Sea of Red Ink   Leave a comment

The federal budget deficit has jumped 17% in 2018, to $779 billion. Scary, huh? Not quite as scary as it was in 2012, when it topped $1 trillion, but still, the federal government will borrow $870 billion this coming year.

Why? Well, it’s not being done under the guise of economic stimulus. This has been a year of “relatively strong economic growth, low unemployment and continued historically low interest rates”. So, why is the federal government is on track to borrow nearly $7,000 for every household in America?

Drowning Red InkThe future is looking grim. Even if the “Trump boom” continues, current tax and spending patterns indicate that deficits will continue to increase, approaching $1 trillion in two years and steadily rising afterward, on and on into the future. On the current path, the outstanding public debt will rise by one third to $20 trillion just five years from now. That works out at nearly $250,000 for a family of four, more than twice the median household wealth.

Scared yet? The Trump administration is using interest rates of 3.5% for its projections. If they rose to 5%, the interest costs alone on the projected debt would total $1 trillion annually. As the Washington Post economists note, “More than half of all personal income taxes would be needed to pay bondholders.”

No, the tax cuts are not responsible for the red ink. The Budget and Economic Outlook for 2018 to 2028 released by the Congressional Budget Office in April reveals that, as a share of GDP, tax revenues are currently 17.3% of GDP and the CBO forecasts this to rise to 18.5% in 2028. The argument that the cut in federal corporate tax rates is a cause of the increased deficits and debt is absurd. According to the CBO, there is no difference between tax revenues as a percentage of GDP in 2017 compared to their forecasts for 2028 (both will be 1.5%).

The real answer is out-of-control spending. The CBO forecasts that spending will rise from 20.8 percent of GDP now to 23.6 percent in 2028. But it is not increased “discretionary” spending such as defense or education that are driving spending upward. In fact, from 2018 to 2028, the CBO forecasts that discretionary spending will fall from 6.4 percent of GDP to 5.4 percent. Defense spending, for example, is projected to fall from 3.1 percent of GDP in 2018 to 2.6 percent in 2028.

The CBO is unequivocal that this increase in spending is being driven by out-of-control entitlement outlays. Between 2018 and 2028, spending on Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare is projected to rise from 12.7 percent of GDP to 15.2 percent. Social Security spending is expected to increase from 4.9 percent of GDP to 6.0 percent, Medicare from 3.5 percent of GDP to 5.1 percent, and Medicaid from 1.9 percent of GDP to 2.2 percent. This is what is driving America’s catastrophic indebtedness. In another words, Granny’s eating our lunch and she’ll be kicking our asses come 2028.

America’s politicians know this and they have acknowledged the vast problems this borrowing spry is creating, but they aren’t attempting to mitigate it. Why not?

Economist Pierre Yared seeks to address this question in a new paper titled “Rising Government Debt and What to Do About It”, in which he dismisses the idea that these elevated levels of government debt represent an “optimal” policy response to either foreseen or unforeseen fiscal shocks.

You’d think governments would reduce their debt in preparation for the increased expenditures an older population will require. But that’s exactly what isn’t happening. Governments across the developed world have increased their debts. The wars in the Middle East and the 2008 crash added unforeseen pressures, but increases in government indebtedness long predate 2008 and are present in countries that did not intervene in the Middle East.

Yared suggests political polarization produces something like a ‘tragedy of the commons’ where “political parties acting independently engage in excessive targeted government spending since they do not internalize the shared financing costs of government debt.” Yared asserts aging populations care less about the future, citing evidence that younger households place a larger value on fiscal responsibility than older households. As a result, “countries with a large number of constituencies or deep disagreements in spending priorities across constituencies will incur larger government deficits, resulting in faster government debt accumulation.” Finally, electoral uncertainty “causes the current government to be impatient, since the party holding power recognizes that it may not have the opportunity to benefit from spending in the future.” Yared presents evidence that this political uncertainty has increased in recent decades as government indebtedness has risen.

Image result for image of drowning in red inkIf Yared is right, America’s fiscal outlook isn’t encouraging. None of these factors are going away anytime soon. America’s population is projected to continue aging for the next couple of decades. By 2035, according to the Census Bureau, there will be 78 million people 65 years and older compared to 77 million under the age of 18.

And who doesn’t love a sugar daddy to keep picking up the tab for our favorite goodies? Yes, American seniors have come to rely on Social Security and Medicare, but let’s be honest here — the money to fund them doesn’t magically appear simply because politicians promise the funding.

And does anyone think political polarization in the US is going to decrease much anytime soon? I certainly don’t.

The promises government makes cannot be supported by any reasonable expectation of tax revenue. Printing the money to cover these liabilities will result in inflation, which would decimate private retirement accounts as well as family budgets. At some point, the irresistible force of insufficient government revenues is going to meet the immovable object of entitlement commitments.

And, so, we face year after year of yawning deficits and increasing floors of red inks. Are you scared yet?

So, now the question becomes — what happens to  all the people who rely on that red ink?

Posted November 1, 2018 by aurorawatcherak in economics, Uncategorized

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