Bourne: America faces a debt abyss but politicians just sit on their hands

By Ryan Bourne |

The U.S. is walking headstrong into a public debt crisis. There’s no other way to sugarcoat the awful near and long-term outlook spelt out by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) this week.

Yes, the usual caveats about forecasts and how they might be too pessimistic about growth and debt interest costs apply. But whereas the U.K.’s public borrowing is just over 2 percent of GDP and projected to fall in the coming years, the U.S.’s is now expected to blow up to more than 5 percent of GDP in the near future.

That means $1 trillion-plus annual borrowing as far as the eye can see, and debt rising to 96 percent of GDP in the next decade alone. Truly an unprecedented outcome after such a prolonged period of growth without mass mobilization wars.

U.S. politicians need to take action soon. Any adjustment will only become more difficult, the bigger the existing debt interest payments. All Western countries face a long-term debt time-bomb associated with an aging population, which needs to be defused. But for the U.S. the long term is now. Spending on what are known there as “entitlements” — the equivalent of which here would be, broadly, the state pension and NHS — are set to rise by 1.8 percent of GDP over the next decade.

After 30 years, this spending will be about 4 percent of GDP per year higher than today, absent cost-saving reforms. You can double that if one considers debt interest costs, giving all the added borrowing. It’s not inconceivable then that public debt would rise to somewhere close to 200 percent of GDP over that period — taking the States into Japan territory.

Whereas in most European countries austerity efforts are expected to get debt-to-GDP back on a downward path through to the late 2020s or early 2030s before rising again, the U.S.’s current debt path is exponential. Supply-siders will argue the forecasters are too pessimistic about the impact of recent tax cuts and President Trump’s deregulatory efforts. But, if anything, there is a bigger risk that the outcomes will be worse than expected.

The CBO is legally obliged to model only laws and not second-guess what politicians will do next. They assume then expiration of most of the recent income tax cuts in 2025, and for the huge spending increases Congress recently passed to fall out (for an idea of scale, these saw annual military spending alone increase by 1.5 times the U.K.’s total annual defense budget). If, instead, the CBO had assumed, not unrealistically, that tax cuts will be maintained by future Congresses and new spending totals become the baseline, they find the U.S. deficit would balloon to 7.1 percent of GDP by 2028, with debt spiraling to 105 percent of GDP.

Former U.K. Chancellor George Osborne talked about politicians needing to “fix the roof while the sun was shining.” Well, the U.S. economy compared with the U.K.’s has been in pretty rude health, but their politicians seem in denial about the need for action at all. Sure, they tip their hat to the task. Republicans are even considering a symbolic vote in the coming weeks on a “balanced budget amendment” to the U.S. constitution, safe in the knowledge that it has absolutely no prospect of passing. The reality, though, is that Republican demands for tax cuts and higher defense spending coupled with Democrat demands for more spending on everything else has created a political equilibrium with a huge bias for deficits, while both sides insist the other is to blame.

In truth, the buck stops with both parties. It’s easy for Democrats to blame the recent tax-cutting bill. But the data clearly show that, as a proportion of GDP, revenues will be almost exactly the same in five years’ time as before the tax cuts. In fact, the tax-cut effects on the deficit are peanuts compared to the long-term fiscal gap.

The primary problem is spending. Yet neither side has been willing to countenance reforms to the entitlements, which, as a first approximation, entirely account for the trajectory. The recent spending bill, which busted all the caps Congress had imposed on itself, was likewise passed with cross-party support, and signed by the president before he then realized he didn’t like it. Few seriously think that Democrat victories later this year are going to lead to a more fiscally conservative Congress. If anything, the party has been moving in another direction.

Some U.S. commentators dismiss all these concerns about high and rising debt, declaring “we had debt levels like this post-Second World War and then grew quickly.” But after the war the U.S. slashed unnecessary military spending, balanced budgets, benefited from the one-time change in female labour force participation and inflated away much accumulated debt. Most of the debt drivers these days, in contrast, are real health demands or index-linked promises that cannot be so easily overcome or cut.

Nobody knows for sure, of course, what the consequences of continual inaction will be. Economists at the Hoover Institution worry about the possibility of a sudden debt earthquake, whereby a sudden realization hits short-term bondholders of the unsustainability of the U.S. public finances and the unwillingness of politicians to confront it. In that scenario, rising borrowing costs would blow up the budget deficit further and necessitate sharp austerity.

But another plausible outcome is that a high-debt trajectory simply undermines potential growth, leading the U.S. into a high-debt, low-growth trap, with vast resources used simply servicing the debt. A recent paper by the Dallas Fed found that growth across countries slowed substantially when debt levels were already high and the trajectory was ever upwards — conditions that the U.S. fulfills.

To avoid that fate, U.S. politicians need to take action soon. Any adjustment will only become more difficult, the bigger the existing debt interest payments. Instead, though, they are exacerbating the problem in benign conditions — the height of irresponsibility.

Ryan Bourne holds the R Evan Scharf chair for the public understanding of economics at the Cato Institute.

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