“When the federal government’s fiscal year ends on the last day of September, America’s national debt will nearly match the size of the nation’s economy for the first time since the end of World War II, according to projections from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).”
“spending under President Donald Trump surged by $937 billion in less than four years—and that was before Congress authorized trillions in emergency coronavirus spending. The Trump administration’s tax cuts, while well-intentioned, also added to the budget deficit because they were not offset by spending cuts. It’s true that Trump inherited a budgetary mess, but he (and the Republicans who controlled Congress during most of his tenure) have undoubtedly made the mess worse.”
“the main driver of America’s debt problem is the federal entitlement programs—Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid—which account for about half of all federal spending. In a separate report also released Wednesday, the CBO projected that the federal trust for those entitlement programs will fall by $43 billion in the current fiscal year. The economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic has caused payroll taxes, which fund entitlement programs, to decline. Unless Congress takes action, those trust funds will be exhausted within 10 years, the CBO warns.”
“The annual budget deficit—the gap between government spending and tax revenues—would run about $900 billion in 2019, and it would push beyond $1 trillion every year starting in 2022. Debt as a percentage of the country’s total economy would rise steadily, reaching 93 percent of GDP by 2029, the highest level since the years directly following World War II.
Automatic spending on major entitlements would keep government spending high and make reductions difficult. Interest payments on the nation’s rising debt would become one of the country’s largest spending categories. The persistently high levels of debt and deficits, meanwhile, would serve as a drag on economic growth. Overall debt levels were on track to reach the highest levels in the nation’s history.
All of this was reason to worry. “Such high and rising debt would have significant negative consequences, both for the economy and for the federal budget,” the report warned, with reduced national productivity and total wages plus an increased likelihood of a fiscal crisis. In an emergency scenario, policymakers might be more constrained from responding in the most effective way. Debt and deficits were a modest burden on the economy in good times. And the higher they ran, the more economic risk accumulated.
Again, this was the outlook in 2019, when the unemployment rate was below five percent, when the deficit was projected to run about $900 billion over a 12-month span, when daily viral death tolls and case-count heat maps weren’t posted on major news sites like especially grisly weather reports.
In June of this year, the federal deficit was $864 billion.”
“the United States is in uncharted waters in terms of both public finances and their effect on the economy. And no one really knows where we’ll go from here.”
“Decades of rising debt and deficits, even under thriving economic scenarios where persistently high deficit levels are unjustified, have left lawmakers across the aisle less willing or able to respond, exactly as budget-watchers have predicted. The debt is not just a drag on the economy. It’s a burden on crisis response, a limitation on the government’s ability to take action in a time of need.”
“When the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) examined the nation’s long-term fiscal state last year, it offered this dour assessment: Federal debt levels were on track to reach their highest levels since shortly after World War II. On the current trajectory, “growing budget deficits would boost federal debt drastically over the next 30 years,” pushing debt to levels that were “the highest in the nation’s history by far.” Interest payments were set to spike, tripling over the next several decades, and exceeding the total amount of all discretionary spending. Over time, debt service would essentially become its own massive federal program.”
“What the nonpartisan congressional budget analysts were saying, in their own carefully antiseptic language, was that even if things went pretty well for the economy, the continued growth of federal debt was going to be a big problem. A crisis was brewing, perhaps not immediately, but in the long term.
You may have noticed: Things have not gone well.
As COVID-19 spreads, the American economy is in the midst of the largest freefall in at least a generation, perhaps the most devastating since the Great Depression. Joblessness is at record highs, and financial analysts are predicting that the economy will end up shrinking by as much as 40 percent during the second quarter this year. A sharp drop in health care spending, as people delay elective surgeries and other non-emergency care, has alone managed to trim several points from the gross domestic product. No one has any clear sense of how or when this will end.
As the economy has tanked, Congress has responded with a series of aid packages totaling nearly $3 trillion, all of which have been deficit-financed. This year’s budget deficit is expected to come in somewhere around $4 trillion, nearly the size of last year’s entire federal budget. In April, the U.S. posted its highest monthly budget deficit ever, at $737.9 billion. In 2016, the final year of Barack Obama’s presidency, the annual deficit was $585 billion. In a single 30 day period, the U.S. government ran a bigger budget deficit than any one year outside of the Great Recession and its aftermath.
And this year isn’t over”
“there is at least a case to be made that this crisis, which is different in both scale and kind from previous economic upheavals, is one that actually justifies some amount of emergency deficit spending, if not the particular bills that Congress has passed: When governments are forcing businesses to close in response to an unforeseeable exogenous event, as well as forcing individuals to stay home from work, some form of recompense is probably justified. It is notable that the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, one of the organizations most single-mindedly focused on national debt reduction, has backed deficit spending in this instance.”
“the relief effort is running up against legislative skepticism—a political constraint imposed by the high debt and deficits that were already locked in before the crisis began.”
“Republicans in Congress, on the whole, no longer care about debt or deficits—at least not in any substantive sense. That’s a problem for a number of reasons, not least that it increases the risk of a debt crisis in the future.
Those same Republicans spent the better part of Barack Obama’s presidency complaining bitterly about the trillion-dollar budget gaps the country ran during his first term, and President Donald Trump promised on the campaign trail to eliminate all federal debt. But since Trump’s election, deficits have increased even faster than expected, and the total federal debt has risen accordingly. That, in turn, is likely to have long-term consequences for both the economy and for the broader politics of debt and deficits.”
“By 2030, CBO projects the deficit—the annual gap between spending and revenues—will reach $1.7 trillion, which was roughly the size of the entire federal budget in 1999. Rising debt and deficits, the budget office predicts, will coincide with slowing economic growth, dropping from 2.2 percent this year to 1.5 percent a decade from now. The federal government will be borrowing more, and the economy will be expanding at a slower pace. It may not lead to an immediate economic crisis, but the nation is spending and borrowing into stagnancy and decline.”
“The biggest drivers of long-term debt are Medicare and Social Security, which benefit seniors, many of whom are reliable Republican voters. Trump ran against cutting those entitlements, and although his rhetoric has wavered slightly in recent months, he has not pressed the issue. Republicans in Congress don’t exactly seem eager to tackle it either. (Trump’s 2020 budget proposed reducing some Medicare payments, similar to proposals made by the Obama administration, but would leave the program’s essential benefit structure intact.)
Trump also does not appear to worry much about what happens down the road. When his advisers in 2018 raised the possibility of a future deficit crisis, the president reportedly shrugged it off, saying, “Yeah, but I won’t be here.” Absent some event to force his hand, it’s unlikely that attitude will change.”
“One possible forcing event would be the election of a Democratic president in 2020, which would almost certainly see the GOP return to its Obama-era complaints about sky-high debt and deficits.
Yet if that were to happen, Democrats would most likely dismiss these complaints as hypocritical—not as honest efforts to enforce needed fiscal restraint but as self-interested attempts to check the opposite party’s agenda. The Democratic primary race, which has prominently featured calls for tens of trillions in new spending, has already provided evidence for this view.”
“Governing requires setting priorities, and that’s never more important than during a crisis. Members of Congress have a political incentive to spend and spend and spend, but there simply isn’t enough money to go around—in fact, we passed that point a long time ago.
“I do believe it makes sense for the government to provide support to businesses and families that can’t make it through this,” Sen. Rand Paul (R–Ky.), who voted against this week’s coronavirus bill, said Tuesday on the Senate floor. “I don’t want to see this massive accumulation of debt destroy this great country.”
Lawmakers would do well to keep one eye on the mounting debt as they consider their next steps.”
“programs for the poor are only a tiny portion of the U.S. welfare state. In fact, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that more than 60 percent of American households receive more in government benefits than they pay in taxes. To get an idea of just how big the American welfare state has become, consider that those transfer payments from the federal government are equal to 34 percent of all wages and taxes in the U.S.”
“The largest transfer programs are the middle-class entitlements, Social Security and Medicare. In addition, a large portion of the third biggest entitlement program, Medicaid, actually goes to the middle-class elderly and disabled individuals, not the poor. Those three programs alone now make up more than half of all federal spending.”
“we need to understand that, in practice, when an individual pays Social Security taxes, none of those taxes are set aside for that individual’s benefits. Rather, they are used to pay benefits to those who are currently retired. Social Security is merely a transfer payment from workers to retirees. In that sense, it operates exactly the same as any other transfer or welfare program.”
“Many individuals will receive more than taxes paid plus a reasonable amount of interest on those taxes.”
“according to the Social Security system’s trustees, the program faces a future shortfall of more than $43 trillion7 (measured in discounted present value over an infinite horizon—that is, if the government put away $43 trillion today and earned 3 percent interest on those funds, it would have enough money so that, combined with payroll taxes, it could pay all future benefits). Unfortunately, however, the federal government doesn’t have an extra $43 trillion. As a result, there is simply no way that Social Security can pay future benefits without a massive tax increase.”
“Prominent conservative groups are refusing to criticize Republican lawmakers and President Donald Trump for the massive spending package, and polling shows fewer than 1 in 10 Republican voters disapprove of the measure’s passage.
That tells you something about the current state of the conservative movement. When the last Republican president signed the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), otherwise known as the 2008 bank bailout, polling from Gallup found that fewer than half of all Republicans supported it. When President Barack Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the $833 billion stimulus passed in the wake of the last economic collapse, only about 30 percent of self-identified conservatives approved, Gallup found.
Now, we’re spending a whole lot more money with a whole lot less opposition.
As Reason Editor at Large Matt Welch put it last week: “There is no more politics of fiscal prudence in America, just a competition to see who can wag the biggest firehose.””
“If fiscal conservatism still held any cache among Republican lawmakers, voters, and activists, there would have been an outcry about President Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress inflating the deficit to record highs over the past three years. It wasn’t all that long ago that grassroots conservatives were toasting the toppling of high-ranking Republicans for lesser slights.”
“Measured as a share of the entire U.S. economy, the national debt has doubled in just 12 years and is on pace to grow to historical highs within the next decade. The federal government’s budget deficit—the gap between how much revenue it raises and how much money it spends—is expected to exceed $1 trillion this year.”
“Lawmakers from both major parties have worked together in recent years to pass budgets that exploded annual deficits and added to the debt. Democrats running for president are promising to hike federal spending by trillions of dollars to pay for free college, government-run health care, and the fight against climate change—and even though they are also promising to raise taxes, the math doesn’t add up. That means deficits will continue to grow. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has abandoned any pretense of fiscal conservatism, and most of his party has followed suit.”
“Republicans have often criticized Democrats for their expensive policies and rallied behind spending cuts, but now that Trump is in the White House, many conservatives seem to have abandoned the idea entirely. Rush Limbaugh, the inflammatory right-wing radio host and recent recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, regularly railed against former President Barack Obama for his reckless approach to fiscal issues. In July, he appeared to have changed his position.
“How many years have people tried to scare everybody about [the deficit]?” he said on his show. “Yet here we’re still here, and the great jaws of the deficit have not bitten off our heads and chewed them up and spit them out.””
“as doctors will tell you, administering vaccines to patients with weakened immune systems can be disastrous. Given the United States’ already perilous national debt and rising deficit, the White House and Congress should be cautious about spending additional money to avoid a coronavirus-caused recession—especially since the “vaccine” doesn’t seem like a sure bet.”