November 12, 2004
In May 2001 the Congressional Budget Office forecasted a $400 billion federal budget surplus for fiscal year 2004. The actual outcome was a deficit of $413 billion. That’s an $813 billion error. Sometimes economic forecasters make the weather people look good.
What happened? Just about everything. The economy turned south, with capital gains swings making the revenue impact especially severe. And of the $426 billion shortfall in revenue from projections, about half was due to tax cuts. The war and a pork barrel spending frenzy by Congress pushed spending $287 billion higher than expected.
As a result, deficits are expected to remain with us for a long time to come. The Bush administration’s promise to cut deficits in half by 2008 seems timid, yet it may prove optimistic. The costs of nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention renewed efforts to extend tax cuts and fund homeland security, will work against whatever healing in revenues occurs through economic growth, unless some new spending discipline emerges.
But there seems to be little prospect of that. We have a new generation of elected representatives in our legislatures who passionately believe that tax cuts will pay for themselves. But passion has nothing to do with it. The question of how much the economy – and the tax base – responds to lowered tax rates is fundamentally an empirical question. And at the national level the data have always told us that it doesn’t respond enough to make the revenue loss from lowering rates go away.
Certainly the dollar’s precipitous fall in the days following the Republican gains in Washington should serve as an important reminder that deficits do, indeed, matter. The foreign investors who help make our economy run – to tune of about $3 billion a day, when trade deficits are included – are increasingly less interested in holding a currency whose fiscal house is in such disorder.
But a little perspective reveals that these deficits are not what we should really be worried about. As a percentage of the output of the economy, federal deficits are lower than they were in the 1991 recession, and lower than countries like Germany today. The real problem comes as the baby boom retires, and the promises of Medicare and Social Security come due.
These obligations are kept off the books by the same governments that lecture companies on their own accounting transparencies, and they are truly staggering. By some projections, the borrowing rates necessitated to pay these open-ended entitlements could bring government debt to 150 percent of GDP by the year 2050, compared to 50 percent today.
At least for Social Security, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel. Sensible solutions to the inherent flaws in a program that promises much in the future, but sets aside almost nothing today, have begun to emerge. There is a sense among at least some in the electorate that the system cannot go forward as it is today.
But the bomb that will explode first if we do not act is Medicare, and here we are acting to make the crisis worse. Faced with exploding utilization and costs of health care that are in part provoked by a system that removes price from the purchase decision, our elected leaders have rushed to bring even more expenditures under the shaky tent.
Given the tough decisions looming just ahead on all these issues, maybe the Republicans won’t be as overjoyed over their political victories next year as they appear to be today.
About the Author
Educational Attainment, the 21st Century Fund and the Future of SchoolingIndiana ranks 42nd in educational attainment.
Big Savings for Ending Prevailing WageMy statistical models show that repealing state prevailing wage laws save taxpayers money.
Re-Thinking Economic Development A large share of the most mobile families—perhaps half—no longer need to live near where they work.
Money Illusion and InflationPrice fluctuation could cause inflation to last longer, but it didn’t cause the inflation, it simply extends the pain.View archives