The deficit problem: Dealing with America’s fiscal hole
From The Economist print edition
Don’t cut the deficit now—but explain how, eventually, you will
FOR years America’s fiscal problems had a surreal quality. No one disputed that an ageing population and health-care inflation could bust the budget, but that prospect was decades away and procrastination seemed painless. No longer. A giant hole has opened in the budget because of stimulus, bail-outs and a recession that has savaged economic growth and tax revenue. On current policies the publicly held federal debt, 41% of GDP last year, will double in the next decade (see article). Total government debt will move well above the G20 average. In a few years the AAA rating of Treasury bonds, the world’s most important security, could be in jeopardy.
A sudden crisis is unlikely. Other rich countries with far bigger debts relative to the size of their economies, from Italy to Japan, have soldiered on without hitting a wall. Stable politics, transparent laws and economic dominance give America unequalled credibility with lenders. For all the anxiety the declining dollar drew from China this week (see article), it has no serious rival as the world’s reserve currency. America has sensibly used this fiscal freedom to enact an aggressive stimulus programme. This should be maintained for as long as it is needed.
Yet ignoring the future is also costly. The problem is not the deficits in the next couple of years, but in the years that follow. Uncertainty over how taxes may be raised to shrink deficits may already be weighing on business confidence. Worries about inflation or default could start to push up interest rates. Eventually, private investment will be crowded out.
Barack Obama and Congress can pre-empt such corrosive uncertainty with a plan to reduce the deficit now. Far from requiring immediate spending cuts or tax increases, a credible plan would reassure markets and allow an orderly exit from fiscal stimulus. The Federal Reserve provides a model: it does not plan to tighten monetary policy in the near future, but has signalled its willingness to do so when inflation threatens.
America’s deficit problem is in essence a spending problem, so spending must bear the brunt of adjustment. An ageing population and health-care inflation are inexorably driving up the cost of the country’s three big entitlements: Social Security (pensions), Medicare and Medicaid (health care for the elderly and the poor, respectively). Mr Obama has long promised that health reform would cover the uninsured without adding to the deficit, while reining in long-term costs. Unfortunately, the prospects for controlling costs are tenuous. Achieving large savings will require action on many fronts. Raising the retirement age for Social Security and Medicare would save money while encouraging Americans to work longer, thereby expanding economic potential. Medicaid could be converted to block grants, compelling states to assume more of the burden of cost control. Other spending should also be vigorously squeezed, to stop federal funds being wasted on highways of dubious value or trade-distorting farm subsidies.
Still, cold arithmetic suggests that spending cuts alone cannot deliver enough. Changes to entitlements take effect only gradually. And the scope for slashing non-defence discretionary spending is limited, since it makes up merely one-sixth of total outlays. So Americans are stuck with a budgetary conundrum: they seem to be opting for more government, at least in health care, yet they do not seem prepared to pay for it. Their leaders have indulged this fantasy. Mr Obama has foolishly sworn off higher taxes on 95% of households, and Republicans will not countenance them for anybody. This newspaper strongly prefers small government and low taxes, but if Americans are to have bigger government and a sustainable budget, tax revenues will have to rise.
Raising tax revenue will hurt less if the tax system becomes more supportive of economic growth in the process. Compared with other countries, America taxes consumption too little and income too much (see article). Redressing this imbalance could, with time, help economic growth. First, broaden the income-tax base by eliminating exemptions, and if possible cutting rates. Second, introduce a carbon tax, the least distorting way to slow the growth in emissions. If that is not possible, sell rather than give away carbon-emission permits, or raise the federal fuel tax. A last resort is a broad consumption tax, such as a value-added tax. This is economically efficient, but could too easily become a politically convenient way to vacuum up more money and expand government.
The economics of fiscal reform are straightforward; it’s the politics that are tough. Mr Obama should start the process with a budget early next year that aims to stabilise, and preferably reduce, the debt-to-GDP ratio in the coming decade. The problem is getting Congress to pass the necessary laws. The polarisation of American politics has left Democrats more set on defending entitlements and Republicans determined to hold down taxes. With mid-term elections a year away, the incentive to compromise is shrivelling.
One way to finesse these toxic politics would be to establish a bipartisan commission to fix entitlements and taxes, as proposed by Kent Conrad and Judd Gregg, respectively the most senior Democrat and Republican on the Senate Budget Committee. Its membership would be drawn from both parties, both chambers of Congress and the White House. Democrats and Republicans alike would have to make sacrifices. To preserve this grand bargain, Congress would be allowed only to approve or reject the commission’s proposal, not amend it.
This is no magic bullet. Although similar processes have been used to negotiate trade deals, the stakes in this case would be far higher, as would the chances of failure. Republicans in particular may balk at co-operating. The commission could deadlock, or see its proposal voted down, precipitating the sort of market disruption the scheme was meant to avoid. But that actually may be an advantage: politicians may conclude that failure is not an option. The best defence against a crisis is to act as though you are facing one.
The original article is linked here.