The 2011 Federal Budget: You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet

Filed Under (U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Jeffrey Brown on Feb 2, 2010

Hollywood is abuzz today with the news of the 2010 Academy Award nominations.  If there were a category for “Most Frightening,” surely the newly released 2011 federal budget would be the odds-on favorite.  Released yesterday, the budget contains some difficult-to-swallow news about the difficult choices ahead of us.  

 Let me just highlight some of the more frightening numbers – all of which can be found in the proposed budget.  

  • Even with the President’s proposed tax increases and spending cuts, the projected single-year deficit never falls below $706 billion (that, in year 2014).  Indeed, it starts with a projected FY 2011 deficit of $1.566 trillion, and ends in 2020 with a $1 trillion deficit.
  • The debt held by the public is projected to roughly double over the next decade, from $9.3 trillion in 2010 to $18.57 trillion by 2020.
  • Of course, the economy is growing over this time (at least we all hope), so more meaningful numbers are relative to GDP.
    • The 2011 deficit is projected to be 8.3% of GDP
    • The debt held by the public will rise from 63.6% of GDP to 77.2% of GDP over the next decade.

 Of course, this may be a best-case scenario (in terms of deficits) because it assumes the President gets what he wants, including (as reported in today’s Wall Street Journal):

  • $175 billion rise in personal income taxes
  • $117 billion rise in corporate income taxes

 I’ve written previously about why deficits matter, primarily because they serve as a drag on long-term economic growth.  President Obama’s very talented budget director Peter Orszag understands this as well as anyone.

 But as bad as things look over the next few years, we need to recognize that the really long-term budget forecasts are far worse.  

 It is no secret that the biggest drivers of increased government spending over the long-run are the “Big Three” (meaning entitlements, not the auto-makers).  Growth in spending on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are projected to outpace overall economic growth for as far as the eye can see.  Unless these programs undergo structural change to rein in costs, the implications for our economy are enormous.

Consider this: for most of the last 50 years, government spending has stood around 20% of GDP (yes, it is higher now, but I am taking a longer-term view).  According to the Congressional Budget Office, by the year 2035 (about the time today’s newborn children are starting their own households, when today’s college graduates are in their middle ages, and when today’s middle-agers are set to retire), spending on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security will be 16% of GDP all by themselves.  By 2080 (when today’s newborns are retiring), these programs will comprise nearly a quarter of GDP – a higher fraction than ALL government spending today.  So unless we change these programs, the rest of the government would need to cease operation, tax rates will have to skyrocket, or we are going to watch our debt grow to unprecedented levels relative to GDP.


The main drivers of these trends are rising per capita health care costs and population aging.  We have so far been woefully unsuccessful at dealing with the first, and we may not want to do anything about the second (after all, most of us like living longer).


In short, as bad as the short-term budget outlook is, the longer-term budget outlook is even worse. 


Sorry to be so pessimistic … but sometimes the facts speak for themselves.

Why Deficits Matter

Filed Under (U.S. Fiscal Policy, Uncategorized) by Jeffrey Brown on Jan 14, 2010


I happened to spot a USA Today in the coffee shop where I was working today (think of it as practice for my upcoming furlough days) and noticed a headline in the “Money” section entitled “How do we dig out from under $12 trillion in debt?”  It reminds readers of the very salient fact that our national debt-to-GDP ratio (now at 70.4 percent of GDP) is the highest it has been since the post WWII period.  Importantly, this figure substantially under-states the sad state of the U.S. fiscal position because it ignores the massive unfunded obligations facing our “big three” entitlement programs – Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. 

While this is not good news, I was pleased to see one of the nation’s widely read newspapers addressing the issue.  And I thought it was worth a brief post about why deficits matter. 

There is some public confusion around this issue, not least because neither party seems to do much about it.  Whatever you like or dislike about the Bush Administration (disclosure: I worked for President Bush in 2001-02, participated in the Social Security reform tour with him and 2005, and received a Presidential appointment to the Social Security Advisory Board in 2006), it is near impossible to make a credible case that his Administration took deficit or debt reduction seriously. 

 Thus far, the Obama Administration has an even worse record of fiscal discipline.  Yes, yes, I know – the midst of a deep recession is not the best time to cut federal spending (or increase taxes) in an attempt to close the fiscal gap.  But despite the significant lip service that the Obama Administration gives to deficit reduction, there is so far scant little evidence that they are serious about reducing it even after the economy improves.  Most of their calls for increasing taxes are accompanied by new ideas for growing the size of government, such as paying for health care reform. 

 Leaving politics aside, do deficits matter?  V.P. Cheney famously quipped that they do not.  But most economists agree that they do.  The standard textbook analysis is that deficits reduce national saving and drive up long-term interest rates, thus reducing private investment and thus sacrificing long-term economic growth. 

 There is plenty of empirical evidence to support this.  Indeed, President Obama’s own budget director Peter Orszag, a distinguished economist and fiscal policy expert (another disclosure: Peter is a good friend and co-author of mine, despite our policy disagreements) has an influential paper on this topic.  The full paper (with Bill Gale) appeared in the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, but a more reader-friendly summary is available from their piece in the Economist’s Voice. 

 Keep in mind that this article was written in 2004, back when annual deficits were projected to run 3.5 percent of GDP.  In contrast, current deficits are running about double that (although, admittedly, no one expects the current level of deficit spending to persist once the economy improves and we stop spending like drunken sailors in an attempt to stem the decline). 

 Here is what Gale and Orszag said then: 

 “Under reasonable projections, the unified budget deficits over the next decade will average 3.5 percent of GDP. Compared to a balanced budget, the unified budget deficits will reduce annual national income a decade hence by 1 to 2 percent (or roughly $1,500 to $3,000 per household per year, on average), and raise average long-term interest rates over the next decade by 80 to 120 basis points. Looking out beyond the next decade, the budget outlook grows steadily worse. Over the next 75 years, if the tax cuts are made permanent, this nation’s fiscal gap amounts to about 7 percent of GDP. The main drivers of this long-term fiscal gap are, in order, the spending growth associated with Medicare and Medicaid, the revenue losses from the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, and increases in Social Security costs. The nation has never before experienced such large long-term fiscal imbalances. They will gradually impair economic performance and living standards, and carry with them the risk of a severe fiscal crisis.”

 I am heartened that OMB Director Orszag understands the serious long-term consequences of our nation’s fiscal imbalance.  Of course, Peter and I will likely disagree on how to fix the problem (he will want to rely primarily on taxes, whereas I would prefer to first go after spending).  But future generations had better hope that our elected officials find a way to compromise, do some of both, and get this nation back on a sustainable fiscal path.