Tag: government debt

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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Hoisted from the Archives

By James Kwak

What was the budget debate about eleven years ago?


As you can see, that is the cover of the CBO’s March 2000 Budget Options report. (You can get it online, but without the cover.*) For most of the 1980s and 1990s, this report was called Reducing the Deficit: Spending and Revenue Options; this year’s version has reverted to that title.

The context for the picture above was the budget surpluses of the late 1990s. At the time, the CBO was projecting surpluses for at least the next twenty years, amounting to over $3 trillion in the first decade of the twenty-first century. (See the 2000 Budget and Economic Outlook, Summary Table 1.) And although most of the surpluses were off-budget (surpluses of Social Security payroll tax revenues over benefit payouts), there were supposed to be ten years of on-budget surpluses as well.

We all know what happened next: a (mild) recession, the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, and the Medicare prescription drug benefit, among other things. But the question for now is: did those surpluses really exist?

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Dear Mr. President

By James Kwak

There have been (admittedly unclear) indications from your administration that you may accede to the Republicans’ demand to extend the Bush tax cuts for everyone.  I urge you not to do this.

The question is: Is it better to extend the tax cuts for everyone or for no one? The answer is to extend them for no one.

The Bush tax cuts have always overwhelmingly benefited the rich, not the middle class, and that is no less true today than when they were enacted. They were bad policy then and they are bad policy today. Extending the tax cuts would dramatically enrich the wealthy relative to everyone else. 65.5 percent of the total benefit would go to the top quintile by income, 26.8 percent to the top 1 percent, and 14.7 percent to the top 0.1 percent.*

Leaving aside discredited, Reagan-era theories about trickle-down economics, there are two main arguments for extending the tax cuts:

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Health Care Non-Solutions

By James Kwak

Ezra Klein makes an important point about our nation’s health care problem: it’s not just a government deficit problem. The underlying problem is that health care costs are not only growing faster than prices (inflation), but also faster than GDP (economic growth), and as a result the amount of stuff we as a nation will be able to afford, other than health care, will start to go down at some point in the future. (Picture originally from Joseph Newhouse in Health Affairs.)

This means that proposals to solve the long-term budget deficit problem by cutting Medicare benefits are not solutions: they simply shift the problem from the government to individuals–which means they shift the problem from us as taxpayers to us as old people or us as family members of old people.* If, for example, we increase the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 67, the government saves money, but only because people who are 65 and 66 lose money–or, alternatively, all of us lose money because their employers now have to pay more for health care.

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Greg Mankiw on the Deficit

By James Kwak

Broken record alert: Another post on the deficit ahead. Wouldn’t you rather look at funny pictures of cats? Why do I keep writing these? (Hint: The other side keeps writing them.) You have been warned.

Greg Mankiw, noted economics textbook author and former chair of Bush 43’s Council of Economic Advisers, has an op-ed on the deficit that is relatively sensible by the standards of recent debate. He points out that modest deficits can be sustainable, that taxes will probably need to go up, and that a value-added tax is a plausible option. He also points out that Obama’s projections are based on optimistic economic forecasts that very plausibly may not pan out, and that Obama’s main deficit-reduction strategy is to kick the problem over to a deficit-reduction commission, which are valid criticisms.

Unfortunately, his bottom line seems to be throwing more rocks at President Obama, under the general Republican principle that since he’s the president, everything is his fault:

“But unless the president revises his spending plans substantially, he will have no choice but to find some major source of government revenue. Ms. Pelosi’s suggestion of a VAT may be the best of a bunch of bad alternatives. Unfortunately, in this new era of responsibility, the president is not ready to face up to the long-term fiscal challenge.”

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Robert Samuelson Again

Remind me never to open Newsweek again when I have real work to do. Robert Samuelson tries to play the tough guy yet again in his column, saying that we face either major entitlement cuts or major tax increases and we have to buck up and take it like real men. I agree that we need to do something about the long-term debt problem, and the sooner we come up with a solution the better. But this was what set me off: “There is no way to close the massive deficits without big cuts in existing government programs or stupendous tax increases.”

This leaves out the obvious and best solution: reduce the growth rate of health care costs. Democrats and Republicans differ on how to do it–the former put a large package of cost-cutting measures in the Senate version of the health care reform bill, the latter want to kill the tax exclusion for employer-sponsored health care (and some Democrats would be fine with that as well). But everyone knows that the long-term debt problem is a health care problem, we spend far more on health care than we get back in outcomes, and cutting health care cost growth is the key. If we don’t, then we’re completely screwed no matter how much we cut Medicare–someone has to pay those health care costs, and if we cut entitlements we’re just shifting the problem onto individuals. (Put another way, Medicare is largely a redistribution system–as Samuelson recognizes–and if you kill it, you haven’t done anything about the fundamental mismatch between aggregate income and aggregate health care costs.) You may prefer that politically, but it’s still not a solution.

Samuelson says, “Even with these cuts [proposed by him], future taxes would need to rise. Unless you’re confronting these issues–and Obama isn’t–you’re evading the central budget problems.” Does he not realize that health care reform was the centerpiece (now perhaps failed, but at least he tried) of Obama’s first year in office, and that Obama himself insisted that cost reduction was more important than universal coverage, to the chagrin of his own political base? Oh, wait. Samuelson doesn’t realize that health care is the central budget problem.

I’m sorry to belabor the point. You all know it. But apparently Robert Samuelson doesn’t.

By James Kwak

Budget Sense and Nonsense

With the submission of the Obama administration’s budget today, fiscal silly season is opening. President Obama already launched an opening salvo last week with his proposed freeze on non-security-related military spending,which amounts to a rounding error on the ten-year budget projections, which are themselves a rounding error on the long-term budget projections– at a time when unemployment is running at 10.0%. Fortunately, there is a partial saving grace, which is that the freeze does not set until until fiscal year 2011 (which begins in October 2010), and in the meantime Obama has proposed $100 billion in tax cuts and government spending to create jobs. (Whether his proposals are the right way to spend $100 billion is a debate for another time.)

The midterm elections are looming already (note: do we have to be satisfied with a political system in which the legislature is preoccupied with upcoming elections half the time?), and the two big themes seem to be jobs and the deficit. With unemployment at levels not seen since the 1980s, it’s obvious why jobs are on the political agenda. With the federal budget deficit at record (nominal) levels, it also seems obvious that the deficit should be on the agenda, but this is really an unfortunate artifact of our political system. A government deficit is the result of insufficient government saving, and a period of high unemployment is absolutely the worst time to increase government saving. The sensible solution would be to use the urgency we currently feel to put in place long-term fiscal solutions, but the political system can’t handle that (see health care reform as Exhibit A). As a result, when deficits go up, we get lots of short-term politicking about the deficit–in Paul Krugman’s words, the “march of the deficit peacocks.”

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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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Government Debt Hysteria

I don’t spend a lot of time trying to police the economic news media — Dean Baker and Brad DeLong are much better on that — but I found myself reading a two-week-old Newsweek column by Robert Samuelson that enraged me enough to type this out. (I read it on old-fashioned paper, but here’s the WaPo version.) The title of the WaPo version is “Could America Go Broke?” and here’s the last paragraph:

“Deprived of international or domestic credit, defaulting countries in the past have suffered deep economic downturns, hyperinflation, or both. The odds may be against a wealthy society tempting that fate, but even the remote possibility underlines the precariousness and the novelty of the present situation. The arguments over whether we need more ‘stimulus’ (and debt) obscure the larger reality that past debt increasingly constricts governments’ economic maneuvering room.”

Deep economic downturns! Hyperinflation! “Precariousness and novelty of the present situation!” You’d think there was some actual reason to be afraid.

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