Tag Archives: 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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