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Monday, June 21, 2021

Deficit and Debt, Then and Now

Many posts have discussed the deficit and the debt.  Policymakers and the general public have tended to ignore these problems in recent years, 

 In 1994, President Clinton named Bob Kerrey and John Danforth to lead a bipartisan commission on entitlements and tax reform.  It made little headway.  They write at WSJ:

But there was near unanimity within the commission on the scale of the problem. Entitlements were on an unsustainable trajectory. They consumed an ever-growing share of federal spending. In 1994 the budget deficit was $203 billion (2.8% of gross domestic product), and the national debt was $3.4 trillion (47.8% of GDP).

The crisis we identified 27 years ago seems negligible given where the debt stands today. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated in January 2020 that annual budget deficits will exceed $1 trillion, and that the debt—then hovering at $17.2 trillion—would more than double as a share of the economy over the next 30 years. These numbers don’t take into account $65 trillion of unfunded liabilities for Social Security and Medicare. The CBO now projects that, under current law, the deficit will reach $1.9 trillion in 10 years and the debt will skyrocket from 102% to 202% of GDP within 30 years.

The words “current law” are critical as the CBO forecasts only what will happen should government make no changes in spending and tax policies. But President Biden has already proposed $5 trillion in additional spending over the next 10 years, much of it for new or expanded entitlements, labeled “infrastructure” and “investment.”

Beyond the numbers, the biggest difference between then and now is that in 1994 both parties worried about deficits and debt. Today, neither Democrats nor Republicans seem to care. Under President Trump, the national debt grew from 76% of GDP to 100%. Under Mr. Biden’s first budget proposal, the debt is expected to reach 117% of GDP by 2031.

While politicians in both parties toss fiscal restraint to the winds, the good news is that a hefty proportion of voters are still concerned about the debt. An Ipsos poll conducted April 23-26 found that 75% of respondents believe too much debt can hurt the economy.

Current figures suggest that the federal government is digging America into a hole. According to CBO’s baseline projections—which don’t account for Mr. Biden’s proposals—interest costs will surpass spending for Social Security by 2045 and will consume nearly half of federal revenue in 2051.

Despite the urgency of the problem, nearly every elected official in Washington is an original co-sponsor of the “do nothing” plan. While today’s hyperpartisan political environment makes it unlikely that our fiscal crisis will be resolved anytime soon, elected officials would do well to take at least some action to address the issue.