The Coming Deficit Disaster
Wall Street Journal
By: Douglas Holtz-Eakin
President Barack Obama took office promising to lead from the center and solve big problems. He has exerted enormous political energy attempting to reform the nation's health-care system. But the biggest economic problem facing the nation is not health care. It's the deficit. Recently, the White House signaled that it will get serious about reducing the deficit next year—after it locks into place massive new health-care entitlements. This is a recipe for disaster, as it will create a new appetite for increased spending and yet another powerful interest group to oppose deficit-reduction measures.
Our fiscal situation has deteriorated rapidly in just the past few years. The federal government ran a 2009 deficit of $1.4 trillion—the highest since World War II—as spending reached nearly 25% of GDP and total revenues fell below 15% of GDP. Shortfalls like these have not been seen in more than 50 years.
Going forward, there is no relief in sight, as spending far outpaces revenues and the federal budget is projected to be in enormous deficit every year. Our national debt is projected to stand at $17.1 trillion 10 years from now, or over $50,000 per American. By 2019, according to the Congressional Budget Office's (CBO) analysis of the president's budget, the budget deficit will still be roughly $1 trillion, even though the economic situation will have improved and revenues will be above historical norms.
The planned deficits will have destructive consequences for both fairness and economic growth. They will force upon our children and grandchildren the bill for our overconsumption. Federal deficits will crowd out domestic investment in physical capital, human capital, and technologies that increase potential GDP and the standard of living. Financing deficits could crowd out exports and harm our international competitiveness, as we can already see happening with the large borrowing we are doing from competitors like China.
At what point, some financial analysts ask, do rating agencies downgrade the United States? When do lenders price additional risk to federal borrowing, leading to a damaging spike in interest rates? How quickly will international investors flee the dollar for a new reserve currency? And how will the resulting higher interest rates, diminished dollar, higher inflation, and economic distress manifest itself? Given the president's recent reception in China—friendly but fruitless—these answers may come sooner than any of us would like.
Mr. Obama and his advisers say they understand these concerns, but the administration's policy choices are the equivalent of steering the economy toward an iceberg. Perhaps the most vivid example of sending the wrong message to international capital markets are the health-care reform bills—one that passed the House earlier this month and another under consideration in the Senate. Whatever their good intentions, they have too many flaws to be defensible.
First and foremost, neither bends the health-cost curve downward. The CBO found that the House bill fails to reduce the pace of health-care spending growth. An audit of the bill by Richard Foster, chief actuary for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, found that the pace of national health-care spending will increase by 2.1% over 10 years, or by about $750 billion. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's bill grows just as fast as the House version. In this way, the bills betray the basic promise of health-care reform: providing quality care at lower cost.
Second, each bill sets up a new entitlement program that grows at 8% annually as far as the eye can see—faster than the economy will grow, faster than tax revenues will grow, and just as fast as the already-broken Medicare and Medicaid programs. They also create a second new entitlement program, a federally run, long-term-care insurance plan.
Finally, the bills are fiscally dishonest, using every budget gimmick and trick in the book: Leave out inconvenient spending, back-load spending to disguise the true scale, front-load tax revenues, let inflation push up tax revenues, promise spending cuts to doctors and hospitals that have no record of materializing, and so on.
If there really are savings to be found in Medicare, those savings should be directed toward deficit reduction and preserving Medicare, not to financing huge new entitlement programs. Getting long-term budgets under control is hard enough today. The job will be nearly impossible with a slew of new entitlements in place.
In short, any combination of what is moving through Congress is economically dangerous and invites the rapid acceleration of a debt crisis. It is a dramatic statement to financial markets that the federal government does not understand that it must get its fiscal house in order.
What to do? The best option would be for the president to halt Congress's rush to fiscal suicide, and refocus on slowing the dangerous growth in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. He should call on Congress to pass a comprehensive reform of our income and payroll tax systems that would generate revenue sufficient to fund its spending desires in a pro-growth and fair fashion.
Reducing entitlement spending and closing tax loopholes to create a fairer tax system with more balanced revenues is politically difficult and requires sacrifice. But we will avert a potentially devastating credit crisis, increase national savings, drive productivity and wage growth, and enhance our international competitiveness.
The time to worry about the deficit is not next year, but now. There is no time to waste.