How I think about the debt ceiling issue
I was on BNN yesterday to talk about the debt crises in the US and Euroland with host Paul Waldie and guest Brian Milner from the Globe & Mail. The link to the video is at the end of the post. What do I think of the debt ceiling issue?
First of all, the US government creates dollars. They can always manufacture more if they so choose. It’s a rubbish argument to suggest the US is going bankrupt because of its deficit spending. Second, If people want to reduce deficits, cut spending or increase tax revenue by creating jobs or raising tax rates. It’s as simple as that. The debt ceiling issue is "a farce It’s a sideshow. It really shouldn’t happen." It is politics pure and simple –cynical and dangerous politics to be sure. I say a deal will be reached but only after an irresponsible period of posturing and pandering for the 2012 elections. Of course, the tail risk – default – is there.
What we care about as people is jobs and the economy, not the partisan politics of deficits. That is certainly what polling data show. What you want to see is the US have more fiscal space today in order to allow cyclical causes of deficits, the lack of jobs and the debt deleveraging, to diminish while still attacking the longer-term deficits.
Michael Hudson gets at the heart of Obama’s political problem – the juxtaposition between bank bailouts and entitlement cuts. That is a clear hallmark of corporatism. That said, I do not take the position that it is ‘sustainable’ to have the US government allocate as many resources toward Social Security and Medicare. The numbers don’t work. The net present value of the benefits being offered is much greater than that of the taxes allocated specifically for those programs. I wrote the following two years ago:
What becomes apparent if you look at these charts [of US federal government outlays and receipts] is that the United States faces a very large fiscal problem under present tax and spend scenarios given likely future growth outcomes. In plain English: there is a gigantic hole in the U.S. Government’s balance sheet under normal GAAP accounting…
The number $4 trillion is the number you would see if the U.S. Government reported its accounts as businesses do on an accrual basis using Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP). GAAP accounting means that all promises i.e. future pension and healthcare spending must be accounted for on today’s financial statement.
These unfunded liabilities fit into today’s policy debate in that reducing Social Security and Medicare benefits would not only eliminate structural budgetary problems, it would also allow Obama to demonstrate fiscal prudence – even while the present deficit balloons. I guarantee you that Summers, Geithner, Orszag and Romer are on to this and that this is a debate of huge importance inside the Administration. I anticipate we will see a Social Security/Medicare change under Obama. The question is how would this change be achieved. There are four possible ways:
- Raise Taxes. To satisfy liberals, who have become more and more worried about Obama, one could see the Administration allowing Congress to eliminate the payroll tax exemption on some of the income earned above $100,000. If you listened to Joe Biden on Meet the Press on Sunday, it was clear that the President is going to make pragmatic decisions on budget issues and will not veto bills unless their totality is “wrong for America.” Translation: he would not necessarily add in a payroll tax increase himself, but he would sign a bill that has one if he could tout this as a tax increase for the rich and stress the fact that the middle class would see no rise in the income tax.
- Reduce Benefits. Another way to reduce entitlement liabilities is to reduce the net benefits. Obviously raising tax on benefits for those earning a specific threshold outside income would be the taxation way of achieving net benefit reduction. Again, this would be touted as a tax on the rich. Cutting benefits outright is a non-starter and political suicide. On Meet the Press, Biden was unwilling to dismiss the potential that the President would sign a Universal Health Care bill that taxed health care benefits. I think this is a crucial statement regarding both UHC and entitlement programs.
- Reduce Coverage. Because medical care has advanced hugely over the last decades, we are now able to keep patients alive (and often healthy) who would have died years ago. As a result, medical costs have skyrocketed. The simple fact is that using all available medical science to treat patients costs a lot of money. This makes attractive the potential cut of Medicare coverage i.e. reducing which procedures and care will be paid for. I expect, this is another option that is going to be explored.
- Delay Benefits. This is my preferred option. The average lifespan of Americans has increased tremendously particularly since Social Security was enacted. As a result, retirees today receive many more benefits than they did in the 1940s. (“The 2000 U.S. census revealed that the number of Americans over 65 years old has more than doubled since 1950 and increased from 31.1 million to 34.91 million from 1990 to 2000, largely because of continuing advances in medical science and nutrition.” – MSN Encarta Encyclopedia). These demographics are killing the U.S. and they are going to get worse. Given relatively low fecundity rates among young American women, they will get worse still. Therefore, the U.S. government is going to have to raise the age at which Americans are eligible for Social Security.
In sum, while I prefer a delay of benefits, all of these ways of reducing entitlement benefits are going to be researched and suggested. The Obama Administration does seem willing to address these issues, potentially as a quid pro quo for another round of stimulus.
It’s not that a small deficit is a bad thing per se since it implies fiscal space for private sector savings. And if nominal GDP growth exceeds the deficit, the debt-to-GDP burden declines. However, since the financial sectors must balance, running the types of large future deficits that the present allocation of resources implies would mean a future of undesirably large private sector net savings or an
impossibly unusually large trade deficit surplus by the world’s reserve currency country when others will naturally be accumulating dollar reserves.
So again, I do not take the position that other writers on this blog do that Social Security and Medicare must be protected at all costs. In fact, as you can see above, I outlined very clearly two years ago what is happening politically right now.
Let me give a more nuanced approach to this subject though. Here’s the question everyone seems to be asking: Can the US afford its present deficit spending? As a sovereign currency issuer, the answer is yes.
The [real] question… is about political choices, resource allocation, currency depreciation and inflation. For example, in the U.S. there has been a lot of discussion about ‘starving the beast’ by shutting down the government until spending is brought to heel. This is an entirely political debate based on choices about the size of government and resource allocation in the economy. It has nothing to do with affordability. I think this kind of brinkmanship is reckless and deeply irresponsible. This is not the way you would see these issues debated in Switzerland or Germany for example. For bondholders, the political risk of potential default in the U.S. is real in a way they are not in those other two countries. There is a real possibility the U.S. could default. For that reason alone, the U.S. doesn’t deserve a AAA bond rating.
How should you deal with these issues then? First, you should ask: Does focusing on deficit reduction reduce deficits? No. Budget deficits are the result of an ex-post accounting identity. In plain English this means that the deficits are the effect and not the cause. Government should be focused on the causes of deficit – both structural and cyclical – rather than the deficit itself per se.
From a cyclical perspective, deficits are caused by a fall in aggregate demand due to unemployment and underemployment. This loss of labour causes an economy to operate below potential, reducing tax revenue and inducing deficits…
From a structural perspective, in the US, the deficit is caused almost exclusively by defense and non-discretionary spending i.e. military spending and entitlement spending (Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security). Other discretionary spending is pitifully small compared to these items…
I do see value in restraining deficits because it prevents government from redirecting real resources on cronyism when the economy is in the up-cycle. In the bubble economies, this is most certainly what we have witnessed.
So in the short-to-medium term, the deficit will be greatly reduced by focusing on jobs via increasing automatic stabilisers, having a job guarantee, works programs and worker training programs.
Over the long-term, the issues then become military spending, Social Security and Medicare. I would cut future military spending first and foremost by reducing America’s military aggression and secondly by allowing military allies to foot a larger percentage of their own military security costs. The US doesn’t need to be in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya at the same time. Nor does it need to have such a dominant military presence in Germany, South Korea and Japan.
On Social Security and Medicare, I would raise the age for all entitlement programs, increase the level before FICA limit kicks in to, say, the $300,000 mark, (perhaps rebating the money back for earners between $106,800 where the FICA exemption is now and $200,000 to make it tax neutral in that tax bracket and reducing the rate from the present 6.2%). I would also means test Medicare. This proposal is not unlike the kinds of things you hear from Warren Buffett, who also believes the battle over the debt ceiling is silly.
But I would then increase the Social Security benefits pay out. The problem with entitlements is not social security but the rise in healthcare cost; and this is inextricably linked to America’s aging society and the outsized healthcare spending in America’ private sector. See “The correlation between healthcare spending and life expectancy.” America needs a better social safety net. So it is perfectly reasonable to make one available while lowering the deficit by reducing how regressive FICA taxes are while also raising the age limit.
From a political perspective, as I said in January after the President released his budget:
The attacks from both sides make Obama look like a centrist – exactly what he is looking for. Right now, as far as the Clintonistas in the White House are concerned, 2010 was a replay of 1994. And that mandates the same tack to the center in order to win re-election. My view is that this could work for Obama if the economy holds. At this point in the economic cycle, I believe 2012 is going to be more of a referendum on the economy than specific policy prescriptions.
The problem for the President is that he has wasted so much political capital on bailing out the banks that he is simply not a credible defender of his party’s agenda. He is mistrusted by the Democratic base in the same way John Boehner is now mistrusted by the Republican base. With this last move, it is finally obvious to everyone in the Democratic base that the President is not a liberal. He believes in deficit reduction greatly. It is Obama pushing for cuts to Social Security, Medicare. To me that means he has lost the hearts and minds of his base.
In the January post on the budget, I said “For now, the economy looks pretty good. If the President can burnish his pro-business bona fides and maintain the attacks from the right and the left, he will be able to present himself as a pragmatic centrist who pulled the U.S. out of a near-depression. That could be a winning argument in 2012, regardless of the underlying fundamentals.”
But I see things differently now. The economy and, more importantly, the policy response look very weak – almost 1937ish. I doubt whether Obama will be able to make up for the likely erosion in voter turnout through gains in the center in that environment.
In sum, it is perfectly reasonable to give the US more fiscal space today in order to allow cyclical causes of deficits to diminish while still attacking the longer-term deficits which would induce an excessive amount of private sector net savings. This is a position that will attract voters in the center.
However, given how weak the economy now is and how little the President has done on jobs, his version of this is not credible. Spending cuts are economically the same as tax increases. Unless the President can get policy space to attack jobs head on and for deficits right now, the economy is in big trouble; and then Obama would have to campaign as a cutter in a economy in which people will be losing jobs. That is not a winning political position for 2012.
Here’s the BNN link from Headline: July 11, 2011. I talked more about the politics than I do here, but it is still a decent discussion. I will have more to say about the European side of the discussion later.