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Wednesday, September 09, 2009

A comment on the Deficit and National Debt

by Calculated Risk on 9/09/2009 07:21:00 PM

There seems to more and more concern about the deficit and the increases in the National Debt. It is definitely scary, and I've been writing about this issue for a number of years.

Back in late 2000 and in 2001 (I started this blog in January 2005) I focused on the deficit - and the long term fiscal damage I felt the Bush policies would cause.

President Bush argued in February 2001 that his fiscal policy "returns ... the surplus to the American taxpayers". In his 2001 testimony to Congress, then Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan supported President Bush by offering projections of "an on-budget surplus of almost $500 billion ... in fiscal year 2010". The National Debt would soon be retired and the Boomer's retirements secure. Greenspan offered a projection of "an implicit on-budget surplus under baseline assumptions well past 2030 despite the budgetary pressures from the aging of the baby-boom generation, especially on the major health programs."

Mr Bush also said in February 2001: "After paying the bills, my plan reduces the national debt, and fast. So fast, in fact, that economists worry that we're going to run out of debt to retire. That would be a good worry to have."

I disagreed strongly with President Bush and Mr. Greenspan's projections. I argued the surpluses were a mirage, and the tax policies would create a significant structural deficit.

I became even more adamant about the Bush structural deficits in 2004 and 2005, when it became obvious that the small improvement in the annual deficit was because of the housing bubble. I wrote in March 2005 about why I was so concerned about the housing bubble:

If we slide into a global recession, we have limited tools available to stimulate the economy. Interest rates are already very low (although the Fed has recently put some arrows back into the quiver), and we are already running general fund budget deficits of close to 6% of GDP.
In 2006, Professor Samwick (who served as Chief Economist on the Staff of President Bush's Council of Economic Advisers) wrote: First Things First
CR writes:
Everyone should agree that the most immediate fiscal problem is the structural General Fund deficit. Excluding future health care costs, the structural deficit is around 4% to 4.5% of GDP. This serious problem has been caused almost exclusively by Bush's policies. And imagine if the economy slows next year, as many people expect, adding a cyclical deficit on top of the huge Bush structural deficit.

So isn't it reasonable to suggest that Mr. Bush and the GOP fix the structural deficit first, before addressing other long-term issues? Of course.
CR is correct in his diagnosis of the immediacy and the size of the problems of the General Fund deficit. As I have discussed in earlier posts ... the appropriate target for the General Fund deficit is for it to average to zero over a business cycle. A corollary to that is that the General Fund should be in surplus during the non-recessionary parts of that business cycle. (A slightly weaker target that I would also accept is that the Debt/GDP ratio not trend upward over time.)
Today I believe some people are getting upset about the wrong thing at the wrong time. As Samwick noted, during a recession the deficits will increase - from falling tax revenues, automatic stabilizers and stimulus spending. Maybe some people disagree with the stimulus package, but that isn't going to change (except additions like extending unemployment benefits again).

Eliminating the recessionary deficit requires the economy to recover, and unfortunately the recovery will most likely be choppy and sluggish, but eventually a recovery will happen. Eliminating the structural deficit will be much more difficult and will require hard choices, but now is not the time.

The time to concerned about the structural deficit was in 2001 through 2006, and hopefully again starting in 2011 or 2012.