Say No to This: America’s Fiscal Norms Are in Decline

“Leeper highlights three fiscal norms. One, established in one of Hamilton’s 1790 reports, is that budget deficits should be followed by budget surpluses (i.e., the government pays off its debts). The second is that ordinary spending should be paid for with taxes while emergency spending can be paid with borrowed funds to be repaid later. The third is that austerity becomes necessary when interest payments on outstanding debt become a sufficiently large fraction of federal expenditures.
Despite their informal nature, these fiscal norms have historically constrained U.S. fiscal policy in a meaningful way, even without a gold standard or other formal devices often found in history. They’re also important because they determine long-term expectations for fiscal policy. These expectations, in turn, influence bond prices, inflation, and the real economy, keeping things relatively stable.

So far, adherence to these informal fiscal norms has paid off. U.S. Treasuries are a cornerstone of the global financial system, serving functions akin to money worldwide. However, the norms are weakening.”

https://reason.com/2024/04/11/say-no-to-this-americas-fiscal-norms-are-in-decline/

With Rising Debt, the U.S. Federal Government Is in Bad Company

“”Households who buy government debt reduce their savings in productive private investments,” Kent Smetters and Marcos Dinerstein wrote in 2021 for the Penn Wharton Budget Model. “As the spending is unproductive, the economy is poorer and total savings is lower due to capital crowd out.”
“Government spending redirects real resources in the economy and can crowd out private capital formation,” they add. “An additional $1 trillion debt this year could decrease GDP by as much as 0.28 percent in 2050.”

If you take that insight and apply it to a world of governments on a collective borrowing spree, you end up with a hobbled global economy where prosperity becomes increasingly elusive.

“Medium-term growth rates are projected to continue declining on the back of mediocre productivity growth, weaker demographics, feeble investment and continued scarring from the pandemic,” note IMF’s Adrian, Gaspar, and Gourinchas. “Projections for growth five years ahead have fallen to the lowest level in decades.”

Heavy government borrowing also creates risk for the financial sector by putting banks at the mercy of massive debtors of uncertain creditworthiness. “The more banks hold of their countries’ sovereign debt, the more exposed their balance sheet is to the sovereign’s fiscal fragility,” note the IMF analysts.

Heavily indebted governments also reduce their ability to act as backstops in case of financial crisis as they become the likeliest causes of crises of the future. As they continue to borrow, they reduce the likelihood that productive private economic activity will grow them out of their financial problems.

“Higher government debt implies more state interference in the economy and higher taxes in the future,” The Economist points out in its interactive overview of global government debt. Also, add the editors, rising debt “creates a recurring popularity test for individual governments” which often goes poorly in terms of fiscal responsibility because paying outstanding bills isn’t popular with voters.”

https://reason.com/2024/04/03/with-rising-debt-the-u-s-federal-government-is-in-bad-company/

Biden and Trump Try To Wish Away the Looming Entitlement Crisis

“Contrary to what Trump and Biden imply, it is impossible to “protect” Social Security and Medicare by doing nothing. Inaction will guarantee automatic benefit cuts in less than a decade.
In 2033, according to the latest projections, Social Security’s trust fund “will become depleted,” and “continuing program income will be sufficient to pay 77 percent of scheduled benefits.” Two years before then, Medicare’s hospital insurance trust fund “will be sufficient to pay 89 percent of total scheduled benefits.””

https://reason.com/2024/03/27/biden-and-trump-try-to-wish-away-the-looming-entitlement-crisis/

Biden Is Wrong About Student Debt Forgiveness

“Despite failing to enact blanket student loan forgiveness, Joe Biden has still managed to forgive more than $130 billion in federal student loans since taking office in 2021—and due to a series of Education Department rule changes, even more loans are set to be forgiven in the coming years.”

“Under the REPAYE plan, previously the most popular IDR plan, borrowers were required to make regular monthly payments of 10 percent of their discretionary income (calculated as earnings above 150 percent of the federal poverty rate) for 20 years in order to receive forgiveness. But in 2022, Biden announced the Education Department would replace the REPAYE plan.
In its place, the Saving on a Valuable Education (SAVE) plan is a significantly more generous alternative, only requiring monthly payments of 5 percent of borrowers’ discretionary income (now calculated as earnings above 225 percent of the federal poverty rate), with forgiveness after just 10 years for balances less than $12,000. Late or incomplete payments would still count during the required repayment period, unlike under the REPAYE plan.”

“In all, the new IDR plan is estimated to cost taxpayers nearly as much as Biden’s original attempt at forgiving $475 billion over the next decade (blanket forgiveness was estimated to cost up to $519 billion). While Biden claimed that his recent forgiveness would help swaths of Americans “buy a home start a business even start a family,” it certainly isn’t typical taxpayers—the majority of whom do not have the benefits of a college degree, or the student loans to match—who will end up benefiting.”

https://reason.com/2024/03/07/biden-is-wrong-about-student-debt-forgiveness/

Surging Immigration Will Reduce Deficits by $1 Trillion

“Higher levels of immigration are boosting America’s economy and will reduce the deficit by about $1 trillion over the next decade.
In its semi-annual forecast of the country’s fiscal and economic conditions, released this week, the Congressional Budget Office slightly lowered its expectations for this year’s federal budget deficit. The CBO now expects the federal government to run a $1.5 trillion deficit, down from the $1.6 trillion deficit previously forecast.

That reduction is due in part to higher-than-expected economic growth, which the CBO attributes to “more people working.” The labor force has grown by 5.2 million people in the past year, “mostly because of higher net immigration.””

“It also tracks with what other studies have repeatedly shown: More legal immigration grows the economy, helps fund government programs, and doesn’t strain entitlement or welfare programs.

Unfortunately, the very same Congress that bears most of the responsibility for the federal government’s poor fiscal state is also a major hurdle to increasing legal immigration that could help solve some of that fiscal mess.”

https://reason.com/2024/02/08/surging-immigration-will-reduce-deficits-by-1-trillion/

The Fiscal Hawks Were Right About Debt and Interest Rates

“While some nations tremble at the thought of high indebtedness, we Americans bask in the warm, comforting glow of $34 trillion in government IOUs. Why worry about a debt crisis when everyone wants to buy U.S. debt?
Those of us who advocate fiscal prudence have been asked that question repeatedly in the past 15 years. We would point to the host of unfunded liabilities looming in our future. They would respond by pointing to the trend of declining interest rates over time. Low rates, they said, meant we should be able to handle interest payments on outstanding debt while growing the economy with smart investments. Indeed, thanks to low interest rates, payments on federal government debt as a share of GDP dropped from more than 3 percent in the early 1990s to 1.5 percent in 2021. Debt seemed cheap and manageable, so why worry?

As the 10-year Treasury rate hit 5 percent this year, with interest payments on the debt rapidly increasing and bondholders’ interest in buying U.S. debt declining, it’s tempting for us fiscal hawks to simply say, “We told you so.” But it’s more productive to understand how we ended up in this quagmire, in hopes of avoiding similar mistakes in the future.”

https://reason.com/2024/01/13/we-told-you-so-2/

The US debt mountain is growing so fast the government could soon be spending more on interest payments than on defense


The US’s mountain of debt has become a cause of concern for investors this year.

The government is likely to spend more on interest payments than on defense over the next five years, per Capital Group.

The ballooning debt burden could eventually chip away at the demand for Treasury bonds, according to the investment manager.”

https://finance.yahoo.com/news/us-debt-mountain-growing-fast-193006391.html

The U.S. Needs a Fiscal Commission Because Congress Won’t Do Its Job

“In the last 50 years, when the budget process has been in place, Congress has managed only four times to pass a budget on time and through the regular process. Seventeen times, members of Congress haven’t bothered to pass a budget at all. That hasn’t stopped them from spending money they didn’t have, or from making promises to voters they wouldn’t be able to fulfill. I doubt I need to remind you that it’s gotten worse. In the last half-decade, Congress added $5 trillion to the already elevated and growing federal debt with no plan for repayment.
Nor should I need to remind this column’s readers that government interest payments are growing quickly, propelled by higher interest rates applied to an expanding debt level. That’s the result of years of excuses that interest rates would remain historically low.

While you might see how legislators chose to believe that inflation and high interest rates were things of the past, there’s no excuse for ignoring the upcoming insolvency of programs like Medicare and Social Security. This looming calamity has been warned of for decades in government reports and scholarly publications.”

“At the heart of the commission’s charge must be a commitment not just to reduce some deficits but to put the government back on a sustainable track. As my colleague and former CBO Director Keith Hall convinced me, the commission will fail if it doesn’t have a clear target from the start.”

https://reason.com/2023/11/09/the-u-s-needs-a-fiscal-commission-because-congress-wont-do-its-job/

New Speaker Mike Johnson’s First Good Idea: A Debt Commission

“What can a bipartisan commission on the debt accomplish? The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB), which has been advocating for such a commission, argues that special congressional task forces can focus discussions, generate greater public awareness of major issues, and create the opportunity for lawmakers to put all ideas on the table.
In 1983, for example, Social Security was approaching insolvency—a problem that sounds pretty familiar today—when a commission of congressional leaders and presidential appointees worked out a series of potential fixes. Afterward, Congress enacted many of those reforms, making Social Security solvent for another five decades.

More recently there was the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, formed by President Barack Obama in the aftermath of the 2008 recession. It produced a plan that could have reduced the debt by $4 trillion over 10 years by raising taxes, cutting spending, and selling off federal property. Even though most of those proposals were never enacted, the CRFB points hopefully to the fact that 11 of the 18 commission members supported the final recommendations, including five Republicans and five Democrats.”

https://reason.com/2023/10/27/new-speaker-mike-johnsons-first-good-idea-a-debt-commission/