The economy faces a short-term problem, a medium-term problem, and a long-term problem. The short-term problem is the debt ceiling, the medium-term problem is the depression that the economy is still wallowing in (the orthodox description of it as a mere “recession” that ended in 2009 is misleading), and the long-term problem is entitlements for old people—Medicare, social security, and (to a lesser extent) Medicaid, which to a significant degree operates as medigap insurance for many old people. The three problems are intertwined. The third, the long-term one, may well be the most serious.
The debt ceiling—a dollar limit on debt owed by the federal government, which can be increased only by Congress’s enacting a statute raising the limit—is a dysfunctional method of legislative control over government expenditures. Without the ceiling Congress could still limit borrowing by the Treasury, but it would have to do so by passing a statute. The existence of the ceiling means that enacting a statute is necessary to permit borrowing above whatever amount was specified as the ceiling the last time it was raised by statute. It is harder to pass a new statute than to defeat a proposed statute, and so a determined legislative faction may be able to extort unreasonable concessions by threatening to block the enactment of a statute raising the ceiling. If the intended victims of the extortion balk, and a game of chicken ensues, the statute may not pass; and if as a result the debt ceiling is not raised, when as at present the government must borrow to have enough money to fulfill its expenditure commitments, very serious consequences can ensue. At present the federal government is spending about $300 billion a month, of which about $83 billion is borrowed. If it cannot borrow that amount any more, because every time it borrows (unless it’s just rolling over a loan) its debt rises, it will be unable to fulfill its spending commitments. It will not default in the technical sense because its tax revenues are sufficient to service the debt, but contractual debt (bonds and the like) is not the only unavoidable expense of the federal government: there are both the normal civilian and military costs of running the government and the huge entitlements on which a significant fraction of the population is dependent. Inability to pay these costs would be de facto insolvency.
The drastic curtailment of federal expenditures if the debt ceiling were not raised would have a devastating effect on the current very weak economy, because $83 billion in monthly spending cannot quickly be replaced by private spending; it’s not as if $83 billion were being shifted from the government to the private sector. It would mean taking a trillion dollars a year out of the economy. Maybe private foundations would take up some of the slack, but if so they would be diverting money from other recipients of the foundations’ largesse rather than increasing the net amount of cash available for consumption, unless they diverted money from overseas recipients.
There would be some long-run benefits from eliminating further federal borrowing. The benefits would lie mainly in forcing governmental economies and reducing the annual interest expense of the government. Rational-expectations economists would argue that foreseeing lower taxes in the future would stimulate consumers and businessmen to spend more than now. But consumers, investors, and businesses might be held back by uncertainty; and certainly the short- and medium-run dislocation of an already weak economy could be catastrophic. The reduction in government expenditures could not be matched immediately by an increase in private spending, so overall economic activity would plunge.
The current weakness of the economy cannot be overemphasized. Adjusted for inflation, GDP has fallen since 2007 by 0.4 percent. That means that per capita GDP has fallen significantly because of population growth and that current GDP is almost 10 percent below the GDP trend line of 3 percent a year. There is a better argument for the Fed’s stimulating inflation to reduce mortgage and other consumer debt in real terms than for Congress’s cutting government expenditures.
An irony in the present situation (and a powerful argument against Republican proposals to lift the debt ceiling for only six months in order to force reductions in government spending that would be necessary to induce House Republicans to support a further increase in the ceiling at the end of that period) is that the actual proposals for debt reduction are meager and probably illusory. Under the deal tentatively agreed upon yesterday the initial cut will be just $900 billion spread over the next ten years, which would amount to only $90 billion a year, or less than 10 percent of the annual deficit in the federal budget. And this is on the assumption that the deficit won’t grow. But it is quite likely to grow. True, if the economy recovers, tax collections will increase because incomes will be rising, and even without increased tax collections the deficit as a fraction of GDP (which is what’s important—not the absolute size of the deficit) will fall. But against this is the likely rapid increase in entitlements, primarily Medicare and social security, as the over-65 population continues its relentless growth. The only measure to slow this increase that seems politically feasible at present is to change the formula for calculating annual social security cost-of-living increases. A sure sign of the phoniness of the rival Democratic and Republican plans to cut government expenditures was that both rely heavily on a crackdown in Medicare “waste and fraud.”
The deal tentatively agreed to calls for further cuts (or tax increases) of about $1.5 billion, also spread over the next ten years, to be proposed by a bipartisan commission and take automatic effect unless Congress acts—as it could do: it could decide to rescind the cuts. Alterations in social security have been taken off the table; and the only cuts in Medicare that the negotiators are permitted to order are reductions in reimbursement of hospitals and physicians—that will have only an indirect effect on the expense of Medicare, by lengthening waiting time for medical services, and that will create pressure to rescind the reductions.
As with adjusting the social security cost of living formula, and the successful effort in the 1980s to raise the eligibility age for social security gradually, large-scale reductions in entitlements are feasible only if phased in gradually—which would have to be done anyway in order to avoid a serious jolt to the current weak economy. The problem is that Congress cannot make credible long-term commitments to reduce spending because it cannot bind subsequent Congresses. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that both political parties are much fonder of increased spending than of increased taxes, so there is built-in momentum for increased government debt. The Republican radicals in the House of Representatives recognize this problem and their frustration is understandable, but national insolvency is not an intelligent solution.