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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Disturbing Budget Report

The Congressional Budget Office has released its long-term budget outlook. It is not a happy picture:
Recently, the federal government has been recording budget deficits that are the largest as a share of the economy since 1945. Consequently, the amount of federal debt held by the public has surged. At the end of 2008, that debt equaled 40 percent of the nation's annual economic output (a little above the 40-year average of 37 percent). Since then, the figure has shot upward: By the end of this year, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects, federal debt will reach roughly 70 percent of gross domestic product (GDP)—the highest percentage since shortly after World War II. The sharp rise in debt stems partly from lower tax revenues and higher federal spending related to the recent severe recession. However, the growing debt also reflects an imbalance between spending and revenues that predated the recession.

As the economy continues to recover and the policies adopted to counteract the recession phase out, budget deficits will probably decline markedly in the next few years. But the budget outlook, for both the coming decade and beyond, is daunting. The retirement of the baby-boom generation portends a significant and sustained increase in the share of the population receiving benefits from Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Moreover, per capita spending for health care is likely to continue rising faster than spending per person on other goods and services for many years (although the magnitude of that gap is very uncertain). Without significant changes in government policy, those factors will boost federal outlays sharply relative to GDP in coming decades under any plausible assumptions about future trends in the economy, demographics, and health care costs.

According to CBO's projections, if current laws remained in place, spending on the major mandatory health care programs alone would grow from less than 6 percent of GDP today to about 9 percent in 2035 and would continue to increase thereafter. Spending on Social Security is projected to rise much less sharply, from less than 5 percent of GDP today to about 6 percent in 2030, and then to stabilize at roughly that level. Altogether, the aging of the population and the rising cost of health care would cause spending on the major mandatory health care programs and Social Security to grow from roughly 10 percent of GDP today to about 15 percent of GDP 25 years from now. (By comparison, spending on all of the federal government's programs and activities, excluding interest payments on debt, has averaged about 18.5 percent of GDP over the past 40 years.) That combined increase of roughly 5 percentage points for such spending as a share of the economy is equivalent to about $750 billion today. If lawmakers ultimately modified some provisions of current law that might be difficult to sustain for a long period, that increase would be even larger.


To keep deficits and debt from climbing to unsustainable levels, policymakers will need to increase revenues substantially as a percentage of GDP, decrease spending significantly from projected levels, or adopt some combination of those two approaches. Making such changes while economic activity and employment remain well below their potential levels would probably slow the economic recovery. However, the sooner that medium- and long-term changes to tax and spending policies are agreed on, and the sooner they are carried out once the economy recovers, the smaller will be the damage to the economy from growing federal debt. Earlier action would permit smaller or more gradual changes and would give people more time to adjust to them, but it would require more sacrifices sooner from current older workers and retirees for the benefit of younger workers and future generations.