Tag Archives: government debt

One More Thing . . .

. . . on that deficit commission. If I were Peter Orszag, I would be tearing my hair out. (Or maybe not, since he’s happily engaged to be married later this year.)

It’s obvious, and I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. The big long-term national debt problem is all about health care. This chart is from the January 2008 Budget and Economic Outlook of the Congressional Budget Office–for those keeping score, that’s one year before President Obama took office. It shows projected federal spending as a percentage of GDP.

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Commission to the Rescue!

It looks like President Obama is going to create the bipartisan commission to cut the deficit that Kent Conrad and Judd Gregg have been pitching–except that now Judd Gregg is against it.

According to the original Conrad-Gregg plan, the commission would have eighteen members–eight named by Congressional Democrats, eight by Congressional Republicans, and two by the administration, for a ten-eight split; if fourteen of the eighteen could agree on a deficit-reduction plan, Congress would have to vote it up or down without amendments. The Conrad-Gregg proposal is expected to be voted down in the Senate. So instead, Obama would appoint a commission by executive order, with six people named by Congressional Democrats, six named by Congressional Republicans, and six named by the administration, including at least two Republicans–for a ten-eight split; if fourteen of the eighteen could agree on a deficit-reduction plan, Congress would vote it up or down without amendments; however, Congress could separately choose to amend it. According to the Washington Post, Gregg “called a presidentially appointed panel ‘a fraud’ designed to do little more than give Democrats political cover.” Huh? I’m guessing Gregg’s objection is that Obama’s plan is based on an agreement with Congressional leaders, rather than actual legislation–but if you can’t pass the legislation, what else do you want Obama to do?*

More, important, is this a good thing? My prediction is that it will amount to exactly nothing, although there is a possibility it could turn out badly. I simply don’t see how any plan can get the agreement of fourteen commission members–meaning all the Democrats and four of eight Republicans, or all the Republicans and six of ten Democrats, or something in between.

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Whence the Deficit?

A couple of weeks ago I did a a basic calculation to see why the medium-term national debt picture has gotten so much worse in the last two years. There’s no new data I created; it’s just the difference between the January 2008 and August 2009 Congressional Budget Office projections. Here’s the chart, once again:

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (hat tip Ezra Klein) has done a similar exercise using CBO data, except they are looking at the annual deficit, not the aggregate deficit over a decade. Here is their chart:

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A Few Words on Health Care Reform and Medicare Buy-In

From Ezra Klein:

“[Doctors] should be forced to work in a way that doesn’t hurt society. That, after all, is the guiding principle behind the insurance reforms: Insurers will have to live with a market that society can live with. Similarly, providers will have to live within a market that society can afford. That will mean a strict budget, at least within the federal programs (and over time, as the private programs become unaffordable, they will probably come on budget as well). …

“It’s that or national bankruptcy. And the problem, if left untreated, will only get worse, and the eventual correction, when it comes, will only be more severe. That, however, is exactly what they’re asking Snowe, and the rest of Congress, to permit. The fear with Medicare buy-in is that Medicare pays somewhat lower rates than private insurers because it tries to live within a budget, even if it fails. But like it or not, that’s the future, or one variant of it.”

Am I being hypocritical in allowing Ezra Klein to use the words “national bankruptcy?”

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A Partisan Post, You Have Been Warned

Last night I read a post by Brad DeLong that made me so mad I had trouble falling asleep. (Not at DeLong, mind you.)  There’s really nothing unusual in there — hysteria about the deficit, people who voted for the Bush tax cuts and the unfunded Medicare prescription drug benefit but suddenly think the national debt is killing us, political pandering — but maybe it was the proverbial straw.

First, let me say that I largely agree with DeLong here:

“I am–in normal times–a deficit hawk. I think the right target for the deficit in normal times is zero, with the added provision that when there are foreseeable future increases in spending shares of GDP we should run a surplus to pay for those foreseeable increases in an actuarially-sound manner. I think this because I know that there will come abnormal times when spending increases are appropriate. And I think that the combination of (a) actuarially-sound provision for future increases in spending shares and (b) nominal balance for the operating budget in normal times will create the headroom for (c) deficit spending in emergencies when it is advisable while (d) maintaining a non-explosive path for the debt as a whole.”

Now, let me tell you what I am sick of:

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Data on the Debt

So far, my foray into the world of the national debt has consisted of this:

One of the curious things about the debt scare that is building in the media is that it is happening at a moment when long-term interest rates are very low. In other words, it’s based on a theory that the market is wrong in its collective assessment of the debt situation. I’ve heard this blamed on “non-economic actors” (that is, foreign governments that buy U.S. Treasuries not as a good investment, but for political reasons), or on a “carry trade” where investors are exploiting the steep yield curve (free short-term money, positive long-term interest rates), as Paul Krugman discusses here.

Menzie Chinn crunches some numbers. He takes a model that he and Jeff Frankel created several years ago to estimate the impact on interest rates of inflation, the future projected national debt, the output gap (economic output relative to potential), and foreign purchases of Treasuries. That last term is important, because the oft-heard fear is that foreign governments will suddenly stop buying our debt.

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Blaming It on Obama

Last week I wrote a post about “government debt hysteria” that has gotten a lot of attention because of a link from Paul Krugman. (As Felix Salmon, said, “blogging is a lottery on the individual-blog-entry level.”) The main point of last week’s post was not that it’s wrong to be concerned about the national debt (I think everyone is concerned about it — the question is what to do about it and when), but that it’s irresponsible to title a column “Could America Go Broke?” and talk about hyperinflation without providing some evidence, or at least a logical argument that goes beyond tautology, that hyperinflation is something we should be worrying about it.

Here’s something else that’s irresponsible. In that same column, Robert Samuelson says, “The Congressional Budget Office reckons the Obama administration’s planned budgets would increase the debt-to-GDP ratio from 41 percent in 2008 to 82 percent in 2019″ (emphasis added).

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