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As we learn more, policymakers will need to revisit the issue — almost certainly more than once — to act on the findings. Upcoming tax policy decisions will have a major impact on the size of the problem. If policymakers were to allow all of the and tax cuts to expire as scheduled at the end of — or fully offset the cost of extending those tax cuts they choose to extend — this alone would shrink the fiscal gap by almost two-fifths, from 4.
The effect is this substantial because the budgetary benefits would start almost immediately in , and those benefits would reduce projected interest payments by a growing amount with each passing decade. But even if Congress were to allow all of the tax cuts to expire or to offset the full cost of extending them which is extremely unlikely , the budget would still remain on an unsustainable long-run path.
The recession and programs enacted to spur economic recovery are not an important factor with regard to the long-term fiscal problem. CBO forecasts that the economy will return to its potential by As a result, the deep recession that the nation is now experiencing is not responsible for a significant portion of the long-run budget gap. Nor are the policies that Congress enacted in response to the recession; the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act enacted in February has added only very slightly to the long-run gap, because its provisions are strictly temporary.
Likewise, additional expenditures to support economic recovery of the magnitude that is now being considered would have only a tiny effect on the long-term picture.
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As a result, they are not part of the cause of the long-term fiscal problem. This report reconfirms what earlier reports by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and others have found: While the recession swelled the deficit to 10 percent of GDP in , the deficit is expected to shrink in coming years as the economic recovery takes hold, before beginning to grow again. These projections assume that policymakers will extend a number of provisions that are scheduled to expire under current law — the and tax cuts, various other temporary tax provisions, relief from the Alternative Minimum Tax AMT , and relief from scheduled reductions in the fees that Medicare pays to physicians — without offsetting their costs.
Under these assumptions, large deficits will markedly increase the debt as a share of the economy i. We project that the national debt will climb from 53 percent of GDP in to percent of GDP by , or more than three times the size of the U. The appendix at the end of this paper explains in detail the assumptions that underlie these projections. Debt-to-GDP ratios of this size are unprecedented in U. While budget projections, especially those that extend 40 years or more, necessarily involve a high degree of uncertainty, the conclusion that current policies are unsustainable over the long term seems inescapable.
Deficits and debt of this magnitude are widely recognized to be damaging to the economy over time. To the extent that foreign investors lend us money and so ameliorate the upward pressure on interest rates, those lenders — rather than U. Americans would feel the impact of this process gradually over a long period of time. Policies enacted in response to the recession also worsen the long-term picture only slightly.
For example, because the provisions in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act ARRA enacted in February are temporary, they contribute little to the long-term budget problem. Temporary costs such as ARRA, even if large in the short run, are much less significant than permanent costs such as making some or all of the and tax cuts permanent or enacting the Medicare prescription drug benefit. The long-term fiscal gap that we project is overwhelmingly the result of budgetary policies and other factors that predated the recession — the increased expenditures and lost revenues resulting from rapid growth in health care costs, the aging of the population, and the expensive tax cuts enacted in and Alternatively, the negative impact of large, sustained deficits of the type we describe in this paper could be more sudden.
Policymakers must, at a minimum, demonstrate their intention to set the federal budget on a sustainable path as the economy recovers. A common way for economists to express the size of the fiscal problem is to quantify the long-term fiscal gap, which is the average amount of program reductions or revenue increases that would be needed annually over some future period to ensure that the debt is no larger as a share of the economy at the end of that period than it will be at the end of Under our projections, the fiscal gap equals 4.
To appreciate the size of the fiscal gap, 4. This would represent deficit reduction on a scale that far exceeds anything ever achieved, or even contemplated, in the past. Instituting deficit reduction of that magnitude immediately would be very unwise; it would be devastating to the weak economy. Even after the economy recovers, achieving deficit reduction of this magnitude in one fell swoop would be highly unrealistic. Moreover, large-scale deficit reduction almost certainly will entail some changes that need to be phased in gradually over time so that affected individuals and firms can adjust to them.
This raises the question of what would be a sensible and ambitious — but not wholly unrealistic — goal for the medium term the coming decade for policymakers to pursue to put the budget on a stable footing.
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The logical answer is to set a goal of stabilizing the debt-to-GDP ratio — that is, of reducing the deficit to the point where the debt and hence, interest payments on it no longer are rising faster than the economy. Maintaining a stable debt-to-GDP ratio is perfectly compatible with running modest deficits. This is because economic growth raises GDP. If deficits are sufficiently modest that they do not cause the debt to rise at a faster rate than GDP, then the debt will not increase as a share of the economy.
As a rule of thumb, the United States could stabilize its debt-to-GDP ratio after the economy has recovered from the current downturn with deficits of slightly less than 3 percent of GDP. Reducing the deficit to 3 percent of GDP over the coming decade may not sound like a difficult task — but it is. Our projections indicate that under current policies, the deficit will be 5. Thus, to reduce the deficit to 3 percent of GDP or less by or preferably earlier would require cutting the projected deficit more than in half between and , at the same time that the baby boomers are retiring in large numbers and health care costs are continuing to grow faster than the economy.
Reducing the deficit to 3 percent of GDP by or before — and thereby stabilizing the debt as a share of GDP — would be a major accomplishment and would set in motion a virtuous cycle of debt-service savings. Reducing the deficit trims the amount that the government needs to borrow. Achieving this goal would stabilize the debt at just over 70 percent of GDP, and net interest costs at about 3. But much more would still remain to be done.
Given rising health care costs and demographic pressures, further major rounds of deficit reduction are likely to be needed just to keep the deficit from rising above 3 percent of GDP in the decades after Furthermore, if the debt-to-GDP ratio could subsequently be lowered somewhat — which would require running deficits below 3 percent of GDP — then interest payments would cost less, leaving more room in future budgets for needed investments. The largest of these trimmed deficits by about 2 percent of GDP. Congress could take initial action in coming months by keeping the estate tax at its parameters and letting the and tax cuts expire for upper-income households, as President Obama proposed in his first budget.
Those two policies would shave roughly half a percentage point of GDP from future deficits. Measures that generate further increases in revenues, savings in Social Security, and further savings in major health care programs beyond those achieved by the health reform Congress is considering, which our projections do not reflect , will need to be on the table, as well.
There are practical limits, however, to how much deficit reduction can be achieved over the coming decade in Social Security and further changes to health care programs see discussion below. In addition, health care reform legislation will include most of the measures we know enough to institute now to slow health care cost growth. It will be difficult to achieve large additional savings here in the years immediately ahead; it will take time for the important demonstration and research projects in the health reform legislation to yield information on how to achieve additional, substantial, health care savings without sacrificing health care quality.
One impact of these realities is that further substantial revenue increases, as well as savings in low-priority spending programs, will have to be on the table to have any chance of shaving deficits to 3 percent of GDP by We would note that policymakers should not be swayed by arguments that preserving the estate tax and letting the upper-income tax cuts expire would derail the economic recovery. Any resulting drop in consumption by upper-income people would be modest, as research shows that a large share of the tax cuts that go to people at the top of the income scale are saved rather than quickly spent.
Moreover, the early proceeds from such measures could be used to help finance temporary policies to stimulate the economy. For example, additional funds to support state and local governments are needed to forestall unprecedented state and local budget cuts in the next year or two that would place a strong drag on the economy and could jeopardize the recovery.
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A continuation of extended unemployment benefits and other targeted, carefully designed measures also would boost aggregate demand and thereby help preserve or create jobs. Shifting resources from high-income tax cuts to such measures would strengthen the economy and create jobs in the short run.
And once the economy recovered and the temporary economic-stimulus measure expired, the proceeds from the tax-policy changes would go to deficit reduction. Peterson Foundation recently released a report calling for Congress to enact a deficit-reduction package this year that would take effect in earnest after , when the economy is expected to be on a sounder footing.
The Commission says it would like to see the ratio further reduced in subsequent years — perhaps to as low as the pre-recession level of about 40 percent of GDP — but did not want to set a goal that was too ambitious. We agree with the Commission that the federal budget is on an unsustainable path and Congress and the President must make major changes in current policies to prevent deficits and debt from skyrocketing to dangerous levels.
The call for action sooner rather than later, but with savings not taking effect until the economy is back on a sound footing, also makes sense although we think that the economic recovery is likely to still be too fragile to begin implementing major savings as early as , as the Commission recommends. This is an extremely ambitious goal. As noted above, the largest deficit reduction efforts in the last three decades trimmed deficits by about 2 percent of GDP. More importantly, while it is necessary to stabilize the debt-to-GDP ratio, it is not necessary to adopt a target of 60 percent.
There is no evidence that a debt-to-GDP ratio of 60 percent represents a threshold above which the potential harm to the economy rises to an unacceptable level and some evidence that that threshold is somewhat higher. The report also does not address whether, even if that target might have been appropriate in , it would still be appropriate today in light of the dramatic increases in government debt resulting from what has in many ways been the worst financial and economic crisis since the Great Depression.
The Commission correctly notes that the International Monetary Fund also has used a 60 percent debt-to-GDP ratio target in its analyses of fiscal sustainability, but IMF staff have been clear that the criterion is arbitrary  and, in fact, have suggested that in light of recent increases in debt, the date for achieving the target should be relaxed — allowing advanced countries that exceed the target in to gradually reduce the ratio over 15 years, reaching 60 percent by We believe Congress and the President should focus on bringing deficits down to about 3 percent of GDP in the years ahead and then keeping deficits no higher than that level.
That would achieve the necessary condition for budget sustainability of stabilizing the debt-to-GDP ratio even though the level of debt would exceed the 60 percent of GDP target that the Pew-Peterson Commission adopted. Aiming to go further may actually have the unintended effect of making it harder to enact needed deficit-reduction legislation by making the standard for success one that requires budget cuts and tax increases of such severity that they are unacceptable politically.
It also would increase the likelihood that deficit-reduction efforts — if successful — would seriously undercut programs that provide crucial services and benefits to millions of Americans, in which case the savings likely would not endure. But it does not make sense to set a target today that is not necessary to achieve budget sustainability and is sufficiently difficult to achieve politically that it would make continued inaction more likely than would an ambitious and sufficiently strong, but somewhat less daunting and excruciating , target.
As noted above, policymakers will almost certainly need to enact multiple deficit-reduction packages over coming decades. By paying down its debt, the United States could regain its economic prestige and preserve its ability to help others while building a stronger, more secure society. Hill is a retired industrial engineer who has helped companies throughout the world boost efficiency through the best use of people, equipment, and facilities.
He currently lives in Antigua, Guatemala.