The deficit in the recently ended fiscal year* (FY 2017 ended 9/30/17) was $666 Billion Dollars, which was 3.5% of the GDP. Of course the deficit was financed by issuing bonded indebtedness. At the turn of the century, the US Government ran surpluses for the FYs 1998 through 2001. FY 2001 ended 30 September 2001 -- just 3 weeks after 9/11. FY 2002 began a string of deficits that peaked in FY2009 when the Panic of 2008, and the political panic spending in its wake, produced a post WWII record deficit of 1.4T$ (pseudo-scientific notation here, T stands for Terra or Trillion), but the string has not ended. The four year period, FY 2009 through FY 2012 saw 5T$ of deficits. Since then we have settled down in the 500G$ range.
*A Fiscal Year of the Federal Government begins on October 1 of the previous calendar year. FY 2017 began on 10/1/2016 and ended on 9/30/2017.
The GDP is about 20T$. So is the gross Federal Debt. You could say that we have reached the point where the Debt equals, and soon will exceed, the size of the economy. But, only about 15T$ is in the form of outstanding bonds that are owned by persons who are not agencies of the Federal Government, mostly Social Security*. As such, the bonds owned by the Federal Government in so-called "Trust Funds" are just promises to keep paying SS pensions, medicare benefits, etc. even though the payments exceed the payroll tax revenues that have funded them for most of the past 80 years. (CBO is currently projecting that will happen in about 10 years).
Note: the CBO Web Site has lots of very informative reports and data. Their budget projections are here. Spend enough time with that stuff, and you will join the late, great B.B. King in singing: "I've got a mind to give up living, and go shopping instead, buy me a tombstone, and be pronounced dead") It is that depressing. Who is the CBO? The Congressional Budget Office, a supposedly non partisan body created and tasked by Congress with tracking the budget and Federal finances and explaining to Congress the cost of its folly. They do excellent work.
While we are at it, I should add some links to web sites that track the Debt and the deficit: U.S. Debt Clock National Debt of the United States Truth In Accounting. If you really want to wallow in it try: Financial Report of the United States Government
*The Federal Reserve banks own another big chunk of the total Federal Debt (~2.4T$), but economists and budget nerds regard that as being held by the public because the it is the backing for all of those nice crispy Federal Reserve Notes in your wallet. What? You don't have any? Don't look at me, I haven't any either.The optimistic political line is that the debt can continue to grow indefinitely as long as the economy grows faster. And this is true, until it isn't. The larger the debt is in relation to the economy, the more difficult it is to service. The nightmare scenario is that the interest on the debt starts to compound above the growth rate of the economy and simply compounds to the sky.
One might say, that only the publicly held debt represents an obligation that must be repaid. Much of it is owed to foreigners who might get testy if they are not paid. Especially the Chinese, who own about 3T$ of bonds and a whole bunch of ICBMs. But, even though Congress could lawfully stiff the beneficiaries of Social Security and Medicare, it is absolutely inconceivable that they could or would politically.
If Congress cannot not pay, then perhaps we should think of those obligations as being ones that we should recognize upfront. Truth In Accounting linked above says that the National Debt should really include 76T$ in future obligations of the Social Security and Medicare programs.
Economists Laurence Kotlikoff and Alan Auerbach, have claimed that the relevant number is what they call the Fiscal Gap which is the difference between the present value of all of government's projected financial obligations, including future expenditures for Social Security and Medicare and servicing outstanding official federal debt, and the present value of all projected future tax and other receipts. They have pegged this amount to be in excess of 200T$.
Further there a few trillions of dollars of debts owed by agencies or instrumentalities of the Federal Government, such as the alphabet soup of mortgage lenders that floats the price of houses far beyond the ability of the mass of homeowners to afford*, such as Fannie Mae (Federal National Mortgage Association or FNMA), Freddie Mac (Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation), Ginnie Mae (Government National Mortgage Association), and FHA. These entities have issued trillions of dollars worth of bonds and mortgage guarantees. If they were subsidiaries of private companies, the SEC would make the parent companies include their operations in its financial statements. but, the Federal Government doesn't have to do that. Why? Because they don't want to, and they do not want to scare the peasants.
*In the early 1970s, the median price of a house was less than 3 times the median annual household income. The median Family, i.e. the middle class, could afford the median house. During the inflationary period of the 1970s the ratio went up to 3.5 In the 1990s it went to 4. After 2002 it took off until it hit 5 at the peak of the housing bubble. During the Panic of 2008, it dropped back to 4.5. But fear not. The bubble has been re-inflated and the average is now almost 5.5. You have nothing to worry about, it is as safe as houses. If you want to learn more go to Political Calculations. He has lots of interesting, but not comforting information.If you are inclined to whistle past grave yards, you can point to the example of Japan, which has a publicly held debt of about 250% of its GDP. I really doubt that the US could get away with that for a a few reasons. First, the Japanese people are thrifty, and they have not run a trade deficit. Therefore, almost all of the Japanese Government bonds are domestically owned. Second, those bonds pay very little interest. Even the 30 year bonds pay less than 1%. US 30s pay about 2.8%, which is low, but not that low. Third, Japan has an extraordinary amount of social cohesion and trust. The US is closer than most of you think to a shooting civil war.
Another comeback is that the US Government cannot go broke because it can print the Dollars it needs to pay off its obligations. The response to that is yes, it can. But, how much will those Dollars be worth. If they are so abundant as to be worthless, we have hyperinflation. Welcome to Argentina. Or worse, Wiemar Germany.
Here is the way I see it. The Federal Debt is too large, and we are running large deficits even though this is a time of relative prosperity. The bigger the debt and the deficit are, the smaller our margin for error and unforeseen events is. There could be a worldwide recession not caused by the United States. War is always a possibility. We did not foresee the collapse of the Soviet Union, or 9/11, we may not foresee the next war.
Risk of a truly catastrophic event, like the collapse of the Federal Government is asymmetrical. If it doesn't happen, we go on from day to day suffering the slings and arrows. Some people say that we should throw down the Federal Government because it is corrupt and oppressive. But, history suggests that such an event is far more likely to cause enormous chaos and suffering than to lead to a happy solution. Louis XVI called the Estates General because he was out of money. What followed should be a cautionary tale for us. I have already mentioned the Soviet Union and Wiemar Germany. Bad example abound. Happy endings are rare.
Prudence suggests that this is a good time to get our financial house in order.
What follows are statements from pundits who have said good and prudent things about tax cuts. First Robert Samuelson from the liberal Washington Post:
November 9, 2017
WASHINGTON -- We Americans are having the wrong debate. Almost all the arguing over the Trump administration's proposed tax cut centers on two issues. Will the tax reduction stimulate faster economic growth? And is the proposal too generous toward the wealthy and too stingy toward the middle class and poor?
Interesting questions, to be sure -- but mostly irrelevant to the nation's long-term well-being.
The truth is that we can't afford any tax reduction. We need higher, not lower, taxes. What we should be debating is the nature of new taxes ..., how quickly (or slowly) they should be introduced and how much prudent spending cuts could shrink the magnitude of tax increases.
To put this slightly differently: Americans are under-taxed. We are under-taxed not in some principled and philosophical sense that there is an ideal level of taxation that we haven't yet reached. We are under-taxed in a pragmatic and expedient way. For half a century, we haven't covered our spending with revenues from taxes.
Of course, there are times when borrowing (that is, budget deficits) is unavoidable and desirable. Wars. Economic downturns. National emergencies. But our addiction to debt extends well beyond these exceptions. We have run deficits with strong economies and weak, with low inflation and high, and with favorable and unfavorable productivity gains.
Since 1961 ... federal budgets have been in surplus in only five years. ...
Based on present policies, it's doubtful that things will get much better. Aging baby boomers are inflating Social Security and Medicare spending. ... the Congressional Budget Office projects that the budget deficit ($666 billion in 2017) will grow as a share of the economy.
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The unspoken assumption that justifies big and continuous deficits is that -- rhetoric to the contrary -- they pose no serious danger to the economy. We can run deficits forever without suffering ill effects. ...
Excessive federal borrowing poses three theoretical dangers. First, it could raise interest rates and "crowd out" the private investment essential for higher living standards. Second, it could trigger a financial panic, if private investors would no longer buy Treasury securities except at exceptionally high interest rates. And finally, a large national debt could make it harder for the government to borrow heavily during a true crisis.
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But that's not us. By now, it must be obvious: We are no longer responsible. The urgent need is to plug the huge gap between government spending and tax revenues. Naturally, we aren't doing that.
Next Robert VerBruggen from the conservative National Review:
Cutting Taxes with Borrowed Money: Will a growing debt eat away at economic growth?
November 9, 2017
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The House GOP’s new tax bill would reduce revenue by almost $1.5 trillion over the next ten years, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT). ...
Normally, the argument against raising the deficit is put in simple terms — by whatever party is out of power, of course. Our debt is already about 77 percent of our GDP, a number that will rise to 91 percent by 2027 under current law and will only get worse from there. Realistically speaking, this is going to force a combination of tax increases and entitlement cuts at some point in the future, and the longer we wait, the more brutal those measures will have to be. Starting from such a precarious position, we have no business making our deficits even worse, whether by cutting taxes or by increasing spending. ...
But there’s an additional layer of complication to the debate over tax cuts funded through higher deficits, one amply illustrated in competing studies of the GOP tax plan from the Tax Foundation and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. The former says the plan would boost economic growth and create jobs, and that as a result we would lose significantly less than $1.5 trillion in revenue. The latter, by contrast, says the bill would have essentially no long-term effect on the economy.
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We’ll start with the Tax Foundation. The organization predicts “3.6 percent higher GDP over the long term, 3.1 percent higher wages, and an additional 975,000 full-time equivalent jobs.” Furthermore, it projects that the “after-tax incomes of all taxpayers would increase by 4.4 percent in the long run,” a benefit fairly evenly distributed across the economic spectrum.
The group says the plan will reduce tax revenue by $1 trillion when economic growth is taken into account. Interestingly, without accounting for growth, it pegs the revenue loss at almost $2 trillion over a decade, higher than the estimate from the JCT. (The gap apparently stems from some differences in the data and assumptions the two groups use in their modeling.) This means the Tax Foundation foresees enough economic growth to create $1 trillion in federal revenue, and to cut the total revenue loss in half.
That huge gain doesn’t come from the reforms to the individual income tax. In fact, the Tax Foundation estimates those reforms’ effect on economic growth at zero. Instead, “the larger economy and higher wages are due chiefly to the significantly lower cost of capital under the proposal, which is mainly due to the lower corporate income tax rate.” The statutory corporate rate would fall from 35 percent to 20 percent under the plan, putting the U.S. roughly in line with the average for other developed countries.
... the CEA wrote, “by lowering the user cost of capital and making more investments profitable, multinational corporations and foreign capital can be attracted to invest in the U.S. economy.”
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The Tax Foundation’s analysis is more or less what conservatives have had in mind when pushing “dynamic scoring,” as opposed to the old “static scoring”: Tax cuts benefit the economy, and a stronger economy means more tax revenue, so tax cuts “pay for themselves” to some significant degree (if not entirely).
But it turns out two can play at that game. The Penn Wharton study is dynamic, too, and its results are shockingly different. It finds that there would be some economic growth by 2027 -- but not much: GDP would be a whopping 0.33 to 0.83 percent bigger. ...
Why do the GOP’s tax cuts fail to boost the economy in Penn Wharton’s analysis? ... The simplest way to put the argument ... is this: When the government borrows money ... people will lend the government money that they otherwise would have invested in the American private sector. Thus the deficit “crowds out” private investment, counteracting the pro-investment effect of cutting the corporate tax.
This is hardly settled science. A Congressional Budget Office paper in 2014 rounded up the literature and reported a “high degree of uncertainty”: “For each dollar’s increase in the federal deficit, the effect on investment ranges from a decrease of 15 cents to a decrease of 50 cents, with a central estimate of a decrease of 33 cents.”
The Tax Foundation doesn’t even model this effect. “While past empirical work has found evidence of crowd-out, the estimated impact is usually small,” it contends in the new report. “Furthermore, global savings remain high, which may help explain why interest rates remain low despite rising budget deficits.” ...
Penn Wharton ... points out that “since the year 2000, foreign savers purchased about 40 percent of annual increases in Treasury security issues impelled by higher federal deficits” — implying the rest had to have come from U.S. savers, who most likely would have found other domestic investments otherwise.
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First, even in the Tax Foundation’s more optimistic analysis, the bill would reduce federal revenue by $1 trillion over a decade. So Republicans should stop pretending that they won’t be making the debt significantly worse if they continue down this path. If they think it’s a good trade to hike the debt in exchange for (hopefully) boosting the economy, they should make their case openly.
And second, the uncertainty around economic growth is important in itself, because it means we need to plan for numerous possible outcomes.