precise, not “Republicans.”

This past weekend Mankiw wrote a column for the Times laying out the arguments for a carbon tax. They are so well known and so obviously correct that I won’t bother repeating them. (A tradable permit system could work equally well, depending on how it is designed.)

In addition, many people think that the national debt is a serious long-term problem. A carbon tax (or a tradable permit system where permits are auctioned off) would obviously bring in revenue. In White House Burning, we estimated this at about 0.7–0.9 percent of GDP by the early 2020s (citing Metcalf, Stavins, and the CBO).

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The Debt Ceiling Confrontation Is Playing With Fire

 By Simon Johnson

Congressional Republicans are again threatening not to increase the ceiling on the amount of federal government debt that can be issued. On Wednesday, they agreed to postpone this particular piece of the fiscal confrontation, but only until May. The decision to turn the debt ceiling into some form of showdown is a big mistake for the Republicans — and dragging out the indecision is likely to prolong the agony of uncertainty and have damaging economic consequences for the country.

I made these points at a hearing on Tuesday of the House Ways and Means Committee, but unfortunately the Republican majority seems determined to persevere with its destabilizing strategy. (The hearing can be viewed on C-SPAN’s Web site; see the playlist on the right.) Continue reading

The One-Sided Deficit Debate

By James Kwak

Michael Hiltzik (hat tip Mark Thoma) wrote a column lamenting the domination of the government deficit debate by the wealthy. He clearly has a point. The fact that Simpson-Bowles—which uses its mandate of deficit reduction to call for . . . lower tax rates?—has become widely perceived as a centrist starting-point for discussion is clear evidence of how far to the right the inside-the-Beltway discourse has shifted, both over time and relative to the preferences of the population as a whole.

What’s more, the “consensus” of the self-styled “centrists” is what now makes the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 seem positively reasonable. With Simpson-Bowles and Domenici-Rivlin both calling for tax rates below those established in 2001, George W. Bush now looks like a moderate; even many Democrats now endorse the Bush tax cuts for families making up to $250,000 per year, which is still a lot of money (for most people, at least).

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Someone Is Wrong In The Times*

By James Kwak

James Stewart has doubled down on his infatuation with Paul Ryan. Ryan’s budget, he says, is a viable centrist starting point for budget negotiations, and attacks from “left and right” are mere “partisan rhetoric.”

This is several different kinds of crazy. First, Stewart repeats his belief that Ryan’s plan would increase taxes on investment income. But that belief has no basis other than Stewart’s own belief that it would be a good idea. As I pointed out before, Ryan’s own budget argues against raising taxes on capital gains and dividends. The only thing Stewart can find is Ryan’s apple-pie platitudes about the need for tax reform. But Ryan’s own vision of tax reform, as evidenced by his budget’s own words, doesn’t include higher capital gains taxes. (In addition, as a signatory to the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, Ryan is sworn to “oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rate for individuals and business.” That sounds to me like it includes the capital gains tax rate, which is a marginal income rate.) This is further evidence of columnists’ ability to project their own fantasies onto Paul Ryan’s handsome face.

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The Impossibility of Defense Cuts

By James Kwak

Apparently the thing we need to keep ourselves safe is a fast, lightweight ship that can sweep mines, launch helicopters, fight submarines, and perform other assorted duties—but can’t withstand heavy combat. I don’t claim to know if we really need the Littoral Combat Ship to ensure our national security. According to an article in the Times, John McCain—the Republican Party’s last presidential nominees and one of the Navy’s more famous veterans—is critical, although other Republicans and the administration are in favor of it.

I do know that the Littoral Combat Ship is a classic example of why it’s so hard to reduce budget deficits. You have local politicians who want the jobs. You have a large group of representatives who are reflexively pro-military and will vote for anything the Pentagon wants, and even things the Pentagon doesn’t want. (You have Mitt Romney, who bemoans the fact that the Navy has only 285 ships, the fewest since 1917. Would he rather have the Royal Navy of 1812, which had 1,000 ships, or our navy, with eleven aircraft carrier groups—while no other country has more than one?) You have a procurement and development process that stretches on for years so that even when a weapons system turns out to be a dud, it has to be kept alive because it’s too big to fail—there is no other alternative. Both the Center for American Progress and the Project on Governmental Oversight have recommended cutbacks in the Littoral program. Yet there is no practical way to check its momentum.

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How Long Can We Finance the Debt?

By James Kwak

Everyone should know by now that the Treasury Department can borrow money at historically low rates. That is a major reason why some very smart economists think that the federal government should borrow more money in the short term (i.e., this year and next) and use that money to boost economic growth.

In the medium term (say, the next decade), however, the big question is how long we will be able to finance new government borrowing at such low rates. Today’s low rates are a product of several factors. One is certainly the slow rate of economic growth, in particular the depressed housing market, which has reduced demand for credit. But another factor is the Federal Reserve’s aggressive moves to keep long-term interest rates down; another is foreign central banks’ appetite for Treasuries.

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The Fetishization of Balance

By James Kwak

I generally don’t bother reading Thomas Friedman. A good friend gave me a copy of The World Is Flat, and I started reading it. Somewhere in the first one hundred pages Friedman has an extended discussion of workflow software (as a key enabler of globalization) and I realized that he knew absolutely nothing about workflow software, so I stopped reading it and gave it away.

Another friend pointed out Friedman’s op-ed in the Times earlier this week in which he argues for “grand bargains” and “balanced” solutions to, well, all of our problems. For example, he says, “We need a proper balance between government spending on nursing homes and nursery schools — on the last six months of life and the first six months of life.” Despite the nice ring, that’s about as empty a statement as you can make about public policy.

But this is the one that really confused me (and my friend):

“The first is a grand bargain to fix our long-term structural deficit by phasing in $1 in tax increases, via tax reform, for every $3 to $4 in cuts to entitlements and defense over the next decade.”

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Denial or Principle?

By James Kwak

I wanted to make a belated return to Binyamin Appelbaum and Robert Gebeloff’s article on reluctant safety net beneficiaries.  Earlier this week I argued that their framing of an expanding safety net that has spread from the poor to the middle class is wrong, but otherwise the themes they discuss are very important.

Many liberals like to point out the apparent hypocrisy of the people featured in the article, who rail against big government, demand lower spending, and simultaneously rake in benefits from the federal government that they hate. The central figure in the article, Ki Gulbranson, works hard yet has barely enough money to support his family, even with the earned income tax credit* and reduced-price school lunches for his kids. His conclusion: the country is going bankrupt, but people don’t make enough money to pay more taxes, so we should have smaller government. He would rather go without his current benefits—but he can’t imagine retiring without Medicare and Social Security.

I don’t think Gulbranson is a hypocrite at all. I don’t think taking a benefit you don’t think should exist makes you a hypocrite, just like I don’t think Warren Buffett should voluntarily pay higher taxes. I think his position is one part magical thinking and one part principle.

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What Expanded Safety Net?

By James Kwak

In general, I think Binyamin Appelbaum and Robert Gebeloff’s article on how the same people oppose government handouts and take government handouts is very good. But I think their framing buys into a piece of conventional wisdom that just isn’t true.

Here it is, without any shortening (but emphasis is mine):

“The problem by now is familiar to most. Politicians have expanded the safety net without a commensurate increase in revenues, a primary reason for the government’s annual deficits and mushrooming debt. In 2000, federal and state governments spent about 37 cents on the safety net from every dollar they collected in revenue, according to a New York Times analysis. A decade later, after one Medicare expansion, two recessions and three rounds of tax cuts, spending on the safety net consumed nearly 66 cents of every dollar of revenue.

“The recent recession increased dependence on government, and stronger economic growth would reduce demand for programs like unemployment benefits. But the long-term trend is clear. Over the next 25 years, as the population ages and medical costs climb, the budget office projects that benefits programs will grow faster than any other part of government, driving the federal debt to dangerous heights.”

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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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Confused?

By James Kwak

Some of the headline numbers for President Obama’s deficit reduction proposal that you hear are the following:

  • $3 trillion in deficit reduction over ten years—more than the $1.2–1.5 trillion expected from the Joint Select Committee (JSC)
  • $4 trillion in deficit reduction, including the discretionary spending caps in the Budget Control Act
  • $1.5 trillion in tax increases
  • $1 trillion in deficit reduction by capping spending on Iraq and Afghanistan

This didn’t make sense to me for a few reasons, notably that any deal that preserves any of the Bush tax cuts should be scored by the CBO as a tax cut, which increases the deficit. The actual numbers are rather more complicated.

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How Big Is the Deficit, Anyway?

By James Kwak

According to its CBO score, the Budget Control Act of 2011 (a.k.a. the debt ceiling agreement) initially reduced aggregate budget deficits over the next ten years (2012–2021) by $917 billion, with a provision that ensures that deficits will be reduced by another $1.2 trillion (either through an agreement in the joint committee that is ratified by Congress, or through automatic spending cuts). The chatter in Washington is that even with the $1.2 trillion, this is still too small, and there is still this massive deficit hanging over our heads. This is true to an extent, but not the way you are being led to believe.

The first question is this: How big is the deficit anyway? The answer is pretty complicated—complicated enough for S&P to mess up (although in my opinion they made a rookie mistake, as I’ll explain later). Warning: lots of numbers ahead, though the only math is addition and subtraction.

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Barack Obama and Harry Potter

By James Kwak

Helene Cooper of the New York Times wrote a “news analysis” story saying that the challenge for President Obama is this:

“Is he willing to try to administer the disagreeable medicine that could help the economy mend over the long term, even if that means damaging his chances for re-election?”

The problem, she goes on to say in the next paragraph, is that the economy is in bad shape:

“The Federal Reserve’s finding on Tuesday that there is little prospect for rapid economic growth over the next two years was the latest in a summer of bad economic news.”

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Tax Loopholes and the French Revolution

By James Kwak

Today’s Atlantic column is about one of my favorite topics: the French Revolution. Actually, it’s mainly about tax expenditures and how traditional Republicans should want to eliminate them. Unfortunately, there are no traditional Republicans left, and Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge makes clear that you can’t eliminate tax expenditures unless you use all the revenue to lower tax rates below where George W. Bush put them.

Understanding the Budget Deficits

By James Kwak

Today’s Atlantic column is a follow-up to last week’s on the size-of-government fallacy. In the column, I break down the projected 2021 deficit into three components: Social Security, Medicare, and Everything Else. (It’s important to use 2021, or some year out there, because most of the current spike in deficits will go away as the economy recovers.) I wanted to explain here how I came up with the numbers and talk a bit more about this approach.

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